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Gorgeous And The Goat

Chapter Text

Night had nearly fallen over Vesuvia.

 

“We’d better find somewhere to sleep for the night, huh, Faust?” you whispered, idly stroking Faust as she curled tightly around your arm.

 

She didn’t respond, but she never did. You knew she was a familiar, and that she should have been able to speak to you, since only a few months after you’d awoken memory-less in a red bluff. You didn’t know which possibility was more disturbing: that her link to you had been severed by your memory loss, or that she was someone else’s familiar entirely.

 

You just knew that she was a friend. That was enough.

 

You glanced around you, eyeing the pristine buildings that stood proudly against the warm Vesuvian night. You had your pick of the buildings, since you hadn’t run into a single person since entering the country.

 

That was why you were here, actually. Vesuvia was empty. In the days you’d been travelling through it, you hadn’t met a single person, a single animal. It must have been a curse of some sort, and that meant you might be the only person who could stop it.

 

You’d woken up with your magic, unsure of how you’d gotten it but positive you were powerful. In the first day or two, you’d accidentally levelled a clearing with some magical fire, and it’d taken a week or two to get your magic under control.

 

Your magic begged to be used, and Vesuvia called to it like nothing else had since you’d awoken.

 

But that could wait until morning.

 

Your eyes alighted upon the palace, rising beautiful in the distance, and you grinned. “It couldn’t hurt to spend the night in luxury,” you murmured, laughing into Faust’s scales as you placed a kiss on her head.

 

She shifted energetically and flicked her tongue out in a motion you chose to interpret as agreement.

 

Your grin widened. “Well, let’s go then. The morning won’t wait forever.”

 

You made your way up to the castle.




Vesuvia hadn’t felt the wind in years, but it finally let a breath out into the trees.

 

The Fool had returned.

 

The Fool had returned, and with them, hope.

 

The eyes within the palace finally turned outward, watching the Fool approach.

 

The curse would be lifted.

 

The people would return.




The doors to the palace opened at the barest touch of your hand, and Faust tightened around your hand. 

 

“No need to be afraid,” you insisted, petting her, “There’s no one here to hurt us.”

 

You strode into the hall, shutting the door behind you, and taking in the grandeur. The palace was gorgeous, rich beyond anything you’d ever seen. Golden lamps hung from the ceiling like tiny suns, and every wall was bursting with colorful paintings and tapestries.

 

You couldn’t help but smile, gaping at the luxury. And you hadn’t even seen a bedroom yet!

 

“Where do you think they keep the beds around here?” you asked, finally lifting your voice from the cautious whisper it had stayed at for your entire trip through Vesuvia. 

 

In a way, being in the palace felt like… coming home after a long journey. You didn’t know why, but you suspected it had something to do with the connection your magic felt to this place.

 

Faust dropped from your arm and darted forward, and you bolted after her, grinning.

 

“Oh, do you know where you’re going?” you laughed, “Been here before, have you? You little Empress!”

 

Faust wiggled excitedly, curling up in front of a door to wait for you.

 

“The bedroom’s in here, then?” you asked, crossing your arms and grinning down at Faust.

 

She nodded.

 

“Oh, are you sure?”

 

She squirmed impatiently, and you laughed, finally opening the door.

 

The smell hit you like a truck.

 

“You have to run,” he said, and you could feel his hand clutched around your wrist, “You have to get out of here. Quickly! Go!”

 

The feeling faded as quickly as it came, leaving you standing aghast in the door.

 

“Faust?” you asked, voice wobbling.

 

Faust cocked her head at you from her spot curled around the bed frame.

 

The smell was floral and spices and metal. It wasn’t familiar, but it was.

 

You quickly entered the room and shut the door, suddenly self-conscious and wary.

 

What was that? That feeling?

 

This place held many more mysteries than expected. But that could all wait until morning.

 

You collapsed in the bed, groaning and stretching out beneath the blankets. After all these years of travelling, this bed felt like the most magnificent thing she’d ever laid in.

 

“Good night, Faust,” you whispered, putting out the lights in the room with a wave of your hand.

 

Faust nuzzled into the bed frame and shut her eyes.

 

Sleep came, deep and comforting.




“...they here?? They were supposed to be…”

 

“As… What do we tell…? We can’t…”

 

“Who cares about…? What do…? How… save…?”

 

You awoke to shouted whispering fading in and out from beyond your door, and as soon as you’d processed the voices, you jumped out of bed and threw open the door.

 

Finally, some pe---!

The hallway was empty except for a pack of tarot cards and a scalpel lying on the floor in front of you.

 

You frowned, stepped over the scattered items, and looked either way. Were you hallucinating? Having another flashback? But then, how did these… things get here?

 

You frowned down at the objects, then knelt down to pick them up.

 

“Careful. I’m sharp”

 

“Julian!”

 

You froze. If you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought---

 

“I don’t want them to get hurt,” the scalpel insisted, “Although that seems to be all I’m good at.” He sounded bitter and glum.

 

The tarot cards sighed, and you couldn’t deny it any longer.

 

They were talking. 

 

This wasn’t such a huge shock, in retrospect. Magic existed. There was a curse over Vesuvia. This was probably the least concerning thing you’d come across recently. 

 

“How do you guys get around?” you asked, more to yourself than to the items lying in front of you.

 

“Magic!” the tarot cards said cheerily.

 

“Magic…” the scalpel groaned. It stood, and you jumped back, which seemed to hurt its feelings.

 

“What are you doing here?” the tarot cards asked, “You were supposed to be safe from this.” It shuffled itself.

 

“I’m here to break the curse,” you said, “but I---”

 

“Can they break the curse? Is that something magic can do?” the scalpel asked.

 

“They can do anything,” the tarot cards answered, “Anything they set their mind to.”

 

They seemed to share a quiet look, without having eyes to look with.

 

“You know who I am,” you realized.

 

They startled.

 

“You don’t?” the tarot cards asked.

 

“Nadia and I had memory loss,” the scalpel pointed out, “Maybe they weren’t as unaffected as we thought.”

 

They were solemn.

 

Just when you were about to speak again, the deck of tarot cards introduced itself. “I’m Asra,” they said, “You and I are old friends.”

 

“And I’m Julian,” the scalpel said, “I don’t think we’d met before all this, but…” He seemed to frown. “I wouldn’t exactly remember if we had.”

 

Faust slithered out of the bedroom and curled around the tar---Asra.

 

“Faust!” Asra shouted in delight, “You’ve been looking after them, just like I asked, right?”

 

There was one mystery solved. You grinned at the ridiculous sight of Faust playing with the tarot deck. Asra’s cards flared out as if hugging Faust, and Faust’s eyes darted like she was speaking.

 

“So cute,” you murmured.

 

Julian would have been blushing if he were human, and you didn’t know how you could tell that.

