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Unwither

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The village was well and truly tiny. I could see all of its borders from the hill I was standing on, and for a moment I doubted it was large enough to even have an inn. Cities, for all their noisiness and smoke and dirt, at least have a sprawling kind of magnificence when viewed from a distance. This village cropped up like a wart on the nose of the hills.

The closer I got to the little cluster of the buildings, the less I wanted to enter it. There was strong magic here, and it seemed increasingly likely that I was walking into some kind of community of witches. That might explain why it was so small, and why the people from the last town had failed to mention it. Nonetheless, I stamped down my wariness and stepped through its gates.

On a dark and stormy night, the village might have been a welcome respite. I, however, was fresh off the hills in springtime, and I think the high walls and narrow streets would have been claustrophobic even without the enchantment that coated everything like a thick layer of dust. It was still sunny and cheerful, though, and homey in a stifling kind of way. I sensed no danger but was unwilling to trust the feeling; spells weren’t cast for nothing.

When I came to the square, it was still full of vendors but the crowds were beginning to thin as evening came. I immediately forsook the notion that I might have stumbled on a coven; witches know witches, for one thing, but witches also don’t stare at people, because stares invite stares. They weren’t unfriendly stares by any means, just curious, and my jet-black hair and eyes drew double-takes most places I went on this continent. I wasn’t entirely sure it mattered what I looked like, because the only thing thicker than the magic here was the familiarity. Bakers, weavers, butchers, smiths, customers, they were all greeting each other by name, asking about spouses and children and bad legs and flocks. I paid pennies for an apple, more as a show of goodwill than hunger, and tried to slip down a side street as unobtrusively as possible.

Unfortunately, I ran smack dab into a housewife, sending her armful of groceries tumbling. Even with one hand occupied by the apple, I caught most of it, but the book she had been carrying hit the ground.

“Ah, I’m sorry,” I muttered, dusting it off and checking the cover for dings. “I think it’s all right, though.”

“No trouble!” she said brightly, and now that we were face-to-face I saw she was very pretty, even with that worn look most mothers have. Strands of her auburn hair had come loose from her bun, framing her heart-shaped face and clinging to her full lower lip, above which rested an absurdly sweet Cupid’s bow. Her hazel eyes were large and intelligent, taking in my ragged pack, traveling clothes and muddy boots in one quick sweep. The fat little boy in her other arm had a thick head of curls much darker than her own, as did the girl hanging on her skirts, but they looked at me with the same eyes.

“It’s been so long since we had a new face in town,” she went on, her smile revealing white, even teeth. “I’m —”

Suddenly there was a cacophony of banging doors and the hysterical squawking of chickens, drowning out what she said. She was still looking at me expectantly, though, so I forced a smile to my own face. It had been a while since I did that, and I watched uncertainty flicker across her face as she watched what probably looked more like a baring of teeth than anything.

“I’m Simone,” I said; the name I had chosen when I entered this country felt strange on my tongue. “Could you direct me to the inn, by any chance?”

“Certainly!” She turned and pointed back the way she had come, down the side street. “Just follow this all the way down and it will be on your right. They’ll lend you a horse there too, if you need one.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’ll be passing back through,” I said. “Thank you for your help.”

Her smile was wistful. “It was lovely meeting you. Safe travels.”

I walked on, but I felt her eyes on me until I rounded a corner. Above me, laundry was being reeled in from the lines that stretched from house to house, housewives were calling to each other from their windows, and children were beginning to migrate toward their own doorsteps. It felt like the entire village was withdrawing from me like a shy fern, and I hurried on until I found myself at the green wooden door of the inn.

The bar was already serving a small cluster of patrons, and while the room didn’t exactly go silent, the guffaws and chatter lessened dramatically when I walked in. I set my chin and walked to the counter, where the mutton-chapped barkeep looked me up and down without a hint of subtlety.

“One room, one night,” I said.

He squinted. “Just you?”

“Yes,” I answered evenly.

“No husband?”

My eyes narrowed to slits. “No.”

For a moment, I thought he would refuse me a room. I was already beginning to regret venturing back into civilization, but after considerable twitching of his mustache and disapproving grunting, he motioned for my money. I handed him the coins, and he led me up a cramped flight of stairs to a room. It was small and I could hear the noise from downstairs like I was hanging from a chandelier, but it seemed clean. It would do for a night.

***

I did not sleep soundly. I dreamed repetitive, disquieting dreams of the woman from the square but never woke, only swimming into deeper blackness before the dream began again. It was always the moment when she said her name and I failed to hear it. Sometimes I remembered the noise I had actually heard: the slamming doors, the flurry of chickens. Sometimes I would sense a creeping cold, and by the time she said her name she was frozen, her and the children all statues of ice. Once, a shadow fell over her as she spoke and she went white, her eyes fixed on something behind me. A deafening, animal roar drowned out the name she said.

I dozed later than I intended, but my eyes felt heavy nonetheless. The innkeeper was already awake and working, and I spared him only a nod before slipping out the door. Vendors were wheeling their carts to the square where others were already laying out their wares, and I felt almost more intrusive than yesterday, dodging this way and that to keep out of their way. I breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the borders of the village; in front of me stretched dewy, pale green fields filled with the scent of earth, and beyond them, the darker green of the forest.

I heard a small sound behind me, like someone inhaling to speak. When I turned to look over my shoulder, the woman from the square was watching me, an unreadable expression on her face. She jumped a little when we made eye contact, as if she hadn’t been expecting me to turn, and forced a smile. I stared back for several seconds before I thought to raise my hand and wave. She turned and disappeared back into the village crowd, and I set my shoulders and headed down the road, happy to have the village at my back.

Strangely, though, the magic did not fade. It was like a smell I would catch a whiff of every so often, distinctly nearby but impossible to place. By the time I was into the woods, I was checking my pockets to see if someone in the village had slipped a charm on me. I found nothing but my usual trinkets — a couple rough chunks of malachite, a few leaves of agrimony, some small bones — so I blew out an exasperated breath and continued on.

The farther I walked, the stronger the magic was, and I knew most people would be feeling the hairs stand up on the back of their neck and hurrying along. Of course, they still wouldn’t be feeling it as viscerally as I was; if I focused my attention in the right direction, the magic pushed back almost physically. It was a warning, to be sure, but what of? Depending on who cast the spell, there was either something very good or very bad behind the curtain, so I walked in the direction that gave me the most resistance.

It wasn’t until snow started to fall around me that I grasped the scale of the spell I was dealing with. The trees around me were black and dead, the ground frozen and hard; this was no late-spring snowstorm or cold pocket but the crooked bent of someone’s magic. My lip curled in disgust but I kept walking, head turning this way and that until I found what I was looking for.

Spells are like knots; you twine the magic with the thing you hope to influence and tie the thread as many times as you can, as intricately as you can. The strength of the spell — how well it works and how easily it’s broken — depends on the depth of the weave. A strong spell on a plant must go beyond its leaves or its bark and reach into the tiny places where it draws up water, into the pockets from which the leaves unfurl, into the heart of the wood or the heart of the seed. To influence a town, you must not go to its gates or its bell towers but to its wells, its buried ruins, its cemeteries. To influence a person, well, that depends on what you want to change.

To influence the weather is a strange and difficult thing. Clouds and the winds that drive them are out of reach, difficult to understand and even harder to control, but nonetheless, this witch or wizard had done it. In a small clearing is where I found the magic’s tether, stretching between earth and sky like a tree itself, and it was an ugly bit of work. If it had been visible to most humans, the knots would be giant, clumsy things with no subtlety but enough strength to last for years and years, as I suspected they had. If there had been a little more nuance, it might have allowed for some thaw, something to keep the topsoil from freezing solid and killing the trees.

I placed my hand on the tether and closed my eyes, feeling every thread as they climbed their way into the sky. These cords were thick, easy to follow; better spells had finer threads, more intricacies, and it was harder to guess the consequences of cutting one instead of another. With a spell this heavy-handed and destructive, I had little to fear, so I focused my strength and sent cracks spiraling through the spell.

There was no sound when the threads snapped, but the release of energy was so great I felt it reverberate through the ground I was standing on. Above me, heavy gray clouds began to move like a herd of sluggish animals, but all around trunks groaned and branches snapped, spraying dead wood into the air. The warm spring breeze that had chased me through the fields suddenly whipped up around my ankles again, and for the first time I felt the forest breathe.

I wondered how many others there were, how many acres of forest this spellcaster had consigned to eternal winter. Even though I was no normal passerby, my own unease was beginning to prick at the back of my mind. Clumsy as this spell was, it would’ve taken strength, and there could be no good reason to chain whole forests in frost. The intention in the spell was old and hard to sense, but it was certainly not benevolence. I had no way of knowing exactly how old it was, and whether it was abandoned or not.

I kept walking, seeking the magic like a dowsing stick. I walked for some time before a chill crept back into the air, and snow began to appear in patches again. The sun was past its peak, and I was torn between my desire to free the rest of the forest as soon as possible and my desire to spend my night somewhere other than a frozen wood under someone else’s magic.

I was musing over this — but still walking deeper into the forest — when a howl sounded somewhere to the west, swelling and growing with other voices until I thought they must be right on top of me. That made up my mind for me; if those wolves had been bound in place by the enchantment, forced to hunt this perpetually starving, frozen place, they would be exceptionally dangerous.

I made my way back, not stopping in the part of the woods I had freed but going on until I reached the meadow outside. I wasn’t partial to camping out in the open, but at least it meant I had just as good a chance to see anything coming as it had to see me. I found a small hillock and settled into the hollow, spreading out my bed roll and opening my pack to retrieve the little knife and trowel I used for harvesting roots and herbs. I had bigger knives, of course — they were tucked into my boots, strapped to my thighs and across my back — but I hadn’t needed those in quite some time.

I went traipsing across the meadow and got lucky with some wild carrots, some sorrel, and even a few bird’s eggs. This was a good place, full of life, and all the while I started my fire and cooked my finds, I wondered why someone would want to freeze it over. Perhaps I should’ve stayed in the village longer, poked around in its forgotten spaces, talked to a few more people. But unlike the forest, no harm seemed to be done to the village or its people. I was so caught up in my thoughts I almost didn’t notice the movement at the edge of the forest.

The sun was almost down, and the burnished light threw into sharp relief the ribs of the doe, the sunken hollows above her eyes. Despite the warm spring breeze making my cookfire snap, the remnants of her coat was the dull gray of a winter deer, and the fawn, which stumbled along at her side, was the same.

The two were just at the edge of the woods, staring longingly into the meadow, but they took no further step. I found myself on my feet, tears pricking my eyes and frustration scattering my thoughts; I would take them some grass — no, I would break them from the enchantment — no, I would break whoever cast this damned spell in the first place —

Then came another howl, and I stopped moving, watching helplessly as fawn and doe disappeared into the trees. I no longer cared why someone might have bound this forest; my uncertainty and curiosity had dissolved into molten anger, and if I’d known who to curse at that moment, that curse would’ve had all the venom it needed. But I didn’t know, so I sat back down in front of my fire and balled my hands into fists, resolving to free the forest no matter how many days it took me.

“That's the problem with witches,” I muttered to myself, feeling some relief just to speak the words out loud. “They never think of the consequences.”

The anger burned out slower than my fire, and it wasn’t until the sky was beginning to lighten that I fell asleep. I slept hard for those few hours, and when I woke up, yesterday’s hot rage had congealed into a cold, hard lump in my chest. The day was overcast and chilly to match my mood, and after a dissatisfying breakfast of dried fruit and nuts, I stormed into the forest to look for more elements of the spell.

I went through the section of woods I had freed yesterday, and seeing it soothed me a little. The earth was breathing, and the rich scent of loam and leaves was rising from the warming ground. I saw a bird or two flitting in some of the still-bare branches, though they didn’t sing. I wondered how long it would take for the place to return to normal; had I been a different witch, I might’ve helped it along, encouraged the growth, given energy to the waking roots, but that wasn’t my specialty.

I pushed farther in, picking up the trail of magic again until I reached the place I had turned around yesterday. There were paw prints in the snow, far too big to be dogs, but I had seen wolves twice this size in my travels. The endless winter had taken its toll on them, too, and as much as I pitied them, I had to be careful. Any animal so hungry and desperate was dangerous, even to a witch.

But that was the only sign of the pack that I saw, and after an hour of walking, I found another tether of the spell. I didn’t hesitate this time, just took hold of the thing and yanked. The crack of its release was like thunder, and I saw the magic scatter through low-hanging clouds like blue lightning. I was able to follow it easier in the dimness, and I saw where it gathered before disappearing.

“That’ll be the next one,” I said, and headed off in a north-easterly direction.

This was a longer walk, and I got the sense my path was making a circle. If that was indeed the case, then what was this ring of gods-blasted eternal winter encircling? Maybe some wizard had gone full-recluse and put it up to keep away the rest of humanity. I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic to the inclination, but even so, the collateral damage couldn’t be tolerated. I wouldn’t tolerate it, and if that was anyone’s call to make, it was mine.

The third part of the spell was driven into the ground like an iron spike dropped from heaven. It was all the ugliness and cruelty of this magic in one place, and I wanted to put my fist through it. This one ran deeper than the others, and its strands were heavier, knottier; it was going to fight me. Here the intention was thick, and I could taste the nuance — the self-righteous anger, the self-satisfaction. Self, self, self, that’s all it was, and it didn’t want me here. It battered at my psyche until it felt like a hailstorm, and I would be damned if something about it didn’t feel familiar.

I summoned my energy, my strength, the magic that was truest to myself, and I let it gather in my hands until my fingers were wine-dark and smoking, let it gather in my eyes until I could see every single thread of this spell. I reached out with my dark hands and seized the closest strand in the knot, the one that ran over.

If you have no respect, I will give you none.

My magic ate through the spell like acid, faster than it could regenerate. The subtlest, strongest spell-weaving in the world couldn’t withstand this, not when my blood was really up. I felt a little of the anger inside me dissipate with the spell, and when there were just a few fibers left, it snapped under its own weight.

If you have no mercy, I will give you none.

I reached for the next strand, the one that ran under in the knot. It twisted like a living thing in my grasp, but I held on grimly; there was nothing alive about this magic, and there would be nothing alive in this forest if I didn’t destroy it. The regenerative power was stronger now, and by the time the strand broke, my shoulders were shaking with the strain.

If you can spare no thought for others, I will spare none for you.

The last strand seemed thicker than all three of them had put together, but I was well and truly angry now. I could hardly believe that someone had put so much energy into this slow and brutal destruction, and I was hell-bent on getting to the center of this circle and tearing down whoever was there. I gritted my teeth and poured myself into the task, funneling every ounce of power I had into my fingers. The spell started to throw off sparks and arcs of energy; they singed through my sleeves and left red welts on my skin, but my magic was slowly and surely blistering through it.

When the strand broke, it broke with enough force to throw me backward. The ripple of energy echoed through the woods, and a few of the nearest brittle trees snapped like tinder. The scatter of magic through the clouds seemed angry this time, like hornets flying back to their nest.

“Go on, then,” I said. “Go tattle on me. I’m looking forward to meeting your maker.”

Big words, but at the moment, I was too tired to even stand up. I dragged myself into a more comfortable position, putting my back against a tree and reaching into my pack for another handful of dried fruit. More time had passed than I’d realized, and night seemed to come faster inside the forest than outside of it.

What to do? I’d just used up most of my strength dealing with an inanimate spell, and the idea of taking on its caster right now seemed downright foolhardy. The idea of walking all the way back to the meadow seemed equally impossible.

“Guess I’m staying here then,” I said, “wolves be damned.”

***

With the nearest tether broken, the sun found its way through the trees the next morning. I had slept like the dead after the previous day’s struggle with the spell, and when I stood up to stretch, the first thing I saw was the circle worn around my little camp. The sight of it snapped me into full wakefulness, and my hand found one of my long knives.

I stepped to it cautiously, but there was no magic in it, and it was not a true circle. That was only a slight comfort, because upon closer inspection, I saw the track was made by paws, one passing over another over the next in the softening ground. I scanned the woods quickly, seeking out any movement or non-tree shape, but the wolves were nowhere to be seen.

I went to my pack, which was tipped over and lying open. Nothing was missing, and I shouldn’t have been surprised; there was little enough in there that I wanted to eat, and nothing a carnivore would find appetizing.

Despite being unharmed, I wasn’t keen to linger in the wolf-made circle. Even with the new life breathing through it, the forest didn’t seem welcoming to me, and the unknown was making me uneasy. What was known was bad enough; whoever made this nasty piece of work was likely a nasty piece of work themselves, and the unknown — how such an enchantment had affected the wolves and other beasts, what it was doing to the village, who was at the center of this forest — could make the difference between whether I was fighting a losing battle or a winning one.

Nonetheless, I set off resolutely, cutting sharply west rather than heading to where I suspected the next tether of the spell would be. I could go along breaking the spell piece by piece, but it might be a little less trouble to confront the caster and make them undo it all in one shot.

Might.

This track kept me largely within the boundaries of forest I had already freed. I should’ve felt happy to see signs of spring peeking through the once-frozen ground; the average passerby wouldn’t have noticed much, but I could feel the shoots pressing through the earth, the pale and hesitant tendrils reaching for the dappled sunlight. Soon the deer would be able to graze the meadow and the underbrush as they pleased, and their numbers would multiply, and the wolves would return to their natural role as caretakers, of sorts. The birds would return, and vines and flowers would wind up the trees, and the insects, the least-appreciated and most necessary part of this land, would scurry in the bark and roots again.

I kept telling myself these things because I didn’t feel happy. It was all true, of course, but that wouldn’t erase the cruel and unnecessary suffering of — who knew how many years it had been? I felt the weight of it, and the stirring in the forest seemed less like the breaths of a waking sleeper and more like the gasps of the nearly-drowned. Why use magic for this purpose? That was what confounded me. It’s not that I didn’t understand the urge to cause pain; I had felt it myself, I had done it myself, but not so wantonly, so carelessly.

I was so deep in thought I wasn’t watching where I walked, and my heart lurched into my throat as my foot slipped and something closed around my ankle. I bit back a shriek and kicked wildly, sweeping my cloak aside to get a look at the offending thing. With a painful crack, the cart wheel I had stepped into snapped free of its bolt, which must’ve been made brittle by the endless cold. I stepped back and kicked again, forcefully enough to hurl the thing several yards into the woods. My heart was still pounding in my chest; the tipped and broken cart may not have been a trap for me, but it was still an unnerving sight in this forest. I stepped closer, magic simmering under my skin, just in case.

It was impossible to tell how old the thing was; in another forest, the wood would’ve rotted, and the shafts might have been half-buried in sediment, but here it sat frozen, like it was trapped in time. There was no skeleton between the shafts, which was a small comfort. There wasn’t one in the seat or bed of the cart either, although that meant less; the wolves could’ve dragged that off ages ago.

I repressed a shudder, pulled my cloak tighter around my shoulders, and walked on, resolving to pay more attention to where I put my feet.

***

I was just beginning to think I would spend another night in the woods when the castle came into view, looming out of the gathering dark with an alarming suddenness. I paused where I stood; from the top of the small embankment I’d just climbed, I had a fair view of the grounds. Acres of tangled shrubbery lay between me and the steps of the palace. What once would’ve been an elegant semblance of a maze — trimmed evergreens, shapely rosebushes, a pruned orchard — was now well and truly a labyrinth. How the plants had survived at all, I wasn’t sure, but there were no flowers anymore, just black, twisting vines and thorns as long as my thumb.

There was not the barest hint of light within the castle. No torch burned at the door, no candles glimmered in the windows. The enchantment was the heaviest here, heavier than the village, heavier than the forest. It more like a tomb than anything, and suddenly I wasn’t sure if I wanted to unearth whatever was buried inside.

I’d heard stories from my sisters in other lands, stories of horrible and cursed things that dwelled in the abandoned halls of former royalty. Could this have been the purpose of the spell? Was it truly to protect travelers, to dissuade them from finding this place and whatever lurked within it? Was I the fool, tearing down the walls that kept some monster from running wild?

I was between a rock and a hard place now. If the spell was doing anything other than that, I should finish destroying it. If there was something evil in there, something just waiting to get out, then at the very least, I would have to mend the spell I’d broken. I could find ways to improve it, maybe; those kinds of spells were not my strong suit, but if it was the only way to keep the village safe, I would spend weeks at it if I had to.

I set my shoulders and marched forward, plowing into the bushes with a fierceness I didn’t feel. Snow came sliding off the evergreens, piling onto my shoulders and finding its way down my collar, and it wasn’t long before my sleeves were torn from the rosebushes. I resorted to one knife, then two, hacking through the growth like some damned colonist.

I lost track of time. It wasn’t the first time that had happened since I’d wandered into this enchantment, I realized. The thought sharpened into a suspicion in my mind, and I paused to take stock of where I was. It was then that I heard the sound.

It was something like footsteps, but the tread was far too heavy, the stride far too long. I looked around wildly, trying to smother my own breath, but the bushes were too high to see anything, and the light was almost gone besides. I gathered my magic to me and kept my knives drawn, my head swinging this way and that as I tried to find the source of the sound, but it seemed to be all around me. Whatever it was, I could hear its breath now, and that was distinctly inhuman — a deep, juddering inhale, a whuffling exhale almost like a snort.

It had to know I was there. Just seconds ago I’d been thrashing through the overgrowth like a mad gardener, so unless the thing was blind and deaf, it knew something was in here with it. I thought of the old story of the Minotaur in the labyrinth; I knew that story to be true, and now I wondered if some madman had sought to recreate it.

There was movement to my left. I shrank against the trunk of a withered apple tree, covering my mouth as a massive shape moved through the bushes. I couldn’t make out what it was in the darkness, but I knew it was huge and furred. It surged through the maze like a ship through shallow water, bushes snapping before it and thorns dragging at its hide, but if it noticed at all, it didn’t stop. The heavy whump of its feet and its snorted breath were an unbreakable rhythm.

The thing disappeared from my sight, and over the thundering of my heart, I knew the sound of its passing faded, too. It was a bear, I thought. It only makes sense. It’s a bear caught in the enchantment. That means it’ll probably be an angry, hungry bear if it sees you, but it’s a bear nonetheless.

I hardly convinced myself, but it was the lie I needed in the moment. I was tired and uneasy, and I knew I might well believe it had been a bear in the light of morning. Right this second, however, I needed to get out of these damn bushes.

Keeping my knives out, I left the shadow of the apple tree and slunk into the path left by the … bear. I didn’t know if the bear would be headed to the nearest door of the castle — I sincerely hoped not — but the castle was the one thing I could see over the hedgerows, so at least I knew where I was going.

The trail took me fairly close to the courtyard before deviating sharply, and it was there I struck out on my own again. I didn’t dare hack at the bushes anymore, so I dragged myself through thorn and bramble until crushed stone crunched under my feet.

“Thank the gods,” I gasped as loudly as I dared. I was scratched and bloody from my scalp to my ankles, and it felt like half the garden was caught in my hair. I clambered up the wide stone steps to the door, my heart starting to pound again. I felt exposed now, like whatever had passed me in the garden was looking at me from out of the dark. The handle on the great door was so cold it stung my skin, and it was either jammed or locked. Irrational panic flooded through me; I was desperate to get inside, to get away from the unbearable vulnerability of these steps and this door. Almost without thinking, I gathered my magic and crushed the locking mechanism inside the handle. The door splintered as the metal within it crumpled, and then, with a groaning creak, it swung open. I rushed inside and slammed it behind me, plunging myself into blackness.

***

The castle was bitterly cold, even colder than it had been outside. It was darker, too, a blackness so thick I wondered briefly if that itself was part of the enchantment. But my eyes began to adjust, and eventually I could see my own hand if I waved it in front of my face.

The first thing I noted with some relief was that the place smelled empty. It wasn’t quite musty — there was too much open air and not enough furniture for that. No, if anything, it was the lack of smell that comforted me; I had expected rot, or death, or something even worse, but it was only cold stone and winter air.

It was then that I risked some light. I called fire to my hand, and a lick of flame sprang up, hovering above my palm. The warm glow revealed a massive hall, tall enough that I couldn’t see the ceiling by my small flame, and it was completely empty.

I crept forward cautiously, the clicking of my heels on the marble echoing endlessly. There was a fireplace at the center, wood still stacked in it. Snow had drifted in here and there, finding its way through cracks or some unseen open window.

“Hello?” I said softly, testing. The word echoed back at me before fading, and not a thing stirred in the palace.

I sent a lick of flame from my hand to the wood stacked in the fireplace; I didn’t usually use magic for such mundane things, but my hands were shaking hard enough I wasn’t certain I could’ve managed the flint. The wood was ancient and dry, and it began to crackle almost immediately, the flames quickly growing of their own accord.

As the light spread, I saw the hall wasn’t entirely empty. Massive chandeliers hung above my head, draped in dust. There were a few small tables, one chair, a wall mirror, all covered with the same thick layer of dust as the chandeliers. Something felt wrong about it, although I couldn’t exactly say what; if this was really just some royal’s abandoned estate and not a cage for a monster, it only made sense that the place would’ve been cleaned out.

Once the fire was properly roaring and my teeth had stopped chattering, I went to one of the tables and pulled open a drawer. There were three tapers inside and one small, golden candlestick. I fit the taper into the holder, lit it from the fire, and set off deeper into the house.

It was a small light to go by, but I found wall sconces and a few other candlesticks, and I lit them as I went. I might well need them to find my way back; the scale of the place was truly awesome, the kind of grandeur I hadn’t seen in quite some time. Even unfurnished, the materials and the craftsmanship spoke to obscene wealth.

I found the kitchens next. There was nothing there but two stoves, countertops, empty cupboards. The doors and drawers were all hanging open, but none were broken, and the floor was clean.

I walked on, finding more grand and empty rooms. In the east wing, there was a bedroom suite emptied of furniture, but with the bed still made. The dust was so thick it was impossible to tell what color or material the coverlet and sheets had once been, but it was still a grand, four-poster bed with heaps of pillows. Had it been forgotten? Had someone stayed behind in the house?

I left that room quickly. I was becoming increasingly confused and disturbed; why would an enchantment be laid so heavily on an abandoned house? Was there some dissuasion for thieves I hadn’t noticed? There was hardly anything left to take. Protection against vandals?

I went back down the massive, curving stairway, my travel-stained cloak sweeping over steps that had once seen ball gowns, my chapped and bloody fingers tracing a banister once polished by evening gloves. There was another short hallway I hadn’t explored, and there was nothing in it except a large double door at the end. I set my candle on the ledge made by the ornate molding, seized the handles, and pushed inward.

“By the stars,” I breathed. “This can’t be right.”

It was a library, and unlike every other room in the castle, it wasn’t empty. It was full, brimming, stacked with books from floor to ceiling. The scent of old pages and leather binding hit me belatedly, and I breathed deep and stepped inside.

Even with the insulation of thousands of books, the room was so large my footsteps echoed. I turned in a slow circle, trying to estimate the weight of the immense knowledge contained here. I couldn’t do it; the light from my candle didn’t reach far enough, and every time I thought I had full scope of the room, my eye would catch on some nook or cranny stuffed with more books.

“Why?” I said aloud, my voice cracking with wonder and frustration. “Why clean out an entire palace and leave this treasure trove here to waste?”

It would have been a goliath undertaking, moving this library, but surely it would’ve been worth it. The rest of the house was practically scoured, but not a single volume seemed to be missing from this place. Even if the owner of the house had been some barely-literate fool, the collection was worth a fortune. Better to sell it to someone who would value it than let it sit here, untouched.

I went to the nearest shelf, keeping the candle safely away from the books while my fingertips trailed the spines. These were all Biblical allegories, some of them in languages I didn’t even recognize. I kept on, finding collections of essays, history books, memoirs, novels. I couldn’t say what I was looking for, exactly; maybe a clue as to who had lived here. Maybe I could glean some knowledge of the former occupants by the books they kept, the ones they loved and kept within reach, but this library held no such clues. It was a rich family’s library, a well-rounded collection taking both trend and tradition into account and keeping itself utterly impersonal.

Nonetheless, there was plenty that interested me, and I took a volume of natural history before leaving and shutting the door tightly behind me. I didn’t plan to be relaxing much during my stay, but a book might help calm my nerves before I tried to sleep in this giant, drafty tomb of a place.

I was heading back to the great hall when the wind came. I could hardly call it a draft, given that it gusted my cloak around me and sent my candle guttering out. The chandeliers above my head were swaying gently, which meant it had come from the upper floor. It was icy cold, and I hoped, wherever it was coming from, that I would be tall enough to reach it.

I made my way back upstairs, avoiding the made bedroom and poking my head through other doors. They were mostly alike; empty bedrooms that may have seen guests at one time, but these may have gone unused long before the castle itself was abandoned. The wind came again, howling down the hallway like a spirit and rattling the doors at the end of the hall. I went through them, found myself in a small foyer with another set of banging, rattling doors. I pushed through them, and my heart stopped.

Before me was a ballroom. Like the rest of the palace, it had been beautiful once; gold leaf and marble were veiled by dust. But that wasn’t what stopped me dead in my tracks.

Every item that seemed to be missing in the rest of the palace was here, arrayed in circles like the ripples on a pond. A coat stand. Arm chairs. A wardrobe. Feather dusters. Every dish that should’ve been in the kitchen — pots, tureens, skillets, cups and saucers, a tea set. There was a footstool. A golden candelabra. An ornate clock.

Beyond all of these, the doors that opened to the balcony were hanging crookedly on their hinges, their glass shattered, their frames bent. The wind gusted malevolently through the gap, rattling the cups in their saucers, whipping the fringed tassels on the footstool. The enchantment gathered so thick here I felt it settle on my skin like a film, in my lungs like dust.

Beyond the balcony, somewhere out in the night, a long, mournful howl rose on the wind. It was not the high, silver note of a wolf, and no voices joined in alongside it.

I backed away and slammed the doors behind me, shooting the bolt so hard the reverberation shot up my arm. I dashed through the foyer and slammed the next set of doors too, sealing away the wind and the furniture and whatever was out there in the dark.

Chapter Text

The cold light of morning found me huddled in front of the fireplace, arms locked around my knees. The book sat unopened on the floor beside me. My eyes stung with weariness.

I had been unable to shake the sorrow of that room. Like the enchantment, it had been so strong it was nearly tangible. I couldn’t imagine who would’ve arrayed the household items in that room, or why. The questions were piling up, each one more incredulous than the last, and I was beginning to feel like I was in some waking nightmare. The senselessness of it all dragged at me, and I was tempted to put this place at my back and never think of it again. But I couldn’t do that, not until I had at least tried.

