She had been dreaming, that she was in a place other than the deep, dark dungeon of the ogre. It had been another room of darkness, but of a gentler kind. Comforting.
Then there had been a light.
Geometric lines and edges, that were soft.
A sweet hum, melodic.
Then her eyes opened.
She took in her surroundings; the first thing she saw was a spacious ceiling made of clean stone, painted white with the black points of many tiny stars.
Somewhere, not too far, calm flutes were piping.
She blinked a few times, moving her sore neck to her left and right.
She had awoken in a fine, restful bed with silken sheets, comfortable pillows and blankets. More than that, she was in a cozy room with walls painted in gentle blues and other lulling colors. Next to her bed on the opposite wall was a tall window, which she could see overlooked to a green, expansive forest and clear sky.
Maybe her dream hadn’t been a dream at all.
She pulled the blankets off of her and stiffly stood up. As she moved her blonde waves, she saw that she was wearing a long, silken night gown. She lightly moved to the window and looked out, and she saw besides a forest, a small town, bustling in the afternoon sun. People were strolling between stalls, carrying goods, dressed in simple clothes and busily talking to each other and the merchants they encountered.
Truth, it wasn’t a dream!
“Wooh!” Aline cried, throwing her arms in the air and jumping up in excitement. She went back to her bed and rolled around on top of it, clutching the pillow and laughing hysterically. Tears of happiness were welling up in her eyes. For the first time in a long time, she was smiling and so, so happy.
She was free!
She slowed her excitement though and stopped rolling on the bed as she started putting her memories back together.
Wait, where was she and how had she gotten here?
She remembered running from the burning house and-
Aline’s senses were suddenly alerted as she heard the door to this room suddenly open. She quickly turned her head and saw an older woman, dressed in the gray outfit of an attendant staring in at her.
“Oh my goodness!” the lady cried while Aline jumped out of her bed. “Don’t be afraid, cherie!” said the attendant.
“Who are you?” Aline asked.
“I am Henriette, handmaid to King Grande and his son, Prince Beau, the young man you rescued. Do you remember?” The woman’s voice was as sweet as rose petals dipped in honey, but Aline was ready to bolt if need be.
Aline calmed herself, but still looked at the woman warily. Then she remembered her run through the forest, a deep pool and a young boy at it’s bottom. She remembered diving in cold water and seeing nothing but dark depths and the distant shape of the boy.
That was it.
“I… I remember some.”
“Good, good. Now, stay where you are, the prince would like to see you very much.” Henriette gave a big, sweet smile, while moving a gray bang from her eye. “Don’t worry dear, you are safe here. Oh, and there are fresh clothes for you in that cabinet there. We’ll knock before we come in.” And with that, Henriette closed the door, and Aline heard a few shuffled footsteps of the old lady walking away.
Aline stood there for a moment, swaying. She turned her head and saw a mirror, and saw that she was still in her sleeping gown. Next to the mirror was a large dresser, which after she opened revealed many fine clothes. She grabbed a turqoise dress, an additional cloak and fixed her hair before sitting on an adjacent chair.
Yes, she remembered much now.
She remembered her encounter with the tiger and the promise of her rage for a way out.
She remembered the ogre exploding in a wreathe of fire before her.
And she remembered carrying with her the chest that held Aurore’s heart.
Immediately, she began furiously searching the room for the chest. She had carried nothing else with her during her escape, but had the prince left the chest back in the forest?
“Are you looking for this, cherie?”
Aline, who had been looking under the pillows she had just been sleeping on, turned her head to the doorway. There before her was the boy from the forest that she had saved from drowning, dry and dressed in fine accoutrements. And in his hands was the chest. Behind him was an exasperated Henriette.
Aline eyed him carefully. He was handsome, with dark hair that fell in fine bangs. He had somewhat small eyes, and his cheekbones were well shaped. Once she was sure of him, she remebered some of Aurore’s points on civility. Aline smiled and gave a tiny curtsy.
“Um, bonjour my dear. My name is Beau.”
“The prince of these lands,” chimed Henriette behind him. Beau looked back at his handmaid, cheeks slightly blushed. “Yes, Henriette, I just didn’t want that to be the first thing I said.”
