Shay Sheridan - Reality
Gigi whirled around. She had been standing on the dais of the throne, studying a tapestry, fascinated by the play of light and shadow in the needlework, the illusion of translucence in the depiction of some sort of object woven into the design. She didn't really care about the tapestry, but looking at it calmed her down a little, kept her from thinking about what lay ahead. And about what whom --she had seen in the corridor. But at the sound of the queen's voice, her fears returned in a rush.
The queen glided towards her, the train of her gown fanning out in a perfect semi-circle of scarlet. "You look quite natural up there, next to the throne." There was nothing overtly frightening about her manner, and her face was creased in a warm smile, but Gigi regarded her warily, expecting her to spring, suddenly, like a trapdoor spider. Everyone knew about the "evil queen"; what she was doing here, in Wendell's palace, was beyond Gigi's understanding.
"It's a pretty scene, don't you agree?" The queen gestured at the tapestry. "It's Snow White, of course. With her husband, Prince Florio. Wendell's grandfather." Gigi turned, despite herself. Of course it was Snow White a pale, dark haired woman extending her hand to a handsome blond man. That translucent object behind them, she realized now, was a coffin. A glass coffin. She turned back to face the queen, but said nothing.
"I admit she was beautiful, in her own way. Though artists tend to exaggerate and flatter. Only mirrors tell the truth. " The queen smiled, but now Gigi saw that the smile stopped at her lips. The older woman stepped towards her and raised a hand toward Gigi's face. "You are very pretty, too."
Gigi flinched and stepped back, feeling the edge of the throne behind her knees. The queen smiled again.
Gigi's mouth tightened. Enough of this. "Why have you had me brought here?"
The queen laughed, a lovely tinkling sound. She sounded quite genuinely amused. "Don't be so impatient! It's not a very attractive quality in royalty."
That wasn't at all what Gigi had expected to hear. "'Royalty?'"
The older woman did not respond immediately. She turned away, the scarlet dress winding and unwinding about her legs like pooling blood. "When I came here," she said, "I came as a commoner. That won't be your fate, Virginia."
"My name is Gigi."
"Your name is Lady Virginia of the Western Mountains. It's pointless to pretend it's not. You father tells me you do not relish the title. Foolish, foolish girl."
Gigi's anger flared, burning through her fear, anger not just at the woman, but at her father for speaking about her to this creature. She descended from the dais to accost her face to face. "What do you WANT?"
Again the queen sidestepped the question. "My mentor was very fond of your mother."
"My mother --"
"Your mother was foolish, girl. She had potential. Potential to be great, or so I've heard. She refused the power, and so she had to die."
Gigi gasped. Her mother had been gone so long, and she herself had been so very young, she barely remembered her at all, but if this woman knew her "What do you mean, 'had to die?'"
"I assure you I am blameless. But it begs the question will you be foolish enough to refuse greatness when it's handed to you?"
"I don't know what you mean, and I don't know what you want of me!"
"It's not what I want, my dear. It's what your father wants. And what Wendell wants." Her tone had shifted subtly, now she was all business, almost brusque in manner. "Prince Wendell wants you, young lady. He wants to marry you. You'll make him the happiest man in the kingdoms tonight when he announces your engagement. And let's just say your future depends on keeping him happy."
Gigi had been expecting the news, but still was perplexed. "Look, I know my father arranged this, but, but... I still don't know why! Wendell never showed any interest in me. Why, now, does he want us to be married?"
The queen threw her head back and laughed. "Men! Oh, my dear, who can tell why they do anything! Suffice to say you are now his passion, his desire. He will have you, or he will have no one." She stepped closer to Gigi and cupped her chin. "Don't deny your destiny, my dear. How terrible can it be? Wendell's quite the handsome fellow, rich, a little spoilt, perhaps, but you can cure him of that. A most eligible young man, desired by all the young ladies. And he's chosen you --I think that's marvelous. And remember --you will not only be his wife, but his queen. Surely there's little you can find to dislike in that prospect."
