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He's a sacrifice. He's only a boy, but now he belongs to the enchanted castle for his father's sake.
He knows a beast prowls around within, a tormented creature that demanded the sacrifice. He also knows there are flowers here in the dead of winter, so he's happy to see the black roses in full glittering bloom.
What he did not know was how much touching the rose would hurt.
On four crooked limbs she prowls, some of her bedraggled hair still stuck to her face. Burdened on her back and dragging onto the floor are the coats she clung so tightly to herself. Doors throughout the halls move by themselves, echoing her monstrous actions long ago.
Her servant the twitchy, nervous broom is following close behind her (oh but not too close!) trying to keep the place clean. Her servant the little lamp is flickering pathetically—the beast growls at it to try harder to keep the lights. Her servants the china dishes whisper that they saw something outside.
And then one of the doors stops in its tracks. Short, skinny, with just-cut short black hair, and twinkling eyes. He's trembling, soaked wet and wearing coarse ragged clothes.
"Who are you? Which of my servants let you in?" the beast snarls, baring her long teeth.
The boy in the light is holding something in his hands. "I am the prisoner you wanted," he says.
The beast lifts up her great head, tossing her wet hair, and laughs. "You...you actually came?" This was not the prisoner she wanted. He's much too weak and ordinary. He is not at all the hero she could challenge to slay her monstrous self and save the consumed person within (if there was any left). He could not possibly give her that glorious fight and end her suffering. Her beastly, bitter roar of laughter shakes the chamber.
The boy shifts a little nervously, and she waits for him to run off, readying herself for the chase he's sure to bring. But he remains where he is, looking at her with deep umber eyes. The beast comes closer to sniff his offering, whatever it is.
Exposing herself to the light, she sees it's a shimmering rose. There's no thorns on it, either. As she takes it in her mouth, she sees the boy smile. This boy is a fool to come here, but she's going to clutch close what she could get.
"Follow me to your room," she says, prowling up the stairs. The thought flickers in her mind about the boy's unwavering dark eyes making contact with hers.
The china dishes are whispering to each other,
There's a boy in the castle!
No, could it be?
I saw him, he's dressed so differently.
He's from east of the sun, I heard, travelled far with his father.
Is his father leaving him, then?
There's a boy, this could be the one we're waiting for!
It almost makes her believe there was her end to the curse. It won't last the week.
* * *
First to speak to him are the scissors. Joined at the hip, twins that share everything, they're sometimes are counted as one object. They're sometimes counted as freaks.
What can we do, sir? Shall we trim your hair? Fix your clothes?
Then he does something strange: he looks at them in the eyes. No one's made eye contact with them in years, since they turned into objects. Why, they had almost forgotten they had eyes.
His smile lights up the room as he asks for their names. They had almost forgotten they had names. "We are scissors, knives, blades," they answer. "We haven't been called anything else in a long time." But he doesn't see them as that. He is somehow able to look at their eyes (how can he know where to look?) "Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Misses. I'm Hungry," he jokes.
The dishes come in and bow to him as if he were owner of the castle, and serve delicious food. One thing they know how to do is cook. But he doesn't pick off them bite by bite. He takes the food in his hand, and he spares some and asks them to eat with him.
The dishes, pretty faces trapped in their reflections, are confused. They don't need to eat; they only live to serve consumers. Don't they?
But he looks them in the eyes—they forgot they had eyes—and asks their names. They forgot they had names.
The last servant to enter is the hourglass.
Her long dark hair slithers down her back--glittering black sand trickling down the glass. The sweep of her gown, translucent and glittering with black sand, touches the floor. Leaning in the far corner of the room in the shadows, she speaks next. What are you doing here, boy? It's all sand trickling through your grasp, what you're doing.
His eyes flicker with fear for a second. But then he looks the hourglass in the eyes and nods and says he knows. Then he asks her name.
Before they know it, they are eating with the boy, taken completely by surprise of him.
* * *
The beast prowls around among the black roses. She takes the frost's bite against her ragged fur, as she must feel the ice in the wind, just like the doors bewitched to slam in her face.
Then she hears the strange sound from within the castle. It shakes her with terror, jolts up her ears.