 

You looked at him. “Do you know where the kitchen is? I’m pretty hungry.”

 

“Right!” Julian said, wobbling as if flustered, “Right! I can show you there!”

 

“Not the one near… his wing, remember?” Asra said.

 

“Of course not! I wouldn’t take them… there. Don’t worry about us.”

 

Faust and Asra stayed back by your room, clearly having a touching reunion, and you followed Julian to the kitchen.

 

“So,” you began as Julian chopped up some fruit with probably his face, “how did you both end up…?” You waved your hand airily.

 

“Ah. That. Well…” He wobbled again, then seemed to gain his confidence. “Here’s your breakfast!”

 

You took the plate and ate, but the distraction wasn’t nearly enough. “So?” you urged.

 

He looked away. “That’s a… long story.”

 

You would have put your hand on his if he had hands. “I’m here to help. You can tell me.”

 

He seemed to consider this, silent for a long time.

 

“If you don’t want to answer that, you can always tell me about this whole ‘his wing’ thing you and Asra were worried about.”

 

The scalpel startled upright. “Oh!” he exclaimed, “He’s going to be so upset that we didn’t tell him you were here…” He looked worried.

 

“Who?” you asked.

 

“Count Lucio.”

Chapter Text

Eventually, you managed to convince Julian to tell you about the curse. He didn’t remember it firsthand, but he and the other amnesiac he’d mentioned, Nadia, had been caught up by Asra and the others who’d been trapped in the castle.

 

It had happened three years ago.

 

Count Lucio had grown deathly ill, and Julian, his doctor, had finally had to admit defeat. He was going to die.

 

Of course, the Count wasn’t the sort to lie down at such a prognosis.

 

They’d arrived on a stormy night.

 

No one had gotten a good look at them, but the Count---a hard man to get along with at the best of times---had grown even more irritable with the castle staff. Julian, especially, had been relegated to the dungeons for his honesty, and the visitors to the castle stayed in the Count’s room with him at all times.

 

One day, the Count gathered everyone in his room for a ritual. Magic. Maybe even something beyond the magic of a mere mortal.

 

He wanted life. His life. He made a deal.

 

And this was the result.

 

“It’s all my fault,” Julian bemoaned, slumped over the kitchen counter, “All this misery…”

 

“I don’t agree,” you said, “You aren’t responsible for the Count’s choices.”

 

“But I must have participated in the ritual!” he exclaimed, “If I hadn’t, maybe none of this would have happened.”

 

“But maybe it would have.”

 

“But I might have been able to stop it! I---”

 

“Ilya, are you trying to take credit for all the misery in the world again?”

 

You jumped at the sound of a woman’s voice.

 

“...’Cause, I don’t think anyone’s buying it.” The woman was, like Julian and Asra, not human, but a colorful, jingling cat toy. 

 

Seeing you, the toy jangled. “Hi! I’m Portia, this idiot’s amazing little sister. Who are you? How did you get here?”

 

You told her your name and added, “I think I’m supposed to break this curse.”

 

“Really?” She gaped at you. “You must be something awesome, then! Ilya, have you shown her around yet?”

 

Before Julian could speak, Portia exclaimed, “Come on, newbie! Ilya and I will show you the palace!”

 

If you thought that the entry hall was beautiful, the rest of the palace was ethereal. The gardens were trimmed with beautiful mazes and topiary sculptures, and there was water everywhere. Fountains everywhere. Satin everywhere.

 

While they showed you around, Portia introduced you to the other members of the castle. 

 

Muriel was a giant bear statue hidden on the outskirts of the garden and seemed entirely too willing to sit there and pretend to be a statue. He didn’t speak the entire time you were there, but you could almost feel him glaring at Julian, so you took their word that he was a real person.

 

Nadia was a bit more interesting to meet. Unlike the others, she had been transformed into the form of an animal, which made it a lot more natural to speak to her. She was a snowy owl, with bright eyes and soft (-looking, at least) feathers. 

 

“Who is this, Portia?” she hooted, head tilted, when they approached.

 

“A magician! She’s going to try to break the curse!”

 

Nadia’s eyes narrowed, and her head swiveled further. “I see,” she chirped, “I had hoped someone could fix what my ex-husband had done to this country.” She closed her eyes briefly in mourning.

 

“You were married to the Count?” you asked.

 

Nadia hooted her affirmation. “A terrible mistake,” she said, ruffling her feathers, “He’s irresponsible, and he never listens to me.”  

 

She shuffled on her talons. “Perhaps it was irresponsible of me to think he would.”

 

You frowned. “You aren’t responsible for what he did,” you said, “No one is responsible but him.”

 

Nadia sighed. “Kind words,” she said, “But I’m not sure I believe them.”

 

Before you could say anything, Nadia’s eyes focused on something far off and she took to flight, the wind carrying her away from the conversation.

 

Portia sighed. “She does that sometimes. Come on! We still have the rest of the palace to show you!”

 

You followed complacently for a moment, but paused when they made to pass a dark, grey corridor. “What about this wing?” you asked.

 

“That’s--- That’s Lucio’s wing,” Julian said, dismayed.

 

“It’s spooky in there,” Portia added with a shudder, “And not in a good way!”

 

You frowned, but let Portia and Julian lead you away.

 

You couldn’t help but look one last time into the darkness, though.

 

A pair of red eyes shone in the dark. Watching you.

 

You froze under their gaze, fear and… something else mixing in your gut. Then the eyes blinked and were gone.

 

You shuddered and hurried after Julian and Portia.




When Portia and Julian dropped you off at your room that night, everything was different. 

 

Faust was still out with Asra, and the room was eerily silent without her presence.

 

You couldn’t stop thinking about it. Lucio’s wing.

 

That must have been where the ritual took place. Where the curse came into being. Maybe it was tied directly to Lucio---Julian had implied the Count was still here. Maybe he was transformed like everyone else you’d met.

 

If you were going to lift the curse, you couldn’t leave so many doors unopened.

 

You climbed out of bed and snuck out of your room.

 

It was dark now, and it seemed easier to lob a ball of fire in front of you than to bother with lighting the lamps and wall sconces.

 

In the night, Lucio’s wing looked no different from the rest of the castle. Except… There was a painting hung on the wall, slashed open and fading.

 

All the paintings seemed to have suffered the same treatment, you realized, as you went further in. And, as you scrutinized each painting, you realized that they all must have once bore the same subject.

 

Stepping closer to the nearest one, you straightened the canvas with numb fingers. It was a portrait of a man, golden-haired and narrow-eyed, proud and strong and smug.

 

“How odd,” you murmured.

 

Something clattered behind you, and you jumped, turning, but there was nothing there.

 

You stood in the hall for some time before you were calm enough to continue.

 

As you forged ever further, you noticed a light on in a room ahead. You doused your fire and snuck closer, peering in through the doorway.