"It's just..." She let the thought trail off. What were her reservations, after all? "I don't love him," she finished lamely.
"Don't love him? My dear, you have Prince Charming waiting for you. Surely you can't be expecting to meet anyone better --" She stopped, her eyes narrowing. "Oh, I see. That's it, isn't it? You're in love with someone already, are you?"
Gigi closed her eyes.
The queen sighed theatrically. "What is he, a merchant's son? No, that's not romantic enough for someone like you, I suppose. A gypsy, then? A poet, perhaps? And let me guess: you're waiting to be rescued by your lover, by this paragon of heroism!"
Was she, was she waiting to be rescued? Her mind went back to the corridor, to the moment she'd caught sight of Wolf, the moment when her despair had turned to joy and hope after so long, to the moment when she'd seen him standing there --
--next to the queen, his eyes blank as they turned from the queen to look at her, and then flicked away, disinterested, uncaring. The moment when her sudden flame of hope had died.
"No," she said. "I don't expect to be rescued."
"Good," the queen said, a smug smile playing about her lips, "because I've gone to quite a lot of trouble to get you here, to arrange your marriage to Wendell, and I'd hate for him to be disappointed."
"And what do YOU get out of it?"
The older woman stepped back at Gigi's pugnacious tone, regarding her with interest. "Wendell and I have come to an understanding. I have pledged not to stand against him, nor to raise a rebellion. I do still have my supporters, you know. In return, he plans to give me quite a large duchy in the northern part of his lands. I will be the ruler there it will be almost like having my own little kingdom. I find it an appealing prospect after so many years in exile. Besides, I told him I'm too tired to make much trouble any more."
Gigi made a face. "And he believed you?"
"Don't be rude, dear. I've accepted the best terms I can get." She moved closer until their faces were mere inches apart. "I advise you to do the same."
"And if I don't?"
"The consequences of that foolish choice are too gruesome to consider. Please don't force me to consider them. I'd hate that. I've taken an interest in you." She smiled again, a benevolent smile. "You have it, too, I can tell, though you don't know it." At this mysterious statement she reached over to push Gigi's hair out of her eyes. This time Gigi didn't recoil; there was something so familiar in the gesture that she couldn't move. For a moment she stood like that, memories tugging at her, until it came to her with unendurable clarity. She fought back a sob.
"Well, then, my dear," the queen was saying, "are we in agreement?"
The wolf had never seen such a large and well-appointed kitchen in his life; granted, he didn't remember much about his life, but he did have vague sensations of having been chased from a large kitchen more than once. He tried to hold on to the impression, but the more he concentrated, the more it seemed to slip away.
But the palace kitchen was huge--almost indecently so, a veritable fantasy-land of smells that set his nose to twitching and his mouth to watering. And no one, absolutely no one, was trying to chase him away.
That in itself was a wonder, but stranger still, he'd been given a huge plate of food to eat probably with the thought that a wolf with a full stomach would be less likely to eat up the pantry. It was a good, if simple, plan and he recognized its basic validity as a concept. He sniffed haughtily. He was still coming to terms with the concept of even BEING a wolf, and rejected the idea --that he would "wolf" everything down in his path --as being slanderous.
Nevertheless, he cleaned his plate.
They set him first to polishing silver --large pieces, he noted, not utensils that an unscrupulous wolf might be expected to slip into a pocket. He spent over an hour at the task, bringing the tarnished serving dishes to a high reflective shine. He didn't try to think about his situation, other than to wonder what task he might be assigned next. Worrying seemed pointless what the queen wanted him to do, he would do. Whatever it was. Without question.