She must be losing her mind. No one's laughed here in years. They've learned not to. Do they think the curse is now a joke? Do they no longer believe in the hell around them? Have they forgotten their duty to suffer with her?
She charges in, tearing down the door and alarming her servants. They bow to her immediately, but she notices how they're already knelt on the floor before the prisoner. As if they cared more about him.
"They were only feeding me," he says.
"Oh, they were, were they? Look at this perfect mess of frosting, elaborate cake and savory dishes! Do you think they surprised me with such dishes?" she seethes.
"But they live to serve you! All they have to offer is yours, if you took the time to know them—"
"How dare you come in here and tell me what to do!"
"But Mistress," pipes the little lamp, "the last time we held back from hospitality, we got cursed—"
"Not another word, useless brat!" the beast roars. That is not how they should be bringing up that fateful night.
"Don't you call her that!" says the boy, standing up.
The beast turns, shocked. "Remember whose castle you're staying in, boy."
"Yes, I know, a human princess cursed for turning away a child in need," says the boy. "Because she was a foreigner."
The beast shifts under the coats pinned onto her. Beneath her mask of ghoul-like sockets, her eyes go wide.
"And the curse made you foreigners, in a place that remembers no princess but hunts and sacrifices beasts," says the boy. All the servants hold their breath.
"Don't make me eat you. It's too early for the fight," the beast growls.
The boy's voice softens. "My lady, you must be hungry. You've been out in the cold so long. There's frost all over you!" The boy 's reaching out to touch her coat. "Why don't you eat with us, join us for supper?"
Her stomach growls, but she mustn't let it be heard, so she herself growls louder. "I am not hungry." She turns on her four heels and stalks off, clawing the walls and tearing the door while she's at it. "Next time, there will be no wasting time or materials, or I'll have your heads!"
She storms into her secret chamber and tears at the walls and ruined paintings. Already her servants take a liking to this boy, already they delight him as if he were their new master! Have they abandoned their duty to be by her side through the curse, then?
And how vengeful would they feel once she has slain him, sooner or later, bound by the curse? Because that's how it always ends—with a death, and a surviving monster.
* * *
The boy befriends the servants even more. While the twitchy broom tries so nervously to keep everything clean, the boy holds a dustpan for him and smiles for him. When one of the dishes lean out too far and breaks, the boy comes by and actually...puts her back together again. When he catches the little lamp sneaking up late in the nook reading a storybook, the boy winks and recommends another page-turner.
Every night the servants cook him food, and he shares it with the rest of them and tells them stories. Even one night when the food was in little supply—which is strange because under the spell the castle always had food—the boy goes out into the wintery garden and plants seeds that grow by the end of the day. Fascinated, the little lamp wonders where he learned to do this.
* * *
"We were once something more than animate objects, weren't we?"
The boy turns and looks at the servants knelt before him for the bedtime stories he told. The question came from a golden harp.
A big fat pot hmmphs, "Shut up and be grateful. Before, we were inanimate objects."
"This isn't living!" wails the harp.
"Not quite," says the boy, and the servants turn back to him. They're unsure what he's referring to. "It's not life as it was meant to be. But someday, we'll be restored."
"H-h-how would you know that?" says the twitchy broom.
The boy now bites his lip, as if knowing the answer, but unprepared to say it. His eyes shift to the hourglass, the black sand trickling down the flare of her gown. She knows why. Even when she allowed him attention for his stories, she was always there to remind him his stay wouldn't always be comfortable. She knew everything about him.
And she speaks for him, "Because he comes from outside our kingdom, that's why. He knows and remembers things we only get hazy dreams about; he knows something is coming."
Now the servants are afire in excitement. "What? What's coming?"
The boy is actually exhausted inside but he knows they need stories as they need food. They have been so kind to him, sneaking him food all this winter. The beast must have known, at some point, and just let them continue, so he feels her heart must be warming up to him as well, thankfully. But now, amongst the clamor of the servants, the boy fears telling them what comes after this. Just then, he hears the great footsteps prowling in.
The beast has come right on time. In her eyes, he sees that she had been listening, even if she wouldn't admit it herself. She wanted these stories as much as the rest. She wanted him to tell more of the outside world beyond her own.
The beast stands up tall and commands, "Hey! You all let him alone, let him sleep."