I climbed to my feet; I was stiff and aching, and for a moment I stood and waited for the blood to flow back into my legs, into the hands I’d been clenching. This is something I should be at my best for, and though I was hardly at my best, having neither eaten nor slept, I could at least make sure all my extremities were in working fashion.

I made my way back up the stairs, gathering my magic to me as I went. This would not be like the tethers in the forest, I knew. I had sensed it the moment I walked in the room. I could not simply put my fist through this magic, not without unintended consequences.

Once in the foyer, I steeled myself, and pulled back the latch. In the light of day, the scene in the ballroom was, perhaps, a little less eerie, but it was no less sorrowful. The wind from last night had died down, and the broken doors now hung listlessly. I stepped into the room and made my way carefully through the circles of furniture. I had to gather my skirts and cloak into one hand, stepping over some things, creeping through the gap between other. It seemed obscene to touch anything, even though I would have to, eventually.

For the first time in a few days, I didn’t feel like I was being watched. It was a strange thing, given that I was standing in the center of a gathering of furniture, but the sorrow in this room was turned inward. It was a collective loneliness, as if the room was wholly unaware of me. I couldn’t say what would happen when I started to unravel the spell, but I had to find out sometime.

I bent down, looking at each of the closest items in turn. In terms of the enchantment, none of them seemed any different from the others. After a moment, I picked up the clock and tiptoed my way out of the circle, to the steps that led to the balcony. Here the light was best, and I didn’t have to be wary of stepping on a teacup.

Just as I’d thought, the enchantment was delicate, each thread as fine as a spider’s web. The only resemblance it bore to the tethers in the forest was the selfishness in the intention. Each knot was far more complex, and I had to study it until my neck started to ache before I found one I thought was safe to pull. It broke effortlessly under the touch of my magic, and I held my breath, waiting to see what would happen. The clock did not change one iota in my hands, and I blew out a breath. There was a transformation element in the spell, of that I was certain, but apparently, it was going to be stubborn.

I worked for two hours, teasing out the fibers of the enchantment, examining them before I let my magic cut through like the scissors of the Fates. All the while, the clock remained a clock, and by the time I got to the last few strands, I was starting to feel foolish. Was this all some kind of joke? Still, I didn’t let my focus waver. If this was a trap, the person who set it would be looking to lull me into carelessness, so I took just as much time with the final three pieces as I had with the rest.

No sooner had I dissolved the last than the clock practically leapt from my hands, rattling to the ground. There was a blinding flare of golden light, and when it disappeared, there was a man where the clock had been. He was old; his mustache was gray, his eyes rheumy, and he was gasping for air.

“No, no, no!” he was saying, one hand clutching his heart, the other outstretched blindly, trembling. “She’ll come back. The spell, the spell, Lumiere. No, no!”

I seized the hand that was outstretched, closing it in both of mine. It was like a block of ice, and he hardly seemed aware of me.

“Hey, hey,” I almost shouted, raising my voice to be heard above his babbling. “Are you all right? Can you hear me? Sir?”

He drew in another sobbing breath, the rattle echoing of the sound of the clock on the floor, and his other hand fisted in the cloth of his shirt.

“Help me!” he gasped. “I can feel it, I can feel it! Not this way, oh please God, not like this! Help us!”

He slumped against the steps and I bent over him helplessly. I could smell his fear and I wanted to escape it, but he needed help. Beneath his thin skin I could feel his pulse flying far, far too fast. I grasped his other wrist to pry it away from his shirt, but even then, his eyes wouldn’t focus on me.

“Listen,” I said urgently. “Listen to me! I’ve broken the spell. You’re free now. Please, please calm down—”

“No!” he wailed. “Only she can break the spell, and she’s gone. Oh, Lumiere, she’s gone, she’s left us! We are damned. Please, help us!”

The last word was choked off, and he went rigid. There was one more wheezing breath, one more frantic clutching of his hands, and then he was gone. He guttered out like a candle, and even if I hadn’t felt the very moment his heart stopped, I would have recognized the feeling of being alone again.

“Oh, hell,” I whispered.

I released his frozen hands and pulled away, sinking against the steps. What had I done? I had been so careful, so cautious with the spell, and yet he was dead. His last moments had been fear and pain.

I gazed over the rest of the assembled furniture in the room, and my heart began to race. Where they all human? Was every teacup, every feather duster, a human being? Horror washed over me, and then the shadow fell across the floor.

I looked up; a monstrous shape was blotting out the sun. It had to duck to get its head beneath the door frame, and its thick, black claws were sunk into the lintel. The paws it stood on were massive, and horns twisted back from its flat, almost humanoid face. It was staring at the dead man with wide, bloodshot eyes, and I barely had time to register any of this before it turned its baleful gaze on me and roared.

The sound shook the entire room, but I was already running. Whatever sorrow I had just felt was buried beneath a torrent of adrenaline, and I hurled a ball of fire over my shoulder as I fled to the edge of the room, staying clear of the furniture. I dashed through the doors, and a split second later, there was a splintering crash as the animal tore them clear off the hinges. I felt a breeze over my wind, a slight tug on my scalp; the hair that had been piled on top of my head fell around my shoulders, the leather tie torn clean through.

I ran for the stairs, but I wasn’t fast enough. The creature leapt, and it was only because I saw its shadow pass over me that I stopped just in time. It landed in front of me, its momentum carrying it further down the stairs, its claws gouging holes in the marble. I hurled another ball of flame, striking it in the shoulder, sent another blistering over its head, but it didn’t stop. It roared again, charging back up the stairs, and I turned and ran.

Maybe, if I’d had my wits about me, I would’ve tried to lose it somewhere in the palatial maze, but there was a voice in the back of my head saying this creature would know the castle far better than I. So, I did the first and stupidest thing I could think of. I dashed back down the hallway, through the foyer and around the ballroom. I ran past the dead man. I ran through the doors, across the balcony, and jumped.

If I had been a different witch, my flight spell could have carried me over the hellish, overgrown garden, the forest, the village, and straight back to the port I’d sailed into. As it was, it got me halfway into the garden and kept the impact from killing me.

It was a hard landing nonetheless, and for a moment I was dazed and caught in the rose thorns. A furious roar shook me out of my stupor, and I struggled out of the vines and drew my knives. There was no path made for me here, and I took a haphazard route, diving through the bushes wherever they thinned, following the hedgerow where they weren’t. I knew the monster would be in the garden by now, and once it saw me, there was nothing stopping it from taking a direct route.

When I finally burst through the edge of the maze, I didn’t stop running, only chanced a look over my shoulder. The creature was just a few hundred feet behind me, surging through the bushes like a shark through the ocean. I stifled the shriek in my throat and focused on keeping my burning legs moving.

The woods brought me no advantage. The animal behind me crashed through saplings and undergrowth like they were dandelions; its massive paws were wide and steady in the snow, its claws giving it traction I wouldn’t have had on my best day. It was powerful and fast and tireless.

When I reached the place where the third tether had been, I turned to make my stand. The beast didn’t seem to register this; it just kept coming. I ducked a massive swipe of its claws, then slashed with my knives and broke through hide. It snarled hideously; I whirled aside to avoid the downward smash, and the tree stump next to me exploded outward with the force of the blow. I slashed again, drawing more blood, and spun into the center of the clearing.

It turned to face me, slow and calculating. I hadn’t hurt it badly; I couldn’t even find the wounds in its shaggy hide, but I might have made it even angrier.

It paced the edge of the clearing, gaze fixed on me. It was walking on two legs now, and it did so with practiced steadiness and not with the lurching necessity of a bear. I kept my knives between us, a thin line of blood reddening the blades.

“I don’t know what you are,” I said, fighting to keep my voice from shaking. “I don’t how you came to be in this enchantment. But if you understand speech, then consider this your warning. I don’t want to hurt you, but I am more than capable if pushed. Do. Not. Push me.”

Its expression did not change, but its eyes — blue, I realized — flickered to my face with a recognition that was not wholly animal. It kept stalking me, its tail lashing the ground. I called fire; it whooshed into existence, arcing between my blades, and the beast snarled.

“Don’t,” I warned. “Please, don’t —”

It whirled suddenly, dropping onto all fours and charging across the clearing. I braced myself, trying to use the few seconds I had to gauge how I would get the knife behind the arm and into the chest cavity. It was a small, small chance.

Suddenly the monster skidded to a stop; it was so close to me that the snow driven up by its paws landed on my feet. I felt the steam from its snorted exhalation. I stood my ground, not daring to blink, but the beast was no longer looking at me.

There was slow movement in my periphery. I turned my head infinitesimally, raising my knives even higher as I did.

A wolf was emerging from the darkness of the trees. Its hackles were up, eyes hard, steps stiff, ears pricked with unmistakable intensity.

There was a faint brush against my cloak; I glanced down. It was another wolf, the line of its back hard and straight. There was another to my right, and others behind it. The pack was here.

They made no sound. The intention was clear enough without it. They pressed forward in a ring, slow-moving arrows all seeking the same target. The monster snarled, backing up a step before swiping at the nearest wolf. Its ears flattened against it head, lip lifting, and I heard the first low growl.

I wanted to say something, because this had the potential to turn into a bloodbath. The beast may have been far outnumbered, but its massive bulk wouldn’t be easy for the wolves to bring down. I wasn’t sure if the monster had any natural enemies, and though it may have clashed with the wolves in the past, this particular encounter was my fault entirely. At the heart of it, all these animals were forced into close quarters by the enchantment, and I wanted them all to have a chance at a normal life.

And yet, I didn’t want to die. The beast intended to kill me, that was certain. It was less clear whether the wolves were coming to my aid, defending their territory, or hunting. It wasn’t unheard of, of course, for wild animals to help or even befriend witches, but it had never happened to me before.

The wolves were pressing their advantage, and two of them had begun to move on the beast’s heels. They were fully between me and it now, and I had a clear path to run. I was frozen by indecision; what would happen if I intervened?

I had no more time to think about it, because it was the monster who ran. It whirled and leapt over the wolves behind it in one motion, and then it galloped back the way it had come. There was only a split second’s hesitation from the wolves, and then they were after it. I wasn’t convinced they had been hunting when they arrived, but the fleeing monster had ignited their instinct to chase, and their shaggy bodies had melted into the trees within two breaths.

There was nothing I could now, and I didn’t trust that the monster wouldn’t double back. I turned on my heel and fled back into the forest, hoping I was heading the right direction. I was going almost purely on instinct; too much had happened in the past day to even process, and the only thing moving my muscles was prey animal fear. I didn’t have time to notice the moss or the greening shoots that had sprung up in the parts of the forest I had freed. It wouldn’t be until later that I realized birds had clamored out of the trees as I ran by, that small animals had darted out of my path.

By the time I reached the meadow, my legs and lungs were burning. I collapsed into the grass, feeling blessed sun on my back and inhaling the scent of life and grass. I doubted the beast could follow me beyond the woods, but I wasn’t keen to test the theory, either. Once the spots had stopped dancing in my vision, I picked myself up and stumbled on, heading for the village.

Dusk was gathering when I finally made my way back through the gates. I tried to pick myself up and straighten my clothes, maybe look a little less like I’d been running for my life, but there was hardly anyone in the streets anyway. It was a quiet hour, when everyone had gone home for supper before heading out again for evening revelries. I slipped down the streets like a shadow, feeling the closeness of the walls like protection rather than a cage.

The inn had a fair number of patrons already at the bar, tucked into their suppers, or playing chess and checkers at the scattered tables. My clammy hands slipped on the door and it banged shut behind me, drawing every eye in the place. I made a conscious effort to smooth my clothes and tuck my windblown hair behind my ears, but the innkeeper was already looking at me with a furrowed brow.

“Do you, by any chance, still have that room available?” I asked. My casual tone was completely lost in the shakiness of my breath, and I kept my hands off the bar.

The innkeeper softened a little. “I surely do. You look like you’ve had a fright, miss. Would you like a brandy?”

“No, just the room.”

“All right, all right then. Are you sure you’re quite well, miss? Where’ve you come from?”

“The, uh…” I licked my dry lips. “The castle in the forest.”

His brows knitted so tightly they looked like one bushy caterpillar making its way across his face. “There’s no castle in the forest, miss,” he said gently. “No castles for miles.”

I froze, my mind turning the words over and over but not comprehending them. I could not begin to think through what this meant, so instead, I plunked myself down on a bar stool and began to rummage through my pack for coins.

“On second thought, I will have that brandy.”

***

As it happened, I had quite a few brandies that night, although only the first three were for my benefit. I had put myself in a dangerous position; when strange women come blowing through doors and talking about places that don’t exist, local men tend to send them straight to the doctor or to jail, depending on the town. Rather than risk a late-night visit from the asylum orderlies, I stayed up far later than I wanted, getting drunk enough to laugh at the antics of the locals.

If I were being honest with myself, this wasn’t just about setting the innkeeper’s mind at ease. I had seen my fair share of nightmarish things in my travels, but never anything that made me question my own mind and magic. I felt the distinct need to ground myself in reality, with people I would often choose to avoid. With every brandy I had, it seemed increasingly likely that I had, in fact, hallucinated the whole dreadful experience, but I wasn’t certain. I wanted to ask a few innocent questions, see what I got back.

At the moment, though, I was flushed and tipsy and tapping my foot along with a song. The brandy had washed everything in a warm, golden glow and made me impervious to the nerves that would usually be rattling me. The song was being led by an absolute bear of a man standing on a table, and he seemed to draw a response from every man and woman in the room.

To me, he looked like someone who had just tipped the balance of being past his prime. He was still striking, with his height, his broad shoulders, hair as black as mine but the jawline that had once been strong was going soft, and his stomach slumped into a paunch whenever he forgot to pay attention to it. Still, he had a fine, deep voice, and he and his short, portly companion made an entertaining pair.

When he finished his song, the man came to the bar and roared for another ale, which was cheerfully forthcoming. He swigged most of it, wiped the foam from his mouth, and then his gaze lit on me. His eyes were blue, and I struggled to keep my face neutral as memories of the beast in the castle came surging back.

“Mademoiselle,” he said, sliding down the bar toward me. “You must be new in town. Surely I would’ve remembered meeting such an exotic beauty before.”

I repressed a grimace at the phrase and took the proffered hand; it was too warm, as were his lips, which lingered on the back of my hand too long. “Monsieur Gaston, is it? I assure you, we have not met; I only know your name from the song your people were singing about you.”

“Ah, then it is a pleasure indeed to meet you, Mademoiselle…?”

“Simone,” I supplied. “I assure you, the pleasure is all mine. It’s not every day I meet a man so adored by his neighbors.”

If I were sober I would have winced at how positively unctuous I sounded, but he grinned, showing large, white teeth. “They do adore me, I can’t deny it. But, I assure you, I do my best to earn their praises.”

“For some men, it would be quite an undertaking to live up to such expectations. Tell me, how do you earn their affections?”

“My charm and my strength, of course.” He flexed one large arm, and a bulge of muscle lifted beneath the fat. “And it doesn’t hurt to be the best hunter in the village.”

I latched onto this information, grateful to have something of genuine interest to discuss, even if it wasn’t the exact interest he might hope. “A hunter? Then you must have explored all the lands around this village!”

“I know them like the back of my hand.”

“Tell me, what do you know of the forest to the west?”

He stuttered to a stop, taking a gulp of ale. “Ah, that forest. No, I don’t do much hunting there. It’s not worth the walk; the game is small.”

“Oh, I see. Does anyone live there?”

“What, in the forest?” he laughed. “All alone? I can’t imagine so.”

“How strange,” I said. “I was sure I saw some kind of structure when I was travelling through. I must have imagined it.”

It was a loaded question; if the castle was some kind of secret, my very presence in the woods would’ve alarmed him. But he only shrugged, eyes glazing with disinterest.

“You must have. Tell me, are you travelling alone?”

This was never a question I liked from a man, particularly because it was impossible for me to lie; there was no logical reason for my husband to be temporarily absent, and besides, I had already told the innkeeper I was alone. “I am,” I said. “I usually do.”

“That seems dangerous, especially for someone as beautiful as you.”

“Travelling alone can be dangerous for anyone,” I replied evenly. “I am also quite dangerous.”

He chuckled a little. “Well, you’re quite safe in our little village. If you’ll excuse me, I think I hear someone calling me. Pleasure to meet you, Mademoiselle Simone.”

He sauntered away toward a group of girls who looked half his age but delighted to have caught his attention. I took another sip of brandy and fished out my pocket watch to check the time. When I looked up again, Monsieur Gaston’s short, chubby friend was leaning on the bar where he had been, grinning at me.

“You know, you’re not the first person to see something in that forest.”

I hid my surprise, lifting my glass to my lips again and glancing at him over the rim. “Is that so, Monsieur…?”

“LeFou. I’m a friend of Gaston’s, and I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.”

“Monsieur LeFou, a pleasure. Please, tell me about the forest.”

“I will. For a price.”

“Ah, and what is that?”

“Just one dance, and we’ll call it even.”

The band had struck up a lively tune, and a few couples were whirling around in the space between the tables. I flushed, immediately aware of my ragged traveling clothes and my unkempt hair. “Monsieur, I’m no dancer, and I’m hardly dressed for it —”

“Oh, come on! Just one. It’ll be fun.”

I was just drunk and curious enough, so I took his outstretched hand and let him twirl me around to the scraping fiddle and rattling tambourine. He was so short I could’ve rested my chin on the top of his head, but he was a better dancer than I and kept his hand firmly in the center of my back, and by the time we sank back onto our stools I was laughing and flushed.

“See?” he grinned. “That was fun.”

“More fun than I’ve had in some time,” I said. “It seems unfair to consider that part of our bargain, but I am curious.”

“Truthfully, there’s not much to tell,” he said. “I’d forgotten all about it until I heard what you said, and I’m not sure I’ve got it quite right. It was about ten years ago now. Gaston’s wife’s father had a bit of a breakdown on his way home from some … some fair, maybe? I can’t remember exactly what it was he used to do — he was a craftsman of some kind, a builder maybe. Well, he comes into town saying Belle, Gaston’s wife — though they weren’t married yet — has been kidnapped, and she’s being held at some castle in the forest, and there’s wolves or bears or some other wild animals, to boot.”

I kept my face impassive, but my heart was thundering in my ears. I took a furtive glance around to see if anyone was listening, but they were all drinking and clapping and stomping their feet. “So what happened?”

“Nothing really. Belle came back from … wherever she’d been, I don’t remember. Not kidnapped, that’s for sure! And she and Gaston were married that fall. Like I said, the details are a little hazy.”

“Well, maybe it’s some kind mirage, like in the desert,” I laughed.

“So you saw it, too? A castle?”

“No, not exactly,” I lied. “I just thought I saw a chimney and a bit of roof. Probably just a trick of the light.”

“Ah, maybe so.”

“Tell me, is Madame Gaston here tonight?”

He didn’t even bother to take a glance around. “No, she hardly ever comes out. She’s always at home, her nose stuck in a book.” He looked a little embarrassed after he said it, tapping his fingers nervously on his glass. “Well, and the children of course. She loves to read to the children. I can see why she might want to stay at home with them. But Gaston likes to mingle.”

I made a noncommittal hum. “And her father, does he live with them? You didn’t mention her mother.”

“Ah, well, I think her mother passed when she was young. Maurice doesn’t live with them, though.” He leaned in and raised a hand to hide his mouth, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “He didn’t really approve of the marriage.”

“Really?” I asked, matching his tone. “But Monsieur Gaston seems so well-loved.”

“He is! I’m not entirely sure why Maurice didn’t — doesn’t — approve. But he loves his grandchildren, of course. Belle takes them to visit him almost every day. He just lives on the edge of the village.”

“Well, not every family can be entirely happy,” I said. I stifled a yawn and drew out my pocket watch again. “Monsieur LeFou, it’s been a pleasure drinking and dancing and talking with you, but I’m afraid I have to say goodnight. It’s far later than I planned to stay awake tonight.”

“Ah, that’s a shame! Will you stay a few days, at least?”

I hesitated briefly, not sure how I’d feel about the situation in the cold and sober light of day. “For more good brandy and more good company, I just may.”

“Then I’ll expect to see you here again tomorrow night.”

I smiled and motioned to the innkeeper. “Sir, my key, if you please. And Monsieur LeFou has another drink on me.”

LeFou raised his glass to me before I disappeared up the stairs. It seemed like a longer climb than last time, and I collapsed on the small bed like it was a queenly mattress. I didn’t think about palatial empty bedrooms with the sheets still on the bed; I fell asleep before I even got my boots off.

***

I hadn’t really planned to stay in the village, but since I hadn’t made any concrete plans to leave, stay I did. Besides, I couldn’t leave without finding out more about what had happened with Madame Gaston and her father.

It was a warm day; I emptied the pockets of my cloak and left it with the local seamstress to be patched, and I picked up a sturdy extra shirt and travelling skirt besides. With nothing else to do, I ventured out into the village market with a few coins and open ears. The square seemed friendlier now, and I felt like less of an intruder; there were even a few familiar hats tipped my way.

I strolled my way through the streets, looking for nothing in particular but seeing much. I was half-expecting to find pieces of a spell like I had in the forest; the enchantment was less noticeable to me now, perhaps because I’d been steeping in it myself, but I could neither ignore it nor find concrete evidence of its presence. Everyone here seemed, well, normal — it was a cheerful place, to be sure, but not unnaturally so. I heard a few squabbles break out over the price of eggs, the quality of bread, a few tense words between a husband and wife, a couple bawling children. There was only one thing out of the ordinary: there seemed to be a high density of invalids with their caretakers. I couldn’t say what their malady was; some of them were old, and their blank eyes and slack mouths didn’t look so out of place in their wrinkled faces, but some of them were far too young for their minds to have slipped so. I saw a man no older than forty, clinging to the arm of a stout young woman, pointing at the flower stand and making wordless noises.

It was a strange thing, but I was distracted by the appearance of a shop I hadn’t seen before. It was a bookseller, and unlike many of the signs swinging creakily above my head, this one looked shiny and almost new. I picked my way through the crowd of shoppers and slipped through the door, the bell tinkling as I entered.

The bookseller appeared almost immediately, half-moon glasses perched on the tip of his round, puggish nose. His name was Monsieur Bernard, and he seemed pleased to have a customer. He followed me around the shelves, tucking his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat only to pull them out as he reached for another book to suggest.

“I thought I would have the market cornered here, being the only bookstore in town,” he told me, “but this village is not particularly literate.”

“How unfortunate,” I said. “You have quite a lovely little collection here.”

The memory of another, far grander library pricked at me, and I turned to him. “Does Madame Gaston shop here, perchance?”

He laughed heartily at that. “Belle is my one and only regular customer! I think she’s here almost as often as I am. Do you know her?”

“I can’t say I do, but I’ve heard she’s lovely. What does she like to read? I’d like to introduce myself and take her a gift.”

“Oh, Belle loves fiction. I think she’ll read anything, but she loves a good romance, or wild adventure story. Here, I’ve just gotten this in; I think she’ll love it.”

The book was bound in blue, and the gilt lettering read “The Female Quixote.” I flipped through it briefly, then looked up at him with a smile. “Monsieur Bernard, you’ve been most helpful.”

“Well, no trouble! Here, bring it up to the counter and I’ll wrap it for you.”

The bookseller wrapped the volume tidily in colored paper and sent me off with directions to Madame Gaston’s house. I hoped the monsieur would be gone hunting, or at least wouldn’t hover over us while we talked. Last night’s conversation left me uncertain whether he was being secretive or really was bored talking about anything other than himself, but neither would be helpful given the questions I wanted to ask.

The house was large and square, and a giant rack of antlers loomed over the door. I knocked firmly, counting on Madame Gaston to be more forthcoming than her husband. From inside I heard a child’s shout, and then footsteps. The door opened, and I was face to face with the woman I’d bumped into my first day in the village. She looked even a little more worn than she had that day, but her face quickly brightened into a smile that made her brown eyes sparkle.

“Mademoiselle Simone! What a surprise; I didn’t expect to see you again.”

“Madame Gaston, I hope I’m not being an inconvenience.”

She wrinkled her nose at the name and waved her hand. “Call me Belle, please. Won’t you come inside? I’ll make us some tea.”

Belle swung the door open wide and stepped aside to let me in. The house was an open, sprawling thing; the ceilings were cavernous, but instead of marble and gilded molding, it had the rough interior of a hunting cabin. The walls were logs, and taxidermy was everywhere. I kept the distaste off my face and turned my attention to the kitchen table. The rest of the place was swept clean with a child’s toy here and there, but the table was covered in small bits of machinery and tools. A half-finished mechanism lay in the middle of it, although I would’ve been hard-pressed to name its purpose.

“Please excuse the mess,” Belle said apologetically. “I’ll just get the kettle on and clean that right up.”

“I appreciate a creative mess,” I said, peering a little closer at her project. “Please don’t clean up on my account. What are you making?”

“Well, it’s not mine really,” she said. “My father started it, but his memory isn’t so good anymore and he has trouble remembering where he left off. It’s supposed to crack and peel hardboiled eggs.”

“I’d like something like that, although it’d have to be quite small to travel with,” I said. “Do you build many of these things?”

“Not so many. I don’t have much time to work on them, so I tend to have one project going over months. Sugar in your tea?”

“Just a little, please.”

Belle cleared just enough space on the table for two teacups, and she came back a moment later with a steaming kettle. I tried not to think about the tea set sitting in the abandoned ballroom of the castle, instead studying her hands and her movements furtively. She may have been a beauty, but she had a quick, businesslike manner that suggested she had better things to do with her time than study social graces. I liked her already.

She sat across from and spooned a liberal amount of sugar into her tea. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure, Mademoiselle Simone?”

“Well, first, I wanted to give you this. I stopped in to see Monsieur Bernard, and he said you might like it.”

She took the wrapped package with all the guileless eagerness of a child, and her face lit up when she tore off the paper and saw the cover. “Oh, how lovely! Monsieur Bernard does know me so well. That was very kind of you.”

“I don’t often have the opportunity to visit a bookseller, and I have even less space in my pack for books, so it was a pleasure to buy something.”

“Are you always travelling, then? What is it you do?”

“Oh, this and that,” I said vaguely, “but almost always travelling, yes. I go where the wind takes me.”

“How wonderful,” she sighed wistfully. “You must have such an exciting life! Isn’t it dangerous, though?”

“It can be, but I’ve learned ways to protect myself over the years. I wouldn’t give it up for anything, though. Nothing compares to seeing new parts of the world.”

“I’ll be honest, I’m quite jealous. But what brings you back to our village from the wide world? I thought you said you wouldn’t be passing through again.”

“Ah,” I said awkwardly. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk with you about. I saw … something, in the forest to the west of here. You know the one?”

Belle had gone quite pale and still. The children ran through the kitchen, shouting and chasing each other with sticks, and she hardly even blinked. I lifted my teacup to my lips but kept my eyes fixed on her.

“Yes, I know that forest,” she said finally, her voice quiet and almost tremulous. “What did you see there?”

“A castle,” I said. “No one else in the village seems to know anything about it, but I heard that your father also saw it, some years ago.”

Belle practically leapt out of her chair, scurrying back to the counter and pretending to straighten up; just before she did, I could’ve sworn I saw tears glaze her eyes, but her back was to me now. “Yes, well, like I said, my father’s not entirely well. He’s always been an imaginative man — of course, to be an inventor, you have to be — and sometimes he gets a little too carried away.”

“Ah,” I said softly. “So you think he imagined it?”

“Of course, he must have. There are no castles for miles.”

“Then I must have imagined it, too.” I put the barest edge of a question on the words.

She turned back around to face me, wringing a dish towel in her hands. “Well, it’s easy to understand; the woods can be tricky, and maybe you were tired from your travels …”

Belle trailed off and turned back to the counter, going through the motions of wiping it down. I stirred my tea, watching her flit around the kitchen until the silence grew brittle.

“I suppose you’re right,” I finally said, drawing the words out. “There are plenty of places in the world with stories such as these, so I shouldn’t be surprised. But sometimes, there’s truth in those stories. Sometimes, there’s a wrong that must be righted.”

She went very still again, looking out the window over the sink. I couldn’t see her face, but the tension made her back ramrod straight. I got up, pushed in my chair, and went to the door.

“Well, thank you for the tea,” I said. “I hope I have not disturbed your day too much.”

I swung the door open and stepped out onto the stoop. Before I could close it behind me, it was pulled out of my grasp. I turned, and Belle was hanging onto the frame as if for dear life, her eyes wide.

“And if there was?”

“If there was what?”

“If there was some truth to the story? A wrong or … something that should be undone?”

I searched her face, but the only thing in that expression was fear. “Then perhaps I could undo it. But perhaps it would be very dangerous, and I might need to find out everything I could before I ventured into such a task.”

Belle lowered her eyes, drawing her lower lip between her teeth and saying nothing. “I may be at the inn a few more days, if you happen to remember anything else,” I said. “Good day, Belle.”

I heard the door click shut behind me as I walked away, and I cursed internally. If Belle herself really hadn’t seen the castle, I’d hoped she might take me to see her father. I didn’t want to go behind her back, especially if the man really was unwell, but I didn’t have much of a choice now.

The house was near the village square, and I paused behind the baker’s stand under the pretense of fixing my boot. I only had to wait a few minutes before Belle came out, clutching the children’s hands, and started down one of the side streets. She didn’t glance over her shoulder once, and I was able to follow them at a distance with ease, feeling like a ruffian all the while.

Just as LeFou had said, the house was on the outside of the village. I caught a glimpse of the man’s white hair and heard his enthusiastic greeting to the children before the door shut behind them; he didn’t seem sick, but not all maladies are so obvious. I felt even worse lurking outside like this, having taken advantage of Belle’s genuine concern for her father. Perhaps she had suspected I would make my way there, but she clearly hadn’t guessed I would use her to find him.

I made note of the house before retracing my steps, making my way back into the heart of the village to finish up my errands. My cloak was already finely patched, the cloth as close a match as one could get without it suffering through months of wind and water, and the stitches were almost invisible. I tipped the seamstress handsomely for her work and returned to the inn; last night’s late hour and the stress of the past few days were still weighing heavily on me, and I went upstairs to rest before evening came again.

I dreamed of Belle again. She was running through the forest, just as I did days ago. Her sleeves were torn from the rosebushes in the garden and her hair was loose around her shoulders. I could hear the beast thundering behind her, but instead of the roar it had given as it chased me, I heard the long, mournful howl that had drifted through the broken doors of the ballroom that first night. When she turned to face the monster in the clearing, she had no blades, but its face showed something like recognition instead of only animal rage.

