I did not bother attempting to watch this time- I merely sat in the corner, crying and feeling as though I had lost my mother all over again. I am not proud of this- but sometimes, when there is nothing else more productive to be done, there is no harm in indulging in one’s grief. And when I had finished I did, indeed, feel lighter- although I still ached deep within my heart. I soon fell asleep, not waking until the creature poked me in the ribs again.
“One must spin the straw it is sleeping on,” it said. I obligingly pushed myself to a seated position, then stood and moved towards the now freed stool. I sat on its scarlet cushion, spreading out the ridiculous yellow skirts, and looked around the room.
Nine piles of spools, this time, glimmering like liquid in the lamplight. I wondered what time it was- how long it had taken the creature to spin so much. It did not seem particularly fatigued- but then, who was I to judge how much a magical crafting should or should not take out of a body.
It placed the last spool upon the top of the ninth pile with an air of satisfaction. “One has kept one’s word,” it said. “And one may keep its necklace.” It stroked the small carving with obvious relish, and I had to look away.
“Yes, yes,” it crooned. “Much magic, for days to come. A good bargain.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, to change the subject. It threw back its head and laughed that barking-yip.
“Oh it is clever! It is naughty!” The head came down and its gaze focused on me thoughtfully. “One shall not tell one’s name. It has nothing precious enough to bargain for that. Not yet,” it added, an odd light coming into its eyes. I did not understand what it meant by such a cryptic comment, so I covered my confusion with a scowl.
“How shall I call you, if I need you again?” Because surely I would- the king would never be satisfied, now. Not that I had any idea what I could give it that would be more precious than the necklace from my mother.
It opened its toothy mouth in a grin, sharp tongue lolling. “One has tasted your pain- one shall know it again, yes yes.” So saying, it twirled in on itself again, and left me alone.
The hours passed, and I spent them in contemplation. I did not like what the creature had said about knowing the taste of my pain. I did not like not knowing its name- although so far as I knew, it did not know mine, either. That might be my only salvation. I did not like its intimation that soon I would have something more valuable to trade- something that would hurt me more than what I’d already given? Impossible. But I couldn’t discredit its certainty. Magical creatures knew things. It stood to reason, therefore, that the king would demand yet another feat from me, probably with the same threats. The creature seemed certain that I could pay for one more favor, but beyond that? I shuddered. How could I stop the king from keeping at this, night after night, into eternity?
I did not have an answer by the time the bolt slid back and the door swung inward. Again the two guards came with their long polearms, but this time their faces showed no surprise at the heaps of spun gold. Rather than the officious man from yesterday, the king himself stepped through, beaming in delight.
“Oh how excellent!” he declared, and clapped his hands like a child. “It is such a relief to know there is no treachery in my kingdom!” I stood, not giving him time to offer assistance. He gazed a moment longer at the spindles, then turned his attention back towards me.
“You look concerned, my dear,” he said kindly, and held out a beckoning arm. Stiffly, unwillingly, I moved into his embrace. “Don’t fret, lovely maiden,” he pulled me close to him, burying his nose in my hair.
“So lovely,” he murmured, breath hot on my skin, his arms running down the length of my back. A new fear uncurled in my stomach, and I started to tremble. He pulled back and held me by my shoulders.
“Why, you must be exhausted!” he said. “Spinning all night. Come, I’ll escort you to your chambers myself, where you will rest and refresh yourself. And then we’ll have a meal, and entertainment! And we shall say no more of your skills until you are yourself again.”
He did escort me to my chambers- but no further, to my deep and abiding relief. The girl who had dressed me the day before was there, and she helped me out of the gown (she did cut the thread, and I tried not to weep at the loss of the fortune), and helped me wash my face free of the paint. There was even a large copper tub full of steaming water, which a small handful of servants kept refreshing as I bathed. It did wonders for the aches in my muscles, but nothing whatsoever for the ache in my heart.
Although I’d had nearly a full night’s sleep, I found myself dozing off as I soaked in the tub, until at last the girl helped me out and into a large towel, and from there into a soft nightgown and on into bed. I slept until she woke me, my dreams filled with eyes shining frost-green in the darkness.
“His majesty bid you wear this,” she told me, gesturing to a new gown laid across the foot of the bed. It was made primarily from wide panels of scarlet silk, separated by narrow panels of gleaming gold- a much more flattering combination for my coloring. The moment I touched it, I realized this must have come from what had been spun the first night. I said nothing as the girl helped me into the heavy garment, nor when she re-powdered my face and re-stained my lips. She dressed my hair in a low bun at the nape of my neck, but fixed a gold ribbon across my brow.
“Where is your necklace, my lady?” she asked, puzzled. I swallowed and stared at my strange reflection.
“It does not matter. I will wear whatever jewels you deem appropriate.” She looked as though she would say something, but instead shrugged and produced an ornate collar of what must surely be rubies. The stones lay cold and glowing against my neck, but I could not find it in myself to truly admire them.