Not long after, I'm pulled to my feet, brought to a separate building, and stripped of my outer clothing. Numb, I barely hear the instructions of my caretakers. Eventually, one of them helps me climb up onto the step stool, while the other keeps my balance and sits me in some large cylinder.
The temperature of the water doesn't hurt me, but the women ask anyway. In my silence, they depart. I'm left alone.
I don't know how long it takes it takes me until shock wears off. All I know is that I suddenly smell and notice the scented candles lit in the room. My few fingers are pruney. My legs cramp from where I sit crammed with my knees to my chin. I'm inside a wooden bathtub filled to the brim with opaque warm water. Flower petals float upon its surface. And...
It's quiet. Peaceful.
My skin and wounds aren't in pain. When I lift my arms to inspect, the colour and texture is what you can expect. Luckily, the worst of it all is hidden under the cloudiness of the water. Closing my eyes, I bend my head down to sniff the inside of my wrist. Not only do I feel cleansed, it seems I even have the faintest scent of flowers sticking to me instead of fire.
It's not...particularly unpleasant. But like this place, the quiet is eerie, and the unknown is even scarier. A suddenly uneasy feeling tells me I can't be alone.
I look up and around, splashing the water slightly as I reach out with the full arm to grip the edge of the wooden bathtub. The spacious room is quietly lit by two thin-wooded palace lanterns covered with patterned silk hang on the corners of linking rafter beams. The lanterns cast a glow below over the benches at the corners of this place and a clothes rack. It's the reddish-black and lacquered with carefully carved lattices and figures. On it, a long tunic similar in the style I wore earlier today is carefully folded open and over a dark set of pants.
No one is here.
I've barely finished the word when the doors press open and almost silent footsteps carry the person. Even before she crosses by the silk screen set a few large steps in front of the door to block off this area, I recognize her silhouette.
My heartbeat slows. I breathe again.
"Greetings to Guest Chao. Dinner will be within an hour," the fox spirit says to me, her head bowed. Her knees bend slightly and her hands fold to her side in a quick curtesy, and she raises her face. Unlike earlier, her expression is calm, almost doll-like without the haughtiness. Blank. "This servant asks permission to help you dress."
"Ah." It isn't until the silence has passed for too long that I realize she wanted me to answer. Dinner with the Beast--I'm not sure why I almost forgot. My hand jerks. "I. You have permission."
She doesn't say anything as she draws closer and helps me out of the tub and down to the wooden floorboards. Every gesture she makes is beautiful and precise.
"Are you...are the only one here?"
"Please excuse me," she answers instead.
So that I can wear the new clothes, she strips me methodically. I've been taken care of for so long by the healer--it feels so long ago, so far away--that I barely feel embarrassment. Instead, I stare at her long lashes, trying to figure her out. Her face has been powdered white while her eyebrows and lips have been accented dark red.
This girl would look otherwise like the type a man would want to have as a mistress, not at all like a monster or a different sort of creature. Maybe the fox is in the way her face is long and sharp, or her eyes slant, making her feel pointy and not at all trustworthy, even as compelling as her beauty is. I try to imagine her like the Beast's personal retainers from before, but I can't. She feels too normal. Safe.
I know it has something to do with meeting her first. I'm not stupid. But it's something, and it's all I have.
"If..." I'm not sure what to say to break the silence as she dresses me in my new clothes. The tunic is nice and light, and the pants hang comfortably from my hips without hurting me. They feel smooth and breath easy--linen, just like the last set. "What should I expect at dinner?"
Do I eat first, and then the Beast eats me?
"Our lord wants but what he wants," the girl replies. "You must make yourself wanted." It's cryptic, in some sense, and not specific enough. In another, it feels just she's just parroting the condition the Beast made: that if I want to live another night, I have to convince him not to eat me.
There has to be something more she can tell me, so I ask, "What were the two of you saying before? About breaking the curse?"
The expression in her eyes doesn't change, but something does in the atmosphere. I don't know how to describe it. She slows down from where she's wrapping the cloth around my waist and tying it. Asides from that, nobody could say she had even heard me, because she doesn't say anything.
"What is the curse?" She's not answering me. "What happens if I break the curse? Does it have anything to do with how you're acting right now? The Beast letting me go before?"
I know I'm asking too many questions, but something tells me the moments I'm alone with her or the old woman are the only times I'm going to get answers. They're also my only hope, because the only people who want me to stay alive are them.
The girl still isn't answering. I'm getting desperate. I don't know what the Beast wants from me or what I can do to survive another day. I barely know how I got him to let me live. The first time, maybe it was his whim. The second time, it...also seemed like a whim. Like he decided after seeing me cry that he'd let me do better.
That's not it, though. Other humans who've made it through would've cried too. They said I was the only one in a long time to make it alive.
I don't know how long it is until I even talk to the Beast, but there has to be something this girl can tell me. Clues, maybe.
I stop. Clues.