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The Beauty of Being a Beast
Author: Jennifer Estep

 


The Beauty of Being a Beast

 

 

So many things were supposed to happen.

I was supposed to lure, bribe, threaten, or cajole a boy into staying at my castle. Supposed to fall madly in love with him. Supposed to treat him kindly and shower him with gifts and be so charming, generous, and good-hearted that he couldn’t help but fall in love with me too, despite my outward appearance. Then the curse would be broken, and we would live happily ever after.

I was never, ever supposed to be bored with the whole predictable charade.

I drummed my talons on the tabletop, leaving pinprick scars behind in the smooth, glossy wood. A feast fit for a queen—well, a lady, in my case—was spread out before me. Crystal tureens brimming with soups. Copper bowls filled with vegetable, potato, and pasta salads. Silver platters covered with roasted hams and fried turkeys surrounded by thick squares of cornbread-sage dressing. Glass stands boasting seven-layer chocolate cakes shaped like castles topped with towering turrets of fluffy chocolate frosting.

For once, I wasn’t interested in the scrumptious food, and I gazed across the table at the boy slouching in the chair opposite mine. Snyder, the castle tailor, had crafted the boy a fine green jacket that highlighted his shoulders, along with his tall, skinny frame. With his golden hair, brown eyes, and tan skin, the boy was quite handsome, although instead of attraction, all I felt when I looked at him was annoyance.

Instead of looking back at me, the boy, Peter, stared downward, using a spoon to push his apple-and-butternut-squash soup from one side of a bowl to the other and back again. Over in the corner of the dining room, a tall, freestanding cuckoo clock shaped like a tree adorned with colorful flowers and hummingbirds steadily tick-tick-ticked off the interminable seconds.

I kept drumming my talons. Peter flinched every time my nails hit the wood, breaking up my boredom and filling me with petty satisfaction. He’d been here for two weeks, and he still seemed to think that I was going to eat him at any moment.

I eyed my reflection in the mirror that covered one of the walls. Shaggy dark brown fur. Unnaturally bright blue eyes. A wolflike face, complete with triangular ears and a muzzle filled with razor-sharp teeth. The aforementioned long, pointed black talons that could tear through solid wood like it was as thin as paper.

Perhaps Peter was right to be worried. My eating him would certainly break up the monotony of this dinner, as well as leave me free to do something else this evening. Read a book. Write my own fantasy story. Shop in the village for holiday gifts for the servants. Prowl through the surrounding woods and admire the snowy landscape. Any of which would be far more useful and enjoyable than trying to make small talk with a boy who shook like a leaf in the wind whenever I spoke to him.

Even Peter’s story of how he had come to be here was boring. He had heard about the famed gardens of Mottern Castle and had snuck inside to pick some pansies for his beloved, a girl named Arisa. As soon as he had plucked the first blossom, the curse’s magic had alerted me to his presence, and I had stormed into the gardens, snarling, growling, and generally playing my part of the fearsome beast to the hilt.

It was one of the few things I enjoyed about the Mottern family curse.

As expected, Peter had thrown himself down at my furry feet and tearfully agreed to stay at the castle if only I would spare his life. And now here we were, two weeks later, trying to make conversation like normal people when I was anything but normal.

On their sixteenth birthdays, all Mottern women were cursed to turn into wolflike beasts and remain that way until they discovered true love. My mother had suffered through the curse, as had my grandmother and my great-grandmother before her, and now it was my turn.

Peter was the twelfth boy who had come to the castle since my curse had begun, and he was my last chance to make someone fall in love with me before my twenty-first birthday next week. On that day, the curse would become permanent, and I would remain a beast forever.

My talons struck the tabletop again, a little quicker and louder than before, and Peter jumped in his chair, his spoon violently ting-ting-tinging against the side of his crystal soup bowl.

I sighed, giving in to the inevitable. “Would you like to go home?”

Peter’s head snapped up. His brown eyes widened, and his face brightened with joy. “Oh, yes! I…um…well…” His voice trailed off, and he grimaced, trying to tamp down his obvious relief and burgeoning enthusiasm.

“It’s all right,” I said, trying to keep the boredom and annoyance out of my low, gruff voice. “This has all been a test to see if you would remain true to your beloved Arisa, and you have never wavered in your devotion. She’s lucky to have someone so loyal.”

Peter’s shoulders straightened, and his thin, skinny chest puffed up with pride. I had no idea how devoted and loyal Peter was to Arisa, but I always said something inane like that when I released the boys from their promises. It seemed to make them feel better, as though they had accomplished some small thing in their time here.

I might be a beast, but I wasn’t a monster.

Peter kept staring at me with his annoyingly joy-filled face, so I waved my fur-covered hand, indicating that he could go. He shot to his feet, almost knocking his chair over, but instead of immediately running from the room, he lingered by the table.

“It’s not just that I want to return to Arisa,” he said. “I’m worried about everyone in the village. And you too, Lady Griselle.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

Peter shifted on his feet. “There are rumors that the Razors are marching toward Dammerung. That they plan to attack.”

The Razors were a notorious group of bandits, thieves, and murderers who made their home in an abandoned keep deep in the Black Forest. Every few months, they would appear like ghastly spirits escaping from graves and attack whatever travelers or villages were unlucky enough to be in their path. The Razors took what they wanted, burned the rest, and returned to their hidden keep. Then, a few months later, when their stolen wine, food, and gold ran out, they would reappear in a different part of the kingdom and strike again. So far, Dammerung had managed to escape their notice, but apparently no longer.

“Well, if the Razors are coming, then you should absolutely return to the village and make sure that Arisa is safe, along with your parents and the rest of your loved ones.”

Peter’s head bobbed up and down in a frantic rhythm. “Thank you, Lady Griselle.”

He gave me a quick bow, then scurried out of the room without a backward glance. I remained sitting, still drumming my talons against the tabletop, thinking about this new threat.

“You got rid of him already?” a dry voice drawled, interrupting my musings.

Footsteps sounded, and another boy stepped into view. He was dressed in a simple blue jacket, with black leggings and boots, and a white towel was thrown over his left shoulder, indicating that he had been in the kitchen cooking. His dark brown hair was neatly brushed back from his forehead, and his tan skin gleamed in the soft, dreamy light cast by the crystal chandelier overhead.

Drury glanced over at the cuckoo clock, then back at me. Merriment sparked in his green eyes, and a grin stretched across his face. “That was fast. It’s not even six o’clock yet.”

I rolled my eyes at his teasing. Drury’s family had worked for mine ever since my great-grandmother was originally cursed, and we had been friends since childhood. Drury was an amazing chef, and he oversaw the kitchen staff and dealt with the servants, while I prowled around the castle and wasted time trying to make boys fall in love with me.

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