 

This was another kitchen, absolutely packed with food and brimming with dust and dirt. Clearly, it hadn’t been cleaned recently but had been used often.

 

There didn’t appear to be anyone in the kitchen, at first, but you waited to see if any of the objects were alive like the others.

 

You weren’t disappointed.

 

A little bowl on the table quivered and cried, “Please, Valerius! Fill me again! I’m so hungry!”

 

Beside it, an ornate wine glass sighed. “Volta, it doesn’t matter how many times I fill you. The soup keeps seeping out a hole in the bowl. We’ve been over this.” Wine swirled impatiently from within.

 

“But I’m so hunnnnngry,” the bowl cried, sobbing.

 

The wine glass would have rolled its eyes if it had them. “Just this last time, then. But don’t come crying to me when you’re hungry again,” it grumbled.

 

Sure enough, as fast as the bowl filled with soup, soup emptied out of it onto the table.

 

The bowl sobbed. “I’m--” Hiccup. “Still---” Hiccup. “So---” Hiccup. “Hungry!”

 

The wine glass mumbled, “Just like I said you’d be.”

 

Deciding the two of them seemed harmless enough, you entered the kitchen. “Hi,” you said, “I’m new to the castle. Who might you be?”

 

“Eep!” the bowl shouted, knocking themselves off the table entirely, “Who---Who is that? OH, please don’t blame meeee!”

 

“Quiet, Volta.” The wine glass surveyed you, filling itself with wine again. “This mewling thing is Volta, and I am Valerius. We are advisors to the count.” Wine drained into nowhere, as if the glass were drinking it. “You wouldn’t happen to be a guest of the Count’s, would you?”

 

“I haven’t met the man,” you said, “But I’m here to lift the curse.”

 

“Lift? The curse??” Volta cried from the floor before sobbing unintelligibly.

 

Valerius, meanwhile, just peered at you for a long moment. “You do look foolish enough for it.” He sighed. “Foolish of you to even tell us. You’ll do well to keep this to yourself from now on.”

 

Before you could ask him why, Volta had already shrieked, “A secret? From Valdemar? You expect me to keep a secret? Ohh, I’m so bad with secrets, Valerius!”

 

“If you keep this a secret,” you said, interrupting whatever harsh word might have come out of Valerius next, “I’ll find a way to keep you full.”

 

Volta snivelled. “Keep me full?” she whimpered, “So I wouldn’t be hungry anymore?”

 

You nodded.

 

Volta drooled. “Please do! Oh, I’m so hungry!”

 

You smiled a bit and lifted Volta from the floor, setting her on the table. “The way I see it,” you said, “You just need to eat something which can’t leak through the hole in your stomach.”

 

“Oh?” Volta asked, “So no soup? But soup is so tasty!”

 

Valerius sighed, seeming very put upon despite none of this having anything to do with him. 

 

“No, no soup,” you said, “Here. Try this.”

 

You took a handful of grapes from the table and dropped into the shivering bowl.

 

“Oh!” Volta cried, “Oh! It’s not leaking out!”

 

Still, the grapes disappeared quickly, devoured by the little bowl.

 

“More!” she cried, “Please, more!”

 

You gave her some bread and said, “Just keep filling yourself with solids instead of soup. You’ll keep my secret, then, right?”

 

“Of course! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” Volta gobbled down the bread before reaching for more food.

 

You turned your attention back to Valerius. “Why must I keep this a secret?” you asked.

 

“A secret?” a warbling voice exclaimed, “Valerius, are you scheming against us?”

 

The wine glass scowled. “Of course not, Vlastomil.”

 

You looked around the room, but didn’t see anything new.

 

“So when were you going to tell us about this… human in the palace?”

 

Valerius sighed. “You know now,” he huffed, drinking his wine.

 

“Hmph. Valdemar won’t be pleased, won’t be pleased, I say.” 

 

You wished that Valerius had eyes so you could see where he was looking. Was this “Vlastomil” invisible? 

 

“You there! Why are you here?” he asked.

 

“Uh, I---” You shook your head. “Where are you?”

 

“Right here!” Vlastomil huffed, “What, are you so uncultured that you can’t even see the most beautiful being in the room?” 

 

You finally caught sight of movement and focused in on--- “A worm!” you shrieked, slamming your fist down.

 

“AH!” Vlastomil shouted, wriggling away from your hands, “Do not hit me!” He sounded afraid and proud all at once.

 

You paused, recoiling. “You’re… a worm?”

 

Vlastomil rose up, small and silver, and proudly announced, “There you go! Yes, that is me, a worm genius in the flesh!” He curled back towards the table. “But I am usually much bigger.”

 

“He was a creepy-crawly even before this curse was placed on us,” Valerius huffed.

 

“Yes, I am pleased to have kept my lovely form, even if I am so small now. Now, answer my question! I will not be distracted further!”

 

You opened your mouth, but thought better of answering truthfully. Valerius had warned you, after all. “I am a traveller,” you said, “Here to meet the Count.”

 

The tiny worm curled on the table, gross and uncoordinated. “Meet the Count?” he asked, “Why, whatever for? And how did you know he’d be here?”

 

“I heard he was…” The portraits flashed into your mind. “...a great warrior! I’ve heard of his feats from beyond the limits of Vesuvia, and that he had travelled here. You are the first people I’ve met. If he’s not here, could you tell me where he is?”

 

The advisors exchanged a silent glance. 

 

Vlastomil scoffed. “I’m sure the Count would be delighted to hear such praise,” he sneered, “But I have better things to do! My babies need to be fed. Volta, see this person out of the palace.”

 

“Me? Oh no!” Volta cried, but as soon as Vlastomil was gone, Valerius sighed.

 

“I’ll tell you where to find the Count, then, if you really want to see him.”

 

“I do,” you said, “If it isn’t dangerous.”

 

They were silent.

 

“The Count is not dangerous,” Valerius said, “Not alone. But there are others in the palace you must look out for.”

 

“Be careful!” Volta begged, “Maybe it would be best if you just left! I could show you out like Vlastomil said.”

 

“No,” you said, “Thank you, Volta. But I have to get to the bottom of this.”

 

Valerius sighed. “Then we will help you---so long as it doesn’t endanger me, of course.”

 

You listened as Valerius told you where to go---and who to look out for.




Night was still heavy over the palace when you arrived at the Count’s room.

 

You knocked on the door, patient and afraid. The Count had done all of this. Ruined the country. Trapped those who had participated in the ritual as objects and animals. A selfish man. A warrior.

 

You wondered why you were seeking him out, actually. Fear roiled in your gut.

 

After a few seconds of waiting, with no answer from within, you opened the door.

 

The room smelled of ash, but it looked untouched by fire. The bed was luxurious and large, and the walls were dark but regal. Your eyes passed over these, though, drawn to a giant portrait hanging on one wall.

