Telling Tales 205
Come Into My Parlor…
The palace was a living thing as much as the servants inside it. It reached up and out and drew them in, invited them, called their names in the way that the pitcher plant oozes sweet nectar for the fly. “Be welcome here,” was the message. “I will pick your bones,” was the intent.
Glowing flowers illuminated the path in soft reds, greens, and yellows, directing first this way and now that. Their colors faded in the night before and behind them, moving at the same speed and gait as their horses, whose chests still heaved with the effort that had been demanded of them.
“These are the grounds,” said her father. He pointed to one plant in particular. “That was my downfall.”
“Yes, your downfall,” she said, unable to keep the bitterness from her voice. In the darkness she could not see his shame but she felt it rising in his body and choking him. He meant no harm to me or to any of us, she told herself. He was terrified. And pathetic. Would I have been any better? Done any better? “It is pretty, but little more. You said that it has some medicinal value?” she asked by way of apology, because sometimes, when you cannot bring yourself to say you are sorry, leaving the subject behind is the next best thing.
His gratitude was as abject as his misery. He repeated what Conomor had told him about the plant. Who knew if the man was telling the truth or if was simply using the occasion of an imagined slight to push and to punish his erstwhile guest. Who knew how much magic was actually here at all? All he had to go on were the words of the steward and of Conomor himself.
And the flowers, their colors flowing like water. And the trees, whose buds blossomed even now, at night, bright white, at their passing. And the brambled hedgerow, which opened before the daughter and closed before the father.
There at the end she could not keep her misery to herself. She wept in fear and pleaded for her father not to leave her in this place. He cried too, apologies for his actions and sorrow for his lost child. They reached for one another but the thorns pushed thick and fast. On the palace side they were masked with flowers and intricate designs. On the far side they grew into grasping claws that snapped at his horse’s legs.
In that moment her despair was greater than her resentment, while his recriminations were enough for ten. He doubted, as he turned his steed homeward, if it would ever be enough for his lost daughter or his wife, who had turned pale and not spoken a word to either of them since.
For his daughter’s part, her horse fled forward, always toward the palace. One clear path lay before them with its glowing petals, tiny moons and stars scattered across the ground. Just beyond them stinging nettles writhed warnings.
Candle flames lit up the windows in a sudden eruption, one after the other in brilliant, beautiful patterns, a song in flickering light. A broad door opened and silent men and women stepped out, their feet moving with elegant grace as their bodies wove in and out amongst one another. They held their hands aloft and their heads down. They crisscrossed, cut back and forth, and knelt as one. In their center stood the steward. “A votre service, mademoiselle. Please, call me Entendtout.”
“Belle,” she answered by way of introduction. “My name is Belle.”