Jimin has been raised with the irreversible notion that fairytales are cruel mockeries of reality, and to never look towards the Dark Forest expecting the pearlescent glow of a white knight on horseback come to save him from the drudgery of his mortal life.
That some things are never meant to change.
And yet here he sits in his little shop, glancing every so often towards the sunset, hoping to see a silhouette he doesn’t recognise, emblazoned against the orange haze. Someone, anyone, different, who isn’t a part of this mundane village life. Someone altogether…other.
But as with most evenings, the sunset passes by in a mirage of pinks and purples and burnished orange-red, until darkness engulfs the land and the wicks of the candles need lighting. It’s a dilapidated little building this shop, only given to him rent free because it stinks of mould and rot in the corners and the roof is close to caving in. When he’d asked the village head for permission to remake it into a place to sell his dolls, he was laughed out of the hall, but no one ever tried to throw him out when they saw him cleaning it. He boarded up the worst sections of the roof, and thanked all the stars in heaven that the windows were whole. All they needed was a thorough clean, the floor a sweep and several old rugs to cover its hideous varnish, and with a bit of rigorous scraping and patching, the mould and rot were somewhat diminished.
Jimin’s always had a knack for creating pretty things. In the playground at school, the little girls would flock to him, wanting him to create tiaras out of crushed daises and orchids and chrysanthemums, and the boys would mock him for it. But once they grew a little older, the boys saw how devoted the girls were to their male classmate and in quiet corners of the school corridors, they would sidle up to him and offer him a coin, or a toy, or anything in exchange for a tiara they could gift to the girl who had taken their fancy. Jimin made quite a bit of pocket cash the summer his entire class hit puberty, and he took it home to his father, proud of his skills as a businessman.
“Papa! Papa, I think I’ll grow up to be just like you!” he exclaimed, offering the contents of his pockets to him.
That was the day before news came of his ships sinking out at sea, when Father smiled his last.
The village has always taken much poorly-veiled glee in their misfortune. After all, who does not like to see he who has the most, torn down until he has nothing? Never had Jimin’s family done them any harm, and several buildings in the village were renovated by order of his father and fully funded. Yet when their ships sank and their fortunes dove, no one offered a hand of help, save for a kind few (the poorest of the village population, ironically.)
It was in contrast to the day his mother died – they’d still been rich then. All had come for her funeral, greedy eyes sneaking peeks at the magnificent corners of their home, hoping for a free meal, and party favours as if it were a wedding. Jimin never forgot the faces who had sulked and muttered as they left empty-handed. But he never forgot to give each a smile anyway when he went around the village doing odd jobs.
Father refuses to leave their homestead now, though the house is in near-collapse, the gardens a tangle of nature, uncared for, unused. It’s left to Jimin to do odd jobs here and there, begging and scrimping for food when he doesn’t earn enough to take home. And then when he does return and enters Father’s dusty study, his heart plummets to the soles of his boots when he sees him sitting there, in exactly the same position he left him. His dark hair, the glorious mane he’s passed down to his son, grows unkempt and tangled, brushing his broad shoulders. Glinting scraps of hair pepper his chin and cheeks, though Jimin shaved his face a few days ago, but it’s growing back and Father won’t lift the razor himself. When his son puts food on the table, it receives no reaction, and Jimin feels empty, as if the hardships of the day were for nothing. But still, he sits beside him in front of the fire, breaking bread, and merrily embellishing the events of his day to try and cheer his Papa up.
It never works.
The doll-maker’s shop is Jimin’s distraction, the place he goes if he’s done everyone else’s odd jobs and doesn’t want to admit that going home creates a sinkhole in his mind, dragging him down. Instead, he cheerfully thinks of it as a way to earn more.
The dolls he makes are indeed exquisite, the sleight of his hand precise and delicate, able to create things of such beauty and yet so small, that all who looked upon them, marvelled. There is a field, not far beyond the walls of the village, and the red clay there is malleable and smells sweeter than baked bread on a summer’s eve. He gathers it by the bucketful, his creations made from small bundles of it, sometimes painted over in human skin colours, and sometimes left their natural red.
At first, only the local children paid him any mind, too poor to afford a doll, but more than willing to watch quietly as Jimin sat making them. It’s a marvel to the rest of the village how he manages to keep the children in check simply by entering a room. They flutter, like freshly plucked daisies, settling around him in quiet reverence, large eyes glassy as they watch his fingers work. They all have little dolls he’s made them, but they are simply clay creatures, with none of the fancywork he employs on his main projects. And the children prove themselves incredibly useful over time.
At a quiet sigh from Jimin that the little glass bead jar is emptied and Matilda would not have a finished dress, several of them dashed out, running home to their mothers, their sisters, their aunts, asking for little beads. No explanations, just “little beads! Little beads, mommy, little beads!” When they returned, they dumped several handfuls into Jimin’s lap much to his astonishment. They weren’t the glass beads he needed for the dress – mismatched, multicoloured, various sizes – but he burst into tears, crying so hard that the little ones thought they had done something wrong. After hugging each and every one, he reassured them that they had not, and that all their dolls would be made another set of clothes using the very beads they’d brought him.
After the children, the women of the village took an interest. Even the spinsters, generally known to be meaner than the other ladies (a propaganda well peddled by the men), brought him scraps of lace and silk and ribbons, displaying a muted delight in the dolls he created.
“Look at them, watching like vultures,” Miss Peckity announced once, as she stood by his table, admiring the blue-skinned Karishma doll in her palms. She referred to the gaggle of teenage girls with their noses pressed to the window.
“I don’t think little girls ever grow out of their love for dolls, Miss Peckity,” Jimin laughed. “It’s quite alright. Though I wish they’d stand a little apart. They’re blocking the light.”
“No, my dear, I think they’re gawking at you.”
Now that had never occurred to him.
As he grew, Jimin had always known that as far as most fairytales went, he sighed after the prince and not the princess. It was a quiet, simple truth he never struggled with. Ingrained in his bones, he didn’t think much of it, or intended to follow through. Such was the plight of a regularly empty stomach. Matters of love become quite inconsequential.
But that isn’t to say he hadn’t gotten…propositions.
However, they were unkind, and insulting.
The first time a man walked into his doll shop, Jimin lit up, thinking that perhaps this was another such occasion, like the boys buying flower crowns for the girls they liked. But it was not. The gentleman was from town, and had been passing by when he’d seen Jimin cleaning Mrs Advani’s windows. After asking around, he’d ascertained Jimin’s entire history, including the plight of his family, and had turned up at his shop with a most offensive offer. A purse of gold coins for seven nights spent with the man at his townhouse. His wife and children were visiting his mother-in-law and he had the house to himself.
Jimin hadn’t even thought about it. He grabbed the closest clay doll he could find and flung it at the man’s head. The clay shattered, and as the intruder snatched at him, hands slipping down to his waist, Jimin was certain that he would not walk out of there alive. Thankfully, a group of passing young men spied the commotion from outside, and one of them, was the elder brother of a little girl who regularly came to Jimin to learn how to read. They beat the merchant black and blue and sent him packing, while both Miss Brodeurs (they were twins), came hurrying in to tend to the crying boy curled up in a corner.
