Beauty's Release (Page 41)

Beauty’s Release (Sleeping Beauty #3)(41)
Author: Anne Rice

Around the twelfth day, the Captain told Beauty that they were almost home. They would put into port at a neighboring kingdom and then reach the Queen’s harbor the following morning.

Beauty was filled with longing and apprehension. While Nicolas and the Captain were ashore meeting with the Queen’s ambassadors, she sat with Tristan and Laurent talking softly.

They all hoped to be kept in the village. Tristan said again that he no longer loved Nicolas.

"I love the one who punishes me well," he added bashfully, his eyes gleaming as he glanced at Laurent.

"Nicolas should have whipped you soundly when we first came on board," Laurent said. "And then you would be his again."

"Yes, but he didn’t. And he is the Master, not I. I will love a Master again someday, but he must be a powerful Lord who is capable of taking all decisions upon himself, forgiving all weakness in the slave as he guides him."

Laurent nodded. "If I were ever reprieved," he said softly, looking at Tristan, "ever given the chance to become one of the Queen’s Court, I would choose you for my slave and bring you to heights of experience you’ve never dreamed of."

Tristan smiled at this, blushing again, eyes flashing as he looked down and then back up at Laurent.

Only Lexius was quiet. But he had been so well trained by Laurent that Beauty was convinced he could bear anything that lay before him. It frightened her a little to picture him on the auction block. He was so graceful, so dignified, and his eyes were filled with such innocence. How they would strip it away from him. But then, she and Tristan had endured it….

It was very late at night before the ship put out to sea for the last leg of the voyage. The Captain came down the steps, his face dark and pensive. He lugged with him a finely made wooden casket, which he set down before Beauty in the little cabin.

"This is what I feared," he said. His whole manner was different. It seemed he did not even want to look at Beauty. Beauty sat on the bed, staring at him.

"What is it, My Lord?" she asked.

She watched him unlock the casket and throw back the lid. She saw dresses inside, veils, a long pointed cone of a hat, bracelets, and other finery.

"Your Majesty," he said softly, averting his eyes. "We will be in port before daylight. And you must be dressed again and ready to meet the emissaries from your father’s kingdom. You are to be released from your servitude and sent home to your family."

"What!" Beauty shrieked, leaping up from the bed. "You can’t mean this! Captain!"

"Princess, please, this is difficult enough," he said, his face red as he looked away. "We have received word from our Queen. It can’t be prevented."

"I won’t go!" Beauty gasped. "I won’t go! First the rescue and now this! This!" She was beside herself. She stood up and kicked the casket with her naked foot. "Take these clothes away, dump them in the sea. I won’t wear them, do you hear!"

She would lose her mind if all this didn’t stop.

"Beauty, please!" the Captain whispered, as if he feared to raise his voice. "Don’t you understand? It was you we were sent to rescue from the Sultan. Your father and mother are the Queen’s closest allies. They heard at once of your kidnap and were outraged that the Queen let you be taken across the sea. And they demanded that you be brought back. We only brought Tristan as well because Nicolas wanted it. And as for Laurent, we took him because we had the opportunity and the Queen said he ought to be brought back to serve out his punishment as a runaway. But you were the true object of the mission. And now your father and mother are demanding you be reprieved from all service on account of your misfortune."

"What misfortune!" Beauty screamed.

"And the Queen has no choice but to comply because she is ashamed that you were ever kidnapped and taken away." He hung his head. "You’re to be married immediately," he stammered. "This is what I have heard."

"No!" Beauty shrieked. "I won’t go!" she sobbed and clenched her fists. "I won’t go, I tell you!" But the Captain only turned and sadly left the cabin.

"Please, Princess. Dress yourself," he said through the closed door. "We have no maids to help you."

It was almost light. Beauty lay naked and crying still as she had all night. She could not look at the casket of clothes.

When she heard the door she did not look up. Laurent came silently into the cabin and bent over her. She had never seen him before in this little room, and he looked like a giant under the low ceiling. She couldn’t bear to look at him, to see the strong limbs she would never be able to touch again or his strangely wise and patient face.

He reached down and gathered her up from the pillow.

"Come, you have to dress," he said. "I’ll help you." And he took the silver-handled brush from the casket and ran it through her long hair as she wept. And with a clean handkerchief he wiped her eyes and her cheeks.

Then he chose a dark violet gown for her, a color that was only worn by Princesses. And Beauty thought of Inanna when she saw the fabric, and she wept even more miserably. Palace, village, castle–they all passed before her, her sorrow overflowing.

The cloth felt hot to her, confining. And, as Laurent laced up the gown in back, she felt as if she were being put into a new kind of bondage. The slippers pinched her feet as he put them on. She could not bear the weight of the cone-shaped hat on her head, and the veils around her confused her, tickled her, annoyed her.

"O, this is beastly!" she growled finally.

"I’m sorry, Beauty," he said, his voice taking on a tenderness she had never heard in it before. She looked into his dark brown eyes, and it seemed to her she would never know heat and pleasure again, sweet pain and true abandon.

"Kiss me, Laurent, please," she asked as she rose from the side of the bed and put out her arms to him.

"I can’t, Beauty. It’s morning. If you look out the window you’ll see your father’s men on the dock waiting for you. Be brave, my love. You’ll be married in no time and you’ll forget–"

"O, don’t say it!"

He looked sad, genuinely sad. As he brushed his brown hair out of his eyes, they glazed silently with tears.

"My darling Beauty," he said. "Believe me, I understand."

And it broke her heart when he knelt and kissed her slipper.

"Laurent!" she whispered, desperately.

But he was gone immediately, leaving the cabin door open for her.

She turned and stared into an empty room. And there was the stairway leading to the sunlight.