Words By Vaughn Gaston, Art By Lilly Higgs
She stands in my study, barefoot, head cocked, and stares at me. My most recent suitress. But it’s a different stare than the previous girls’, alert yet unafraid, like an owl’s. I place a cube of cheese on the cold stone floor between us. I nod. She steps forward, bends, nabs the cheese, pushes it past her lips.
“What’s her name?” says Snargleflox.
“What’s your name?” I say.
“Kriv,” she says, chewing.
“Do you like the cheese, Kriv?”
“Best I’ve ever eaten, my lord.”
“Emeline,” I say. “More cheese.”
“Yes, my lord,” Emeline says, and limps out the door. She has a crooked left leg and one of her eyes habitually wanders noseward, a consequence of unholy peasant stock. I appointed her head chambermaid to keep the normal-bodied servants in humble spirits.
“Cheese is your favorite,” says Snargleflox, sitting on the harp stool, pretending to play.
“Shut up,” I say.
Kriv stares, swallows the cheese.
With the back of my hand I raise her arm sideways, lean in, sniff her hair, neck, armpit. Snargleflox stoops and sniffs the other side of her, but she pays him no mind. She smells of the fields.
“Stand on one foot,” I say.
“On your toes.”
“Close your eyes.”
She falters but regathers without letting her other foot touch.
“Her balance is better than yours,” says Snargleflox.
“No it isn’t.”
“My lord?” says Kriv, eyes shut, teetering.
“Nothing,” I say. “You can stop.”
Emeline returns with a silver plate of cheese cubes, sets it on the desk, and then limps away. Snargleflox trails behind, mimicking her limp, which always makes me laugh. But I don’t hear the door shut. I hear sweeping in the hall. “Still there, Emeline?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“My lord.” The door closes.
Kriv eyes the cheese plate.
“Would you like more?” I say.
“Yes what?” I say.
Snargleflox stalks his way to the desk. He stands so tall he can’t help hunch. He wears a dark cloak, a sparrowhawk feather in his hat, which I like to tease him for. He looks pretty well human, besides the black, cave-like sockets where eyes would normally be and his yard-long tongue, forked at its end like a serpent’s but thrice. He lets it unravel and graze several cheese cubes.
“Quit that,” I say.
“She should earn her cheese,” says Snargleflox.
“Do you have any talents?” I say.
“Talents, my lord?”
“A trick,” I say, “a stunt, or a joke. To earn the cheese.”
She steps round to put the desk between us, then proceeds to shuffle the length of it, descending her torso with each step, as if she’d just miraculously uncovered a trapdoor staircase.
“That’s a very good trick,” I say.
She cuts eyes to the cheese.
She crams cheese using both hands like a glop-nosher.
“The others weren’t like this.”
“Remember what, my lord?” she says, mouth full.
“Nothing,” I say.
“What else can she do?”
“Any more talents?”
She chews, cuts eyes to the harp.
“Does she play?”
“Do you play?”
“No,” she says.
“Try,” I say.
She secrets a cheese cube under the neckline of her smock, walks over, sits on the stool, and hovers a hand at the strings but doesn’t strum.
“Don’t be coy,” I say.
She plays, ragged at first, which makes Snargleflox titter, but soon she finds a melody, repeats it, and it sounds, almost, like a song.
“She’s better than you.”
“She’s not,” I say. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“My father has a lute,” she says. “Had.”
“Not a real one,” she says. “Fashioned with the wrong tools. Twine for strings. I used to practice on it. Simple songs.”
“Kriv, where do you suppose this castle’s stones came from? Oxcarts, do you think?”
“The stones were dropped here by angels, my lord.”
“I like her.”
“You don’t know what you like,” I say.
“I wasn’t talking to you. Keep playing.”
“Snargleflox,” I whisper. “I like your hat feather.”
“You do?” he says.
“No,” I say.
The castle sleeps.