I was a wolf, I realized. My feet were paws, and I could smell the others of my pack arrayed beside me. Belle drew back from me with a fear I hadn’t felt, and the beast roared at me, just before shifting into the appearance of Belle’s husband, Gaston. The image lasted only an instant before it was a beast against, and I pressed forward. I could smell the stink of its hide; I could smell Belle’s terror. I could feel ravenous hunger in my belly, and the old resentment of a hundred battles with this unnatural creature.

The monster was not backing away, and my pack had encircled it and was already snapping at its heels. It was hardly even looking at us; its strange blue eyes were fixed on Belle. When I looked over my shoulder, she was running away, her cloak disappearing into the trees. The long howl went up again, and the beast charged at me. Two other wolves were already clinging to its back, but it was wounded and desperate, and it didn’t stop. I was transfixed before the massive paw descending on me.

I woke up suddenly with the blood pounding in my ears. I had never been one to put much stock in dreams or ponder their meaning, but rarely had my dreams been so crystal clear, so connected to the people and events of my life at the moment. I was no interpreter, and I was still mulling over the significance of what I’d seen when I descended the stairs to the first floor of the inn.

The innkeeper was polishing a tray of glasses, and he nodded to me from behind the bar. “Evening, miss. You look much refreshed.”

“Thank you, I feel it, too. Tell me, do you know where I might find Monsieur LeFou at this hour?”

“Ah, I expect he’ll be with Monsieur Gaston, carrying the game. They ought to be on their way home now, so you’ll likely see him here shortly.”

I wasn’t about to go traipsing out into the fields looking for them, especially not with Monsieur Gaston in the mix, and I didn’t know how long “shortly” was in this village — every place seemed to have its own version of timeliness, and it seemed the farther from a city I went, the slower it was. I sat down with one of the old geezers at a table with a chessboard and kept myself entertained for a little more than an hour. Once the sunlight streaming through the windows began to go orange, the villagers started to trickle in. Some of them were still dirty from a hard day’s work, but most were freshly scrubbed and coming from their dinner tables. I reclaimed my spot at the bar from last night and ordered a glass of wine instead of brandy, and when LeFou entered the inn, I saw him scan the crowd and find me almost immediately.

“You’re still here!” he exclaimed, clambering onto the tall stool without the slightest self-consciousness.

“For the moment,” I laughed, unable to suppress my grin. “You seem to be in good spirits, Monsieur LeFou.”

“How could I not? It was a beautiful day and we didn’t see anything bigger than a sparrow, so I enjoyed the fresh air without having to dirty my hands. A fine day indeed.”

“You don’t sound like you enjoy the actual hunt very much.”

He looked around furtively and lowered his voice. “Well, no, I don’t. It still turns my stomach, even after all these years. But I enjoy a good roast, so what’s a man to do?”

He paused to take a long draught of his ale, turning in his stool to look over the room as he did so. There was a younger man leaning against one of the tables, his chestnut hair pulled away from his pale, fine-featured face. There was a ready smile playing about his lips and in his green, long-lashed eyes, and that gaze pulled toward LeFou as if by magnets.

LeFou blushed instantly and turned again in his stool, clearing his throat noisily. “So, Mademoiselle Simone, what did you get up to today?”

I glanced back at the young man, who had plunked himself on a bench and was now dejectedly tossing a die. “Monsieur LeFou,” I said gently, “I welcome your company, but please don’t feel obligated to entertain me.”

He blushed even deeper and waved his hand. “No, no, I couldn’t anyway — you sell yourself short, Mademoiselle! Everyone in this village was born here and they’ll probably die here, and your presence is only temporary, like a spring flower. I should cherish it while it lasts.”

He was really laying it on thick now, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and I laughed again. “Well, the pressure’s on now. I don’t think I can live up to the expectations; I had my cloak mended and did a bit of shopping, and I …” I hesitated briefly, but pressed on. “I went to visit Madame Gaston — er, Belle, actually.”

“Oh, well that must have made her day! I’m surprised you made it back here before I did; she probably wanted to hear all your stories.”

“Not, uh, not exactly,” I said. “We didn’t really get as much time to talk as I hoped, but — is her father really unwell?”

LeFou looked startled. “Maurice? No, I think he’s quite fine, why?”

“She didn’t specifically say he was sick, but she said he was imaginative, and got a bit carried away sometimes.”

My companion made a dismissive motion and took another swig of ale. “Maurice has always been that way; Belle is, too! He might be getting a little harder to follow in his old age, but if that’s all, then no, he’s not unwell.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” I said. “I ask because, well, I’m sort of a collector of stories. I like to hear the strange tales all places have, and take them on to the next place I visit. And I hoped Monsieur Maurice might share his story about the castle with me.”

“I see,” LeFou mused. “But Belle didn’t offer to take you to visit?”

“I didn’t ask, not in so many words. Would you go with me? I’m just a stranger to him.”

“I don’t see what the harm could be! I’m sure he gets lonely when Belle and the children leave, and I’m sure he’d love to have someone listen to him go on. Certainly, I’ll take you, although he’s not exactly an ardent admirer of yours truly.”

“Would you really, Monsieur? I would so appreciate it.”

“Yes, yes of course. Say tomorrow? We’ll go there instead of drinking our lives away here.”

It would be an interminable wait for me, but I nodded and smiled anyway. “Certainly. Thank you so much.”

“It will be my pleasure, but for a price.” He smirked a little.

“Another dance?”

“No, I’ve had my exercise for today. I’d like to hear one of these stories you’ve collected.”

I may have lied about being a collector of stories, but it was far too easy to pretend. I reeled off my adventures one after the other, giving myself a different name, or splitting myself into two characters. I described the trapped spirit of a murdered ancestor I had exorcised from an attic, the plot to poison an entire city slum I had foiled. I told him of the screaming, thrashing willow tree I had never been able to even get close to before it beat itself to splinters, and the skeleton of a horse that had walked by me on a country road one night.

By the time my wine was gone, we had gathered a rapt little audience. I wasn’t keen to encourage that; stories had always been a good way to ingratiate myself with a town, but I’d learned they quickly started to view me as an on-demand entertainer. The last thing I wanted was a horde of bored villagers following me around as I tried to make my way back to the castle or find the anchors of the enchantment on this place.

“Well, I think that’s enough for one night,” I told LeFou, and my uninvited listeners shuffled away, back to their drinks and their dancing. “I should probably go to bed.”

He sighed heavily. “If you must, Mademoiselle! You’re a fine storyteller, and we don’t hear too many new stories in this village.”

I forced a casual chuckle. “Monsieur LeFou, you make it sound like none of you ever leave at all.”

“Well, not many of us do.” He frowned a little, his eyes going vacant. “I can’t remember the last person who did. I suppose … I suppose it must have been Agatha.”

“Who is that?”

“Nobody, really. She was just a spinster here in the village, a beggar, I suppose. She disappeared one day, that must’ve been ten years ago now. Nobody knows where she went; we’re not really sure she did leave, really.” He laughed nervously. “One day, we all just realized no one had seen her in a few days, and nobody saw her again after that.”

I said nothing for a moment, trying to assign value to this information. I didn’t like the sound of it, not one bit. But I was already suspicious, already wary of anything remotely out of the ordinary.

“Ten years ago,” I said. “So it must’ve been around the time Maurice came home with his story of the castle.”

“No — well yes, relatively, but it was after that, I think.” His brow furrowed for a moment, and then his eyes lit up. “Yes, yes, it was after that! I remember now, it was after Belle and Gaston were married, in the winter. I was afraid she had frozen to death somewhere. It kept me up at night, until … until I forgot about it.”

“Perhaps she found a better life somewhere else,” I said comfortingly, but my pulse had quickened for a reason I couldn’t quite explain. There was no apparent connection between this woman and the castle except a time frame that could have been mere coincidence. Still, I wondered what had become of her. Had she gone into the forest? Had she been attacked by the beast, eaten by the wolves?

“I think I’ll turn in, as well,” LeFou said, breaking me from my reverie. “It was lovely to see you again, Mademoiselle Simone. Until tomorrow?”

I smiled and nodded. “Until tomorrow. Good night, Monsieur LeFou.”

***

The next day dawned rainy and cold, and I only left the inn to make a mad dash to Monsieur Bernard’s shop for reading material. The weather hadn’t improved by the time LeFou arrived at the inn, and the heavy clouds made it seem even later than it was. Regardless, he was cheerful as always, so we pulled our hoods over our heads and set off toward Maurice’s house.

“You said Monsieur Maurice wasn’t particularly fond of you,” I said, stretching to step over a puddle. “Do you know why?”

“Oh, I suspect it’s just because of Gaston,” LeFou chuckled. “He’s never liked him. He didn’t approve of Belle marrying him.”

He’d told me that before, but I nodded thoughtfully. “Is she his only child?”

“Oh, yes. Just the two of them.”

“Well, it’s not so strange then, I suppose. Plenty of parents are protective of their only children, and I suspect fathers even more so of their daughters.”

“You’re right, of course. And I think Maurice was, well, a bit more worldly than the rest of us. They came from Paris, you know. Compared to that, we must seem like a bunch of country mice.”

“Have you ever been, Monsieur LeFou?”

Too late I remembered he had told me the villagers hardly ever left this place, but he didn’t seem to remember, either. “To Paris? Oh, no. I’ve heard it’s marvelous, though.”

“I’ve heard that as well. Perhaps that’s where I’ll go next. Would you like to come with me?”

He stopped walking, the hood not hiding the surprise in his face. “Me?”

“Why not?”

He stammered a little. “It, well, uh, it wouldn’t be entirely proper, would it?”

“Monsieur LeFou, do I strike you as the sort of person to care about what’s proper?”

“Not entirely, no.”

“Well, then just think it over. There’s nothing stopping you from going yourself, of course, but a travelling companion certainly makes the journey more enjoyable.”

He smiled a little. “That’s true. I’ll think about it.”

We walked on, and when we reached Maurice’s house, the drizzle had turned into a steady rain. We huddled under the small roof on the porch as LeFou knocked.

“Maurice? Hello?”

The door cracked open, then drew a little wider. Maurice peered back at us with shining hazel eyes, a suspicious expression on his face.

“Monsieur LeFou? What on earth are you doing here in such weather?”

“I came to visit you, Maurice!” the shorter man said cheerfully. “I’ve brought my friend, Mademoiselle Simone; she’s an adventurer and a storyteller. It’s bad weather for adventuring, but it’s good weather for stories. Stories and hot tea, perhaps?”

Maurice didn’t look convinced, so I gave him my brightest smile and offered my hand. “Monsieur Maurice, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I met your daughter yesterday, too. She’s a fascinating person.”

He warmed to that immediately, his mustache twitching in an effort not to smile. “Oh, all right,” he said. “Come in, then.”

The house was warm, almost too warm even in my damp clothes. He took our cloaks and hung them on a rack by the fire, and then he set about making tea. The near silence was punctuated only by the hiss of water dripping off our cloaks onto the hot stone, and by the occasional rattle of china. I struggled to find any resemblance to Belle in this man; he looked lost as he puttered around his own kitchen. She had moved with efficient sureness, and his gestures were anxious, forgetful, half-finished.

I looked away, taking stock of the house instead. It was a small, cozy space, and there were machines and tools stacked in almost every corner. Everything I could see looked only partially finished or barely started, and the small table in front of the armchair held a mostly-deconstructed music box.

When Maurice finally came back to the kitchen table, LeFou took the teapot from him and began to pour, but only steaming water emerged from the spout. “Ah, you’ve forgotten the leaves again, old chap. No worry, I’ll find them.”
LeFou got up and went to the cupboard, and Maurice harrumphed slightly before turning his attention to me. “So, you’re an adventurer … Sabine, was it?”

“Simone,” I corrected him. “And you’re an inventor, Monsieur?”

He seemed pleased. “That’s right. Although perhaps I’m just more of a tinkerer these days. The last new thing I made was —” He twisted in his chair, searching the piles of gears and wires scattering around the house. He frowned a little, scanned the collection again. “Well, I’m not sure where I’ve put it, but it’s a — well, it’s for peeling eggs.”

“Ah,” I said. “Yes, I saw that at Belle’s house.”

He brightened. “Oh, yes, Belle’s finishing it! You’ve met my daughter, then?”

LeFou had returned to the table with the tea and he glanced at me as Maurice asked the question, but I didn’t miss a beat. “Yes, actually, just yesterday. She’s lovely.”

“Isn’t she? My pride and joy. Brilliant girl. And beautiful, like her mother. Too good for that louse she married.” He glared at LeFou, and I cleared my throat.

“Yes, I’m sure you must be proud of her,” I said. “But actually, I’ve come to talk to you. Like Monsieur LeFou said, I’m something of a storyteller. I collect the strange tales that are unique to each town and village.”

“Like ghost stories?”

“Sometimes. Some of them are just old wisdom, and some of them bear a great deal of coincidence.”

Maurice looked down at his tea for a long moment, fingers drumming on the table. His nails were a bit too long and beginning to yellow. “So you’ve come to me for a story?” he said finally.

“Yes,” I said. “If you’re willing to tell it.”

He didn’t ask what story; he already knew. His eyes flickered between me and LeFou, and I thought perhaps they were too bright, almost feverish. Maybe he was sick, or a bit mad. At the moment, he was all I had.

“I was on my way home from the fair in the next town over,” he began abruptly. “I shouldn’t have tried to make it home that same night. I got lost in the woods in the dark.”

Out came the tale, without hesitation or forgetfulness. It had the cadence of something he had practiced, like he had told it to himself before. He described the maze-like garden I had run through — or what it would have looked like, before it was overgrown. He knew the massive double doors, the grand hall, the dining room, but there had been a rack upon which to hang his coat; there had been a fire already roaring in the fireplace; there had been dinner on the table, and a teacup that talked to him.

He glanced sharply at LeFou when he said this, as if daring the other man to contradict him, but LeFou was quiet, staring meditatively into the fire. Maurice continued.

“I hoped to take shelter there for the night, but then the beast came. He was eight feet tall at least, with curved horns like a ram, and huge fangs. He was like a lion, a wolf, and a bear all in one, but he spoke like a human, although he roared like an animal just as often. He … he imprisoned me, threw me in a dungeon for staring at him. How could I not stare at him? He was a monster.”

Maurice’s voice was beginning to strain, although from the prolonged use or some emotion, I couldn’t tell. He took a gulp of his tea, and I heard it clatter against the saucer as if his hands were trembling.

“Would you like to continue this later?” I asked softly.

He shook his head vehemently. “No, no. He would have kept me there until I died, if it hadn’t been for Belle. I don’t know how she found me in that forest, but she did, and she traded her life for mine. The beast locked her away, and he threw me out and told me never to come back. I was just one man! I knew I wouldn’t be able to free her on my own, so I went back to the village for help.

“Or, I tried. I became lost in the woods for days. When I finally made it back to this blasted village, no one would help me! No one even believed me. They told me I was mad, and ignored me, so I made myself so much of a nuisance they couldn’t ignore me. They told me I was a danger to myself, and they were ready to lock me in the asylum, but then Belle came back.

“They released me, but I suspect the price was Belle’s marriage to Gaston.” Anger and sadness were well and truly shaking the old man’s voice now. LeFou was sitting very still, like he hoped Maurice might forget he was there.

“How did Belle escape the beast?” I asked.

Maurice looked surprised, perhaps that I had believed enough of his story to ask such a question. “She said he let her go. She said he was … good, and kind, and not to be feared.”

This was a startling revelation. I wondered for the first time if it was Belle who was a bit mad; everything else in the story matched my own experience. Of course, ten years had passed, but while that might have accounted for the state of the gardens, I couldn’t imagine the creature that chased me from the castle had ever been capable of speech, let alone of kindness.

Maurice slammed his hands on the table suddenly, rattling the china and startling both me and LeFou. “It’s my fault, don’t you see!” he shouted. “If I had just waited until morning to leave the fair, I would never have been imprisoned by the beast! If I hadn’t been imprisoned by the beast, then Belle would’ve never had to marry that horrible, smirking, faithless bastard Gaston!”

The tears in Maurice’s eyes were being shaken over his lower lashes by the force of his voice, and LeFou was up out of his chair, hands raised in a placating gesture.

“Now, now Maurice, there’s no reason to be upset, everything’s all right —”

“Everything is not all right!” Maurice shouted, lurching out of his own chair. “My only daughter is married to a beast, and everyone believes I’m mad, and I hate this godforsaken small-minded village! You stay away from me, you spineless little wretch!”

The front door swung open suddenly, and Belle was there, water streaming off her hair and her cloak. Maurice may have been facing down with LeFou, but her gaze found me immediately, and her eyes narrowed to near slits.

“You!” she said. “I should’ve known you would come here behind my back! I didn’t expect you would make my husband’s lapdog your accomplice, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”

She rushed inside and went to Maurice, speaking to him softly and easing him back into his chair. LeFou and I both stood there stupidly, guiltily, until she looked up at us again.

“Get out,” she said icily. “Don’t you ever bother my father again.”

LeFou snatched our cloaks from the rack by the fire, and we went out into the rain. We walked as quickly as we could, as if we could put the memory of what had just happened behind us too. It did no good, and too soon the inn came into view. I stopped under the eaves of a shop, and LeFou turned to look at me. I felt sick and shaken; human emotion always frayed my nerves, and after Maurice’s diatribe and Bell’s fury, I was well and truly tattered.

“Monsieur LeFou,” I said finally, “I’m afraid I must apologize. I shouldn’t have asked you to go with me.”

“No, it’s not your fault,” he said haplessly. “I … perhaps I should’ve known. I didn’t realize how upset it still made him.”

For a moment, neither of us said anything. I’d expected him to be angry with me, or at least make an excuse to beat a hasty retreat, but he looked just as disturbed as I felt. The rain sounded impossibly loud on the roof above us, and there was a low rumble of thunder from the west.

“Is it true, about Belle and Gaston?” I asked. “Is that why she married him?”

LeFou turned away. “I don’t know. I tried to stay out of it. But maybe so.” He sighed, a sound almost lost in the rain. “She’s not happy with him, I know that much.”

I could not shake the feeling that every unhappiness in this village hinged on the events that had transpired ten years ago, and I had only the account of a sick old man to go on. Still, it would have to be enough, and I would have to act fast.

“LeFou, I’m afraid I’ll have to rescind my offer to travel with you to Paris,” I said. “For the time being, at least. There’s something else I have to do.”

He turned to face me again, and there was something a little wild behind his eyes. “You’re going back into the forest, aren’t you? You’re going to look for the castle. Simone, he’s just a crazy old man! There’s no castle there, and no talking teacups, and no beast!”

I stepped forward and seized his shoulders, leaning down to meet his eye. “There is,” I said evenly. “I have seen the castle, and been inside. I have seen the beast. For some reason, I feel the fate of that place and that monster are tied to the fate of this village. I don’t need you to believe me, because I don’t need your help, but I think all of you need mine far more than you realize.”

I straightened and walked past him. When I reached the door of the inn, I glanced over my shoulder; LeFou was still standing where I’d left him, and his eyes were wide as he watched me go.

I pushed inside and ran straight to my room, gathering my meager belongs and stuffing them into my pack. The book I’d bought from Monsieur Bernard was a hard edge against my back, and I would need all the room I had for supplies. I regretfully took it out again and laid it on the table by the bed. Perhaps the next patron, or the innkeeper himself, would get some use out of it.

I went downstairs. The hall was already bustling, and I was wary of having so many eyes on me. The innkeeper came to the bar, and I tossed the rest of my money on the counter.

“Monsieur, I thank you for your hospitality, but I’m afraid I must go. This is for the room, and whatever travelling fare you may have handy.”

He nodded briskly and disappeared into the kitchens, reemerging a few moments later with a small sack. It was packed with hard bread, cheese, apples and nuts. I thanked him gratefully, swung the second pack underneath my cloak, and stepped back out into the weather.

It looked well and truly like night now, and the few people I saw in the streets were making a mad dash for their homes. It was going to be a miserable night of travel, but the urgency was weighing on me. I had spent too long in relative comfort, hoping I might have hallucinated what I saw in the forest, but I was certain it was no figment of my imagination. Worse was the sense that I was running out of time, although I couldn’t name the impending doom.

I was at the village gate when someone caught my arm; I swung around, hand going to one of my knives, but I stopped short. It was Belle, and she was wearing no cloak, no hood, nothing but a house dress with a hem splattered in mud. Her hair was sodden. The anger was gone from her eyes, replaced by fear.

“You’re going back, aren’t you?” she said without preamble. “You’re going back to the castle.”

I didn’t have time to think about how she might know. “Yes,” I said simply.

She stepped forward; I saw now she was hugging something to her chest, something with power. I let my hand find the handle of my knife again.

“It’s dangerous,” she implored. “You … you could be killed.”

“I know,” I said. “I already almost have. But I’m not so easy to kill.”

“Even so, I want you to take this.” She thrust the bundle at me, and I stepped back, not reaching out to take it. When I hesitated, she pulled the ties around it, unwrapping the cover. It was a hand mirror, old and ornate and most definitely magical.

“I forgot I had it,” she almost whispered. “Can you believe it? I forgot this. We’re all forgetting things, all of us. Some more quickly than others. There are some people in the village who have forgotten themselves entirely, and I think it’s because of the spell.”
When she looked up at me again, there were tears mixing with the rain on her face. “Show me the beast,” she said, and held the mirror out to me.

The glass glowed briefly, and then an image appeared where my reflection should be. It was the beast from the castle, pacing through a portion of the garden I hadn’t seen. Behind it, I could see snow disturbed by freshly-dug earth, and the rough square shape of a grave.

“He wasn’t like this before,” she said, her voice catching on a sob. “He was trying to be kind. He gave me the mirror, so I … so I could remember him. But I didn’t. Even if I thought about him, it was like trying to hold smoke in my hands. I think he’s forgotten himself, too. Please, please help them.”

I took the mirror from her; despite the chill in the air, it held its own warmth. Belle didn’t know it, but she’d just handed me a magical artifact that was so rare I’d only ever seen one similar to it in my lifetime. This mirror didn’t have a simple scrying spell cast on it; magic was fused into the metal, into the glass, beaten in to the scrollwork, rubbed into the polish. I didn’t have an inkling how a beast could come by such a thing, but I didn’t have any more time for questions.

“I’ll do my best,” I said to her. “If all goes well, then hopefully I will see you again soon, and I can return this.”

She nodded once, her hands clasped to her chest. I secured the mirror in my pack, tugged my hood more securely over my head, and walked into the dark.

Chapter Text

I traveled through the night. Every instinct to rest, or set up camp, or take a moment just to catch my breath, was all overridden by a terrible urgency. I had taken too long already, languishing in the comfort and company of the village, and now I was paying for it.

The parts of the forest I had freed from the spell created a semblance of a path to the castle. Even in the darkness and rain, I could sense the life that had returned and was now taking vigorous hold of that place. In the light of the flame that flickered in my palm, rain instead of snow glistened on small new leaves, and I caught the reflection of animal eyes staring back at me from their hollows. I startled the first few times, free hand going to my knife, but then I remembered the beast didn’t have animal eyes.

When the warmth of spring faded into the chill of unnatural winter, I slowed my pace and put out my fire; dawn had turned the forest into a palette of gray, and even though it wasn’t much easier to see by, the fire had the potential to attract too much attention. The beast clearly wasn’t constrained to the castle grounds, and its movement patterns were almost a complete unknown for me. Did it hunt? Did it patrol the forest as well as the grounds? Did it sleep or shelter in the castle? I was going in blind. All I knew was that I may have been the first one to disturb its solitary watch in ten years, and these few days may not have been enough to lull it back into a sense of security. I wouldn’t risk fighting through the garden again.

The sun was fully up by the time I paused. My legs felt like lead stumps and my lungs burned from the cold and exertion. I brushed the snow off a log and sat down to catch my breath, because I would need focus and energy for this.

I rummaged through my pack and pockets, bringing out the ingredients I needed; a gray feather, a bat’s tooth, the iridescent wings of a fly, a leaf that had spun up in front of me on a tiny cyclone last fall, an ordinary dried flower picked from the highest mountain peak in my homeland. I called my magic to my hands, let it bond with the individual elements of each item, calling forth their truest selves and the properties within them; lightness, speed, agility, disconnection from the earth. This was a true flight spell, not just a desperate call to the wind to cushion my fall.

I had cupped my hands around them, and when I felt them change I opened my hands again, blew into the fine powder that now dusted my palms. The spell took hold with that breath of air, and I stood up carefully; the first time I had ever done this, the mere force of rising to my feet had sent me drifting. I had no wings so I was more at the mercy of the wind than any bird, and I hoped the breezes would blow in my favor long enough to see me safely to the castle.

I walked carefully to the nearest clearing, holding on to trees and bushes to keep myself grounded. When I had a clear shot to the sky, I adjusted my packs, bent my knees, and launched myself into the air.

Flying would never cease to be a terrifying and exhilarating experience. I had known witches who gave themselves permanent wings, consigning themselves to lives on the borders of civilization just to master the ability. I wasn’t about to do that, but as I rose above the trees and looked around me, I could understand the inclination.

I wasn’t terribly high by the standards of flying things — the castle’s tallest spire was still above me — but my stomach lurched nonetheless as I changed position to move and my packs shifted, jerking me a couple inches closer to earth. I willed myself forward, clumsily using my arms as rudders to guide me toward the castle. I tried to keep half an eye on the ground, half hoping and half dreading to spy the beast; it would’ve been nice to find its position when there was a chance it wouldn’t see me, but with my luck, it would see me, and then I’d find out it could sprout wings out of that hairy back.

I didn’t see the beast, but then again, I barely kept even half an eye on the ground. Flying was a tricky thing, and I was approaching the castle with much more speed than I was comfortable with. I swung around the tallest spire, drifting too far over the grounds and cursing as a playful breeze knocked me off course. I steered myself toward the balcony that extended from the ballroom. At the very least, I knew that part of the castle.

I had to circle twice before I got close enough to land on the balcony without careening headlong into the eves or the curve of the tower, and I did not land gracefully. I tumbled head over heels with my momentum, clattering into one of the listing doors and sending apples bumbling and rolling from my pack. If the beast were anywhere nearby, that would surely bring it running.

Despite having been there before, the eerie scene of the ballroom froze me in my tracks for an instant. I stared at the rows of china, the tables, the wardrobe, caught between warring instincts. I wanted to close up the castle, spell any broken windows or doors to make sure the beast stayed out and I was safe to work. On the other hand, it could already be in the castle or nearby, and I’d be setting myself up for a battle I didn’t have the energy for.

In the end, I compromised. I went cautiously out of the ballroom and into the foyer, using a spell to collect the shattered pieces of the door and rebuilt it, sealing cracks, hinges, and locks all the same. If the monster came from that direction, the time it took to batter down the barricade would give me plenty of time to get out.

The balcony doors were a bigger problem. Those pieces were long lost to the wind, and even so, they had been mostly glass. There wasn’t much in the ballroom besides the furniture, and I clearly couldn’t use that, so in the end, I ripped up the floor.

The marble tiles were beautiful, and I felt like a vandal, but the ceiling was a painted masterpiece I didn’t dare touch. Besides, as long as no beasts came breaking through my makeshift marble wall, I could lay the tiles down again just as they’d been.

By the time I was finished, my stores of magical items and my own energy were depleted, and the ballroom was dark and still frigid. There were a few small tables in the foyer that were not part of the ring of furniture within the ballroom, but I didn’t dare burn them. Instead, I pried a few pieces of decorative molding off the wall, piled them at the top of the steps near the balcony, and lit them.

The molding didn’t burn particularly well since it was covered in paint, but I was desperate. I huddled in front of the glow, eating from the stores the innkeeper had sent with me. In the flickering firelight, the ballroom looked downright terrifying, and it was only at that moment that I realized the body of the old man who had been the clock was gone.

I leapt up, pressing myself back against the marble barricade as my mind raced. Had the beast come back and eaten it? Certainly it hadn’t eaten it there in the ballroom, but nonetheless, it could’ve dragged the body off somewhere…

I grimaced, rubbed my hands over my face. Suddenly I remembered the mirror — the mirror, I was an idiot; I could’ve seen where the beast was all along. Panic swept over me as I remembered my tumble onto the balcony — I could’ve broken it. I pulled it out of my pack and hastily unwrapped it; it was all in one piece, warming my hand far better than the fire did and showing me my shadowed, haunted face.

“Show me the old man from the clock,” I said unsteadily, bracing myself for what I might see. But there was no body, no bones; the mirror only showed a rough square of earth disappearing under the falling snow. I remembered seeing it now, when Belle had called up the beast before. Had the beast buried the man? Or had it only been stalking the grave, and there was some other person alive and well in this castle? It seemed like I uncovered a new question with every corner I turned.

“Show me the beast,” I said. The image of the grave disappeared, replaced by the hulking shape of the monster plowing its way through the garden. It didn’t appear to sense my gaze; its eyes were fixed straight forward, barely blinking as branches and vines grabbed at its fur, tangled in its horns. I felt pity for it in that instant; of course, deep down I’d realized it was suffering from the enchantment like everything else that was under it, but with the weak daylight shining on it and me relatively safe behind my barricades, I saw its true misery for the first time.

“I’m going to fix this,” I said to its unhearing image. “I don’t know what you are, or if you’ve ever been anything but a monster, but I’m going to break this enchantment, come hell or high water.”

I rewrapped the mirror, put it back in my pack, and returned to my spot by the fire. Warmth was creeping back into my limbs and my hunger was sated, but the longer I stared at the furniture, the less I felt prepared to do what I’d just promised. I still didn’t know why the old man had died; I knew how careful I had been in undoing that spell. Perhaps he had just been old and frail and frightened. But perhaps there was something I wasn’t seeing. How many failures was I willing to risk? How many people had to die before I stopped? And what happened then?

“One more,” I said aloud to myself. “If the next one … dies, then I stop. I go for help, and I bring help back here, no matter how long it takes.”

It was a nice thought, but in reality, I had no idea how far the nearest coven was from here, and if they’d be willing to help me. Even if they were, I was supposed to be the best at this sort of thing. At most they could provide fresh eyes.
I shook my head to clear the thought, and set my shoulders. I stepped back into the circle of furniture, drawn to the china. Maurice had said a teacup talked to him, and there were many teacups here. They all looked so fragile, like they would shatter as soon as I touched them, so I selected the teapot instead.

Unbinding this spell took so long I lost track of time completely. Days could have passed; I didn’t care. I triple-checked every strand of the enchantment I broke, agonized over the order in which I severed them. The weaving of transformation and intent was so complex I didn’t dare take a break, even if it would have steadied my hands and cleared my head. If I forgot where I left off, it might take hours more to remember it again.

