He had no idea that I loved him. He barely acknowledged that I existed, a maid twice over, little more than a shadow in empty hallways. Trapped in unhappy marriage and prisoner in his own castle, he did not conceive that anyone loving him was even possible. The baron was a man of war, not of love.
He was also an ass, but as Maman said, so many men are.
He’d borne arms with Jeanne d’Arc in Orléans, had witnessed firsthand the divine power she had wielded. Sorceress, they’d called her. Maman had shared a similar fate, for far less a magical offense.
The baron was so much more deserving of that power. If there existed a man with more confidence, more passion about things beyond the realms of heaven and earth, I never knew of him. Prelati was a pompous, hand-waving fool in comparison.
After testing the limits of his seemingly boundless wealth and ultimately finding it, the baron surrounded himself with books and candles and crucifixes in his barren estate, refusing to believe that divine voices could only be heard by the ears of unspoiled females. Yes, it was Prelati who suggested that he was imploring the wrong deity, but it was I who sent him the first child.
“Perhaps those among the fallen might better relate to the sons of Adam.”
Prelati’s silver-tongued accent echoed through the chimney from which I swept the ashes. The charlatan must have been standing directly in front of the fireplace in the baron’s study for his words to have landed so crisply in my unspoiled ears.
I heard the baron’s response, rumbled deep from his strong chest, but I did not catch the words. His tone asked a question.
“I will consult my books,” replied Prelati, just as he always did. Hidden as I was, I couldn’t resist rolling my eyes. Prelati made a far better librarian than an alchemist, or a sorcerer, or a demon-speaker, or whatever color the robes he was wearing today suggested.
Too curious to be privy to half the conversation, I tripped over the ash pail and tore through the cloud of dust out the door and down the hall, hoping to better eavesdrop at the seam between the sitting room doors.
The doors were open.
“I don’t care which one, Prelati. Choose whomever—or whatever—you want. I just want some sort of answer, angel or demon or otherwise. There is a way to escape this place, and I will find it. Henriette! You read my mind. Stoke the fire, girl, there’s a bit of a chill.”
The room was dark; Prelati’s idiot form blocked what little light escaped from the dying fire, casting giant shadows of him against the walls hung with thick velvet tapestries to keep out the stones’ cold. The air was bitter with the unnatural balsamic tang of Prelati’s infernal frankincense.
Prelati scowled at me beneath his great beard and moustaches, so black and thick that he might topple over at any moment with the weight of them. I scowled right back. I didn’t care what Prelati thought of me, and he knew it. I worried more that the baron might see an ash smudge upon my cheek, though I was of less note to him than a pebble in his shoe. He ordered me about in the same breath he spoke of summoning demons. I was neither a benefit nor a threat to him and his situation, and he was a skunk for thinking it.
I quickly knelt on the marble hearth, so that only the fire witnessed my grin. I dutifully shoveled the white and grey ashes into the almost full metal bin—the baron often spent long hours in this study, and I was not usually permitted to attend to the fire while his lordship was present. I’d make sure to carry this one away with me when I departed and replace it with the now-empty bin I’d knocked over in the adjacent room. I considered hiding it from Cook for a few days before she set me to making the lye soap again.
“We will need candles, my lord, and soft chalk,” said Prelati. “If you will excuse me, I will prepare a few new scents that might persuade more unlikely visitors.”
I stifled another grin. They’d have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to summon anything more unlikeable than Prelati. My father might have met those criteria, so it’s just as well I’m a bastard child. Perhaps I could persuade the baron that my sire had been a demon; he’d have no choice but to notice me then.
I moved quickly across the room with the quiet grace all servants practiced, allowing not so much as a clank from the exceptionally heavy ash bin. Prelati rattled on about his needs and preparations. I dropped a small curtsey to no one and turned.
“Henriette, please send for Poitou; I need the carpets in this study removed.”
My breath caught, my chest ached, and my heart skipped a beat at the sound of his voice and the thrill of being addressed, if not seen.
“Yes, sir,” I said politely. I curtseyed again and jauntily swung the metal down the cold, dank hall.
I already had plans to make a far more lasting impression.
Unnoticed in plain sight, I monitored their progress for weeks. Every time I crossed the room, I skipped and hopped over more and more shapes drawn across the marble. What the baron lacked in funds, it appeared he did not make up for in artistic ability. The air, thick with Prelati’s incense experimentation, went from spicy to sweet to cloying; I wondered if he’d begun urinating in the thurible as a last resort.