He is not right, Lord Boric. Doesn’t bathe. Seldom changes robes. When I was first hired to the castle, Boric, just a rose-fleshed boy, would scamper about the halls, yelling curses, rabid from sugar cakes and poached pears and mead pilfered from the buttery. Down by the stables, we kept a pen of white hares for pies and stews, and young Boric would often wander in there with his mead pail. I didn’t think it odd at the time: choosing animals as drinking company; it seemed a gentle-mannered thing. But after the cook complained of hares spoiled by some strange condition, their coats stiff, their lungs swollen and heavy, I realized that the little lord had been holding the hares, one by one, in the mead. What could I have done? I had good work for someone hedge-born. Lame. Now, the hares have become village girls, and each day, as I sweep his floor, dust his vanity, tend his latrine, scrub his blood-streaked linens, this question like a mare untethered sprints through me: Are you still a coward, Emeline?
I rap the study door. No answer. I unbar the door’s oak plank.
The fireplace still smolders. Kriv, cross-legged on the floor, leans against the desk, half in glow. Her eyes follow me as I sweep the already swept stones.
“You should sleep,” I say.
“Do you know what happens to the girls he collects?” I say.
“Would you like to prevent it from happening? To anyone again?
“Pick the mink,” I say. “The white one.”
I sweep the room, feel her eyes on my back, check her chamber pot: empty. I walk to the door, pull the handle.
“Did you tell the others this?” she says.
“The others were gone by now.”
I have found my most favorite thing: sugared beets. She handed me a pouch of them for no reason at all, the funny-walking castle servant with the eyes that scares me because where’s it looking? The sugared beets were so good I ate them up in a breath and spent that night in a giggly tremor. Next day I found her walking funny down the road by the fields. She didn’t have any beets on her she said but she could fetch me some if I could pay. I don’t have coins I said except for the ones I make out of mud. Do you want some of those? I’ll give you three. She wanted special berries she said, asked if I knew where and I do. The purple-black berries with the blood-red stems that live near mushrooms. But why does she want these ones? If you eat the purple-black berries with the blood-red stems Papa says your stomach will turn to oak and you’ll die bang dead just like that. But I get more sugared beets if I find more berries so here I am in the woods way past my bedtime (please Papa don’t branch-whip my ankles!) looking for the purple-black berries with the blood-red stems but really I’m looking for sugared beets.
The road, the fields, the village, the castle are bracketed on all sides by oak woods. The households, the fenceposts, the farm tools and castle furniture, the harp: oak. No one ever questions the origin of the oaks. The origin of the castle’s stones, however, remains unproven. Such stones have lately become hot gossip among village folk. Family lore states that the stones awaited the founders on site in a great mound, dropped there by one of God’s angels to aid the family in erecting our home and legacy. I don’t think much of angels, but Mother believed the story true. Though recently one of the peasants, a ploughman who fancied himself a student of history, began spinning rumors of an old oxcart track in the south woods that supposedly could’ve been used to transport the stones.
The ploughman was to be hung from the old oak by the well as a way to soothe him of his madness. His family was to be strung up from the same tree. Half the village gathered to watch the hanging. A toothless crone squinted at the sun and sneezed. A small boy, with a little black goat on a rope leash, fingered his nose and ate what he found. Snargleflox stood among the villagers and pulled faces, making me smile. But when I saw her, the ploughman’s daughter, I told my guards to unloop the family’s necks and escort them from the platform. “I’ll take the daughter instead,” I said.
The guards collected her and we turned to leave—
“Demon,” the ploughman said, and spat. “God will have you.”
The village quietly blinked.
I motioned to the guards.
They relooped the ploughman’s neck and hung him. I could hear his boots clatter one against the other as I rode off with his daughter.
I don’t understand it, how people hold this unshakable belief in the mental ramifications of one’s childhood. We have no respect for a child’s own agency. One’s maladjustment later in life is obsessively viewed as the consequence of a parent’s failings. But my father died of a bowel worm when I was an infant, so he could not possibly be accountable for what I became, and Mother loved me more than any mother has ever loved a son. Whatever badness lives in me is self-grown.
