As if words were never spoken or exchanged, the old woman and the girl immediately shift from their position to face the outside of the room. I can't see the expressions on their faces, so my eyes drift instead to the stiff formality of their backs and their clasped hands settling onto their hips.
Heads tipped down, they bow low with knees bent towards the silk screen.
"These servants greet their lord!" the old woman proclaims formally for the two of them. Her voice is now eerily deferential. Even the girl beside her does not speak; her body language is completely opposite of the expressions of haughtiness and pride I saw before: fearful and respectful.
"Bring it out to see me. "
The voice that retreats from the outside is booming and low. Each syllable is heavily pronounced, the sounds rolled into the deep booming growl of a creature that must surely be larger than three horses, or perhaps a small mountain, if it cannot enter this place.
"Yes," the old woman responds dutifully, and the two of them rise.
Wordlessly, she and the girl turn to me, but their eyes never reach mine. Still lowered, the girl who said she was a fox spirit pulls away the lush, fresh-smelling comforter from my legs. Legs, I am anxious to see, that seem alright and are dressed in loose, linen drawstring pants.
I move them slowly to the edge of the bed, surprised that I can move without pain.
As the old woman offers an arm for me to take, her other snaking under my arm to around my waist, I realize further that I no longer wear the jewelry I was adorned with, nor the robes I was dressed with. Upon the loose fit of these pants, I have on a long white tunic with sleeves that cut off mid-forearm, also linen. My limbs are bare of finery. Around my neck is corded leather looped once loosely, and from the second loop hangs a hand-carved jade block with an intricate design of some sort.
My first shock is that I can even walk properly; my weight keeps even on my feet, even as the old woman helps support me.
The fox spirit extracts one slim hand from her robes. She flicks it in a small semi-circle from her wrist, and with it, the silk screen slides to the side, and I blink my way into the sunlight and then to the lord of this realm.
My breath catches my throat. My heart pounds wildly.
Before I can stop myself, I've uttered, "Oh."
The old woman stiffens. The girl, who has been following behind, almost runs into us, before she quickly kneels.
Before me, the Beast stands proud. "You have awakened, human."
Voice alone is enough to make my knees tremble and my body quake. I'm seized with the desire to kowtow, but I'm frozen at his appearance.
Still, such a magnificent creature seems beyond gender.
I've only read descriptions of the Beast's appearance. Now, I see them with my own eyes. Antlers adorn scalp before large folded ox ears, and scales shimmer in the sunlight along a long snake neck and body. They slither along to tiger hind legs, and my eyes rest finally on an underbelly like a turtle's. The Beast resembles a mishmash of creatures, like a chance creation of a god seeking art in power.
The Beast's demonic eyes, golden with black slits, freeze me to my spot.
He moves large eagle-like claws that could snap an ox in half, and exposes curving large teeth that could strip flesh in one bite. Almost mountainous and his tail magnificent, he lowers his head.
His mouth opens over me, breath hot.
My body trembles as the the fiery tempt of heat snakes down my back, shoulders jerking in shock. It's a traumatic reaction to the fire, I think. I force myself to stiffen, almost imagining the bead of sweat trickling down between my shoulder blades.
"I have not," the Beast rumbles over my terrified skull, "seen a human quite like you." His large head withdraws as he settles comfortably on his haunches, and my own relief settles when I can breathe cool air again. "Then again," a single claw rakes across one of his two whiskers, and his nostrils flare, "I have not had a living human in quite some time. Fire masks the taste."
Had? Taste? Is the Beast going to eat me?
Around him, his retinue has circled the area. It's made of men and women and even what appear to be children, each with a flawless impossible appearance. Heads bowed, they are dressed in servant garbs of various rankings and materials, and stand like statues.
No doubt, they're at ease and peaceful at the idea.
I fall to my knees. The old woman holding me up lets me go. My face planted into the dirt, my entire body shakes.
I'm not sure how I'm supposed to beg him, or convince this monster. If he wanted, he could snap those jaws over my entire upper body and rip me apart. I know I would die screaming.
Is this what being one of the chosen means? Being eaten alive?
"Convince me, then," the evil thing laughs down at me. The earth seems to rumble with him, shaking with the easy thrash of his tail.
Those eyes are upon me. I can feel them, and cold sweat I didn't know I could still feel drips down my face. My heart thunders in my throat.
"I am not," the Beast continues, "lacking for beauty among me. For what should the Master of this realm keep you instead of eat you? Will you talk of your charred almost undead flesh, a feast for monsters such as we?"
Around us, the atmosphere of his retinue seems almost menacing, like stage masks of untold glee at inopportune fortune.
How I answer will decide my fate.
I can't think. I don't know how to.
I say the first thing that comes to mind, which is, "I am ugly, for a human."