Not since then, had Jimin ever sat in the shop alone. He made a habit of feeding the local strays food and water at the entrance, and they made a habit of sitting in the shade of its doorway, cats, dogs and wood mice alike.
One was most regular, a mongrel he named Beauty, the gentlest of the animals and always so eager to accompany him back home. She never came inside, no matter how he coaxed her – it was almost as if those big brown eyes were afraid of becoming an inconvenience. After all, she’d faced nothing but rejection in the rest of the village, and perhaps she didn’t wish for another heartbreak. She preferred to keep her distance when he went home, but the shop was theirs and it suited them both. Sightings of her were common in other villages, and the elders who were nearing eight and ninety years of age swore the very same dog once wandered their streets, but the math didn’t add up. Surely, Beauty’s own parents or grandparents must have once been strays, just like her – they must have seen them.
After the incident with the merchant, some sort of a rumour had been spread, uncalled for, but that is as most rumours go, typical. Jimin learned of the existence of other young boys like him, who were also attracted to the same sex, but through various, milder encounters that were similar to the merchant’s.
His poverty was seen as a reason he could be easily bought, his beauty was desired, and his lowly status in the village ranks was taken as proof he would never be believed should he wish to let out their secret. Small relief that none of them forced anything on him. But he was offered coins here and there, new things for his dolls (usually stolen from a female relative) and even food. He ignored it all, and went about pretending he wasn’t what they thought he was.
But one evening, he was propositioned for a kiss by Naris, the son of a local farmer and one of the boys Jimin had grown up dreaming about. He was a handsome, tall young fellow, with freckled cheeks, a roguish mane of curls kissed by fire and eyes that blazed blue. Jimin hadn’t even begun to believe they could be the same, until Naris held out a pile of silver coins on his palm in the alleyway of a tavern, with the words, “Just one kiss. I want to see what it feels like.”
“What’s it?” Jimin murmured, legs turning weak as shame and sadness filled his very core, like rot in an old house.
“How it is to kiss a boy. And I know you know. Everyone says it. The girls always flock to you but you’ve never found yourself a sweetheart amongst them.”
“I-I haven’t even had my first kiss.” But oh, how I dreamt it would be with you. Hot tears filled up his eyes, and the freckles on Jimin’s nose scrunched up as he sniffed, trying not to cry.
Naris shuffled, uncomfortable, but his hand was still out, the coins glinting there. “That’s a lie.”
“How would you know?”
“Because Hari said that man who came to your shop was a jilted lover of yours. You decided you didn’t want anything more to do with him. Look, I said I’ll pay, so – “
Jimin snatched the coins from him and ran down the street as fast as his legs could carry him. Naris didn’t follow. In fact, he rarely saw Naris after that day, the other making a point to avoid the places Jimin usually passed on his way to the doll shop.
After that day, Jimin made an arrangement with one of the Brodeur twins. She would pretend to be sweet on him, and he would do the same, to dispel rumours on both sides (hers were harder to hide since her aversion to marrying a man was something highly vexing to her parents.) They didn’t approve of her “dalliance” with Jimin of course, but as far as things went, they had feared she would never show interest in any man at all, and this was tolerable until they found her a match she liked enough to give up the hand of a poor boy.
All in all, Jimin would have found himself very alone in a village, with no support of family or fortune, and a face beautiful enough to stir the whims of the idle and wicked. But by grace of the optimism he still has left, he gives out kindness without hope of it being returned, and is pleasantly surprised when it is. It’s an adage his mother used to live by: never expect anything from life – that way you will always retain the ability to be pleasantly surprised. It’ll help you keep your innocence, my sweetling, the innocence I so cherish.
She wasn’t wrong.
Jimin’s kindness has far-reaching effects. These days, after seeing the little dolls people have sitting in their windows, strangers to the village search for the doll shop and upon seeing his talent, put in orders, provide him with materials they wish to have put on a doll of their own, jewels and silks and the colours and styles of their own wigs so that he might mimic them. He creates his wigs from horsehair, after softening them and soaking them until they retain some of the texture of human strands. The prices he is offered from the richer inhabitants of the neighbouring town are enough that he can save and put aside for a month’s groceries, no longer having to feed himself and his father hand-to-mouth.
One particular customer returns one day to observe the progress on her doll and as she sits watching him comb through the wig (freshly washed), she tells him of the elves beyond the river.
“Of all the woodland folk, they would pay the most for your dolls, for they delight in such darling things,” Mrs Nwaigbo says. Jimin is a little distracted as he braids the wig to mimic her hair (he is to tie it up into a gele as Mrs Nwaigbo asked for the doll to be a replica of her – it’s his favourite project so far, the colours he has to choose from are splendid.)
“My mother’s mother was an elf,” he murmurs, laying out a piece of handwoven cloth on the counter. It’s part of a little book Mrs Nwaigbo made up for him, all various colours and cuts from her own projects. The colour is such a rich blue, to look at it is to feel the heart settle in an overwhelming calm. “Or is. I’m not sure. She said they live very long, but that it’s frowned upon for them to mate with humans, so when my grandmother gave birth, she gave up the child to its father and left. My mother never knew her very well.”
He doesn’t add that her mother claimed his grandmother was the Elven Queen herself. That seems a little too farfetched.
“Elfish blood, hm? Your mother must be a great beauty.”
Jimin’s eyes crinkle up, the smile he puts on a grimace. “Was.”
Mrs Nwaigbo’s face falls. “My dearest child. What happened to her?”
“She caught ill of the pox and died. It was sudden. The doctors said she would recover and for a while she did. But she passed soon after.”
There is a silence, and it’s a familiar one to him. Most people go quiet upon hearing of the death of a loved one, as if waiting for an appropriate time to change the subject. Jimin likes Mrs Nwaigbo so he doesn’t let her wade in awkwardness for too long.
“I may take a few dolls to the elves,” he says brightly. “I hear they pay with gems made of starlight, worth more than an entire townhouse in the city. But I would be happy with a tiny one.”
The older woman’s face softens, and she reaches out to pat his arm in a motherly fashion. “You must be careful though. They are after all, not human. It’s said that the Elven Queen has a voice that ensnares any mortal listener and binds them to her will. Her people are no different, and I would hate for you to be tricked, child. You and your craft deserve better.” She reaches around her neck and pulls off a necklace. At the end, hangs a smoothly hewn lump of blue Tiger’s Eye, and she passes it to Jimin, indicating that he wear it. “This crystal will protect you if you venture beyond the river. To an ordinary listener, elvish language sounds like a sirensong, and it can bewitch you, years of your life lost as their slave whilst you hold no awareness of yourself. Many a man and woman has woken fifty years later, to find themselves old and thrown out of the woods, no longer needed by their Elven masters, lives wasted. This necklace will make their words sound as ordinary as those spoken by you or I.”
Jimin accepts the necklace, though he suppresses the urge to smile. He’s heard the rumours of the woodland folk and their mischievous ways, but he doesn’t really believe them. It’s not hard to see why. There hasn’t been a sighting of one in many, many years and even his mother’s claim that she was half-elf was something he often doubted. She was beautiful enough to be one herself though, he will never deny that.
