In the backstage of the theater; secluded by musty, tattered old velvet curtains, Nialla sat at a polished hardwood table, running a bristled comb through her smooth black fur and sighing a bit.
Another mundane, sub-par day at work. How had she expected anything more or less? The old saying went, do what you want for a living and you’ll never have to work until the day you die; but lately Nialla was having less and less positive feelings about her current line of work. What with the lower and lower turnout of decent customers, and the ever-increasing number of males who would show up for the sole purpose of wolf-whistling and eyeing her body, one could not blame the otter for considering quitting.
Across from her, a friend of Nialla’s, Eleanor; a sea otter dressed in immaculate green silk, saw her friend’s embittered expression and became concerned, reaching a paw across the table.
“Oh Eleanor…. I’m not sure I want to dance anymore.”
Eleanor raised an eyebrow, surprised at Nialla’s uncharacteristic lament.
“Why bothers? The males never treat me well.”
There was a certain heavy dread in Nialla’s voice; one Eleanor had to admit she was familiar with, and began to piece things together.
“You mean they…. They..”
Her voice was hushed.
“They’ve tried to take advantage of you.”
“Yes…. I’ve easily gotten rid of them, but still.”
Now completely understanding her friend’s predicament, Eleanor sat beside Nialla and put an arm around her shoulder. Nialla did not flinch at the sudden touch, which Eleanor was grateful for.
“Well, I can see why you’d want to quit. Is there any other place that might take you?”
Nialla shrugged and glanced about the room.
“Perhaps the nicer part of the market where the rich creatures go?”
She smiled slyly at this, and Eleanor only shook her head; rolling her eyes in a surprisingly matronly way.
“Huh, and what do you expect to find there? Some wealthy male to sweep you off your feet?”
Her laugh was callous- subtly, but still noticeable. Nialla, though, took it all in stride. She only smirked and said
“One can dream…. Hehe!”
And with that, she grinned her signature smile and disappeared behind the curtains for her cue.
Chapter Two The locals had conjured up many stories about the Danisham house. Many said that it was haunted and the young owner had gone mad.
Adrian Danisham had retreated to his study. His sister had brought her four children over for tea, but instead of eating they ran all over the house chasing each other like madbeasts.
Next Thursday afternoon, a cleaner but more expensive hack dropped Nialla at the gate of Rosewood Manor. She lingered there for what felt like several hours, taking in the sweeping house with its weathered but still-magnificent façade: It appeared to be built entirely out of granite and was several stories tall, adorned with various turrets with fine latticework. Clearly, a fine house for a fine owner such as Adrian Danisham, but even Nialla could see that it had begun to fall into visible decay. Nonetheless, it remained an impressive house; and eventually a servant let her in and told her Adrian was expecting her.
A gas-lit chandelier feebly swung from the ceiling, and a curved, dust-covered staircase led to higher floors, safely encased in a fading, dark blue velvet carpet that resembled the ocean.
Nialla allowed herself to be shown in and surveyed the entrance. A high stone archway separated the doorway from the front hall; and every inch of the flooring seemed to be covered with imported rugs decorated with fanciful designs of flowing streams and tiny leaping otters. Gloomy portraits stared unhappily at Nialla from the walls: Adrian’s mother with her son (depicted at around three), as well as an older girl she vaguely remembered as his sister, Rose. Adrian’s father Nathaniel was also seen in many; from a roguish younger otter with a handsome grin to an aging, well-dressed patriarch with graying fur.
The resemblance between father and son was uncanny, and more than passing.
Before Nialla could further dwell on this, however, Adrian came down the stairs, dressed in a plain white shirt with several ruffles on the collar, tight gray trousers, and a white waistcoat with dark green stripes. Or was that green with white stripes??
All in all, though, Adrian was a sight: Easy, aristocratic attractiveness blended with a hodgepodge of the awkward boyishness Nialla was already finding so endearing. Naturally, these things should have contradicted each other, but with Adrian they combined into something that was not quite a hypocrisy yet neither entirely natural. There was just something inherently intriguing about Adrian Danisham- what may have repulsed others, Nialla found herself drawn to. Local talk had it that after so many years in the house the boy was no longer normal. But, then, Nialla was well aware that normal was dull.
