The door was set into the smoke-stained stone wall and locked with a heavy black padlock. When she had been brought to the kitchens, as payment for her father’s debt to the crown, she had been told the door was to stay locked at all times. When she’d been caught with an ear pressed against the rough wood, she had been told it wasn’t to be touched, and when she’d stared at it too long, brow furrowed thoughtfully, she had been told it wasn’t even to be looked at. This was punctuated with a hand across her jaw, but it only fueled her curiosity.
All she’d heard through the wood was a faint drip, like water. And sometimes, when she was sweeping the floors, she saw what looked like scuff marks, like something heavy had been dragged, trailing across the floor and disappearing beneath the sealed door. And as the stiff straw bristles slowly erased them, she would try to puzzle out what could be behind it.
“Vari!” The cook’s snarl yanked her from her thoughts.
She set the broom back in the corner and picked up the tray of food from the table. If she pretended to forget, to be busy doing other things, she hoped the cook would let her be and take the tray himself, but he never did.
When she entered the great hall, the prince stared at her, one arm thrown over the back of his chair. “You’re late,” he said, as she set the tray on the table.
It was a lie. Vari said nothing, serving the king first, who ignored her, then the bejeweled queen, and finally, the sneering prince. He grabbed her wrist and yanked her closer. “I said, you’re late,” he snarled.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty. It won’t happen again,” she said, her eyes fixed on the poached egg sitting on his plate.
His other hand grabbed her jaw, his fingers digging into her already bruised cheek as he forced her to look at him. Dishes clinked behind her. “Pass the butter, would you?” said the queen to the king, and the king did.
“See that it doesn’t,” the prince hissed before shoving her.
Vari tumbled to the floor. A half-eaten crust landed next to her. She snatched it and fled, wishing her hunger wasn’t greater than her pride.
The cook was snoring in the kitchen, his feet thrown up on the hearth, the chair sagging under his enormous, greasy weight. A key ring hung from his straining belt. Almost before she knew what she was doing, Vari was sliding it free, taking the heavy black key and putting it in her pocket. She looked defiantly at the door.
It stood still and silent, as it continued to stand later that night when she returned to the empty kitchen, barefoot, a candle in her hand.
The padlock opened with a click, and a rush of dank air fluttered her skirts as the door creaked open. Behind it, stairs spiraled into darkness. Holding her flickering candle aloft, she descended. The drip of water, far below, grew louder, and the air became stifling, as she spun downward.
She was dizzy when she reached the bottom of the stairs and stumbled through a black doorway. Putrid water coated the floor. She held up the candle and snorted. The light flickered off bare stone walls. The room was empty.
“So, this is what all the fuss is about,” she said, glancing around the small chamber.
“Depressing, isn’t it?” said a voice behind her.
She whirled. A familiar figure stood before the stairs. With a gasp, Vari fell to her knees, hitting her forehead on the stones. The candle skittered across the water, sputtered, and went out.
There had been no mistaking him, even wreathed in shadow. The prince.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” she said. “I know I’m not supposed to be here. Please…”
She would be lucky to get away with only a lashing. Men were killed for less.
“Why are you here?” he asked after a moment. “You’re not the usual fare.”
“I was curious, Your Majesty.”
“Curious?” He laughed softly, then sniffed. “Is that… fresh air? Did you unlock the door?”
She took the key from her pocket and extended it into the darkness. A cold hand took it. Water dripped steadily behind her.
“You can get up,” he said.
She pulled herself to her feet and wiped her dirty, trembling hands on soiled skirts. Something shifted in the darkness, and the candle flared to life in front of her, illuminating the prince’s grotesquely pale face inches from her own. But… he wasn’t quite the prince. Shaggy hair hung over sunken cheekbones, cheeks that just that morning had been full.
“You’re frightened,” he said, looking down at her shaking hands. “Why? Afraid I’ll eat you?”
He grinned with a mouth full of pointed, white teeth. She scrambled back, slipping on the wet stones, and he laughed.
“What are you?” she gasped.
“The prince,” he said. “Or the honest half of him, at least.”
She backed against the far wall, pressing herself against the damp stone. “Honest half? What does that mean?”