Mrs Nwaigbo takes her leave after another fifteen minutes of gentle chatter, and leaves him with a small case of beryl and pearls and opals, after describing where she wants them hemmed on the doll’s dress.
Her words stay in his mind as he finishes moulding a doll the mayor’s daughter asked for, kneading its eyes in. She had given him a lock of her own hair to make it lashes with, but the strands are gold and fine, and he isn’t sure it’ll work. But he has to make it try. She’s offering sixty golden coins for the doll and four little dresses for its own wardrobe. It’s the most lucrative project he’s ever taken on.
But the sun is setting, and by candlelight, such delicate procedures are not appropriate. He cleans up the shop and goes around lifting his favourite dolls from their show stands in the window. Propping them into a basket, careful not to jostle them too much, he takes his favourite book off the shelf and leaves, locking the door behind him. There is food in the pantry for Father – a luxury they haven’t been able to afford for almost a year now – and Jimin can afford to take his time returning home. He isn’t hungry anyhow.
With cautious footsteps at first, slowly growing bolder, he heads for the river, glancing over his shoulder every now and then towards the glowing dome of the village. The land out here is wilder, less tame. All the tilling fields are on the other side, all signs of civilisation safely packaged towards the eastern side of the village. He is heading west, where the grass runs rampant, blades as tall as his knees, one meadow merging into the next and the closer he gets to the river, the darker the woods loom.
The Dark Forest is assuredly a good name, though perhaps not for the reason that it’s pitch black without the aid of the sun to light up its trees and give it life. It always seems so…dead, hard to believe that the ancient folk of the woodlands live within its branches and its leaves. If they are as mischievous and wicked as the legends say, Jimin is certain his village would have suffered by now. But they aren’t, and the woods have always lain quiet but avoided.
There is a bridge across the river, a rickety wooden thing, with little lamps lining the rails. He touches one, curious, wondering who comes down every evening to light them. When he leans down, the surprise he gets makes him jump.
The glass lamps are little globes, holing up an entire world inside, an ecosystem that’s been placed there so that its inhabitants may flourish. Glow fae, scores of them in each lamp, tiny little creatures with glowing skin and musical laughs that he can hear like a distant echo. These lamps are not of human make, he knows that much. Jimin crouches by one, keeping a laugh of delight pressed behind his palm to keep from startling the little things. Never in his eighteen years has he seen something quite so dazzlingly profound, and he wonders why he never defied his father’s instruction not to go too close to the river, or indeed why none of the other children ever did. Though perhaps it is a good thing. Humans aren’t known to leave well enough alone, and he knows a few lads up in the village who would have delighted in smashing the lamps and watching the poor fae scatter and scream.
The good humour quite gone, he lifts up the basket and keeps moving, though he unhooks one of the lamps to take with him for light. The creatures inside don’t seem to notice, flitting busily around in amongst the tiny moss trees and ducking into their little hills.
Jimin has no intention of wandering into the woods, but now he feels quite silly as he doesn’t know how he would even begin to accost an elf. He almost turns back, but at the thought of returning to the empty, cold, quiet house where his father won’t even lift his head to grunt at him, his heart quails. He’d rather sit here and read his book for a while, even if an elf doesn’t come.
As he crosses the bridge to end up at the foot of the grassy knoll leading up to the Dark Forest, he almost jumps out of his skin when he spies an approaching figure heading his way from the north. The man – or not – walks with a strange limp to his gait that seems almost like a dance, as if he’s not really injured, merely skipping a step. The hat on his head is pointed in three parts, and a long silver flute hangs at his belt like a sword.
“Top ‘o the evenin’ to ye,” he calls, his voice reed-like and sending shivers down Jimin’s spine. Whoever it is, there is malice clinging to him like the dark smoke of a rain cloud. “Ye wouldn’t happen to know which way Hamelin is, my good lad?”
Jimin swallows down bile, overcome by a feeling so rotten, he couldn’t begin to explain it if he tried. One thing that roots in his conscience for sure is that he mustn’t give this man directions to Hamelin, no matter the cost.
“Cross the bridge and head north-east. Fifty miles as the crow flies,” he says. Hamelin is in fact towards the south, not fifteen miles from his own village.
The pied piper eyes him from head to toe, and there is a shrewd glint in his eye that speaks to nothing good. “Why, thank you. I must say, I’ve never seen a human stray so far west. Excuse my curiosity.”
“I have business with the Elves,” Jimin lies, starting to walk towards the Dark Forest. “I hope you find your way well, sir.”
The man doesn’t move from his spot, not even when Jimin’s pace slows. The boy is cursing his own idiocy now as it’s clear his only path lies directly into the woods. He can’t turn back. He doesn’t want to be around that strange man and his jet-black eyes and obsessively polished silver flute – that thing looks evil. His boot cracks a twig on the threshold of the woods, and then he’s in a place no mortal in their right mind would ever think to go.
It’s a quiet wander through the woods.
Funny, for at every corner, he expects something to jump out, with spindly fingers and gleeful, wicked laughter that would set the very ends of his nerves alight. But the peace is almost unnerving. In fact, the further in he walks (now curious, and not simply to escape the pied piper), the silence begins to unsettle him some. It’s a silence most unnatural – no birds, no whisper of the breeze amongst the leaves of the trees, no animals.
He tucks the basket closer under his arm and holds up the lamp higher, wondering if he should turn back. But it’s as if every breath of air he takes installs some new magic in his blood. Or perhaps it awakens the magic already there. Maybe Mama wasn’t mistaken about her elf ancestry, though she had never seen her own mother. Jimin can’t remember feeling so excited, not in a long time, not since he’d shyly handed over his first commissioned doll and the recipient’s eyes lit up, her golden curls bouncing as she jumped up and down and ran to show her parents. The excitement of something new, as if he’s worth something again, even though he hasn’t a penny to his name.
A twig snaps beneath the boiled leather of his boot, and he snaps around. Something ghosted past, he could have sworn –
A fluorescent shade of blue flickers through the distant trees and Jimin is distracted again. His pace quickens and the closer he gets, the lower his jaw drops.
There’s a rectangular box lying in the middle of the forest, propped up by neatly piled logs of wood, and made of the finest shards of coloured glass and crystal. It’s situated in a small clearing so the light of the moon dances upon it, reflecting the beauty of the glasswork in multicoloured droplets, marking the trunks of trees and dappled over drooping branches.
And then he realises it’s a coffin, not a box.
Jimin’s breath flutters from his mouth, like the dying whisper of a fae, and his skin turns cold with dread.
Inside the coffin is a young girl, probably sixteen or seventeen in age, with hair as black as ebony, lips as red as blood and skin so white, snow would be put to shame. He looks around, as if looking for help, but it’s a silly notion, because she’s obviously dead, and help will do her no good now. Closer he stirs, a feeling of foreboding filling him though he can’t help his urge. Gentle fingers alight on the coloured crystal helm of the coffin and he’s momentarily enthralled by her beauty, eyes lighting up with the moonlit reflection of her haven. Sadness etches into his bones, like damp. Whoever had made her the shrine loved her very much, but she must have had no home to have her remains returned to, else why would she be left abandoned here? The fact that her corpse isn’t rotting is logic that doesn’t break through the fog of enchantment lingering over his brain and all he can do is stare.
