Part I – 8
What could go wrong? No one will see me, so it’s not bad if I go back. If I want to participate in social activities, I should. Aria gets to. Now I can have double good luck: I don’t have to perform in front of the duke, and I’ll get to listen to John. I’m curious to hear how people from Ogsford play. My tutor told me that people in our kingdom are better musicians, better than anyone in the world. Well, now I’ll find out if that’s true.
I ride through the tunnel by myself. Father has at last trusted me with this task. He has the horse and the fresh kill waiting for me each night. Tonight I‘ll eat it since I’m in a rush. I don’t have time to hunt.
I tie the horse’s reins to a post near the door. There’s a trough there full of hay for it. I pick up the key that I placed beside the trough. Grabbing the dead goat, I go outside and lock the door. Why am I locking it? I’m only going to go back in. No, I should lock it since I told Father I would. I can probably still manage to get in, though Father doesn’t think so. He thinks I become crazy after I transform. I don’t like that he thinks that, but I don’t know how to show him that he’s wrong. I don’t want him thinking of me as some wild animal.
Tapping my foot impatiently, I wait for the sun to set. I move to stand right next to the goat. I have to eat it quickly and hurry back. I don’t want to miss hearing him play. Fortunately, Aria is playing the piano first. She likes to show off, so it may take a while for her to finish and allow someone else to have a turn.
I feel myself grower larger as it gets darker. When the sun is gone, I devour the meat and go to unlock the door. It is difficult. I pick up the key in my mouth and try to poke it through the lock. I keep getting it at the wrong angle. I start drooling a bit, so I swallow.
I’ve swallowed the key! It’s stuck at the back of my throat, choking me. I gag and cough. I manage to cough it out. I pick it back up, but I’m more careful when I hold it. I try jamming it in, but it won’t go. Ugh. I keep missing and ramming it into the door. I might end up knocking the door down before I unlock it. At last, it goes in. I turn it slightly. Wrong way. I turn the other way. This time, it unlocks.
The horse stomps nervously when he sees me. I try not to startle it as I walk past. I walk a bit more and then break out into a run. I reach the end of the tunnel in no time and leap up the steps. I push open the hidden door and step into my room.
Owen is there. I quickly step back. He’s looking around. Slowly, I start to close the door.
“Nona?” he calls.
He turns around. I freeze. He could see me if he looks closely enough. He could certainly notice the opening in the wall, but he turns away. When his back is to me, I shut the door completely.
“Nona? Where are you?” he asks in a sing-song sort of way.
I hear someone else enter the room.
“Prince Owen, why aren’t you in your room?”
It sounds like one of the maids, but I don’t know which one.
“Where is Nona?” he questions.
“She’s probably downstairs with the rest of your family.”
“No, she was coming up here. She’s supposed to be in her room.”
“Why don’t you go back to bed, and I’ll find her?”
Owen must have agreed. He follows her out of the room. Should I even bother to go out now? It will be alright, I’m sure. Owen will be in his room, so he won’t see me. I go into my room. Scratching at the handle, I’m able to turn it and open the door.
I go to the main staircase and leap up to the rafters. I can hear the music. That must be John playing because I don’t recognize the song. He does play well, but I’m not paying close attention. I’m too worried now about being spotted, which is ridiculous. No one will look for me up here. I feel guilty for coming. Maybe I shouldn’t be taking such unnecessary risks.
Nevertheless, I wait until he’s done playing before I leave. I jump down, but before I can get back to my room, I hear someone going up the steps. I jump back up to the rafters. Mother and Aria are coming. They go up the steps and walk right under me. My tail droops down. I quickly pull it back up.
I can’t go back yet. It sounds like everyone is going up to bed. I see the rest of my siblings walk by, then John, then his father. There’s still my father. I wait for him to come up. He doesn’t for a while. Each time I’m about to give up and jump down, I think I hear him coming. After waiting uncomfortably for over an hour, he walks up and goes to his room. I hope that’s it. I stay and wait for several more minutes. No one else seems to be moving about. I jump down.
A door swings open. I leap back up. Who is it now? I peer down to see the Duke of Ogsford exit. He’s wearing a green cape. He pulls the hood over his head, so now I can’t see his face. He creeps down the steps. Maybe he’s going for a night stroll. Is that what people in Ogsford do? I can’t risk finding out.
This time when I jump down, no one else walks up the steps or out their door. I sneak to my room and go back through the tunnel. It wasn’t worth sneaking back there. I’m not going to do that again.
I guess I’ll go back to the path. I haven’t been there in a while because if I see someone being attacked, I’ll have to help them. I don’t want to do that because then the people might attack me. It’s a cowardly thought to have. It’s time to put my fears to rest and return.
There’s no one there now. I climb a tree and rest on one of the branches. As I relax and start to fall asleep, I hear some people talking, but I don’t see them. Their voices are coming from farther down the path. I leap from branch to branch, staying up in the trees while I approach. A group of men stand in the woods beside the path. Five of the men are strangers to me. The sixth man has his face hidden by a green hood. I get closer until I can hear.
I can’t make out all of their words, but I’m not getting any closer. I don’t want to be seen. For some reason, these men seem to be dangerous. I’ve never seen good men meet secretly in the woods. I lean forward to catch as much of their whispers as I can. They talk about deliveries. They have to change their routes due to thieves. I hear Father’s name mentioned. This worries me, but they don’t sound as though they’re plotting to kill him. They’re too concerned about thieves, deliveries, and payments.
They also want to remove a potential threat. At first, I think they’re talking about Father, but then they mention me. They don’t say my name, but they say “beast” and “monster.” They say the matter may already be resolved since they haven’t seen the beast lately.
