I was not much comforted by the bounty being preserved in the kitchen and the larder, the fragrant bundles of cloves and garlic, the bowls of dried flower petals, the baskets of berries being turned into more pies and cakes and loaves than Lobo and I could possibly eat. It stopped. Sometimes I would flip through it, in a fabricated idleness, while the merchant was inspecting something else. Autumn was almost over. My teachers were brought from every corner of the kingdom. Lobo was off like a bolt of lightning. When he returns next week, I will accept him into the house and have him send away his team of porters. After the merchant took his first bite, I excused myself from the table, leaving the little book of fairy tales by my place setting. He bought up almost all of the maps, and then the navigation tools and compasses that went with them. Suddenly Lobo seemed very old, and very far away. I sat with my back to the doorway, staring at the brick in the back of the fireplace. We waited, shoulder to shoulder, as intimate as anything we had ever done with our clothes off, barely daring to breathe, waiting. Sections of wrought iron fence were rusted and hanging on damaged hinges. I held the shining token by the cord, confused, bewildered, as the chiming grew louder, and the bright hot light against my face was surely enough to blind me, a tiny sun on the end of a strip of leather. I would set it on my lap while writing notes to be delivered back to Lobo, but I never let the book leave my person. I crept out of the theater before the curtain came down. The driver took his seat and the porters climbed up into the luggage rack and we were off. After all, I was the one putting the coins into her hands. We come and go as we please. He appeared, softly, almost silently, before I could put pen to paper. But look, this is what you do. Although he loves the girl dearly, if his own neck was on the block he might give her up. I had even felt genuine affection for a few of my companions, over the years. Had the girl fallen in love with him? After a month of that, I felt like I could just possibly stand the sight of other living beings again. We are never as helpless or as delicate as we seem.
And then, just as suddenly, very small and young and nervous as he looked back at me, his muzzle pointed down, for all the world like a puppy who had just been discovered rooting through the trash heap for chicken bones. Hairy and well endowed and enthusiastic is not the same as a beloved beast. I picked it up and wrapped it, along with the leather cord, into a little scrap of silk. There were wolves, or bears, or something big and unsavory with sharp teeth lurking inside. He grasped for my hands, smearing blood over my finery. I had even felt genuine affection for a few of my companions, over the years. But for the first time, I genuinely felt afraid of causing offense. Her father is a merchant and seems to spoil her, letting her stay indoors all day. And another thought abruptly occured to me — he had a different name. I had taken more joy out of this world than it had ever intended for me. I think she … that is, maybe … If only I could meet her. He withdrew the ones he wanted and lined them up, one, two, three. I crept out of the theater before the curtain came down. He eyed the book. Had the girl fallen in love with him? For Lobo is no name for a man of refinement and nobility. It stopped. I could pantomime a fairly convincing evening of love. What do you think? I told him bawdy stories from my misspent youth to make him laugh.
I had arrived with nothing but the silly frippery purchased for me by the sheriff the year before, long since torn up and thrown away, an unwanted memory. The merchant and his daughter were a bigger challenge than fixing up the whole of the palace. A cat must lick her wounds, after all. Lobo was off like a bolt of lightning. I shook my head. I had to have a moment to cry. But finally Lobo broke the silence. With the palace fixed up, I had convinced him to take on a cook several nights a week. He glanced at the door, not knowing that I had of course locked it on my way out. My carriage was loaded and a team of horses hitched when the merchant arrived. He was no longer my dear beast, but a man, the man he had been so many years before. Well then. I had taken more joy out of this world than it had ever intended for me. The merchant was already plotting his next move, as expected. Lobo sat stock still, except for the rhythmic lapping of his tongue against the shallow bowl of wine. Now go! I want to remember the face of the beast I love. The merchant fell to his knees and began offering up every sacrifice he could think of before Lobo could even begin the little speech we had rehearsed, about generosity and civility and book stealing two faced merchants and whatnot. The stiffness in his joints, the coughing fits, the sprays of blood afterwards. Were there roses in the garden? After the merchant took his first bite, I excused myself from the table, leaving the little book of fairy tales by my place setting. Women from the countryside loved my shop right away because I had such fine things at such low prices. How would I even know if he was alive or dead?
He picked up the book and slid it into his jacket. But if he gave her up, perhaps he could mount a rescue? I took him back to my chamber for what comfort I could give, and afterwards, I warmed up a broth and fed him while he laid his head in my lap. In a theater mostly full of very bored looking nurses and mothers with their children, a man stood out, in his bold blue coat, sitting with rapt attention focused on the stage as the two children between him and a lovely woman similarly dressed in blue appeared to doze in their seats. One evening, while the merchant was looking over the silverware service for 36, honestly, I cannot fathom the wealthy he asked about the book. I started sending the excess home with the cook, and the rest of the staff that had been hired on to attend to the palace once I was gone. As I went for his plate, he brought his paw down over my hand. I told him bawdy stories from my misspent youth to make him laugh. Perhaps he had been through this before, with some other wayward traveler. Like the grand old madams I had met in my youth, when I needed a mentor, before I struck out on my own, she seemed a relic from a bygone era. He eyed the book. Lead the way. And so I made my way past the broken down old fence and through the decaying garden towards the door, still stout in its frame. And then, they were proud to announce, a brand new fairy tale, a true fairy tale, as reported to their ring leader by a runaway servant around a campfire just outside of Paris! Rooms full of portraits. Lobo flipped through them as lightly as a gambler tossing a deck of cards from one hand to the other.
