After a period of uncomfortable silence, a quiet man stepped around the screen. His clothes were more costly than those of the man who sat in the chair to my right. The pale yellow of the doublet looked to be something like the silk that my father had purchased from the East, reflecting the light with a sheen that looked almost golden. The thin man stood at his lord's right hand at a stance reflecting attentiveness. His pale blond hair was plaited into a braid that rested upon his shoulder, with a bow of the same color as his doublet at the end. He would have seemed a dandy except for the solemn expression on his face.
"Auguste," the lord of Winterwood said, "Bring this young woman to her quarters. See that a maid is provided for her, one who is close to her age. You know what must be done." Auguste gave a half bow to my captor and then turned his pale blue eyes upon me as he straightened. Something like pity was in them as he stepped up to me and offered his arm.
"Please, come with me," he said. I looked down at the unfinished cup of wine and then around me, uncertain where to place it. Auguste took the cup from my hand and set it upon the table. I started to take the blanket off of my lap when he returned and lifted it. With a deft hand, he quickly folded the woolen thing and set it back upon the chair where it began. He then took my hand and helped me to my feet.
As he lead me away from the taciturn man sitting at the fire, he seemed to become less tense the farther away we went. We were half way down a corridor when Auguste spoke. "Once a year, he demands tribute. It is not wealth he seeks, but a wife," he said very quietly, "A woman comes for a fortnight and then is sent back to her family. This usually happens in the spring. Winter is a black season for him." I wanted to ask him to explain but his hold upon my right hand hardened. "He is a man of unusual tastes. I only knew of one like him when I was a young man in my homeland. None have managed to ... bring him peace," Auguste continued in his quiet, cautious tone, "Be cautious, Miss. His mood is fickle this time of year. His hungers are stronger because of it."
We stopped before a door that was heavily ornamented. Auguste let go of my hand and took a key out from his pocket. He unlocked the door and lit a lantern within. I walked in and found myself in what seemed an elegant antechamber of sorts. A chaise lounge was before a window that had shutters closed and dark red velvet curtains drawn. Gold trim was heavy upon them, making it all but impossible for a draft to move them. A small desk with a chair sat across the room from it with a painting hung over it. A cloth hung over it. As I approached it, Auguste quickly stepped before me. He lightly set a hand on my shoulder to stay me. "Do not move the curtain," he said, "Never touch it. It is forbidden. As are other things, which Rochelle will explain to you. Abide by the rules and remain as ... quiet as you can, and I expect your liberty will be returned to you with out any harm."
"It is cold in here," I said to him and he nodded.
"I will light a fire in the next room. You can wait for Rochelle there. I will have a brazier brought so that this room will be warmed as well." As he opened the door to the next room, I looked over at the covered painting. Auguste called to me as he lit a fire in the fireplace of the next room, "Unlike the others, you have an excellent chance of his kindness. Even during this dark time of the year. Remember to be careful what you say, though. If he thinks you are inclined towards him, he may not let you go for a very long time."
"Why are you telling me all of this?" I asked as I walked into a spacious bedroom. He straightened as the tinder caught and the fire began to snap merrily. His expression as he looked down at the growing flames was filled with something that looked like regret.
"I can not spare you from this fate," he said, very quietly, "I can, however, help you to move through this with as little trouble as possible." He then briskly moved away from the fireplace and began lighting lamps.
I walked towards him. "This doesn't tell me why, sir," I said. Auguste looked over at me, his face seemed older in the light of the fire and the lit lamps.
"There is a monster here," Auguste said, "You have not yet seen his face. Once, there was one who could tame him. She is no more and he seeks another to stand in her place. Others have broken under that weight. I tried to help them. I do not wish to see him suffer but it is far worse to see those innocent souls endure what she did. Remember, Miss. Do not touch the curtain or disturb it in anyway."
He took his lamp with him as he left. When the door into the hallway was shut, I heard the key in the lock. I looked around the bedroom. It was richly appointed. Though it was a comfortable room and far finer than what my father owned before his fortunes turned ill, I knew this room was still a prison. A gilded cage was still a cage.