It’s almost as if…she could open her eyes…at any moment…
“Step away, child. Stare too long and she’ll have your blood.”
Jimin cries out in surprise and jerks away from the coffin, one of the dolls dropping from his basket. He looks at the girl in the coffin again but she’s still immobile. The warning makes no sense. And then his breath catches again when he sees whose mouth it emits from.
A tall, slender woman stands under the archway formed by the twisted boughs of trees overhead, her pointed ears slicing through the tight coils of her hair. It seems to have a life of its own, blossoming around her head in dark shadow, barely touching her shoulders, and laced with the finest gold filigree that starts with a headpiece and ends by dangling at her lobes. Her skin is dark, glowing with a sheen of azure under the pale moon, and she’s dressed in a material that isn’t woven by any human hands he knows. It’s liquid, ever-transforming, moving around her body with its own life, sometimes lilac, sometimes opal, sometimes grey. He thinks she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, and he can tell by the smirk on her face that she knows it.
And then it strikes him. She is no woman.
“You’re an elf,” he blurts out.
“Astute,” she answers, the fullness of her lips tinted red by some magnificent ochre he wishes he has the secret to. It would look beautiful on his dolls.
Her elegant frame stoops for the discarded doll and her movements are as liquid as her dress, the grace unmatched by any human he’s seen, man or woman. “You’ve wandered far, child. With your pretty dolls and your pretty freckles. These woods are not the abode of man.”
Jimin turns to take a glance at the glass coffin. “She’s no elf.” He feels rather silly for his short statements, but he’s finding it difficult to look directly into the dark of the she-elf’s eyes without stuttering and blushing.
“She is a demon, trapped there by my kind lest she wreaks more havoc,” the she-elf answers, approaching the coffin to observe her. “She used to hunt in the shade of night, and sleep through the day, drinking the blood of her prey until they were juiced dry. But under the light of the moon, she cannot wake up.”
“What if there’s no moon?”
“Then she lies in her coffin with wide, unblinking eyes, and doesn’t move. She knows it’s futile to struggle. Though she certainly did the first few weeks.”
Jimin swallows, throat dry, and breathes in, noticing the elf’s interest in the doll. “W-would you like to buy that doll?”
She looks at him in surprise. “Are you a peddler?”
“No! Heavens no, I just – well, I was told by a dear friend that perhaps your kind – I mean – the woodland folk – might be interested in the dolls I make – “
The elf gives him a once-over. Jimin turns beet red and humiliations fills him as her eyes linger on the patched over trousers and the various spots on his shirt he’s attempted to mend worn out holes. His shoes are in good condition but it’s only because they’re borrowed. Even with the money he’s beginning to save, he doesn’t dare buy himself newer clothes, fearing bad luck might befall him for vanity. Food and medicine seem the better option, though his father suffers from an illness of the mind, not thr body.
“Did your dear friend perhaps tell you that the elves pay with precious metals and gems?” the elf remarks, snide.
Jimin’s face falls. She doesn’t need any answer, she knows it to be so. But her expression softens now, and her tapered fingers brush through the doll’s lavender curls with a little smile. “I know desperation must have caused you to cross the bridge and come to the woods. But I’m afraid I do not have gems that I can trade with you, my child. Not unless I robbed our Queen and then laid the loot at your feet. But I have something else.”
She reaches into the folds of her dress and plucks out a long-stemmed, fresh blue rose.
Jimin’s lips part, and his eyes become round as he stares at the flower. It’s a most curious thing. Unnatural, and yet not painted. When she offers it to him, he takes it slowly, stroking the petals, only to feel that they are indeed as soft as any other red rose. It even smells the same.
“Was this magicked blue?” he asks in amazement. “I could do with learning the spell. I’ve tried to dye wigs this colour before.”
“No, sweet child, it’s not magicked blue,” the elf snickers, “it grows here in the woods. It even as a name – Dragonsbane. It was once the only thing that could keep the Ankaran dragon riders in check. The slightest whiff of this rose had their dragons behaving like drunken fools, and they would be slow enough then to kill.”
Jimin’s memory lights up with tales of ancient royalty, the ancestry of kings who had ruled a once mighty empire, each more legendary than the last, until their bloodline had abruptly ended a hundred or so years ago. They had conquered his land and colonised his people for hundreds of years before that, with the aid of their dragons and their sorcerers. Fairytales now, as the people who had seen the last dragon fly through the skies were long dead, and such mythical beasts were as distant as the elves of the woodlands to today’s humans.
And yet here he stands before a she-elf, holding a natural blue rose.
“You were followed,” she remarks suddenly, and he turns to see Beauty amble through the undergrowth, big golden eyes full of concern.
“Beauty! When did you – how did you – I didn’t know she was following me, I truly didn’t – “ Jimin splutters, bending down to scratch behind her ears and drop a kiss on her head. Her tail wags happily and she quietly whines in anxious inquiry, ensuring he’s fine. A quick sniff at the blue rose and she recoils, surprised by the strong scent.
“That’s a fine breed of mongrel as far as mongrels go,” the elf says. “I trust that she will escort you back safely. I must leave now, as my patrol is over. Be sure to use the same path you entered on, and do not stray, for there will be those of my kindred who are less accommodating.”
She doesn’t need to tell him twice. The cruelty of elves is as well-documented as the barbaric actions of the cruel princes of old, but Jimin thinks his view of the former has now changed. The blue rose isn’t going to put food on the table, but it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever held and it’s a most precious gift.
“Thank you for – “ he begins to say, but she has already vanished, leaving behind nothing but a curl of silver smoke that dances on the ground before bounding into the trees and vanishing into the darkness. “Come on, Beauty, we must be getting back. Father will be wondering where I am.”
A blatant lie. Of course he won’t know I’m even gone.
Jimin quietens his mind before it can take another dig at him and worsen the heaviness in his chest. He feels quite empty inside, as if he were on the verge of some heart-stopping revelation, some new adventure, but it’s been cut short with the quiet handing over of a single blue rose and a dismissal.
Why should he have been so presumptuous as to think the elves would want anything to do with him, just because he wishes he could be amongst them, even if only for a night? Just for the sake of being somewhere else, somewhere magical, somewhere that isn’t…home.
No sooner does he think this, then the ground shakes, and Beauty is barking at the top of her lungs.
Something strikes Jimin in passing and his body hurls into a birch tree, the basket of dolls flying from his arm. The lamp crashes to the ground and the glass breaks, the glow faes’ frightened squeaks twittering in the air as they fly out. Their light is temporary as they scatter, thoroughly terrified by the sudden change in atmosphere and Jimin is left in the dark, with nothing but Beauty’s howling, his own shuddering breaths and a deep, thunderous growl sounding from the pitch black of the woods.
It doesn’t sound like an elf. The thought is at first comforting. He knows he’s only seen one, but he also knows they all must move like her, with deadly grace. Not this visceral, primal shaking of the earth and that terrible, inhuman snarl that won’t stop.
