Previous canto: "Silence of the Woods"
by Kevin F. Story
“Thank you, sir, for letting us in,” said James, trying to elicit some response. “We are travellers searching for a place to stay the night. Is this an inn?”
The oddly dressed man did not respond, but instead drifted away to another part of the house as if trapped in an unseen current of water. James and the prince looked at each other. Delfort shrugged. James began his usual inspection of the wonders in the room, which was filled with various curiosities, exotic trinkets and baubles. Nearing the stove, he leapt back and gasped in fright at a large black-and-white striped panther curled up before him.
“Do you suppose it's dangerous?” asked James as Delfort gaped at it himself.
“Hardly,” creaked a woman's voice behind them. Turning slowly to face the crone, they instead met eyes with an alluring figure of femininity their own age. Indeed, her long hair was almost pure white, but the rest of her was slight, smooth, and pale as ivory. She wore a sky-blue dress trimmed in black and white and bustled in the back. Pinned to her hair was a matching hat, dainty and lacy. Her immodesty bordered on indecency in regards to her bosom, which seemed ready to rend the dress's thin ties. Her big blue eyes beckoned over her tiny square spectacles, peered at the two boys before them.
“Don't worry,” she said. “It's stuffed—not in the sense of having had too much to eat, but in the sense of having died and then having had a barrel of sawdust put inside of it. Go on. Touch it.”
Tentatively, James turned and bent to put a hand on the creature. “Roar!” James jumped back. The woman laughed and cackled. “Sorry. I love doing that.”
James, embarrassed, scratched his chest and looked at the ground.
“How may I help you fine young men?”
Delfort finally found his voice and worked hard to maintain control. “Is this an inn? We would like to spend the night.”
The woman drew her lips into a smile. “I am sure we can find a room for you.”
“Excellent. James, would you get our things while I sort things out?”
James was all too happy to escape for the moment. He left with his head bent, nodding slightly as he passed the woman. He had to come close to her to get through the doorway, as she did not yield to let him pass easily, and he was forced to smell her perfume, of lilacs and rosewater.
Now that Delfort was alone with the woman, he became uneasy. She fixed her gaze on him. Delfort's eyes darted elsewhere, around the room.
“How far are we from Vaslegas?” asked Delfort.
“Is that what you seek? You are not far.” She slowly approached the prince. “The question is, does he seek the money, does he seek the fame, or does he seek—Well, that's not important. He can have them all, if he wants.” She struck something of a pose, with one hand smoothing the front of her dress, the other perched behind her head, which she turned slightly, and her chest pushed up even more. “What do you think?”
Delfort avoided looking. “Nice room,” he blurted.
The woman giggled in her cackling way. “And what do you think,” she asked, “of me?”
“You?” Now he had to look. Delfort found himself caught between the woman and the stuffed panther. “You are... Well... You are the most beautiful... I mean... I've never seen....” The prince faltered at words.
She blushed. “You are too kind, young man.”
“What is your name?”
Now she turned away from Delfort. She turned to a shelf of trinkets and shifted them here and there. “I am known simply as ‘The Madam,’” she said. “It keeps things simple. Professional. Yes?”
“Madam? Surely you are too young—”
She whipped around to him. “Tut! My age is of no consequence. A man who asks a woman's age is asking for trouble. Why should it matter? We are simply beautiful,” she said with her eyes twinkling, “or we are not.”
Delfort now could smell the Madam's perfume, and it made his legs feel shaky. She put a hand to his cheek. “You, young man, are quite handsome. Princely.”
Did she know? thought Delfort.
“Yes. Very handsome.”
Without warning, she kissed his lips. Delfort's eyes went wide.
She pulled away. “Oh! I should not have done that.”
Delfort now saw a snowy mountain, where there was an icy cave, where he saw the Madam sitting among soft white blankets. It was warm despite the snow. She waved to him; he floated in midair, off at a distance. The snow fell around him, below him. He wanted to go to her, but he could not move. He told his arms to flap like a bird's wing, but they hung limply at his sides. He told his legs to kick, but they were missing. The Madam wanted him to come to her, but he was powerless to do anything about it. He was stuck.
Prince Delfort's adventure continues next week in "Where?"...