I continued to empty the ashes from the fireplace while the room was unoccupied, an ever-dwindling window of time in the wee hours of the morning while the men pursued their supernatural prey. Spell after spell failed. I collected my ashes and waited. The morning finally came when the study door was locked, barring me from entrance. Beyond, I heard the baron’s frustrated, sleep-deprived tones berating Prelati for their constant failure.
It was time.
I excused myself from the palace with a message to Cook that I was to run an errand for the baron. I did not speak untruth—the errand was for him, every thought in my head was for him. I covered my hair with a scarf, took a woven basket—so much lighter than ash pails—and walked briskly down the hill into town. The smile never left my face and there was no chill for me that day. The angels had heard my prayers. Patience would deliver me my true love’s heart.
I did not have an appointment, but I did not expect to see the furrier himself. “I am sorry, mademoiselle,” said the furrier’s very new and very young apprentice. “But if it is for the baron, perhaps the master will not mind if I go to him.”
Brave child; he looked frightened to death at the prospect of disturbing his master at work. I tried to put him at ease. “What is your name, chérie?”
“Jeudon.” I smiled. “It is my own fault for arriving unannounced! I do not think we need to bother your master with this. In fact, I think you might be the perfect person for this job.” Angels, hear my prayers.
It worked. Jeudon’s shoulders relaxed. “Anything at all, mademoiselle. For the baron.”
“For the baron. Of course! Thank you, Jeudon. But first, I will need to see a sample of your work. I trust your master has started your training on smaller animals, n’est-ce pas?”
“Oui, mademoiselle. Squirrels and rabbits and the like.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve experimented with skunk? Polecat?”
Jeudon’s silence at my request answered the question, but I waited him out with a grin.
“Mademoiselle, I would never... For the baron...”
“I insist, dear Jeudon! Take me at my word; the baron will be ever so impressed that you have such a unique specimen on hand.” I reached into my apron pocket, removing seven small centimes—my meager life savings—and I sent up another prayer to those mysterious angels. “Please deliver the fur yourself. This is for your trouble.”
“Yes, please, Jeudon. The baron will want to both pay you and thank you in person. I suggest you make haste!”
The boy did not think twice before rushing into the workroom and scampering out the door with no less than three small pelts in his hand. He left no word for his master, written or otherwise. Just as well. It might be days before anyone discovered he was missing.
Assuming, of course, that the baron understood my gift to him, but I trusted my beloved implicitly.
I spent the next few days making ash soap in the stench-ridden bowels of the castle. It didn’t go unnoticed that every room in the castle but the study had lain unused for a month’s time. Cook had taken me to task for idling in hallways and banished me thence. The rough, oversized gloves scratched at my knuckles, raw from the cruel ministrations of her wooden spoon, but as working without gloves would have been a worse punishment, I bore the pain. I slowly lowered an egg into the still-warm pot of ye, fresh from the fire.
“The baron’s called for you.”
Cook’s announcement from the doorway startled me, and I unceremoniously dropped the egg into the pot, splashing droplets upon my gloves. The egg sank below the surface. I yanked my hand back, pulled the glove off, and fished the egg out with my long-handled spoon. The egg should have bobbed back to the top—this pot would need a bit more time on the fire. But not right now.
I nodded, curtseyed, and slipped beneath Cook’s hefty bosom that barred the doorway. I forced my feet to slow, but my heart was flying. I wondered if he’d said my name again, out loud, with those perfect lips, or if he’d just sent a message through Poitou for “the girl who cleans the fireplace.” No matter. The baron needed me, far more than he realized.
A full bin of ashes met me outside the study door, so I fetched the empty bin from an adjacent room before knocking on the door.
Oh, if only you would let me. But I dared not meet his eyes. Did he suspect I’d sent the boy? “I’m here for the ashes, my lord.” I bent my knees, crossed the room to the fireplace, and stopped dead at a sight I’d never thought I’d see: Prelati on his hands and knees with a scrub brush and bucket.
My hand was too late to hide the smile that betrayed me. Palm firmly clamped over mouth, I skirted around the magician and threw myself down at the hearth. The fire was naught but embers now, but it had burned hot and high and left the ash white. It was also slightly greasy and smelled faintly of brimstone.
Dear, dear Jeudon, I thought, as I shoveled him into my bin. The lard in the mix would undoubtedly make a finer soap. I was too busy wondering how to sneak a batch aside for myself to notice that the room behind me had gone silent. No whispers, no movement, nothing...which could only mean that I was suddenly the center of their attention. I stood tall and dusted my clothes off the best I could before turning to face the two men, both now standing.