 

This one wasn’t slashed apart, and you wondered why it had been spared.

 

The same man, who you assumed was the Count, stood proud, as if in battle. He was… splendid. He looked every bit the part of the ruler and the warrior, opulence and strength both in one beautiful man.

 

You stepped towards the painting, and would have reached out to touch it if you hadn’t heard something shatter outside.

 

You had to hide---but where? The Count probably wouldn’t be pleased with your intrusion, but the advisors Valerius had warned you about, Vulgora and Valdemar, would probably gut you on sight.

 

You threw yourself under the bed and hoped for the best.

 

The door opened, and footsteps sounded. You looked out from under the bed to see two hooves clomping across the floor.

 

Your eyes widened as they approached the bed, but they continued past.

 

You scrambled out from under the bed and ran out the door before they saw you.

 

You heard a noise from the room, and you started sprinting. If you made it out of Lucio’s wing---Valerius had told you that beyond that invisible line of darkness, none of the courtiers would follow you.

 

It wasn’t clear whether the Count was included in that, but you still didn’t know who it was behind you.

 

You ran all the way back to your room, slamming the door shut behind you.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

You jumped, turning midair, and there were Asra and Faust, waiting for you. They both radiated concern.

 

You put a hand to your heart, waiting for your breathing to even out. “Just a bit spooked,” you said eventually.

 

Asra didn’t look like he bought it, but he was apparently willing to drop it anyway. “I hope you’re not too spooked,” he said, “If I remember right, you once considered this palace your home.”

 

You sat down on your bed. “I did?” you asked.

 

Asra nodded. “I didn’t live here, at the palace, that is, at the time,” he said, “But Nadia would often tell me about how happy you were to help out here.”

 

You frowned. “Help out?” you asked, “What did I do here?”

 

“You were the court sorcerer,” Asra answered with a shuffle of the deck that might have been a grin, “You were a great help to this country.”

 

A great help to a country with no people in it. “I must not have been much help,” you said, “if I was so willing to run when they really need me.”

 

Asra gaped, and Faust shook her head, but you laid back in bed.

 

How could you help now if you couldn’t help then? Well, this time you were at least willing to try.

 

“I’m tired,” you said, “Can we continue tomorrow?”

 

Asra and Faust frowned. “Of course,” Asra said, “We’ll wake you tomorrow for breakfast. We all usually eat together.”

 

They left, and you snuggled further into your blankets.

 

Just before you fell asleep, you swore you heard the sound of hooves clomping outside your door.

Chapter Text

The morning was still dark when Asra woke you, and you were still tired. Turns out, staying awake to investigate creepy wings of the palace really made a person tired.

 

You yawned, wiping the sleep from your eyes as you changed into the dress that had been left for you. You suspected Nadia had chosen it, just because it was so silken and regal. Perhaps you would speak to her today, ask if the Count had known of the hostility of his advisers. Maybe she wouldn’t even know, though. She and the Count didn’t seem to have been close.

 

Faust was wriggling excitedly outside your room when you exited, and you happily let her climb onto your arm to direct you to the dining room.

 

“You must be happy to be back with Asra,” you cooed, “It’s all so strange. After all these weeks without anyone but you around, suddenly we have a whole palace of people.”

 

Faust nuzzled at your wrist, and you giggled and followed her pointed directions in pleased quiet.

 

The path she took you went past the hall that led to Lucio’s wing, and you couldn’t help but falter as you approached. It was still as dark there as it had been at night, and you bolstered your courage to walk past.

 

You felt those red eyes following you, the knowledge of their weight pooling in your gut as surely as a physical presence, and you couldn’t help but wonder whether those eyes belonged to Vulgora, Valdemar, or the Count himself.

 

They weren’t on you long, though. Quickly, Faust directed you to the dining room. The others were all already there, chatting happily (except for Muriel) as food seemed to miraculously serve itself to them.

 

Nadia hooted and fluffed her feathers at your entrance. “You look wonderful,” she said, “I especially like your bracelet.”

 

You laughed, showing Faust off. “It’s lovely isn’t it? Genuine snakeskin.”

 

Faust bristled at the comment and lept to the table, slithering to Asra’s seat at Muriel’s side.

 

Muriel murmured something at Asra, and Asra chuckled. “Here, we saved you a seat,” Asra said, gesturing to the chair beside him.

 

You sat down quickly, digging in eagerly to the food laid out before you.

 

The dining hall was as luxurious and beautiful as the rest of the palace, and when you looked at the walls, you were shocked to see a painting of a goat-man.

 

He looked strikingly like the portraits of the Count. It had the same golden arm, the same red cape, the same eyes. The same eyes.

 

You narrowed your gaze, focusing in on the eyes. They weren’t painted on. They weren’t painted on.

 

Just as you realized that those red eyes had followed you here from Lucio’s wing, you blinked and they were gone.

 

“Are you alright?” Asra asked, tilted towards you.

 

You frowned but nodded. “The food is great.”

 

You tried to cast those eyes from your mind, but they stuck. You couldn’t keep running from them. Your friends didn’t deserve to be stuck like this just because you were afraid.

 

You resolved to return to Lucio’s wing that night.




You tiptoed towards the entrance to Lucio’s wing, holding the ball of fire in front of you.

 

As you finally approached it, though, you paused. You were being watched.

 

Red eyes shone out at you from the dark.

 

“Who are you?” you asked, bold and more confident than you felt. 

 

“Who am I?” it growled, “I’m only the ruler of this country! Who do you think you are?”

 

You furrowed your brow. “Count Lucio?” you asked.

 

You swore you saw teeth glinting in the dark. “So you do know me. Good. Have you come to see me? I heard I had a visitor.”

 

You looked at him cautiously. “...Yes,” you said, “Yes, I’d heard you were a great warrior.”

 

The Count preened. “I am. I’m pleased to hear you’ve heard of me. There isn’t a warrior in all of Vesuvia who could defeat me.”

 

“I’m sure not,” you said, stepping closer, “I---”

 

“Don’t step any closer!” he shouted.

 

You froze, startled by his shift in moods. “What? Why not?” you asked.

 

He looked to be scowling, and you could hear his hooves shifting in the dark.

 

You stepped forward, sure of yourself, and the light cast over him.

 

He was a goat. Taller than a human, with white fur and human eyes,hooves for hands, and great big horns.

 

He was scowling, teeth sharp and shining in the dark. “I’m not…” His ears twitched. “ ...handsome anymore.”

 

“Because of the curse,” you breathed.

 

His eyes narrowed at you. “How do you know about that?” he demanded, advancing, “Who told you?”

 

“I’ve traveled here from outside of Vesuvia,” you said, taking another step forward, “I’ve seen what has happened. I am… familiar with magic. I can recognize a curse when I see it.”