Henriette swatted the young man’s ears, causing him to flinch in pain. “Prince Beau, your cheeks should be redder than that! Cherie, I’m so sorry, I told you we would knock first but this young man was so excited to see you that he barged right in!” Henriette’s frown at the young man was scarier than the kindness of her face would have led you to believe.
Aline giggled, appreciating the silliness of the small exchange.
“It’s fine, sweet Henriette, I had already changed. Then, Aline’s gaze became strong and her attitude serious. “Prince,” she began while clearing her throat. “May I take my chest back?”
“Oh, of course,” said Beau, as he actually stepped towards Aline and placed the chest before her. Aline took it and as she did so, Beau reached into his pocket and gave her a familiar dark key. Aline took both, walking back and putting them under her pillows. That would have to do for now. After this, she looked at Beau.
“Did you?,” and as she spoke, she motioned to the spot that hid the treasures. Beau shook his head.
“No, of course not, and I kept chest and key with me at all times. No one else but me and Henriette know of it.” Aline’s shoulders dropped in relief, deeply exhaling.
“Merci beaucoup,” was all she could say.
There was a moment’s pause.
Beau stepped forward. “My good friend, what is your name?” Aline blinked, then gasped as she realized she had not introduced herself yet to anyone here. She immediately stepped forward, taking the prince’s hand and looking him in his dark eyes.
“Je m’appelle Aline,” she said, her naturally melodic voice sounding especially lyrical as she spoke her name. Behind her eyes, she thought about how long it had been since she had heard, let alone spoken her name.
The prince looked into her eyes, then squeezed her hand. “My pleasure,” he whispered.
They barely had a moment to say anything more before loud, angry footsteps could be heard. Aline and Beau turned around to see a tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in splendid garments suddenly in the doorway. He had long, dark hair, a long beard and the same eyes as Beau. Aline could immediately tell that this man was Beau’s father. But whereas Beau’s light eyes held a temperamentally mild incandescent shine to them, his father’s eyes radiated fury.
“Boy!,” the king roared like a wyrm. “Why are you here right now? Why aren’t you hunting right now?”
“Grand, please,” Henriette began before the king looked down at her, swords of impatience stinging into her vision. Henriette, now forcibly humbled, then meekly silenced herself. Beau then stepped forward.
“Father, please, I was just coming to check on the girl who saved me. Remember? I had my guards bring her up here. Her name is Aline.”
The king huffily regarded Aline, but he managed to take a single, calming breath, his cheeks losing only a hint of their red sheen.
“Yes. Yes, thank you. Sincerely, I thank you. Please, come to dinner tonight.” He didn’t necessarily sound sincere, but Aline graciously nodded in acceptance. The king immediately returned his attention to his son.
“As I said, you should have been hunting by now! Our handmaids would have taken care of this vagabonde, and you could have met her in the evening once you were done.”
“Father, I couldn’t wait until then, I owe her too much. And as I’ve told you before I-”
“You what?” the king growled menacingly, interrupting his son. Beau suddenly stopped any action. Gulping, he quickly flicked his head to look at Aline before returning his attention to the king, straightening himself.
“I hate hunting!”
With a surge of speed, the king stepped forward and slapped Beau across his face. The smack was loud and Beau immediately clutched the cheek that had received the blow. He stared at the ground, trying to fight back the sting he felt before it brought on his tears.
“My prince!” Henriette yelled as she rushed over and gently reached down to inspect the spot. Aline walked to Beau, resting a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it to let him know he was all right.
“Go down, get your musket and make up for the time you’ve lost,” the king hissed. “No son of mine will be allowed to be weak,” he said before turning around, his robes trailing behind him like a lizard’s tail. But as he walked away, Aline turned her attention to him, stabbing at his back with her coldest, iciest stare.
“King Grand!” she roared so challengingly, that the king did in fact stop and turn to face her, his visage belying a crease of open surprise. Though he was much bigger than her, Aline walked forward with no fear felt at all to impede her steps. How dare this man strike his own family! She stepped to him, to let him know this fact. But when she had summoned the breath-
She felt nothing.
Aline gasped, suddenly short for air as a cold rush crashed across her spine, chest and forehead. A sliding feeling was felt in her gut, for in her mind, she had reached forth from there to pull out her own fury. But where there should have been a fire, a heat, there was an emptiness that brought a feeling of weightlessness to her entire frame.
The consternation of the tiger prince.
