“If he could not have the taste of his mate on his tongue, fresh blood would suffice.”
“I say!” Colonel Chambers shouted, rearing back as he spotted the creature lurking in the shadowy recess of the library. His cane thumped against the floor as he took a defensive stance. “Miss Marechal, are you well?”
“Oh, that’s just Tristan. He’s quite harmless as he is stuffed.” Solenne turned her attention from the window and faced her visitor.
Chambers approached the stuffed monster, radiating curiosity. “Stuffed. Godwin mentioned this curiosity once but I did not believe him. Fastincating.”
“Grandfather hunted him and had him stuffed.” Gutted and stuffed with a concoction of chemicals and sawdust, the transformed wolf stood on his hind legs. Tucked into a corner to prevent further degradation from sunlight, he lurked, mostly ignored. Tristan needed a good dusting but Solenne hated the thing.
The creature had a remarkably human face. Perhaps it was familiarity on Solenne’s part that saw the human still trapped inside the beast, because so many natural features had been twisted by the curse.
Tristan’s nose and mouth pulled forward into a short snout. Deformed lips had been curled back into a snarl. Age yellowed the teeth but Solenne knew they were still razor sharp. Faded violet tinged fur covered his face in a shaggy beard but the rest of his body was covered in a short pelt.
The eyes, though, remained fully human. Painted glass, they sparkled in the light when cleaned, watching. Sometimes it felt as if he understood his fate, hunted, stuffed and kept as a curiosity. Dusty as those eyes were now, they stared out blindly from under a grey film. It seemed kinder, somehow.
The fierceness of Tristan’s visage was ruined by a silk coat, cut in the fashion of fifty years previous, trousers, and a rather limp and gray cravat around his throat.
“The taxidermist was remarkably skilled. Was he called Tristan in life?” Chambers rubbed the snout, fingers coming away with a layer of dust.
“He was Grandfather’s dearest friend, Tristan Wodehouse.” Saying the words made her feel ill. The curse forced her grandfather to end the life of his friend. It was the hard truth of their lives, but he chose to humiliate the corpse of his friend, stuffed and put on display in a costume and a cravat.
“Wodehouse? I say.” He peered closer, as if searching for a familial resemblance. “Wodehouse always hinted that something hinky happened with the line of succession.” He stood abruptly. “Shame.”
“He should have been buried in his family plot,” she said, surprised by the vehemence in her voice. Luis knew her feelings regarding Tristan but few others did.
“I suppose it is educational.”
She huffed, not bothering to hide her feelings behind a mask of politeness. “It is a farce. Tristan was a person, once. Whatever misfortune happened to him, he was meant to be a friend and he deserves respect, even in death. Especially in death.” She couldn’t express how much it disturbed her. Slaying cursed beasts was a responsibility, a duty not done lightly. This was cruel.
Godwin had stories that his father used to haul Tristan down to the dining room for meals. He was used as a prop for japes and tricks. It was tasteless behavior but what should she expect from the same man who squandered away the family fortune?
“You feel strongly, Miss Marechal. Is it compassion for the beast you feel?” Chambers watched her with interest, the light through the windows giving his eyes a hard sheen.
“I loathe it, Colonel Chambers. It is a cruelty made for the amusement of a selfish man.” She took a breath to calm herself. “Father refuses to have it destroyed. He claims it is of historical note.” Her eyes drifted to a gap on a bookshelf, evidence of what her father did not have qualms about burning.
Chambers approached the stuffed beast again, as if to examine it again with this new information. From the coat’s breast pocket, he removed a pair of spectacles and slipped them on. “I agree. Whatever the intentions behind its creation, the average man seldom has a chance to meet such a creature face to face. It is unnerving, like one of those carnival mirrors.”
About to ask him what he saw when he looked at the beast’s face, a loud shout from the window snagged her attention. It was a most intriguing sight in the courtyard.
