A beast dwelt in the castle on the hill.
There was nothing so very strange or unusual in this circumstance; recently it had been tremendously in fashion. A witch couldn’t really hope to make her debut in society without imprisoning at least one troublesome young man behind stone walls.
Lucia Bellomi knew all of this, and therefore she should have known to steer clear of the enclosed garden full of roses even in the dead of winter. It was enchanting, and she should have known that meant it was enchanted. But she and her father were new to the region, repairing here after his business had shuttered in the city, and she wasn’t feeling particularly clear-headed or cautious.
So when she plucked a blossom and the air around her thickened to swirling grey smoke that encircled her arms and held her fast, she could barely summon the will to resist.
No matter, she thought. Father will come for me.
And so he did. Andrea Bellomi was of a similar disposition to his daughter: level-headed and generally unshakeable. And ever since his creditors had finally closed in on him, he was bordering on outright nihilism. They took issue with Andrea’s troublesome habit of ignoring debts and leaving projects half-finished. No rich man appreciated paying a great deal for a coat only to have it come back with one sleeve and no buttons. They also didn’t want to hear that Andrea could only work when he was inspired. That defense might work for a painter or epic poet, but not a man who made most of his living off slacks.
When his daughter failed to return from her trip to the village, Andrea lit a lantern and retraced her steps. He found her basket a few meters into a garden full of unseasonable roses. It held the piquante hint of magic he recognized from years of watching magicians in traveling shows.
Lucia, he thought wearily. You are far too much like your father.
He squared his shoulders and walked up the crumbling stone steps, knocking on the heavy castle doors. They opened of their own accord. With a weight settling in his stomach, Andrea entered. Torches burst into life, leading him down a murky corridor to a tall room with a leaping fire at one end and curtains drawn against the night outside. Once it would have been grand, but now it was drained of life and color, of everything that made it worth looking at. Andrea sympathized with it deeply.
Seated in a carved wooden chair before the fire was the Beast. He was decked in curling horns and cloven hooves and a great deal of matted fur. He spoke in a grating whisper that nevertheless carried across the expanse of the hall and shook Andrea to his foundations. There was menace in that voice, but also grief.
The Beast wrapped clawed fingers around the arms of his chair. “How dare you venture into my castle, traveler?”
Andrea bowed low. “My most fervent apologies, Lord. But I am afraid my daughter may have blundered into your garden by mistake. I beg you release her, for she is all that I have.”
“Come closer,” the Beast growled, and Andrea did. Dust rose from the carpet under his feet, and from the corner of his eye he thought he saw figures flanking him. He dared not turn his gaze from the Beast to look.
Up close the Beast was even more fearsome. He had fangs that jutted over his muzzle, ears that pricked up whenever Andrea began to speak, and a deep animal smell. Fear trembled in Andrea’s stomach and he felt considerably less blasé about his fate than before. As dark as his life was of late, he very much did not want to be eaten.
The Beast took hold of his jaw, claws threatening at his throat. Andrea’s pulse pounded and he stood very still as the Beast examined him like a horse at market.
“And what will you give me for the safe return of your daughter? Riches? Lands? Livestock? I have all of those and no need of more. What I truly desire…” Here his voice dropped to a snickering purr. “Is companionship.”
Andrea’s fear was briefly overwritten with a pulse of dismay. It was the tempering that his flagging resolve required. “Then I offer myself in exchange for my daughter’s freedom. I have no lands or riches or livestock. All I have is my own life.” He attempted to put some strength behind his words. “Please don’t take my daughter from me.”
Shock bloomed in the Beast’s eyes. They were, Andrea noted, surprisingly clear and human. In good light he thought they might be green. Obviously the Beast did not expect this offer, and Andrea had a feeling he was playing a role as surely as Andrea himself. How many times had this happened? How many young women had he imprisoned?
Andrea imagined how he must look to the Beast—graying hair tied back from a weathered face and a forehead etched with a lifetime of worry. Years spent bent over drafting tables had left his shoulders decidedly uneven. He was hardly a prize by any stretch of the imagination.
The Beast released him and said, “Very well. Your daughter’s freedom for your own.” Andrea stumbled back, heart pounding hard up into his throat. I’m too old for this, he thought with a grimace. “Follow the torches to your rooms. Keep out of my way and don’t break anything.”