He finished the polishing, and the under-chef put him to the task of stirring a huge vat of something --soup, gravy, beverage, he couldn't quite tell. It had a rich ruby color and smelled of a number of things, most of them unrecognizable. But he caught a whiff of something earthy, deep and a little pungent, and the aroma jogged something in his brain... fungi. Moss. No, mushrooms. But whatever the thought was, it didn't rise to the surface, unlike the mysterious lumps that bobbed up to the lip of the pot as the ladle went around and around.
He listened to the chatter. There was some sort of large party being planned that much was clear. The enormous staff bustled about in a frenzied but efficient manner, creating culinary masterpieces, folding linen, bearing tremendous trays of glassware.
"Here." A woman in a frilly apron and a seriously displeased expression held out clothing to him. It was a suit of livery, scarlet and white and gold, and he thought it quite flashy and beautiful. "Put this on. Everyone's to be in their best dress for the ball."
"Yes, the ball... where have you been?" the woman snorted. "It's Prince Wendell's coronation tonight."
"Is that important?"
"Not half it ain't! All the royalty from the Nine Kingdoms is expected. The queen is most particular. Leave that stirring I'll do it. You can change in the servants' pantry." She thrust the clothing into his arms, topping the pile with a pair of shoes that glistened brightly, like black mirrors.
He passed through a door into a small inner chamber, placing the beautiful suit on a chair. He pulled off his outer clothes and began to dress. Whoever had chosen the livery for him had a good eye; the clothing fit him perfectly, even the shiny shoes. He wondered if the queen had done it she'd certainly studied him appraisingly enough to judge his measurements. "Huh," he muttered, "the way she was looking at you, she might have been measuring you for her bed!" That made him smirk until the thought came, unbidden "or for your coffin." Probably best not to consider this line of thinking any further.
The hose was real silk, the fabric of the breeches satin and the coat a fine brocade shot with gold embroidery. As he buttoned up the shirt and arranged the jabot, his eyes closed involuntarily as the fabric brushed against his jaw. It felt wonderfully silky, almost like a woman's caress.
Like her hand stroking his cheek...
Unexpected emotion welled up inside him and he sighed deeply. His eyes flew open. What had he been thinking? What memory had he experienced?
There was a cracked mirror over a washstand, just big enough to see one's face in, and he studied himself for a moment as he slicked back his hair. He had a crease between his brows, and it deepened as he willed himself to recognize the man before him. No matter how hard he stared, how much he concentrated, the man looked completely unfamiliar. "Who are you?" he asked the reflection. The man in the mirror had no answer.
He reached over to grab his old, tattered clothes, and inadvertently caught the ragged coat by its hem. As he lifted it, something fell from the pocket onto the floor with a metallic clink. It was a small gold-framed mirror, and he considered it for a second as he bent to pick it up, wondering why it was in his pocket. The back was filigree, quite beautifully wrought. It must be worth something, he thought. He turned the mirror around.
The mirror caught the light from a window, shining it into his eyes, and for a moment the wolf was surrounded by white. Something like an arrow of light seemed to pass from the window to the mirror, from the mirror to his eyes. For a moment he was blinded by it, then by sparkles and after-images, until he was left staring into the glass, with a rush of sound and light, seeing himself, seeing into his own green eyes
falsely imprisoned trumped-up charge Virginia's suitor her BETROTHED bad so many bad things want to change want to be a GOOD person food substitute for love have the books to prove it ROMANTICALLY RECKLESS DANGER with the fur not against it not what you seem you are a wolf a lonely path in life to be different we'll never find her all my fault IT WAS MY FAULT the moon makes me hungry for EVERYTHING burnt my parents good the good people the nice farmers like the gypsy said A GIRL DEAD A WOLF BURNS remember me all nice please FOREVER have to kill yourself the moment SHE'S GONE your life won't be worth living A WOLF MATES FOR LIFE not your first boyfriend stupid enough to think a girl like her an ANIMAL LIKE ME eight nine twenty four seventy two commmiinng we are both different a NOBLE wolf who saved the Nine Kingdoms VIRGINIA I
Virginia, I could...
