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The castle

Finally it grew so dark that I was forced to cease reading the poetry book. I glanced ruefully at the darkened landscape, which was cloaked in a dusky haze through which a few stars winked. The moon, which I knew to be full, was swathed in clouds and offered no light to my passenger car.

I returned the book to Hildegarde's reticule and leaned back into the seat, taking a breath to still my increasingly erratic nerves.

-

The post-chaise clabbered along the shining rocks of the road at breakneck speed. Hildegarde was awake but unperturbed, while I was sickened. In my efforts to fight down sickness I remained motionless as possible staring at my fawn-colored gloved hands.

"We should arrive at the castle by early dawn," Hildegarde told me. "No one will be awake to greet us. I will show you a room, and then we will sleep all day, and in the afternoon, perhaps, we will feel suitable to meet with my father about your work."

I nodded, unable to trust myself to make a sound.

"My family members keep a similarly nocturnal routine, typically awakening in the afternoon and going abed in the early morning hours."

It was not what I knew to be typical of the Germans, but I knew nothing of aristocrats. I knew they attended parties late into the evening. My mind could not follow her words closely as I fought my nausea.

We hit a stone and I was thrown against the side of the carriage. I was knocked nearly senseless by the impact and lay dumb for a moment. Hildegarde moved next to me hastily and pulled me toward her, rested one cool, slim hand against my face.

The throbbing pain distracted me from my nausea, and I dared to speak. "I am all right," I said. "I am conscious."

"I'm sorry, Gisele," she intoned softly. "The journey to and from the castle is a rough one, but you will not need to make it again for a long time to come."

The breathy satisfaction in her words resonated in my mind as she lifted a lace-edged handkerchief to my nose, doused in smelling salts, and I inhaled, feeling, as I had before, trapped and ill at ease in the illogical portion of my mind that refused to congratulate me on my good fortune, my escape from prison, poverty or worse.

-

Amidst the violet light of early dawn we crept into the great stone structure. Battered by fatigue, light concussion and lingering nausea, I was only dimly aware of the magnificence of my surroundings. By the light of the swathed moon iron gates and great stone arches loomed over me.

Hildegarde led me through cold, dark passageways to a corridor of rooms unenlivened by light or warmth. Though I was well-accustomed to living and sleeping in cold darkness without benefit of even an adequate covering over my body, I shivered briefly as Hildegarde led me into a dusty room whose furnishings were concealed beneath white linens.

"I must go," she said in hushed tones, though I sensed no one inhabited the rooms around me. "We will better investigate your chamber in the morning. For now, the bed should be suitable. Beat it well, in case .. " She chose to leave the sentence unsaid.

When she was gone, I felt encompassed in lurking gloom. I didn't know how my senses could be so alert after a sickening and sleepless night of rough traveling, but since I had passed into the cold corridor a deep sense of unease had grown within me.

After a look at the bed, I elected not merely to beat my mattress and pillow, but actually to strip the sheets. My room looked as though it had not been inhabited for decades.

The growing dawn light was welcome to my erratic nerves, and I pulled open the draperies to afford as much light as I could to my fearsome bed. I stripped the sheets and investigated the mattresses but found no holes in them where rats might live, nor evidence of a spider's territory. I was not relieved however; I could not attribute a cause to my fears.

I changed from my traveling clothes into a fine chemise Hildegarde had selected, and I unpinned my hair, which fell neatly down my shoulder like a waterfall, and had a surprising shine to it. She had taught me to give it a hundred strokes a night with a boar's bristle brush she had additionally procured for me, and two nights of this treatment had transformed the dull strands into soft, curling chestnut locks that glowed red near the firelight.

Rather on impulse I lifted the dust covers from the furnishings to look at them in the morning sun. To my surprise the furniture all matched. This was a boudoir, not a storage space for mismatched junk as I had assumed. I was a little shocked by the details of the furnishings, which placed them as Renaissance-era. I knew the castle must hold treasures, but I had not expected this. The walls, too, were adorned with medieval tapestries too faded and tattered to be reproductions, as had been commonly produced in the past decades.

I looked around myself, enchanted with my room's beauty. It seemed the stuff of fairy tales. Could I, Gisele, this motherless street child who had toiled for ages in a dark trade, be inhabiting a room suitable for Beauty herself?

My heart softened as I became gripped with poetic fantasies. My fears ebbed as I climbed into the middle of the great bed and looked out of the arched window upon the tangled courtyard below.

Sleep amidst this? Finally my mind accustomed itself enough to my surroundings, and my guard relaxed. I lay my head upon a pillow yellowed and musty, and as lumpy as if it had been stuffed with dust motes. Through the draperies around my bed the light only peeked and was no bother to me. I soon fell unconscious and dreamed of Beauty.

I never dreamed someone came into my room, pulled back the draperies of my bed, and observed me at length while I slept. Somehow I did not feel eyes burning upon my face, and I slept the sleep of innocence.

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