Chapter XX - Flames and Secrets
Pebbles sifted beneath Athena's feet, making sloshing sounds like murky water in an old pail. It had just rained and was about to rain some more. Today was the first day the girl didn't transform into a cat to travel to Beochaoineadh Castle; but then, she hadn't transformed in months.
She wore a new dress—one her mother had made for her—by demand. It was plain and white and billowy, like clouds, with a silvery ribbon tied around the waistline. Her curls were rolled up in a cloudy gray cloth and fastened down with hairpins, nice and tight. Appropriate fashion for a housekeeper.
Her legs stiffened, forcing her to walk as a corpse, straining to reach the World Beyond for her judgment. Beochaoineadh Castle's silver and black walls—the jaws of Hell—sucked her inside. Athena could not see a thing, but heard the building breathing: long, slow breaths like a sleeping beast. All was dark—so unlike the castle she had come to know months before—the castle she had once loved and yet—
"So, you have decided to come back."
Athena lifted her eyes, though she saw nothing. The sound hailed from Sir Claudius, but it was not the soft croon she had stored in her memory—rather, his voice was gruff and cold, unforgiving.
"Yes, Sir," she bowed her head, hoping he could see her, somehow… "I have come back to work, as promised."
She heard footsteps coming down the stairway from the Master's quarters—slow, in a steady rhythm. "The promise, Miss Everleigh, was not that you would come back, but that you would write."
The girl winced. "I-I know, Sir. Do forgive me. I've been terribly busy."
"But for months?!" he roared.
In the black darkness, a small sliver of light broke through—an arrow shooting to its target. It was a flame, traveling out of Sir Claudius's mouth and into the Grand Hall. Athena shrieked, covered her face, and sprinted out of the way. The flame hit the floor, shaking and shivering on the stone ground before dissipating into the thick air. Then, all was black again.
Athena sobbed, gasping for air. She trembled in the cold darkness until a familiar gloved hand reached out to her.
"Athena? Athena?!" Sir Claudius yelled. "Are you alright?" He was shaking just as much as she was.
"Y-yes, Sir." Her knees buckled and she collapsed on the ground.
"Athena!" he called, groping onto her wrist, his voice breaking. "Did the flame strike you?"
"No…" she whispered. "It only gave me a fright, Sir."
He sighed in relief. "Thank goodness! I don't know what I would have done… if it had struck you." The man's words trailed off.
"What happened?" Athena asked, coming back to her senses.
"It's the dragon in me… Miss Everleigh. I cannot control it." Sir Claudius took her by the hand and assisted her while she stood up. "Whenever I become—unreasonably furious, the dragon side of me will come out. Most of the time, in the form of a flame. I can also summon the flames sometimes on command, but not always."
"It is a part of the curse, Miss Everleigh. I'm not truly human, you know," he spoke, as though discussing a rank, filthy animal in a mucky pen. "I'm so sorry, Miss Everleigh.
"It is alright. You have every reason to be 'furious' with me," she said, monotone and distant—without even a slight hint of charm or glint to her voice.
"No, it was improper—inhumane—of me to do such a thing, and I apologize. I knew you would not write anyway, so I have no reason to be angry."
Athena bowed her head, crying silent tears.
"I will light the fire, Miss Everleigh. I know you cannot see." She nodded her head and he went away to strike the fire. Once lit, Athena promptly sat down in the old chair she had rested in several months before. She closed her eyes, feeling the warmth encasing her form and filling her up. But as soon as she opened them, she wished she hadn't. The walls surrounding her had black stains on them—and not just stains from mold or rain seeping in through cracks, but fire. Burn marks resided on every wall in sight. Not only that, but the maroon curtains were shriveled up, burnt to a crisp, with only slight pieces of fabric swaying over the windows—just enough to not let any light in.
"Sir Claudius…" Athena mumbled, twisting her neck, taking in every black, burnt corner of the Grand Hall and common area.
"I know, Miss Everleigh… I meant to forewarn you of the state of the castle, but could not bring myself to do it, for I knew you were enjoying yourself in Dublin."
"Did you do… all of this?"
Sir Claudius lifted his head for the first time, catching a glimpse of Miss Everleigh. He was not sure if it was the lighting of the fireplace or the grayness of Dublin, but for whatever reason, the girl was paler than he remembered. No freckles, no color to her skin—she was almost reminiscent to him in complexion. His mouth hung agape before words fell over him. "Yes, Miss Everleigh, I did all of this."
She nodded and bowed her head. "I will clean it all up then."
"I had planned to order new curtains, Miss Everleigh, and a few other things. Unfortunately, the stone walls cannot be replaced, but I'm sure I can do something to fix them."
"Yes, Sir. Whatever you would have me do, I shall."
Sir Claudius stared into Athena's eyes. They were no longer blue, like the wild, vicious oceans that tore the shore apart—but were silver, like the tame and docile clouds. I've frightened her… broken her…. "Miss Everleigh, I know you said you were busy, but is there any other reason why you never wrote? Please, I am merely curious—no longer furious." He tried looking her in the eyes, sincere and caring, but she would not look back.
Her eyes flew about the room, like a bird trying to escape its cage—all over the stone walls and fireplace and furniture, but never once meeting his own. "I… Sir Claudius, I… was—afraid."
"When I went to a dress shop in early June—only a few days after I arrived in Dublin," she wrung her hands together, "it accidentally slipped out of my mouth that…" Her eyes focused on his boots. "That… I worked for someone."
Sir Claudius stiffened, a snake caught in the middle of a road with a carriage driving straight toward it.
"I didn't mean to, honest," she spoke. "I found a dress I adored, and tried to pay for it, but my Aunt Helena asked me where the money came from…. It's so hard for me to lie to her because I can never tell what she is thinking… and it just slipped! I didn't tell her who you were of course, even when she prodded. I asked her to keep it a secret because everyone else in my family believes my father got a new job—when, in fact, I got a new job. She kept the secret because she dislikes my father but trusts me. Actually, the more I spoke with her, the more she said that I reminded her of a younger version of herself. But… phew! If it had not been for Henri that one day—"
"Oh, I forgot! Henri was the man who worked at the dress shop, and he—"
"What did he look like?"
Athena was taken aback. "Oh, middle-aged, with blonde hair. He was a little bit taller than me and much shorter than you… He had wonderful handiwork, Sir. I will bring the dress one day and—"
Sir Claudius raised his hand, hushing the girl. He turned away, his body caving in on itself. "Henri… is alive?"
Athena's heart plummeted to the floor, sinking. "Y-yes? Do you… know him?" She leaned back in her seat, clenching her teeth and wringing her hands.
"He was the last apprentice before you."
End of Part II - The Curse of the Clan