 

His eyes widened and he stepped in closer to you, gaze intense upon you. “Could you…?” His ears twitched as if checking for eavesdroppers, and then he was leaned in even closer. “Could you get me back into my body?”

 

It was only when you felt his hot breath upon you that you realized how close the two of you had gotten, and you stepped back quickly. Well-dressed goat-man, distracting you. He could be dangerous. 

 

You nodded though. “I… Yes. I think that’s why I’m here.” You checked to make sure you were outside of his wing, in case that could protect you from him.

 

He grinned. “Wow. Cute and smart.”

 

You blushed in spite of yourself. “I suppose.”

 

His grin turned feral. “Imagine me back in my beautiful body again!” he exclaimed, “You must do it. I can rely on you for that, can’t I?”

 

“I---” He was nothing like you’d imagined the Count to be. This was--- He was--- “I need to know about the ritual.”

 

The kindness---or the cheer, more accurately, (You knew it would be a mistake to label his smile a kindness.) was gone in an instant. 

 

“No,” he said, “No. You were lying. You can’t do anything about this.” He sneered.

 

“I’m not!” you insisted, “I need---”

 

“Get out!” he shouted, “Get out of my home, and don’t bother me anymore!” He bolted forward, and you took off in a sprint to your room.

 

He followed you the whole way, slammed into your door when you slammed it shut behind you. 

 

“Get out!” he shouted, pounding on the door with his hooves.

 

“You get out!” you shouted back, “This is my room and you won’t scare me from it!”

There was silence on the other side of the door.

 

“And you won’t trick me into leaving by standing there all quiet!” you added.

 

The Count let out a strangled yelp, and then you heard his hoofsteps clomping away.

 

You collapsed on the bed. “This is hard,” you groaned, rubbing your face. Who knew a three-year curse would be hard to break?

Chapter Text

Over the following days, there wasn’t a single moment where you didn’t feel the Count’s gaze upon you, even if they were never still there when you looked for them.

 

The others didn’t seem to notice the ever-vigilant watch, but you assumed that was because they were used to it. The Count must have had little to do but watch .

 

You didn’t know what you were going to do next. You knew you needed to break the curse, but without the Count’s help about the ritual…

 

“Asra, do you remember the ritual?” you asked one evening, Faust playing with Asra as he pretended to give her a tarot reading.

 

“Hm?” Asra’s attention shifted to you, “Oh! Yes. I do, but…” You got the sense he was biting his lip, and the cards in the deck shuffled awkwardly. “I don’t know much. The Count and his courtiers took care of all the preparations, and there was a lot of secrecy. I don’t know enough to help you.”

 

You both sat dejectedly.

 

“I need to get into the Count’s room again,” you said, “I’m sure there’s got to be a clue in there.”

 

“Again?” Asra exclaimed, “You shouldn’t have been over there in the first place! It’s dangerous to be near the courtiers, and I---” Faust snuggled into him comfortingly when his voice broke. “I couldn’t bear it if anything bad happened to you.”

 

“But something bad has already happened to everyone else,” you said, determined, “Asra, I have to fix this. No matter what.”

 

Asra sighed. “I had a feeling you’d say that.” His good cheer returned, and he added, “That’s the sorcerer we all know and love, after all. We’ll help you however we can but, just as the courtiers are confined to Lucio’s wing, we’re barred from entering it. If you do go back to Lucio’s room, only Faust will be able to help you.”

 

You smiled at Faust, scratching her head. “What do you say to that, Faust? Ready for an adventure?”

 

Faust wriggled excitedly, and Asra laughed at whatever her response was. “She’s ready,” he said.

 

He accompanied the two of you to the entrance of Lucio’s wing. “You two be safe, okay?” he said, shuffling worriedly, “If it looks dangerous, run back here. I’ll be waiting.”

 

“Thank you, Asra,” you said, “We’ll be careful.”

 

Faust curled around your wrist, staring into the darkness ahead.

 

You took a deep breath. “Here goes.”




You managed to sneak into the Count’s room undetected, and immediately set about trying to find a clue as to the nature of the ritual.

 

It had to be something powerful, you figured, so you loosened your grip on your magic and let it reach out for powerful objects.

 

Faust looked up at you with curious eyes. 

 

You shook your head. You weren’t feeling anything especially magical, except… The entire palace was thrumming with magic, strong and powerful and familiar … But that wasn’t surprising. It was cursed, after all.

 

You started rummaging through the Count’s dresser, pushing aside a pile of socks in the hopes of finding anything that could help you.

 

If I just knew what it was I was looking for, you thought, scowling into the dresser.

 

Faust jolted off your arm, and you looked up to see her slithering towards that painting of the Count. It was just as striking to look at as before, and you let yourself drift towards it.

 

“What do you see, Faust?” you murmured, staring up at the painting. You reached out a hand to touch it, and--- click ---pressed a hidden button.

 

You jumped back, clutching Faust against you.

 

A secret passageway! “Now we’re getting somewhere.” You stepped into the opening and walked cautiously, lifting an orb of fire in front of you to see where you were going.

 

The passageway wasn’t very long, and you weren’t far in when you heard something ahead of you. Quickly dousing your flame, you snuck forward until you came across a door, slightly ajar, at the end of the hall. 

 

Inside, you could just barely see a dining table, and a wine goblet you recognized as Valerius, but you hesitated from entering. You didn’t recognize all the voices.

 

“...would have been pleased to have a new subject for my experiments,” a voice was saying, “Vlastomil, you did not need to drive them away from me.”

 

“From the palace , you mean,” Valerius yawned.

 

“Is there a difference?” The voice was chilling, and you shuddered at the sound. It was the sort of voice that made you want to get as far from it as possible, the sort of voice that made ravens fly away, the sort of voice that made your skeleton want to jump from your body and hightail it out of there.

 

It was either Valdemar or Vulgora, you knew, since those were the only courtiers left that you hadn’t met yet. Either one was bad news for you .

 

You leaned in closer to the gap in the door, trying to get a closer look. There was Volta on the table, sobbing into her meal. You couldn’t see Vlastomil from here, though, so you scooted back. He was one you didn’t want to get caught by.

 

“I’m with Valdemar. We never get to do anything fun anymore!” a scratchy voice said, “Stuck in here, no one to fight!”

 

“If you would all figure out how to break this curse ---” Your heart fell into your stomach at the sound of the Count’s voice, his hoof-hands pounding the dining table, “We could have more to do! Now tell me what you’ve learned!”

 

“Nothing about how to break the curse,” that hideous voice purred, “There’s still so much more to learn.” It sounded distinctly like a threat.

 

The Count’s sigh turned into a groan turned into a frustrated shout. “I won’t be stuck forever like this!” he shouted, pounding his hooves some more.

 

“Ahh! Oh no! Oh no, of course not! We’re working so very hard! So very hard!” Volta whimpered.

 

“That’s the only reason I haven’t thrown you all out!” the Count said, his voice somewhere between a boom and a whine.