When I was finally down to the last strand, my neck and shoulders were so stiff they were seizing up. I ignored the pain, willed every last bit of steadiness and focus into my hands, and severed the thread. There was a sudden aurora of golden light, just like the last time, and I braced myself for the terror.

The woman who appeared was moving before the glow of her transformation even faded, her hands fluttering like birds. “Chip!” she wailed. “Chip, where are —”

I grabbed those hands before she could utter another word, holding them steady and forcing her to face me. She froze, her eyes wide and her face drawn and pale.

“Listen to me,” I said, trying to find the balance of firmness and comfort. “You’re all right now; everything is going to be fine. Take five deep breaths, right now.”

She stared at me uncomprehending, panting like a deer. I tightened my grip on her hands a little, enough to make her blink. “Ready? One deep breath, in through your nose.”

I inhaled deeply, and after a beat she followed suit, copying me like a child. I took each breath with her, and by the time I counted to five, the wildness had edged out of her eyes, replaced by wariness.

“Who are you?” she asked, withdrawing her hands tentatively from mine.

“My name is Simone,” I said. “I broke the spell on you.”

She looked around the ballroom, and when her eyes lighted on the rest of the furniture, a sob caught in her throat. “My son,” she whispered. “My son is in there. Oh, my darling Chip —”

I moved into her line of sight again to distract her. “I’m going to free him, too,” I said. “I’m going to free all of them, and the forest, and the village. But I’m going to need your help. What’s your name?”

“M-Mrs. Potts,” she stuttered out, and my heart broke for her. She was doing her best not to cry, but her eyes kept darting from mine to the teacups arrayed on the floor, and her hands were trembling. I didn’t know what to do first; I needed to rest, and I needed to tell her about the beast and the state of the castle. Surely she would want her son to be the next one freed, and I couldn’t imagine keeping a child locked in this dim and dusty ballroom until I figured out a better idea.

But Mrs. Potts was already beginning to look around, taking stock of the ballroom, the damaged floor, the strange barricade where the doors should be. “What’s happened here?” she asked. “How much time has passed?”

“I think about ten years have passed since you were trapped,” I said gently. “I found the castle abandoned, or almost abandoned; there’s a monster that haunts the grounds, and I’ve put up these barricades to keep us safe for the time being.”

Mrs. Potts clapped a hand over her mouth, her other hand twisting anxiously in her skirts. “The master?” she squeaked. “He’s still here, too?”

I frowned. “The master?”

“The beast! The beast is still here, in the castle?”

I went to my pack, pulled out and unwrapped the mirror again. “Show me the beast,” I said. The sun was past its zenith, but the creature was still trudging through the garden, expression unchanged. I handed the mirror to Mrs. Potts, and her eyes immediately welled with tears again.

“Oh, our poor master! Can you help him?”

“Are you saying it was human, Mrs. Potts?”

“Yes, yes! He was our prince! Please, can I go speak to him?”

“I’m afraid you can’t,” I said softly. “He … he can’t speak anymore. I didn’t realize he ever could.”

“Please,” she burst out. “Please help him! He didn’t deserve this — oh, to have been alone for ten years! This shouldn’t have happened!”

Tears overwhelmed her. I wrested the mirror from her gently and reached a hesitant hand out to her, then thought better of it. “It’s all right, Mrs. Potts,” I said. “I’m going to do everything I can to undo every wrong thing that’s happened here. It’s just going to take a lot of work.”

After a few minutes, her shoulders stopped heaving and her tears slowed. She sat up and fished a handkerchief out of her cleavage, wiping her eyes and blowing her nose while I marveled at the simple familiarity of this gesture. “I’m very sorry, Mademoiselle Simone,” she said. “It’s just a great deal to take in at once.”

“I can’t even imagine,” I said. “To be honest, it’s a lot for me, too. The scope of this spell is, well, immense. It’s going to take a little while to return everything to the way it should be.”

“I don’t understand,” she said. “How can you break the spell? The enchantress said there was only one way, and that chance is long gone.”

I started, turning to look at her. “You know who cast the spell? You know how to break it?”

“Well, no,” she said, staring at me with watery eyes. “I only know she was an enchantress. She came here when the master was young, during one of his parties. She disguised herself as an old woman seeking shelter, and when he turned her away, she revealed herself.”

She broke off, looking at me expectantly like I would know the rest of the story. “And then what?” I prompted.

“She … she said there was no love in his heart. And she turned him into that beast, and all of us into …” she gestured around the room. “She left him with an enchanted rose, and said if he could find love, and earn someone else’s love in return, by the time the last petal fell of his twenty-first birthday, the spell would be broken.”

“She did what?”

I didn’t mean to hiss the words so venomously; I didn’t mean to stand and loom over Mrs. Potts. I was hardly even aware I did it, only feeling my incredulity crystalizing into rage. “How does that make any sense at all? What kind of madwoman — or madman — did she think would fall in love with a feral animal? Not to mention, the entire world seems to have forgotten your existence — the village just miles from here has almost no recollection of you whatsoever! How could anyone consider this just punishment for … for general rudeness?”

I remembered the starving doe I had seen on the edge of the forest, the vacant eyes of some of the villagers, and my hands curled into fists. I knew witches malicious and petty enough to do this, but I could count them on one hand. Perhaps I had not met this one before, but if they were unknown to me now, I would not be unknown to them much longer.

“We couldn’t stop her,” Mrs. Potts said tremulously. “And certainly the punishment did not fit the crime, but the prince … he was spiteful, then. A harsh and difficult child, to be sure. She saw something in him that we had ignored for a long time.”

“A child?” My mind was racing; I couldn’t have summoned an ounce of tact if I wanted to. “How old?”

“E-eleven,” she said. “It was his eleventh birthday party.”

The words echoed around the empty room. My heart was pounding and I couldn’t seem to draw enough air. Maybe it was the look on my face, or maybe it was having to explain it out loud, but the horror of the situation seemed to be dawning on Mrs. Potts as she sat there.

I sank down in front of her and seized her hands roughly. “It doesn’t matter,” I said. “This was not justice. You did not deserve this, not in any way. And neither did your master. Perhaps he needed to be taught a lesson, but this was not a lesson. This is torture.”

“But you can break the spell?” she asked, hope shining behind the tears in her eyes. “You can undo it all? How is that possible?”

“I’m the best at breaking magic,” I said grimly. “But even so, it won’t be easy.”

“You’re an enchantress, then? Just like her?”

“No, not like her. I just call myself a witch.”

She blanched at the word — strange how societal impressions could stay intact through ten years as a teapot — but didn’t pull away, and I saw an old, instinctual pragmatism begin to take hold. I guessed from her dress that she would’ve been a housekeeper, or a stewardess, someone who ran the household; a woman like that wouldn’t shirk from the task ahead of us. She was exactly what I needed.

“Mrs. Potts,” I said, “I need you to tell me everything.”

***

An hour later, I was creeping through the halls of the palace with the mirror in one hand and a knife in the other. I knew where the beast was by the mirror’s surface, but I was still entertaining the possibility that some other human was here in the castle. It was better to be safe than sorry.

Of course, I could hardly be safe when I was going straight into the beast’s lair. “It was the master’s quarters, when he was still a prince,” Mrs. Potts had told me. “He still stayed there after he was transformed. He never let me clean it. He never let any of us much past the threshold. He was very protective of the rose.”

The rose, of course, was the enchanted one gifted by the witch who had done this. Some of the puzzle pieces had all come clicking into place; why Maurice had told the villagers that Belle was imprisoned, and why she viewed the beast differently, and how she had appeared back in the village in the nick of time. Everything Mrs. Potts had told me made sense in the context of the information I’d already had, but it was still hard to believe. It was harder to imagine the scope of the work ahead of me, which is why I was going into the beast’s lair to look for a rose that had, as far as I knew, died ten years prior.

But the beast was prowling along the edge of the woods, eyes dull and movements listless, so I thought it couldn’t hurt to try. If there was anything left — a petal, a stem — it might contain enough of the larger enchantment that I could break it in one fell swoop instead of one piece at a time. I had far more to gain than I had to lose.

The west wing of the castle was dark, and the air was heavy. It stank of animal musk, and as I turned around the dark curve of the tower, I kicked something that rattled along the stone floor. My eyes went immediately to the mirror, but of the course, the beast hadn’t heard it. I looked up again, searching for what my foot had struck. In a pocket of weak sunlight, the bleached lower jawbone of a deer gleamed up at me.

I couldn’t afford to be aghast; there was neither time nor energy for it. The longer this went on, the farther the beast would fall away from its humanity, and the damage may well be undoable. I didn’t know how much of it was left as it was.

The spiral of the staircase continued. The smell strengthened, but the temperature dropped and I felt a chill breeze. I was getting close to the heart of this place, and if the draft was any indication, the beast wouldn’t have to come all the way through the castle to get there. When the light in the stairwell had brightened to pale daylight, I slowed my steps and checked the mirror again.

The beast was a little closer now, circling through the maze around the castle, but its pace was the same slow trundle and its eyes still stared dully ahead. I crept around the last curve and found myself in a massive room that was entirely trashed. Not much about the place resembled living quarters now, but I wasn’t sure it ever had. It was a cavernous space held up by ornate pillars, and it was a straight shot to the balcony that mirrored the one in the ballroom. The skeletal remains of chairs were scattered here and there — some were still standing, placed strategically near windows or little nooks, and other were toppled and in pieces, their cushions gashed open. There were hangings on the walls, too, and these were similarly torn. A few of the chandeliers had been dragged from their moorings in the ceiling. Broken vases were scattered across the ragged carpeting, and for an instant I blanched, wondering if it — he, I corrected myself — could have destroyed some of his own servants in his rage. But for all these years, the furniture and china in the ballroom had been exposed and vulnerable, and he had left it all untouched.

I picked my way through the place as quickly as I dared, trying to resist the morbid urge to study the remnants of the life that had been lived here. I passed the source of the stink; a pile of what may have been blankets was crusted to the floor, matted with hair and dirt. Animal bones and skins were littered around it, and old bloodstains darkened the nearby carpet. I shuddered and moved on.

The rose had been kept on the entrance to the balcony, Mrs. Potts had said. Already I could see what was left of the small table she had described, and my heart sank, but I pressed forward. All I needed was a fragment; if there was anything left, it could be of use.

There were fragments indeed, but not of the rose. The table was tipped, cracked in the middle like it had been stomped on, round tabletop broken off the base. The glass cloche that had contained the rose was there too, a thousand pieces dulled by time and the elements. Old bloodstains spattered the stone around it.

I dropped to my knees and searched among the pieces, looking for any petal that might have been caught in the destruction, but I knew it was hopeless. Even if the rose had been enchanted to never fully decay, the wind would have scattered the remnants a decade ago.

It felt like a spare few moments that my attention was on the glass in front of me and not on the glass I had set down beside me. In the instant I realized I should check the mirror, I heard a long, whuffling inhale. I looked over my shoulder.

The beast was a rooftop away, clinging to the spire of the nearest tower. His claws were scrambling for purchase on the broken tiles of the roof, but his eyes were fixed on me with an intense, purposeful hatred. I stood, clutching the mirror to my chest and thinking this had been a close call.

But then he gathered his muscles to jump.

I ran, careening down the steps and through the detritus of the room. There was nothing I could pull down behind me, nothing that would slow down a creature of that size and speed and rage. The floor shook when it landed on the balcony, and I swallowed the scream that welled in my throat.

I practically flew down the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time, but I wasn’t fast enough this time. I had just reached the bottom when a massive paw caught me, lifting me clean off my feet and crushing me into the wall. The breath whooshed out of me, and when I tried to inhale, a stabbing pain lit through my right side. I scrambled to my feet, only to throw myself out of the way of another deadly swing, and called fire to my free hand.

“Stop!” I shouted; the pain in my side was terrible, and both my voice and the strength of my flame wavered. “I know what you are — I know who you are! I can help you, if you let me. I can break the spell!”

The beast showed no sign of understanding. He was wary of the fire, but after a moment’s pacing he lunged again, shattering the wall where my head had been as I ducked. I blasted fire toward his face, not enough to burn flesh but enough to singe hair. He howled and reeled back, and I dashed around him and ran for the ballroom.

The fire didn’t put him off for long, and my broken rib made me far too slow. I heard him closing in on me again and tossed another little jet of flame over my shoulder; I had to be careful not to set the whole place on fire, but if I didn’t put enough distance between us, I’d never have time to rebuild the barrier into the ballroom.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to. I came careening around a corner — plaster and tile crashing behind me as the beast struck again — and then there was Mrs. Potts, torch in hand and a glint of steel in her eye.

“Master!” she shrieked. “Prince Adam! Stop this at once!”

I staggered to a stop at her side, pulling out one of my knives and strengthening the flame in my hand, but the beast had stopped, too. It was on two feet again, staring at Mrs. Potts with the same expression I had seen in my last dream: recognition.

I sheathed my knife and started to restore the barrier with my free hand, pieces of the door clicking back into place. “Master,” Mrs. Potts said again, “don’t you know me? Don’t you remember me? Oh, Master, what’s become of us all?”

There was a split second of indecision on the creature’s face, but I had a feeling I knew which way that coin would fall. I grabbed Mrs. Potts’s arm and yanked her inside, sealing up the rest of the barrier behind us. An instant later, there was a tremendous crash against the spelled door, and dust sprinkled on us from the ceiling.

“Oh my stars,” she whispered.

We scrambled to our feet, backing further into the foyer as the beast threw himself against the door again. The barrier itself would hold; if the door came down, it would come down in once piece when the walls around it gave. If that happened, there would only be one way out for us: over the balcony. I shuddered to think of the beast rampaging through the ballroom, teacups shattering under his paws.

There was one more crash, and then a frustrated, bone-rattling bellow. We both held our breath, but after a moment, the door was still standing, and everything on the other side of it was quiet.

“I told you,” I said. “He’s really an animal now.”

And then I fainted.

***

Normally, a broken rib wouldn’t be anything I couldn’t patch up with a spell, but magic, like anything else, takes energy, and I’d used more magic in the past week than I had in the past two months combined. This particular interaction with magic — that is, fighting to undo someone else’s — was particularly draining, and it was hours before I could work up enough strength to even take the edge off my injury.

“This isn’t going to work,” I told Mrs. Potts as we shared some of my bread and cheese. “We have to find a way to shut him out of the castle — either that, or shut him into one part of it. This food is going to last another two days at most, and that’s assuming we don’t have a third person in here who needs to eat. Even if we had enough food, we can’t keep a whole palace’s worth of people cooped up in here.”

“You’re right,” she said, wringing her hands a little. “I just feel terrible for him. I would hate to make him suffer more.”

“I understand. Maybe I could just seal off the west wing? There hasn’t been food in this castle for a decade, so clearly he can survive without access to the kitchens. He would still be able to escape the worst of the weather. The problem is shutting up the rest of the place — it feels like there are a thousand doors and windows in this palace, and the last thing we need is him sneaking up behind us through one door while we’re trying to seal off another.”

“We need help,” she said. “Even just a few more bodies might allow us to do it. Do you think you can, tomorrow?”

I hid my grimace at the thought. “I think so. Do you know … who would be the most help?”

It was a wretched question, and I hated to ask it. This poor woman had been trapped as a teapot for ten years, her son likewise, and now I was delaying their reunion by prioritizing the most able-bodied servants.

Mrs. Potts didn’t say anything of the sort, though. She stepped carefully into the circle of furniture, looking them all over. “How many do you think you can manage?”

“Two. Perhaps three, depending.”

She bent down, retrieved the ornate candelabra from its place near the center of the circle. “This is Lumiere. Perhaps he’s not the brawniest fellow here, but he’s quick-witted, and one of the master’s most trusted men. If there’s anyone who can help us, it’ll be him —”

She stopped short, looking around the circle. “Where is Cogsworth? Where is the clock?”

My heart skipped a beat, and I closed my eyes briefly. “Mrs. Potts — perhaps you should sit down.”

She came like a lamb to slaughter, clutching the candelabra to her chest and sinking down onto the steps in front of me. I forced myself to meet her eyes. “Mrs. Potts, I’m afraid the clock — Monsieur…Cogsworth? He was the first one I tried to free.”

“Was?” she asked tremulously. “Tried?”

“He … he didn’t make it. I broke the spell, but he was terrified. I think his heart gave out. I couldn’t save him.”

“Oh,” she said softly. “Yes, yes, he was an old man. His heart wasn’t good.”

I think it was in that moment that her trust in me began to fracture. It had been fragile already, kept membrane-thin by the thought that I was too good to be true. Now her fears had been confirmed; she saw that even with my good intentions and considerable power, I could not be trusted with the things most precious to her.

I was aware of this small betrayal even when Mrs. Potts wasn’t. For her it would be buried beneath this fresh grief and her innate goodness, but I had borne the brunt of such a thing before. I knew it would reemerge, but now wasn’t the time to dwell on it.

“Where — where is he now?” she asked finally, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief.

I retrieved the mirror and handed it to her. “There’s a fresh grave on the east edge of the garden,” I said. “I didn’t bury him. I thought perhaps there was someone else in the castle, but now I wonder if the beast buried him himself.”

Mrs. Potts looked up at me, eyes wide. “Do you think that’s possible?”

“Possible, yes. The west wing is half destroyed, but this room is untouched. He may have forgotten himself, but I think some part of him remembers all of you. Perhaps that’s why he objects to my presence so much; he has been guarding this place for ten years, and the first time he saw me here, Monsieur Cogsworth was — well, he was already gone.”

It clicked into place in my brain as I said it to her, and I felt a flicker of sympathy. Maybe there was hope for returning the beast to himself, after all.

The sliver of hope seemed to have galvanized Mrs. Potts. She set down the mirror and the candelabra and returned to the circle, hemming and hawing until she selected a three-pronged pitch fork that had been nearly hidden behind the wardrobe.

“Paul,” she said. “He was the stable boy. Strapping young lad, as I recall, and very handy with tools. Deathly afraid of the master even on his best days, though.”

“At this point, I can’t blame him,” I said, trying to shield my heart from everything she’d just said. I had immediately imagined a broad-faced, freckled country lad, good with his hands and horses, and never deserving of this fate. “Pick another; I’m feeling hopeful.”

Mrs. Potts smiled at my words. I couldn’t imagine how anxious she must be to see her friends again, to have someone other than me to keep her company, but she hid it well. She surprised me by selecting a feather duster next.

“Amelie, one of the maids,” she said. “A good, strong, capable girl, not so much for flitting and flirting. Came from a family of seven children and took care of most of them …”

She trailed off, and we stared at each other with equal dismay as we imagined what had happened to her family without her. “It’s all going to be all right,” I said numbly, my lips barely registering the words I had repeated so often this week. “I’m going to — I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry this has happened to you all.”

I turned away, taking a deep breath and staring up at the ceiling until the pricking behind my eyes receded. I could undo this spell, yes, but I could never recover the years lost. I couldn’t take away the terror they had all clearly felt as the most malicious part of the enchantment took hold. I couldn’t repair all the cracks that had spiraled outward from this event — the gardens left without someone to tend them, the housecats left without someone to feed them, the families left without someone to care for them. It all descended on me suddenly, a terrible weight that crushed the little burning coal of hope I’d just felt.

I sensed Mrs. Potts sit down beside me again, and then squeezed my shoulder. “There, there,” she said softly. “It’s easy to imagine that this is the worst thing that could’ve happened to us, and to wish it hadn’t. But what’s truly frightful is to imagine if you hadn’t come here, and if you weren’t risking life and limb to save us all. Perhaps that enchantress was really a horrible woman, but as horrible as it was, I think what she did was easy for her. What you’re doing is hard, and I think that balances the scales in the end.”

I closed my eyes and resisted the urge to pull away from the contact. “You’re a very wise and gracious woman, Mrs. Potts. I think you should’ve been a professor.”

She laughed at that; it was a deep and unladylike belly laugh that echoed through the ballroom, and I thought I’d never heard anything so wonderful in my life. “A professor, you say? I’d like you repeat that for the master when we’re all back to our old selves.”

“I’ll tell the master a bedtime story every night if he stops trying to kill me,” I chuckled dryly. “What was he like, before?”

“Before the enchantress came, or before we all turned into furniture?”

“Mm, both.”

“Well, I’ve been part of the household since he was a child. Those are my fondest memories, I think. When his mother was alive, he was a sweet boy, just a little spoiled. I didn’t think much of it then; all princes are spoiled, especially when they’re only children. Even so, he was a good sport, and he loved to make people laugh. He hated to see anyone sad. It was his natural instinct to comfort and cheer people, and that instinct was snuffed out when his mother died. His father was a weak, nasty man, and I suspect the mistress kept him at bay. With her gone, he was free to do as he pleased. He usually just ignored the boy, but when he wasn’t ignoring him he was teaching him cruelty. But the prince was strong-willed, and they fought often. I could hear the shouting from a floor away, and then the prince would go running out to the garden and stay there for hours. We all tried, at first, to counter his father’s influence, but it still hardened him.”

She paused, her eyes unfocused. “You know, I thought that was why the enchantress transformed us, too. Because we didn’t do more for him. We didn’t do everything we could have.”

I waved a dismissive hand. “No, that’s not the case. She’s not a god, whoever she is. She couldn’t have known all that, although I’m sure she’d like you to believe she did.”

“I suppose you must be right, although I will say believing she was some kind of divinity made it easier to bear. Then again, perhaps if we’d fully grasped the situation, we would’ve have accepted it so placidly. Well, that’s neither here nor there, I suppose.

“Where was I? After the enchantress transformed us all, the arrogance was gone. Maybe that was her intention, but in its place was only coldness, bitterness. He avoided us as much as he could; I still believe that little boy who hated to see others cry was in there somewhere, and so to see us in such a way must have been painful for him too, even if he tried not to feel it. Of course, in the early days, we all thought it would be over soon. We thought the spell would wear off, or someone would come for us No one did, not until Belle’s father, and then Belle herself.”

“How did it happen?” I asked. “Did he really imprison her?”

“At first,” Mrs. Potts answered unflinchingly. “He was lashing out, I think. He wanted to make someone else suffer, someone he could believe deserved it. Of course, that didn’t last long with Belle. She was so beautiful, and more than that, she was good. She was kind to all of us, and determined, and smart. We never told her how the spell could be broken, but we all believed she’d be the one to do it.”

“But how?” I asked; there was no way to be tactful. “He was — is — an animal. Do you think she could have ever loved him in a way meaningful enough to break the spell?”

“Well, he wasn’t so much an animal then, and he became less so the more he was with her. She brought out the side of him we hadn’t seen since he was a child, although it wasn’t easy at first. He had a horrible temper, and Lord knows he scared her away enough times. But still, she came back. When he gave her the mirror and told her to go to her father, we all thought she would come back again, but she never did.”

She paused to look at me, her eyes searching my face. “Do you know what happened to her?”

“I met her,” I said. “You’re right, she is beautiful. And she is determined, and smart. She married a man from the village, and she has children with him, but I think … well, I was told she wasn’t happy. I think she would’ve come back, if she could’ve. But the enchantment has affected the village, perhaps in a way the witch didn’t intend. The villagers haven’t just forgotten you; they’re beginning to forget themselves entirely, which is all the more reason we have to break this spell.”

I said “we” because I needed to hear it, needed to believe it. I was certain I would never manage this on my own, even if the very specific task of unbinding the magic fell to me.

“What if the enchantress returns?” Mrs. Potts asked quietly.

I smiled a little at that. “Then she’ll have me to deal with.”

***

I woke early the next day. Through the ballroom windows, the sky was still dark, but I sensed morning coming, and apprehension twisted my stomach. I rose and put more wood on the fire; we were almost out of decorative pieces to burn, which added just one more layer of urgency to the task ahead of me.

I ate as much as we could afford to spare, knowing I would need all the energy I could get. My rib was still a dull, persistent ache, but I ignored it. At the very least, I wouldn’t be moving overmuch today, and I had more important uses for my magic.

Mrs. Potts woke early too — the unbreakable internal clock of a housekeeper, I thought — and I realized I’d have an audience to my magic for the first time in a while. The thought made me a little self-conscious.

“It won’t look like anything to you, at least not until the spell breaks,” I told her. “It will take some time. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it quicker as I go along.”

She nodded solemnly, and I felt her eyes on me as I took the candelabra over to a corner and sat down, pulling my knees into my chest. It took me a little while to get focused and block her out, but the dimness and the flickering firelight quickly helped. It was also more help than I thought it would be to know the name of the man trapped in the candlestick. Names have power, and I used his as I worked, drawing out the true nature from the transformation. Still, I took my time, because the only thing I could imagine being worse than inadvertently killing one of these servants was inadvertently killing one of them in front of Mrs. Potts.

When I finally snapped the last thread and the golden glow filled the room, Mrs. Potts was beside me in the space of a breath. She was reaching out before the light even faded, and when Lumiere came gasping back into being, he was greeted by her face.

“Oh, Lumiere!” she shrieked, wrapping him in her arms. I opened my mouth to warn her that she needed to be calm, that he needed to breathe, but I was wrong. That familiarity did more than any of my steady words or deep breaths could, and in a matter of seconds he was weeping and clinging to her like a child.

“What’s happened?” he asked finally, pulling away just far enough to look her in the face. “The last thing I remember … the last petal fell, and we were all…”

“Yes,” Mrs. Potts said gently. “That’s what happened. But now, Mademoiselle Simone is here, and she’s come to rescue us.”

She gestured to me, and I smiled through my aching shoulders and the gripping pain in my side. “Monsieur Lumiere, I’m happy to meet you.”

“Mademoiselle Simone,” he said slowly. “I heard you — I heard you calling me? Can that be right?”

“Yes,” I said. “That was me.”

Mrs. Potts looked between us wonderingly. “I didn’t hear anything! You haven’t said a word these past hours.”

“It wasn’t quite out loud,” I chuckled.

Mrs. Potts drew Lumiere away toward the fire, and I retrieved the pitchfork and returned to my corner. The steady, hushed voices of the other two humans in the room were far more comfort than they were distraction, and they soon faded into my periphery like the sound of rain on the window. Mrs. Potts had said the stable boy’s name was Paul, which matched exactly the image I had conjured in my head. Bolstered by the successful return of Lumiere, I got to work.

Even with his name to use, I quickly realized Paul would be the most difficult unbinding I had attempted so far, and I knew why. Paul had been young when the enchantress came, young enough that he may have spent almost as many years as a pitchfork as he had a man. The spell was more deeply ingrained, the knots tighter, his true nature harder to discern, and it wasn’t long before sweat was trickling along my clenched jaw.

“Simone?” I heard Mrs. Potts ask tentatively. “Are you all right?”

I nodded stiffly, unable to speak without fulling breaking my concentration. I took the time for a few deep breaths before diving back in, using the image of the boy to block out my discomfort and weariness. This was exactly what that enchantress wanted, I told myself. She thought she was so clever and so powerful, to make a spell this far-reaching and complex. She was enamored with her own magic and blind to the suffering it caused, and I was going to break it and her if it was the last thing I did.

When I finally sawed through the last strand of the spell, I fell back with a gasp, barely seeing Mrs. Potts and Lumiere rush past me. I hadn’t realized how few and far between my breaths had been, and now every pant was aggravating my injury and black spots were dancing in my vision.

But the boy was safe. I watched him look from Mrs. Potts to Lumiere, his big hands gripping theirs tight, the tendons standing out in his forearms. My imagination hadn’t been far off; his hair was lighter than I’d envisioned, thick and curly and almost strawberry blond, and his nose was a little sharper, his forehead a little broader, but nonetheless he looked like a gentle farm boy who got caught up in something he shouldn’t have.

I saw Mrs. Potts point to me, although I didn’t hear what she said — everything sounded like it was underwater. Paul’s eyes lit on me, and I probably looked like quite the hag, hunched and sweating over the small fire, but he came forward when they led him nonetheless. We stared at each other over the flames for a moment, me feeling grateful and worn out, and him looking stunned and speechless.

Mrs. Potts squeezed my shoulder. “Simone, are you quite all right, dear? You look tired.”

“I am,” I admitted. “Give me a while to rest, and then Amelie is next.”

“Before that, are you able to take down the barrier for us? Lumiere and I are going to make a run to the kitchens for firewood and whatever’s in the pantry.”

“Now?” I asked. “If the beast comes, I’ll be almost useless to you.”

“We’ll keep an eye on the mirror the whole time,” Lumiere reassured me. “If he comes anywhere near the castle, we’ll run straight back here. Even if he blocked us off somehow, I probably know this castle better than he does.”

Paul was staring up at them, mouth slightly agape. I relented and drew the mirror out of my pack; in the gathering dark, the beast was sitting in the woods, back against a tree and eyes unseeing. The sight was so forlorn I hesitated to hand Lumiere the mirror, and when I did, tears welled in his eyes almost immediately.

“The poor prince,” he said. Mrs. Potts laid a comforting hand on his arm.

“His suffering will be over soon,” she said. “Simone will see that all is set to rights.”

I nodded with more determination than I felt and gathered enough strength to undo a section of the sealed door into the hallway. “We’ll be back in a jiff,” Mrs. Potts said, and then they were gone.

I flopped down gracelessly on my bedroll, the tension slowly easing out of my shoulders. Paul stood and went over to the circle of furniture, staring down at the footstool silently before bending down to run a hand over the dusty fabric.

“Do you —” my mouth was dry, and I swallowed, trying to work up enough spit to ask the question. “Do you know who that is?”

“Sultan,” he said quietly. “He was — he’s a dog.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’ll get to him as soon as I can.”

He didn’t answer for a breath, then said, “It’s a silly name for him, really. He’s a frou-frou little thing, pisses everywhere too. But —”

His voice cracked, and he rubbed his forearm across his eyes in a motion somehow both masculine and childlike. “I suppose maybe it’s better this way,” he continued roughly. “Least I know he didn’t starve to death while we were all sitting here.”

“That’s true,” I said. “And dogs are incredibly resilient creatures. I’m sure he’ll be wagging his tail and pissing on your shoes the second I break the spell.”

He laughed a little at that, and after a moment he left the furniture and walked over to the barrier I’d constructed of floor tiles. “What’s happened here?” he asked wonderingly.

“Mrs. Potts will fill you in on everything when she gets back,” I told him. “The short version is that I needed to keep the beast out of here, and that was hard with a gaping hole where the doors should’ve been.”

He looked at me, eyes wide. “The beast — the master. What’s happened to him?”

“The isolation has taken its toll,” I said. “He can’t speak. He’s wild now. At least, it seems that way, but I think he remembers all of you. I think there’s hope for him.”

He nodded and went back to examining the tiles. After a minute, he said, “So, you’re an enchantress too, then?”

