The human regards you with wrinkled nose, taps its fan on its shoulder, exclaims over your appearance and your musk with its painted mouth squinched up. It smells of danger and of sorcery, smells like your faintest old memories, and only wariness keeps you here watching it: You would rather flit away, find yourself prey, collect more of the shiny pretties that decorate the ground, dropped by the human dead.
When the human smiles, you mantle and hiss at it, displaying all your needle teeth.
“Who knows,” the human says, “maybe you’re even—”
“—happier this way.”
Your grandfather’s old hand is gnarled in yours, and you are dizzy and tired with the censer smoke. All you want is to go back home and have your nap, but your father and your mother are not here. The waxy-looking shapes in the funny long boxes look like them, but if they were really your parents they would have got up by now to play with you.
People keep muttering like you can’t hear them, and you are very cross.
“Ah, Pisce,” says your grandfather. His voice is low and very sad. “Ah, my girl. We are all that we have, now; I am going—”
“—to look after you.”
The girl is smiling, but you squinch up your face and glower at her with all the suspicion and resentment you can muster.
“Grandfather said that he was going to play with me and read me books,” you say. It’s not ladylike to glare straight at people’s faces, so you lean over and glower at your shoes instead. “He promised.”
“The cardinal has a very important job to do,” she says to you like you’re three and don’t already know. “He wanted to keep his promise because he loves you. That’s why he sent me instead.”
You may not be old enough to keep your temper just yet, but you are definitely old enough to understand some things: That there’s no such thing as a replacement for a person. That really when grown-ups break their promises it just means—
“—that they haven’t got the time for you.”
The prince’s face is round still with youth, but his knees are sharp where they knock against yours on the dark staircase. Children grow like weeds, even—especially—if they aren’t tended to.
“God, I hate them all,” he says. “Let’s just run away. Let’s just have a revolution! I’m so sick of being treated like I’m invisible. Where does my damn old man even get off, not even giving me the time of day like this?”
The sheer nerve of what he’s saying makes you want to giggle; none of your storybooks or your strict tutors and governesses have ever exposed you to this kind of brazen rebellion that burns in this boy’s eyes. But even if the way he talks is ridiculous and impossible, you can’t help but listen round-eyed as if he is the older one.
There’s a light in him, a light that shines just as bright as—
—the white strip of sun that illuminates the closet from outside.
You are old enough to be aware that this will realistically not be able to last, and young enough that you don’t trust the knowledge. The peasant’s brass charm on its ribbon that you had Rosa sneak out to buy for you rubs against your wrist; the stack of furs is soft and sticks to your naked back.
The castle is so old and so riddled with tiny hideyholes like honeycombs in your textbooks that you are quite sure you will never be found. The old men do a lot of droning about purity, but Rosa is as good as a real sister and taught you years ago the truth and practicalities of things.
The secrecy is thrilling. Almost, you imagine, like freedom must be.
Nordische shrugs irritably in his sleep when you touch the soft hair at the nape of his neck. You cannot look at him straight on, so you—
—watch the dust motes dancing above you instead.
The king is still grandly talking of the betrothal up on the dais; the helplessness of Nordische’s pale mutiny beside him feels like a splinter caught in your heart. Your stomach is cramping. Last night’s cum seeps thickly into your underthings, hot: a key flung from a tower window into the forest, so that you will never find it again even if you spend your whole life searching.
You do not have the freedom to search, no matter how you want it. You are a caged creature. A decoration. Nothing more.
You have never—
—asked for anything much, really.
You would have been happy in the cage if you had been allowed the love and attention of those who mattered, but Nordische never had the freedom to marry as he chose, and Rosa had her orders most of all, and you could not make your grandfather give you his regard just by silently, sullenly craving it.
Maybe your failing is just that you were so close to being content with what you were given. Maybe the door to your cage was open when your back was turned. Maybe if you struggled harder it would have collapsed.
But the exit signs on this road are all in a language you were never taught, and: Here are the monsters pounding on your door, here to deliver unto you the last shackle you will ever bear.