 

So, the Count was working on a cure to the curse. But then why had Valerius warned you not to talk to anyone about breaking it? And why had the Count blown up at you when you mentioned the ritual?

 

You inched closer, hand on the door to keep it from inching open as you approached when---

 

“BARK!” A dog. There was a dog?

 

The Count cooed, “Mercedes, have you grown tired of all this talk? What’s wrong?”

 

You heard claws clacking against tile and suddenly there was a big white dog in front of you, teeth bared and growling at you.

 

You reeled backwards as it barked, lunging, and you shrieked.

 

The dog’s teeth were buried in your shirt, and it dragged you towards the dining room.

 

“Melchior. Heel.”

 

The dog spat you out, and you looked up to find the Count looming over you, the entire room staring down at you, fully revealed in the doorway to the dining room.

 

Panic settled in your gut, and you hid Faust behind your back, hoping she’d get the hint to slither away while she still could.

 

“Is that the human?” the horrifying voice purred. The terror that crept through your skin at that voice wasn’t diminished now that you could see what was making it. Valdemar---this must have been Valdemar---hadn’t taken the form of an object or an animal. No. It was a corpse, skin sagging from rot and writhing with maggots, cheeks gaping over gumless teeth spread wide in a demonic grin. And the smell! Now that the door was thrown wide, you couldn’t escape the stench of death that curled off the being in roiling waves.

 

You would have vomited if Faust hadn’t slid off your wrist in that moment, disappearing into the dark.

 

“I thought you said you’d shown it out, Volta,” Vlastomil chided from wherever he was, his small form still invisible to your eye.

 

The grin on the corpse seemed to widen, the flaps of skin that once must have been called “eyelids” widening around the gooey red-yellow mass of flesh that could have once been identified as an “eye”. “How interesting,” Valdemar said, “You’ll let me have it for my experiments after all, then?”

 

“What I want to know,” Vlastomil said, “Is what it’s still doing here! It should have been gone days ago.”

 

Your eyes darted around the room before landing on the Count in front of you. He was scowling down on you, hoof clutched in the scruff of the dog’s neck, his other dog curled around his legs.

 

Finally, he spoke. “I decided I needed a servant,” he said, “Since none of you will do it.” He stuck up his snout, grabbing you and tugging you into the room.

 

“Why would you need a servant?” Vulgora grated, and you saw the sound came from a clawed gauntlet sitting on the table, fingers curling into and out of fists, “I could use something for target practice.”

 

The Count sniffed. “Noddy has a servant.” He scowled again, positioning you behind his chair and sitting down. “This is why I didn’t want you to know. Trying to take my servant. It won’t work! I deserve a break after all I’ve been put through.”

 

You waited, silent and frightened, as the courtiers seemed to individually determine whether they could talk him into letting them have you or not.

 

Finally, Valdemar’s corpse jerked back to its seat, muscles stiffening and relaxing with no seeming regard for Valdermar’s desire. “Of course.” They steepled their fingers. “We’ll make sure they don’t leave your wing then.”

 

Vulgora cottoned on immediately, jumping up onto her claws and gleaming with delight. “And if they try to make a run for it, we’ll make sure they regret it!”

 

Oh, you were already regretting it. You could feel the blood draining from your face, recoiling into your heart. Valerius was right to warn you about these two.

 

“Pour me wine,” the Count demanded abruptly, his dogs snapping at your legs, and you hurried to follow his orders.

 

This was… not going well for you, to say the least. Your hands trembled as you poured, and you were surprised that the Count didn’t yell at you for the drops of wine that dribbled down the side of his goblet.

 

Still. The Count seemed to be a slightly better shot at survival than Valdemar or Vulgora. You shuddered at the thought.

 

The Count drank, and then sighed, leaning his fur-covered cheek onto his hoof. “If you haven’t figured out anything, I don’t see why we’re still here. Everybody, leave me.”

 

The courtiers all left in a hurry, but you only watched Valdemar. He had to leave. He had to. Every moment in his presence was a moment of terror.

 

The door finally closed behind his shambling corpse, and you were alone with the Count.

 

Red eyes settled over you, and you were reminded that he was just as unpredictable as anyone on the dark side of the palace.


Despite his goat-like features, his grin was decidedly wolfish. “Now what are we going to do with you?”

Chapter Text

The Count’s red eyes were fixed on you, just like they seemed to have been the whole time you’d been in the castle, and the two dogs shoved you gently as they circled his chair.

 

“I---” You couldn’t force yourself to continue. What was he planning? Did he mean to help you, or did he have something else in mind.

 

Something else in mind . You shook the thought away even as it caused your heart to pound. No. Certainly not. “I--- I don’t---”

 

He seemed amused by your stammering, and his grin widened. A goat should never have such sharp teeth. A man shouldn’t either.

 

“You came to visit me, right?” he said, his voice silken, “I didn’t realize you were so desperate to see me again.”

 

Your brow furrowed in confusion. Was this the same Count that had chased you through the castle? It was like he’d forgotten about that entirely. 

 

The Count sighed, drinking the wine you’d poured for him. There was a grace to the movement that had you imagining that fair, golden-haired man from the painting. It was, for a moment, not hard to remember that he had once been that man. 

 

“Vulgora and Valdemar always spoil everything,” the Count spat, “Now we’ll have to find something for you to do. Do you know how to do anything?”

 

You sniffed contemptuously. “Of course. I’m gifted with magic,” you said.

 

The Count rolled his eyes, and your frown deepened. “That’s not useful!” he said, “Why would I care about that?”

 

“Why would you care about saving me from Vulgora and Valdemar at all?” you asked. You immediately regretted it when his eyes flashed and his face went sour.

 

He stood, and his dogs snarled at you. “Follow me,” he demanded with a sneer, and, when you didn’t immediately start moving, he grabbed your arm and pulled you along.

 

You glared at his back, but said nothing and didn’t resist as he led you back to his rooms. 

 

He let go of you and gestured at his bed, saying nothing.

 

You blushed. “What are you tryin---?”

 

“Go on. Make the bed!” he demanded, and you immediately relaxed.

 

You could have made the bed by hand, but you felt it necessary to prove a point. With a flick of your wrist, the bed was set to rights.

 

You raised your eyebrows at him, smug.

 

He gaped at the bed, but got his face back under control when he realized you were looking at him. “That could be useful. Maybe you can clean, then. Or---”

 

“This isn’t what I came here for,” you interrupted.

 

He flashed his teeth at you. “Yes, you came to see me; we’ve already---”

 

“I need to know about the ritual, Count Lucio,” you said, bracing yourself for his anger again.

 

He scowled at you, trembling in anger. “And you’ve done nothing but put yourself in danger! Which I saved you from, if you’ve already forgotten! If you’re going to be ungrateful about it, you can just leave!”

