Chapter 1: Announcements
I watch my feet moving me forward as I walk into the great hall. My sneakers are worn out, the once black color now faded to a dark gray and the soles hanging on by a thread. It’s time to put in a request for new ones. Admittedly, I probably should have done so months ago. It’s a surprise that my superiors haven’t noticed and made me change into my ill-fitting, uncomfortable pair.
“I wonder what this is all about.” Vera murmurs as she comes to stand next to me, her voice so quiet that I barely hear it above the murmurs of the humans inside.
Sighing, I drag my gaze from my shoes and look around the room. All of the castle’s servants are standing around, confused expressions on their faces as they talk amongst themselves. It seems as if nobody has any clue why we’ve been summoned here.
The King’s Second commanded that all the castle’s servants be in the Great Hall before breakfast for an announcement, but that’s all the information he gave.
I shrug, responding to Vera. “Me too. It’s not often that they do this.”
My mind flashes back to the last time the Royals had such a formal announcement, and I hold back a grimace. Some wealthy Beasts from a nearby land were coming to visit, and we were warned that their treatment of humans was harsh and to be on our best behavior.
Up until that day I never realized just how terrifying the Beasts can be. King Richard has always been relatively kind to us, making sure we are fed and clothed, but the others that came to visit operated in a much different manner. On the first day of their visit, one of the men was eyeing a kitchen girl and as she was serving him his meal, this mate reached across the table and murdered her.
The girl’s throat was ripped out in one swift motion. She was frozen for a moment, almost as if her brain couldn’t comprehend what had happened, before she crumpled onto the floor. There wasn’t even a lull in the conversation for the Beasts. They continued on with their meal as if nothing had even happened. It was horrific, and was whispered about for months.
As Vera and I continue walking into the room,I glance around trying to spot John. He stands a good foot above the other human men, and with his overgrown mop of pale blonde hair he’s generally hard to miss.
I quickly spot him talking with a group of men near the front entrance, but before I can make my way over the room falls silent. Everybody turns to face the doorway behind me, and I follow their lead.
Spinning around, I watch King Richard and his Second step into the room. Uncomfortable with their close proximity, I shuffle backward slightly. I know that the action won’t go unnoticed, but it’s important I keep a safe distance in case they are angry with us.
My movement causes the King to glance at me before peering around the room. He takes his time, carefully inspecting each and every one of us, occasionally nodding to himself.
I can feel my palms getting sweaty, and I resist the urge to wipe them on my dress. Instead opting to clench them into fists by my side. Why is he looking at us like this?
The King’s gaze suddenly snaps back to the center of the room and he clears his throat, preparing to speak.
“Hello all,” he starts, both his face and voice void of any emotion. “I’m sure you are all wondering why you are here. It has been requested that a small number of you transfer to Ziad, the kingdom immediately North of here. We have yet to decide on who will be going, but decisions will be made by the end of the day. Continue working as normal, and we will inform you later today should you be chosen to leave.”
I feel my breath leave my body at his words, my shoulders slumping forward in relief. I’m a strong worker here at the castle, and it is unlikely that I will be chosen to leave.
Just as quickly as he arrived, the King turns and leaves the room, his Second following behind. The moment they are out of sight conversations begin to break out amongst the humans.
I spin back around to face the room, noticing that Vera has already left my side and is speaking with John. I swiftly make my way over to them, wiping my sweaty palms on my dress in an attempt to wick away the moisture that had accumulated while in the presence of the King.
“Who do you think will be chosen?” John asks Vera, nervousness apparent in his voice. “I hope it’s not me. I’ve heard awful things about Ziad.”
John catches my eye as I approach his left and shifts his body to the right, making room for me to join their conversation. His eyebrows furrow together as he thinks over her question, his bottom lip sliding between his teeth to bite at the dry skin.
“He said that only a small number are going, so odds are we should be fine.” I chime in, trying to soothe his worries.
Vera frowns, looking just as stressed as John. She grabs a curl resting on her collarbone, pulling it straight and mindlessly fiddling with the ends.
“What have you heard about them?” She asks John, ignoring my statement.
“That they are cruel. That humans are treated like trash. That their servants are maimed and punished for the smallest of mistakes.” John glances at me, “They would probably whip you for wearing such raggedy shoes around.”
I frown, glancing down at my feet once more. Would I really be punished for such a small thing? I hear John let out a dry laugh, and can’t help but to let some worry seep into my bones. I’ve never left King Richard’s kingdom, and don’t have a lot of insight into how the other ones treat their humans.