“She was just a witch,” I answered. “And so am I. But we’re not all like her. In fact, most of us aren’t.”

“But you do magic?”

I nodded. “Well, of course. But I mostly undo it. That’s my specialty. It doesn’t make me very popular, but there’s no shortage of people who need me.”

“Why’s that?”

“Magic is like anything else humans do; even the most well-intentioned and well-planned things can go wrong. Magic just tends to go wrong faster and bigger than other things, because it’s less constrained by the natural world. This spell was not well-intentioned, but I think parts of it have been more damaging than the witch may have wanted. It’s hard for me to say, of course — she may be crueler than I thought — but I doubt she intended to kill the entire forest outside with a permafrost, or to make people in the village forget themselves entirely.”

I paused, realizing this was all new information for Paul, and indeed he was staring at me, horrified. “The forest will survive,” I reassured him. “I’ve already freed part of it. The village … that will be a harder task, but there won’t be a shred of this enchantment left by the time I’m done.”

It was then that Mrs. Potts and Lumiere came bustling back into the ballroom, weighted down with their spoils. I quickly resealed the barrier as they made their way over to the fire, panting slightly.

“Did you see the beast?” I asked.

“Neither hide nor hair of him, except through the mirror,” Lumiere answered. “Phff, I wish we could open a window in here! It’s bitter cold out there, but you don’t realize how bad this burnt paint smells until you’ve not breathed it for a moment.”

“I’m sure it’s not good for us, either,” I said, grimacing. “But I’m afraid the risks outweigh the potential benefits when it comes to the windows.”

But they’d brought real firewood from downstairs, as well as some preserved foods and a little tripod to set over the fire and cook with. There wasn’t much variety, but there was plenty for all of us, and that was a relief in and of itself. I ate my fill and went back to my bedroll, leaving the three former servants to catch up while I gathered my strength for the final spell-breaking of the day. The early winter night had come already, and I already felt like I could sleep until morning, but I was determined to free another person.

Chapter Text

The next few days were a blur. The constant dimness and firelight of the ballroom blurred the days and nights together, and I spent almost every waking moment breaking spells — or preparing to break them. The ballroom quickly began to feel crowded, and it wasn’t long before I moved the interior barrier to the adjoining hallway. I still prioritized the most able-bodied servants, knowing we’d need all the help we could to defend against the beast and restore the castle. The servants were eager to retake their former home from the ravages of weather and time, but I was hesitant to allow them more than the necessary trek to the pantry. A group of them could probably fend off the beast, but I hated to set either party up for injury or irrevocable conflict. At the moment, all of my time and energy was tied up in the freeing the rest of their friends, and without some magic, we’d never get the castle sealed before the beast heard the noise.

The more the ring of furniture in the ballroom dwindled, the more panicked I began to feel about the prospect of facing the beast. It had to be done, somehow, and I tried to push the thought out of my mind, reassuring myself that I would take plenty of time to rest before I tried, that I’d have every one of the servants to help me. But I didn’t think I could do it, not for a second.

“Mrs. Potts,” I said on the fifth day. “I need to go out. The enchantment on much of the forest still needs to be broken, and I need materials, to work with.”

“It’s not that I don’t understand the urge, dear — Lord knows I’m feeling a bit claustrophobic myself, even having spent the last twenty years as a teapot, but … is it safe?”

“I can’t say it’s safe, but I’ll take precautions,” I said. “I’ll take the mirror with me. Amelie made a pantry run this morning, so you shouldn’t need it, at least for the few hours I’m gone. I’ve escaped him before; in fact, he’s always come off the worse for wear, so perhaps he’ll learn to stay away.”

She hesitated still, and I realized how difficult it must be to let me out of her sight. I was their only chance at something like a normal life again, and one woman had already abandoned them to their fate. Despite my understanding, her distrust prickled at me.

“I’ll come back,” I said stiffly. “I’m not leaving until all of you can.”

Mrs. Potts smiled weakly. “I’m sorry, dear. I know I’m being terribly selfish. Just be careful out there, yes?”

“Of course,” I said. “If I’m not back by the time the sun hits the trees, then you can worry and … do as you will, I suppose.”

There were no functioning clocks in the castle, and we’d all taken to using this primitive form of time-keeping. There were precious few dishes or things to sit on, either, and while that seemed like a minor issue compared to the enchantment, it certainly didn’t make feeding and housing an entire staff any easier. Besides that, the firewood and preserved food wouldn’t last forever, and the sooner I broke the enchantment on the rest of the forest and the gardens the better.

I told myself that as I slipped out the kitchen door of the castle while the beast was prowling away in the maze of bushes in the front. It may have been true, but that’s not really why I was going; I needed a break from the smoky ballroom, the rising clamor of voices, the crushing weight of expectation and impatience.

Still, there was definite need for me to go, as leaving some of the tether spells in the forest intact while others were undone was having strange effects on the weather. I kept the mirror in my hand as I walked, pausing now and then to gather material for my spells. There wasn’t much of use in the still-enchanted parts of the forest; even if there had been more than dying trees and snow, using an item spelled by someone else in your own magic was a thing to be careful with. Collaborative magic could be extremely powerful, but this witch and I were certainly not collaborating.

I found another part of the spell after a bit of walking, and the fresh air had already invigorated my lungs and lifted my spirits. I checked the mirror before I set to work; the beast had climbed one of the garden structures and was perched on it, not unlike a monstrous house cat. He was staring at the castle, and I guessed he could hear the servants bustling about even in their small wing. The expression on his face was unreadable, showing neither curiosity nor sorrow nor longing. In fact, it was so blank that I nearly second-guessed my theory that he remembered any of the servants, or his past life, but I had seen other expressions there before, even if it was in dreams.

Regardless of what he was feeling, he was nowhere near my position, so I set the mirror down and got to work on the fragments of spell that stretched between earth and heaven. I had wondered if my strength would be too depleted for any serious work, but with the past night and morning to rest, my magic seemed to have recovered and then some. Besides, the spell in the forest had all the difficulty of a three-piece puzzle compared to the subtle enchantments on the servants, and I went cracking through it gleefully.

As the magic dispersed southward into the clouds, I checked the mirror again. The beast remained on his garden wall, but his head was turned in my direction, nostrils sucking in air and ears twitching. There was no doubt he’d heard the rumble of moving air and felt the release of magic, and if he came to investigate, I did not want to be here.

I hurried away, cutting through a creek to break my scent trail, and headed for where I suspected the next piece of the spell would be. It was a strange walk; not far away, I could hear birds singing and rustling in trees, and sometimes I thought I even caught the scent of woodland flowers, but snow and brittle twigs were crunching under my feet, and my cheeks were red with cold. I hoped to have time to visit parts of the forest I had freed days before, but I wasn’t sure how many more tethers were scattered throughout the woods.

I checked the mirror again and saw the beast had indeed entered the forest. He was moving slowly, head swinging this way and that, seeming to test his footing every few steps as if he suspected a trap. I had put a fair distance between myself and the newly-freed part of the forest, but I still picked up my pace, searching for the next piece of the spell with a little more urgency.

I followed the creek for a while, and thanks to my past efforts, enough of the water was running that I didn’t hear the sound at first. When I finally picked up on it, I thought perhaps it was the broken ice being crushed together, but no, it was too distinct from the flow of the water. I paused, putting a hand over one ear, and listened.

Bells.

On another winter day, in another place, the sound of bells might have been merry. But here, in these woods, the incessant chiming sent a chill down my spine. Nonetheless, I broke away from the creek and followed the sound. The magic stiffened against me almost immediately, trying to drive me back, and the wind picked up, bringing massive flakes of snow with it.

I was lost in a whiteout in a matter of minutes. The wind dragged at my cloak as if to choke me, and I doubted I would’ve been able to pick which direction was away from the bells if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to; I wanted to find what this witch was hiding, because hiding something she was. This protection spell wasn’t meant to warn off the average traveler, because the rest of her magic would’ve ensured no unassuming traveler would be this close to the castle. No, this trap was meant for someone like me, and at the moment, it was damn effective. Without the source of the spell, there wasn’t much I could do to work against it. All I could do was struggle against the wind and snow, pushing forward wherever the magic pushed back the hardest.

I wasn’t sure how long I trudged through the snow, gripping my cloak tight around me, but I began to hear the bells again, ringing wildly in the gale. The magic was pushing against me with almost physical force now, so thick I could nearly grab it, nearly break it. But it wasn’t until the hut came into view, just a shadow in the snow, that there was any spell to destroy.

Bells were hanging off every corner and ledge of the thing, ringing away with frenetic desperation. I stormed up to the door, seized the doorknob, and sent my magic blasting through every fiber of the place.

The storm stopped immediately. The wind disappeared, leaving the remaining flakes of snow to drift down. The bells hung silent and still, their clamoring voices choked off. I backed off a step, pulled my knife with one hand and called fire with the other, and kicked the door down.

The hut was empty and dark, and compared to the protection spell that had been bristling against me for the past hour, the wisps of magic inside were nothing. I stepped slowly over the threshold, wary of any further traps. The air inside was close and musty, and I could smell dead plants.

I strengthened the flame in my hand until I could see the depths of the hut. I had to be careful — the whole thing was dry as tinder, and the flickering shadows were playing tricks on my wary eyes. Walking further inside, I went to a window and banged on it, dislodging the heavy snow that clung to the outside. Light shafted into the hut, illuminating bushel upon bushel of dead roses.

I hissed through my teeth and used my fire to light the lanterns hanging from hooks on the wall. As their glow brightened, I saw jars and bottles, mortar and pestle, scales and spoons. Out of context, it was all very innocent and wouldn’t have been out of place in an apothecary’s shop, but seeing it made me so angry it took my breath away.

She had planned it all here. She had lived here, watching and waiting for her chance. She had watched every person in that castle peacefully live their lives and never reconsidered what she would do. This was her work, the multitude of failures before she encapsulated that spell in the rose she gave the prince. This was the result of years of experimentation and tweaking, and by the looks of things, she had been prepared to try for years more.

But why?

The senselessness of this crime — and it was a crime — had nagged at me since I first entered the forest. The encounter Mrs. Potts had described made me think the witch had acted rashly and out of fury, but the scope and planning of this spell suggested something deeply personal. What grudge could a witch have against a 11-year-old boy?

I picked up one of the withered stems, feeling the remnants of magic tingle through my fingertips. If I thought any of it would help me break what was left of her enchantment faster than I already was, I might have been grateful, but there were far more failures to study here than there were pieces of furniture in the ballroom. Besides, reconstructing a spell from its earlier iterations was a tricky business, and not one to take lightly when lives were at stake. No, there was only one thing I was interested in, now: finding out who this witch was.

I tore the place apart, looking for any clue to her identity. I leafed through every scrap of paper, but they were only measurements or the briefest of notes. I turned over every candlestick, every dish, every measuring spoon, but none were stamped or monogrammed. I opened every drawer, every tin, every box, and every time I thought, Surely, she would’ve left something in here, but I was wrong every time. In a fit of rage, I hurled one of the smallest chests across the room; it broke open against the wall, spilling its useless contents, but the corner of the lid jammed solidly between two boards in the wall. One of the boards bowed outward with the pressure, and through the gap I could see something behind it.

I tugged the chest away and the board came with it easily, as if the nails were loose in their holes. There was a narrow shelf between the inner and outer walls of the hut, and on it sat a book. A book meant pages and pages of chances for this witch to reveal herself, and yet for a moment I sat there to ponder what this book might contain.

This hut had been hidden, warded, a secret place. To take this extra precaution seemed counterintuitive. If such secrecy was required, why not take the book with her?

Because it’s too dangerous.

The thought reared suddenly in my mind, and I knew it was the truth. I knew whatever was in that book was bad, very bad, but it was my responsibility to open it. My hands wanted to shake, so I reached out and seized the thing as if speed and determination would defer any warding on it.

But there was no ward, and I realized why as soon as I touched it. The book was steeped in magic, ancient magic, and it was difficult to ward items that had their own magic. The ward this would have risked tainting the magic in the pages, or worse; sometimes these old items developed a life of their own, and sometimes they fought back.

The cover creaked in my grasp and I grimaced at the sensation of grime under my fingers. The book was bound with twine, and between twine and leather was a square of paper. It was brittle and yellow with age, but still visible was a rough portrait of a boy.

Despite the cheap charcoal and age of the paper, it was clear he was rendered in loving detail. His fair hair curled almost down to his shoulders, and with his delicate chin and nose he could’ve almost been a girl. His eyes, even in charcoal, seemed to shine with a hint of mischief, and the tilt of his mouth created a smile that was not quite innocent.

I peered at the corners of the paper, searching for initials or a clue as to who the subject might be. The back read only “summer 1730.” If this drawing was of the prince, he would’ve only been about five years old at the time.

I pocketed the scrap. The twine around the book snapped with a puff of dust when I yanked at it. I cracked it open roughly, ignoring the protesting pops from the spine; I was out of reverence, out of patience.

There was no opening note, no foreword, no preamble — it began with half a spell deconstructed with notes and questions. I didn’t recognize the spell, but it clearly wasn’t the one she’d last worked on. The ingredients called for no roses and the elements were not those of transformation or freezing or forgetting. The handwriting of the spell and the surrounding notes was different, and the former was far more faded than the latter.

I flipped a few pages. There were a few tables of measurements, half of which were scratched out angrily. The notes were hard to follow, full of detailed but unanswered questions that left the intention of the spell shrouded in mystery.

What if fleas are used instead of leeches?

Could morning glories be substituted for mistletoe?

Would the species of cowbird make a difference?

I flipped on. Rough sketches began to appear at the margins of the pages, just eyes or lips or hands. They seemed to match the portrait from the front and began to correspond with some of the notes; on one page the word “blackberries” was scrawled and circled, and few pages later a sketched child’s hand held a blackberry delicately between its thumb and first two fingers. Blackberries were inserted into the spell ingredients and disappeared a few iterations later.

He came to the rose garden of his own accord — he’s beginning to trust me.

Would lamb’s wool be as effective as lambskin?

He let me take his favorite doll.

I was becoming increasingly convinced the enchantress had been a madwoman, but if that were true she’d also managed to leave an entire diary without revealing who she was.

I kept turning pages. The writing became thicker, messier. The notes were no longer so innocent or ordinary. The back of my neck began to prickle.

Does the amount of blood matter?

It’s not a lie to say he’d see his mother again.

He has not told the father, I’m sure of that.

I paused. The ingredients I’d already passed by, the elements I’d seen — the pieces came clicking together and made a horrible shape in my mind. It was unthinkable and yet it all made perfect sense; I couldn’t find one contrary element beyond my own disbelief. I turned straight to the back of the book, apprehension making my fingers stiff and clumsy.

IT’S RUINED IT’S RUINED IT’S ALL RUINED

HE REFUSED

The writing on the back of the last page was the thickest and darkest of all. The points of some of the letters had torn the paper, and I could see from the ink splatter where she had slammed her quill down on the surface. I licked my dry lips and turned that single page back.

The enchantress’s angry scrawl had bled through from the other side of the page, but the lettering on this side had been done with care — with horrible, hideous pride.

L’agneau, it read simply.

Below this innocent title was a complete version of the most forbidden and wretched spell known to our kind. It was obvious from the beginning pages, I saw that now; it had only been my own foolishness that prevented me from seeing it. Every ingredient and action spoke to leeching and devouring.

I had never seen any iteration of this spell, only heard of it. I was probably one of the few witches who could even recognize it since the Council actively worked to crush even rumors of it. With my particular skillset they deemed it prudent I should know, even if the chances of me ever encountering it were supposedly next to nothing.

We witches can live two or even three times as long as normal humans, and as such it seems reasonable that we would age and die gracefully. Many do, but a few don’t. Even fewer — a mere five in our entire written history — have tried to thwart death indefinitely. Spells to drain the life from other living things are not uncommon, but they are not only forbidden but ineffective. Forcibly taken, the life of one sacrifice may only grant the spellcaster a few months, or a few years at best.

This spell, however, was not made to take life forcibly. It was created for a willing sacrifice, and a willing sacrifice could grant its entire potential lifespan to the spellcaster. Children are the easiest to manipulate, and they have the most life to give — particularly royal children unafflicted by the diseases of the poor.

Rage and revulsion seized me, coiling in my muscles. I wanted to burn this evil piece of trash and bury its embers, but it was evidence. In these rancid pages was what I needed — what the Council needed — to condemn this enchantress. A witch with more forensic abilities could probably glean her identity from this book, but to take it with me was almost as dangerous for me as it would’ve been for its owner. If a local coven caught me with this, it could mean months in a cell while they verified my story with the Council. It could mean something worse.

But what if she does it again?

Despite the presence of the book here, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine the enchantress would try her hand at this spell again now that she’d perfected it once. And I was no closer to discovering who she was, which meant the only chance of bringing her to justice lay with the skilled witches in the Council’s inner circle.

I didn’t have a choice, then.

I pulled a rag out of my ingredient sack and bundled the book, hoping its presence wouldn’t taint the herbs I had already gathered through the cloth. My fingertips felt grimy, and I wasn’t sure it was only the dust that had gathered on the cover.

Once the bag was packed, I grit my teeth, slung it over my shoulder, and took one last look around the hut. The book might have to come with me, but nothing else in this place should exist after today. I seized a lantern from the wall and smashed it on the floor. The oil spread and the flames licked after it, and only when the fire had consumed the dead roses did I leave.

I waited until I was sure the entire hut would go up, and by that time, ash was already beginning to mix with the snow. I caught one of the black flakes, let the heat sear my palm, and blew it to dust. “If you can hear me, enchantress, then know, this will be the fate of all your work.”

The crackling sound of the fire followed me as I returned to my original path in the forest, following the creek to find the next piece of the spell. As far as I walked, I still heard the crash when the structure collapsed in on itself, and I saw the plume of smoke rise above the trees. There was no satisfaction in it for me, not when the outcome of that work was still entrapping people so many years later. If anything, the revelation of the enchantress’s true reason for the curse only made me angrier. I had been so blind and so stupid, all too willing to ascribe my own fear of rejection to this unknown woman instead of paying attention to the signs. There was still a child trapped in a teacup in the castle, and yet somehow I had doubted the enchantress’s capacity for cruelty.

I was so lost in thought I nearly walked straight past the tether I was looking for, but when I saw where it was I saw red.

In order to maintain the spell’s power, the enchantress had tethered its last piece straight down the middle of a massive, ancient oak. The ground around it was littered with limbs; they had dropped away as the spell siphoned off the life of the tree, until all that was left was the main trunk and the broken-off joints of a few branches. The trunk was tremendous; it took me nearly ten paces to circle it, and the scattered limbs were so large they could’ve been trees themselves. This oak was probably as old as the forest itself, one of the last giants of this wood, and she had killed it to feed her malicious spell.

“I should have known,” I said aloud. “There would have been no other way for you to maintain a spell of this magnitude. Perhaps now I’ll learn my lesson, and put nothing past you.”

I put my hand to the trunk and bark crumbled away in my palm. The tree was wholly dead, such a hollow shell that I could make direct contact with the magic seeping through its porous wood. I pulled my own magic to me, holding back tears as I began to crack through tree and spell alike.

This piece of the spell, fed and protected by the tree, was the knottiest and angriest yet. Every strand I broke whipped at me like a striking snake, but I grit my teeth and dug my fingers in until they were bleeding, tearing through the magic with an animal rage I hadn’t released in a long, long time. The spell splintered under my onslaught, and every breaking piece sent an ominous groaning through the skeleton of the tree.

“Never again,” I swore as I sank my hands into the final strand of the spell. “This will never be allowed to happen again.”

The last strand broke with such force that the tree exploded, sending me flying backward in a spray of dead wood and bark. The dispelling magic rumbled through the sky, and the heavy gray clouds began to dissipate almost instantly, feathering away on the newly-released spring breeze.

For a long moment, I didn’t move to get up. The forest was free, but the weight of the irreplaceable had fallen on me again. That tree was a thing most witches would take special pains to protect, and it was gone forever. The acorns it dropped would’ve been killed by the permafrost, so everything that made that tree special, everything that enabled it to live for hundreds of years — its shape, its strength, its resistance to disease — could never be reproduced.

Finally, I swiped my hand roughly across my eyes and sat up, and it was then I saw the beast.

He was sitting across the newly-made clearing, still as a statue. Snow dusted the curve of its horns, so I knew he had been there for some time. He made no move when I saw him, and for a moment we both sat there frozen, staring at each other. Inwardly, I cursed myself for getting so caught up in my emotions that I threw caution to the wind, but I didn’t go for my knives. There had been enough animosity in our past meetings, and I didn’t want to be the one to escalate things now.

“Hello,” I said finally.

He twitched as if in surprise, snow falling from his horns and powdering his shoulders, but otherwise stayed still. I moved to get up slowly, keeping my hands well visible; long shards of wood tumbled off my cloak as I stood.

“Were you watching me?” I asked.

He blinked and stayed silent, and I chanced a look at the position of the sun. I would need to head back soon to keep Mrs. Potts from sending out a search party, and I thought it was probably good I had the mirror with me so none of them misinterpreted this standoff.

“I’m going back to the castle now,” I said. “I told them I’d be back before the sun was setting. You could come back with me.”

I had no idea whether he could understand me or not, and even if he could, I doubted he would trust me enough to do what I suggested. Still, his ears were flicking like he was listening, and his eyes were trained on me hard, but not angrily. I took a gamble and stepped toward him.

He shot up immediately, whirling around and retreating a few steps into the woods. I stopped, hands raised to placate him. “All right, I won’t do that again. I’ll just go now, and you can come with me if you want.”

I began to edge away in the rough direction of the castle, not willing to turn my back on him yet. From everything I had seen, the beast had no guile or cunning, seeming to rage and run purely on instinct. Still, he was human somewhere in there, and nothing had more guile or cunning than a human. I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had retained the worst characteristics of both beast and man.

Thus, I kept a sharp eye over my shoulder as I walked. He did begin to follow me, but he maintained the distance of the clearing between us. He was surprisingly quiet for an animal so large, which kept me wary, but he had traversed these woods far longer than I had, and he must’ve developed some hunting skills to keep himself alive.

“Your servants are all very worried about you,” I called back to him as I walked. “They’re almost all back to normal now, you know. Perhaps if you weren’t so inclined to rampaging like, well, a beast, I might be able to get you back to your old self, too.”

I wasn’t being particularly tactful, mostly because I didn’t think he could really understand what I was saying. Even if he could, there was no use mincing words; I doubted anyone who had been cursed for twenty years had any desire to stand on ceremony.

It was a slow, careful trek. I wanted to keep an eye on him, and I was afraid to trigger any latent instinct to chase. I stopped and turned to face him every so often, making sure that he, too, would stop, which he did. Eventually I ran out of useful things to talk about, and I started to complain about the state of the garden and the general lack of furniture in the castle. The sun had already begun to sink beyond the horizon by the time I reached the edge of the grounds.

“All right, then,” I said. “Shall I leave the door open for you?”

But as I began to venture across the grounds, the beast stopped at the edge of the trees and followed no further. I paused when I was nearly to the door and waited for him, but after a moment, he turned with a flick of his tail and stalked away.

I thought about calling out to him, but dusk was rapidly descending and I was loathe to keep the servants waiting any longer. I darted inside and through the castle, taking the steps to the upper floor two at a time and opening the barrier to the hallway.

Almost all the servants were packed into the hallways in rows, and the expressions they wore stopped me dead. Most of them holding whatever instruments that could serve as weapons, and tension simmered in their faces, their postures, in the air itself. Lumiere, who had been in the middle of a sentence, bit it off abruptly. “Mademoiselle Simone!” he cried. “We feared the worst!”

Mrs. Potts emerged into the hallway in a flurry and took in my disheveled appearance in a glance. “Is the beast behind you?” she gasped. “Is he after you?”

Just to put their minds at ease, I sealed the barrier behind me. “He’s not,” I said. “What’s going on here?”

“We were coming to look for you,” said Ambrose, one of the cooks. There was something not quite right about the words, or about the tone of them. I was suddenly hyper aware of all the eyes on me, the makeshift weapons in hands, the anxiety and desperation that clung to the room like sweat. I remembered Mrs. Pott’s reluctance for me to leave, the glances from some of the servants as I’d passed by them on the way out. The book was a hard edge against my back, and I wondered how quickly its influence would spread.

“As you can see, I’m right here,” I said coldly. “You can all go back to your business.”

“And what business is that?” Ambrose asked. “Unless you’ve got a deer in that pack, there’s nothing to cook. Not much to clean either, now that the maids have been at it for three days. Not much to do except wait for you.”

There was a low murmur of assent from the assembled crowd. I half-expected Lumiere or Mrs. Potts to say something, but I didn’t dare look to them for support. If I showed a hint of weakness here, I didn’t know what would happen.

“I understand your frustration,” I answered calmly. “I would welcome your suggestions to improve the precautions, if you feel they are, indeed, still necessary. The beast may not be as far gone as I initially thought —”

“You said he was wild!” cried one of the maids — Emma, I thought. “You said he would try to kill us!”

“He certainly tried to kill me,” I said. “He may be remembering himself, now that —”

“If he’s not wild, then why the devil have you locked us in here?” Ambrose shouted.

The tension immediately ratcheted up, and the low murmur turned into a rising swell of discontent. I felt trapped, and there was only one way out.

I summoned my magic, pulling it in until my fingers were wine-dark and the candles in the sconces were guttering, and the servants fell silent. I put a hand out behind me and blew apart my own barrier, sending shattered wood and twisted hinges exploding down the stairs. There was a little scream from somewhere in the crowd, but then the hallway fell as silent as a tomb.

“There,” I said. “Do you all feel better now?”

A gust of cold wind whirled down the hall, whipping my hair around me. The servants stared uncertainly at the newly opened space, shuffling closer together.

“Simone, please —” Mrs. Potts began.

“No.” I cut her off dead. “They’re right; this is your palace. This is your home. Go and do what you will, and I’ll pray that you all find yourselves in your former master’s good graces.”

I swept down the hallway toward the ballroom, and the crowd of servants parted like the sea before a ship’s prow. I cloaked myself in magic, letting it bristle at them as I passed, and kept my chin high. My sympathy did not extend this far; I recognized the inevitability of it, the human failure. I didn’t resent them for it — at least not in any way that would last — but neither would I allow it.

I stormed into the ballroom and resisted to the urge to seal it off behind me. Their friends were still in here, and they would still need a familiar face to greet them when I broke the spell. Besides, I didn’t want to create the impression I might be doing something horrible in retribution.

As it was, I was in no temper to try something as delicate as transforming a piece of furniture back into a person, and I stared at the remaining items moodily. They had become familiar to me, even as their numbers dwindled, and I quickly realized something was missing.

I stood up and walked over to the fragmented rings, trying to remember what I had seen that morning. The footstool remained — I may have been able to justify freeing the dog before some of the servants to myself, but not to anyone else — along with a handful of teacups, a couple feather dusters, some bookstands, a few chairs, a chest of drawers, and the harpischord. I walked circles until I was dizzy, and then I remembered: one of the teacups had a chip in its rim. I remembered it because it was one of the only signs of damage on any of the items, and now it was gone.

I paced the ballroom, wracking my brain for what might’ve happened to it. I had already transformed a few of the teacups back, and Mrs. Potts had always been hovering over me, handing each one to me as if she didn’t want me touching the rest of them. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time, but Mrs. Potts had a son amongst the remaining pieces, didn’t she? A teacup made sense, though her removing it — him — from the ballroom did not.

I was still staring at the china when Mrs. Potts entered, easing herself into the room like she was prepared to go scurrying out again. I raised my eyes to hers and she inhaled, as if, perhaps, she would explain the missing teacup. Instead, she closed her mouth again, and I swept out of the circle of furniture, going over to the tile wall and starting to dismantle it.

“Can I help you, Mrs. Potts?”

“Well, I — I just wondered if you might like some tea, or some dinner. Is it such a good idea to do that?”

“To give myself another exit?” I asked icily. “It seems like a very good idea to me.”

Behind me, she sighed quietly. “Please, Mademoiselle Simone, you must understand —”

“I understand perfectly well. I am going to complete this task and leave this place as quickly as possible. There isn’t much left, and I intend to do a few more of these …” I turned and glanced pointedly at the teacups, “… tonight. So perhaps you’ll want to arrange for them to have a familiar face to greet them.”

I went back to my work, pulling the marble tile down from the panes of glass that surrounded the broken doors. At the moment, everything but the doors themselves was intact, although a few of the panes showed hairline cracks. I hoped they would last as long as I stayed here.

Mrs. Potts’s heels tapped softly as she left, and I balled my hands into fists, trying to find some measure of calm. It had been many years since I’d spent such an extended time in the company of other people, and it had made me intolerant of their weakness, their propensity to give into their worst instincts. I should have been gentler, more understanding, because they were still in the midst of the worst thing that had ever happened to them, and it was messy and frightening and distinctly un-magical. There were no quick and easy solutions, no clear road back to what their lives had been.

And yet, when I thought of their faces turned on me in the hallway, their own uncertainty about how far they would go, anger roiled in my stomach. It had been so easy to be sympathetic at first. I had been so confident I’d created a distinct demarcation between myself and the woman who had inflicted this damage on them, but the moment they had stopped weeping and looking for reassurance, I’d reached for my power. I had bitten back poisonous words about what they deserved and what states I might return them to; I would have never done it, no matter what they did or how angry I was, but the instinct to spit those words, to cause fear, had been there. I was glad that I held myself back, but I suspected the damage was already done. Their latent suspicion of me had risen to the surface, and I’d all but proven them right.

Lumiere and Mrs. Potts returned after a few hours, when I was already in the midst of undoing the spell on one of the bookstands. They hovered silently in my periphery, and when the last strand of the enchantment broke, I stepped away quickly, allowing them to move in and take trembling hands in their own. They did not point to me this time; they didn’t say, “This is Simone, she’s come to save us,” and the thin, reedy man stared at me over their shoulders like he thought I might be a ghost only he could see. They ushered him out quickly, and what they said about me in the hallway, I couldn’t say.

I began again on the harpischord almost immediately. Certain elements of the spell had become familiar to me, and while there were always variations, there were parts I could’ve done in my sleep by now. My blood was up besides, the magic thrumming strong through my veins. By the time Lumiere returned, I had only a few moments of work left.

“There’s no need to rush, Mademoiselle,” he said quietly.

I ignored him and tightened my focus, maintaining the same caution I had when I’d undone the enchantment on Mrs. Potts. If I got careless now, if another one of them died, it would be well and truly over.

