Shay Sheridan - Reality
Wolf frantically rummaged through the contents of the pantry shelves, all the while casting worried glances over his shoulder. Time was running out — if things followed the path he expected, the queen could arrive at any moment to test the poisonous brew meant to give her guests a headache for eternity. He'd already ditched the real poisons — now all he needed to do was locate the substance that would knock everyone out convincingly... but only temporarily.
Living through this particular situation for the second time was strangely just as anxiety-provoking as the first time. At least this time around Wolf knew which of the loathsome ingredients in the punch were poisonous, and which were meant to mask the taste of the poisons. Even the slug-worm waiting to be wrestled into the brew was a legitimate flavor additive. He shivered. There were some miiiiiiighty strange cooks out there, dreaming up recipes disgusting enough to make a grown wolf shudder. "If I were chef here, I'd serve nothing but lamb!" he muttered, flinging bottles and jars aside. "Okay, and pork, and chicken, and maybe some of that steak tartare I saw on the menu at the Grill on the Park --"
Well, if he ever wanted to get back to the Grill, with his tastyyummysucculent Virginia in tow, he'd better get about the substitution — ah! There it was. He grabbed the canister of troll dust and slid over to the huge cauldron, liberally dosing the bubbling brew with it. Just a soupcon more —
Footsteps! Quickly he thrust the canister under a mound of dirty cloths and picked up the giant stirring spoon. Just in time. The queen stepped through the doorway, her eyes seeking out her new and loyal servant. "My wolf," she murmured, simpering.
He smiled and touched his brow in a salute. "All present and correct."
"Can't you see what's happening?"
"Lower your voice, Virginia. Ladies do not scream."
"Father! There's something wrong with him, he's possessed or something -- she did something to him!"
"Don't be ridiculous." Lord Anthony frowned at his wayward daughter and peeked out of the chamber doorway. Good; no one of merit was in the corridor. Even that nosy Lord Rupert seemed to have disappeared. "Just keep your voice down, girl, or they'll think we're savages."
"Savages?!!" Gigi's voice was filled with sarcasm. "They're worse than that, father. Don't you see what's going on here?"
"No, I do not, unless you mean my only child making a spectacle of herself and ruining her chances of becoming a queen!" He shut the door and turned, scowling. "Are you trying to ruin my life as well? Haven't you damaged your reputation enough, running off with those gypsy vermin? Good gracious, Virginia! Do you hate me that much?"
Gigi tried to calm herself down, but only succeeded in drawing her voice down into a harsh whisper. "You! It's always about you, isn't it, Father? Always trying to get over on your betters. Can't you see, for once, that they aren't our betters? They're all a bunch of pretentious fops and fools --"
"Hush! That's treason! The queen will hear you!"
"It's the truth! She's worse than all of them. She's evil, Father! Don't you remember what she's done? They sent her to prison because --"
"Lies! All lies!" Lord Anthony dismissed her words with a flip of his hand, and Gigi stared at him incredulously. Had her father lost all contact with reality? "Those rumors were exaggerated, Virginia. I know you are far too young to understand, but politics determine how people are vilified when they are no longer able to defend themselves. Anyway, she and Wendell seem to have made peace with each other, whatever happened in the past."
"You mean like her murdering his parents?"
"Quiet!" Anthony grabbed his daughter by the shoulders, shaking her a little. Gigi gave a little gasp, and the violence of his actions seemed to shock her father into regaining control of himself. He let go of her; almost as an afterthought he patted her hand. When he spoke again, there was a wheedling sound in his tone that made Gigi want to scream. "My dear, try to understand. The queen has taken an interest in you... and in me." A sly smile spread across his face. "She really is a wonderful woman. Very accomplished. Astonishing resemblance to your mother, don't you think?" The smile became giddy, and Gigi stared at her father, realizing that the fatuous fool before her was as enchanted as Wendell.
But not with magic. Her father's delusions were self-inflicted.
"I don't remember Mother all that well, Father," she said, as calmly as possible, "but I doubt she went around murdering people."
"That's enough. I won't hear another word from you." Gigi's father turned to stalk towards the door.
"What did she promise you?"
"None of your business. Now get ready --the ball begins shortly."
"Do you really think the queen would be interested in you?" She flung the words at him like knives, hoping to strike her target. To make him hear her. "Does she know that the Viscount of the Western Mountains began life as a digger of cesspools?"