“Hmm, they are rather loud,” Colonel Chambers commented, as he joined Solenne at the window. He stood close, the sleeve of his coat brushing against her. “No wonder I cannot hold your attention, Miss Marechal.”
She blushed, caught observing Luis spar with Alek. It was rather vulgar to be staring at their sweaty forms, but it was equally rude of Chambers to call out her behavior.
“The full moon is in two days. They must be ready.” She closed the window, despite the heat of the room, and turned her back to the view in the courtyard below.
“Yes.” A strange look crossed his face. He removed his spectacles, gently folded them, and slipped them into his coat pocket.
“My apologies. Would you care for tea?” Solenne reached for the bell but Chamber cut her off.
“Thank you, but no. I understand you enjoy a good book, so I came to deliver a novel that recently arrived. I thought you might enjoy it.” Chambers pulled a blue cloth-bound volume from his pocket.
“Is that the Seventh Evil?” she asked, interest piqued. “They say the mystery is quite riveting and it is impossible to solve until the end.”
“Indeed. It is rather scandalous. Do not inform your father that I am in the habit of supplying respectable young women with less than edifying reading material.” His smile was sharp, too angular, as if he had too many teeth for his face. In the distance, Tristan lurked just over his shoulder.
Solenne gladly accepted the book, cracking the spine and running an appreciative hand down the creamy smooth pages. “This is a true delight, Colonel Chambers.” She had every book in the family’s library two or three times, more if the book was a favorite. She had read Confinement of Twilight to tatters. Fortunately, when the book finally disintegrated, she had the entire book memorized.
“Your library is most impressive, however. I fear my humble contribution rather brings down the tone,” he said, scanning the walls of books next to her.
A genuine smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. The Marechal library had older books, including several diaries from early colonists. Not original. Goodness, no. Books that precious belonged in the national library in Founding, not gathering dust in a country house on the edges of civilization. They did have diaries dating back that far written by long-ago ancestors and a rather unique volume on herbs and flowers that the colonists must have brought from the old world because Solenne had never seen such a thing as a daffodil. The illustration made it seem like a wonderous thing, like a little drop of sunshine. Those priceless books were kept on a shelf well away from sunlight.
Selling the library or even part of the collection could fix the family’s finances but the thought of emptying her wonderful library filled her with dread. Soon, she might not have a choice.
“Fresh stories are a challenge to find,” she said, turning her attention back to Chambers.
“Then I am delighted to be of service.” He smiled again. Perhaps it was the morning light or her happy glow at the unexpected gift, but the smile transformed his rather dull face into something pleasant. The light picked out the silver at his temples, giving him a distinguished air.
A shout from the courtyard snagged her attention. Luis rubbed a shoulder but appeared unharmed. Alek lowered his weapon. Somehow, he lost his linen shirt but wore an undershirt. Sodden with sweat, it clung to him. Old scars ran up and down his bare arms. He wore a silver necklace around his neck. The ornamentation was barely noticeable except for the irritated red skin, almost like an allergic reaction.
Chambers cleared his throat.
She closed the window, shutting out the sounds of Luis and Alek’s sparring.
Solenne knew it was unfair to compare Colonel Chambers to Alek, as the man was good ten years older and injured. He might not be a prize specimen of athletic prowess, but he was considerate, and he brought her books; that counted for a great deal in her estimation of him.
In the days since her conversation with Alek in her workshop, he avoided her, going so far as to leave a room when she entered. If he wished to avoid her, she did not wish to cause him undue stress. Alek was there for Luis, really, not for her. No matter what her traitorous heart wanted to believe. She could continue to stare out the window and sigh or pay attention to a respectable man who, for reasons she hardly understood, seemed to hold her in some regard.
She turned her back to the window and smiled. “This is a very generous gift.”
“I shan’t take up any more of your morning. Please, enjoy the book. Tell me what you think,” Chambers said with a brief nod.
“Thank you. I shall. Colonel?”
He paused. “Yes?”
“Forgive me for being bold, but can I count on a dance with you at the ball?”