She stumbled, and the king’s gaze regained it’s edge. Aline looked up at him, and he now suddenly seemed so much more immensely intimidating to her. And his blooming rage felt as though a hot desert wind had blasted her in the face, causing her to stumble back further.
“I said you were invited to dinner. Don’t make me take my invitation back,” the king spoke, grabbing and ruffling the hem of his robes. “Boy, follow me.”
Aline could only wobbily stand there, as she felt Beau walk past her. She saw he was still clutching his face. But he briefly turned to look at her. Somehow, he was smiling.
“Let’s talk later,” he managed to quietly squeak out before he followed his father out and down the hall.
Aline was still weak, but she felt the kind grip of Henriette lead her to sit at the edge of the bed, touching Aline’s forehead to check her temperature, wiping away beads of cold sweat. So distraught was Aline, and in a cold daze, she didn’t even hear Henriette say she would come back with some cold water for her to drink.
For the next few days, Aline and Beau had been inseparable. The first night had been strained, for Aline had not forgiven King Grand for striking at his son. But Beau was a kind young man and in his own way, he knew exactly how to defuse the situation. Aline watched Beau curiously at the long grand table, as many servants took care of the king and his family. The salad and bread she was eating may as well have come from heaven, it was so good compared to what she had eaten in Brute’s nasty prison.
“Father, how goes the construction of my tower?” Beau asked, politeness spicing his voice. Aline’s eyes widened in curiosity, as this was the first time she had heard of any wall, and in fact she remembered that she had not seen any such thing when she looked out from her room’s window. She then looked at King Grand who was slouched in his chair in red velvet robes. He had a toothpick between his teeth and was in momentarily deep concentration.
“It has been fully planned, the resources fully gathered and my citizens have each been paid their proper allotment,” the king spoke in reserved measure. He looked up to gaze at his son with a hint of doubt. “This shall be a big experiment for you, my son,” the king said.
Beau looked to Aline. “It is not just that we have promised their town a bit of money. It is not just that we have promised to give them our protection should an army attack us. Now, we will be promising them an education; from our walls, our scribes and scholars shall create houses of public education. We shall teach their children how to read and write.”
“My son has convinced me to at least try it, that these gifts will make the people who inhabit my land more capable. If I feel that they are becoming a threat, as I believe in my gut, then I will cease these opportunities. Until then, if this is his first act while following in my wake, so be it. But a tower it shall be, so that I may still have a way to fortify all this that I own.”
Aline straightened her neck and thought about this. Then, with a smile, she looked at the king. “Your son will not let you down, King.” Grand guffawed but otherwise held his tongue. Then she looked at Beau. “I believe this is a wonderful idea.”
Beau smiled back at her happily, a longing look in his eyes. Suddenly, he straightened his expression and busily returned to eating his soup, cheeks flushed. Aline wasn’t sure what had just happened, but from across the table, Henriette, who was attending the King, smiled knowingly.
Later, they retired to their sleeping chambers, and Aline rested wonderfully. But in the middle of the night, she suddenly awoke. In a fit, she looked at the iron chest that she had placed on the part of the bed she was not sleeping on.
She thought she had heard a beat. Or two. But then the room had gone quiet again, and eventually her eyes closed and she slept wonderfully until the morning.
The next day, after having put on a silk, forest green dress with comfortable wood soled slippers, she walked with Prince Beau as he took her on a tour through the village. He was wearing a fine yellow vest and well sewn pants and slippers, and Aline was worried that his clothes spoke too highly of his status. But every peasant they met greeted Beau with respect and hospitality.
“Beau, how does everyone know you here so,” Aline asked, noticing for the first time that she was a a bit taller than him, even though they were both fourteen.
“Oh, I just stroll through here often, I’m sure they are familiar with my appearance” Beau replied. “And, also, I’m sure they remember my mother, Queen Belle. She was very gentle with them.”
“Oh, how wonderful. Where is she, the good queen?”
Beau’s expression became terse. Then, he looked up at the sky.
Aline gasped, covering her mouth. “Oh, my fair Beau, I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, it’s fine, dear Aline. It was during my birth, so I can’t say I remember much. But the people here tell me she would come through here and sing beautiful songs with her harp before the crowd, giving free concerts, wearing a loop of beautiful flowers upon her brow. And if children came to her during the show, she would pluck a flower and give it to them. These flowers would give those children joy and heal them of terrible sickness.