His long legs spanned the space between them in two strides and the slap to Gigi's stunned face echoed in the sparsely-furnished chamber. "How dare you talk to me like that! How dare you."
Gigi felt the intense sting of her cheek but could not move. Tears came to her eyes, though not from the blow. Is this the only way we can reach each other? Pain for pain? "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Father." She held out her arms, reaching to hug him.
He stepped back. "Get ready," Lord Anthony said as he left the room.
The door closed. Gigi crumpled onto a settee and began to sob.
Coaches. Dignitaries. Royalty. Gifts. Pomp and circumstance. The castle was ablaze and abuzz with activity.
In the ballroom, Lord Rupert bustled about, verging on hysteria, tweaking the details, driving the servants to muttering loudly under their breaths as they moved, removed, altered, shifted and replaced at his command. "Something's missing!" he fussed. "Not enough 'flash!' Not enough glimmer! Not enough sparkle!" He began to pace. Not enough time! At this late hour, where would he find such an intangible thing? "Ruined, ruined!" he moaned. "The Ball will be a disaster!"
"Er, sir?" Rupert turned to find a tiny servant at his elbow. "If you want more sparkle and flash, I don't suppose you'd want to add some mirrors --"
"Mirrors!" Rupert glowered at the man. "Oh, tush. Don't be ridiculous! Mirrors are so..." His eyes narrowed, sight drifting inward as the picture began to form in his mind — light! Glorious, sparkling, glimmering — "Genius!" Rupert cried. "I am a genius! You --I have an idea. Get me some mirrors!"
The small servant rolled his eyes. Nobility! Sheesh! "Yes, m'lord. I know just where to find 'em."
On a balcony above the dance floor, the royal musicians tuned, shined and re-tuned their instruments, mopped sweat off their foreheads and tugged at their coattails. Standing for five or six hours would be difficult enough --why, oh, why had they been made to wear these dreadful costumes? "I wish I were back playing for tips at the 'Piece o' Crumpet Pub,'" sighed the cornet player, running a finger under his stiff collar. "Ain't there some rule about this in the union handbook?" The viola de gamba player shrugged. "Sure; what do YOU care?" grumbled the cornet player. "You get to sit down!"
In her upstairs chambers, the queen raised one arched eyebrow and regarded herself in her mirror of truth. Perfection. But she wouldn't ask the Question. Not yet. Not until she was sure the answer would be, again, You are, milady. You are the fairest of them all. She passed her hand over her upswept hair and reached for the final ornament. A comb, enameled and bejeweled. A gift from her mentor, the last she would ever receive from her, since the Swamp Witch was now a pile of dust, thanks to that wolf in the kitchens. "Such a lovely comb," the queen murmured in a velvety contralto. "And so useful in a pinch!" She swept out of the chamber, oblivious to the servants, who bowed deeply as she passed.
Not far away, in a royal bedroom behind thick walls, guarded by three trolls, the future King Wendell sat in a velvet-covered chair, staring at a portrait of his grandmother. It seemed to him that there was something that he had to do, something he wanted to say, something he wanted to YELL--!
Sweat drops appeared on his forehead. He felt on the verge of knowing. Snow White stared back at him, as if willing him to act. He could almost hear her voice, urging him to do something--
His eyes opened wide. Yes, yes, he would resist. His knees began to straighten and he started to rise. He would go downstairs and tell everyone what was going on, that he'd been duped into--
You will do as I command.
Wendell sat back down. This voice was stronger, much stronger, and he could feel his will seeping away. Gigi. Think of Gigi, Wendell. You want her. She will be your reward. She will be your queen.
"I want her," he said in a flat tone. "Gigi will be my reward. Gigi will be my queen."
How much time was left?
Three floors below, Wolf finished pouring the punch into a silver bowl and covered it with a cloth. He felt confident that no one would touch it; after all, the queen had given express orders that no one but he come near it. The body of the cook had long since been dragged away into the pantry. The man would awaken shortly with a tremendous headache and a belief that he had been raised from the dead. But the queen would be none the wiser.
Wolf climbed up on a table and peered through a high window that overlooked the drawbridge. The carriages containing guests were still arriving. Perhaps there was still time to find Gigi, talk to her, try to explain what was going to happen.
