The key’s smaller than most of the others on the bunch, but you can pick it out easily because it is always slick with fresh blood. Some magic keeps it that way, never dripping, never drying, never rubbing off onto the other keys or onto your fingers. Not until you choose that one, put it in the lock, open the door.
I know she’s looked at it. They all do. Perfectly reasonable, a bit of curiosity. It’s only to be expected when something so mysterious is forbidden to you. And there’s always a chance everything’s going to work out this time – if all she does is look.
I have to admit I’m nervous when I take my leave of her. You wouldn’t know it to look at me, naturally. I lean down from my horse and dangle the ring of keys in front of her with the same blank face I always show her.
“You may enter any room but the one in the north tower,” I tell her. I drop the keys into her outstretched palm. “I will return in ten days.” And with that, I spur my horse and ride away.
Don’t do it, I’m thinking. Please, let this one be the one.
Truth is, I’m tired of punishing them. But I can’t afford to be weak, not now. If I doubt, for a moment, this duty, this quest that I have devoted my life to, all these past years will be pointless. Somewhere out there in the world, she must exist, the perfect wife, not only beautiful, gentle and intelligent, but with enough faith in me, her husband, to be obedient in spite of whatever her curiosity or her sense of morality may drive her to do.
The first broke my heart. After her failure, it was years before I began the search for another. Even as the second smiled up at me whilst I slipped the ring onto her finger, I doubted her. When she failed the test, I went straight out to find another. After the first two, I saw little point in learning their names. I must have spoken them in courtship and in the marriage service, but afterwards each was simply ‘Wife’ on my lips and a number in my head.
This one is Fifteen.
She smiles at me and thanks me prettily for the presents I bring her. She’s constantly asking, “Shall we …?” and “Would you mind …?” when she wishes to ride or walk or swim as though she values my company. And when we dine, she prattles on about her day in such a charming way, pretending that she is not at the same time feeding titbits to her little dog, that I have to stop my lips from twitching into a smile.
“Are you happy?” I ask her each night before she goes to her room.
And each night, she looks me in the eye and seems perfectly sincere when she answers, “Oh yes! Thank you!”
I could give my heart to this one, I think.
If only she would pass the test.