Andrea found this commandment slightly rich, as the Beast was draped entirely in rags and much of the furniture in the castle was in pieces or close to it.
The torches led him to a set of rooms as luxurious as he could imagine, more so even than those of the rich men he’d attended at home to take their measurements. Many of them had considered themselves too busy or too important to be seen in a common tailor’s shop.
Instead of admiring its finery, Andrea stood at the window. He watched the shadows lengthening until one of them broke away from the rest and made haste toward the outer gate. Lucia’s hair was loose and her skirt was dirty, but otherwise she seemed unharmed. Andrea watched until she vanished through the castle gates and out into the night. His chest turned to marble, lungs thickening until he could barely draw breath. The feeling of abandonment settled inside him, even as he understood that he was her father and it was his job to keep her safe.
Andrea had made the deal willingly, and the Beast had kept his word.
Later he explored his prison: the wide bed, the rich paintings on the wall, the scrolled legs of the furniture. He pulled open the wardrobe to find a row of women’s gowns, dozens of them, in every hue imaginable. Andrea let them flow across his fingers like water, relishing the touch of fabric so fine he’d never felt its like, not even when he filled orders for the wealthiest men in town.
“Lovely colors,” Andrea said out loud to himself. “But I don’t think any of these will fit me.”
The air around him thrummed and the door to his chamber creaked open. He followed the torches to another wing of the castle and into a room almost as large as his bedchamber. It was filled with clothes: men’s clothes this time, and equally as grand as the gowns. Waistcoats, overcoats, cloaks trimmed with fox fur, and boots of shining leather as soft as butter. Like his room, the wardrobe was miraculously free of dust, but the ground was awash in a tatter of torn garments, many ripped to absolute shreds.
Andrea memorized the way to the wardrobe so he could find it without the assistance of the torches, but when he returned to his room he discovered there had been no need. The closet was no longer full of gowns, but with the very finest of the things from the dressing room. Enchanted castle indeed.
The next morning dawned bright and chill. Andrea woke to find himself still hale and uneaten, and thus spent the day walking the grounds, pacing between the ranks of roses and along an ivy-clad wall, testing the compulsion that kept him from venturing outside the gates. Maybe a stronger man could fight it, but he couldn’t.
Perhaps this is better, he thought as light gleamed off the distant hills, where his sister-in-law’s house lay nestled in a field of heather. At least now his daughter would be free of him, the debtor living off the charity of his dead wife’s family. Lucia had a beau in the village; she probably wouldn’t miss her father. She shouldn’t. Andrea knew she only remained in her aunt’s house for his sake.
He wandered the castle’s lifeless rooms and scenes of thoughtless destruction. The enchantment did not appear to repair broken things, only keep them free of dust. On one end—tucked away down a narrow, sloping corridor—Andrea found a small chamber that made his head spin giddily, illuminating a spark of excitement inside him he thought gone for good.
He saw nothing of the Beast that first day, but that night a wavering light appeared beneath one of the many closed doors and burned until morning.
The days slipped quietly by, and with them Andrea’s constant vigilance. Every night that the Beast did not eat him it seemed less likely that he would. He even felt some small measure of relief to not be underfoot in his family’s house, inept when he offered help, drawing scorn when he did not. He spent the daylight hours in the little room at the end of the sloped corridor, the one full of needles and threads and bolts of fine cloth, a table marked with grooves to get measurements just right. It must have been the royal outfitter’s workshop, or just another whim of the enchanted castle, giving him exactly what he longed for.
And it was what he longed for, he realized with no little surprise. Back in the village his chest crowded with bitterness when he saw the tailor’s shop, or when he saw a man in a coat stitched with particular elegance. But it seemed the rules in this enchanted castle were different, even the rules that governed his own heart.
Regardless, at night the isolation still crept in on him like the shades creeping past the castle walls, and Andrea shuddered to imagine what it must have been like for the Beast. Years, perhaps even decades spent here with nothing to do but pace and devour the occasional maiden.
One evening a few weeks after his sequester in the castle, he found the door to the Beast’s chambers left open a crack, gold light spilling out into the corridor. He walked by several times, trying to nerve himself up to peer inside, when a gruff voice called out, “For the love of all things good, in or out. You’re making me nervous.”
