Two hours later, after being fed, scrubbed, and clothed, the twins stood stiffly in Madame Avery’s parlor. The Madame paced around each of them in turn, tugging at the seams of their new accoutrements.
The dress fit loosely, but Gretel didn’t mind that as much as she hated the shoes. They fit too tightly and pinched her toes.
Madame Avery tugged at a shiny black button on Hansel’s new velvet vest. “Ample room to grow, my dear boy, ample room.” She patted the vest smooth and paced back to Gretel.
“I hope, dear, that it doesn’t take you too long to fill this out. I have quite a collection of dresses for you now that you will be better fed than your stepmother could manage.” Even though her words were laced with wealthy conceit, Madame’s voice also carried warmth and concern.
Gretel had expected someone like Lilith, slender bodied with golden ringlets caressing her long neck, and cleavage forced up from a tightly wound corset. Madame appeared both young and mature, fuller bodied, with a bust just contained by her collar and smooth skin shadowed beneath a delicate golden chain that disappeared between her breasts. Madame did not fuss with ringlets, but smoothed her dark hair into a neat coif, all of it swept back to emphasize her very large, very intense black eyes.
Gretel wanted to like her, wanted to be happy to escape Lilith’s pale golden clutches, but all she could think about was being home when Father came back. Hansel, on the other hand, looked perfectly content, smiling at their new mistress and stealing quick glances at Orlick standing by the window of the lavishly appointed parlor.
The sun shifted and burst into a prism through the cut glass of the lead window, painting Orlick’s white streak in rainbow hues. He turned and smiled at Hansel, then walked over to take Madame’s hand. He kissed it, and Madame noted a color rush to Hansel’s cheeks.
Madame’s skin was smooth, Gretel noticed immediately, smooth, creamy, and enchanting in an ageless way. But her hands were different. They didn’t belong. Veins spidered through discolored patches of skin that stretched over skeletal fingers, the joints disproportionately large.
“Dears, Anna is the house mistress. She will show you each to your chores. Gretel, you will work in the kitchen with Anna, and Hansel, dear,” Madame ran her hand down the length of his arm and took his hand, watching Orlick subtly, “you will work in the stables with Fitch. The fresh air will help you fill out your new vest.”
Hansel’s flush deepened a shade, “Thank you.”
“Anna could take Gretel directly to the kitchen, and I could take Hansel to the stables, if it pleases Madame, of course.” Orlick finished with a bow.
Madame’s serene expression of appraisal tightened to a scowl, and she nodded toward the doorway that led from the parlor to the dining hall and from there to the kitchen.
“Anna is prepared for the task. I think, Mr. Orlick, that you need to stay here for a brief word.”
Orlick flushed at that, and the twins turned to an uneven shuffling behind them. A slender figure walked slowly into the parlor from the dining hall shadows. She couldn’t be much older than the twins’ sixteen years, plain and pleasant to look on, with nothing unique about her at all.
Except her walk. She did not walk like a young woman. Anna placed each foot carefully, as if she couldn’t see very far in front of her and was careful not to trip on something and fall.
“Go, children. I paid a good price for your bones. I will house you, clothe you, and feed you, and I expect you to work for it.”
Hansel swallowed and Gretel pushed him to follow the house mistress. As they passed through the doorway, Gretel hung back while Anna shuffled on with Hansel behind her.
She tucked herself in a corner and peered carefully past the ornate casing at her new mistress.
Madame Avery turned on Orlick, her dark eyes burning.
“Madame,” Orlick began nervously. He rarely displeased her, with good reason. “I assure you—”
“Orlick, I need virgin blood. Every season you travel farther and bring fewer home. I need him wholly innocent, purely perfect,” she hissed out from her full, blood-red lips. “The sister, well, she is a lost cause. She knows too much of the world already; I can only imagine how she’s been used by that idiot stepmother of hers. But the boy…if the boy is tainted in any way, I will know, Orlick. I can taste immorality. I can even smell yours.”
Orlick stepped back and lowered his eyes to his shoes, his heart beating erratically beneath her beautiful raptor gaze.
“I see you understand,” Madame Avery smiled and clasped her hands neatly at her waist. “I am ready for them. A father and a son, you said?”
“Yes, Madame. The son is pure.”
“The father won’t be much use to me, poor man, but perhaps he enjoys hunting?”
Gretel slipped off the shoes and slowly backed away. Tiptoeing down the hallway, she quickly caught up to Hansel and Anna. As she slowed to the tedious gait of the house mistress, Gretel slid her hand in Hansel’s.
He shook her off and walked tall in his new clothes. “You’re not my mother.”
That night, Gretel woke from nightmares. Hansel’s snores filled the small attic room, and Gretel listened, her heart eventually pacing Hansel’s even rhythm until a new sound crept into the brief silences.
She slid out of bed and tiptoed to the window, shivering even though the tower attic was warm, and cranked open the window. Hounds bayed in the distance, the canine song carried by a soft breeze over the trees.
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