The days following the attack were a blur for everyone involved. Countless search parties were sent out to search for any sign of Jesse, with each day that passed all but a few lost more hope than the last of finding her at all, let alone alive. It was after several weeks of fruitless searching that the parties gave up hope altogether and the preparations for the foreigners to return to their home country so they could bury their queen and mourn her missing heir.
There were a few who refused to give up on Jesse though, who still sought answers to her disappearance. Lukas was the most adamant that there was more to what happened. He’d barely slept, having been among the search parties for several days straight, refusing to stop until his father and other concerned parties managed to convince him to stay put. Even that did little good. Instead of searching the forests, Lukas set to searching the library, turning through book after book for even the smallest hint about what the Great Animal might be.
That was where Lukas found himself the day before the remaining members of Isa’s court were set to leave, scanning the pages of what felt like the thousandth book. They may have abandoned their princess for dead, but he wouldn’t.
“Still searching I see.” Lukas barely kept from jumping in surprise as he whirled around from the book in his hands to see Ivor, one of Isa’s advisers who’d been close with both her and Jesse, standing near him, watching with interest.
Lukas sighed, running a hand through his hair, half frustrated and half exhausted. “I can’t just give up on her. I won’t, especially not when the Queen used her dying words to give me a clue as to what happened to her. I’m going to find out what this Great Animal is, even if no one else believes it exists.”
“I agree with you.” Ivor said simply.
Lukas opened his mouth, prepared to defend his dedication to scouring the library in search of answers for the umpteenth time, only to snap it shut in surprise when he realized what Ivor had said. “You what?” Lukas was used to resistance, not support on the matter.
“I said I agree with you. It’s strange that everyone in that party was accounted for, dead or alive, expect for Jesse.” Ivor’s expression turned dark as he continued. “You were likely too young to even remember hearing about it, I’m sure, but when Jesse was still very small, a sorcerer was plotting to overthrow Isa. He was apprehended before he could carry out his plan and the Queen banished him, but that didn’t stop him from threatening her and everything she held dear. Whatever this Great Animal is that attacked the Queen’s traveling party and took the Princess, it may be tied to him. I cannot say for certain though.”
“I will send you anything I can find on this Great Animal, but for now I must return to my own country and lay the Queen to rest.” His expression softened, sad and tinged with regret that Lukas felt as well. “Not to mention I’ll have to deal with the vultures.”
Lukas’s eyebrows quirked in confusion. “The vultures?” He wasn’t entirely certain as to what Ivor was referring to, but he had an inkling that it was political and tedious.
“The next-in-line and his cronies. I’ll have to convince the council that the Princess may still be alive before putting anyone else on the throne. I can buy her some time, but eventually they will grow restless and it will be harder to keep them from declaring her dead. Otherwise if Jesse is restored to us alive, she may have to contend with Hadrian for her kingdom.”
The name was one that gave Lukas a nagging feeling like he knew it, or should, but couldn’t quite place it. “Who’s Hadrian?” He asked after a moment of failing to remember.
“Hadrian is next in line for the throne behind Jesse. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, I can assure you that you don’t want to. Putting that man in power would be a disaster.” Ivor shook his head slightly. “It’s something I intend to avoid at all costs.”
He gave Lukas a slight nod, turning now towards the door. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe we’ll be leaving soon. I wish you the best of luck in your search, for her sake and ours.” Ivor paused on his way out of the library. “And Lukas?” He turned to face Ivor one more time. “You’ll be no good to her if you run yourself into the ground, whether you’re trying to help her or not.”
Lukas only nodded in response. He would heed Ivor’s advice or at least he would try. But later; the sooner he found the answers he needed to sooner Jesse would be safe again. And she would be if Lukas had to search for her the rest of his life.
For Jesse, every moment since the attack was spent in agonizing clarity. That first night was burned into her mind, the crazed animal tearing through people, through her mother like they were nothing and it had dragged her off kicking and screaming, the first sign that things were not as they seemed.
She wasn’t sure where the thing had taken her or how far it was from anything she knew, and she suspected magic was involved. The Thing as she’d taken to calling it in her head, a horrible amalgamation of every predator she could imagine, eventually brought her to a lake, one overshadowed by crumbling castle. It could almost be considered beautiful if it weren’t for the circumstances. As soon as they arrived it threw her to the ground, hard.
As soon as she hit the dirt, hard beneath her, there was a blinding flash of light, accompanied by more pain than her impact with the ground could ever have given her. Jesse cried out in pain, but the sound that escaped her mouth was a strange and foreign one. It was then when she became aware of her own body again and everything felt inexplicably wrong.
She had no time to contemplate why though as a set of hands that seemed far too large grabbed her and all at once she was thrust into the cool, moonlit waters of the lake, accompanied by another bright light and strange sensation. Now she stood ankle deep in the water facing an unfamiliar man with bright red hair and a smarmy grin that made Jesse want to punch him in the face.