The boy smiles at her. "Thank you," he sighs.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, trying to get something out of him!"
Moment ruined; the boy frowns. "No, it's not like that," he promises the servants. "But I am human and need sleep. As do the rest of you, enchanted or not."
The servants smile, nod, obey, yawn at different intervals. Even the hourglass cracks a smile. As they walk out, he holds his hand out and smiles to the beast.
The beast hesitantly comes in, begrudgingly looking at the boy.
"How did you do that to them?" she asks. The servants had become something more. They walked with posture, confidence, an aura about them. They glowed, they beamed, they winked their eyes. They still served as they did before, they still performed their duties—but there was so much more life to them, as if they loved what they did.
"I see past curses," says the boy. " I see how their souls are underneath all the glamour. You have to keep seeing them as such, and treating them as such, and maybe they'll remember and believe it for themselves."
"Hmmph, if I treated them as the humans they used to be, the poor teapot would shatter trying to reach the top shelf! It'll take more than your strange powers to fix that one!"
The boy laughs. "Just because I see past curses doesn't meant I'm blind to them."
The beast turns, not showing her fear, and dares to look him in the eyes. She strains to let her original voice be heard. "How do you see me?"
* * *
Beautiful? She wouldn't have believed it, had he not asked her to dance.
She's surprised how strong he is (she didn't have to be careful as a beast not to break his bones when she held his hands). She was surprised how strong she felt in return, from just one warm touch, as if a sickness had been healed.
They rule the floor, they spin and twirl and dip and rise. And with each spin, the beast feels as if some light kindles within her. Her layers of hair freely spins with her, liberated from the coats and her neck where they stuck for so long.
She's not much older than the boy. When the terror and weight of a cursed crown are thrown off, she's only a girl, a young ruler. And as she rises and falls about the floor linked to the boy, she no longer feels weight, but strength. She no longer felt beastliness, but boldness. She no longer felt evil, but beauty.
When the dance is done, she feels as if she were in a shimmering gown, all aglow like a faery queen and pure of heart, as if that were possible.
She notices the gasps, snickers and giggles of the servants, who've been in hiding and watching secretly. She lets them laugh—she feels like laughing herself.
But then a servant child runs to them in tears and says, "She's gone! She's gone!"
The beast blinks and staggers back for a moment. An actual servant child in the castle, running on solid two feet. Wasn't she a little lamp before?
The boy takes the child by the shoulders. "Who? Who's gone?"
"The hourglass!" says the child. "I tried to stop her. But she—she said she couldn't take it in here anymore. Why would she leave? It was just getting good again here."
The boy stands up intently and said, "I have to go after her."
"But why?" say the scissors. "The hourglass was the rudest of all of us. If she wants to go, let her."
The boy shakes his head. "At least let me talk to her. She's going to break herself to try to stop time, but it won't work. She has her choice, but just let me talk to her."
The servants step back in awe. And in fear of letting him go.
"But you're supposed to stay here!" "You're supposed to break the spell!" "You have all of us! What'll we do when you're gone? Don't you care about us?"
"I do." The boy looks them each in the eye. He breathes and stays with them for a bit. "Goodness knows I do, I love each of you. Including the hourglass. So I need to go meet her, but then I'll be back."
The beast feels herself quake inside. "You were supposed to see past all the curse! You were supposed to be someone who'd heal, who'd stay!"
"It's just the opposite of driving me away," promises the boy. "I have to take this chance. Please. Trust me and let me go. I'll be back, I promise."
He's waiting, she realizes, for her permission. How dare he. How dare he make her feel like never before, take her so far, only to leave her like this. But keeping him here when his heart goes out would only make her feel more like a beast. Brambles choking her on the inside of her throat, curling within her like ivy, she says, "Go."
He comes forward, embraces her a long time, and kisses her cheek. "Thank you. Trust me," he whispers. She hears fear in his voice...but then he stands back tall and strong and she knows it must have been her imagination.
That night there is a storm, and the boy ventures out into the darkness and wilderness. As the beast howls, the servants are gathered around her to comfort her.
They have eyes. They have hands. Flyaway strands of hair. Skin, with scars and birthmarks and wrinkles and tan lines. She can't believe she's never noticed this before. They're...human.
"The worst night for him to leave. It's hunting and sacrifice season," trembles a dish.