Two pinpricks of orange-red suddenly appear a few metres away and the snarling gets louder. Beauty gets swept to the side and Jimin winces as she whimpers, no longer defiant and protective but just as scared as he is. She curls up next to him and he reaches down to stroke her head, thankful to have someone who loves him nearby if he is to die tonight. Whatever the creature is, it’s not human and he doesn’t think it can talk. There’s no point pleading for his life. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and begins to recite a prayer to the Lady of Light, hoping that by some mercy, death will take him somewhere better than this.
A large, coarse hand curls around his wrist and Jimin screams. He isn’t sure if he’s more surprised it feels humanoid, or that it has talons that dig into his skin, monstrously sharp.
“You stole the blue rose from my gardens?” a voice rumbles, hoarse and devilishly deep, as if the pits of the Underworld themselves have opened to speak.
“N-no – “ Jimin trembles, clutching the rose tighter. “An elf gave it to me.”
“A thief and a liar!” the monster roars, and the young boy sinks to his knees, so scared he can hardly breathe. His arm is still up above his head, caught in the creature’s grasp and Beauty is nudging at his side, but he can’t offer her any more comfort.
“I-I swear I’m not lying – I swear by all the gods and the Lady of Light herself – I’m not lying – “ he sobs.
“We do not share the same gods, thief. Your swearing means nothing. Pay the price, if you were bold enough to commit the crime.”
“Please don’t kill me – “
“I will not kill you. There is a far more terrible fate in store for the likes of you.”
And before Jimin can utter another a word, he’s being lifted from the ground, as easily as if he were one of his own dolls. It steals away his breath, but what’s to come is much worse. Because suddenly, the wind is roaring in his ears and he can see the silhouettes of trees racing past in the dim light, and he knows the creature is running with him.
The sheer horror of the realisation leaves him lightheaded and it takes him another second, a last attempt to call out for Beauty, before he passes out cold.
When his eyes open, he’s on a featherdown mattress (he still remembers what a fresh one feels like) and lying below a ceiling painted with the loveliest, most delicate murals, twisting from one pane to the next, ivy borders in between. Drifting on the threshold between sleep and waking, he peers dreamily up at the paintings, tracing the story of a princess who was turned into a frog, right to the end, the very happy end –
“Is he awake?”
“Looks like it.”
“Why’s he got that gormless look on his face?”
“I dunno. Maybe he’s a simpleton the Master found.”
“Oh dear, a simpleton with a face like that? That is a pity.”
“Get him a clean pair of breeches, would you? His old ones are tattered.”
“Must have been the Master’s claws. I do tell him to get them trimmed!”
“Never to his face though – “
“Well no, I don’t want to be put in chains – “
“Makor, would you mind not sitting on the freshly-ironed shirt, thank you very much!”
“Dearie me, I do apologise – “
“Oooh, he’s definitely awake – “
“What makes you say that?”
“He’s staring at us.”
Jimin is sitting stick straight in bed, transfixed by the sight. Silk ribbons, in various different colours, twisted and turned to form human shapes, wafting about, busily doing chores with such ease they may as well be in possession of corporeal bodies. As soon as they notice him staring, the ribbons lose whatever enchantment hold them aloft, and sink to the ground, still.
“I saw you talking,” he says numbly.
A green ribbon lifts up, but a red ribbon promptly slaps it down. The young man pushes at the bedsheets, attention riveted by the room. It’s sumptuous, more luxurious than any room in his home, even when it was in its fullest glory. The furnishings are ivory and gold, not a slick of dark colour, and it appears filled with light, even though there are only a cluster of candles alight on the dresser and outside, the sky is velvet dark, cluttered with the glitter of a thousand stars. Jimin’s feet touch the polished wood floor and he shrinks back at the sight of his own legs, covered in angry red scratches. They feel hot and tender to the touch, and the memory of those terrible claws looms.
“Where is he?” he questions the ribbons ( who are still playing dead). He feels quite calm, though he isn’t sure if that in itself is some enchantment, or simply the courage of a dead man.
“Where is who?” a voice squeaks. A cloister of blue ribbons begin to rise up out of the pile, much to the chagrin of the red ones. It’s astonishing how their emotions are easily understood even without the formation of expressions. It’s as if he can just…feel them on an altogether different level, one he is wholly unaccustomed to.
“The monster,” Jimin answers, and he touches his legs again.
“You mean the Master,” the red ribbons gripe, also lifting up into a human shape. It’s distinctly female, though the blue is male. The green is female, so is the violet and the yellow, but the pink is again male. “Don’t let him hear you call him a monster or he’ll have your head.”
“Then he’d be fulfilling the very definition of that which he hates to be called,” Jimin retorts. “Is this his home? Are we still in the woodlands? What is he?”
“One question at a time, my boy. Right now we have strict orders to get you bathed and dressed and then down to dinner you go. He told us we must do it as soon as your eyes opened but not to let you see us, and simply leave written notes. I suppose we’ll be punished for that.” Red bustles forward and begins to lift him from the bed, with strength that Jimin can’t comprehend (they have to be spirit demons, there’s no other explanation.)
“I can pretend I didn’t see you if you help me escape,” he offers quickly.
Red chuckles. “Nice try, laddie. There’s a lovely hot bath drawn up by the fireplace and your basket of little dollies is in the armoire. Master was thoughtful enough to bring those with him. I suppose he thought it might make the rest of your days easier.” She cuts off sharply, as if knowing she’s said too much, and Jimin feels the guilt coming off her in waves.
“The rest of my days? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you’ll be here till you’re dead and the debt is paid,” Yellow pipes up, and though Red fires a fierce glare towards her (a most interesting shifting of the silk ribbons takes place to display this), she doesn’t deny it.
“Debt? B-but I don’t owe him anything, I – “ he stops, remembering. “The blue rose.”
Pink nods grimly, a tall fellow, shifty, preferring to remain in the shadows as he folds clothes neatly before flinging them into the open doors of the armoire. They land in perfectly ordered piles. “The stealing of a blue rose from his gardens warrants a lifetime’s imprisonment. Don’t worry. Everyone who’s been here in the past lived the rest of their days in the lap of luxury and were well cared for. We’re all very good at our service.”
“Everyone?” Jimin repeats, knee striking the bath tub. He almost topples in, strength waning as nausea overcomes his every fibre. “How many have there been?”
Green counts on her wiggly fingers and says cheerily, “Fifty six! But mostly goblins or elves or dwarves! Sometimes more than one held here at the same time! You’re our first human!”
“I think I’m going to be sick – “ Jimin mumbles, and as one, the Ribbons are flying about in a tizzy, hurrying to find him a basin, getting him seated and bent over, ordering him to take deep breaths. In the back of his mind he thinks they’re far too good at comforting someone in distress and this reminds him of the fifty-six and the fresh wave of sickness rolls right over him again. He doesn’t throw up – there’s nothing there to – but he has to remain seated a while before he can lift his head.
Down below, a door crashes, and the Ribbons flinch. Silence reigns, save for the patter of a clock, and then a roar is heard.