He took the servants' stairs, skirted the main hallway and made his way up to the royal quarters. He passed a broom closet and bit his lip. No more mistakes this time.
There was a noise down the corridor and he pressed himself into a corner. A cadre of liveried servants were coming towards him, grunting under their burdens. Wolf backed into the broom closet, careful not to dislodge anything. He peered through a crack in the door and his mouth dropped open.
The servants were carrying the huge mirrors that belonged to the queen, huffing and puffing with their weight. Where on earth were they going? The procession passed and Wolf slipped out of his hiding place and shadowed them.
The liveried army bore the mirrors to the balcony overlooking the ballroom. Lord Rupert was there to greet them, to move and guide them until the mirrors were placed JUST SO. What were they up to?
Wolf watched, fascinated, yet also horrified. It seemed, incredibly, that Rupert was using the mirrors as decorations, placing them to reflect light into the already brilliantly lit ballroom. Wolf rolled his eyes and whimpered in frustration. Huff-PUFF! Didn't Rupert know what dangerous objects he was playing with? Was the man an idiot?
Well... yes, he IS, Wolf reminded himself. Nevertheless I should warn the idiot, get those blasted mirrors covered or out of the way, or --
No time, no time. Find Gigi. Wolf ducked back into the hallway, following his nose. He peered around a corner, smelling trolls, and was rewarded by the sight of the three who had manhandled him in the queen's chamber. The trolls lounged against a door in various stages of inattention. One picked lice from her hair. One picked his misshapen teeth. Another picked his nose. Wolf's lip curled, but he passed on, his nose telling him Gigi was not behind the door they were guarding.
The castle was built along standard lines, a rectangle with corner turrets, and in one angle of the rectangle he caught a whiff of the delicate scent he'd been seeking. The trail took him to a narrow circular staircase that disappeared upwards. Gigi was in the Tower.
The upstairs hallway was smaller than the one below, the ceilings lower. There was only one door, and no guards. The scent was very strong. Wolf reached for the doorknob and found it locked--that's why there were no guards. He tapped and whispered loudly through the door. "Gigi?"
Wolf grinned. That's Gigi, all right! "Gigi, it's Wolf."
There was a long pause before her voice came again. "Go away!!"
Wolf's grin faded. "Gigi?"
"I don't want to see you. Leave me alone!"
"Don't be ridiculous. Hang on." Wolf looked at the locks--a crude bolt and a keyhole. Piece of cake. Sometimes a shady past came in handy. Wolf reached in his pocket and pulled out a fish fork, corkscrew and nut pick he'd grabbed from the kitchen. It took only a few minutes and little enough effort to fiddle with the keyhole until he felt the tumblers click. He shot back the bolt and opened the door.
Gigi stood before him in her shimmering white gown, her arms folded. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes glittered angrily. Wolf goggled at her. Angry or not, she was one spectacular sight. "Wow. You look... incredible," he blurted, his tongue starting to loll out of his mouth.
She raised her head and looked at him with disgust. "And now I suppose you've come to ravish me before you lock me up again and go back to your lady friend."
"No, I--what?" Wolf frowned. "What in the Nine Kingdoms are you talking about?"
"Right! Pretend you didn't arrange for me to be kidnapped!"
"I didn't!" Wolf whined, "How can you think that? I've come to tell you--"
"That you've been working for my father the whole time?"
Cripes, she was impossible! "Gigi. Please listen to me! I'm working downstairs --"
"For the queen?! I saw you with her. You're a liar, and you always have been, so I have nothing to say to you!" She turned and flounced away across the small tower room, her beaded gown glimmering in the candlelight.
Wolf stood silent for a moment, overcome by her sight, by how much she looked like Virginia. But there was no time to wallow. "Gigi," he began, holding his frustration in check, his voice placating, "there isn't much time. Please, just listen to me."
She had pressed herself against the far wall, her face in shadow. "Why should I?"
"Because a lot of people may die if you don't. You could die. I couldn't stand that."
That seemed to do the trick. Gigi remained silent, and Wolf went on, quickly, before she changed her mind. "I know you believe the worst of me, because of how I behaved in Kissing Town, and I know I can never make that up to you, but you must trust me when I tell you I am trying to stop the queen from taking power here. In a very short while a lot of dangerous things are going to happen, and I need you to trust me and do as I say, so that you and Wendell and the other people don't get hurt."