The ashes were out but clearly fresh. An old curtain would do nicely. My carriage was loaded and a team of horses hitched when the merchant arrived. But his eyes were not monsterous. Lobo was playing his part to the hilt. He appeared, softly, almost silently, before I could put pen to paper. There was blood trickling down the other paw. I stooped to inspect it. It stopped. His hair was a wild mane, his own face terminated in a lupine muzzle. They had been instructed in advance not to speak to me until we reached the coast, hours away. I laid out my plan for him. He gave me a confused head tilt, the unexpected rejection brimming in his eyes. So I did my best to let that particular interest go. If she could have spoken, I was sure her voice would have been full of dust, a Parisian accent, spinning tales of former glory. Most of the demand is for tiny delicate boys who can take a lot of pain. Although he loves the girl dearly, if his own neck was on the block he might give her up. She may enjoy your company, she may let you stroke her soft fur, she may even flatter you by curling up on your feet on cold nights. Like the grand old madams I had met in my youth, when I needed a mentor, before I struck out on my own, she seemed a relic from a bygone era. The round trip, even with fast horses, would take at least two hours. He bought up almost all of the maps, and then the navigation tools and compasses that went with them. And what am I to call you?
Climbing up a garden trellis to spy on a child is quite another. Perhaps he had been through this before, with some other wayward traveler. So he was a monster, a beast. So much of what I do is just patching up holes. The back of my neck broke into a cold sweat despite the chill in the room. No sir. He probably had a list of titles as long as his arm. Once Lobo studied up on the state of the economy, he proved himself to be a competent negotiator, entirely through letters that he left for me on my breakfast tray, that I would then open in the presence of the merchant and his army of hirelings and porters. Sit by the fire. He released his grip on my neck and pulled me into a terrified, desperate embrace. I did not have the heart to turn him away, though perhaps I should have. Lobo was sulking at me, and I was lonely too, but there was so much work to do. Where did you come from? I had taken more joy out of this world than it had ever intended for me. I had arrived with nothing but the silly frippery purchased for me by the sheriff the year before, long since torn up and thrown away, an unwanted memory. Observing clandestinely from the saddle of a horse is one thing. Most of the demand is for tiny delicate boys who can take a lot of pain. I told him bawdy stories from my misspent youth to make him laugh. I could pantomime a fairly convincing evening of love. Works like a charm. He seemed ready to collapse under the weight of the untold years he had spent in his cursed form. I sat with my back to the doorway, staring at the brick in the back of the fireplace.
He gave me a confused head tilt, the unexpected rejection brimming in his eyes. The old man did spoil his only daughter, in that he never exposed her to anything that might make her sad or afraid. Death, I decided, would not be accompanied by great chiming bells and heavenly light and searing heat. But I looked closer, as a favor to the generosity of my host. Some keepsake? Perhaps he could come here, to purchase some stemware you could stand to part with. The driver took his seat and the porters climbed up into the luggage rack and we were off. There was blood trickling down the other paw. The colors were nauseatingly inverted. I crept out of the theater before the curtain came down. We are never as helpless or as delicate as we seem. Shakier than before, rustier, as if in repairing the palace and the grounds we had sped up his decline.
The merchant gulped and staggered to his feet. I squared my shoulders. But then I wrapped it all back up and stuffed it down. Someday, the sherriff said. I shook my head. Wordlessly, he bundled me into my carriage, among my many parcels. I counted backwards from 20 in between great wracking sobs that felt violent enough to crack my ribs. In spite of all that, the girl was a beauty, and clever in spite of her isolation. I tried to put him out of my mind. Sections of wrought iron fence were rusted and hanging on damaged hinges. He walked a second lap, and paused at my place setting. Once sturdy pillars of stone were tumbled into piles, and had clearly been picked over by enterprising locals with strong backs. How could it have been? But she always takes what she needs, in clean water, in fat kitchen mice, in shelter, and you are not her master. In return, I will act as your proxy. The bells, the light, the heat, everything, and I heard a tiny pic-pic-pic on the ground at my feet. My nurse bounced me on her knee in these rooms. How would I even know if he was alive or dead? My leather cord was empty, and on the floor was a thin little fingernail, slightly stained yellow, and ridged, like the fingernails of many men I had seen over the years. The ashes were out but clearly fresh. Now go! I kissed it when I was sad, when I missed him, which was nearly constantly, at first. My shop was doing so well that I left it in the care of my employees and took off for an extended spring visit to Paris, to indulge the senses that were available to me, mostly taste and sight and sound. Toast, yes, health, prosperity, etc. I laid out my plan for him. With the fire started, I cast around for something dry to put on while I wrung out my clothes. I scratched behind his pointed ears and plunged my fingers into his black and silver mane.
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