Published: March 26, 2012
The pride he felt was overwhelming, clouding out even the concern, concern that might have been better-founded than the hubris he displayed. But the white griffin was surely a gift worthy of her, perhaps even worthy of her praise, that tenuous thing so difficult to earn. He felt his lips give way to a small, rare smile as he considered what their princess may look like when presented with the great, proud beast.
As if on cue with his thoughts, the griffin let out a cry that echoed through the balmy night, the call wavering, long, and low-pitched, almost mournful. Had he been a man of a less stern heart he might have sympathized with it they had, after all, taken the creature from the home it had made. But he was not that soft-hearted, and it had been such a beautiful creature, exotic for its rarity, that he could not deny himself the honor of capturing it, no more than he could deny himself the pleasure of presenting it to the princess.
Every time they rested on the journey he felt the itch to move again; every time they slept felt like an eternity. He needed to get back to the capital city immediately, this pride hungered for it.
When finally their laden cart and weary bearers pulled through the pale arch that heralded the city, he felt the pride resurface and grow, bubbling giddily in his chest. He was hard-pressed to maintain the stoic façade he had come to be known for with such a prize in tow, but maintain he did. The creature, too, maintained, though less willingly than he they had wrapped a leather binding around its beak, something to keep the cries contained until his men finished fashioning the harness for it. But now he could be patient, could wait until all was perfect before bowing and showing the princess his find, her new trophy.
He bade the men find a cheap place to bunk down for the night, sketching the punishments he would mete out if the harness were not finished by the morrow, lest his men forget his nature. Yet the way these men hardened, rough-and-tumble, some even soldiers were all but cowed by his very presence proved that perhaps the explanation was unnecessary. But it gave him a thrill of pleasure to watch these men bow to his will, almost as much pleasure as he took in watching hands that would rather wield a blade or reins work heavy needles through thick leather, little better than women.
But everything needed to be perfection when the gift was presented, as much perfection as the beast itself was. He left his men to their meager rooms and menial tasks to go himself to his long-standing home, the graceful arches and pale, sun-lit rooms reminiscent of the city he was in, that he had craved returning to for the last fortnight. He pushed aside one of the clinging drapes that separated the rooms, a sign of wealth as much as a way to limit or encourage the air flow in this temperate climate, and entered the room where he had bade the beast be kept, tethered to a large, iron hook he had installed in the wall for this purpose exactly.
He was wary, had learned that wariness well when the griffin had slashed open the thigh of one of his men, and so kept a comfortable distance between him and the creature. But he could no sooner stop wanting to stare at it than he could empty out his coffers and hand the coins to the wretches who prowled the streets. The griffin's feathers were gloriously white, darkening to a deep grey near the end of the wings and around the face, adding solemnity where their might otherwise have been frivolity. But the eyes were what captured his attention, were what had captured his attention so many nights running, had prompted him out of his comfortable furs to brave the chill night and stare at the beast.
As it had then, it stared back, one brilliant, blue-green eye gazing balefully at him. It was a willful creature, true, but he knew the princess had those at her disposal who could train it, break the streak of wilderness that made those eyes sanguine instead of complacent, so he had little fear. He would have to request that she not approach it, of course, and get one or two of his men, the stronger and stouter of heart to hold it, but the presentation he planned and the speech he was still preparing would make up for the reservations that were necessary.
He smiled again, a grimly pleasured twist of his lips that did not move the Griffin at all, those powerful eyes still staring at him, too proud to beg, too proud to submit.
It was time, and his heart thrilled with it. His serving woman had bound his hair in the court fashion, wrapping it with thin streaks of golden wire, the dark strands a powerful contrast. He ran a hand over the design appreciatively, the soft, pliable gold reminding him, as it ever did, of how hard he had worked to be where he was. Only now he had something else to be reminded of how he was no longer going to have to work hard.
His pride had grown tenfold when they harnessed the griffin, the soft, pliable leather paired with the gilded iron work complimenting the creature perfectly, neither too soft and pampered-looking nor too hard and dangerous. He was sure now that the princess would rejoice, and any potential concern he might have indulged in had disappeared like the fog before the sun.