Andrea’s skin went icy-hot all over, the back of his neck prickling. He pushed the door open to find a wide, surprisingly comfortable study with large armchairs and an impressive number of books. The Beast was seated on the widest armchair, one great foot up on a stool, a book held delicately in one clawed hand. A few shreds of pages decorated the carpet like snow.
“I… don’t want to disturb you.”
“You’re disturbing me right now,” the Beast said. “If you must be here, be silent.”
Andrea paused with one hand on the door. “You… don’t mind if I stay?”
A monocle perched against one the Beast’s eyes. Andrea couldn’t look at it for too long without wanting to smile.
“I care not a whit what you do, as long as you do it quietly.” The Beast turned another page, ever so delicately. Regardless, the page tore. He let out a wuffling breath of resignation.
Andrea almost commented but managed to hold his tongue. When the Beast truly seemed intent on his book and not likely to leap up and ride Andrea to the ground, he sidled over to the bookshelves and chose one for himself: a book of historical anecdotes. Dull, but he didn’t want to risk drawing attention by shuffling things around. He sat as far away from the Beast as he could without leaving the light of the lamp.
He managed to focus on the words until a particularly loud rip was followed by a muffled curse. “Does that always happen?”
A thrumming growl rumbled up from the Beast’s chest and Andrea was halfway out of his seat before the Beast said disconsolately, “Constantly. One would think that after years with these—” He flexed his claws and gave Andrea a swift look like he was worried he’d given something away, before he went back to his slightly mangled book.
Andrea went back to his as well, and eventually his racing heartbeat steadied and the knots around his spine unwound.
Andrea began to join the Beast in his study nightly, and although he continued to let out a great many sighs and groans over Andrea’s presence, he never told him to leave.
Andrea wasn’t much of a reader, however, so he took to examining the craftsmanship of the books rather than reading them, their gold-stamped covers and delicately printed pages. He explored the library from one edge to the other, trailing his hands across the damask wallpaper and noting that the smudges his fingertips left immediately faded to nothing.
He also watched the Beast, as covertly as he could manage. He marveled at the elegant way his limbs fit together, not human but not entirely animal either. His expressions defied the bestial features, as if he were contorting his face in ways it wasn’t meant to go.
Andrea often paused to think on the nefarious cruelty of a curse like this: leaving this man a castle that would grant him anything he wanted, but rendering him in a form completely unsuited for any of it.
After a week or so he grew bold enough to begin opening up cabinets and shuffling things about. He was sure it was only a matter of time before the Beast decided he’d had enough and took his head off. But instead of staying cautious, he began to play a game with himself, seeing just how disruptive he could be without the Beast reacting. The game persisted until one evening Andrea opened a cabinet that had been previously locked and let out a noise of delight at the gleaming rows of cut-glass bottles.
“You’ve been holding out on me,” he said without thinking, as if he were a guest instead of a prisoner.
The Beast looked up from another mauled book. “Please, go ahead. They’re just sitting there gathering dust.”
Andrea pulled out one bottle, then another. “You don’t partake?”
“Doesn’t agree with me.”
Andrea uncorked a squat, square flask, breathing in the deep woody smell of whisky. “Sounds like a miserable existence.”
The Beast turned a page. “It was drink that got me into this situation in the first place.”
Andrea poured himself a glass and sat down, wanting to keep the Beast talking. He missed conversation more than he’d known. “It is true what they say, then?”
“That I spurned a witch and she cursed me?” The Beast shrugged, an ungainly gesture for his massive shoulders. “I don’t remember much of it.”
Time passed. Andrea settled into an easy rhythm, not thinking too much one way or the other about his imprisonment.
But then one evening he heard merrymaking and drums in the distance, felt the hint of warmth in the breeze, and realized it was Field Day, the equinox. The full implications of his captivity hit him for the very first time. He’d been here since mid-winter, and he shouldn’t be. He should be in the village with his daughter, watching his nieces and nephews braid ribbons into each other’s hair, eating the sweet, flakey cakes baked on warm rocks in the town market, dancing as the light faded from the first true day of spring.