“Dogoba!” it’s that rasping voice from the forest, but it doesn’t seem quite so loud or earth-shattering. It could belong to any man come home from a long day’s work, throat parched by the scrape of the cold evening air. Red twitches at the name and flies towards the door, with a shrill, “Yes, Master?”
“Dinner! And get this mutt cleaned!”
“Mutt?” Jimin hisses, forgetting his fear and reverting to anger as he clenches the side of the tub. But mere moments later, his assumption is proven wrong when a familiar wet nose peeks around the door and Beauty appears. She runs over and Jimin throws his arms about her neck with a quiet laugh of relief. It’s a familiar, dear face, even if she can’t speak to him.
“Oh look, he brought your doggie too,” Green coos, as Red vanishes through the doorway. “I think you might just get special treatment for being human. He usually throws the others into the dungeons and only lets them wander the east wing, but here you are, in the west wing, in a room of your very own.”
Jimin doesn’t answer, not trusting himself to keep from throwing up. But he quietly complies with their urging to have him undress and get into the bath. They all disappear to give him privacy though Beauty won’t leave his side, remaining at the foot of the tub with her head on her paws, whining from time to time. The water is like a lover’s kiss on his skin, embracing him with warmth and soothing the cuts on his legs. It’s mixed with some kind of healing herbs, he can smell their pungency, and they work to soothe his jagged nerves somewhat, though he can’t close his eyes, he’s too afraid to.
The bath works wonders on his aching, knotted muscles, and he can’t help but be thankful as he reaches for a rose-scented bar of soap sitting snug on a little golden plate upon a side table. Washing up is a quick job back home, meant to be gotten over with without wasting too much water. It feels like years since he’s had the luxury of having a bath just for the sake of it. His foot finds a plug jammed into a drain by the end of the tub, and out of curiosity, he reaches to pull it. The water begins to swirl downwards and vanish, though where it could have gone in a free-standing tub with no pipework underneath, he can’t begin to imagine. The drain works perfectly fine as he rinses off with a jug and basin also laid out on the table and then steps out, wrapping a towel around himself. Beauty gets on her feet, eyes filled with question, and he gives her an encouraging scratch of the chin.
“It’s alright, girl,” he murmurs, knowing that despite her quiet demeanour, she’s as scared as he is.
The Ribbons return and with them they bring a smaller tub into which Beauty is coaxed, with more encouragement from Jimin who helps her in. Once Blue and Yellow are fussing over her, she allows them to start scrubbing her down, the dirt coming off her to reveal pale grey fur underneath, the sheen of it almost silver when the water rinses it off.
“Right in here, young man,” Pink regains Jimin’s attention and leads him towards the armoire, sweeping an arm across the expanse of it to show a ridiculous array of dresses and shirts and breeches and shoes and hats and cloaks – every item of clothing under the sun, in practically every colour too.
“I don’t think there are any my size,” Jimin laughs awkwardly, plucking at a poet’s sleeve shirt.
“They will be once you put them on. Magic,” Pink taps his nose, and then pushes him inside. There’s plenty of room to fit comfortably and get changed in there, though understandably, no candles are inside to light the surroundings up. “Do hurry – the Master’s getting rather grouchy. He hates being late for his meal.”
As long as I’m not the meal. Jimin shudders as he realises those long claws must surely have equal counterparts in the form of fangs.
He prefers woollen shirts but most of the ones hanging appear to be of silk, and though his eye wanders to the dresses a couple times, he ends up choosing a red shirt with billowing sleeves, closed at the cuffs by wrinkles of fabric and embedded sapphire gems. The breeches are equally luxurious, made of the finest cotton and stitched with gold embroidery against black fabric. But it’s the boots that form the pinnacle of luxury, made of embossed black leather and studded with gold eyelets down the backs, the buckles strapped across the heel, coloured the same shade. Leather string criss-crosses through the eyelets until it’s bound at the top in a neat bow. He’s never worn such expensive clothes in his life, not even when his family had much better fortune. This would have been an outfit bought once and kept wrapped in the closet for fear of ruining it.
“Come, human,” Red reappears, beckoning for him to follow. He tells her his name but doesn’t know if she’s heard, and it doesn’t matter anyway.
The moment Jimin steps out of the door, his lips part in an audible gasp.
It’s a mansion straight out of dreams he’s never had because such decadence never existed in his realm of awareness.
Arching columns carved with all manners of blooming flowers and half-naked sylphs holding up the ceiling; sweeping stairs sweeping over each other as if the entire house is a maze to be solved; ornately framed portraits and towering windows embedded with painted glass; chandeliers ten times bigger than Jimin himself; velvety carpets, marbled floors and a perfume that lingers in the air like magic. The colours are jewel-toned and rich, speaking to ancient glory, a lineage that goes far back, many centuries. This lineage is the subject of the portraits as Jimin glides past, mouth open, eyes round, seeing beautiful face after beautiful face, no member of this illustrious family hideous in any form. Red is leading him along far too quickly for him to stop and read the names and perhaps ascertain some truth of which line of ancestry this is – they look like royalty, and if so, he must have read about them in one of his history books.
“There aren’t any mirrors,” he speaks out loud, an odd observation but a worthy one. Mirrors are commonplace, especially the newer ones with the silver backs, but there isn’t a single one hanging up on the walls that he passes.
“No there aren’t. Master doesn’t allow for mirrors in the house,” Red nods, flying down the grandest staircase that rushes down to the circular entrance hall, a sheer extravaganza of wealth and flamboyance, golds and creams and reds. Jimin pauses to marvel at the golden thread work cracking through the white marble on the floors, before asking “Why?”
He receives an ominous, “You’ll see – but don’t ask him about it, for heaven’s sake” and then she’s bowing as she gestures towards a doorway that’s fitted with two large doors, their handles crafted in the shape of jewelled mermaids. Jimin pauses to admire one, but Red hisses, “Hurry child!” and ushers him in. He stumbles his way into what can only be described as a banquet hall, and turns to reach for her but she’s gone.
He surveys the room, and for a moment, is a little put off by the darkness. It’s a huge space, filled with pillars topped by statuesque busts, lining the arching windows that are kissed by red drapes and ablaze with the deep blue of the evening sky outside. But there’s only one chandelier alight, unlike the rest of the house which is well-lit. A table stretches through the middle, laden at one end with an array of dishes, covered in silver domes, and Jimin then forgets everything else because –
It’s a feast, the kind he might have had on his birthdays when mother and father were both still together and they were all wealthy and happy. But even so, the array of dishes before him outnumber the ones they’d have at home. It’s a feast fit for a king, and though every place at the table is laid with cutlery and glasses, only one occupant sits at the head.
If his knees went weak at the sight of food, they manage to lose all durability at the sight of his captor.