Despite the unease simmering in my stomach, I cut through the spell with a surgeon’s precision, and I thought perhaps this was the fastest I had ever broken one. I stepped back again as Lumiere moved forward, and as the glow rose in the room, I saw what was lurking on the other side of the glass.

The beast was crouched outside, a mere inch of cracked glass separating us. He was watching with wide eyes as the man emerged where the harpischord had been: Lumiere had sunk to one knee and saw nothing but the quivering wig in front of him. The beast was, in that moment, unnervingly human, and I saw all the sorrow and loneliness and despair of the past ten years ripple through his face.

Just before the glow faded, he looked at me and raised one massive, clawed hand. Then the light disappeared, leaving nothing but a sheet of black in front of me, and for an instant I was frozen, waiting for the crash of glass. It never came, and when I went to the window, so close my nose was almost pressed against it, I saw nothing.

Chapter Text

The next few days passed like years. I could hear the servants reclaiming the rest of the castle, and more common now were little bursts of laughter, whispers of gossip, spikes of banter. I kept to the ballroom, only sneaking down to the library or the pantry once the rest of them were asleep. The castle grounds themselves had failed to thaw — I guessed there was a tether somewhere on the grounds, perhaps in one of the towers of the castle itself, and I mentally catalogued it as just one more loose end. The persistent cold only added to the sense that I was cut off from the rest of the world; I had to keep a fire burning in the ballroom, but through the window I could see green buds softening the outlines of the forest.

I missed LeFou, I realized suddenly. I wondered how he was. Did he remember me, or had the enchantment stolen that already? Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a loss for him, but the possibility saddened me nonetheless. We hadn’t parted ways on particularly good terms, but that damage, at least, didn’t seem irreparable. Maybe I was wrong about that, too.

I hadn’t seen the beast since he’d appeared on the balcony a few nights ago, and I guessed no one else had either, given the confident raucousness with which the servants had begun to venture throughout the castle. That was good, I supposed, although it only supported their idea that I’d kept them locked in the ballroom for my own spiteful pleasure.

A ripple of laughter floated up the stairs, along with the scent of the midday meal. There still wasn’t much variety in the available food — and there wouldn’t be until the castle grounds thawed — but judging by the smells, the cooks had started getting creative with what was available. My stomach rumbled and I stood up, pacing a circle around the mostly-cleared floor of the ballroom to distract myself.

Belle and the beast had danced in here, Mrs. Potts had told me. Despite the ultimate dashing of their hopes, she had described it dreamily; the gown Belle had worn, the way the candles glinted off the gilded chandeliers, the way the beast had seemed almost human again to them already.

“Why didn’t you tell Belle how to break the spell?” I’d asked.

Mrs. Potts had smiled a little and shrugged. “What difference would it have made, other than to burden her? You can’t force yourself to love someone.”

It had been a saint-like proclamation, a wise and selfless reflection that I struggled to reconcile with my current feelings toward the housekeeper. It wasn’t fair to me or to Mrs. Potts, I knew that in my head. Belle was practically a deity to them, someone who could’ve broken the spell in one clean sweep. I was the second-best option, too late to prevent the damage, too slow and clumsy in my attempt to rectify it. But I was here, and Belle wasn’t.

Frustration surged up even as I tried to convince myself to be understanding, and I swept out of the ballroom, no longer content to hide and wait. If they wanted to fear me, let them scurry out of my path.

But I barely caught a glimpse of anyone, not where I was going. I hardly realized where that was until I found myself on a familiar curving stair, my feet crunching on familiar bones. Now that I had broken so much of the spell, I could feel the remaining piece at the top of this tower, practically quivering with tension without its supports.

My past two encounters with the beast could only properly be described as “neutral,” and I was still wary of surprising him in his own lair. However, as I crept through the west wing, I saw snow had drifted up in his nest, covering the bones and the bloodstains in a clean, white layer. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised; the return of humanity to the castle would have thrown into sharp relief his own lack of it, and I suspected he wanted to avoid his former servants as much as they wanted to avoid him.

“Well, we have that in common,” I murmured to myself as I made my way onto the balcony. I scanned the nearby turrets, but there was no sign of him, and I craned my head to look up to the roof.

Yes, there was the remaining tether, stretching from the very tip of the tower like a ghostly thread. If it had passed through the center of the tower — like the last one through the tree — I might have stayed safe and (relatively) comfortable inside, two feet firmly on the floor while I broke through the knots. However, the tower refracted the magic, scattering its influence to cover the entire grounds, and that meant I would have to climb.

I briefly considered concocting another flight spell, but I hadn’t replaced the materials for that. Like most of the towers, this one was covered in thick, brown vine, and perhaps in the heat of summer it would have been more secure than a ladder. As it was, the vine looked brittle and dead, and I tugged it dubiously, hoping it would break instantly and I would have to rethink this plan. But it held, and I only paused long enough to check my pocket for my trusty chunk of obsidian before stepping onto the balustrade and heaving myself up.

The wood creaked ominously and I held my breath; it felt like gravity was sucking at me, dragging at my cloak and my hair. I leaned in, keeping my body as close to the wall as possible. The vine, to its credit, was so thickly matted I didn’t lack for handholds, and despite the wind at this height, it barely swayed.

I focused only on what was directly in front of my face, feeling for my next handhold like a blind woman. It wasn’t until I felt roofing tile under my hand that I dared to look up, but the instant I did, I wanted to climb right back down.

The vine had begun to grow into the roof, breaking up tile as it went, but it only went so far before meandering around the curve of the tower, as if it had realized it was hellishly cold up here and had no desire to go any higher. The remaining distance to the peak was only treacherous cracked tile, the wind, and the gray clouds, and I hadn’t even made it past the angle yet.

I steeled myself, forced strength into my trembling hands, and gripped another handful of the vine to haul myself up. The vine held, even as pieces of grit and tile skittered down to drop off the edge of the roof. Clenching my teeth, I crawled forward, my feet dangling sickeningly until I could draw my knees up with my upper body.

As soon as my toes cleared the edge, I collapsed for a minute, clinging to the vine as the wind buffeted me. “Blast this spell,” I muttered through chattering teeth. “Blast that witch. Blast this castle. Blast the whole thing.”

I didn’t get off my belly the whole way up, scraping myself over shattered tile and exposed beams. When I could grip the weather vane and spell alike, I pulled myself to my knees and waited for my stomach to stop pitching. I couldn’t see anything directly below me; in fact, from this angle, I could see nothing but sky, and I heard my own laugh tinged with hysteria.

“Just get it done,” I told myself. “It has to be done, and you’re up here now. Just get it done, and get down from here.”

Had I been on the ground, I could have cracked through this spell in a few minutes, but I lost my concentration with every gust of wind. The urge to abandon caution and tear madly through it had never been stronger. Logically, I knew that would only put me in more danger, but nothing seemed logical up here. I felt completely untethered to both the earth and my own self, and I can’t say how long it took to finally break the spell.

I was expecting the push of energy when it snapped. I wasn’t expecting the weather vane to break just as cleanly, the rust at its base finally giving way after years of exposure to the elements. Time seemed to slow as the sky tumbled over me, and I felt myself catch air as my feet flew over my head.

It happened so fast I barely even tried to stop myself. This can’t be happening, I thought, and my arms made the vain attempt to slow my momentum. My frozen hands slid uselessly over the brittle vine. There was a split second when — as my body hurtled over the edge into space — my cold, clawed fingers caught a joint in the wood, and it snapped like a twig.

Fly, I thought desperately, but it was the thought and the thought alone. There was no power in it, no power in me at all. How could I summon flight when I was already falling? How could I channel knowledge and energy was I was only animal fear, plunging down —

There was a sudden, brutal impact. My head cracked back almost against my own shoulders. I was completely disoriented; all I knew was that I was still out of control, flying through the air, but I had changed direction.

The light from the sky disappeared, and then I hit the ground, the rough surface burning my arms. My head was ringing, pain snapping up and down my spine, and my vision was nothing but a cloud of red spots, but I could smell the beast, the stink of dirty animal hide.

Suddenly there was a loud, snorted exhale, and I felt hot breath on the back of my neck. A paw slammed down on the floor in front of my face, and I squeezed my eyes shut. The rational suggestion that he could've let me hit the ground if he wanted me dead never entered my mind. I was just a prey animal in that moment, and my fear was paralyzing.

He nudged me hard, and pain ricocheted through my side — the ribs I’d broken before — so intensely that I blacked out for a few seconds. I must’ve made a noise, because when I came to, he was six feet away, trying to get floor-level as if to read my face. I felt the hysterical urge to laugh but couldn’t get the breath to do it.

“Did you catch me?” I wheezed out stupidly. “On purpose?”

He didn’t answer, of course. I didn’t move for several minutes. I wasn’t sure if I could. I knew my neck couldn’t be broken, but the whiplash was so severe I didn’t even want to think about lifting my head. The old carpet was rough on my cheek, but if I could’ve moved at all, I would’ve kissed it; I was off that roof, and alive to boot. I could barely piece together two thoughts at the moment, but I knew the beast must have leapt from the adjacent tower to intercept my fall. I was grateful for his ability to make that jump for the first time.

After a few shallow breaths, I pushed my elbows underneath me, lifting myself off the floor while moving my neck as little as possible. It still hurt like hell, but I was able to push myself to my knees and eventually pick my head up, although just that much movement left me dizzy.

The beast stalked forward, and I held up my hand to stop him; I felt like I would crumble into pieces with the small wrong move, and he was so large and lumbering that even the vibrations he sent through the floor made me nervous. “Thank you,” I gasped out. “You saved me. Just … I need a minute.”

He stopped again, tail flicking across the floor. I gathered myself and tried to stand, just to collapse back to my knees with a cry I couldn’t quite keep behind my teeth.

“Simone!”

The wild cry echoed around the wing, and the beast whirled, revealing the figure in the doorway. It was Paul; he had a torch in one hand, and a pitchfork — identical to the one he had been — in the other. He was bathed in sweat, and I could smell the fear coming off him myself.

“Paul!” I tried to shout, but couldn’t summon enough force to do more than gasp it out. “Paul, don’t!”

The beast roared, shaking the broken chandeliers above our heads, and the color washed out of Paul’s face instantly, but he didn’t back away. Instead, he brandished the torch, sweeping it back and forth so the flame whooshed and guttered. I saw tension coil in the beast, and I lunged forward, catching his foot even though the pain of the movement made me nauseous.

“Don’t do it,” I wheezed. “He’s already … afraid of you.”

The sudden movement had taken more than I realized, and the beast’s face swam in front of my eyes. I felt myself tipping, caught a glimpse of the ceiling, and then everything went black.

***

When I woke up, I was back on my bedroll in the ballroom. I was propped up on pillows that definitely weren’t mine, which allowed me to see the room without moving my head, and my broken ribs were bound tightly in place. Night had fallen, but the firelight — now contained to its proper grate — was painfully bright. A headache was pounding behind my eyes, and I reached around blindly for my pack, grasping until my hand closed around the leather. I didn’t have much left — a little smear of Boswellia resin, a fragment of yellow calcite, and no bones to speak of. I’d used the last of mine the first time I broke my ribs, and this spell wouldn’t do much more than take away my headache without any.

I was digging into the corners when Mrs. Potts came in, and she looked surprised to see me awake. She had probably been the one to patch me up, but she didn’t move much beyond the steps now, keeping a fair distance between us.

“Is there something you need, Mademoiselle Simone?”

“Bones,” I said tightly. It was probably one of the least-comforting things I could have said, but they already thought I was some kind of terrible sorceress; why stop now?

“Bones?” she repeated faintly. “What sort of bones?”

“Any sort. Could be a mouse skeleton from the cupboard — it doesn’t matter.”

She nodded briefly and hurried out, the tapping of her heels quickly fading. I settled back onto the pillows, focusing my breath and trying to block out the pounding in my head.

What had happened to Paul and the beast? If I was here, it must have meant Paul won out, one way or another; either the beast let him in, or he forced the beast out. I cursed under my breath, fearing this encounter had set me two steps backwards with the former master of the castle. He had kept me from plummeting to my death, there was no doubt about that, but the instant Paul had appeared, he became all monster again.

Mrs. Potts returned about half an hour later, carrying a little napkin bundle gingerly between her fingertips. “What happened to Paul?” I asked. As an afterthought, I gestured with the napkin and said, “Thank you.”

“Paul’s just fine,” she said stoutly. “He had a bit of a shouting match with the master, but he’s none the worse for wear.”

“If it was just a shouting match, I’d call that a major improvement,” I said. “Well, anyway. I’ll be ready to start on the last of the staff tomorrow morning, if you and Lumiere are available.”

“Yes, of course.” She hesitate briefly, then said, “Perhaps you should take a day to rest?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said, my voice tinged with frost. “Thank you again for fetching the bones. Good night, Mrs. Potts.”

She bobbed something like a curtsy, murmured “Good night,” under her breath, and disappeared again. I unwrapped the napkin — it was, indeed, mouse bones — and used my magic to draw heat off the fire, warming the materials in my hands. They were inexact matches and I wouldn’t be able to create a really strong spell with them, but they were better than nothing. Nonetheless, I had to concentrate hard to make the connections, to draw bone to bone, stone to skin, resin to muscle. When I was satisfied I couldn’t do any better, I crushed the materials in my hands and felt the spell creep up my arms, spreading from my shoulders up my neck and down my back. My headache dissipated, I could breathe easier, and I felt the small cuts on my hands and rug burns on my arms smooth over. It wasn’t perfect; I was still achy and stiff, but I felt less like the smallest disturbance would incapacitate me.

I thought I would fall asleep instantly, but instead I found myself restless, staring at the remaining furniture like it would talk to me if I waited long enough. With the worst of my pain gone, my climb to the roof seemed more like a bad dream, but my stomach still pitched if I thought on it too long. I had nearly died for these people, so why could I not make amends? Would I really rather climb the tallest tower on this castle than choose to be kind instead of cold? Could I not have thanked Mrs. Potts more earnestly? Could I not have asked to see Paul, instead of hearing the story secondhand?

I could have. I could have offered that small olive branch, but my fear that it would be rejected outweighed any fear of falling. It had happened before, and these were my experiences with other people I could remember the easiest. It was just handful of memories, but they were always close at hand, always coloring my interactions in ways I didn’t realize. They were, in the grand scheme of things, small offenses and little hurts, but it was all too easy to avoid making those mistakes again. It was too easy to live my life away from others, to be mysterious instead of open, to be cold instead of kind, and because those things came so naturally, the effort to do anything different seemed monumental. Furthermore, to make that effort and be rejected was hard to recover from, harder than broken ribs and whiplash.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the yellowed portrait. Despite the age of the paper, it had somehow survived my climb, fall, and tumultuous rescue, and the face of the child prince stared up at me. What could have made the enchantress so removed from humanity — her own included — that she would’ve slaughtered him? Did she start out like me, allowing herself one petty grievance at a time, one reason to separate herself after another until the gap was irreparable? Did she always choose to climb the tower instead of extend an olive branch, only to find herself on the fading end of a life full of hardship she could blame on others?

It was all speculation of course, but I recoiled at the notion that I might share this trait with her. I might never sacrifice a child to extend my own life or curse an entire castle and its staff to soothe my own ego, but then again, if I continued to let this fear drive me, I just might.

Thus, I went to the remaining ring of furniture, selected my piece, and began my work.

***

The sky had just begun to go gray when I finished. It wasn’t enough light to see by, and I spent a fair bit of time creeping down the halls, poking my heads into doors until I found who I was looking for.

Paul was snoring quietly, one arm tossed over his eyes. I released the dog I was carrying in my arms and gave him a gentle nudge into the room before pulling back behind the door frame. There was a creak of the bed, a loud, surprised snort, and then:

“Sultan? Sultan! How … oh, you silly dog, I’ve missed you!”

The dog was whining quietly in its excitement, and, from the sound of it, scampering around the bed. Paul began to laugh, saying, “You’d best not piss on this bed, or I’ll turn you into a footstool again myself!” Just as quickly, his laughter faded, and the next sound I heard was a soft, gulping sob.

I peeked around the door, and in the darkness I saw the form of him, rocking steadily as he bent over the dog in his arms. Sultan’s tail was repeatedly smacking him in the side of his head but he didn’t seem to notice; he was weeping like a child, and I hesitated briefly, wondering if I should speak to him. In the end, I thought better of it, and I crept away to let him cry in private.

The following morning, I was finally able to view the fruits of my terrifying and near-fatal labor. The first clear, bright sunshine I had ever seen from the castle window was spreading across the grounds, and already the snow piled on the garden structures was beginning to drip. From my vantage point, I could see two of the gardeners battling away at the nearest shrubs, and farther away, a mere smudge on the edge of the forest, the shape of the beast. I thought it was strange that the first glimpse of him was always accompanied by a jolt of fear, even now. It was hard to know if that reaction itself was part of the spell, or just the instinct of a prey animal.

Still, he and I would have to become something like friends sooner rather than later, because there were only a handful of servants left to transform, and once I was well and truly done here, it would be back to the village to break the last elements of the spell.

And after that? a small voice in my head prompted.

After that, I was going to find the witch who did this.

But I was getting ahead of myself. I could hear Mrs. Potts and Lumiere on their way up the stairs, and after my late-night escapades, just a friendly smile took a little more energy than was readily available.

“Good morning,” I said as they entered. “Did you have any thoughts about who we might free next?”

Mrs. Potts looked surprised, but Lumiere was downright delighted. “Mon cheri!” he cried. “You are looking remarkably well!”

I didn’t feel remarkably well, but I suspected this was the best way he knew to reciprocate my meager peace offering, and that alone made the smile on my face genuine. “I’m feeling much better, Monsieur; thank you for your concern. I hope you found the weather much more to your liking when you woke up this morning?”

He grinned, mustache twitching. “Practically a paradise! Do you think we’ll be able to visit the village now?”

I hesitated, trying to keep my smile from failing. “Well, yes, I think you could go there now, if you wanted. But I’m afraid the residents still won’t remember you, not until I address the enchantment affecting them particularly.”

His face fell. “Ah,” he said sadly. “Better to wait then, I think. I wouldn’t care to be a stranger among friends.”

“That was my thought as well,” I said. “But don’t worry, I’ll get to them soon.”

“Perhaps we should focus on the task at hand, Lumiere,” Mrs. Potts said gently.

“Yes, yes, of course.” He cleared his throat and turned briskly on his heel to examine the remaining pieces. “Well, I believe the bookstands are Monsieurs Claude and Arthur, and the teacups —”

He broke off sharply, and I saw his eyes tick over the teacups again like he was counting. He looked up at Mrs. Potts, but she smiled sharply and moved forward, holding up a hand to forestall his question.

“Perhaps just Claude and Arthur, for now?” she suggested.

I glanced at Lumiere; he had paused with his mouth open, brow furrowed. “Whatever you think is best, Mrs. Potts,” I answered smoothly. “I should be done with the first in an hour’s time since the spell is becoming much more familiar to me. Do you know which is which?”

Mrs. Potts hesitated. Lumiere had recovered, and he chuckled a little. “You know, I don’t. I had a fair bit of trouble telling them apart even as people, despite them not being related in the slightest. I suppose we’ll have to hope it comes back to us when they do!”

He stepped forward to take Mrs. Potts by the elbow, gently ushering her toward the door. “We’ll be back to check on you in a little less than an hour, Mademoiselle. Perhaps you’d like some tea afterward?”

I inclined my head and smiled. “That would be lovely, thank you.”

They were true to their word, and when I was minutes from breaking the spell, I sensed them enter the ballroom again. As soon as the last thread snapped and the glow welled up, Lumiere was at my side, squeezing my shoulder with a warm hand and passing me a cup of tea. I took the saucer and retreated a little, giving them space with the man. It was a strange thing, this little ritual of ours. Even when I had been at my angriest, watching the gratitude and wonder break across their faces at the sight of their long lost friends had been a wholly unique experience.

“Is that Claude?” I heard the newly-transformed man cry. This must be Arthur then. Lumiere and Mrs. Potts soothed him, trying to keep his attention in the moment.

“Claude will be just fine,” Mrs. Potts said comfortingly. “See, Arthur, this is Mademoiselle Simone. She’s going to break the spell on him, just as she did on you. It’ll all be all right.”

Arthur nodded tremulously, focusing on me briefly with teary eyes. After a few moments to catch his breath, Lumiere and Mrs. Potts pulled him up and escorted him out, promising he could see Claude just as soon as I broke the spell.

Seconds after they disappeared, Sultan bounded around the doorway, skittering across the marble floor to pounce on me. I laughed a little and lifted my teacup out of harm’s way, which prompted the dog to plunk himself onto his haunches and look up at it expectantly.

“Well, there now,” I said, stroking a hand over his silky head and perked ears. “That’s very polite, although I’m afraid I can’t share the tea.”

Someone cleared their throat softly, and I glanced up; Paul was hovering in the doorway. I stood up and realized there was nowhere to put my teacup, so I held onto it, feeling slightly foolish. “Please come in, Paul.”

He took a few quick steps forward, like he would lose his nerve otherwise. Sultan dashed back to him and circled, pink tongue peeking out from his furry face. “Never actually watched you do it before,” he said awkwardly, gesturing to the remaining bookstand.

“It’s not much to watch,” I said. “I’m sure it just looks like I’m sitting there.”

“Not exactly,” he said. “The way your eyes move, and your hands — it looks like you’re seeing something I can’t see.”

“That’s true, but you could probably see it, if you worked at it.”

He looked taken aback. “I could be a witch?”

I smiled a little. “Well, maybe not. It would be awfully late to start your training. But if you really wanted to, and worked hard at it, you might be able to accomplish some minor spells. That doesn’t seem like your interest, though.”

“No, I like simple work, I suppose. Wouldn’t be a stable boy otherwise.”

“That has its own magic,” I said, not wanting him to think I was being snide.

A long silence stretched out between us. Sultan quickly lost interest in the conversation, and after an exploratory sniff around the ballroom, lifted his leg on the remaining section of the marble barrier.

“Aw, Sultan! Blast it.” Paul swore as gently as he seemed to do everything else, and then he laughed a little. “Well, I came to say thank you for bringing the pisspot back to me, and that’s a fine way to show our gratitude.”

He scooped the dog up as he returned, and Sultan was dwarfed in his arms. I smiled again. “I’m glad he’s made you happy. Hopefully you’ll all be back to your old selves — including your prince — in the next week or so. Mrs. Potts said you shouted him down to retrieve me.”

Paul blushed furiously. “I think he was going to let me anyway; I just gave him a little encouragement. Hope he can forgive me for it.”

“I’m sure he will,” I said. “I’ve done quite a bit worse to him, and he seems to have forgotten it already. I hope he can understand enough to cooperate with me; it will be more difficult, breaking the spell on a living thing instead of an inanimate object.”

“We’ll be here to help you, however we can,” Paul said stoutly. “I suppose I’ll let you get back to work.”

“Thank you for stopping by, Paul. It was nice to see you.”

He blushed again and ducked his head, turning for the door. Before he reached it, he paused and spun back to face me, setting his feet as if to brace for impact.

“Mademoiselle Simone? Will you come to dinner with the rest of us tonight?”

“Oh.” I hesitated, unsure of how to let him down gently. “Paul, I don’t think … I don’t think the rest of the staff would be so comfortable with that.”

“They will,” he insisted. “I’ll make sure of it.”

I chuckled a little at that. “Then I can’t refuse. Certainly, I’ll be there.”

He grinned and left, and I turned back to the last bookstand.

***

When I entered the dining hall that evening, an immediate hush fell over the table. Dozens of eyes turned on me, and my mouth went dry instantly.

In the silence, the scraping of Paul’s chair made me jump. He practically jogged toward me, not-so-subtly jabbing his elbow into a few backs as he went. He looked like he’d gotten a little sun, and there were small scratches on his forearms; I guessed he’d been out in the garden.

“Glad you came,” he said, smiling crookedly. “It’s going to be mainly bread and cheese and preserves and pickled vegetables, but it’s better in company.”

I smiled hesitantly and let him lead me to a spot at the table. The diners seemed to be divided by age, and from his place near the head of the table, Lumiere gave me a cheery grin. Conversation picked up again, flowing around me like the various platters of food, and I felt slightly overwhelmed and largely out of place.

“You know, it’s funny,” Paul said in my ear, “We would’ve never eaten all together before. Probably won’t once the dining hall’s back in proper use again, so this is kind of special.”

I nodded awkwardly, my mouth failing to form a genial response. I briefly wished that the castle’s store of wine hadn’t frozen and split its casks.

After a few minutes of chatter and passing plates, Lumiere rose from his place and tapped the rough, earthenware mug that was serving as his glass. Conversation faded, and he raised the mug, smiling around at everyone.

“Friends, it may not be the most appropriate to say this now, since our numbers are not yet fully restored. However, I’m loathe to wait on anything anymore, given how we’ve spend our last ten years, so I’ll make this toast regardless.”

We all raised our cups — it was an odd collection of clay and glass and even wood, dug out of forgotten cupboards to replace what had been lost — and waited. Lumiere cleared his throat and dabbed his eyes with his sleeve.

“To our dear friend Cogsworth, who could not be here today. There are many things we can’t get back, but him most of all.

“To all of you, for emerging from such circumstances with the same heart and bravery with which you went into them.”

He turned directly to me then, and bent in a little bow. “And to Mademoiselle Simone, who bore no responsibility for us but took it upon herself anyway, and who has sacrificed time and energy and safety on our behalf. Thank you for what you have done, and what you have yet to do.”

“To Mademoiselle Simone,” the rest of the staff chorused, and with a clinking and clunking of cups, they drank. Tears welled in my eyes; I tried to tamp down the hot shame and simply be grateful for the fact that our differences were reconciled. Paul politely ignored me swiping at my eyes and turned back to me when I’d recovered myself.

“I hope you’ll come back and see us, even after this is all over,” Amelie said to me across the table.

“I think that will depend on where I stand with the prince when this is all over,” I said. “He may never want to see a witch at his door ever again.”

I hadn’t meant it to be a joke, but the younger servants laughed uproariously, drawing amused glances from the elder end of the table. “What about all of you?” I asked. “What will you do, when all this is over?”

There was a slight pause, and they shared glances between them. “I’m a little embarrassed to say,” said Alice, one of the cooks, “But I really just want to go back to the way things were. After twenty years as a sugar bowl, I think being able to go to work and come home to my family will be the best thing in the world.”

“I’m just the opposite,” said Victor; I couldn’t remember what his position in the household had been, but I remembered he’d been a globe. “I think I’ll take my leave for a while, go see the world. Or at least the rest of the continent.”

A few others chimed in with their plans, but most of them stayed quiet. Perhaps they hadn’t thought about it yet, focusing only on the immediate needs to get them through the day, or perhaps they’d dreamed about it so long they were afraid to give voice to it.

“I think it will be strange for all of us, for a while,” Amelie said. “We’ve shared something no one else can understand. But it wasn’t all bad, was it?” She looked around the table. “We made the best of it.”

“Like that dinner for Belle,” Mrs. Potts said from her place near Lumiere. I turned and realized the elder end of the table was listening too.

Lumiere’s eyes had lit up at the mention of the dinner. “One of my crowning glories,” he sighed. “Perhaps we could recreate it, when the master is back to himself?”

“I don’t see how you’ll manage that,” Mrs. Potts chuckled. “The napkins and plates won’t dance anymore.”

Memories of the legendary dinner kept spilling out, every person at the table remembering their part in the dance. It was hard for me to imagine, but the joy in their faces and laughter as they recounted the performance soothed my soul a little. At least the past wouldn’t haunt them as a dark void clouding their lives. At least there was some silver lining, some happy memories gained.

When the meal was finished, the maids swept up the odd collection of dishes with practiced efficiency, and Mrs. Potts left to oversee the boiling of water and the washing with an enthusiasm not commonly reserved for dinner cleanup. I went to the library, and I hadn’t been there long before Lumiere knocked on the door.

“You certainly don’t need my permission to enter here,” I said, pulling out the volume of natural history I’d once left lying on the floor near the fireplace in the great hall.

“You looked very deep in thought, and I didn’t want to startle you,” he said. He paused, looking up at the stacks of books in the farthest reaches of the room. “It’s been some time since I was here. It was shut up for years, but when Belle came, the master gave it to her.”

I glanced up. “He gave her the library?”

“Well, as much as one can give an immense number of books,” Lumiere chuckled. “He was so happy to give her something truly special. She loved to read.”

“She still does,” I said quietly, remembering the way her face lit up as she tore the wrapping from my gift. It was the one highlight of my awkward encounters with her. “Do you think she’ll come back to claim her gift?”

“I could hardly guess,” Lumiere replied. “Didn’t you say she was married now?”

I nodded. “But your master is a prince. Who would resist his demands, should he make them?”

Lumiere was quiet for a moment. “He’s not that sort of prince,” he said finally. “Not anymore, at least. I’m not sure he would’ve ever had the stomach for that. It’s true, he was spoiled and rude and arrogant, but he was not immune to suffering. Belle, for as long as she was here, changed him dramatically. I hope all of that is not lost, now.”

“I think it will be difficult for him,” I said softly. “Even if he were not transformed into an animal, I think this long isolation would have driven him mad. Perhaps being a beast will have actually helped the man inside weather this trial, but I think it will be a long road back for him.”

I paused briefly, unsure if I wanted to ask the question that was on my mind. When I glanced at Lumiere again, he was looking at me expectantly, as if he knew there was an unsaid question in my mouth.

“The enchantress,” I said slowly, “did you know her at all?”

He looked startled. “I — well, no, I can’t say I did. Of course, even after she revealed her true form, she was so bright, it was hard to look at her. I’m not sure I would have recognized my own mother in such a state. Why do you ask such a thing?”

I dug into my pocket and pulled out the portrait, holding it delicately between two fingers as I held it out to me. He took it hesitantly, as if he thought it would burn him, and then looked up at me sharply.

“I found a hut in the woods,” I said. “It could’ve only been hers. She had that tucked away. I think she knew all of you, even if you didn’t know her. Perhaps you would have, and that’s why she used such a powerful glamor when she appeared before you.”

A storm of emotions crossed Lumiere’s face, and I thought for a moment he would shout at me. Instead, he handed back the portrait with trembling fingers, and turned away.

“What did she want from us?” he asked. “If she knew us … if she knew him, then why…”

He trailed off, and I suspected he couldn’t summon the clarity to finish the question. “I think her appearance that night was a test the prince was meant to fail,” I said. “She wanted to justify the thing she planned to do regardless.”

I couldn’t say why I had told him this, especially when I had no intention of sharing the whole truth. Like Mrs. Potts had said, even the tenuous belief that their curse had somehow been warranted punishment may have made it easier to bear. Now that the worst of their trial was over, perhaps I’d wanted to impart some wisdom about the nature of the world.

