The Beauty of Being a Beast – Jennifer Estep

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 appleand-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 greatgrandmother 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. I threw my napkin down, pushed back from the table, and got to my feet.

Despite my beastly appearance, Drury was still a few inches taller than I was, and I had to tip my head back to look up into his face. Unlike Peter and all the other boys who had come here, Drury kept his eyes on mine. He had never flinched at or shied away from or been scared by my beastly form—not once, not even when the curse had first taken effect. That was one of the many things that made him such a dear friend. “What is this rumor about the Razors marching toward Dammerung?” Drury’s smile vanished. “Peter should have kept his mouth shut.” I arched a bushy eyebrow at him. “So the rumor is true. The Razors are coming to raze the village.” He sighed.

“Apparently so. Some of the woodsmen spotted the smoke from their campfires two days ago. The Razors will most likely march into the village sometime tonight.” I eyed him. “What else aren’t you telling me?” Drury sighed again. “There have also been some rumors that Nigella, the leader of the Razors, fancies herself to be quite the hunter. That she enjoys killing all sorts of creatures but the more unusual and magical, the better.” “So the Razors are coming here because of me. Because Nigella wants to bag a beast.” I threw my hands up into the air.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Drury shrugged. “You have enough to worry about with the curse and your birthday coming up next week. Besides, the Razors won’t be able to get into the castle.” No, they wouldn’t. Eifert, the wizard who had enacted the curse, had enchanted the castle so that none could enter who wished to harm me. But the magic didn’t extend to the village, which meant that Peter, Arisa, and everyone else would be at the Razors’ mercy. Unless… “Have the servants open the castle gates, go down into the village, and tell everyone that they are welcome to stay here until the Razors are dealt with,” I said. Drury nodded. He hesitated, then looked at me again. “I’m sorry about Peter.

That things didn’t work out.” This time, I shrugged. We both knew that I had less than a week to break the curse, or I would remain a beast forever. We both fell silent, and a sudden, weird awkwardness arose between us, something that had been happening more and more lately. Sometimes I thought that I should just take a chance with Drury and try to get him to fall in love with me. After all, we were fast friends, which was its own sort of love. But every time the notion struck me, I squashed it. Drury deserved to find his own happiness, with whomever he chose, not get further entangled in my family’s curse. Besides, I wanted to fall in love when I was ready, not be forced into it by some spiteful wizard. Still uncomfortable, I looked away from Drury, and my gaze landed on the tabletop.

The pinpricks that my talons had grooved into the wood glimmered in the light, looking almost like stars that a jeweler might etch into a pendant to enhance its design. I flexed my hand, then curled my fingers inward, so that the sharp tips of my talons pricked my fur-covered palm. Anger sparked through me, along with determination. I might be cursed, but I was still the lady of this castle, which meant that I was its protector—and the protector of the nearby village. Drury’s eyes narrowed. “Uh-oh. I know that look. You have a plan.” I grinned at him, showing off my long, sharp teeth. “Absolutely.

” “What are you going to do, Griselle?” “If Nigella and the Razors want to confront a beast, then I’m going to show them exactly how beastly I can be.”

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