He sighed. “I suppose we have time for a story, but just one.” He lounged against the wall, absently running one sharp nail over the stone. “When the prince was born, the entire kingdom rejoiced. And why wouldn’t they? Another century of subjugation assured. The king and queen on the other hand were dismayed to find that another babe had appeared in the cradle beside their precious son. An exact copy. Well… almost.” His pointed grin glimmered in the candlelight. “There were certain differences. The affinity for human flesh, for one, but whenever they tried to kill the child, this abomination as they called it, the same torments were inflicted on their little prince. So, they locked me up. Fed me on beggars and desperate thieves.” He spat disgustedly. “Enough to keep me alive, to keep him alive, to keep him hungry.”
“You… you eat people?” she stammered.
The insolent grin returned. “We’re royalty. It’s what we do. But now…” He tossed the key into the air, snatched it, and shoved it into a tattered pocket. “He’s lived off of me long enough. It’s time to return the favor, don’t you think?”
“Return it? What does that mean?”
The prince but not quite the prince cocked his head. “I’m going to eat him.”
“Won’t that kill you?” she whispered, frozen in fear.
“Oh, I imagine it’ll hurt,” he said. “But then I’ll be free. Two made one again, and the likeness is startling, as you’ve proven. No one will know a thing has happened.”
With a burst of courage that could only come from looking day after day into the face she feared most, Vari stepped forward. “I won’t let you,” she said, her voice shaking, her fists clenched. “I won’t let you hurt anyone.”
The man who looked like the prince, but most certainly was not, raised an eyebrow before he sighed. “Fine.” The key clattered at her feet. “I’ll let you lock me up again, if you really want to, but I don’t think you will.”
She fumbled with the key, her gaze fixed on the man in his circle of candlelight. “Why?”
“You groveled like a frightened animal when you saw me, scared for your life.” He drew closer and tilted her chin up with a pointed nail. “Believe me, I know the look. You thought there was a monster in the darkness with you, but it wasn’t me you were afraid of. They locked me up, took my life to serve them, and left me so starved, I’d eat whatever scraps they gave me. Sound familiar?”
She lifted a hand to her bruised cheek. “But you’re a monster.”
“Am I?” he asked with a frown. “I devour to survive. What’s his excuse?”
His face was so like the prince’s, except for the pointed teeth in his slightly open mouth. And his eyes. They looked more… human, less hungry. “If I let you out,” she said finally, quietly. “Promise me you won’t eat anyone else. Only him.”
“I won’t make a promise I can’t keep, but I will tell you this.” He bent closer, his breath cold on her ear. “I won’t eat you. Besides,” he added when he’d straightened up. “I’m in the mood for something more”—he licked his lips—”royal.”
His footsteps were almost silent as he followed her up the stairs, and she shivered, imagining she could feel his icy breath on her neck. When they reached the kitchen and stepped out of the dark doorway, he inhaled deeply and sighed before turning to her. “Stay here,” he said and disappeared into the hallway.
He returned a few moments later with a thrashing bundle over his shoulder. It was mumbling frantically. The man who looked like the prince tossed it into the darkness. “Shut the door behind me,” he said and padded down the stairs.
She shoved the heavy door closed. She could lock it, turn the key in the padlock, and they’d both be trapped forever, but eventually, someone would notice the prince was missing. Questions would be asked. Answers would be taken, willingly or not. She stood, indecisive, twisting the key in her hands until there was a soft knock on the door. She pulled it open a crack.
The prince, or maybe not the prince, stood at the top of the stairs.
“Smile,” she said warily.
His teeth glistened, all pointed and white. “Worried about me?”
She yanked the door open then slammed it behind him, locking it tight.
“He isn’t going anywhere,” the not quite prince said, picking at his teeth with a sharp nail.
“What happens now?” she asked.
He took a deep breath. “I think I’ll take a bath.” And he padded out of the kitchen.
The door in the kitchen, set into the smoke-stained stone walls, was locked with a heavy black padlock. It was not to be opened, not to be touched, not even to be looked at. The heavy black key hung on a cord around Vari’s neck. Each morning she carried a tray of food to the great hall. She served the prince first, who thanked her graciously, then the pale queen, and finally, the nervous king. The prince never smiled, but when she left the hall, looking back over her shoulder at him, the corner of his mouth would twitch up, just for a moment.
Picture Credit: Joseph Mallord William Turner