"She wants me to marry him."
It took Wolf a moment to follow her thought. "The queen? Wendell? Why would she want you to marry him?"
Gigi stepped away from the wall. Wolf could see she'd been crying. "She says she and Wendell made some sort of deal. She says he wants to marry me. But she's enchanted him, or convinced him or something. He's not himself."
"Yeah? Well, maybe that's an improvement," Wolf muttered, starting to pace. Why would the queen say that? What can she gain by saying that? Nothing... unless she's playing for time in some way... It was all very confusing. A different thought struck him. "Um...you don't want to marry Wendell, do you?"
"Of course not."
Good, good. He wasn't sure why, but he felt relieved. Then he felt guilty. Don't start all that stuff about Gigi again, Wolf. Remember Virginia! He shook his head, trying to get his focus back on the subject at hand. "I would take anything the queen says with a whole mountain of salt, Gigi."
"I do. But no one will believe me..." she moved closer and searched his face. "Except you."
"That's because I am extremely clever," Wolf quipped, smiling at her. Gigi returned the smile half-heartedly. "Don't worry. I have a plan."
"Yes, but will it work?" Gigi sounded doubtful.
"Well," Wolf replied, "it did the first time." Gigi looked confused. "Forget it. Just remember not to drink the punch. Or slap the queen."
"Slap the --?"
"And above all," Wolf said, taking her by the shoulders, his face serious, "stay away from any comb she might be wearing. It's poisoned. Be ready for anything. The key to it is to get her off-balance, so she believes she's won."
"And what happens then?"
"Er, that's the part of the plan I haven't figured out yet."
"Oh, great." She looked at him with a dubious expression.
There was a noise of fanfares from the courtyard below. Wolf turned towards the sound. "It'll be starting soon. I have to go."
"But -- " Gigi grabbed at his sleeve, "don't you want me to come with you?"
"No, no, not yet. Stay here and pretend to do what they want. I'll see you in the ballroom. All right?"
"All right. Wolf --?"
He took a step towards the door and stopped. "Yes?"
"I couldn't bear it when I thought you were lying to me."
"Oh. Well, I'm glad I wasn't." He hesitated. There was something he'd been thinking about for some time, something he needed to say to her. He'd better say it now, while he had the chance, before things got crazy.
Gigi seemed to notice his hesitation. "What --what is it?"
"What about it, Wolf?" She was watching him intently and Wolf struggled to meet her eyes.
"Well, um, I just wanted to say that, you know, if, if what we did there means that, that there's a --if you find out you're gonna have a little cub, well --"
"I just want you to know that even though I am not your mate, and even if I don't know exactly how I will do it, I will see to it that he gets whatever he needs--"
"--and that you never feel that--"
He blinked at her. "Yes?"
"There's no cub."
"Are you sure?" He took a deep sniff in Gigi's direction, and she smacked him in the chest and jumped back.
"Stop it, Wolf!"
"Just want to check. I wasn't sure--"
"Well, quit it. I'm sure." She regarded him squarely and took a deep breath of her own. "I've been thinking about Kissing Town, too, and I remembered. Believe me, there isn't, there couldn't, because we didn't."
Wolf's mouth dropped open. "We didn't? But, but, I thought..."
Gigi smiled at him sideways and blushed rosily. "Well, we did do some things... some rather naughty, rather... pleasant things..."
"But, Wolf, when it came right down to it, we didn't do -- IT. You couldn't. I... think you were too drunk."
Wolf looked aghast, and Gigi couldn't help it; she giggled, then covered her mouth, unsuccessfully trying to hide her amusement at his obvious chagrin. "Sorry, Wolf. But that's what happened."
"Oh." He looked utterly crestfallen. "And I call myself a wolf."
"Cheer up," Gigi went on, patting him on the chest. "If it makes you feel any better, I still think you were wonderful."
"And you could still consider it cheating..."
"Yeah, okay, thanks a lot." Wolf sighed. "I'd better go before you cut off my tail, too."
His further thoughts were drowned in the sound of herald trumpets. The ball was about to begin. No time, no time left at all. "I have to go. Remember what I said."
"Good luck." Impulsively Gigi grabbed him and kissed him on the cheek.
Wolf smiled ruefully as he closed the door, then bolted down the steps.