The baron was looking at me.
Prelati’s gaze slipped to the spot where he’d been scrubbing, and my eyes followed. No doubt they had finally discovered the lengths to which their artistic talent did not go, and chosen to erase the chalk and charcoal and start afresh. True, the lines had been erased, but beneath remained a large, pale pink stain on the perfect white marble.
There was only one thing that stain could be: blood. What would they do with me now that I’d seen it? The baron stared with those intensely hard eyes, sizing me up. I raised my chin and stared right back.
“Do you ever wash floors?” he asked.
“I make the soap,” I boasted.
“Have this floor clean by sundown, and we will never speak of this again.”
“Yes, my lord.” I bent my knees again, collected both ash bins, and went below-stairs to retrieve the soap I’d been stockpiling for this very occasion. I’d considered pocketing some in my apron in preparation for this summons, but I didn’t want to play my hand too soon.
Charming, how completely predictable the baron was. But like Maman said, so many men are.
I returned with soap, gloves, and a pot to warm water over the fresh fire I’d built up. I crumbled the lye into powder and set hard to the brush, careful not to get anything on my skin or clothes. It was no easy task, and not quickly done, but before sunset I’d removed every trace of blood from that stone. I stopped on the way back to my rooms only long enough to ask a scrawny young thing to replenish the wood in the baron’s study. I didn’t bother asking his name.
It was several more days before I was shoveling his ashes out of the fireplace and scrubbing the study floor again. I worked privately and efficiently. As promised, the baron said nothing of the matter.
The third time the baron sent for me, I brazenly spoke without being addressed. “I will clean this floor for you, but I want something.”
“We let you keep your life,” prattled Prelati. “What more could you possibly desire?”
“In order to properly remove a stain, it’s best to catch it right away.” My eyes never left the baron’s. He knew what I meant.
Or did he? His gaze left mine long enough to gauge Prelati’s reaction to my comment.
“Your services are no longer required, girl.” Prelati put a hand on the small of my back to lead me to the door and I slapped it away.
I turned to the baron and bowed deeply, in the manner of a chevalier and not a scullery maid. My heart beat like a battle drum. “As you wish, Lord Polecat. You may fetch your own errand boys from now on.”
I straightened, expecting to see a sly grin upon his countenance with the realization that it was I who’d sent the fitch. What met me instead was a drawn mouth and furrowed brow. I admit I was a little disappointed that such an admirable man like the baron could be so stupid. But like Maman said, so many men are.
Heart in my feet now, I moved to walk away. The bin felt twice as heavy, its scorched refuse now burdened with the leaden weight of my shattered dreams.
“I will do anything.”
The baron’s voice was low enough to almost be unheard above the crackling of the fresh blaze in the hearth. “I will stop at nothing to regain my fortune, my power, and be free from this place. I will defile heaven and pull demons out of Hell to do my bidding. If you get in my way, I will kill you.”
I did not turn back at his words, but I did straighten. The ash bin suddenly felt lighter. “I accept those terms,” was all I said before leaving the study.
The next time the baron “sent for a messenger,” I accompanied him into the study... and stayed.
Those next few years were the happiest times of my life. Instead of letting our failed attempts at summoning get the best of us, we made a game of it. We gathered young boys from far and wide, for a variety of reasons, and never raised so much as an eyebrow of suspicion. We sometimes drew it out for days, seducing the boys with lavish feasts and mulled wine and games. The baron was pleased to discover that I had a steady hand at runes, despite the hard calluses I earned from scrubbing and soap making. I drew many a circle and lit many a candle. Sometimes we let the boy draw and light them himself. We would stoke the fire high and keep it hot. We always burned the clothes first.
Over time, I even came to tolerate Prelati. It was never anything as bold as “friendship,” but we knew each other for what we were, and we each respected the other’s loyalty to the baron. Prelati saw that I was a quick study and taught me to read so that I might continue their conversation with new ideas and a fresh perspective. After months of watching me soak ashes in rainwater and strain liquid and boil lye, he invited me to experiment with his incense. I, in turn, taught them both the rudiments of soap making. The baron had a deft hand at floating eggs. I imagined those strong, careful hands on my body many, many more times than I’d like to confess. And the marble was so much easier to clean when we could pour the hot lye right down onto the fresh stain.
I did not let the baron touch me intimately, though I knew at times he wanted to. It was a rush to have such power in one’s hands, to literally feel lifeblood slipping from between one’s fingers. I drew my best work in that blood. We cleaned the middle of the floor so well and often that I was eventually forced to scrub the rest of the study to match.
