Fern tried not to hold her breath as she watched Raphael staring at her.
‘Where’s the red dress?’ he asked slowly.
‘It didn’t fit. Sorry,’ Fern replied in a soft voice.
‘Really?’ Raphael uttered.
Fern opened her mouth then recalled Ollie’s words and even though she felt herself wanting to resist, she went along with it. She smiled and said, ‘I thought this looks better.’
Raphael nodded, but didn’t move out of the doorframe. His eyes roamed the room then came back to her, his face blank and unreadable.
‘It doesn’t matter anyway,’ he said, ‘the Princess is not coming back tonight.’
‘Oh?’ Fern cut in, ‘why not?’
‘She’s been delayed. I don’t know the details. I thought I’d show the house anyway.’
Fern nodded as she wrestled her mouth closed.
Raphael turned and walked out the door, waving at her to follow him.
Fern hurried out, closing the door behind her out of habit. They were in a narrow corridor with no windows and the bare wood of the attic showing. She walked past Ollie’s door and looked at the rough, unpainted surface. She counted two more doors then there was a flight of steps.
Raphael’s shoes and clothes made soft rustling sounds as they went down. Fern watched the back of his head and wondered what questions she could ask. Many had come to her mind, but she wasn’t sure the time was right to voice them. She stole a last look up the stairs and corridor as they reached the bottom.
‘You cannot really get lost in this house,’ Raphael stated as if he had noticed her lingering, ‘It has a square design. Every floor, beside from the attic makes a square within a square.’
Fern joined him by the railing and looked down. She counted three floors including the one they were now on and the ground floor. She saw what he meant straight away, as the staircase formed the inner square which led off to each floor. She felt the smooth banister under her fingers and looked around. There were maybe ten doors leading off the third floor square.
‘I get it,’ Fern said.
‘You are not allowed to enter any rooms on this floor or the next. They are private. On the ground floor are the common areas; the living room, kitchen, dining room, parlour, library and the conservatory. You can go into any of those any time you like,’ Raphael explained.
‘So, what’s in these rooms and the ones below then?’
‘Bedrooms, studies, bathrooms. Which reminds me. This is your bathroom.’
Raphael opened a door right next to the staircase and Fern peered in. There was a large white iron bathtub, a matching sink, a toilet, a towel rack and some cupboards.
‘You’ll be sharing it with Ollie. He has the room next to yours.’
‘I shall introduce you later. Now, downstairs.’
He began walking away, but Fern did not follow him. Her eyes were looking around at the other doors.
‘You will get use to it and you will like it. And in a few months, I can see that you get moved to one of those rooms, but only if you behave. I think you are going to be quite a challenge, Fur.’
Fern turned, mouth opening, ready to spit out words. She caught the soft hint of a smile on Raphael’s lips and changed her mind. She fisted her hands, grounding her anger into them.
Raphael hummed and turning back started to walk down the stairs again. Fern had no choice but to follow him. They crossed the first floor and went down to the ground. She listened as they walked, but heard nothing as if they were the only ones in the house.
The staircase led to a large open hallway with a glass double front door standing before them. Fern moved before it and looked at the rain tapping against the glass. Outside lights give some illumination and she could make out a driveway stretching away from them. Small trees stood either side of the door and more could be made out lining the road. Fern couldn’t see anything further and she wondered how far away she was from Brook.
‘You are not allowed outside without me. In time, I might give you permission to go with someone else, but for now you will have limited access. It’s for your own safety,’ Raphael tagged on.
‘And if I try to leave?’ Fern asked.
‘You’ll be punished, however I see fit or the Princess. That all depends on what you do and how you do it. I’m sure you do not want to go down that road, though. We have to make it fair for everyone,’ Raphael added.
Sweeping his hand first to the left of the door then the right, he pointed out the two rooms,
‘this is the parlour and the living room. Down here…’ he continued, walking along the hallway with the staircase to his left, ‘is the dining room, which we use for meetings,’ he indicated the next door on the right.
Fern looked around the halfway opened door and saw a long table laid out with twelve chairs around it. There was a large vase of dried flowers in the middle, a long cupboard against the back wall above which hung a painting of a young woman in a crushed purple silk seventeen hundreds style dress. The beautifully modelled white face framed by a waterfall of golden curls. Haunting blue eyes stared down at them and the lips though flicking in a smile, seemed to be mocking.
‘Who’s that?’ Fern asked.
Raphael looked at the painting, giving her a few moments to take in the painting fully, before replying, ‘the Princess.’
Fern swallowed and searched for the right words, though nothing seemed to be coming out.
‘She is quite something in person too. Here is the kitchen, though we do not use it for much. Then…’ Raphael trailed off and stepped over to the glass doors at the end that mirrored the front door.
Fern remembered the conservatory well enough and turned to look at the other door which was opposite the kitchen one.
He followed her eyes and instead, opened that door, ‘the library. There are many different books. Some you can take to your room, others you cannot.’
He stood aside and let her in. Fern stepped slowly in and looked at the floor to ceiling bookshelves. All four walls were covered by the heavy dark cases. Some had glass panels or wire mess locking the books of the top shelves away. A number of sofas, arm chairs, tables and chairs were gathered in the centre and lamps both small and tall were also dotted around. The carpet underneath was a deep plush red and the room smelt of old leather, inky pages, vanished wood and adventure.
Fern went to nearest bookcase and looked down. Someone had handwritten little labels indicating what books and authors were on the shelf. She pulled out a book at random and saw it was an old world atlas. The book was heavy in her hands. She slipped it back in and looked further down the line.
‘The Princess likes her books. I have no time for them. Though, you might need them, if you care for them.’
‘Why?’ Fern asked looking up.
‘No modern technology is allowed here. We have some music players and a few old radios. But there are no phones, TVs or computers.’
Fern’s fingers pressed down on the spine of a book she had been about to lift out.
Raphael give a gently shrug before answering the question on her face, ‘the Princess thinks it’s for the best.’
‘But how can you survive without knowing what’s happening in the world?’ Fern forced out.
‘Humans are nothing but food to us. We don’t care about their short useless lives,’ Raphael snarled.
Fern looked away, his fierce gaze burning into her. She took her fingers off the book, the top of the spine digging in too painfully for her to hold on. Footsteps on the stairs then the corridor drew her attention and she looked over at Raphael in the doorway as a young man came into view.
He was short and had soft waves of chestnut hair tied back. His face was too round and soft, his eyes large, steady and watchful. He was wearing a black shirt and old jeans with grey trainers. He shot Fern a smile then turned to address Raphael, who beat him to speaking by announcing him, ‘this is Ollie. Fern.’
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
‘I’m going to get drinks. Why don’t you get to know each other? You shall be working together soon enough,’ Raphael added then walked away.
‘Don’t say anything,’ Ollie hissed.
Fern pursed her lips and swayed slightly, unsure if to get closer to him or more away.
‘Don’t drink anything they give you from a glass or bottle,’ Ollie continued, ‘they put something in the blood. Herbs or something that affect your mind and body. Just pretend to drink it.’
‘How do you know?’ Fern muttered.
‘I found out. I overheard Zara and Ike talking about it.’
Fern eyed him and pulled a face, ‘how can I trust you?’
‘Because we are each other’s tickets to getting out of here,’ Ollie stated.
To Be Continued…