It was dusk when I finally drove into the city of W–. A series of mishaps had dogged my journey, making me feel almost as though the Fates themselves were conspiring to keep me from my destination. First, the cloak of fog that engulfed the airport and delayed our flight by nearly four hours,
and then, when I finally reached the airport, some 25 miles outside W–, the clerk at the car rental, so hunched over that he seemed to be barely as tall as the counter itself, insisted I had no booking. When I produced my documents, and insisted on speaking to his superior, he informed me that only he was on duty—this with a smile so malevolent that it made my blood run cold. Still, I held firmly to my position, that I had reserved a car, a full-sized sedan, and that I would help myself to one on the lot. However, I discovered to my dismay that try as many of them as I might, none of the cars on the lot would start.
Finally, with another of his evil smiles, the clerk announced that he would find me some manner of vehicle. And some manner is the best that could be said for it, dirty on the outside with many dents in its body, it still was better out than within, for the interior stank of mold, and much of the floor had rusted out.
By now, I was beginning to fear for my safety more at the airport than in the car, and so I took it, vowing privately to exchange it for another in the morning.
I had promised my dear Maude that I would be with her in time for tea at her office, but by the time arrived, all the gates had been locked for the day. My cellphone couldn’t pick up a signal outside the massive iron gates. I finally roused a guard, who although surly at having his evening meal disturbed, did ring through to the Countess J—‘s private office. As I thought, Maude had waited for me, faithful Penelope that she is, and came scurrying through the gardens to the gate where I was standing.
“You made it!”
In the dim light, I couldn’t see her face, but the relief in her voice was palpable, and she hugged me with a convulsive fervor unusual in her. Maude is always full of energy, but seldom of a demonstrative emotional nature.
I told her of my difficulties in reaching the Countess J—‘s gates and felt her tremble in my arms, but she dashed off her seeming distress and said, with an assumption of her normal brightness of manner, “You’re here now, that’s all that matters.”
Maude drew me through the gardens, where some late roses still bloomed, to the side door that led to the Countess’s private rooms.
The castle was the main seat of Prince Benedict, the Countess’s cousin, who governed the territories around W–, and held many odd corridors and turrets, where those of high rank lived as well as worked. The Countess was the Prince’s most trusted advisor, and we in the town of C—had felt great pride and excitement when the Countess chose Maude to be one of her own personal secretaries.
Maude’s mother and I had been dear friends since earliest childhood. We had scored our first field hockey goals together, learned first-order second-degree differential equations together, field-dressed our first rabbits together, laughed at each other’s jokes, and forborne to laugh at each other’s lovers. In short, no friends were more inseparable, and, childless myself, I had been one of little Maude’s adoring aunties as she grew to adulthood. She repaid my love with a thousand acts of kindness.
Her parents were in the Antarctic, where her father was designing igloo-based kitchens and her mother setting up a much-needed sanitation system.
They would not be able to leave until the brief Antarctic summer arrived in some four months, and so when trouble came to Maude, it was me she texted, begging me “2 drop evrytng & cum 2 W @1s”.
It wasn’t until we reached the room in the Countess’s private apartments set aside as Maude’s bedchamber that I had time to look at her more closely. Maude’s normal bright complexion was grey with fatigue, and even, I thought, fear, and her dark eyes were red from much weeping.
“What ails you, dear one?” I clasped her cold dry hands in mine.
“Ails me? Why, nothing at all, now that you are at my side, dearest Auntie Calliope.” And she behaved most strangely, darting from door to door, as though checking for eavesdroppers. The windows, although we were on a high floor, she treated with especial circumspection.
“Four nights ago, I saw wolves in the castle gardens,” she whispered to me. “When I told the Countess she laughed at me and told me the politics of the castle were wearing me down. But then—I went to confide my fears to Jay, and he behaved most strangely to me.”
Jay and Maude had been playmates and lovers for years, and he, too, had been offered a job on the Countess’s private staff. Privately, I had always wondered at their friendship—Maude, so open and impulsive, Jay, subdued, curled into himself like a snail. Even physically—Maude was radiant with health, her skin dark and clear, while Jay, tall and emaciated, so white that he might be a Belgian endive, living etiolated in a cellar. And yet everyone agreed that he was a brilliant scholar of naval policy, and, as the city of W—was situated at the mouth of an important harbor, he was a key member of the Countess’s household.
“Told me he had no time for my silly girlieness, that I needed to grow up and learn how to live in a castle, and stop inventing games. He said that no wolves had been seen in W—for more than a century, unless at the zoo, and that while Prince Benedict and the Countess were negotiating a treaty with the Emperor of K–, it was imperative that I not bother them with these fantasies.”
“And is that why you sent for me?” I didn’t know what to say: Maude was never an imaginative child. Indeed, Jay, with his withdrawn silences, seemed more the dreamer of the two. But—wolves in the private gardens of a major castle, in the heart of a great city? It was scarcely credible.
“I see you don’t believe me, either,” Maude said mournfully. “And yet, look at how hard it was for you to reach the castle. None of the cars worked at the rental agency. You couldn’t use your cellphone at the castle gates. The text I sent you was the last message I was able to send, and I had no real expectation that you would arrive. Only people whom Jay knows have been able to reach the castle for the last three weeks. And during that time, he has sometimes seen me in the halls and pretended not to know me. I asked him if he had taken a new lover, if I was the one ignorant person in the castle—and he said he had important work to do and didn’t have time for private jealousies.”
