prelude — the grim reaper discovers a golden flower
The setting sun cast a dark shadow on the the plate-glass windows of a timeworn castle, veiled by curtains of Gobelins tapestry.
The pale moon rising in the western sky highlighted the features of this fortress shaped like a huge lump of stone—Castle de Blois. The sharply-outlined silhouette of the tall spire, with its overhanging window and elegant entrance, resembled an enormous woodblock print composed only in black and white.
The winters of Western Europe are cold. And how much more so if spent in an ancient stone castle, towering deep in the forest for centuries on end…
The gardens that ringed the perimeter of the castle had been skillfully maintained by master gardeners summoned from the capital of Sauvrème. But now, in the dead of winter, they were merely a wan shadow of their former glory, fringed by the coppery brown branches of beech trees and bare rose bushes quaking unsteadily in the snow, swallowed up by the bleak twilight.
The chill of winter spread throughout the approaching darkness.
Groups of young maids, dressed in uniforms of white and dark blue, elderly butlers standing at attention, young male servants in dapper uniforms, and heavyset cooks came scrambling out of the castle and stood in a line, all looking up at the same spot. They clasped their hands to their chests and huddled together shoulder to shoulder, in fear of what they saw.
Various legends had circulated in speculation of what exactly was contained in the dark recesses of the tapered, eerie-looking tower at Castle de Blois. Over the course of the castle’s long history, that tower had been implicated in many tragedies, atrocities, and conspiracies that had taken place during periods of conflict in medieval times.
Everyone was now staring up at the spire, their breath stifled, their faces taut.
Their eyes were fixed upon something being carefully lowered onto a large carriage waiting below.
A box, looking much like a cage.
No—it was indeed a cage.
That bulky object, draped with a Persian rug the color of cream dappled with green, was slowly descending from the top of the tower. It seemed to be carrying a wild animal, for it periodically emitted a low moaning cry—ow-ooo!
A wintry gust of wind blew flakes of snow.
The box swung wildly from side to side, causing the masses of servants who had been gazing up at it to simultaneously take a cringing step backward.
The beast let out a mournful wail from inside the cage, shrouded by the Persian rug. Each time it was rattled by the piercingly cold wind, the animal inside howled sorrowfully, wretchedly at the night sky.
A young lady-in-waiting, her cheeks still round and rosy, could contain herself no more, and darted toward the wildly-swaying cage.
But a plump middle-aged chambermaid threw her arms around her and held her in place. “You mustn’t. That thing is out of your hands now.”
“It’s over now.” The chambermaid’s large, fleshy body trembled as she spoke.
An elderly butler approached them, a frown deepening the wrinkles on his brow. “That thing will soon be on its way. Don’t do anything rash.”
“That beast will be gone from here. Soon we shall live in peace and quiet again.”
The other servants nodded in agreement with the butler’s words. The lady-in-waiting turned to look at the cage, her face crumpling, holding back tears.
The cage landed on a platform attached to the large, black carriage. This time, the creature inside the cage did not cry out, perhaps frightened by the sudden jolt.
The coachman gave a nod, his face twitching in fear.
He cracked his black whip, and the imposing, dark-colored horses responded with a shrill whinny. With a startled kick of their forelegs, they burst into a run down the gravel road.
The large black carriage, carrying the ominous-looking cage, withdrew from Castle de Blois and disappeared into the forest….
The assembled servants breathed a sigh of relief, then departed the garden one by one to go back to their various posts. The chambermaid affectionately thumped the lady-in-waiting’s shoulder, and walked off.
The girl lingered alone in the garden. “Why…?” she whispered softly.
And then she too walked slowly away, returning to her assigned place. From tonight, she would be starting in a new position, and could not neglect her duties. There was no time to wallow in her grief. She was responsible for supporting her young brothers and sisters, and had no choice but to work.
She slowed to a halt, and looked up at the tapered, menacing spire, now devoid of any living soul.
And she thought of those days when she was tasked with delivering three certain things to the room at the top of that tower….
The girl started to walk again. “That grey wolf was human….” she murmured to herself.
A wintry gale blew past.
Snowflakes swirled into the air, swallowing up her whispering voice….
“A terrifying human…!”