“Honestly, Aurélie – you didn’t even want that building.”
Saren turned back to the paperwork in front of him and began scribbling notes in the margins. He had been getting a good chunk of his work done before Aurélie stormed in, demanding the paperwork for the abandoned building in town. Saren had tried to dismiss her, but she planted herself across from him and folded her arms.
“I do want that building,” she practically growled. “Odette’s been dead for weeks now. Just give me the papers!”
“We both know Odette isn’t dead,” Saren mumbled. “Besides, that building is crumbling, Aurélie. It would look suspicious to sign it over to you right now – we can’t afford to have people asking questions. Besides, with Odette gone, the kids aren’t learning anything anymore. I couldn’t have planned it any better.”
“I still want the building.”
“For what?” Saren exclaimed. “You’ve got no use for it!”
“What happens when the girl comes back?” Aurélie countered. “And she’s got the money to buy it?”
Saren rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms as he leaned forward. “She’s not coming back.”
“And how do you know that?”
“When Elliott mentioned a beast, he wasn’t making it up.” Saren whispered. He stood up and began to pace the small office, eventually turning to look out the window, hands clasped behind his back. “I used to play in those woods as a little boy, my sister by my side. We were playing hide and seek. I was trying to find a good hiding spot when I came across a castle with huge trees surrounding it. I swung myself up into the highest branches as Serena finished counting. I saw it all.”
Aurélie scoffed. “Enough with the stories, Mr Mayor. Give me the paperwork.”
“No,” Saren whispered.
“No.” He said, more firmly this time. “You want to sink your claws into Elliott Champagne, go do it-”
Aurélie spluttered. “I want no such thing!”
“But you won’t get that building. Now leave.”
“You’re being ridiculous!” Aurélie shouted. “You had no problem selling it to me before!”
“Leave,” Saren whispered.
“Now that it doesn’t fit with your agenda, I don’t get the place? We had a deal!”
“GET OUT!” Saren shouted.
Aurélie shook her head in disbelief as she stormed out of the room. Saren watched her go, a frown etched on his face. As soon as the door slammed shut, he turned to the portrait of his sister. After that game in the woods, she was never the same. He clenched his eyes as the memories swam back – a green light, a man in the window, a shrill scream.
And then nothing.
Odette turned away from the mural she was creating to look at the steps behind her. She knew the door at the top of the courtyard led to other parts of the castle after a night exploration a few days before. It was not an escape route. Besides, Odette wasn’t all that sure she wanted to venture into the woods anytime soon. Today, the door was opened a crack, and Casimir poked his head through.
“May I come in?”
Odette nodded and gestured him forward with the hand not clutching a can of paint. Casimir pushed the door open and trotted down the steps, plate in hand. Odette caught a whiff of mouth-watering breakfast, and immediately set the paint down.
“What’s that?” She asked, eyeing the covered plate.
Casimir made his way over to the small bistro table and began to set out the food. “French toast, and whatever else Cherie added.”
Odette sat down, Casimir taking the seat opposite her.
“You cut your hair,” she said, finally noticing the short, slicked back hair.
“Yes, well,” Casimir trailed off, leaning back into the chair. “A little birdy told me I should cut it.”
Odette gasped and clasped a hand on her mouth. “I said that to you? That’s awful!”
“Never mind it,” he said, waving her off. “It needed to be cut. How are you feeling?” He asked, noting the colour that had returned to her skin.
“Better,” Odette admitted. “I still can’t really recall what happened, though.”
Casimir cleared his throat awkwardly. “Look, I know life here isn’t…ideal.”
“Ideal?” Odette snorted. “I have to call you master. Your servants are terrified of you. No one can leave, or else they’ll be mauled in the woods.”
“Ha ha,” Casimir said sarcastically. “But there are ways to make the best of it, you know.”
“How?” Odette asked skeptically.
“Like,” Casimir peered behind her and his jaw dropped in shock. “You know how to write?”
Odette lowered her gaze to stare at her breakfast. “I do. Not many people in my village know how anymore.”
“If I had known, I’d have shown you the library.”
Odette grew quiet, absentmindedly pushing around the blueberries on her plate.
“Is something wrong?”
Casimir rolled his eyes. “Just tell me. You’re an awful liar.”
Odette exhaled sharply. “Before I came here, I used to teach the kids in my village to read and write in an abandoned building.”