When Adrian reached the bottom of the stairs, Nialla found herself curtsying slightly- it was instinctive, really, after all these years.
Adrian, though, dismissed her with a roaring laugh a friendly wave of his paw.
“Nialla, that won’t be necessary. We’re both friends now, aren’t we?”
She smiled shyly.
And with that, he took her by the arm and led her up the stairs.
Nialla spent the remainder of the afternoon touring the house. Adrian showed her every inch of it (all twenty-four rooms) with virtually no assistance from the servants. The more Nialla saw of Rosewood Manner, the more, she found, she was impressed: Everywhere she looked she saw fine carpets, velvet upholstery on the furniture, and rare and expensive woods. It was all very lavish, but at the same time very comfortable, and Nialla was slowly getting used to the fact that she really would be living here.
After somewhat more than an hour, the only room they had yet to visit was Adrian’s bedroom, and as the two walked down the hall towards it, Nialla couldn’t help but notice that there was a sudden…. Change in Adrian’s mood, and the way he carried himself: His gait was becoming slower; and he walked with a visible trudge, and his shoulders sagged.
Stealing a glance at his face, she saw that the shy, handsome smile he’d first greeted her with had been replaced by a haggard, somber scowl. He hesitated on turning the doorknob, so Nialla stepped a few steps away and asked, concerned:
“Adrian? Are you all right?”
He smiled slightly, but it was fleeting.
“Of course, Nialla; I’m just fine. Nothing to be concerned about.”
They both knew, however, that Adrian sounded like he was talking more to himself than to her as they entered.
Adrian’s bedroom turned out to be a wide, spacious room with rectangular, open windows; and bluish-green wallpaper decorated with floral designs and leaves. An expansive bed with an elegantly-carved cherrywood headboard and footboard sat at the center, full of tasseled satin pillows and with smooth velvet covers drawn up to the headboard.
At the far left of the room there was a white marble fireplace with a decorative design of sculpted, twisting tree branches, and a mirrored dresser. There was only one chair, but Nialla wasn’t entirely surprised- Adrian didn’t often get company.
“As you can see, this is my bedroom- It’s a little tacky, yes, but I stopped minding years ago.”
Adrian muttered as they walked, a flicker of sunlight from outside casting shadows onto the carpets.
The adjoining room turned out to be Adrian’s study; a plain, beige-walled room adorned only with a rolltop desk with clawed legs, its surface bare save a discarded letter opener and several unopened, neglected letters. It was clearly a secluded, severe room where the otter liked to be alone with his work, so Nialla did not comment on it. They spent the next few minutes awkwardly talking, until Nialla realized that one of the drawers on Adrian’s desk was partially open; revealing a glimmer of something bright, something polished.
Just before she attempted to close it, Nialla reached into the drawer, curiosity ever-growing, and produced a small dagger; its handle wrapped in leather and decorated with a few small beads. In the dusty wooden compartment that was the drawer, Nialla also saw a little brass ring, and judging by the size of it was either a large earring or a tailring for a small child.
The moment Adrian saw her with the dagger, however, Nialla had no time to further wonder who the ring had belonged to. Eyes wild and shaking all over, he took the dagger from her paw and shoved it back into the drawer, closing it.
“Nialla….. I’m sorry, but you are not supposed to touch that drawer!”
“Adrian, Adrian….. Calm down. I didn’t know; I was only going to close the drawer because it was open, but I saw a flash of something and I wanted to see what it was. If you thought I was going to steal from you---“
“It…. It wasn’t that.”
Adrian panted, sitting down.
“There are some…. Bad memories within this house, especially in the drawer you just opened. I’ve been trying to forget them for years now…… Just don’t take it personally.”
“Are you sure?”
Nialla gave him an odd glance, but Adrian only nodded, teeth gritted slightly.
“Yes, I am. We had better go.”
A brooding silence settled over them, but neither made any effort to interrupt it, and simply left the room.