They must think I’m the threat. They don’t realize that I want to help people, not attack them. The man in the green cloak, who must be the duke, mounts his horse and heads back to the castle. The men stay in the woods. They spread out a little, so now I’m stuck up here in the tree. I don’t want them to see me if they think I’m dangerous. I can’t move until they leave.
I see three peddlers traveling down the road. Doesn’t anyone sleep at night anymore? I rest my head on my paws and close my eyes. The sound of the rumbling cart is lulling. I’d better not fall asleep. There’s movement below me. The sound of the cart stops. I open my eyes. The men from the woods have stopped the peddlers. The five men have their swords drawn.
Okay, so my first impression of them was correct: they’re thieves. That means the duke is working with the thieves. Before they can steal anything, I spring out of the tree. I land on the road and emit a low growl. One of the thieves approaches me, but I don’t back down. He swings his sword. I swat his hand, causing him to drop his weapon. As he runs away, two other thieves come at me. I jump over top of them. I turn around and smack them. Some of my claws dig into one of their backs. I wince a little. I hadn’t meant to do that, but he’ll be fine.
The thieves run off into the forest. The peddlers tremble but don’t move toward me. I look at them and give a slight bow, as if to show that I’m on their side. I’d curtsy, but that would look silly. I climb back up into the trees. The peddlers keep moving, and the rest of the night passes by without any more incidents.
I return to my room and get dressed. I think about the duke and what I know or don’t know. It doesn’t make much sense. The duke and his son were the ones who were attacked. Why would he be working with his attackers? Does he not know they attacked him, or has he recently decided to put aside their past encounter and work with them? Are they even the same thieves as before? I can’t tell. They all kind of look alike to me.
After breakfast, Aria and I are obliged to stroll in the garden with John. Father and Mother say we’re happy to do so. The three of us wander around until Aria declares that she is cold. I don’t know how she can be. It’s warm out, and I can clearly see her flushed face. John must notice it too, but he’s too nice to point it out. He offers to return inside.
“Oh, no, don’t bother on my account. I’ll get a wrap.”
I can’t believe she’s really planning to leave me with him. Actually, I can.
“Ask one of the servants to fetch it,” I tell her.
“They don’t know which one I want.”
She rushes off before I can argue further. I thought she said princesses weren’t supposed to run. Now I’m stuck with John. We stand, saying nothing. We weren’t talking before, but it had seemed less awkward when there were three of us.
“How are you?” he politely inquires.
I’m not attempting small talk. Let’s get to the point.
“I’m not getting married. I’m sure you’re nice. I don’t hold any grudge or bias against you, but I’m not marrying anyone.”
He pauses and then replies, “Okay.”
Perhaps that was too much. I should have eased into it.
“I don’t want to marry, either. We could be friends,” he suggests.
“Yes, let’s do that.”
We sit down at a bench.
“Since we’re friends, we can talk about things,” he says.
I don’t know where he’s going with this, but he’s definitely going somewhere.
“What do you know about the beast in the forest?”
He gets right to the point too.
“Father says there is no beast.”
“I know, but there must be rumors.”
“What rumors have you heard?” I inquire.
“Not many. You must have heard some.”
“Hmm, I don’t think so.”
“How dangerous is the beast?”
“If he exists, he’s probably not very dangerous at all. Otherwise, we would have heard a report about an attack.”
“I heard there was an attack.”
“Really? Who was attacked?”
He hesitates before answering, “I don’t know.”
His father must have told him not to mention their incident in the woods.
“Now that I think about it, I did hear something,” I hedge.
“What did you hear?”
“I heard about a big cat who only attacks bad people because he’s trying to help.”
“Cats don’t attack only bad people.”
“This one does, so if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have to worry.”
“Or maybe the cat is working with the bad people.”
“No, you can’t control a cat like that.”
“It’s an animal. You can train animals. Do you know if your father has seen the cat?”
“Why do you ask about my father?” I question.
Again, he hesitates. There is something noteworthy in the way he thinks before he talks. I should try that sometime.
“I’ll tell you a secret, but you can’t tell on me. You can’t tell your father.”
At last, he’ll admit he was in the woods.
“You see, my father says that your father, the king, is able to control the cat.”
“Yes, he says the king uses the cat to attack his enemies.”
“No, that’s not possible. That’s crazy.”
“But you won’t tell the king I said that. You mustn’t”
“I won’t, but it’s not true. Besides, I heard a rumor about your father.”
“What rumor is that?”
“You won’t tell on me either, will you?”
“I heard that your father has been in league with thieves.”
He leans back in his seat.
“I don’t know if that’s true. I know my father is into some activities that may not be lawful.”
“Smuggling mostly. I don’t know what else he does. My father and yours might be more similar than either of us would like. My father says that the king is involved with thieves, and that he might be using them as well as the cat.”
“But the thieves mainly attack people in the forest, and Father forbids people from going into the forest.”
“So there are people in the forest?”
“No, they’re not allowed.”
“But you just said that the thieves are in the forest.”
Oops. I shouldn’t have admitted to that, but he already knew that anyway.
“There have been some rumors about it.”
“Despite my father’s cordiality, he dislikes your father. I think the feeling is mutual. I believe that they are working against each other.”
“Then why arrange a marriage alliance?”
“I don’t know.”
There’s not much either of us know, and if we do know something, we’re not willing to make any further admission. I suggest to John that we play a game. He confesses that he doesn’t know many games for only two people. That’s alright. I know where I can find some people to join us. Not Aria. I don’t think she’ll be coming back any time soon. I don’t want to play with her anyway. We find Cat and Lily.
At first, they’re hesitant, and they don’t put in as much effort as they could. As we run around a bit more, they become more relaxed. There’s nothing more relaxing or freeing than running outside in the sun.