Mother, the most luminous woman who ever lived, would wear a white mink shawl and these pearl cluster earrings like tiny vines of peeled grapes. She had hair the color of rosewood, skin like porcelain. My father dead, Mother raised me as the castle’s lord. We’d occupy each end of the dining table, and I was permitted to drink mead by the time I was ten and had a stomach for it. Mother educated me in the art of ruling and in the general dignities of the royal blooded. She also taught me Latin. By the time I was thirteen and sprouted my first nether-hairs, she began to school me in the art of the bedroom.
I was sixteen when Mother fell ill. She lingered for months, underwent treatments of leeches and sage smolders and twice swallowed the still-beating heart of a dove cock. Her skin lost its luster, grey rivered then swamped her hair, yellowish fluid from the crook of her right eye stained the pillowcase. She died a week before my seventeenth birthday. Her last words: “Find someone.” I still don’t fully know what she meant.
I hated her for getting sick and unsightly and leaving me, and so I spent the week in excess. I hunted, hawked, drank wormwood, bathed in fermented milk, lashed horses past a gallop, dined in bed, stroked myself several times per day, but there was something loose in me. On my seventh night of gluttony, grief finally struck. I drank one-and-a-quarter mead pail by the hearth, wept like a fevered babe, then wandered out to the stables and took an axe to a ridiculously small horse until enough of the alcohol had been sweated.
I spent the rest of the night in the chapel. Mother’s body had been entombed in the undercroft, so I pried open the stone slab door, went into the dust and dark, and began to stroke myself, thinking some fire might rekindle, but I couldn’t enter the mood. Mother was gone. Reclining on the front pew with my mead pail I guzzled and wept until dawn shafted the turquoise glass, and I heard a cough. Behind, in a center pew, sat Snargleflox, reading from an upside-down hymnbook. Outside the chapel I crossed paths with a stable boy, his face bloodless as yogurt, and told him we’d been visited in the night by a monster called Snargleflox. A good name, I thought. Sounds like meat wolfed off the bone and swallowed. “Lucky you weren’t around to meet him,” I said, then booped the stable boy on the nose with my finger. Boop.
During that first week with Snargleflox, castle life was a step better. We played chess in the mornings, ate cheese pies for brunch, cloaked ourselves in linens and hid in corners to jump out and scare the servants, though they didn’t even flinch when Snargleflox did it. One night I cracked my toenail on a bedpost and nearly sobbed with joy for the pain that rang up my shin. But with the parapet armed, the village quiet, boredom filled the castle like a fume, one I could smell. Mostly I remained in my study, a frogmouth helm on my head, plucking the harp’s bass string, hoping the vibrations might register in me somewhere, my spine, my little soldier, but each note faded to nothing. I thought of Mother’s last words.
“We should find a wife,” said Snargleflox, hunched by the fire, warming himself.
“A wife?” I said.
“What your mother would’ve wanted.”
“You didn’t know her.”
“Feel like I do, from all you’ve told me.”
I plucked. Perhaps he was right.
Acorn was the most sweet-tempered animal in the yard. Our one pony. I would wedge strings of hay in the folds of my clothes and she’d nip them out one by one and soon she learned the habit of snuffling me belt to toe whenever I tended her. Now, the image is nailed to the back of my eyelids and I can’t shake it. Acorn in pieces. I mistook her for a pile of pink-wooded logs. I remember her blood’s weight as I pitchforked the straw bed. I will be cleaning up her body every night in my thoughts until I’m planted in the earth. Will Acorn be there in heaven? In pieces? I would groom her still, each piece. Shoe her, comb her tail.
Lord Boric was in a bad way that morning, robes muddied, hair like greased bronze, eyeballs bloody and bagged. It was the first time a lord has ever talked to me. I counted the hay bits on my boots while he spoke. I’ve always known it, monsters are real.
