I was the one who welcomed her to my master’s home, and the moment I opened the great oak door I realised that none of our lives would ever be the same.
She met my eye for only a second, then looked down, her cheeks colouring, as if I might think she didn’t deserve to be there, gave a little curtsey. I bowed, deeper than the curtsey, reminding us both of our respective places. There had been a number of women who had visited the castle, beautiful to one degree or another, but each time within days my master would be pacing his study floor as if confined to a cage, asking me whether I thought she was too talkative, whether that laugh , endearing though it was now, might come to grate in time, if that harpsichord was out of tune or whether it was her playing. I would often play the woman’s advocate, because I am not unkind, but also because I knew he had made his mind up and she would be sent away in a carriage with gifts and furs and perhaps some sense of relief. Then it would just be us, in the castle again. The life we had led for so many years.
This one though, I knew. It shone through her. She would not be leaving in any carriage.
“Welcome,” I said. “I am the Beast’s man. Anything you need, I am always at your service.”
“Thank you,” she said, and blushed again. “I’m sure I’ll not trouble you.”
I was sure she would trouble me greatly, but it would not be out of malice, and I would not be able to dislike her for it. It is the world turning, I thought. Everything ends and new beginnings happen. I knew it would happen one day.
I smelled my master before he stepped around the corner and blocked the light with his powerful, wide shoulders, that scent halfway between cat and bear, a musk of animal and skin and straw and rutting.
“You’ve met, I see,” he growled, the bass of his voice warm in my bones.
“I’ll have your luggage taken up, and will show you to your rooms, ma’am.” She started to curtsey, and I gave my head a gentle shake, so gentle almost no one would have noticed, or understood. But she did, stood back up straight.
“Bring her to me when she is ready,” my master said. “In the library.” He turned to her, gave his deep bow that made him look as if he were coiled to spring from his haunches, to seize and devour, and I took her luggage and brought her into our castle.
Four days later, he called me to his study late at night. The air smelled of his musk, but now her perfume, too. He stood, then stretched, and I watched the slow ripple of muscle move below his skin down his neck and under his ruffled shirt across his wide shoulders.
“What do you think?”
“My honest opinion?”
“Have you ever given me otherwise?” He stepped close to me, and I could feel the heat of him, the power of him.
“No, my lord, not in the many years I have served you. And I would not.”
I stood still for a moment. Then said, “It may have only been four days, but I am uncertain why you have not married her already, master.”
He roared a laugh, a hot gust of his breath flowing over me like a wave.
“So am I,” he said. “But marry her, I will.”
I gave him my congratulations, and then I ran him his bath, and took his clothes as he stripped for it and padded into the steam from it that hid him from my sight like mist at dawn.
On the morning of their wedding, I brought flowers to her room. When I knocked and she called out for me to enter, I assumed she would have stepped behind a screen, but when I came in she was stood in the middle of the room, in front of a mirror, her wedding dress settled over her like snowfall over a statue.
“Is it not unlucky?” I said, awkward and hovering between room and door.
“Not for you, silly,” she said. “Only for him.” She made a slow twirl, the material a comet’s tail trailing a second behind her.
“You look beautiful.” She did, but it wasn’t the dress or the train or her shoes. It was the light that shone from her face.
“Thank you,” she said, and danced her way over to me. “I’m so happy,” she whispered, and slipped her delicate, fragile hand into mine and squeezed.
“I wish you both the greatest of happiness for all your lives,” I said, and squeezed her hand back.
And I meant it. I really did. Even though it meant an end to mine.
After, I went back to my room, and I took out the one ruffled shirt that I held back from the laundry every week and kept for myself, and I buried my face in it and breathed in the beauty and sadness of his rank musk as if I were taking the last breath of my life.
ain was placed second in the 2020 Costa Short Story Award; his first novel was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger and the Bath Novel Award, and he is a Northern Writers’ Award winner. You can find him on Twitter @iainrowan or at iainrowan.com.