He sits swathed in shadow, farthest from the only lit chandelier which pools its golden light onto the rear end of the table, only a single candle sitting by the monster. Jimin’s eyes follow the line of his sapphire-blue silk jacket sleeve, landing on the blackened hand at the end, talons protruding, and covered in what looks like a small scattering of scales. In fact, the scales are halfway up the side of his neck, the rest of his skin around it burnt and red, reaching up to his jaw and travelling across until they meet their end at his temple and cheekbone. One half of his face is covered by a masquerade mask that has had its own half cut away to match, and through the hole, a blackened eye peers at Jimin, flames seeming to flicker deep in its depth. His other eye is normal, humanly so, but that isn’t saying much, since when he opens his mouth, his fangs destroy all illusion of humanity.
“Late,” he grunts.
Be kind to him, Jimin, be kind. Maybe he’ll let you go.
Jimin dips into a bow, as much as he can remember the best way to do it from the single time his parents took him to court to meet the King. Arm flung out, one leg forward, body dipped perfectly at the waist. The monster’s cackle of amusement makes him lurch into a standing position again, cheeks burning scarlet.
“I apologise, sir,” Jimin says. “I’m afraid the ribbons – your servants, sorry – had to deal with my questions, and I had many.”
Talons clatter across wood. “Did you now? Do you not think those questions should be posed to the master of the house, and not his staff?”
“I-I can ask them of you if you’d like, sir, but I don’t wish to bother you,” Jimin answers, now having no idea what he’s saying but repeating polite in his head in the hopes that somehow the monster won’t be riled into a rage.
“Sit,” the monster says, and Jimin promptly takes a seat at the very end of the table. He realises his mistake when his eyes glance at the food which seems a mile away. The monster’s head tips to the side, and though Jimin can’t tell for sure, he knows there’s a wry expression scribed on his face. “Are you not hungry, child?”
“V-very much, sir,” Jimin gulps.
“Then move closer.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
A sigh. “Yes.”
“If I move closer, will you eat me?”
“No. I have had my human for the day. You are perfectly safe.” At Jimin’s terrified face, the monster lets out a bark of laughter. “A jest. Come, sit closer to the food or you’ll be getting none for the next three days.”
Jimin moves quickly, occupying the second seat to the right of the monster’s chair, dizzy with hunger, so much so that it is dispelling the fear.
He waits for instruction to eat, but receives none. Instead, the monster knocks off the head of the biggest silver platter and unveils a roast chicken that almost makes Jimin rise from his chair when he smells the aroma. Lips pout into an expression of want he can’t control and his eyebrows tilt up, hands twisted tight in his lap to keep from reaching. The monster tears off a chicken leg and bites into it with such ferocity that Jimin flinches. He has very little manners, chewing with his mouth open, bits of chicken flying here and there. But then again, how is he supposed to eat with his mouth closed and those cumbersome fangs lodged in there? Jimin attempts to ignore it and waits to be given permission to eat still. The monster senses his anxiety, and finally strikes the table, grunting and gesturing towards the food.
Jimin ignores the chicken for the time being, thinking to allow the master of the house to have his fill of it before he takes a piece. Instead, he pours some pumpkin soup that smells as heavenly as one would expect to be served in a home like this, and with it some roast potatoes peppered with sage and sticks of cinnamon to the side, served with a side dish of butter. When he looks up again, the chicken is gone. Jimin pauses, mouth open, spoon halfway to it, and stares at the monster with eyes that express nothing but shock.
“Did you want the chicken?” the monster says with a pleasantness in his tone that reminds Jimin of a crocodile’s smile. He quickly shakes his head and takes his first mouthful.
He soon forgets about the chicken, mouth full of the best potatoes he’s ever tasted, soaked in pumpkin soup and garnishes that he doesn’t know the name of. The monster passes him another dish and without thinking, Jimin uncovers it, eyes lighting up at the spiced mutton stew inside. He starts to ladle some out into an empty bowl, and then takes another piece of potato, shovelling in a spoonful of mutton stew straight after –
And then he stops as a horrific thought occurs to him.
For all his observance of the monster’s manners, Jimin bursts into tears with his mouth still full of food, lips stretching open to allow a sob to hiccup out as moonlit pearls trickle down his cheeks.
“What in Hel’s name – “ the monster booms.
“You’re fattening me up to eat me tomorrow!” Jimin wails, once he’s swallowed and the tears are pouring even thicker.
The monster strikes the table with his hand and then slumps in his chair, other hand pressed to his face in exasperation. But Jimin won’t be consoled. It’s a tangle of emotion hitting him like a steam engine, and no matter how he tries, he can’t stop crying. He hasn’t bawled like this since he was a child, mouth open, eyes scrunched up, nose red, tears splashing into the pumpkin soup. When the monster roars for Red, Jimin cries louder, as if it’s a competition of who can be the loudest, and he’s determined to win.
Red comes rushing in and is told that their captive is hysterical and to take him away and put him to bed. Jimin struggles as she pulls him from his seat, and starts crying, “Please don’t eat me! I have to go home! My father’s waiting! You can’t eat me!” all the way out of the dining hall, and the monster ignores him, instead burying his face in a cherry pie that’s five times the size of Jimin’s face.
That night, there is no consoling Jimin and Red employs the use of tiny little eggs that when opened, burst into sirensong, lulling the boy into a slumber. She sits by him and waits, watching him hiccup, as his eyes close, thumb pressed to his mouth, lashes wet with tears. Once his breathing evens out, Red reaches to brush his hair off his forehead, a sad little laugh sounding as she sighs, “You remind me of my son…”
It takes some convincing, but as the days turn into weeks, Jimin is settled in the knowledge that he will not be allowed to leave. This doesn’t mean he hasn’t tried several times to escape, and each time, the monster’s hounds hunt him down and are followed soon enough by the master himself, who throws him over his shoulder in much the same way he’d first captured him.
But captivity ill-suits a boy who had spent most of his teenage years being the head of his own household, working to provide for himself and his father, and the first few days, he couldn’t stop worrying about Papa.
What Jimin didn’t know was that the food of the mansion was enchanted. With every new day, every new mouthful, it erased a little bit of his memory, wrapping his past life in a fog and turning his gilded cage into his new reality. His emotions of discontent and hatred of being trapped remained, but now he didn’t understand why he felt a longing for the outside world, or what he’d left behind.
Depression sinks in after a fortnight, and soon enough, he won’t leave his bed.
The master of the house, previously unconcerned with his captive, now returns each evening to find that Jimin refuses to come down to dinner, and that food must be taken up to him, which he once again refuses to eat. Soon enough, the spell will wear and memories of his home will return, and once more, the pesky escape attempts will recur.
So, for once, the Dragon seeks the advice of his servants, and they are more than eager to help.
“Force him to eat,” Pink says.
“Throw him in the dungeons till he does,” Violet titters.
“Cast a spell on him, master! He’ll dance like a puppet!” Blue offers.
Red, seeing the Dragon get increasingly more discontent with the array of silly answers being thrown into the mix, pipes up in her mild-mannered way. She was once the housekeeper of this magnificent home, a woman who ruled a hundred-strong army of servants and was more than fit to prepare for huge events such as weddings and funerals, but was now left to watch over a sad young boy and his pet dog.
“He needs love,” she says. “He needs comfort – he misses both. Show him some kindness and perhaps he will like to stay here with you. You never know, he might be the one.”