I'm a wolf. I know these things.
I KNOW THESE THINGS
"I know," Wolf gasped, his legs buckling.
Gigi stared at herself in the large oval mirror. The gown was beautiful, white with just enough gold crystals to catch the light and make the entire thing shimmer. In her entire life, even as the privileged child of a lord, she'd never had a dress like this. Never even seen the like.
"You look very beautiful, my lady."
Gigi looked down at the chubby little elf who was sewing the last part of the hem. "Thank you."
"You'll make a lovely bride, too. Can't wait to start work on that dress! Ohhh, you're so fortunate, you are, to marry the prince! What a handsome fellow he is, isn't he?"
"Yes, I suppose."
The seamstress clucked at her. "You suppose! Oh, my, that's a funny one!"
"Is it." Gigi wished she felt more excited. Everyone else seemed to be. The entire palace was filled with servants who bobbed and smiled at her, wishing her happiness, fixing, doing, pampering, primping her, readying her for the ball. For her prince.
Their good wishes and excitement were not contagious, at least not to her. Not for a moment did she imagine the queen merely planned to see them married and then retire to the country. What she was planning remained a mystery, as was her statement, You have it, too, though, you don't know it. Both disturbed her greatly.
But as for Wendell... well, that part seemed straightforward enough. Perhaps she could do no better than to marry him. Perhaps she was wrong about him maybe his standoffish manner towards her had been a front to cover, what? Shyness? A deep affection for her? Well, she supposed, stranger things had happened. Perhaps this was what was meant to be. Perhaps this was destiny.
She frowned as the word came into her head. She was sick of hearing about "destiny." It smacked too much of "duty," and she'd sworn she'd never return to do any duty that her father had demanded of her. Yet here she was, getting ready to be betrothed to someone her father had picked. When the man she wanted was so close, yet completely out of reach.
She looked toward the door. Would she ever see Wolf again? Was he going to remain in the palace? The thought of encountering him, daily, in the corridors, was unthinkable. What would she say to him? What would she do?
Or maybe the situation would never arise. Perhaps Wolf would accompany the queen when she left for her own, new lands, or wherever she was headed. He'd certainly seemed devoted enough to the queen. Maybe he'd meant to bring Gigi here all along. It certainly looked that way.
Both lines of thought depressed her. If it was hard to imagine running into Wolf when he didn't care for her at all, it was harder still to imagine never seeing him again.
"There last stitch!" The elf straightened up, grunting, and hung her little silver scissors around her neck. "Don't you look as beautiful as Snow White herself!"
"Thank you." Gigi tried to muster up a smile. "You did a lovely job."
"Oh, now, your Ladyship." The elf blushed. "I'll leave you now. Don't sit down you'll muss the beading!" she ordered. She curtseyed once and left.
Gigi wandered to a window. The window was small and the ground seemed very far away, and she was reminded of another of the Five Women Who Changed History. "If only my hair were longer," she mused, "I could climb down and escape." She looked at her short bob in the mirror. "No chance of that, I guess."
She turned. The discreet cough came from behind the gloved hand of a lord she hadn't seen before, a youngish man with an impeccable if colorful uniform. "Yes?"
"Your ladyship, Lord Rupert de la Tours de Namours, at your service."
"Ahem, His Highness, the most puissant Prince Wendell, requests your presence, if you would be so kind as to accompany me...?"
"Oh." Well, the moment had to come sooner or later. Probably best to get the meeting over with. "Of course, Lord Rupert."
"Allow me to lead the way, my lady." Rupert snapped his fingers and a servant opened the door. As they stepped through he turned to her. "I do hope you like the decorations. I was up all night deciding what color the candles should be. I felt it important that they compliment your coloring. Aha. You have blue eyes. I thought so. Are you a 'spring?'"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'm certain it will be to your liking. I chose as my theme, 'Veiled Radiance.' You'll see. Lots of --Ah, here is His Highness."