“Who are you?” She demanded as she pulled herself to her full, albeit still small, height. She had no idea who he was or what he wanted but she wasn’t going to give it to him, not without a hell of a fight.
The stranger tutted at her like she was a naughty child. “Is that any way to talk to a new friend? Really, that’s all I want from you, Jesse: your friendship!”
‘Right,’ Jesse thought, ‘because nothing says friendship like tearing apart my family and my people and kidnapping her’. She squared her shoulders and looked him in the eye with all the defiance she could muster. “You’re no friend, whoever you are!”
“Oh I should introduce myself, how rude of me! My name is Romeo and all I ask of you, dear Jesse, is your hand in marriage.” Jesse visibly recoiled before she could stop herself. Marry him? Of all the demands she’d expected, this wasn’t one of them.
“You attacked my people and kidnapped me, and you expect me to marry you? You’re insane!” She pushed past him, her anger mingling with disgust now as she made to set off into the woods. She may have no idea where she was, but anywhere was better than with this man.
“Oh no Jesse, I’m not insane, I’m really very smart. You see, you could keep walking into the woods, and I won’t even stop you! But once the moonlight leaves that lake,” he said, gesturing backwards with a flourish, “You’re going to turn into a swan! And the only way to turn your little self back into a human is to be on that very specific lake when the moonlight hits it again the next night. And it will be like that every single night! But if you’re unhappy with that, I’d be more than happy to undo the magic, just as soon as you agree to be my bride.”
Jesse considered what he’d said for perhaps half a second before she answered. “You can keep me here for the rest of my life, but I will never marry you. I would sooner die.”
“You’re stubborn now but I promise you, you will come around to my way of thinking eventually. You’ll get tired of being a bird, just you wait, and I’m the only one who can stop it. Unless of course you have someone who’ll swoop in and declare a vow of everlasting love for you. Maybe that little prince who proposed to you will come save you! Oh wait, he only cared about your beauty. Such a shame.” He taunted with a sneer. Jesse had thought his face couldn’t get any more smug, but as he brought up Lukas and the disastrous proposal that felt like a lifetime ago now, it grew tenfold.
He didn’t wait for a response, turning to leave, choosing instead to let her stew on all the unpleasantness he’d left her with. “Think about my offer, Jesse. I’ll be back tomorrow night, and I so hope you’ll have changed your mind then.”
It had gone much the same every night since then: Romeo would come, sometimes accompanied by his adoring shadow in the form of a woman named Stella and ask for her hand and she would give the same adamant refusal before he’d leave her in solitude with her remaining hours of humanity.
It was another such night after Romeo had left her, all sneers and taunts and promises that she’d change her mind eventually that Jesse found herself heatedly pacing, trying to think of some way out of her situation. She had little at her disposal, and she could only make it so far each night before the moon disappeared and she was resigned to her feathery fate once again. She was starting to listen more and more to that thought that kept creeping its way more and more frequently into her mind, that maybe she had no way out of this, not on her own at least.
Jesse sat herself down unceremoniously on the steps leading into the water with a sigh. After a few frustrated moments of mental debate she reached into her pocket and pulled out a familiar envelope, still sealed but looking more well-loved by the day. She still hadn’t been able to bring herself to read it despite the frequency for which she pulled it out each night. Jesse wasn’t really sure why she’d been waiting so long to read it; after all, what could it say that could really change things now anyway? And yet it felt like such a finality. Finally, with an angry huff Jesse tore open the letter. The longer she waited, the harder it would be to read it. It was probably something ridiculous anyway, she reasoned with herself, or something she didn’t already know from Prince Charming as Olivia had called him that day. So she unfolded the letter and began to read.
As I write this, I am about to do the hardest thing I think I’ve ever considered: hurting you. If I could think of any other way to set you free from our parents’ wishes, I need you to know that I would do it in a heartbeat. As strange as it must seem with all of the hurt I’ve undoubtedly caused you by the time you read this, everything I’ve done I did because I wanted you to be happy.
Given the choice I would choose you a thousand times over. But I couldn’t live with knowing that you never got a choice, and that’s why I had to give you one. If I made a fool of myself and gave you way out, then you could have that choice. I know that you’ll still be expected to get married someday, but at least this way you can decide for yourself who you want standing by your side. You can choose love, even if that love isn’t me.
She could only stare in shock. Jesse could scarcely believe that he’d done such a stupidly kind and selfless thing in a misguided attempt to make her happy. She hadn’t been quite sure before quite how she felt about him, but now she could say it with absolute clarity. Jesse was determined now to find her way back to him and tell him what an idiot he was.
And then she’d tell him that she loved him.