I groom more than needed now, comb Faxi’s mane straight and shiny like wheat stalks dipped in melted silver; hoof pick and shoe Hazelnut who shivers at every strike of the mallet; shine Topper’s coat with a damp rag, feed him oats from my palm. But the horses have become restless. They skitter and twitch at my hand. I hope this is because they’ve glimpsed the monster, but my suspicion is that I’m annoying them. The horses are my only friends. Though I guess you could count the gimp chambermaid a friend. She sometimes hobbles in to pet the horses and give me sugared beets, which I pretend to eat then secret under my belt to later feed the horses. She tells me stories, the chambermaid, of boys like me, on the brink of manhood, like the one about the farmhand who, too poor to afford a horse, trapped, tamed, and saddled an elk. Or the fisherman’s son who fell in love with a nymph beneath the lake and carved gills into his neck with a scaling knife and walked the lake’s floor to bed her. Or the whittler’s boy who dreamt of knighthood and shaped a brother out of birch to have someone to practice swords with, and he soon became the top fighter in the county. What’s the point of these stories, I ask myself, if not to teach a boy that he can become more than what he is?
Tonight I find a spider on my windowsill! I soak the creature in lamp oil, tilt a candle flame, watch the thing catch and curl and I’m certain I can hear tiny faint screams. “That’s the wind,” says Snargleflox. But what does he know about pain.
Snargleflox waits out each night, standing at the foot of my bed, looking but not looking because of his eye holes but still seeing me. Tonight there’s a waver in his posture. He’s lengthened near a foot in height since Kriv’s taken up residence in the study and now his back hunches more than usual and he’s begun to drool.
“Snargleflox,” I say.
“You’re wetting my blanket.”
“Sorry.” He takes a slow step back.
“Something wrong?” I say.
“It’s Kriv,” he says. “She’s contagious. I contracted an ailment when sniffing her.”
“I sniffed her,” I say. “And my health feels good. Too good. Uncomfortably good.”
“You have a king’s health. Uninfectable.”
“So you have a peasant’s health?”
I close my eyes and hear the guards downstairs in the buttery like boars at their nightly feed.
I find myself in the wrong line of work. We are not guards. Fiends. And I am the fiends’ fat-handed accomplice.
When Lord Boric grows tired with one of his captives, he passes her off to us. Before the execution, we—well, I don’t partake, not truly, in what the other guards call “the fun.” Even if I wanted to, the others would deny me. “You’d flatten her to dust, Tallowcatch.” Their nickname for me. Tallowcatch. Barrel of fat. Though youngest, I sport the largest mail and own the meatiest hands in the ranks, and because of this sturdiness I am made to hold the girl still, to kneel behind and pin her down by the shoulders. It’s a grisly job, during which I shut my eyes and try to venture elsewhere, but it’s impossible to fully escape. I pray in the night that God sees my predicament and elects to spare me from what hellfires await my thin and huffing colleagues, though I’m not confident He will.
I stay clear of the others, spending the bulk of my time in quietude, polishing armor and broadswords, but after a shift, when they crack open a barrel of ale, I act as cupbearer, milling about, refilling their pots. Last night in the buttery they discussed Lord Boric’s new captive, the ploughman’s daughter, up there in his study.
“A pretty thing,” said one guard.
“Ruby haired,” said another.
“A farmer’s muscle in her arms.”
“A fighter, looks like.”
“I give her a week.”
“I call first go.”
“Tallowcatch. My pot feels empty.”
The only person in my life I call a friend is Emeline, the lame chambermaid with the lopsided vision, who some nights shares a tankard of baked milk with me in the larder, where I once caught her filling a pouch with sugared beets, thinking her an intruder at the time. She listens to me and doesn’t say much. I’ve told her what the guards make me do. I tell her I spend most days numbed by an icy kind of remorse for the fact of my still being alive, and those girls, not. Tonight, I tell her I’m not sure how much longer I wish to live. She thumbs a dribble of milk off my chin, tells me that my life might still find worth. I don’t know what she means by this, but I listen.
“Pick one,” I say.
Kriv steps among the lain about objects: trinkets, jewelry, fine garments. Snargleflox wheezes in the corner, huddled there like a giant withdrawn spider.
“If she picks wrong,” he says, “time’s up.”
“Choose carefully,” I say.
She peruses, pausing at an opal necklace, velvet gloves, a bronze corkscrew. Finally, she bends at the white mink shawl, but instead of covering her shoulders, she knots it round her waist.
“How did she know?”
“Why that one?” I say.
“You told me to pick. I picked.”
“That’s my mother’s shawl,” I say.
“I know that,” says Snargleflox.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” I say.