Our efforts were not entirely unsuccessful; for otherwise, we wouldn’t have wasted so much time. There were days when the candles’ flame changed color, or the air filled with tiny starbursts of light. Some chants brought a wind that left the room in complete darkness. One even made it rain indoors—I ran so much that day saving the ash pots and collecting fresh water that I fell asleep in wet clothes on the wet settee and did not wake until the next afternoon. Certain chants made the incense smell strongly of roses, or rot. The flavor of everything we ate on those days was wrong. Not always bad, mind you, but roast duck that tastes of chocolate pudding is a shock to any palate.
We celebrated our little triumphs. We danced barefoot in the blood, painted ourselves with red and black and white, finished off the mulled wine and sang every silly song we knew until we’d exhausted our repertoire. Then we pulled on our bootstraps, divined what we could from the entrails, added to Prelati’s endless stack of notes, and cleared the stage for the next attempt.
I began to dread the day we actually summoned a demon, when I would lose my place in this exclusive club, and lose the baron altogether. My baron. We were close to success; I knew it. I could hear it on the wind. I could taste it in the spiced air. I could feel it in my bones. I feared it so much that I finally let him kiss me.
“Let me in.” The words were soft, growled into my neck in frustration. My toes slipped in the blood beneath our feet, but I held my ground.
“Make me your wife,” I whispered back.
“I have a wife,” he said, and not kindly.
I placed my palm flat on his wide chest, leaving a small red print on the white silk. “Your title is married to her. Not your heart.”
The next day, he stole us a cleric.
I took an inordinate amount of time preparing for the ceremony. I believe that Prelati deduced my plans—he was smarter than I’d previously given him credit for, especially with regard to subterfuge and mental manipulation—but he said nothing. He mixed the incense concoction we’d agreed upon and painted my face and arms with the necessary symbols after I’d baptized myself in rainwater.
We exchanged gifts, the baron and I, as per tradition more than as a requirement of the summoning ceremony. I gave him a waxen dolly in his own image, as Maman had taught me to do in life, and then taught me never to do again with her death. From my baron bridegroom I received a solid white egg... that I almost dropped when he placed it in my hands. Upon further examination, I realized it was fashioned out of pure white marble—the perfect symbol of the birth of our love for each other. I slipped it into the pocket of my dress so that no blood would mar its pristine surface.
We built up the fire and lit the candles, and when all was ready, Prelati untied the cleric.
The wise man must have realized his fate, for he did not rush the ceremony. My girlish sensibilities thanked him for every extra moment I was allowed to stand upon the symbols with my beloved’s hand in mine.
“Lady Polecat,” the baron’s breath said into mine.
“Lord Fitcher,” I replied.
The second time the baron kissed me, I was his wife. Not his first wife on paper, warden to his prison cell, but the first wife in the way that really mattered: the wife of his heart and soul. This love—our love—was true.
But for all the romance I was a practical young girl. I knew that this union did not exist outside this study, or this castle, or even before the cleric’s god. We could lie together as man and wife, but that’s exactly what it was: a lie. I could lie beside him for the rest of his days and watch him attempt to summon demon after demon until he killed everyone in the castle, and then Prelati, and then himself. Or I could give him what he wanted—what he needed—and set him free.
In my mind, there was never a choice.
Prelati handed the ebony-handled athame to the baron, but this time those beady black eyes never left mine. My love, my husband, drew the blade across his palm with a hiss. I took the dagger myself and did the same without so much as exhaling—I could risk losing neither his belief nor his pride in me for the next few moments. We clasped hands with the strength of two lovers facing the universe.
The candles’ flames at the points of the star we’d sketched on the marble turned blue and, as before, the air filled with tiny points of light. The fireplace roared, and the thurible’s smoke changed from sandalwood to rosemary. The cleric crossed himself. Thrice.
“It’s working,” the baron said without breathing, as if he might break the spell with a word. “Henriette, my love, it’s working!” I would never tire of hearing my name spoken from those lips.
“I know.” I tried to reply without gasping, but my body betrayed me. The baron tore his attention away from the magical room to see the dagger in my hand so covered in blood that it totally obscured the double blade. My virgin bride’s blood dripped from my core onto the rune-riddled marble between us.
My true love held me in strong arms; had my silly girlish legs not already given way, they would have then. “What have you done?” He might have screamed this, but I only heard him whisper.
“Freed you,” I said, or perhaps I said. Perhaps the only fragment to escape my lips had been “free,” but that syllable conveyed the message just as well.
