“Not many people stay at the inn anymore, given the circumstances,” Mayor Valis told her in the comfort of his first floor parlour room. He was an older man – thin and dark with eyes so bloodshot Genevieve wondered if he ever took the time to blink.
“Well, it will make things easier for me,” she said, smiling politely over a cup of tea. She grimaced at the strength of the brew and added a fifth lump of sugar before hazarding another sip. The Mayor paced, oblivious to this breach of propriety. Just as well.
“Yes. Yes, I imagine it will… but…” he paused, forcing his attention down to her seated form, “Your methods Mademoiselle Gregoire…”
“Yes?” she encouraged, with a raised brow and an inviting tilt of the head.
“I’ve heard stories but… but I’d prefer if you could be more…?”
“Transparent?” Genevieve offered.
His narrow shoulders rose and fell, and he took off his glasses to rub his eyes. “There are rumours Mademoiselle, and my first concern must be for the people.”
“Indeed?” Genevieve set her tea down on the table beside her and folded her hands together over her lap. “Am I so frightful that you’d rather leave them to the ravenous appetites of monsters?”
“N-no, Mademoiselle. But I’ve heard…”
“That I murder indiscriminately?” she finished for him, never relinquishing her smile or the amicability of her voice, “Innocent and guilty alike until hardly a soul is left in my wake?”
The Mayor’s nod was so stiff as to be almost imperceptible.
Darnell stepped forward from his place behind his mistress, his mouth opening but closing again at the sound of Genevieve’s laugh, as delicate as fine china.
“Well, it cannot be said that I’m not thorough…”
“Mademoiselle, I see no humour in what you are proposing,” the Mayor lifted his head boldly, but Genevieve took a silent pride in the trembling of his bony knees.
“Lord Mayor,” she chided, “What you speak of are rumours. Frightening ones, which are the most dangerous and often the most ill-used. Though I find your confidence in my abilities… refreshing.”
“So they are untrue?” he pressed, patting at his bushy brow with a threadbare handkerchief.
“Utterly ridiculous,” Genevieve said, “I am a woman of science, Monsieur. My methods are evidence-based and precise. I will not proceed unless I am convinced of an individual’s guilt.”
“So your methods…”
“Private, of course. I may hunt Beasts, Monsieur, but you know as well as I that they have the minds of men. It would be strategically imbecilic of me to reveal the means of my success before I have even begun the Hunt.”
“Not even to the mayor of this city?” Perhaps he had meant to leverage his position, bear down on her with a sense of intimidation, but the fiddling of his fingers and the quiver in his voice resulted in quite the opposite.
“Monsieur Mayor,” she cooed, as to a frightened animal, “I can assure you that, unless you have something to hide, you have nothing to fear from my methods. As I said before, I hunt only Beasts.”
“Of course,” he conceded, dropping into a plush armchair opposite Genevieve. “Forgive me for my skepticism, Mademoiselle, the past few days have been trying. Not that life has been easy in Ste. Ygrette’s for quite some time.”
“Ah yes,” Genevieve said, forcing another sip of tea to give her a moment to collect her thoughts, “I imagine the fire this morning must have been quite a trial.”
“This morning,” he said, followed by a humourless laugh, “What you saw were merely the death throes of a blaze that began yesterday morning.”
“That must have been quite a fire. I’m rather surprised the building is still standing. I assume it was no accident?” She watched his face closely, but he seemed too exhausted to deceive her as many mayors of many other cities had often done. Even in the face of desperation, she was an outsider, and many would take familiar beasts over something as strange as an authoritative female in a wheelchair.
Overall, she decided she liked this mayor, even if she didn’t quite trust him.
He sighed, shaking his head in defeat as he answered: “No. No, I’m certain it was quite intentional. Governor L’Amie has lost much in recent years, and there are those that blame him for every disaster, whether caused by Beast, or disease, or simply by fate.”
“Cursed?” she asked, echoing the mother she’d spoken to earlier that morning.
“That’s what they say.” He didn’t elaborate, though Genevieve waited in uncomfortable silence.
“So they believe him to be the Beast? Or at least one of them?”
At first the Mayor seemed too distracted to acknowledge that she had spoken, but as the words slowly unfolded within his sluggish brain his eyes widened in terror.
“No,” he snapped, sitting up much straighter in his chair, “No, of course not. He is a great benefactor of this town and of unquestionable character. No, the curse is one of misfortune – or so I’ve heard – and therefore drew the Beasts to the town. A mistake made in his youth that angered a Witch and forced all those around him to suffer. I don’t know the details of the story – nonsense if you ask me.”
“So the fire wasn’t an accusation, then?”
“Of course not,” he scoffed, “Just a superstitious mind trying to drive him off. Annette probably got the ear of grief-stricken parent and convinced them it was the right thing to do.”