He thought of all the other things he would miss being locked behind these walls—all the birthdays, the summer feasts, yuletides, his daughter’s eventual marriage to that young man of hers. All of it happening within an afternoon’s walk, but an eternity away.
He pushed his way into the Beast’s study early that day, staggering through the dusty bars of sunlight. He brought a whole bottle with him, and the day slipped through his fingers after that, welling to an unbearable grief deep in his belly that seemed to tighten even as he drank it away. Spring it may have been, but this far north it was still cold, especially when the sun set. Andrea found himself laid out in the rose garden, too dizzy to stand. He found, as the chill crept in, that he didn’t much care.
Darkness pricked at his vision and he felt himself rising. Toward heaven, perhaps? But then he was surrounded by that wet animal smell and a thrumming sigh.
“Fool,” said the Beast. Andrea murmured agreement, then surrendered to the warmth.
In the weak light of morning he was glad to be alive, at least until he tried to move. Then he wished the Beast had left him to perish among the roses. “I’m too old for this,” he said aloud, surprised when a voice rumbled back, “I won’t argue with that.”
He was not in his bed, which meant he must be in the Beast’s. He started to get up, but the agony in his head spiked and he fell back to the pillow. A heavy, velvety paw touched the side of his face, a cup of something sweet pressed to his lips. “Sleep.”
He didn’t even try to resist. He drank and he slept.
When next he woke the sun was higher in the sky and his head didn’t feel screwed on quite so tightly.
He found a dressing gown at the foot of the bed. He slipped it on, the hem trailing on the ground and sleeves flopping down past his fingertips. He felt like a child playing fancy dress.
He found the Beast in a small sitting room, adjusting papers with the air of someone attempting to look busy. Andrea smiled. Then he saw the pot of tea steaming on the sideboard and he smiled even wider. The Beast did not take tea, but he knew Andrea did.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve woken up in a bed not my own.” He picked up a cup and poured carefully, hearing the Beast’s gruff laugh.
“I would have brought you to your own chamber, but I was… concerned.”
The Beast lifted a shoulder. “About your welfare. Humans are so fragile. I thought you might have taken your death out there.”
Andrea slurped his tea. Perfect temperature, as always. The castle’s disembodied servants were impeccable. “I’ve been on far worse benders in my day.”
“You miss the world,” the Beast said, looking away.
Andrea thought that if he asked for his freedom just then, he would be granted it.
Instead he said, “So do you.”
It was a warm day nearly two weeks gone that Andrea finally declared himself satisfied with his work. Declared it out loud, as he found himself doing here. Partly because he was so often alone, and partly because the castle contained an unusual sentience.
The Beast had to bend nearly double to get through the door to Andrea’s workshop.
“Has this always been here?”
“It’s your castle. Haven’t you explored?”
“I thought I had. What is…” He trailed off as he caught sight of exactly what Andrea had been doing in the room for weeks.
“You are gravely in need of proper vestments, my lord,” Andrea said, hurrying to the table. His words crowded up fast; he was filled with a sudden need to explain himself. “Obviously I made them large enough for you, and shaped them so they don’t have to go over your claws or your horns, and the parts that do, I made sure to reinforce…” The Beast stood by the door and said nothing, his silence pushing in on Andrea. He found his cheeks heating, worried that the Beast would find his offering too forward or silly, frivolous. What use did he have for clothes, with no one around to see him besides Andrea?
“You don’t have to wear them, of course,” he said fleetingly.
The Beast brought his clawed hands together and dropped them, more than once. He fidgeted with his ragged cloak. He stepped forward and reached for the table, stopping an inch from a rich scarlet jacket trimmed with white fur. “May I?”
“Of course. They’re yours. I—I’ll have to make adjustments, of course,” Andrea added hastily. “Because I was estimating your measurements, but—oh, here, try the gloves first!”
He held them out for the Beast to slip on. Looking dubious, he did. They fit. Andrea hadn’t lost his eye for shapes.
The Beast smoothed his hands down the front of his coat. His claws, encased in reinforced leather, didn’t catch. “It’s perfect,” he said wonderingly. “It’s magnificent.” His bestial features could not quite pull off a grin, but they were trying. “If only you had a less hideous form to work with.”