“Was she a good mother?” says Kriv.
“That’s not her business.”
“She was,” I say.
“Do you miss her?”
“No,” says Snargleflox, drooling.
“Yes,” I say.
“Do I remind you of her?”
I say nothing.
I hold open the door and Snargleflox scuttles out ahead of me. “Practice your harp.”
Each hour in the castle is like crossing a river—now I’m on this rock, now the next—but the rocks are the tips of towers, the river depthless, the current wicked.
Don’t call it luck, that I’m still here, in this room. I am the maker of my fate.
For the longest time I’ve wanted no one to succeed but me. I would pick herbs and berries in the woods, then rip out their roots, so no other forager might profit by them. I stole hunks of bread from a belly cavity in the family loaf: more energy to spend in the day. I practiced my father’s lute at night, knowing talent can be useful. Spendable. I’m the one girl in the village deemed capable to work the fields in fall, though Father never approved of such ambitions.
I hate you, Father. Your prideful blather. But I miss you painfully. You have ruined my life; you will never get to finish engraving that scythe handle. Is this what grief feels like? I see Father at work in the house, bent over a project, my favorite of his constructions, what he declared a lute, though his woodworking tools themselves were home-built, the strings honey-soaked twine. The instrument sounded like a whining mule. At night after a supper of salted cabbage and bread crusts, I would practice, my own songs, basic double-string ballads about naked old witches in the woods changing into crows under moonglow; spelled wolves walking on hind legs and hissing Latin; a magic golden baby made from wheat bushels, who killed all who sighted her.
When my noose was removed but Father’s remained, he whispered to me: Vengeance is best kept unseen. But what can I do? The door is twin-walled, bolted and iron-ribbed, barred on the outside by an oak plank. On the door there are marks, gouges and, closer, thin scratches. I trace one with my fingertip. Also: no useful weapons. Just a desk, a harp and stool, a hay-filled chamber pot, and a fireplace.
Father used to tell me a story about a lynx in a wildfire. The lynx, fleeing the blaze alongside other animals, decides to wheel and sprint toward the flames. It leaps through to the other side, to already scorched earth and safety. The others, slowed by the fumes, and fear, eventually tire and burn. I thought it a crude story meant to instill battle-bound boys with stupid courage, but standing here, in the Lord’s study, I’m feeling very much a lynx: however his previous captors behaved, I will enact the opposite. They ate daintily, I imagine, striving for ladyhood; I will gorge like a starved hog. They sniveled and wept, afraid to meet his gaze; I will stare. In shaken voices they tried to speak proper, but I will talk plainly, without hesitation. He will never see my hand tremble. It was people who moved those stones. Peasants. With oxcarts. Angels had nothing to do with—
A knock on the door.
It’s the servant girl, the slightly malformed one. But my chamber pot has been emptied, the floor swept.
Snargleflox grows larger and more monstrous by the hour. He has stretched three feet in height, his back sloped with yellowed vertebrae spikes protruding through his cloak like spear tips. His knuckles have met the floor and, lurking about beastlike on all fours, his hat feather looks more preposterous than ever. Just in the last few minutes, he has sprouted a second pair of arms and a fleshy nub of tail.
“Snargleflox,” I say, naked in bed, carving Latin phrases onto the inside of my thigh with a nacre-handled penknife. “You don’t look good.”
“How do you mean?” he says, scratching the rim of an eye hole with a newly sprouted claw.
“How do you feel?” I say, carving, feeling dead-in-the-face.
“Back’s a bit sore,” he says.
His dorsal spikes spread and quake as he breathes. The sting of the penknife does little to rouse me. Some months ago, after the disposal of my fourth or fifth suitress, one of the chambermaids tried to murder me with the nacre-handled penknife that she’d swiped from my vanity. She had entered to take my chamber pot, but instead pulled open my bed curtain and sliced me pretty good below the eye before I could wrestle her down and call the guards. She left along my cheekbone a sickle-shaped scar like a second smile. That little scuffle was the most excitement I’d had in weeks, and while Emeline stitched the wound, I savored the tug of each suture.
“I’m bored of Kriv,” says Snargleflox. “We should get rid of her. Try another.”