“Perhaps you should take a leave of absence,” I suggested. “Maybe the Countess is right, that the politics of the castle are wearing you down. When you work for a powerful prince, everyone is competing for his attention, after all. And with your disposition, so prone to openness, you may not be best suited for this competitive, back-stabbing atmosphere.”
“Aunt Calliope!” Her dark eyes flashed. “I won’t listen to such talk. Didn’t you and Mama always teach me to be a fighter, not a quitter? How can you suggest I leave the Countess now?”
“All right, child, all right—but—“ I didn’t finish the sentence. She trusted me, she needed me, I would not turn my back on her.
We went down to dinner in the dining room where the Countess’s staff ate. Tonight five of her eight personal staff, including Jay, were present. I tried to pretend I’d had no private conversation about him with Maude, and asked him the usual dull questions aunts ask their niece’s friends. I noticed that he drank heavily, but only toyed with his food, although the Countess’s chefs are famous for their light, flavorful locavorian cooking.
“Jay, are you ill?” I asked bluntly. “You’ve scarcely touched your dinner.”
“I’m perfectly well, thank you.” The words were polite, but the manner of speaking was so cold, so rude, that he might as well have said, “Mind your own business.”
“And to drink so much wine on an empty stomach—it’s not healthy.”
Now he did tell me to mind my own business. “I seem surrounded by women who think they know more about my life than I do myself.”
“Jay! Aunt Calliope was only concerned about your well-being!”
Jay stood so quickly that he knocked over his wine glass. As the red stained the white linens which the Countess’s grandmother had embroidered, his eyes glittered and his hands began to shake. He squeezed the damp spot on the cloth and licked his fingers and then, as if realizing how we all were staring at him, gave an embarrassed laugh and bolted from the room.
We stared at one another in dismay, but no one could speak. Instead, in unspoken accord, we all began to rise from the table, when the door opened to admit the Countess herself.
So many pens more gifted than my own have described the beauty and presence of the Countess J—that I will not add to their words. Tonight, although she was fatigued, seeming almost asleep, she still held herself erect. She wasn’t wearing the famous emerald necklace of the House of J–, but had draped a green scarf around her neck instead. She remembered me, although we’d only met twice before, and turned her charming smile on me.
“You had a difficult journey here, yes?”
I was astonished that she knew, but merely murmured an assent.
“All journeys to the castle these days seem fraught with difficulties. But Maude will see that you are well housed. Tell Jean-Philippe that your aunt may stay in the guest tower.”
“I thought she might share my room, Countess,” Maude said.
“The guest tower, child. We are not deficient in rooms here in the castle.”
That was a command, and Maude could only acquiesce. As the Countess ate—very sparingly—Jay returned and began reading dispatches to her, ignoring the rest of us. The countess, too, paid us no further heed, bowing her head over her clasped hands and listening to his voice, which was soft, and hypnotic only by virtue of its monotone, not from any special eloquence. The countess moved only once, to tell the rest of us we might leave the room.
I myself know nothing of castle politics or decorum, but I felt compelled to beg Maude to leave at once and return with me to C–. This heavy atmosphere was no place for a healthy girl. And if Jay were to continue to act so coldly, so rudely, and the countess to be seemingly under his spell, then no good could come of Maude’s remaining.
My girl resolutely refused to consider “such craven behavior,” and yet she was afraid, finding it hard to leave me in the guest tower. Finally, around midnight, when I was feeling too overcome with fatigue for further conversation, I promised to leave a light burning in the window. The guest tower lay directly across from the Countess’s private apartments, with the rose garden between them. Maude could look to my light and be somewhat less lonely in the night.
I slept for perhaps two hours, before a noise roused me. The candle I’d left in the window was burning still; some instinct made me cross the floor on my hands and knees, so that the flame would not cast my shadow on the walls of the room.
I knelt at the casement and looked into the garden. The noise, a kind of snuffling, came again, and I watched in horror as a large wolf appeared. It was carrying something in its mouth. In the moonlight, it was impossible to see colors, but it looked like the green silk scarf the countess had been wearing at dinner.
I darted from the room and ran down the four flights of stairs to the garden. The door was locked; on the far side I heard the snuffling, chuckling sound of the wolf. I ran up the first flight of stairs and found a window that opened, and launched myself onto the wolf’s back. His snuffles turned to an outraged howl.
I jumped away and ran through the garden, looking for the countess. The wolf was far faster than I; he knocked me to the ground and stood over me, eyes glittering red in the darkness, his breath wet and heavy on my face, his tongue licking my throat. I scrabbled frantically among the plants and grabbed one of the stakes the gardeners used to tied the roses. Scarcely knowing what I did, I plunged it up into his belly.
He fell away from me, howling loudly, writhing in the grass. My arms were trembling so violently I couldn’t move, but finally, he lay still. And in that moment, the moment of death, he assumed a mortal human shape, that of Jay.
I turned in horror from the sight, and found Maude at my side. Jay’s death howl had wakened her, and she ran to the garden. When she saw the scarf, abandoned near us in the struggle, she cried, “The Countess!”
We found her sleeping beneath one of the benches, blood from the open wound at her neck staining the front of her frock. Even as we looked, though, the wound seemed to be healing, and, by the time we had carried her inside and given her into Jean-Philippe’s capable hands, only the blood on her dress served as a reminder of her near encounter with the world of the Undead.
“The scarf,” Maude whispered. “I didn’t understand why she no longer wore her emeralds, but—she knew she had to conceal that dreadful bite. Oh! To think he and I once were—“
She could say no more, but flung herself into my arms.
“Working in the seat of power has turned stronger heads than Jay’s,” I said. “Don’t judge him too harshly. Remember him as your childhood friend, not as the Vampire of W–. “