“The point is, she wasn’t any kind of deity with the power to judge anyone,” I said. “She was a horrible woman who used her power horribly. As you go forward in life, I don’t know if that fact will be easier or more difficult to live with. I don’t want you to live in fear of wrathful deities appearing at your doorstep, but I realize it’s no easier to live in a world where you may fall victim to random, petty spite.”

“That is wise,” Lumiere said softly. “And it is something I need to think on carefully. But I think we have nothing to fear, now that we have a friend like you.”

I smiled at that. After a moment, Lumiere squared his shoulders. “So, tomorrow you will finish with the rest of the staff?”

“Yes, just a few left, and then I’ll have to really focus on making a plan to free your prince.”

He rubbed his chin and pretended to scan the books, but I could see his thoughts were elsewhere. “Have you noticed — well, one of the teacups. It’s missing.”

“Yes, I noticed, although I’m afraid I couldn’t say when it went missing. Mrs. Potts’s son, isn’t it?”

“Chip, yes,” he replied. “I think she’s a little afraid.”

“Of me?” I asked unflinchingly.

“No,” he answered quickly. “Perhaps that the spell will go wrong. Or perhaps she feels she can’t protect him, but it’s much easier to try when he’s just a teacup.”

I tucked my books into the crook of my arm and turned to him. “Do you think she’ll change her mind before I leave?”

“Yes,” he said, and then, quieter: “She must.”

The silence drew out between us, and finally Lumiere gave me a little bow. “Well, Mademoiselle Simone, I think I’ll retire for the evening. I expect I’ll see you bright and early for your last transformations.”

I smiled and nodded. “That you will. Thank you for the lovely toast at dinner, Monsieur Lumiere. It was very kind.”

He grinned, doffing an imaginary hat as he ducked out the door. “It was the least I could do for our resident witch. Good night, Mademoiselle.”

Chapter Text

The next morning dawned the warmest we had seen thus far. Fires were tamped in the grates, windows were thrown open, and laundry was hung over the kitchen gardens. I removed the last of the tile barrier from the balcony and took down what remained of the doors. I doubted the beast would venture close enough to even notice now, although I fiercely wished he would wander through the gap and simply wait his turn to be transformed. Nothing could be that easy, of course, and I put him out of my head to focus on the few staff members remaining.

I couldn’t shake the sense of ceremony about this day, and it made me nervous. Mrs. Potts and Lumiere seemed to feel it, too; they entered the ballroom more solemnly than usual, and I strained my focus to the breaking point. I didn’t want to get clumsy or careless with the end in sight, and every time another servant was ushered out of the ballroom and into the waiting arms of their old friends, I had to repress a shudder of relief.

When, at long last, the floor of the ballroom was empty, I slowly began to sort through my materials. Mrs. Potts and Lumiere returned to the room but I carefully continued, not looking at either of them as the tension in the room rose.

“Mrs. Potts,” Lumiere said gently. “Don’t you think it’s time?”

I sensed her bristle. “Time for what?”

“For Chip to see his mother again.”

She gave a short, humorless laugh. “Oh, I see. Well, perhaps it would be better to wait until the master is back to his old self. Don’t you think, Lumiere?”

“No,” Lumiere answered. “I don’t think that, my dear. I think, if you don’t do it now, there will never be a moment that seems safe enough to you.”

I heard her skirts rustle as she swung around to face me. “Mademoiselle Simone, don’t you think it would be best to wait? I’m sure you must be tired after the transformations you’ve just done.”

I rose slowly, turning to look at her squarely. “I’m not tired, Mrs. Potts.”

She backed a step toward the door, searching our faces desperately. “How can I bring him back to this? He won’t be able to go home and see his father. He won’t be able to go outside. He won’t even have a change of clothes!”

“But he’ll have his mother,” Lumiere cut in. “And sooner rather than later, he’ll have all those things returned to him. You mustn’t waste another second, Mrs. Potts. So much time has already been wasted. Let him be a boy again.”

Mrs. Potts’s face crumpled, and though I was no mother, I recognized the shame and fear in her expression. She clamped a hand over her mouth to muffle her sob, and Lumiere went to her, placing both hands on her shoulders.

“You are one of the bravest women I know,” he said softly. “You kept us on course all those years before the spell fully took hold. You’ve pulled us through this, too. Don’t let your courage fail you now.”

Mrs. Potts gulped in a long, quivering breath, taking Lumiere’s proffered handkerchief to dry her eyes. She said nothing, just turned to go, but he went with her, and they returned a few moments later.

A teacup almost identical to the rest was cradled ever-so-gently in Mrs. Potts’s palms. She walked slowly and carefully across the floor, almost seeming to plan her steps, and Lumiere stayed close beside her, eyes fixed on the cup like it was his own son trapped inside. When they finally reached me, I saw her hands were shaking, and she was keeping the cup balanced against her body.

I reached out, supporting her hands with mine until the trembling stopped. “You can hold him while I do this,” I said, meeting her gaze.

She shook her head; it was a quick, stiff movement. “No, no. I want you to be able to concentrate fully. I think he’s safer in your hands than mine.”

Mrs. Potts pushed the cup toward me, but she didn’t loosen her grip until she was certain my fingers were wrapped securely around it. I sank to the floor, placing the delicate china on the meager cushion of my bedroll, and began to work.

If I thought the rest of the transformations would have prepared me for this, I was wrong. Of course I’d known it would be more difficult than the rest, simply because Chip had been a teacup far longer than he’d been a boy.

But I didn’t expect the moment of sheer, blank panic when I looked at the spell and saw only china. I swallowed and pushed the fear away, sinking deeper into the spell and teasing its strands apart, searching for the threads that contained humanity. Even when I began to see them, I was not comforted. There seemed to be so little of him left, so few elements that weren’t tied to that delicate, shell-like material with its painted roses.

To make matters worse, I could sense Mrs. Potts’s fearful stare, could practically feel the anxious wringing of her hands. At the beginning, I was conscious of my expression; I actively worked to keep my face neutral, to keep her from guessing how dire the situation truly was. But after an hour and a half, sweat was dripping off my chin and there was no hiding that I was fighting a losing battle.

Unlike every transformation thus far, Chip seemed to fight me. The bonded elements resented my intrusion and slipped through my grasp, clinging to each other even tighter than before. It was bad enough when I first began to parse the spell and thought, perhaps, he’d stay a teacup forever. I thought it would get easier once I broke a few strands, that perhaps the spell would begin to unravel as the others has, but instead I found myself struggling just as hard to make progress but already past the point of no return. If I let go now, both boy and teacup would cease to exist.

I didn’t think of the enchantress. I couldn’t spare a thought. Anger was no longer my friend; the slightest loss of control would destroy this life. I had nothing except iron will and the knowledge that I was the only one who could do this. After a while, even Mrs. Potts’s fear meant nothing to me, and I could no longer feel her presence looming over me. There was only the spell, and when the last strand came into view, I thought it must be a trick.

But I broke it nonetheless.

I found myself on my feet with no memory of standing. Mrs. Potts was on her knees, golden glow illuminating her wide, teary eyes. The ballroom was full, packed with the rest of the staff. The heat and human smell was oppressive, but I was frozen in place, waiting to see what happened along with everyone else.

Left on my bedroll was the limp figure of a little boy. His hair was the same chestnut color as Mrs. Potts’s, but he was deathly pale. Mrs. Potts gave a horrible cry and surged forward, hands fluttering inches above him but never touching. I felt a hole open up in my chest.

But then there was a little cough, and the boy’s chest rose and fell. He opened his eyes; they flickered over me for an instant, blank and lifeless as a doll, and for a long, terrible second I thought I had returned his body without his mind. Mrs. Potts said, tremulously, “Chip?”

His gaze snapped to hers like a magnet, and in that instant, all the life seemed to come back to him. “Mama?” he said, his voice a threadbare whisper.

“Oh, Chip!” Mrs. Potts cried, and she pulled him to her and pressed her lips to the top of his head, tears dropping onto his hair. Standing behind her as I was, I saw his fingers twitch, and then he slowly wrapped his arms around her.

That was all I needed to see.

I fled the room, pushing my way through the staff and pounding down the stairs. All the fears I’d kept at bay for the hours I’d worked on the spell came crashing in, and my stomach was roiling. Every muscle in my body was fatigued, but the need to escape the room and the pressure of every hope and fear inside it outweighed my weariness. My skin was clammy and my hands were shaking, and when I bolted out the kitchen door, I stood for a moment in the sunlight, heaving in clean, fresh air.

It didn’t help. I retched to the side of the path until my stomach was empty, and as I wiped my mouth, I heard someone coming down the kitchen stairs and calling my name. I couldn’t face any of them right now; I couldn’t take their good-natured concern. I picked myself and kept running, and I didn’t stop until I got to the forest.

Spring had fully taken hold now, and in a matter of steps I was surrounded by fresh, translucent green. The birdsong was a constant harmony, and the smell of rotting logs and upturned earth and blossoms filled the air. I heaved in another few deep breaths and let nature sink into me.

I’m not sure when I started to cry, but at some point I realized the birdsong had gone quiet around me, and instead all I heard was my own shuddering sobs. I sank down onto a stump and pulled my knees into my chest, trying to let go of everything that had brought this on. The boy was fine, I told myself. He would be all right. He had his mother, and he still had his whole life ahead of him.

And yet, I knew I had been walking a precipice. The breaking of the spell could have — and almost had — gone wrong a hundred times in a thousand different ways, and the delayed realization that he might never be whole even though the transformation had gone as well as possible was a lingering constriction in my chest. How could I have explained that to her? How would I have told her that her little boy had been so inextricable from that teacup that he would never really come back?

I kept trying to put the thought out of my head, because it hadn’t happened. That was no longer a possibility, so I had nothing to fear. But I kept seeing those empty eyes staring at me, and every time, an icy hand wrapped around my heart and squeezed. Worst of all, the anger that had been so ever-present — no matter how muted — throughout this entire saga was gone. Instead of reaffirming my determination to hold this enchantress to account, I felt she had defeated me.

Some part of me knew I was just tired and overwrought, and in reality it was I who was winning this proxy battle. However, even the notion that this enchantress might see these people only as pawns discouraged me deeply. This was not our purpose, I kept thinking.

Eventually my tears stopped, leaving only exhaustion in their place. I let my head tip back and closed my eyes, lifting my face to the sun and drinking in its warmth. It was then that my ears picked up a sound not made by any forest creature, and I opened my eyes again, already knowing what I’d see.

Just as before, the beast was sitting and staring at me. I hadn’t heard him approach, and I guessed I had only heard him now because he wanted me to. I didn’t say anything at first, just wrapped my arms around my knees and looked back at him. I felt hollowed out, too tired to speak, and perhaps that was exactly what he needed.

He shuffled forward a few steps, keeping his weird blue eyes fixed on me; his gaze seemed to hold a mixture of curiosity and suspicion, which was perhaps the most animal expression I’d ever seen on his face. He paused, as if waiting for me to run, and when I didn’t, he came forward a few more steps.

I stayed still and silent, and in a few moments, every thought about Chip and the enchantress and my own despair was gone. I had been up close and personal with bears and wolves, even a mountain lion once, but the beast was something else. The size of him would have rivaled even a large bear, and the twisted magic of the spell gave him an alarming presence. Now that he was so near, I could see that his form was truly terrible. The enchantress had stolen bits and pieces from at least three different animals, and I wondered if he was in constant pain. Perhaps he might not even feel it anymore, but I didn’t doubt that this body was meant to deteriorate steadily and horribly.

He was so close now that his smell was overwhelming, and even hunched, he towered over me. He was nearer to me than he had ever been, but he kept enough distance that I didn’t have to crane my neck to look at him. For the first time, I sensed that he knew I could and would help him, and perhaps he was willing to let me.

I slowly stretched my hand out to him. It was not a thing I would ever do with a wild animal; this was a solely human gesture, one that I needed him to understand and respond to. Without understanding, there could be no trust, and I would need trust from him far more than I needed it from the rest of the castle’s inhabitants.

He did not recoil from my hand, but he stared at it for a long time, his eyes flicking between my outstretched fingers and my gaze. His nostrils flared and his ears twitched nervously — animal expressions on an animal body — but I could see the muscles of his face working in a way that could only be human. I stayed still and silent, waiting to see which side of him would win out.

After a long moment, he lifted his own hand. I thought, perhaps, it would be as simple as that, but no sooner had his hand neared mine, it threw the size and hair and claws into sharp relief. A shadow crossed his face, and I knew instantly he would withdraw. I took a risk.

I reached forward and closed the inches between us, seizing his own hand with mine. It was so large I could hardly fold my fingers over his, and I struggled not to flinch as his claws scraped the thin skin of my wrist. He froze, staring down with an expression I could no longer recognize as human or animal.

“It’s time to come home,” I said, my voice hardly above a whisper. “It’s time to return to your castle, and to your people, and to yourself.”

His ears flicked at the sound of my voice, but he was still looking at our hands. He was completely still, as if he were afraid to move, afraid that the slightest contraction of his muscles would be deadly. Then, ever so slowly, I felt tendons shift, and his fingers wrapped around mine delicately. This was old muscle memory, the gentle cradling of a woman’s hand to lift it to lips, to draw her into a dance, to lead her into the library.

The beast finally looked up at me again, and the expression on his face was almost disbelieving. I squeezed his fingers briefly.

“You’re the only one left,” I said. “All your servants are back to their old selves, and they’re worried for you. Won’t you come back with me? Won’t you reclaim your place, and your life?”

He didn’t answer, but I saw the planes of his face shift beneath the fur again, and then I saw his tongue slip out to wet his lips. It was not an animal gesture to taste the air, but a human one, one of nervousness and uncertainty. I stood up from my stump, moving closer to him and pressing my other hand on his, and waited.

“I…”

The sound was mostly an inhale, as indistinct as the sighing of wind through a cave, but I heard the shape of a word, and I felt the intention.

“…will.”

There was no mistaking it this time, although the form of the letters was clearly a struggle for him, and I couldn’t stop the grin from breaking across my face. His mouth twitched, a semblance of a smile revealing itself on yellowed canines, but more than anything I could see it in his eyes, and suddenly their humanness was not so alarming.

I took a step toward the castle, pulling him with me, and he came willingly, his enormous feet obliterating my own prints. I could feel his trepidation as we passed through the garden, felt a tremor of nerves when the servants’ voices became audible, but his footsteps didn’t falter until we came to the door.

“Just stay calm,” I told him. “If you don’t scare them, I know they’ll be happy to see you. Are you ready?”

His eyes were fixed on my hand on the knob, but his head bobbed like a nod, so I took it as an affirmative. Hoping the staff would prove me right on everything I’d just said, I took a deep breath and pushed open the door.

The interior of the castle had been a quiet flurry of activity, and it all came to a dead stop the moment the beast stepped over the threshold. Every eye in the hall turned on us, and we both froze — both of us, I think, expected the worst. I opened my mouth to break the silence, to say something that would impress upon all of them how desperately important it was that no one scream or brandish a broom. Before I could, another voice rang out through the air.

“Your Highness! You have returned to us!”

Lumiere came down the steps in a slightly more careful version of his usual cavorting, and he stopped a few feet from us and sank into a deep bow. After one split second of hesitation, the rest of the staff followed suit, and Lumiere hedged an upward glance.
“We have been worried for your safety, your Majesty,” he said quietly. “We are overjoyed that you have decided to return home.”

It was the best thing he could’ve said. The beast released my hand, and I saw Lumiere quail slightly as the mammoth footsteps shook the lone vase perched on the single remaining entry table. The entire hall seemed to wait on the same bated breath, and then the beast leaned down, placing his hand slowly on Lumiere’s shoulder.

“Lu…miere,” was all he said, but the maître’d’s face lit up like, well, a candelabra.

He stood, one shoulder drooping slightly under the weight of the beast’s massive paw, and then he turned to address the rest of the gaping staff.

“Maids, fetch the craftsman and get to the west wing,” he bellowed. “I want it fit for a prince by nightfall! Valets, draw a bath for the master, and fetch him whatever you can to make him more comfortable! Mrs. Potts —”

He broke off; Mrs. Potts was standing in the entrance to the study holding Chip, and both were staring at the beast wide-eyed. “Er, Mrs. Potts is busy,” Lumiere said, recovering, “So do your best and don’t make me stand over your shoulder to watch you!”

“Try not to overwhelm him, Lumiere,” I said lowly, “although I do think you’re right about making him more comfortable. He has a few old injuries I can see to.”

Lumiere nodded stoutly to me and then returned his gaze to the beast, stepping aside and sweeping a hand toward the staircase. “If you’ll follow me, my liege — we’ll have you clean and warm and dry in no time.”

I expected hesitation, but the beast followed after him almost meekly. I didn’t envy whoever had the job of trying to get water and soap through the mats of hair that covered him, but that, at least, was not my problem.

I knew I owed Mrs. Potts … well, I owed her something. Perhaps not an explanation, but I must’ve seemed terribly callous running away when I did. I approached her slowly, not wanting to startle the boy in her arms; even with the beast out of sight, his eyes were still as round and glassy as crystal buttons.

“I can hardly believe it,” she murmured to me without preamble. “It wasn’t so long ago I thought he would kill us both, and you’ve walked him in here like a little lamb.”

“Not so little,” I chuckled. “Hopefully, a good deal easier to bathe than a lamb.”

Chip was staring at me silently, and I smiled at him nervously, hoping to elicit an expression that didn’t remind me of a stunned deer. Mrs. Potts tucked her head against his and reached her free hand out to me. I took it gratefully, and she squeezed my fingers.

“Chip, dear, this is Mademoiselle Simone. She rescued you. Did you see her, when you woke up?”

“Yes,” he said softly, and then: “You’re a witch.”

“That’s right,” I said. “You’re a very clever boy.”

I almost offered to show him a spell, somethings simple and pretty that children usually liked, but I thought better of it. Magic had been no friend to him so far in life, and plenty of pretty, everyday objects turned out to be not as they appeared. As it turned out, my little compliment made him suddenly shy anyway, and he ducked his head into the crook of Mrs. Potts’s neck. She laughed a little, and jostled him until he looked at her again.

“Well, with everyone else busy, I think we’d best go see to supper. The master will surely be hungry. What do you think?”

Chip nodded silently again, but this time he kicked down and walked beside her, holding her hand tightly as they disappeared into the kitchens. I went up the stairs, winding my way to the west wing. I was eager to see it as anything other than a glorified cave, and I had a few spells that might come in handy for the craftsman.

It had only been a few minutes since Lumiere gave his orders, but the west wing was already unrecognizable. Perhaps it was due to the sheer influx of life that swarmed over it like ants, but the maids had quickly disposed of the bone-laden nest and crusty pile of blankets, and the craftsman and other able-bodied staff were rehanging chandeliers and doors. The broken table that had once held the enchanted rose was gone, and much of the other furniture was being carried out in pieces. What could be salvaged was in capable hands, so I jumped in with the maids to scrub and dust and wash.

After days of sitting motionless and staring at transformed furniture, the hard work felt good. The energy in the wing felt good, too; their master was still barely capable of speech, but the staff were alight with excitement, and between the sweat and the cheerful chatter, I realized my earlier despair couldn’t have been farther from reality.

The enchantress had not defeated these people, or the beast. And she certainly hadn’t defeated me.

***

I was still carrying that good humor with me when I went to see the beast the next morning. He was dressed — in a manner of speaking — and he no longer carried the stink of an unwashed animal, but the impression he’d left on the bed suggested he’d slept curled up on it like a dog, and it seemed to be a conscious effort for him to walk on two legs.

“I thought I would tend to your injuries first,” I said. “Then I can get to work on the spell. How does that sound?”

He nodded once; I suspected that would be our main form of communication until I broke this enchantment, unless it took me so long he recovered his speech first. I hoped that wouldn’t be the case.

“Why don’t you sit?” I suggested. “I’ll work on your back legs — er, your legs — first.”

I flushed at my faux pas, but if the beast noticed, his expression didn’t change one iota. Rather than pulling up a chair, he sank to the floor, leaning back against the wall. I knelt down beside him, making sure he was watching before I touched him.

His legs seemed to me like a large-boned wolf, while most of the rest of him was bear-like. The tendons at the back of the legs were gnarled with scar tissue, and after a cursory examination, I selected my healing materials, drew energy from the small fire in the grate, and began to work.

The magic in his body fought me immediately. This part of the spell had a living thing to feed off of, and it resented my intrusion. The roiling energy of it took me aback. The smoothing and renewal of scar tissue was one of the easiest healing spells I knew, but the enchantress’s magic forced me to set my teeth and focus on every knot of the scars.

I had to consciously keep my touch light on the beast; the last thing I wanted was to inadvertently sink my nails in with the effort and send him into a rage. Still, the strain of it tightened my shoulders and shook my hands, and when I finally finished the first leg, sweat had broken out on my forehead.

I glanced up at him and found the expression on his face unreadable. “Does that feel better?” I asked, sounding like I’d just run a flight of stairs. He just stared back at me questioningly, and I flexed his foot gently, noting to myself that the nails were like a wolf’s, too.

“Better?” I repeated, and this time he nodded, flexing the foot without my guidance. The improvement seemed to settle him a little, and he leaned back more loosely against the wall. I put my hand on his other leg and took the opportunity to get a good look at the spell that bound him.

The magic inside him was seething. It reacted to my simple inspection like a horde of angry bees, and I knew he must be able to sense it. Knowing what I did now, I was amazed he could be this calm, this rational; a magic this constant and disruptive would’ve driven me off the edge of a cliff years ago. Unlike the elements of the spell that had bound the staff, which drifted like spider webs in the gentle breath of a breeze, this magic twisted and writhed, coiling around every strand of muscle and bone and hair with the predatory intention of a boa constrictor.

I didn’t say anything to him about it, instead beginning to work on the thickened tendons on the back of the leg, but a deep trepidation had set in. The freeing of the forest, the castle, the staff — none of it had prepared me for this. It would take a lot more time and a lot more work than I’d thought.

“I know why you turned the enchantress away,” I heard myself say after a few minutes. It was probably the worst possible time to start this conversation; I couldn’t spare a glance at his face to gauge his reaction, and yet the words were tumbling out of my mouth. “I know she started coming to you after your mother died. I know what she tried to convince you to do. You were afraid of her, weren’t you? You knew exactly who she was and what she wanted when she came to the ball that night, and turning her away was the only thing you could do.”

I could sense his entire frame above me rattling with tension. I shut my eyes and kept working, trying not to think of the teeth and claws and hundreds of pounds of muscle that could descend on my head at any second.

“Yes,” he said finally, the sound almost indistinguishable from a long exhale. “I was … a child.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what she tried to do, and that she tried to make you think you deserved this curse. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to break it.”

It hardly scratched the surface of what I meant to say. Of course, trying to find mere words to soothe the pain of the last twenty years was a hopeless cause anyway, but I felt that the blame for this situation needed to be addressed directly. His servants had accepted this curse as divine punishment, and he had kept the true depths of the enchantress’s evil from them all these years.

“None of the staff know,” I said. “Why didn’t you ever tell them?”

The tendons under my fingers were smooth and whole now, so I finally glanced up at him. He was looking back down at me but his eyes were unfocused, not quite seeing. The muscles in his cheek were working, and I realized he might not be able to articulate the reason even if he wanted to share it.

“Was a child,” he said again at last. “Wouldn’t … have believed me.”

There was another long silence. I was too tired to get up of the floor, so I pulled my knees up to my chest and waited.

“After … years,” he continued. “Wasn’t sure it was real. Maybe my imagination. I almost forgot … till now.”

“It was real,” I said softly. “She tried to manipulate you for something horrible. Someone should’ve been there to protect you.”

His eyes shifted to mine at that, and his lips lifted briefly from his fangs in a semblance of a smile. “You’re here now.”

Chapter Text

Almost every waking hour I had in the next week was devoted to studying the spell that bound the beast. The only reason it wasn’t every, hour was because he quickly tired of me hovering over him silently from dawn until dusk, and on the fourth day, he sent me dashing from the west wing with a bellowing roar.

As I bolted out the door, I almost ran smack dab into Mrs. Potts, who paled drastically. “It’s fine,” I said, a little breathlessly. “He’s just seen too much of me, I think.”

“Oh,” she said, glancing down at the tray of tea and biscuits she was carrying. “Do you think he’ll feel the same about me?”

“I think you’ll be all right,” I said. “Maybe just don’t tarry?”

She nodded firmly and swept inside. I heard her say, “Your tea, Highness,” and get a loud, grumpy snort in return. She stepped quickly back through again, and shut the door behind her.

“Perhaps a bit of cabin fever,” she said lowly. “It must be quite the adjustment for him, after wandering through the forest as he pleased for so long. How is the spell coming?”

I hesitated. This was not the first time someone had asked that question. I’d had my suspicions for a few days, but since I hadn’t been sure, I’d avoided a straight answer. Now, though, there no avoiding the truth.

“I think it could take months,” I said softly. “There are so many elements to consider. This is living magic; it has changed as he has changed, and it moves as he moves, and it fights me at every turn. Every time I think I’ve isolated a part of it, it shifts out of my grasp, or I look ahead and see how catastrophic it would be to break it. If I’m not careful, he could end up half man, half beast, and what would that do to him? Would it simply be awkward and uncomfortable, or would it kill him? I can’t say for sure.”

Mrs. Potts had gone quite pale again, but when I finished, she straightened her shoulders and gave me a firm, comforting pat on the arm.

“Months is not so long to wait, compared to twenty years,” she said. “If anyone can do it, you can. While he’s cooling down, why don’t you go have a walk in the garden, clear your head? Chip is out there somewhere, helping the gardeners.”

She released a little sigh as she said it, as though just the thought that Chip was out of her sight worried her. Still, considering she had been hiding his teacup away just a week ago, I thought she’d made a remarkable effort to simply let him be a child again.

“I’ll go find him,” I said. “When we come back, perhaps we can all have some tea.”

“That would be lovely,” she said. “I’ll be in the kitchens; come find me when you’ve had a breath of fresh air.”

She swept off toward the kitchens, and I followed her advice and headed outdoors. The gardeners had been pruning with a vengeance, and the garden maze that had once been devious and overgrown was quickly taking shape again. The trees in the orchard were already beginning to bud, and the kitchen gardens had been planted up so thickly I suspected it would be bursting at the seams by summer.

I caught a glimpse of the gardeners, George and Louise, in the southeast corner. Bits of evergreen were flying, and I could hear them talking animatedly to each other, as they always were. As I drew closer, their conversation took shape; they were arguing over the form of a topiary, which had once, apparently, been rather beast-like, and seemed a bit gauche now.

“Hello!” I called, a little louder than strictly necessary, but with the way those two wielded shears and knives, I wanted to be certain they were aware of me.

“Good morning, Mademoiselle Simone!” Louise exclaimed. “How goes it with the prince?”

“Slowly and a bit grumpily,” I answered. “I think we both needed a little time to ourselves. Mrs. Potts said Chip was out here with you?”

“Oh, yes,” George said, scanning the garden from the top of his stepladder. “He’s just there, in the old rose garden.”

“Speaking of that,” Louise said to him, “I think we should replant that entirely. He probably won’t want to see a rose ever again.”

George looked scandalized. “Some of those roses are seventy years old! Are you mad?”

I left them to their argument, following the direction George had pointed me in. The bushes surrounding the rose garden were still largely untouched, and I began to have a little déjà vu as I struggled through the branches. Of course, the sun was out and the temperature was a sight warmer than the last time I’d done this, and the needles I brushed loose quickly began to stick to my face and in my hair.

“Chip?” I called, hoping he might come to me and I wouldn’t have to battle all the way through this section of the garden. But there was no answer, so I kept the stone structure of the rose garden in my gaze and pushed forward.

When I finally burst out of the bushes, I was struck by how silent this place was. I could no longer hear George and Louise, and even the slight breeze seemed to be absent here. The roses were only just beginning to recover, green growth showing at the base of the stone wall, but the rest of it was covered in brown, dead vines. A prickle of unease ran up my neck.

“Chip?” I said again, loudly. There was still no answer, and I stepped through the stone arches into the center of the structure. It was there I found him sitting against the wall, staring at the matching arch across the way. I paused, not wanting to startle him if he really hadn’t heard me, but then he turned to look at me, unprompted.

“There was a lady here,” he said.

My heart climbed into my mouth. I glanced furtively around, but there was no sign of anyone else; not to my eyes, anyway. “A lady?” I asked gently. “Where?”

He pointed silently toward the opposite arch, and I moved carefully across the center of the circle. Just outside the stone structure, I found no lady, but a rose bush.

The sight of a flower had never caused so much hatred in me before. The single rose was a slaughterous red, lurid as a drop of blood in a mat of leaves so dark they were nearly black. Its petals were obscene in their lushness, the head of the bloom drooping with its own extravagant weight. The thorns were as long as my thumb.

I could feel the magic coming off it in waves, and I knew its presence to be both a taunt and a tether. How many ways could she pervert one of nature’s most beautiful gifts?

I reached down and grasped the bloom, crushing it in my hand until liquid ran between my fingers, and I let my magic eat the life out of it until it shriveled and curled. With my other hand I summoned fire and smoked the thing down the roots.

Be warned, witch.

I turned and swept back across the rose garden, seizing Chip’s hand as I went and pulling him with me.

“Did the lady say anything to you, Chip?” I asked calmly, trying not to frighten him even though my own heart was racing. “Did she give you anything?”

“She didn’t give me anything,” he answered, and there was an edge to his voice that made me think he was picking up on my fear. “She asked me if I wanted to see my papa again.”

“And what did you say to her?”

“I … I said yes. And then she said she would bring him … and some friends.”

I bit back a curse and forced myself to slow my pace a little, trying to take deep breaths. “Did I do something wrong, Mademoiselle Simone?” he asked, still trotting to keep up with me.

“No, you didn’t do anything wrong at all,” I said, willing a small smile to my face. “What did the lady look like?”

“She was old. She had long gray hair.”

I should have expected this. Even if the enchantress had left long ago, the breaking of a spell this size would always be felt by its caster. As much as I relished the idea of taking her in single combat, she had already made it clear she intended to cause casualties, and that was something I hadn’t prepared for. “We’re going to have tea with your mama, all right?” I said. “That’s why I came out here to find you.”

“All right,” he said in a small voice.

We were almost running by the time we reached the palace doors. Lumiere was in the entry way, supervising the rehanging of one of the chandeliers. His face brightened when he saw us, only to fall immediately when I seized his arm.