“How do we know she is the cause of your illness?”
“Don’t care about the illness. I feel fine. I just don’t see what’s so great about her.”
“Are you jealous?”
“No.” His tail nub wriggles.
“She’s trying to trick you.”
“No she isn’t.”
“She is. She’s miming your tastes to please you.”
“The cheese. The harp.”
“Everybody likes cheese.”
“You are jealous.”
“You think she’s your mother, but she never will be.”
I dig the penknife deep, blood soaks the linens.
I know a lot about hay. Oat hay grows thick and hard to reap but makes a heartier meal. Clover hay’s thinner and easier for the sickle, but in wet weather clover hay can mold and sicken the animals. Alfalfa hay is the best of both: easily reaped, loved by the horses, but you’re lucky to find it in our fields. I have some alfalfa now, tucked in the folds of my clothes, but Faxi doesn’t notice. Or care. None of the horses have been eating much. My guess is they’ve seen the monster, prowling the grounds at night. If another horse gets attacked, I don’t know if I could bear it. I’ve been spending nights in the stables on a haybale, not sleeping much, but besides the usual mutterings of guards along the parapet, all I’ve heard are the horses’ nickering to one another, mocking me and my ability to care for them. By day, they ignore me as if I’m—unnecessary. Lately I find myself brushing and shoeing the horses with less and less tenderness. I scrape hard with the hoof pick, miss occasionally with the shoe mallet or else send a nail too deep. Sometimes I think of shoving a fistful of hay down Faxi’s throat or galloping Hazelnut until collapse and I hate feeling this way. Maybe the monster has somehow infected me. I try to shake the notion from my skull but like ale this only causes it to fizz and roil.
I brush Topper’s mane, try to be gentle.
I whisper in his ear, “He hurt us. He hurt us.”
A chambermaid, the cripple with the wandering eye, told me to make a certain kind of berries into syrup. I told her she had very wrong berries, but she placed a gift in my palm, the most elegant earring I’d ever seen, a tapering cluster of pearls, like a miniature grapevine. “Make the syrup,” she said. “And you’ll own the pair.” It’s easy work for such a prize: simmer the berries for an hour in water and sugar, add blackcurrant vinegar, sieve through a cheesecloth, store in a little mauve pot.
Can’t sleep. I close my eyes and I’m back in her stall, shoveling her, bit by bit, into a wagon. I’ve filled so many wagons.
Heaven is not for horses.
Or stable boys.
The fire crackles and glows and warms the room. Emeline kneels by it, adds more wood, then starts adjusting the logs with her broomstick.
“That’s fine,” I say.
“You can go, Emeline.”
“Yes, my lord.”
As she limps to the door, Snargleflox, dorsal spikes brown and splintered, sags against the desk and his eye holes follow her out. He no longer has spirit for mockery.
Kriv stands in the middle of the room and stares. That same unchangeable look: an owl who chooses to live in a well, Mother’s shawl knotted round her waist.
“Wear it right,” I say.
“Prefer it like this.”
Snargleflox moans. “Kill her.”
“Do you hate me?” I say.
“Why would I hate you?”
“Does the village hate me.”
She thinks on this. “Lately you haven’t been their favorite, my lord.”
“You’re lucky to have me,” I say. “My cousin, in the next county west, he’s worse. He saws things. Hangs things from chains—animals, villagers, chambermaids, et cetera—upside-down by their ankles, then he saws them in two, crotch to forehead. You should see the blade he uses, teeth like a bear’s, which he always forgets to sharpen. He fucked an owl. He fucked a toad.”
Kriv stares, unchanged.
“Could we saw her?”
I nod at the harp. “Have you been practicing?”
“When I feel like it.”
“Put on the shawl,” I say. “And play.”
She walks whistling to the harp stool. She doesn’t unknot the mink.
The guards lounge in the buttery, slurping ale.
“A sour batch, this one.”
“And the color’s off.”
“I’ll take your share if you don’t like it.”
“Never said I didn’t like it.”
“Shut up, then?”
“Me next, Tallowcatch. Come now, on the waddle.”