“You aren’t hideous at all,” Andrea said, and meant it.
The Beast cleared his throat and looked back down at the coat. “I didn’t know you could do this.”
“I was a tailor, before.” It felt like a previous life. “In the capital. I made fine things. I once made a belt for a foreign prince.” Acrid regret welled up inside him. He swallowed it down before it could escape through his eyes. “After Lucia’s mother died I sort of… let things get away from me. Projects. Bills.” The will to get out of bed in the morning. “It wasn’t even heartbreak, truly. It was more like—life-break. The certainty that I was destined to lose everything I had. That when you say farewell to someone it could be the last time you ever see them. They could die. Or you could.”
He’d never even got to tell his daughter goodbye.
“I’ve never spoken to anyone about this,” he admitted. There’d never seemed to be much point to dredging up history.
“I’m glad you—” The Beast’s warm eyes went suddenly sharp, and his whole body stiffened. The fur of his ruff stood up.
“Are you well?” Andrea asked, before the Beast swept from the room, new coat billowing behind him, and Andrea answered the question for himself.
He did not catch up until they reached the battlements looking out across the countryside, purple hills in the verdant spring evening. There was still enough light to make out the approaching mass, however, as their torches flared in the fading light. Andrea experienced a moment of disorientation, as he wondered at the parade coming so early this year. Then he realized this was not celebration. This was a mob.
“What do they want?” Andrea asked, before the idiocy of the question hit him. What else did mobs do but assemble to defeat a threat?
“They’re here to rescue you, no doubt.” The Beast’s voice was as affectless as the first time Andrea had bowed in front of his throne.
“But I don’t want to be rescued.” He realized that it was true. He felt more rescued now than he had in a very long time. “Can the castle hold against a siege? It’s magical.”
The Beast laughed. “The enchantment keeps things tidy. It doesn’t keep them from falling to rot. All they need do is knock on the gate and it will collapse.” The Beast stood there in his finery, gloved claws wrapped around the balustrade, as solemn as a statue. “You should go to them. They’re your people.”
Andrea turned abruptly from the view. “How is it broken?”
The Beast blinked. “What?”
“The curse.” He figured it was the standard—a kiss from a lover. But as he hadn’t counted himself in the running, he hadn’t considered it. Now, though, watching the Beast stand there in the clothes Andrea had made for him, looking distraught at the thought of Andrea’s loss: well.
“One way to find out.”
The Beast stared at him for a few brittle moments, before lowering his head obligingly. Even then Andrea was forced to go up on his toes to come within range. He considered trying to climb up on the battlements, but he didn’t want to ruin the moment. Even if the moment was a depressed tailor with a bad knee pressing his mouth to a monster’s muzzle. Which he found to be surprisingly soft. Pressed this close, the Beast’s animal smell was more intense than ever, but Andrea found it didn’t bother him. It had simply become comfortable.
He was hoping that the kiss would be enough to telegraph the requirements of the spell. Spells were not usually incredibly specific, especially not those designed to last for centuries. And the implications of the phrase “true love” were too complicated to really inject into a transformation spell. With any luck, a simple kiss would do the trick.
But as the Beast cupped his neck with one cautious claw, as they traveled gently down Andrea’s back to get a firm hold and pick him up delicately from the ground, he wondered. He wondered about his kind, sad eyes and his prim swearing when he tore yet another page from a book, the amazement with which he examined the clothing Andrea had made for him.
Andrea thought that perhaps he would not need to pretend at all.
Love was a tumultuous and changeable thing, especially when one has made up their mind—out of heartache and cynical stubbornness—not to feel it anymore.
The shouts from down below were louder. A terrific boom erupted and a flock of ducks took off from the lake. “Is there some further act that the witch requires us to perform?” Andrea asked. “Because this isn’t quite—”
It was then that he realized that he was no longer speaking against a ruff of coarse fur, but a neck that smelled cleanly of sweat. The Beast staggered, struggling to take his weight. A man’s very ordinary hand squeezed Andrea’s backside, and a voice said in his ear, “Oh.”
He let Andrea slide from his arms. Andrea found himself face to face with a fair-haired man with amber eyes and a rather large nose. He had two small dents in his lower lip that had—until just a moment ago—been a cushion for jagged fangs. But there was an issue of more immediate concern:
“I’m taller than you now.”