“That’s noble of you.”
“Yeah, until the mayor came and kicked me out so another woman could buy the building. He gave me a week to come up with more money than her offer.”
“And you didn’t?”
“I would have tried, but then I ended up here. It’s pointless now. I’m sure she’s all moved in. Or she’s torn it down completely.”
“Why would she buy it?”
“Because she wants what others have. She’s always been that way, as long as I’ve lived.”
“She sounds like a joy.”
Odette laughed without humor before getting up to pace. The faces of all the children she once taught flashed before her. Peter, snoring soundly in his seat. Jenn, helping all the children as best as she could. And little Beatrice, toddling around with nesting blocks in hand. Now, all of them must be scattered around town, doing menial labor and spending the rest of their day causing mischief.
Odette had paused by the fountain without realizing it. She could see her face reflected in the murky water, distorted and broken just as she felt. A flash of sparkle caught her eye, and she turned to look at her ring. Jackie’s voice bubbled up in her mind.
You are about to embark upon a journey unlike any other, and this will help you.
Odette scoffed and resisted the urge to fling the ring into the water. She had been on a wild adventure, that much was true. But the ring had been nothing more than a gaudy piece of jewelry along for the ride.
“Just go, Your Highness” Odette whispered.
Casimir didn’t bother arguing. He made his way back up the stairs but paused to look over at her one more time.
“Please just go!” Odette cried as she met his gaze.
She wiped her wet cheeks with the back of her hand. “What?”
“Call me Casimir.”
And with that, he left her in almost-peace.
When Odette finally made her way back to her room, a note from Casimir was perched on her chair along with a book.
Here is one of my favourite books. The library is just to the left of your chambers. I hope you find something to enjoy.
Odette practically ran out of the room and to the library. She gasped in delight at the view – two stories of books, piled from floor to ceiling in sleek wood bookcases. Plush chairs and couches were scattered all around, and a fireplace roared in the corner. It was almost enough to take her mind off of the morning she had.
Odette ran her hands along the spines of the books as she descended the staircase. It seemed to be never ending. She could lose herself for years in this place and still never get through half of the books on the first floor. Eventually, Odette sat down and opened the book Casimir had given her.
Hours passed as Odette lost herself in the book. It was a fantasy novel packed with adventure, sword fighting, magic spells and just a hint of romance.
“I was wondering where you’d gone off to!”
Odette looked up to find Jacqueline staring down at her.
“This place is amazing!” Odette said happily. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?”
“I didn’t know you could read,” Jacqueline admitted.
Odette leaned forward and clutched the book to her chest. “Don’t you?”
Jacqueline averted her eyes and shuffled her feet as she fidgeted with her skirt. “No. I never learned.”
Odette jumped up and ran over to the bookshelf to pick out a thin, beginners book.
“Well, there’s no time like the present!” She squealed. “Have a seat!”
“Oh, no. I’m not supposed-”
“Hush,” Odette said, ringing her small butler bell. “We’ll get some tea and food while we work. It’s been so long since I’ve taught anyone!”
When Maude came into the room, she was shocked to find Odette and her daughter huddled together over a book. Still, she took it in stride and kissed both their foreheads before scampering off with the promise of sustenance to aid their lessons.
“Yes!” Odette smiled, clapping happily. “Keep going!”
For the rest of the night, Odette and Jacqueline worked side by side looking at books, printing words, and learning as much as possible. Jacqueline finally let down her barriers about being Odette’s maid and became her friend.
“What’s going on in here?”
The girls looked up to find Casimir leaning against the door frame, drink in hand.
“Master!” Jacqueline spluttered, standing up so quickly that the book on her lap fell to the ground. “I’m so sorry, I-”
Casimir held a hand out to stop her before he smiled. “Your mother came running to me a few hours ago, practically crying as she told me about what you’re doing. I came to see how you were making out.”
“She’s doing very well,” Odette said. “I’m proud.”
“As you should be,” Casimir said, walking to sit next to them.
Jacqueline placed the book down carefully and bowed before slipping out of the room.
“Sorry,” Casimir apologized. “I didn’t mean to stop your lesson.”
Odette shrugged. “We were just about to call it a night anyways.”
“I should get to bed,” Odette said quickly. “Or else it wouldn’t be fair on Jacqueline.”
Once the door clicked shut, Casimir sighed. “Goodnight.”