It’s no secret that we aren’t exactly loved by the Beasts, but our King treats us well. We are fed two meals a day, and are even allowed one day off a month.
“I’ve heard that the Royals in Ziad are even worse than the Beasts that came to visit last summer!” John continues.
Vera and I exchange glances, and she lets out a visible shudder. Her fingers continue to pull at her curls, an action she does whenever she is overcome with anxiety.
“We should get back to work,” Vera says suddenly, her voice a higher pitch than normal. “I don’t want to think about this anymore.”
I nod in agreement, wishing the two goodbye, before turning and heading towards the kitchen. It’s Tuesday, which means that I need to help with breakfast before rushing to the King’s quarters to help tidy up with John.
The kitchen is alive with chatter by the time I arrive. Everybody is making guesses as to who will be chosen, and spilling all the secrets they have heard about the Ziad kingdom. I try to stay out of it, not wanting to get involved. Besides, I still don’t think that I will be chosen to go.
My task of cleaning the King’s quarters is a pretty important one. It signals that I am a trustworthy servant and, given that I have been doing it for years with no mishaps, proves that I do not pry or speak about any information that I happen to overhear while I am there. Given all the gossip that is being spread today, I would guess that that’s a pretty hard trait to come by.
Breakfast goes by fairly quickly. I was not asked to help with serving, and instead was made to stay inside the kitchen and plate the food. This morning’s meal was pretty simple, consisting of eggs, bacon, sausage, and toast.
I was told once that this was a dish commonly eaten by humans before the Beasts came. Apparently they adopted a number of our traditions when they took over, particularly the ones surrounding cuisine.
The scent of the foods makes my mouth salivate, bringing my incredibly empty stomach to the forefront of my mind. I wasn’t able to eat my second meal yesterday, having been running late on my cleaning, and am paying for it now. Sharp pains strike my sides as my stomach continuously rumbles, but I ignore it knowing that I’ll be able to eat after the Beasts have finished their food.
Once finished plating all the food, I head over to the sink to wash my hands and grab some cleaning supplies. Needing to distract myself from my hunger, I disinfect all the counters and move all the dishes we used while cooking into the sink.
“You’re free to go eat your breakfast now.” The head chef tells me, waving her arm in the direction of the servant’s dining room.
I shoot her a quick thanks before rushing out of the room. Cleaning the King’s quarters takes up most of the day, meaning I need to eat quickly if I’m going to finish with enough time for dinner.
The dining room is already full, the topic of conversation continuing to be about Ziad and the transfers. I find an empty seat between one of the gardeners and laundry women, and plop down into it.
“You know, I wouldn’t mind being transferred. The rules may be harsh, but have you seen their King? Talk about gorgeous.” The laundry woman laughs out before shoving a spoonful of porridge into her mouth.
I grab a bowl from the center of the table and serve myself a couple large scoops of porridge. A smile spreads across my face as I notice that they put in some brown sugar today.
An elderly woman sitting across from Emma and I scoffs, “Watch what you’re saying.” she points her spoon at Emma “You don’t want them hearing and putting you on that list. Besides, do you really think that the King would be interested in some human? Wishful thinking.”
“I heard that a boy was killed once simply for sneezing.” The Gardner pipes in.
Emma laughs, “Yeah, but to be fair I heard that he actually sneezed on the King.”
The trio continues to bicker back and forth, and at some point I tune them out to focus on shoveling the food into my mouth. I don’t have time to waste, and manage to finish eating in just a couple of minutes.
John is probably already waiting for me outside the King’s quarters. The thought makes me rush through the halls, not wanting to keep him waiting for too long. My hypothesis is proven correct as I round the corner into the large corridor that leads to the King and Second’s suites, immediately spotting John standing outside the pair of large oak doors.
“Sorry I’m late,” I apologize. “I ate some breakfast before heading over.”
John shoots me a smile, his shoulders rising in a quick shrug. “No worries! Just got here a minute ago myself.”
As I come up next to him I notice that his signature messy hair has been combed back, and it even looks as if the ends have been tripped. Surprised, I bring my gaze down over his body, seeing that he is wearing his finest shirt and his black shoes appear to have been polished.
“Why are you so uh-,” I stammer, trying to find the right work. “Cleaned up?”
John tenses, and I watch as his cheeks turn a light shade of red. He gives me a crooked, embarrassed smile and brings his hand up behind his neck, fingering the short ends of his hair.
“I thought that if I cleaned myself up that I would be less likely to be chosen.”