The Mayor fumbled his words for a moment, and rolled his eyes as if to dismiss the topic as beneath his attention, “One of the older women. You know the type – dirty old spinster that stirs up trouble out of boredom. Tries to corrupt the youth and then cries foul when the town takes it into their heads that she’s a Witch. Better off hiding in that old shack of hers until she does us all a favour and dies.”
Genevieve regretted the amicability she’d felt for this man. He may have read this in the stern line of her mouth because he quickly raised his hands in defence and continued.
“Yes, yes I know. I suppose I’m being unfair – she’s harmless really. But she does cause such a fuss.”
Interesting, Genevieve thought, making a note to meet the old woman that caused Ste. Ygrette’s mayor as much a hassle as the Beasts consuming it.
She opened her mouth to ask after the Mayor’s personal theories and suspicions when Darnell’s hand fell firmly on her shoulder. Raising her head, she met his eyes and he nodded. At that same moment a cacophony erupted from the front hall just beyond the parlour – a door crashing open and the sound of nails skittering against the stone tile. The parlour door then swung open and a large brindle dog burst through, running first to the Mayor and then to Genevieve and Darnell, its tail a blur of overwhelming excitement.
“Jacques!” A feminine voice cried, “Jacques, no! Come back, boy!”
The Mayor’s mouth gaped like a caught fish, and he jumped to his feet, falling over again as the dog pounced on him, licking his face.
A girl appeared in the doorway then, well dressed in high-collared silk and layered skirts, but with mud clinging to the hem and the soles of her otherwise stylish boots. Genevieve aged her at perhaps fifteen or sixteen years.
Noticing that her father had company she quickly clutched her hands together and dipped her head in a polite bow so that her auburn curls bounced down over her face.
“Please excuse me Mademoiselle, Monsieur,” she addressed each in turn before pointing firmly towards her feet, “Jacques, here!”
The boisterous animal flew from where it was sniffing Genevieve’s wheels to its place by its mistress’ feet.
“Good boy,” she said, patting him playfully on the head.
The Mayor still watched, sprawled over the chair as he was, in abject terror.
“Juliette,” he squeaked, “You should not be here. Please take Jacques and leave at once.”
The girl’s cheeks ignited like the morning’s flames, brighter even than her hair, and she dropped her head in apology once more. “I am so sorry for the disturbance.”
“Not at all,” Genevieve smiled, patting Darnell’s hand still resting heavily on her shoulder. He grudgingly removed it. “Might I beg an introduction before you depart?”
She looked to the Mayor, already shaking his head, but Juliette seemed not to notice.
“My name is Juliette Valis,” she responded with a curtsy.
“Your daughter, Monsieur Mayor?”
The Mayor nodded, then quickly turned to his child, “Thank you Juliette, now if you would please…”
“Ah, but I have not introduced myself,” Genevieve interrupted, reaching into one of the pockets hidden in the deep folds of her dress, “I am Hunter Gregoire, and this is my assistant: Hunter Furst.”
The change didn’t begin immediately, but Genevieve recognized the familiar chill that seemed to ripple through the air.
“Now you must go,” the Mayor said to Juliette, pushing himself to his feet and taking a step back rather than toward his daughter whom was staring at Genevieve with an expression not unlike that of her father’s.
“Juliette,” he said firmly, and she looked at him then as though waking from a dream.
“Y-yes, Father. I need to see to Jacques. Come on boy,” she called.
The dog was missing, no longer at her side but across the room and backing away still.
“Actually, I’d like a word with your daughter,” Genevieve said, drawing their attention back to her.
“Mademoiselle Gregoire, please,” the Mayor begged, “she is my only child.”
Still he did not move an inch towards Juliette.
Already Juliette’s nostrils were flaring, panic coursing through her veins and freezing her in place as the transformation began. Her eyes seemed to slide down her face, narrowing the distance between them as her jaw extended outward. Coarse red hair was sprouting from under her collar and creeping up while her ringlets parted ways with her scalp, tumbling in a muffled heap upon the floor.
Juliette screamed. Genevieve knew what kind of agony she must be suffering, and she withdrew the five-barrel pepperbox from her skirts. The Mayor’s eyes widened, reflecting the glint of the carefully polished revolver.
“No!” he shouted, suddenly animate and moving towards the Beast that was only moments ago his child.
Sharp canines were already sprouting from the girl’s face, displacing the duller, human ones which clattered down beside the hair.
In two long strides Darnell reached the Mayor, lifting the smaller man up and away from Genevieve’s line of sight. She made to squeeze the trigger but snarling from another direction made her hesitate, and she watched as Jacques shot across the room at Darnell, aiming to protect his master.
Juliette stretched out a lanky, clawed foot and took a step forward. There wasn’t time.