That smile again, sharp and with too many teeth. “I anticipate the event with great relish.”
He could feel Solenne’s eyes on him. She was as subtle now as she had been when they were clumsy adolescents. Physically, she had changed dramatically from the gangly girl he remembered. She finally grew into her feet and stood nearly as tall as him. She had strength in her, and not just in her body. Her eyes shone with an inner light as transfixing as the moon’s cold glow. She had always been pretty with dark hair and velvety dark eyes, but necessity had refined her down to her truest self. She was a jewel under pressure and she shone.
Luis’s blade smacked him on his shoulder. He hissed in pain, dodging out of the way of a second blow. The bite, the one that cursed him, fluctuated as the full moon approached. The flesh grew tender and red. Add the constant ting from the silver chain around his neck, and Alek was in a brittle mood.
“Pay attention,” Godwin barked from the side.
The window above closed. He relaxed. Days from the full moon, his beast wanted nothing more than to rub itself against Solenne. Well, the beast wanted more, but he tried his best to remain a gentleman.
Solenne was from a noble family. She was much too good for a cursed man such as himself. As much as Godwin embraced Alek and welcomed him back into his home, calling him old friend and son, he knew that to be a flimsy thing. If he approached Godwin about his intentions toward Solenne, he’d be tossed out on his ear.
Time had not lessened the sting.
Blades clashed. Alek pressed Luis, driving him back. The younger man had superior skills and what training he lacked could only be gained from experience. Alek knew that was his responsibility, to hunt the beast and give Luis enough time to learn how to defend his territory on his own.
Luis fought brashly, rushing and using all his energy. He’d never last in a fight and hunting under a full moon often took all night. All Alek had to do to win the bout was endure, and he had years of practice. He endured burning pain every month. He endured the call of the beast, craving the hunt that ended in sweet, fresh blood.
He endured the way the beast whined for its mate.
Anger fueled his movements, growing erratic. Luis stumbled but quickly recovered. Alek did not allow the younger man to regain his footing because there were no niceties on the hunt. There was only opportunity and prey.
Alek knocked the blade from Luis’s sloppy grip. He looked stunned, glancing at the blade far behind and back at Alek.
He rushed and the youth raised his arms to defend himself. The flat of the blade landed in harsh blows along Luis’s side and back. Every blow amplified his frustration. The Marechals needed him—begged for his assistance—yet Godwin warned him off his daughter. Solenne needed to make a good match. She could not marry a penniless hunter. More than that, he knew he shouldn’t want her. He was cursed. If any of them learned his secret, they would slit his throat, probably with an ornate silver blade passed down through the generations.
“Enough,” Godwin shouted.
Alek did not stop, instead tossing the sword. The man’s voice infuriated him. The silver chain around his neck stung. His bite burned. Who was Godwin to tell him to stop? Only a partly blinded old man. He would not stop.
He slipped behind Luis, wrapping an arm around his neck and dropping the youth to the ground. A silver blade pressed against the tanned skin of his throat. Up close, Alek saw the faint stubble of several day’s growth.
A faint line of red appeared where the edge sank into skin. His very being trembled with the desire to lick the wound clean, to let the flavor of blood blossom on his skin. If he could not have the taste of his mate on his tongue, fresh blood would suffice. It would satisfy him for a time.
“I yield,” Luis said.
Alek blinked, coming back to himself. He eased his grip on the dagger and stepped back.
“Was it wrong to…should I have run?” Luis rubbed his throat, smearing the thin amount of red until it disappeared.
“No. Never run. A beast will chase and they will not have restraint. Instinct will demand a kill,” Alek croaked. “It is better to find a hole to defend yourself than to run.”
He ran his thumb along the edge of the silver dagger, the pure metal burning.
If he ever forgot why he needed to distance himself from Solenne, that was reason enough.
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
Thoughts? Opinions? Why can’t Alek just admit that he wants what he wants? Why be such a martyr about it?