 

“Is that your solution to everything?” you grumbled, “Having me leave?”

 

“It would work if you would leave.”

 

“Well, I can’t leave now!” You crossed your arms over your chest and glared at him. “I’ll be…” You waved your arms threateningly. “... killed by your courtiers!”

 

The Count gaped at you again, but there was anger in his expression. His teeth clacked shut. “YOU---” He was screeching, pointing at you. His mouth opened and shut like a fish’s, and then he said, at a slightly lower decibel level, “Stay right here.”

 

He whirled out of the room, leaving you alone.




You sat there for a long time. From Lucio’s room, the whole palace seemed completely silent. Even though you knew that Faust was slithering back to Asra, that Julian and Portia were probably arguing with each other about how idiotic was too idiotic, that Volta was crying for food… 

 

From here, there was no sound. There was no hint of sound.

 

It was… lonely.

 

Imagining the Count in this room, all day, alone, with no hint of contact with anyone else… 

 

Well, it didn’t come close to making you want to forgive him for being so childish with you, but it gave you a sense that, maybe, he was hiding how lonely he really was.

 

Especially if he only ever hung out with the courtiers. They were sort of horrible to be around, although you had a fondness for Volta and Valerius, who had helped you. But the other three! Why would he choose to be near them?

 

Although, you knew he could leave his wing, unlike the courtiers. He could have chosen to interact with your friends, but he didn’t. He stayed here, lonely or with the courtiers, and you couldn’t imagine why.

 

And was he trying to lift the curse, or wasn’t he?

 

And what did he plan to do with you?

 

That question should have been the most important, but your mind was focused on the curse. He seemed to want his courtiers to lift it. Is that why he stayed with them? Because they were the only ones that could lift it?

 

You scowled down at your hands and wondered if Faust had made it back to the others yet. What would they do once they knew you’d been captured? They couldn’t come over here.

 

You collapsed into your hands, falling onto Lucio’s bed. You wanted to fix this. You needed to fix this! But the one person who knew how to solve it was a stubborn dumb goat!

 

The door was thrown open, and you straightened yourself.

 

Lucio glared at you, his hooves on his hips.

 

“What?” you snapped, “What did you do?”

 

He sneered. “Nothing that concerns you!” 

 

“I think that, at this point, everything you do concerns me,” you said, sniffing.

 

His eyes flashed over you, and he softened somewhat. “I’ve come to a decision!” he said with a grandeur that seemed to be waiting for trumpets to announce him.

 

You stared at him, unimpressed.

 

He huffed. “I’ve decided you’ll help me cure this curse. The courtiers have been…” He sneered again, a flash of teeth. “Unhelpful.”

 

You glared at him. That’s literally what I came here to do. You decided arguing this point wasn’t going to be helpful, so you shook your head. “I don’t think they’re actually trying to get rid of the curse,” you said.

 

He balked. “What? Why would you think that?”

 

“Val---”

 

“I told them to work on it, and they love me. Of course they’re trying!” He waved his hooves around. “They’re just incompetent!”

 

You narrowed your eyes and wondered whether arguing with him would be productive and, once again, decided it wouldn’t be. “That’s what I meant,” you said, nodding appeasingly, “They are so far from being able to do this that I didn’t even want to bother consulting them. I knew that only you would be helpful.”

 

He glowed under the praise.

 

You chose to ask about the ritual again, knowing that it would probably go poorly. “I heard that you were trying to save your life from sickness, but the ritual backfired. And all… this happened.”

 

The Count frowned, his good humor gone. “Why would I do that?” he asked, “I was never sick.”

 

Oh no.

 

“You… Count Lucio, what’s the first thing you remember?”

 

The Count rolled his eyes. “I remember my whole life,” he snapped, “You’re talking nonsense!”

 

“But that’s the reason Julian came to the castle. Because you were sick. If you don’t remember…” You furrowed your brow, and the Count huffed at you. You realized, “You don’t remember the ritual at all.”

Chapter Text

You felt like maybe crying or collapsing into the bed in defeat would be the best reaction to the discovery that not only was your biggest lead, the Count himself, a dead end, but you’d managed to get yourself trapped over here too. But you held yourself together, trying to figure out what to do next.

 

The goat stared back at you in annoyance. “Now you’re starting to look just as useless as the rest of my advisers,” he snapped, arms crossed over his chest, “Stop gaping. It’s not a good look on you.”

 

Your jaw snapped shut like a bear trap-- you might have hurt your teeth, even, but you didn’t notice because of the anger now coursing through you. “Yeah and being a goat isn’t a good look on you , but I don’t see you helping me stop that!” you half-shouted.

 

His eyes flashed in anger. “After I stuck my neck out to protect you from Valdemar, this is how you treat me? I could use a little more groveling,” he said, arms waving wildly, “a little more gratitude .”

 

“Gratitude?” you shouted back, “You want me to be grateful for what? You-- You-- You kidnapped me!”

 

He stormed up to you. “We just had this argument!” he shouted, shoving your chest with one cloven hoof, “And you kidnapped yourself!”

 

You scrunched up your face at him, your anger losing momentum as you tried to parse how he could think you had somehow kidnapped yourself. It was only then, once you’d slowed down a bit, that you noticed how close the two of you were. His clothes were soft and his chest heaving and-- And he was a crazed, arrogant goatman.

 

You coughed, stepping away. “Sorry.” You didn’t really mean the apology, but you figured it could serve as a bit of an olive branch between the two of you. “I’m just… scared,” you admitted, crossing your arms over your chest, “And I really want to help.”

 

He peered at you with those bright red eyes, then huffed. “You think I don’t want to solve this?” he grumbled, his gaze flicking to the portrait of the man he had once been. His jaw trembled a bit, and you wondered if he was also admitting to being scared.

 

Maybe he was scared. You tried to keep that in mind, but. You needed some time to think through what you could do next.

 

“Where can I go?” you asked.

 

“What?” he snapped, confused.

 

“In your wing. I don’t want your Courtiers skewering me for entering the wrong room.”

 

He rolled his eyes, but it looked like he was considering it. “I think it’d be best if you only went places a servant would be expected to go,” he said, “Here. I can show you the laundry room and the kitchen… The greenhouse is on this side of the palace, too, and most of the rooms need dusting.”

 

He took a few faltering steps towards the door, then glanced back at you with flattened ears, like he wasn’t sure whether you were going to start yelling again.

 

“I’d appreciate you showing me,” you said with a nod, trodding along behind him.

 

He flashed his teeth and whirled out of the room, and you followed less dramatically but in a better humor than moments before.




“...And this is the library,” the Count said, opening a large black door.

 

The tour had gone well; the greenhouse had held beautiful flowers and hearty plants of all sorts, and the other rooms could provide a welcome reprieve from the constant eyes of the courtiers.

 

But the library was what you had been most excited about. When he’d mentioned it, at first, you had frowned. 

