In the Land of Stories Old
They all set to cleaning things up the very next day, and the cleaning continued for a week and then a bit more than that. The castle was indeed filthy, and not just because of all the dust—although everyone hated the dust most of all, because there were piles and drifts of it everywhere and not one of them had forgotten that it was the remains of innocent people. Burying it had been discussed, but there was too much of it to make that a reasonable option. Throwing it into the sea was out for the same reason, and it was too fine to put in bags even if they’d had enough bags to try it. The final solution ended up being hauling it all via wheelbarrow to a bare stone courtyard at the back of the castle and setting it on fire, where it burned up quickly and left very little ash but put off plumes of dense gray smoke that seemed to have human shapes milling around in them.
It took days to burn it all, and the entire castle smelled of its rank smoke; the stones of the courtyard were also permanently scarred by the fire. The king had nothing to say about it save that they’d never really used that courtyard anyway and after having his say he’d seemed to have no further interest in the matter, but Snow thought it could be a memorial space for all of the witch’s victims. And so Arthur had gone out and found a large stone which was moved into the center of that courtyard after all of the burning was done, and the triplets and Jack made a finely engraved metal plaque for it that marked it as a monument to all those who had been killed in the Black Castle by the foul witch known as Queen Consort Regina. Snow had gathered what flowers she could find to make a wreath, and she said some words of sincere sorrow and gratitude as she placed it which made the ancient stones of the castle sigh although neither she nor the six princes in attendance were entirely sure that was what they’d heard.
Hans looked up when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, a flash of purple and ermine moving away from one of the windows high above, and he frowned, leaning over to whisper in Jack’s ear. King White had flatly refused to be part of the little ceremony, and he had been acting rather strange and jumpy. Perhaps they needed to be keeping a closer eye on him…
King White wandered back to his office with a lot on his mind. His new office, that was. He never wanted to see the inside of the old one again, and he’d sealed the doors with a board to keep everyone else out as well. Even though ‘everyone else’ at present was his just daughter and six cursed dwarfs and one newly uncursed mage-prince who was said to be still too injured to do more than lift his head. And the ghosts, of course, but there was no keeping them out of anything and even if there had been the king wouldn’t have tried. He could only see them occasionally out of the corners of his eyes, but he could feel them everywhere and he considered their barely-there presence a penance of sorts, his penance. A hundred-odd people would still be alive if he’d not thrown his responsibilities to the winds over a cursed pretty face. That the foreign mage-prince lying helpless in a guest room up on the third floor had been willing to sacrifice his very life just to save Snow, and his equally cursed dwarf friends had fought so hard to help…well, it shamed him. He’d done nothing to save his people, and had only saved his precious daughter by blindly sending her away.
And then she’d snuck back in to find out what had happened to him, and nearly lost her life because of it. King White dropped into the high-backed chair behind his desk and stared at the paper-scattered mahogany surface morosely. His daughter was happy because she had him back and she had her prince and she had friends who had apparently come to care for her deeply and vice-versa. He couldn’t deny they seemed to be good boys, every one of them, and hard workers as well. The halls had been cleared of dust as much as possible, rooms had been cleaned and made fit for occupation, and even some broken windows and stonework had been repaired. He himself had sent out a royal summons or four which had brought a few bolder souls up to the castle to speak with him, or at least to see if he actually was who he said he was, but those meetings for the most part hadn’t gone well. One man had even attempted to draw a knife in his presence, but had fallen insensate to the flagged floor before the blade had even cleared its sheath because one of the dwarfs, the golden-haired one who sounded like he was from Isle Fantastique, had an invisibility cloak. Not that anyone was aware of that, of course, and so word had quickly spread in the town that the returned king was protected by ever-loyal ghosts—if they only knew! There was a reason he’d refused to have anything to do with the ‘memorial’ his daughter and the dwarfs had put together—and there had so far been no more attempts on his life. But the rumors hadn’t helped with getting more staff, as King White assumed that no one wanted to work in a castle which was thought to be extremely haunted. He was beginning to be afraid he and Snow and the mage would be living in the castle like peasants for the foreseeable future, and without the dwarf called Hans they would already doing all their own cooking.
Thinking of Hans made him want to rub his stomach in satisfaction. The auburn-haired dwarf was a wizard in the kitchen, no doubt about it, and there was a very small part of him that wished Snow had picked him to fall in love with instead of the mage. It wouldn’t have mattered if he were a prince or not when uncursed, his skill was definitely worth a royal hand in marriage in a food-loving family like theirs.
Of course, the mage had nearly died to save her, so there was that—courage he appeared to have in plenty. And he was a kind-hearted boy, even as a wooden rabbit the king hadn’t sensed any meanness in him. He was powerful too, supposedly, and his connection to Avalon would only be a boon to the kingdom in the future. Truly the only thing King White thought he really had against the mage was his looks. The boy was just too pretty, and it would definitely cause problems later once the castle was full of people again. The courtiers’ wives would be panting after him, the maids would make doe eyes, and men who wanted something from Snow once she became queen would doubtless bring their most attractive unmarried sisters and aunts and cousins as part of their retinue in hopes of ‘encouraging’ the mage to sway his wife’s mind in their favor. And it would work too, because although the boy did apparently love Snow right now, what man wouldn’t have his head turned by beautiful women seeking to trade favors for favor? He didn’t think his daughter would believe him if he tried to warn her about that, however, especially as he had no desire or intention to explain to her that his warning was coming from personal experience. And he wasn’t sure trying to put the fear of anything into the leader of the so-called ‘Fearless Seven’ would do him any good, although it might make the mage decide to ferret out his secrets and then use them to turn Snow against him. No, he would just have to watch and wait and try to be there for his daughter when the inevitable happened.
It really was a pity Snow hadn’t chosen Hans to uncurse. Or that the mage hadn’t just died saving her.
Jack took off his invisibility cloak once he was a good distance away from the king’s new study and went to find Hans and the others. He wasn’t sure what the king had been thinking about, but it had put a look on his face which Jack had found extremely disturbing. Hans was right, they should probably keep a closer eye on the man until they found out what was going on.
In the Land of Stories Old