“Call everyone back inside,” I said lowly. “Hurry. I don’t know how much time we have.”

I took Chip to the kitchens as I’d promised, and Mrs. Potts took one look at my face and knew something was wrong.

“Everything’s fine,” I preempted her with false cheerfulness. “We’re here for tea. After that, Chip might want to have a nap while you and I talk to everyone.”

“Oh, well you’re right on time,” Mrs. Potts said. “Chip, wash your hands, dear. Did you have a nice time in the garden?”

“I saw a lady,” Chip said, climbing onto a stepstool to reach the pump. “An old lady. She said she would bring Papa to us.”

Mrs. Potts looked at me over his head, and I nodded grimly. For the third time that day, she went white as a sheet, but she quickly recovered her expression and patted Chip’s head. “Well, that’s quite odd, isn’t it? Mademoiselle Simone is going to make it so we can go see Papa very soon. Do you want jam on your biscuits, love?”

“Yes, please.”

Outside the kitchens, I could hear people shuffling into the great hall, and my stomach twisted. I wasn’t sure what I would tell them, because I didn’t know for sure what the enchantress was planning, but I knew she hadn’t come here with peacemaking in mind. What she had said to Chip seemed like a veiled threat, and the words had relit the coals of anger that had been smoldering in my chest. Clearly she would stop at nothing, not even using families against each other.

Mrs. Potts and I made a pretense of sipping our tea and chatting while Chip finished his biscuits. I kept glancing at the clock; it was some old bronze monstrosity someone had dug out of a closet, but if the time was right, only five minutes passed. It felt like years, and Chip had barely finished chewing his last bite before Mrs. Potts whisked him off to their room.

I composed myself and pushed through the doors, making my way into the hall. Everyone was assembled, and I felt their anxious stares as I passed through the crowd. Perhaps I should’ve only told Lumiere and Mrs. Potts and let them decide how to share this information — what little there was.

Lumiere was on the staircase where everyone could see him, so that’s where I went. Mrs. Potts joined the gathering a few minutes later, and I cleared my throat.

“I don’t wish to alarm any of you, but the enchantress who cursed you made an appearance today. I didn’t see her myself, but I have no doubt she was here, and I believe she intends to do harm. What kind of harm, or in what way, I can’t say; I wish I could.

“I realize this isn’t much to go on, so there isn’t much we can do to prepare. But we should all be vigilant, and I think it would be a good idea to delay some of the cleanup activities — the garden, and perhaps some of the lesser-used towers. Stay in pairs and small groups, and if you see the slightest thing out of place, you call for me immediately.

“I don’t want you to live in fear — that’s what she wants. I am more than a match for her, if it comes down to that, but at the moment, she has the element of surprise.”

I felt more than heard heavy footsteps behind me, and then something blotted out the light from the chandelier above me.

“This … is … our home,” the beast said haltingly, the consonants garbled by his teeth but the meaning clear nonetheless. “We will … defend it.”

This brought a rousing cheer from the assembled staff, and I glanced up at him, a smile breaking across my face despite myself. Trepidation was still roiling my stomach, but I knew the odds were against the enchantress no matter the unknowns. I had undone so much of her work already, and what was left may yet come back to haunt her.

***

The first night was long. Lumiere scheduled watches in shifts, but nearly every one woke me up for something out of place. It was exactly what I’d told them to do, and it was hard to communicate the nuance of the idea, but tipped brooms and rumpled rugs weren’t exactly what I meant. By the time morning came, the circles under my eyes were as dark as ink, and I could only gather a few hours of focus to study the beast’s spell.

The staff’s hyper-vigilance quickly died off, and by the third day, I was having to remind them to always travel with at least one other person if they went outside the castle. That was even more worrisome, because I guessed she would be waiting for a lapse to make her move.

I took my shift at watch early in the night, finding it easier to stay up rather than shift into wakefulness after a few hours’ sleep. The watch was hardly formal, and I spent most of my time on the balcony outside the ballroom, staring into the night and wondering what was looking back.

It was there that Monsieur Cadenza and Madame de Garderobe found me. We had all been surprised when the pair volunteered to take a watch shift and even more surprised they’d maintained it, since they went everywhere clutching each other’s hands and peeking fearfully around doorways. They hummed almost constantly to soothe their own nerves as they patrolled, complete with perfectly-tuned melodies and harmonies, and the sound of them had become something of a comfort.

“Do you see anything, Mademoiselle Simone?” Cadenza asked as the pair hovered behind me on the balcony.

I turned, smiling with as much cheer as I could muster. “Nothing tonight, Monsieur and Madame. What about yourselves?”

“No, nothing,” Madame de Garderobe quavered. “If only we knew a little more about what to expect.”

“I know,” I said grimly. “It worries me, too. But I take comfort knowing that none of her work, at least thus far, has been able to resist me in the end. Together, we’ll be all right.”

Almost none of her work, I corrected myself mentally. The spell on the beast was a wicked and impressive thing. It was her pièce de résistance; I couldn’t imagine how long it had taken her to formulate, and I shuddered to think of her locked away in that hut, enchanting rose after rose without sparing a thought to the fallout.

“You know, the prince and Belle were standing right here when he truly realized he loved her,” Monsieur Cadenza said, breaking my train of thought. “Just after they danced for the first time. He let her go, and he stood here watching her as she rode away.”

“Right then?” I asked curiously. “Mrs. Potts told me she left after her father took ill.”

Mademoiselle Garderobe nodded emphatically. “Yes, it was mere minutes afterward. She said she was happy, except that she wished she could see her father again. Our poor prince gave her the mirror —”

My blood turned to ice in my veins as another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. Of course it was the enchantress’s “gift” that had led to Belle’s sudden exit from the castle. The efficacy in this curse lay in the tiny glimmer of hope its caster provided, the sliver of a chance that someone might break the spell. No matter how small the chance, the enchantress had left safeguards in place to make sure the spell was never broken; the fact that Belle and the beast had been separated just when their trust in each other had begun to flower was no coincidence.

I said nothing, and Madame de Garderobe and Monsieur Cadenza rambled on, reliving the waltz that Belle and the beast had danced in this room. It was not the first time I’d heard this reminisced. No matter what had happened afterward, the staff seemed to hold that memory as precious. As I listened, my eyes caught a glimmer of light in the forest.

At first I thought it was my imagination, or perhaps an early firefly, but it was far too early, and that firefly would be hovering far too high. I saw it again, a twinkle of yellow light, and frowned, squinting into the forest.

There was another, and another, and Madame de Garderobe stopped talking. Over the garden, the sound of voices drifted toward us; I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it sounded like a chant, or a song, and even at this distance I could sense the intention. The enchantress had brought the villagers, just as I’d feared.

I turned to the couple beside me, and I saw in their faces they knew what was happening. I took both their hands, turning their attention toward me.

“That’s her,” I said lowly. “Rouse everyone. Be calm and be quick. Find whatever will serve you as a weapon.”

“But those are our friends and neighbors!” Cadenza cried. “They may not remember, but they are!”

“I know,” I said. “Whatever weapons you find, I will do everything in my power to make sure you don’t have to use them. But we must be ready.”

I followed them out of the ballroom, splitting off when we reached the hallway. I went to bedroom after bedroom, rousing the staff with a few quick words. After a few minutes, I could hear the entire castle coming to anxious life, and at last, I went to the west wing.

The beast was already awake, standing on the balcony and watching the approaching invasion. He was very still, and I sensed no tension from him at all. I went to stand beside him, saw that the snaking line of villagers had almost reached the edge of the forest.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said. “Clearly she’s confident in her memory spell — she wants to pit friends and families against each other. I know you said you would all defend your home, but that was against the enchantress herself. She may not even be among them; she may have sent them here on her terrible crusade and stayed behind. Mrs. Potts, and Chip … how can we ask them to fight? They have lost so much already, and I can’t bear the thought of them losing one of their own this way.”

I wasn’t expecting an answer; the beast had shown no sign of hearing me, but when I had finished, he turned to face me.

“Send them … away,” he said. “You and I … will fight.”

I hadn’t told him of the contingency I’d planned, mainly because I didn’t know how well it would work. I had never created a spell like this, hadn’t had time to test it, and if we sent the staff away we might very well find ourselves alone against an entire village.

“I … will distract,” he said when I didn’t answer; the act of finding the words was clearly effortful. “You cut … the head off the snake.”

There wasn’t enough time to argue with him, nor to work out a more detailed plan. I turned and ran back to the hall. The staff were assembled, just as they had been a few nights ago, but the tension was ratcheted up to breaking. I recognized a few of the makeshift weapons from the night they’d nearly gone looking for me, and the desperation in their eyes was the same, too.

“You all need to leave, now,” I said, my voice ringing out loudly. “Your prince commands it. Run into the forest, and we will put an end to this. There is no time to argue; take whatever supplies you can find in the next few minutes, and then go out the kitchen door. You must stay out of sight.”

There was a low, confused murmur through the crowd, but none of them moved. After a breath, Lumiere stepped forward.

“With all due respect to you and the master, Mademoiselle Simone, this is our home,” he said gently. “We’re not leaving it. And we won’t leave you alone to defend it.”

“And those are your families,” I said desperately, pointing north in the direction of the encroaching mass of humanity. “They are your friends!”

“Yes, they are,” he answered. “And no spell can change that.”

“But it has!” I shouted. “For twenty years, they have forgotten you! How can you be sure they will remember now? And what will you do if you’re wrong?”

Amelie stepped forward; her hands were white-knuckled on a rolling pin. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” she said. “Lumiere is right. We won’t leave you and the prince.”

I looked over the crowd and saw only nods of agreement, determination replacing desperation. Paul’s eyes met mine, and he nodded grimly.

My mind raced. I could hear the chants outside getting louder and louder, and they were so close now I could make out what they were saying:

“Kill the beast! Kill the beast! Kill the beast!”

The staff heard it too, and I saw their faces darken as one.

“Bar the door,” I said loudly, reclaiming their attention. “Whatever you can find to shore it up, bring it. I have time to put a barrier spell on these front two windows, but that’s all. Whoever can’t fight —” I looked at Mrs. Potts and Chip and a few of the frailer, older servants — “barricade yourselves in the cellar. If the worst should happen, you can get out through the kitchen.”

With that, the crowd dispersed in a flurry of activity. Most of the men went about grabbing whatever heavy pieces of furniture were left in the castle or nailing shut the smaller doors. I set to work sealing over the windows, drawing on the nature of wood to make them more difficult to break. If I’d had time, I would’ve taken stone, but stone took longer and was more difficult to draw on.

The beast appeared beside me when I was nearly finished, a questioning look on his face. “They wouldn’t leave,” I said tensely. “Perhaps you should. It’s you they’re after.”

I didn’t need to say it; the chanting could be heard loud and clear by now. Through the window I was sealing, I could see two horses leading the way, and I recognized the rider on the right. The breadth of his shoulders, the size of the horse, the way his voice carried across the garden: it could only be Gaston.

The rider on the left I didn’t know. They were hooded and cloaked, but the slightness made me think they must be a woman.

“No,” the beast said simply. “I will stay.”

“If you insist,” I said. “I think you’ll have to contend with the hunter extraordinaire, unfortunately. He'll be coming after you no matter what.”

For the first time, the beast really, truly smiled, and it was a fearsome thing to behold. It was then I thought of Mrs. Potts’s remembrance of the prince as a child, and that, while flawed, his nature was good. It was then that I believed her, because that smile held in it all the potential damage he could inflict — could have already, and had chosen not to. If there was one thing I was intimately familiar with, it was the true nature of things, and I thought that anyone truly evil wouldn’t have despaired in this form, but reveled in it. This beast could have been a monster of legend, wreaking havoc on every nearby town until the hills emptied back into the cities, but he hadn’t. It may have seemed like a low standard, but twenty years of isolation had done worse to people who looked far more human.

And I knew then what I would do, if I had the chance.

I finished sealing the window and turned to him. “Can you get us down to the ground from the balcony?” I asked.

“Dangerous,” he said, and then: “Yes.”

“Good. I turned my attention to the staff in the hall. “Hold here,” I shouted. “We’re going out to face them.”

With that, we turned and dashed up the stairs. The beast easily outpaced me, and he was already waiting on the balcony in the west wing when I arrived. The riders had already passed through the unkempt part of the garden, and in the midst of the villagers I could see the shape of a battering ram.

“We need to get down there, before they get to work with that,” I said.

The beast said nothing, only loosed an earth-shaking roar that echoed over the grounds. The creeping mass of villagers stopped as one unit, and I saw pale face after pale face turn toward us. The riders turned too, and still I couldn’t see the face of the woman beside Gaston. There was reason to think it could be Belle, and reason to think it couldn’t be.

“There’s the monster!” Gaston bellowed. “And the witch beside him! Kill them both!”

“On my back,” the beast growled, the words barely understandable. “Hold tight.”

I climbed on as gracefully as I could; I could hardly get my arms around the thick, buffalo-like neck, and suddenly the ground below us was swimming. I closed my eyes and buried my face in the fur.

“Go,” I said. “Tell me when we’ve hit the ground.”

Muscles gathered underneath me, and the beast launched himself off the edge of the balcony. My stomach pitched as gravity caught hold of us and I squeezed my eyes shut even harder, just before he landed hard on the lower tower. He grunted with the impact, and I heard roofing tiles shatter under his feet. It was a scarce few seconds before he took off again, and I felt the awkward twisting in his body as he sought to make the angle. Another shattering landing, another grunt, and I cracked my eyes open. We were on the roof of the kitchen, barely a story off the ground, and the beast took it in one leap.

I sprang off as he hit the ground, because Gaston was riding hard for us and there was no sense in giving him two easy targets. I could feel the magic sitting on him like a blanket, a spell to increase his strength and speed, and I knew who the other rider was now.

She must have sensed it, because when my eyes found the form of her horse amidst the villagers, she was pulling back her hood and looking straight at me. The light from the torch she was drawing power from illuminated her face, but it didn’t matter what she looked like; I had never seen her before, but all the self-righteousness and cruelty of her magic was mirrored in her face.

“Enchantress!” I shouted mockingly. “Welcome back! Are you ready for me to break what’s left of your magic?”

Her face cracked in a grim smile, and the torch dimmed as she sucked the energy off of it. Gaston was closing in fast, and I could see the same power-mad glint in his eyes.

The beast surged suddenly alongside me as Gaston galloped forward, and with one, thundering strike he took the man straight off his horse. The blow should’ve broken every rib and probably his spine for good measure, but Gaston rolled with the momentum and scrambled to his feet, a long hunting knife in one hand.

“Agatha!” he yelled. “Give me everything you’ve got!”

Agatha.

The beggar LeFou who told me about — I had been right to be suspicious. It hardly mattered now, of course, but it explained why she’d been able to sink her hooks into the village so deeply. Perhaps it explained why she was able to turn its people against me so violently now.

The villagers had formed a circle around her horse, screaming at me with faces so red and angry I could barely recognize the people I’d bought goods from in the square, or who had gathered around the bar to listen to my stories. But they were all there: Monsieur Bernard, the innkeeper, the seamstress, everyone except for Maurice and Belle and LeFou.

“Burn the witch!” they screamed. “She communes with the devil! Burn the witch!”

I backed up a step, giving myself precious space as I gathered magic and focus. Agatha smiled at me over the villagers’ heads, and I felt it like a knife. Witches were not always friendly with each other, but no matter what our grievances, no matter how violently or not they were resolved, the rule of our kind was never to inflame an already wary public against us. She might be able to use her charms to escape the immediate impact, but the fallout had the potential to affect every single one of us. Most of us knew someone who had been burned at the stake, so to influence the villagers in such a way was a betrayal of our entire culture.

Agatha knew this, and perhaps she hoped the extremity of her actions would set me back. I wasn’t surprised, though; she had betrayed everything we stood for long before she gave the prince that rose.

“If you want a witch,” I said, “I’ll give you a witch.”

I pulled the materials from my pocket: a root from one of the garden shrubs, the legs of a beetle, a few metal shavings off one of the suits of armor in the castle. I would never be able to perform this spell instantaneously, but I had begun preparing it the day Agatha appeared in the garden.

“Get her!” Agatha screamed. She couldn’t know what I had planned, but she didn’t want me to get a single spell off, and the invaders surged forward. Behind me, I could hear the muted grunts and bodily impact of the beast’s battle with Gaston. I closed my eyes, pulled energy from the light of the stars themselves, and cast my spell.

All around me, the shrubs and bushes that had guarded this castle for so long pulled their roots from the earth. The collective removal shook the ground, and the air filled with the sound of snapping and cracking. The plants bowed forward, catching themselves on their branches, roots writhing like the Medusa’s head as they moved, and the villagers halted. They drew back into a clump, jabbing forward with rakes and pikes, and when the shrubs were undeterred, the screaming began.

In a matter of moments, Agatha was left undefended as the villagers struggled against the plants. The branches wrapped around the handles and blades of their weapons, trapping them. A few of the men thought to use their torches, but the bushes were spring fresh and full of water, and the result was only smoke. The scene was chaos, and even though I was the spellcaster, the unnatural movement of the bushes sent chills down my spine.

“It seemed appropriate,” I said to Agatha, shouting to be heard above the melee. “You took movement and life from this castle, and now movement and life is being used against you.”

She couldn’t do anything to stop it; all of her power was tied up in shielding Gaston and, I suspected, something far more important to her. With no more magic at her disposal, she drove her horse toward me, torch guttering in the wind.

When she was nearly on top of me, I summoned a burst of flame from my hand, white-hot and sudden. The horse screamed and reared to avoid it, throwing Agatha to the ground. Unlike Gaston, she fell hard and seemed to feel the full impact, but she still scrambled up, eyes feverish and bright.

“Why did you come here?” she snarled. “I had put this wretched place behind me, until you came with your ugly anti-magic and undid all of my work! Did they send you to unmake this? Did they send you to punish me?”

“No one sent me,” I said evenly. “But don’t think that will prevent me from doing what needs to be done.”

I reached for her and she shrieked, reeling away from me. She hurled a spell at me, just a little blast of her own power, her essence; I raised my darkened hand, let my own power devour it, and behind me I heard the tide of the battle turn.

Gaston clearly felt the magic leave him, and his charm and composure deserted him just as quickly. This was his final hunt, the ultimate test of his ability, and he was a man possessed; the whites of his eyes were gleaming in the torchlight, thinning hair clinging to his shining forehead, spittle flying from his mouth as he slashed wildly.

“You’re not going to leave this place!” he bellowed. “You’re never going to take Belle from me! She’s mine, mine, and no matter what she says, she’s never leaving!”

The beast struck. It was a surreal instant in which I saw purely human rage in his face, but the movement was purely animal power. The motion was so quick and so effortless that the sound of the impact — and the twist in Gaston’s neck — seemed almost comical. But then the hunter fell, body thudding bonelessly to the ground.

The sound of flesh striking flesh and snapping bone echoed off the walls of the castle. All around me, even engaged as they were with my green-leafed protectors, the villagers’ eyes widened. I turned back to Agatha, just in time to deflect another hastily-cast spell.

“That’s not the first death your spell has caused, Agatha,” I said. “But it will be the last.”

She backed away from me even further, but I stretched out my hand and released the last element of my spell. The old rose vines, which were so near to death, unfurled from their places on the wall to wrap around Agatha’s ankles, around her wrists. The other witch screamed and struggled, swatting at the plants in vain, blood running down her arms. The roses were unmoved, and they tightened fully, binding her in the middle of the stone arch.

I called my truest power to me. I let the moving bushes go still, let the barrier spells on the castle go down, let everything go except the vines that held Agatha. My fingers darkened up to my palms, my wrists, my elbows, and I could feel the same happening around my eyes as my anti-magic pooled and gathered where I needed it most. I could see every little twist of magic in her now, could hear every heartbeat, could smell her fear.

I took one of her bound hands, the instruments of all her wrongdoing, and placed my other hand over her heart, the source of all her maliciousness. She wailed horribly, and the entire garden went as still as death.

“Agatha,” I said. “For the harm you have done, and the harm I believe you would continue to do, I take your magic from you.”

She screamed again, a wordless, forlorn cry. I closed my eyes and set my power on her; I released it into her body like a pack of dogs on a hare, and it chased down every scrap of magic in her body and devoured it. The witch in front of me shrank and withered, limbs jerking and joints popping, golden hair wilting into gray, fair skin sagging and pouching, blue eyes clouding with age.

I released the vines and turned without a second glance; I knew where I was needed next. The beast was already enveloped in golden light, but I could see the panic on his face. I reached out, caught one of his massive, clawed hands in mine, and held tight.

“It’s all right,” I said. “Hold onto me.”

He did, claws gouging furrows in my arm. The glow brightened to blinding, and I shut my eyes. Beneath my hand, I could feel him changing. The bones and muscles shifted and grew smaller; the claws receded; the thick fur gave way to smooth, soft skin. When the light finally dimmed, I dared to open my eyes.

He was still tall, but his clothes hung on him now like curtains. His chestnut hair was as wild as his old mane, and his eyes had not changed at all, except that they now seemed right. His hand was still holding mine in a death grip, and I reached out to clasp his other shoulder gently.

“There you are,” I said. “It’s all right.”

Behind us, the castle doors creaked open, and the staff began to trickle out. I glanced around and saw that the cloud of forgetfulness and violence had been lifted from the villagers, and they were staring around as if unsure how they got there. There was a long, silent moment of confusion, and then —

“Papa!” Chip shrieked, and he wrenched away from Mrs. Potts, pelting across the torn ground to a gray-haired man holding a hoe.

How do you greet the son you haven’t seen in twenty years?

How do you greet him when you’ve only just remembered he existed?

How do you greet him when he hasn’t aged a day, and runs to you as young as if he were from a dream?

I didn’t know, and I think if I had asked Mr. Potts he wouldn’t have known either. But he didn’t stop to think about it; he didn’t consider these questions. He just dropped to his knees, caught the little boy, and wrapped him in his arms.

That was the breaking of the dam. The staff poured forward and the villagers rushed to greet them, and it was like the undoing of the spell all over again; trembling hands reaching out, tear-filled eyes finding faces they had not seen in twenty years. The prince and I watched, motionless, too overwhelmed to say or do anything at all.

“Simone! Mademoiselle Simone!”

I turned, my eyes searching the merging crowds. I knew that voice, but I hadn’t seen that face among the villagers yet. The prince released my hand.

“Simone! Look, there she is!”

LeFou burst through the mass, pulling Belle with him. He had a black eye and dried blood stained below his nose, but the grin beneath it all warmed my heart on sight. He pelted across the garden and barreled into me, wrapping me in a hug so tight I could barely breathe.

“I remember everything!” he was saying. “I remember this place! I remember the path through the forest, and the people who worked here! It’s all —”

He broke off, tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. We grinned at each other stupidly, unable to find words for the moment. I couldn’t voice the relief that had flooded through me when he said my name. I was impossibly thankful for many things right then, but simplest and most present of all was the gratitude that I had not been rejected.

I glanced up when I heard a small gasp, and I realized Belle was staring over my shoulder. It reminded me vividly of the first dream I’d had of her, but no shadow fell over her, and no roar shook the air around us.

“Belle?”

It was the first time I had heard the prince speak without the gruffness of a beast, without the words mangled by oversized teeth. It was the first time she would’ve heard it too, but there must have been something familiar in how he said her name, or maybe in how he looked at her, because she stopped dead in her tracks, her hands pressed over her mouth.

I would never truly know the bond that had formed between them in the past, and I couldn’t say what passed between them now. All I knew was that my own fragile heart ached for him. If there was anyone who might’ve feared rejection in that moment, it was the prince, but he was braver than I.

He took a few steps forward, staggering a little on shaking legs. She reached out to steady him, and I saw then how they were drawn to each other, how their instinct was to touch, to hold. The prince caught her outstretched hand and steadied himself, but his eyes never left her face, and I saw her own eyes fill with tears.

“It is you,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

It was three days before Agatha could walk well enough for me to escort her from the palace. I took her at dawn, when most of the castle was still sleeping and those awake were absorbed in their tasks. Most of them were too kind-hearted to bear the sight of me dragging an old woman down the road, even if they knew what she was capable of.

Given her appearance and the way her wrist felt like hollow bird bones in my grip, I knew that she had been old for a very long time. She had certainly been old when she appeared at the doors of the castle twenty years ago; the revelation of her “true form” as an enchantress had been a lie. Without her magic, I guessed she only had a few years left.

I did not pity her.

We walked until we reached the nearest crossroads, and it was there I released her. She stumbled, her cloak dragging the ground and dress hanging around her newly-shrunken form. When she turned back to face me, her eyes were like beady little flecks of flint.

“I don’t care where you go, but you’ll never come back here,” I said, ignoring her glare. “All it takes to keep you out now is a simple barrier, and I’ll be setting one for miles around this place.”

Agatha cackled mirthlessly. “Yes, take your precautions now. For all you know, you’ll never be back here either. Not when the Council hands down your punishment for stealing my magic.”

I stepped forward. I was more than a head taller than her, and she had to crane her neck to look up at me. “Do you think I took your magic rashly?” I asked lowly. “Do you think I don’t know, Agatha?”

She paled drastically, and it was my turn to smile. “That’s right. I know what you wanted to prince for. I have your gods-blasted book. In fact, I did you a kindness by taking your magic. The Council has no authority over you anymore; at least you can leave here and hope some village will take pity on you in your remaining years, rather than spending them hanging by your hands in prison. You should be grateful for my mercy — once the Council has this book in their hand, they’ll accept whatever judgment I pass down today and thank me for my service.”

Agatha was quaking now. I’d made her think I hadn’t quite decided what to do with her yet, even though I had. That night in the garden, I’d been tempted to snuff out her life as well as her magic. It had passed.

“Get out of here,” I said. “And don’t come back. I won’t be as merciful if we ever meet again.”

The former enchantress turned away. There was no hesitation as she faced the three roads in front of her; they all had the same end. Nonetheless, I watched her until she disappeared.

***

I kept my goodbyes to the staff brief the night before I left. Anything drawn out would’ve been melancholy, and I was loathe to dampen any spirits or create a sense of finality. I would be back, after all.

I was restocking my herbs from the kitchen garden early the next morning when the prince found me. LeFou had only just left, reluctantly returning to the village long enough to pack a suitcase, and I had gratefully taken the opportunity for a little peace and quiet. The prince seemed to know this, and he stayed silent for several minutes, watching my fingers pluck the leaves with an appreciative kind of studiousness.

“Do you really have to go so soon?” he asked finally. “I realize it probably doesn’t feel soon to you, but so soon after we’re all returned to ourselves.”

I smiled up at him ruefully. “I’m afraid so. It’s no small thing, to take another witch’s magic, even though it is sort of my specialty. The council will expect me to testify to its necessity.”

“I would think its necessity would be obvious.”

“It will be, once I give them the proof I have. But to take another witch’s magic is, well, akin to an execution for us. And now that I’ve done this, any spell she ever cast in the past — including spells for good — are now broken. Any potential for good she might’ve done with magic in the future is now gone.”

He snorted a little at that, but said nothing. I went back to gathering herbs, and around us the birds began to twitter from the trees in the orchard. The early morning was still too chilly for bees, but once the sun came up they’d fill the garden with their buzzing. There was a smattering of noise from inside the castle — a clattering of logs in the fireplace and pots on the stove — and the prince’s mouth quirked in smile.

“You’re up awfully early,” I ventured finally. “I thought princes were supposed to be lazy.”

It was a bad joke. His smile didn’t fade, but I saw it tighten slightly, and he rubbed his hands over his legs uncomfortably.

“Nightmare,” he said at last. “You know, I never had them while I was — the beast. But I have them now. I’m back in that form, back in the forest. Back in the ballroom when they all stopped talking and moving.”

He shuddered, and I paused in my work. “It could be worse,” he went on. “Perhaps they’ll keep me grateful.”

“They’ll fade with time,” I said brusquely. I couldn’t bear his acceptance of it. “You shouldn’t have to be grateful. I hope not all your belligerence disappeared with your horns.”

His smile became something genuine again. “I can’t help it. I’m grateful to you, that you came when you did, and that you might be just as tenacious as the beast was. I’m grateful that Mrs. Potts and Lumiere didn’t run from this place the moment you broke the spell on them.”

I had to smile back, then. “I’m grateful for that, too.”

“Even though you’re running from this place practically the moment the spell was broken?”

I clicked my tongue and went back to plucking leaves. “It’s a long journey, and not the kind that improves by putting it off.”

“And Monsieur LeFou will go with you?”

“Yes. After all this, he said he wanted to get a bit farther than Paris. He won’t be able to attend the council, of course, but there are plenty of amazing places on the way.”

“Well, I’m glad you’ll at least have a companion. And I hope you’ll visit us when — or if — he decides to return here.”

There was another long silence between us, but finally, I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer. “What about Belle?”

He looked away, his expression going thoughtful. “I’m not certain. I … I killed her husband. I don’t think she mourns him, but it can’t be overlooked. Even without that, it’s been ten years since we saw each other. I was a jailor to her, no matter how pleasantly I tried to disguise it toward the end. Would she have had any feelings for me if I hadn’t kept her with me? I don’t know, but even if she would have, those feelings are a decade old and perhaps harder to reconcile in the cold light of day with two fatherless children. I’ve offered her and the children their own rooms here in the castle, but I don’t want her to feel trapped by circumstance. I’ll just wait and see what she decides.”

I fell silent, turning his words over in my mind and holding them up against my past experiences with other members of the nobility. Those experiences were few and far between, to be sure — someone like me had rare occasion to rub elbows with royalty. And yet, they had been enough to assure me that this prince was better, gentler, more compassionate. Would he have been so without the blight of the beast on his life? Impossible to say. Impossible to know if, despite her intentions, Agatha had set something good into motion.

I placed my little jars into my pack and stood up, brushing dirt from my skirts as I did. The prince rose as well, looking suddenly apprehensive.

“I wish you wouldn’t go,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words how grateful I am to you. I fear I haven’t said it well at all yet.”

“Your gratitude is appreciated, but not necessary,” I said, smiling. “And yes, I’m afraid I must go; it’s several days’ walk to the harbor. I’ve already said my goodbyes to everyone else, so …” I took his hands, spilling a little magic onto my words as I said them. “I wish you and everyone in this castle every happiness, and even more besides, to make up for the ones you missed. Be well, and safe, and joyful.”

His grip on my hands tightened ever so slightly before he let go, and then he sank into a deep bow before returning to the castle. I stayed in the garden a moment more, listening to the sound of the insects and the wind through the plants, smelling the flowers and the fresh earth. Then, with one last, fond glance at the castle, I slung my pack over my shoulder and walked into the forest.