 

“I thought that the library was outside of your wing of the palace,” you had said.

 

He’d flashed those sharp, decidedly un-goat-like teeth and said, “You didn’t think my palace would only have one library, did you?” He’d laughed, and you’d rolled your eyes and asked to be led to it.

 

The library that Portia had showed you a few nights into your stay had been sealed off behind an inconspicuous door, but was filled with secrets and knowledge that held great power.

 

Lucio’s library seemed to be the exact opposite; the room was grand and tall with circling staircases and large marble columns and flags draping down in flowing satin vines, but one look at the nearest selection of books revealed that the subjects weren’t nearly as important as the books made it look.

 

Still, even though the books didn’t look too useful, they looked entertaining. You smiled at the nearest selection, organized by color. “This place is gorgeous,” you said, glancing back at the Count.

 

He was not smiling, seeing something you did not. He huffed. “Needs to be dusted. I haven’t been in here in awhile or I would have made one of the courtiers do something about this.”

 

You glanced back at him and smiled smugly, excited for the chance to show him up. “ Safapulitair, ” you said with a wave of wriggling fingers, and the dust puffed out from the books and flew through the air, hissing out of the windows.

 

You grinned at Lucio’s dropped jaw and bulging eyes.

 

When he caught you looking, he hastily composed himself and grinned. “You really are such a useful servant,” he said, “I should have had the others replaced sooner.”

 

You frowned at him. “I’m not a servant, I’m a magician.”

 

He rolled his eyes and flapped a hoof at you. “Same thing.”

 

It’s really not , you thought, but you caught your tongue. You were going to try not to start useless arguments with him. Only important ones, from now on.

 

For now, you needed some time alone, and he seemed to sense this. “You stay here and use your magic to clean or whatever,” he said, waving his arms, “I have some pups to play with.”

 

He whirled out of the room, and the library settled into silence.

 

You smiled into the quiet, final giving yourself a moment to think. A bright red chair caught your eye, and you plopped down into it, its cushions soft and absorbing. And a little sticky, but that was easily fixed with a whispered word. 

 

You needed a way to get word back to the others. You decided to set your mind to that, first. Faust could still get between there and here, if she was careful, but you didn’t want her to risk herself. You were going to need a better solution.

 

But it wasn’t like there were any useful books in here.

 

Sighing, you stood and looked through the massive sections of books upon books. You chose a few that looked interesting, but none of them actually looked like they’d have any help. You might have to just tell Faust to bring back a tome from the other library.

 

You curled back up in the chair and chose the slimmest of the books from your little pile. It was a crazy fantasy book where wagons were powered by thunder and dragons of iron carried people from place to place. 

 

The sun slowly set around you, and once when you looked up you saw the Count wrestling outside with the big white hounds that had torn you from your hiding place.

 

They were gone the next time you looked.

 

When it started to grow dark, you yawned and stood, unsure of where you were going to sleep. Luckily, it only took a few minutes of wandering for one of the hounds to find you.

 

The white dog with the torn ear bounded up to you, tongue lolling out as he sat in front of you.

 

You regarded him warily. “You’re not gonna bite me or anything, huh, boy?” you asked.

 

In response, he simply buried his face into your knee.

 

You smiled, tentatively petting the fur on his neck. When he didn’t growl at you for it, you strung both of your hands through his fur. “So soft,” you cooed, “So sweet. You just want to protect the Count, don’t you? Protect and get pets, right?”

 

He wagged his tail softly.

 

“Melchior?” A harsh voice rang out over the hall, and then there was the Count. “Ah, you found our new servant.”

 

“Magician,” you corrected him, but he ignored you, strutting down the hall.

 

“Come, we’ll have dinner and then I’ll show you to a guest room… The servant’s quarters are in the gardens, unfortunately.”

 

You didn’t think it was that unfortunate, but you followed him regardless, one dog on either side of you, intimidatingly close.

 

You took a chance and petted at the other dog’s neck, but she flashed her teeth and shied away from you. The one with the torn ear leaned into you, though, and you kept one hand in his fur all the way to the dining hall.

 

“Dinner will just be the two of us,” the Count said, “And the pups, of course. The courtiers and I meet as little as possible.”

 

You nodded and sat down at the table, which was empty. You figured the Count probably expected you to serve him, and you didn’t plan on doing so voluntarily.

 

However, you were surprised when, after the Count sat down in his chair, the table sprung to life with food. 

 

“Oh!” you said, the smell of freshly cooked meat and hot dinner rolls and sweet pomegranates filling the air.

 

The Count chuckled harshly. “Is our magician surprised at our little bit of magic?” he teased.

 

“You did this?” you asked, shocked.

 

He looked annoyed. “No. It’s part of the curse. The magic keeps us alive, at least.” He scowled at his food, and you turned away.

 

The food looked too delicious to ignore, so you tucked into it. “I don’t know why I was surprised,” you reflected, “The food serves itself on Asra’s side of the palace. But everyone over here seems so intent on having me serve food to them; I suppose it threw me off.”

 

“Who else have you served here?” the Count growled.

 

You looked at him, uncertain as to why he was in such a bad mood all of a sudden. “I helped Volta out.”

 

The food really was delicious. A part of you wondered if it was actually food, though, and not some sort of mana. You shook the thought away and picked up a pomegranate.

 

Instantly, you had a lapful of dog fur, both of the hounds looking up at you beseechingly.

 

“Uhhhh,” you said as the Count laughed.

 

“Give them one,” he said between laughs, “They won’t stop begging until you do.”

 

Gingerly, you did as he said and the dogs disappeared back under the table, snapping at each other.

 

The Count grinned at you. “Such good dogs,” he said, “I can never resist treating them. I suppose they are a bit spoiled now, but what’s wrong with that?”

 

You chuckled. “They seem loyal for it, at least.”

 

The Count nodded, spearing a fish on the end of his fork. “They’ll be loyal to you, too, if you keep giving them treats like that.”

 

He looked thoughtful as he ate. “Melchior already likes you. He usually doesn’t take to people so fast.” His eyebrows furrowed.

 

“He’s a good boy,” you decided to announce.

 

The Count’s grin was back in full splendor, and you let out a breath at the sight of it. “He is. Mercedes, too, but she’s… picky.”

 

Dinner passed, quiet but civil. You weren’t comfortable talking to the Count like you were around Asra and the others, and he was a bit obnoxious, but you suspected that was all a mask. A man who was kind to animals, evena goatman, couldn’t be all that bad.

 

That night, you laid in bed unable to sleep.

 

All your plans for lifting this curse had been foiled, and now you were cut off from your friends and from your only source of information.

 

You groaned, throwing one arm over your head. “What am I going to do?”

 

You lied there for a long time before an answer arrived. The window swung open, and you jumped out of bed to find--

 

“Faust!”