There was no blackness for me to succumb to, nor was there a legendary white light for me to follow. The room stayed exactly as it was, in stark detail, and I tried to commit as much to memory as I could before one entity or another whisked me away to some great beyond. The baron knelt over my limp body, repeating “No” over and over again as if the chant might act as a tether to pull my soul back into my body. Prelati stood to one side of the circle in his solemn violet robes and bowed his head, praying to... something. So neither one of them saw the portal open and the man in black step through.
The man was followed by two angels, both terrible, one with wings of feathers and one with wings of fire. My sacrifice had not summoned a demon, then, it had summoned a god. This could only be Lord Death himself.
“We seem to have ourselves a dilemma.”
Awestruck, Prelati fell to his knees beside the baron. The cleric passed out cold.
“Bring back my wife.” The baron did not implore Lord Death so much as order him to do so.
“See, that’s just the thing.” Lord Death crossed his legs and sat on the stone, casually before them, before my dead body. The angels remained standing, one to either side of him, as did my ethereal soul. Exactly how much of the room’s population could the baron and Prelati see?
“What your loving ‘wife’ has done here is sacrifice herself for you,” Lord Death continued. “To bring her back would undo all that precious magic you’ve managed to accomplish.”
The baron did not reply, but Prelati nodded.
“This girl has made you capable of love, of all things. She’s also, in one fell swoop, stopped you from ever killing another child again. Am I right?”
The baron gave the idea some thought before nodding his own assent. Of course, my love would no longer bother himself with children. The key to his prison had been there all along in the very thing he eschewed: divinity still had a soft spot for unspoiled females. The marriage ceremony had caught their attention, and the blood had kept it.
“I must honor this sacrifice, as much as it pains me to do so.” Lord Death scanned the room, from the well-scrubbed floor to the cinder-strewn hearth. The angel of fire’s wings burned ever brighter, and I choked on her ash.
The baron—my baron—took up the bloody athame and looked to a sky that was not there. “Then let me follow her.”
Lord Death stayed his hand. “Yeah, let me stop you right there. See, if you do that now, it’s not a sacrifice. It’s suicide. That particular end will deliver you to a very different place. Am I right?” This was directed at the cleric who, having come to, nodded vigorously. “You will never join her, my dear baron, until you die by a hand other than your own. A death that serves to free the soul of someone else.”
The baron looked to Prelati, who raised his own hands in defeat. Prelati’s soul was well beyond saving.
“Please,” said the baron, and it was a tone I had only ever heard him use to me. “Let her stay with me. There must be some way. Let her haunt me until the end of my days, if you must, but let her stay with me.”
“I’m inclined to agree, actually,” said Lord Death. “It would be a fitting end for both of you.” He gestured to the angel of feathers and that bright light I’d heard so much about finally washed over me. There was a rush of wind and a choir of springtime. I felt blood in my veins and breath in my lungs and strength in my sinew. When my vision cleared, I was viewing the scene from a very new perspective, right in front of Lord Death’s face. I screamed, and the dim study echoed with birdsong.
I had wings, indeed, but I was no angel.
“She will stay with you, as requested, until you are relieved of your earthly, fleshy prison.” Lord Death stood. “You deserve each other.” That mystic portal appeared again, and the angels of feathers and fire sped through the opening before him. Lord Death was halfway through before he turned back for one last remark.
“Oh. And Prelati—cut it out, already.”
“Yes, my lord.” They were the last words the magician said before they both disappeared.
Overwhelmed, the cleric fainted. Again.
My beloved took my earthly body down, down, down to my rooms in the bowels of his castle, where no one ever saw me but the fire and the ashes and Cook. I fluttered after him on awkward wings. He laid my body on the table: black hair, white dress, red blood and all. He spent a very long time arranging my limbs and clothes. I used the time to find currents of air around the room, getting used to my new body. When he was satisfied, he banked the fire, closed the door to the room, and locked it tight.
He slid the key onto the chain around his neck that once bore a cross—now it held our wedding bands. He pressed his forehead against the door and whispered something, but I didn’t catch it. In his hands—larger to me now than they ever had been—was a small white object. My bride gift. He must have rescued it from my pocket when he’d been arranging my dress. My rapidly beating little heart swelled with pride and I burst into song.
The baron raised the perfect white egg to his lips and kissed it, as he had once kissed me. “We have lots of work ahead of us, little bird. There’s a floor in my study that needs scrubbing.” I perched on his outstretched hand and he stroked my feathers with fingers that would be forced to draw new runes and symbols all on their clumsy own. “And then...let’s find a new wife!”