His woman helped him don the rich robes of his station and he took some pleasure in admiring his appearance in the mirror, another sign of his hard-won wealth showing in that he could even possess such a luxurious tool as a mirror. He made a turn, adjusted the heavy drape of gold around his neck, and then set off, face set in its natural, severe lines even while an indulgent smile built within.
The walk threatened his fine clothing with its heat, but his wealth had earned him more than a mirror and gold wraps he was close enough to the outskirt of the palace, where he would host the presentation, that the walk was over almost before it had begun. The princess had not yet arrived but the room itself was full of admirers, hanger-ons, and the multifarious parasites that tried to attach themselves to her, as if her royalty, steadfast loyalty to her country, and general wonder might rub off on them. He felt a stab of irritation that such fools would be present for his glorious unveiling, determined that they should not be able to witness such a wonderful beast at the same time as their princess, but conceded that there was nothing to be done for it.
So he waited patiently, the room cooler than outside without the sun that beat down. The crowd oohed and ahhed and tried so hard to crane and see what the cage just outside contained, but it had been shut up tight, the beast harnessed so as to not voice any ill-timed complaints. When her advisor came he felt a curl of unease that he quickly stamped out the man was known for his hard nature, something much belied by the obvious pleasure he took in life, his great belly and the rumors of the luxuries he gave himself well-heard by all. But one of his keenest pleasures, so it was said, was denouncing any who might appear before the princess, pointing out all that was wrong and insufficient with whatever they may be presenting, be it gift or plea. He knew the creature was dangerous, and feared the advisor would not cease pointing it out, but even such new-found concern could not stop his heart from hammering when she finally appeared.
Looking more out of a novel than something made of flesh and blood she stepped onto the dais, her garments plain and light for the heated afternoon, putting her advisor to shame with his heavy ornamentation. He swallowed uneasily, wondering if she was putting him to shame in the same manner, but then dismissed the thought he was appearing before her, and etiquette implied that he look his best, so he had done so. It would have to suffice.
He did not, of course, dare to look her in the eyes as he began his speech, but the blue of her well-cut robes caught his eye, and when she shifted and he saw the outline of her flank he tried to blink the image away. The princess was not a woman one might ogle like a street-rat, she was promised only to the man who might unite her country, and sworn to innocence until that day. That innocence pervaded her people as much as it controlled her, and to look upon her with lust was considered a capital crime, though one that was rarely able to be punished. Still, the message was clear, and it was as habitual as making the sign of god on your chest to forget that she was a beautiful woman in her prime, such as he forced himself to do now.
When his words were finished and the advisor had leaned over to whisper something in her ear was when he gestured his man forward. They all heard the crash as the wooden sides of the cage fell down, held together by some clever structure within, and there was a general intake of breath when his man wheeled the stunning griffin forward. It was being petulant and uncooperative, but he felt no unease at the sight it merely displayed the great strength of itself. And when it reared back and spread its wings as if to take flight he felt dizzy with joy, joy at the show it was unintentionally putting on, the perfect counterpoint, something even the advisor could not negate with his cold words and hard demeanor!
Even now he dared not meet the princess' eyes, but his heart continued to hammer in his chest, and sweat broke uncomfortably against his skin. He was caught in a half-bowing position as the griffin thrashed and writhed behind him, pride and fear at her silence mixing within him, producing a dark, churning thing that he fervently wished would stop.
When it did, he wished it could start again, for it was far better than the bleakness he felt.
It was some time later that he arrived at his home, methodically taking off his heavy garments and requesting a bath, followed by a change of clothes. His serving-woman followed his orders exactly, apparently not yet knowing the outcome of his foolish venture.
When he was clean and clad as he wished he smiled at the old woman, thoroughly shocking her, and told his tale. From the way her eyes betrayed neither surprise nor sorrow it had been as much a pleasure to work for him as it had been for him to have her for so long, and he felt no regret at leaving her. She would find more work, or she would not, and she was not on his list of concerns when he had found himself in the same position.
Why the princess had not taken kindly to the beast he still could not understand, despite the way her final words rang in his head, taunting him with their inscrutability.
"I would not have such a proud creature bound."