John’s always been a bit of a worrywart, but this is excessive even for him. Holding back a frown, I give him a soft smile that I hope is comforting.
“Well, you look very nice! I’ll take the King’s suites if you want to work on the Second’s? Then we can head down to get dinner after.” I suggest, attempting to change the subject.
John agrees, and we part ways to begin our work. Typically there is a Beast on guard to make note of the time we enter and exit, as well as who goes into which set of suites, but none are present today. I’ve been in charge of cleaning the suites with John since we were 14, and over the years the guard has gotten more relaxed.
I throw my body into the heavy door, pressing my shoulder into it for extra support. It opens just enough for me to fit through, and I slip inside, the door slamming behind me with a loud thud.
Glancing around the entryway, I am pleasantly surprised to see that the King has kept both his shoes tidy and the small table along the left wall free of clutter. I continue down the hallway until it opens up into the living room.
I hum quietly, looking over the mess that has become this room. Empty bottles are strewn about, and multiple photos lay haphazardly on the couch and table. A children’s book lays open on the floor, the pages romanticizing the Beasts’ invasion some 200 years ago, and there are half-eaten plates sitting on the bookshelves that line the far left wall.
Knowing how important the photos are to the King, I decide to start there first to ensure that nothing spills on them as I clean. I’m surprised that he took them out in the first place. King Richard was looking at them daily after the death of his mate, but in the past couple of years has stopped looking at them all together.
I make sure to pick them up carefully, flipping the images so they are all facing the same direction, before placing them back in the albums that they were taken from. I learned years ago which photos belong to which albums, but still take my time making sure not to misplace any.
With the photos safely tucked away, I make quick work with the rest of the room. It’s tedious, but relatively easy work. Before I know it I’m finishing up the dusting and bringing the full trash back to the front door.
Thankfully the living room was the only room in poor shape, and I’m able to finish up most of my cleaning within a couple of hours.
Approaching the front door, I ball up my hand into a fist and bang against it a couple of times. Usually the Beast on guard is able to open it for me, but since he’s gone today I have to rely on John.
I spent a good two years convinced that if I tried hard enough I would be able to pry open the heavy front doors, but eventually gave up and accepted that while I can push them open just enough to slip inside, I don’t have enough strength to pull them towards me to get out.
John doesn’t come to open the door, and after a couple more bangs I accept that he is probably still cleaning and I need to sit and wait.
Already I can feel my hunger settling in. My stomach has been rumbling for the past two hours, but within the past 30 or so minutes I’ve begun to feel the sharp pains return. Just the thought of eating some food has me salivating.
In a moment of weakness I contemplate digging through the trash and eating some of the leftovers that the King didn’t finish, but even as I think it I know that I won’t actually go through with it. The punishment would be too great if I was caught.
Every few minutes I give a couple pounds on the front door, not knowing when to expect John to leave the Second’s quarters. After waiting for what feels like an hour I hear the door groan. Knowing that this is a sign that it’s about to open, and quickly step backward and begin gathering the trash bags in my hands.
“Took you long enough!” I exclaim as it pops open, “I was starting to get worried that we would miss-,”
The words die in my throat as I look up to see the King standing in front of me, his hand holding the door open with ease. A mocking smirk spreads across his face as he realizes that I’ve been trapped inside.
“Come on out. I need to speak to both you and that young man you clean with.”
He steps aside, giving me space to squeeze past him into the main corridor. I sign in relief as I realize that I am not going to be punished for speaking to him in such a way.
As I exit the quarters I spot John standing against the far wall to my left. He refuses to meet my eye, opting instead to stare at his overly shined shoes. I make my way over to him, dropping the garbage bags to my right and bringing my hands behind my back. I bow my head, showing respect to the King, before looking back up at him. I see John do the same out of the corner of my eye.
“Given the announcement this morning, I am sure that you are aware of what I need to speak to you two about. You have both been chosen to transfer to the Ziad castle. It was a hard decision, and you two were not among my top choices, but King Heloix specifically requested we send our best servants.” He informs us, a slight frown etched onto his face.
I don’t move, my mind trying to wrap around what he’s just told us. Seconds pass in silence as the King watches us. I clear my throat, the sound reverberating throughout the long corridor.
“When do we leave?” I finally muster up the courage to ask, wincing as my voice cracks slightly.
King Richard purses his lips, eyes darting between John and I. John shuffles his feet, the movement subtle, while I fiddle with my fingers behind my back. It’s a futile attempt to comfort myself.