"We'll stay in here, where it's safe," she tells them, staring out at the rain. "As always."
"They won't hunt you," pipes a lamp. "You're too pure!"
She turns on the lamp. "What?" she growls, no patience for mockery.
The lamp nervously says, "Your Highness, do you not see it?"
"She doesn't know," murmurs the others.
"When you danced," says the child, gulping, "he switched places with you."
The words hit like a fiery arrow to the heart. "WHAT?" the beast demands a mirror. The servants scramble for an authentic mirror since their usual mirror became human again. When it's brought forth, the beast looks into it, aghast at who she sees.
The hardened mask with ghoulish sockets, where some of her hair twisted and stuck, is gone. The pile of coats pinned and draped from her back, gone.. The places twisted bone showed, the asymmetrical horns and extended teeth, gone.
Her hair is a glorious rain of black curls, framing a beautiful brown human face. Her cheeks ruddy rose and her bronze color aglow. Her shoulders are back, glittering with the flowing sleeves of her gown. Her body stands tall and strong and full. From the curls of her hair to the curves of her warm body—that same glowing beauty she once saw offer her a rose in the darkness is now within her.
"He switched places..." she murmurs, shocked.
And that means the boy is out there, become the beast, in a world hungry to kill.
* * *
She tears and tears at the nothingness of mist but can't take it apart. By the time it clears a little, she hears their shouts, their raging. She reaches out her hand and wants to just wrench the silhouette of him back in her arms. She scrambles over best that she can in the slippery, wet rain.
But it's too late.
* * *
"It's the hourglass's fault!" the servants wail to each other.
"She was always sinister, never wanted the curse to break!" hmmphs the big fat pot.
"I never liked her! Well, th-there was one time I did, s-she was very pretty, but now, I—I can't believe it," says the twitchy broom, slumping in defeat.
"It's my fault, it's my fault for telling," whimpers the littlest, a little lamp.
"She was out of her mind, had the devil in her," whispers one dish to another.
"The Mistress should punish the hourglass!" declare the scissors.
"I wish I could, but she's beyond punishing."
All the servants turn to the doorway and see the figure of their mistress, soaked to the bone and dripping with mud. They clamor over and do everything to warm her up by the fire again and bring back the rose in her cheeks that had magically appeared before. It works.
"Shards of the hourglass shattered everywhere already," their mistress says. "Spilled black sand like blood...washed away in the rain. The hourglass knew it was hunting season. She knew he would go out after her. She did this to him." The tears hurt like arrows. She hates that she can do nothing more to the hourglass. But then through her anger, the sharp image of the shattered glass flashes in her mind. How many of her servants had thought of shattering during the curse?
What if it had been the little lamp she used to blame everything on? Or any other of her servants she didn't treat well?
She goes to sleep in her storm-soiled dress and takes all the murder within her to rest.
* * *
He looks so peaceful, lying in the glass casket, as peaceful as freshly fallen snow. When they first brought his body back, it had been a beastly mess, slashed with blood and frozen in writhing, as if his soul were trapped in the corners of his corpse, unable to move his body. But today he looks much more peaceful.
The spell had been breaking for a time, the queen realizes. The servants have been living again, she was feeling hope again, and the darkness no longer seemed so powerful.
But what if this good moment was only a spell, too? What if things went back to the way they were? After all, the boy couldn't stay long enough to break the curse. He never had the chance to slay the beast to save the consumed person within.
"Your Highness! Look!" pipes the child, pointing at the casket. It's empty.
The queen suddenly stands up aghast, shocked, and filling with rage. The others had their fun, but it ends here. "Who moved him?" she demands.
But the laughter that answers her came from up above. Swinging his legs from a tree branch...could it be?
He's holding the rose. It's him.
The queen is quick to climb up the tree, never mind tattering her solemn skirts. She feels freer and lighter than ever before, and her ragged royal skirts have never felt so holy. Perhaps some beastly instinct was still in her, because upon seeing the boy's face clearly she shrieks and wants to leap for joy and pounce on him.
The boy and the queen, leaves caught in their hair and dirty bare feet swinging, hold each other long and tight. Tears and sweat can mingle between them for all they care.
Hunting-sacrifice season is over, and there's a season for roses again.