“They tell me that my father had her buried atop the mountains, the loop of flowers upon her coffin. They will never hold ill will to me.”
Aline listened to all this thoughtfully. From the corner of her gaze, she saw a few random villagers wave to Prince Beau, and he sweetly waved back.
Aline began to quickly blink to herself, as an old thought returned to her.
“One day, I will reach the top of those mountains,” she said suddenly. Beau looked at her, rolling the thought in his mind, but otherwise he said nothing.
The two of them were eventually drawn to a commotion, that a large number of the villagers were heading towards. They went with them, and to a great showing of strength. Adroit to several large piles of bricks, the villagers were laying down cement and beginning the building of an immense wall, that was forming a concentric circle, which Aline realized was the beginning frame of the tower. A few guards were posted but, otherwise, the villagers were working to their own accord, a nearby band playing jumpy music to keep the energy constant. When they noticed the prince and Aline, they waved happily to the both of them, their laughing faces covered in sweat and specks of dirt.
Aline waved back to them, then regarded the brick pile a little bit longer. Then, her face beamed. With a smile, she walked over to a stack of bricks, reaching forwards and picking them up.
“What are you doing?” Beau asked.
“What does it look like I’m doing, I’m helping build the tower,” she responded, carrying the bricks in her toned arms. She walked forwards and one of the older gentlemen working there pointed to where a little bit of cement was lathered on a shorter part of the wall. She then walked towards this spot and laid the brick down. Grabbing a nearby scraping knife, she then wiped away some of the extra cement.
Aline turned her head and saw that Beau had also grabbed and was laying a few bricks along the wall, building it up. Aline smiled at him and the people around them cheered them on.
For Aline in particular, it felt good to be working outside. Though she had enjoyed resting in the luxurious castle, work such as this helped keep her strong and in shape, and she enjoyed breaking a good sweat. Scanning, her eyes caught a particularly large brick, one that only one of the true village toughs or guards could pick up with any real ease. But she bit her lip and walked towards it.
“Oh, I don’t mean to be rude, but that one might be too big for you, dear friend,” Beau called to her. But Aline more or less ignored him and reached down, clutching her fingers at the base. When she felt that she had a good grip, she went to lift it up. But to her surprise, it was indeed heavier than she thought.
“Oof!,” she grunted, unable to have picked it up more than an inch before it dropped from her hands.
“Do you need help?” Beau asked with a tinge of worry.
“No, it’s fine!”
Aline took a deep breath and tried to flex her arms, getting blood to pump into them. She grit her teeth, found the same good hold, and really tried to put some power into it. Indeed, she had picked it up to where she was holding it just above her chest.
“Ergh!,” Aline growled through the strain. She attempted to walk and reach for the fire in her gut when-all of a sudden, a familiar cold rush washed all over her body. The rage she had went for came back completely empty. Immediately, her strength gave out, and she felt the heavy stone falling from her hands.
“Huh!” she gasped in fear, attempting to step back from the falling weight. But from the corner of her eye, a friendly shape came darting to her side. With great reflexes, Beau reached out and caught the stone.
“Woah!” he shouted, helping her grab it just before it the ground. Aline barely was able to keep her grip, but her reflexes were just quick enough to hold on. She looked down and saw that, had it not been for Beau’s help, the weight surly would have fallen on her foot. She stepped back as another guard came up and took her place.
Aline stepped back, out of breath, only to be caught and held with care. She looked to her left and right and saw that two peasant girls, about her age, had kindly caught her.
“Mademoiselle, are you alright?” one of the girls asked. Aline pulled her arms away from them, holding herself.
“Quoi? No, I don’t think-,” Aline began, before Beau stepped forward, having offered his side of the stone to another large man, the two of whom then proceeded to carry it to the wall.
“She’s alright, just a little scared,” Beau said while stepping forward and gingerly taking one of Aline’s tightly squeezed hands. “Aline, are you alright?”
Aline regarded the good prince, but in her mind, all she could think of was a sea of red flowers, and the shadow of a large tiger. Then, her eyes flashed to Beau’s kind and concerned face.
At that moment, the price of it all was fully understood.
“Oh, Beau,” she exclaimed before reaching out and wrapping her arms around him. And he supported her as much as he could.