“Barely.” The Beast touched fingers to his throat, as if he could not quite believe this voice was coming out of it.
Andrea’s grin grew wider. “Somehow you’ve managed to become too young for this old man.”
The Beast scowled. Without the animal features, his face was brutally expressive. “You aren’t old. I’ve lived for centuries, or something close to it. Time means very little when you’re alone.”
Deep inside the castle, something boomed and echoed.
“Well, you certainly aren’t alone now,” Andrea said. “And we’d best get our story straightened out, because—”
Andrea froze. “Lucia!”
Of course his daughter would find a hidden way in before anyone else; that was just the sort of young woman she was. She took after her mother that way.
“Father!” cried Lucia again. “I knew you were still alive. Uncle said that by now you surely would have been eaten because you barely lift a finger and probably wouldn’t even to save your own skin—”
“As you can see, Lucia, I’m fine,” Andrea said swiftly.
“—And I told him he’d lose a finger if he didn’t scrape together what little familial pride he has and round up the village.” She only just seemed to notice that Andrea was still half-standing in the embrace of a blond young man in a new coat recently become far too large for him. “…Father, who is this? Another of the Beast’s prisoners?”
“I—yes, I mean—” Andrea made several starts and stops, mind racing to come up with some explanation.
“Yes, that is precisely who I am. I’m simply a—” The Beast put his arm on Andrea’s shoulder, then moved it to his waist, then stepped away. He tripped on his coat and Andrea had to catch him before he fell.
“Yes, simple. Quite simple, I’m afraid. The Beast was keeping him for a midnight snack.” More shouts echoed up the tower stairs. It sounded like they’d brought the entire village with them. “But fortunately, the Beast ran for the hills as soon as he saw you on the horizon.”
Lucia looked from her father to the Beast and back again. Andrea saw her eyes linger on the man’s oversized clothes and scruffy beard. But she crossed her arms and said, “I see. In that case, I suppose I can call off the hunters.”
“Yes, my dear, you certainly can.”
Lucia had never been one for overt shows of affection, but she embraced Andrea swiftly before she left. “I’m glad you weren’t eaten.”
“So am I, darling,” Andrea said.
Lucia’s steps faded down the tower stairs. The Beast tapped his knuckles tentatively against Andrea’s back, like he was knocking to get in. “Must I take myself to the hills now?” A joke, but one that thrummed with real nervousness.
“Whatever for?” Andrea really was quite a bit taller than him now, and he took the opportunity to loom. “Only monsters are banished to the hills. And I see no more of those, only a man in a badly-fitting coat. Good thing you know a decent tailor.”
The Beast worried at his bottom lip, a habit that Andrea used to find threatening that was now simply adorable. “The curse may be broken, but I am still that monster. I held you here against your will. I kept you from your family.”
“Most of my family is nightmarish,” Andrea assured him. He took one of the Beast’s hands in its overlarge gloves, slipping it out of the leather. A distant euphoria buzzed at the base of his neck. It felt a bit like waking up on his birthday when he was a child. Like getting everything he wanted. “And how many times did you harm me? How many did you devour me?”
“Um.” The Beast blinked. “None? But I—”
“Then I absolve you of your sins.” Andrea kissed the center of the Beast’s palm. A flush hit his cheeks. They really needed to figure out a new name for him.
“Now, I say we round up this lot Lucia’s brought and put them to work sprucing this place up.” Andrea felt the tasks ahead like a shot of smooth liquor. He wanted to do something, he wanted to perform tasks effectively. And he wanted to see what the Beast could do with his brand new human hands which, though no longer monstrous, were still quite strong.
“They came here to kill me,” the Beast said. “They don’t want to clean.”
Andrea kissed his fingers next. “You break out the rest of the wine in your study and they may be open to suggestion.”
“I, that is—” The Beast’s eyes shone in the torchlight. They were the only part of him that hadn’t changed. “Why are you being so kind? You already saved me. You needn’t do more.”
“Because kindness costs nothing, and you saved me just as thoroughly.”
Andrea kissed him on the mouth again. This attempt was considerably more successful.
© 2019 Aysha U. Farah