Rupert had completed a deep bow and was backing away before Gigi perceived that Wendell was standing in front of them.
And not just Wendell. He was flanked by two people. Her father and the queen.
Lord Anthony, Viscount of the Western Mountains, stood resplendent in a new suit of blue velvet, his thinning reddish hair combed back from his face. Although he was a very tall man, Gigi noted with disgust that he was hunching over so as not to be taller than the prince. Typical. Sad to say, her father was a born toady.
The queen was in black, now, a cloak of heavy velvet that encased her like bats' wings. Her face was impassive, but her eyes were lively, and Gigi wondered what was going on in her head.
And Wendell well, he looked quite handsome, that much was certainly true. He wore a beautifully cut white uniform, crisply pleated pants, a scarlet sash and a chest full of medals. Gigi wondered idly what he had done to merit the medals. Probably they were merely decorative. She suddenly felt guilty at the thought. Give him a chance, Gigi!
"Lady Virginia." Wendell bowed formally, his blond curls bobbing a little as he inclined his head.
"Your Highness." She curtseyed deeply. She looked down, as was the custom, and when her eyes rose, Wendell's hand was before her, offering to help her up. "Thank you, Your Highness."
"-- prefer 'Gigi,' if it please you, Your Highness. She couldn't help it. She didn't feel like a "Virginia"; it was such a terribly formal name. She heard her father make a disapproving sound, but chose to ignore him.
"How charming." Wendell still sounded his old formal self, and she kept her eyes down. Wendell cleared his throat. "Lady Gigi, I am most pleased you have agreed to become my wife. For many years I have felt a strong attraction to you, an attraction that has consumed me with a flame of passion--"
Passion? Wendell sounded like he was reciting a speech he had memorized, and not very well.
No, Gigi thought. This is not right. She took a deep breath. "Please tell me in your own words, Prince Wendell."
There was a rather loud gasp from Lord Anthony and a tsk-tsk from behind her -- Lord Rupert, no doubt. But it was the queen who spoke. "Tell her how you really feel, Wendell."
It sounded like an order, but strangely a change came over Wendell.
"Gigi," he said, in a completely different voice, "I adore you. Marry me. Please. I cannot live without you."
"What?" The word popped out of her mouth before she could stop it. Wendell sounded sincere; more than that, he sounded utterly besotted. Well, this could change things. Maybe she could learn to care for him, at least, if not love him, if he cared this much for her. He had taken her hand, and she turned her face up to show him that she was willing to try, and looked up into his blue eyes --
--and a shiver passed through her.
His eyes were unfocused, empty, and though his mouth was curved into a smile, a broad smile that showed his perfect white teeth, it was clear that he, Wendell, was not really present. Horrified, Gigi looked beyond him, beyond the thing that looked and sounded like the prince, to where her father beamed with delight. To where the queen stood, a look of utter satisfaction on her face.
A look of power.
He didn't know how long he had been there, on his knees before the rough plank table, head hanging limply, one hand still hooked over a chair, the other clutching the mirror. The voice, impatient, annoyed, came from the other side of the door, followed by banging, and it woke him from his stupor.
"Come on, don't take all day!"
Wolf lifted his head, breathing deeply. "Wh-what?" He felt lightheaded.
But not empty-headed. He remembered. He remembered!
"How long does it take you to change your clothes?"
He pulled himself upright. He knew where he was. He knew how he'd gotten there. And he knew why he'd been brought there.
"Get a move on!" The woman was becoming decidedly angry.
He squeezed the mirror once more, tightly, the swamp witches' mirror then put it in his pocket, in the pocket of the embroidered vest that matched the embroidered coat of the livery. The prince's livery... no, really, the queen's. He was the queen's servant, and she'd brought him to the kitchen to serve her. To do her bidding. To kill them. "To kill them all," Wolf whispered.
Well, huff-puff he'd have to see about THAT.
If there still was time.