“Look at him totter!”
“He’s already downed two pots, the greedy oinker.”
“We’ve heard this song before,” says Snargleflox, heaving, his cloak split, flesh bulbing through.
“You’ve played that air already.”
“Sorry,” she says.
“She’s boring me.”
“Play something else,” I say.
She swivels to face me, unknots the mink and capes it over her shoulders. “You play.”
“Me,” I say.
“You can’t play,” says Snargleflox.
“Yes, I can.”
“But will you?” says Kriv.
“No,” says Snargleflox.
“I don’t feel like it,” I say.
“You’re scared you won’t be as good as me,” she says.
“I’m not scared,” I say.
“You are,” says Snargleflox.
“No, I’m not.”
“Who are you talking to?” she says.
“What do you mean?” I say.
“You speak as if there’s someone in the room. Besides the two of us.”
“He’s called Snargleflox.”
“Don’t tell her my name.”
“Is he here?”
“Don’t point at me.”
I wipe a tiny mound of ash off Lord Boric’s windowsill. Sweep his floor, change his linens, rope his bed curtains. There, on the vanity, his Bible. Once I tied a strand of hair around it that didn’t break for months. I can’t say this surprised me.
I open the book. I never learnt to read but I enjoy flipping pages, looking at words. What would it be like, being able to puzzle it all out? Would the words speak inside my head? I wonder how the Bible describes heaven. Surely in a more beautiful way than how I’ve always pictured it: not unlike my world now, a castle and a village, but everything is cast in a keen white glow, everyone free to pursue their own desires, and it is always spring.
On the other end of the vanity, where he always keeps it, is a penknife, its handle white and glossy, as if hewn from a cloud.
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“No.” She stands.
Her hair, haloed in fireglow, falls across the mink. Her skin, half-lit, looks smooth as porcelain.
“Tell Snargleflox to leave,” she says.
“Don’t listen to her.”
“You don’t need him,” she says.
“Give her to the guards.”
“Tell him. Now.”
“Be quiet,” I say.
The door shifts, creaks open.
“Not now, Emeline,” I say.
“That’s not Emeline,” says Snargleflox.
It’s the stable boy, hay in his hair, face drunk with blood, wielding a nacre-handled penknife. My penknife. He cuts eyes to Kriv, to me.
“How did he get past the guards?” says Snargleflox.
“How did you get my knife?”
The boy steps forward.
“Thank you!” Kriv blocks his path, snatches the penknife. “Finally, something to tune the harp. You took long enough.”
The stable boy stands there, unmanned. His emptied hand, still raised, trembles.
“Off you go.” She shepherds him to the door. “Back to your horses.” She shuts it—I hear the stable boy clunk the door locked—and now she’s circling the room, her eyes chained to mine, dragging the knife’s point against the wall. The scraping noise makes Snargleflox wince and whine and recoil his limbs.
“Stop it,” I say.
“The castle’s stones,” she says, scratching a thin pale line around the room, as if enclosing us in some spell, “how did they get here?”
“Angels,” says Snargleflox, slurring, his tongue unspooled across the desk.
“Angels,” I say.
“No,” she says.
“No?” I say.
“Oxcarts. There’s an old track in the south woods.”
“Oxcarts,” I say.
“Tell him to leave,” she says.
“Tell him,” she says.
“Leave,” I say.
Snargleflox groans. His joints crack and crack again. One of the arms unhinges and hits the floor.
“Say it,” she says. “Again.”
Other limbs break and fall.
His torso hits the desk.
The pieces of him begin to brighten, ember-like, and burn. Skin molts away. Flesh dissolves to ash. I feel the heat of this in my face.
“He’s gone,” I say.
She steps close, cups my cheek. “I’m tired.”
“There are plenty of empty rooms you could—”
“Where did your mother sleep?”
“Left down the hall,” I say. “Last door on the right. But, where should I sleep?”
“You’ll go to your room.” She sets my penknife on the desk, and a spider scrambles out from under it in my direction. Kriv ends the creature with her bare heel.
Snargleflox’s hat is here, beside the knife. The fire flickers. His sparrowhawk feather fails to catch the light.