The Dragon eyes her sharply, and she regrets speaking. ‘The one’ is a touchy subject, and something the master rarely likes to speak of.
“There is merit in the first thing you said,” he nods. “I haven’t been human so long, I’ve forgotten their little churlish whims and needs. What do you suggest I do?”
Red doesn’t think he’s lost his humanity, but then again, she’s the only one of the Ribbons to believe so. She watched her little prince grow up into a man, and though he turned cruel like his father, she had never lost hope that his kind mother still lived in him. All such hopes had had been dashed the day the curse fell, but now, as she watches the Dragon ponder over how to cheer up a peasant boy from a village of no consequence, Red’s eyes would have teared up if she still had them.
“Talk to him. Ask him about his interests. I know he likes to make his little dollies. They’re sitting in the basket still. I think, if we can get him making them again, he will be much replenished.”
“He shivers at the sight of me.”
“Maybe once. But he’s accustomed to it now, master. You should give it a chance.”
For a few days, he doesn’t and Red loses hope, wondering if perhaps the golden-haired fledgling will in fact waste away from the weight of his own misery and die long before the fullness of his expected years. Beauty watches over him night and day, not leaving his room, but not even she can get him to leave his bed except to go to the bathroom (after which he slinks right back.)
But then one evening, as Red orders around Blue and Yellow to polish a fine set of cutlery from the ‘forbidden cupboard’ (it is forbidden as it is for the guests they may never have), she notices a large shadow whisk around the corner. Leaving the two to quarrel, she flies quietly around to see the Dragon walking down the corridor, the sweep of his dark red cloak billowing behind him. His hair is freshly washed and swept back.
“Oh, the dear. He’s wearing his best frock-coat,” Red giggles to herself, eyeing the black coat with its embroidered embellishments, and magnificent lace cuffs.
She ducks behind a curtain when he turns his head, and then proceeds to watch as he stops outside Jimin’s door and gestures to himself, mouthing words she can’t hear. He appears to be practicing. At one point, he shakes his head and turns to leave, but then stops and turns back, mouthing some more. Go in! Red thinks, and it’s as if the thought reaches into his mind and pushes him towards the door. He opens it and then he’s gone, the hallway dark again.
Inside the bedroom, Beauty gets up first, hackles rising as she snarls at the intruder. Jimin shifts, turning over his shoulder. When he sees the Dragon, he barely even blinks, turning away. On his part, the Dragon looks around the room, scales shimmering red and black under the soft lights. Even his tongue is bifurcated, as if he is a man trapped halfway into transforming into the ancient winged-wyrms of old.
“You’re not even going to ask me if I’ll eat you?” he says eventually, and there is a sparkle of humour in the gruffness of a voice that he can’t soften, though he tries.
Jimin doesn’t answer.
The Dragon walks around the bed, and though Beauty is still growling, licking out her tongue every so often to wet her muzzle, she allows his approach. Perhaps she knows that this is a predator too great to fight.
Jimin’s eyes follow him once he’s within view, but he doesn’t move, hand pressed to the plump of his cheek and golden hair dusted over the pillow. It’s growing longer, and soon enough, he’ll be able to tie it into a ponytail like the gentlemen at court, with their fabulously powdered curls. Not that he will. He’ll cut it right back to the original length – he doesn’t like the upkeep of longer hair, though he can’t help but notice how silky soft and lustrous the Dragon’s curls are, dark and rich, brushing around his nape and twisting near to his pointed ears. He really is very hideous, but there is a mould to his face, his bone structure, that suggests he once was beautiful, in a way that was imposing and terrible. The kind of beauty that Jimin had seen in those portraits, so great and so cold, it was perfect when captured in a painting.
The Dragon sits down beside his bed, and the weight of his arm makes the mattress creak as he rests it there, elbow just about touching the tops of Jimin’s thighs. He fidgets a little until it isn’t.
“Do you intend to remain sleeping here till the last of your days? It’s not a loophole out of what I am owed, you know,” the Dragon says.
Jimin shrugs. “Why not? I have nothing to do but be caged. I may as well sleep my way into death and escape that way.”
“How melodramatic. It offends me that you think this house of mine won’t keep you entertained for the rest of your life. You’ve barely made an effort to go snooping around like the others. And you look the type to do so.”
Jimin doesn’t reply, too tired to, or too angry to. The Dragon takes a deep breath and looks away, unsure what to say next. He recalls Red’s words and then attempts to figure out a way to put them forward without seeming awkward. Oh, he is not used to kindness, never has been. This is a most strange thing to try and accomplish. Another thought creeps in and he smiles a little as he turns to divulge it, hoping it will elicit more than a little shrug and a disinterested pair of eyes.
“You know, you remind me of a princess I once met. She too thought sleeping was the greatest pastime, and spent most of her days lounging in her bed. The one time she decided to go out and explore the castle her parents had so lovingly built for her, she pricked her finger on a spindle she found in the attic and well, that was the day she discovered she had been cursed by a witch as a baby and was meant to prick her finger at sixteen. And then, she fell into a sleep she couldn’t wake from. As far as I know, she’s still asleep somewhere, her castle filled with sleeping ghosts and brambles and ivy that cover the entrance so that barely anyone can get inside.”
Jimin stares at him. The Dragon lifts his eyebrow and attempts his best smile. It’s a very frightening thing to see, but Jimin ignores the fear and says in the same dull tone, “I don’t think that story is as encouraging as you think it is.”
“There are no spindles in this home. And I’m sure a witch hasn’t cursed you. You don’t look as if you’d be worth the effort. And I mean that in a good way, for witches who turn their eyes on their victims, usually see something which they can gain. And I don’t think you have much to offer in terms of wealth and infamy to a witch, no?”
“Do you?” Jimin retorts. At the little frown that creases the Dragon’s scaly forehead, he continues, “Someone must have cursed you. Those portraits outside are your family. You would have looked like them once. What happened?”
He thinks he sees a flicker of deep, deep pain, an emotion he cannot begin to comprehend, that stems from years longer than he has been alive. But then it vanishes, and the Dragon nods. “I was cursed. Infamy was gained on the sorceress’s part. I was once a prince, the sole heir to a great house that ruled an empire larger than any this world has ever seen.”
Jimin pulls his hand out from under his cheek and now his eyes focus. “Which one?”
“Come, I’ll show you what I used to look like.” The Dragon stands up and Jimin understands that this is a ploy to get him out of bed.
But perhaps, his curiosity has been piqued for the first time in a while, ever since he felt like he’d forgotten things about himself he really needed to know.
The first spark of life, a stone laid down on a path that might lead somewhere new, less stagnant than where he is now. So, he lifts himself up, a little weak due to ineffective use of his muscles, and then his feet touch the ground, graceful as a dancer’s. The Dragon offers him a hand, and then retracts it when Jimin’s eyes display fear at the sight of those talons. The younger regrets his action immediately, still too much himself to not feel sorry, even when it comes to his own captor. He’s dressed in a night gown, which he is pretty sure was made for women, but it fits him nicely and it has lovely billowing sleeves and little bows along the hemline – the only thing he’s chosen to wear recently.
“May I have your arm?” he suggests, as a way to make up for his flinching.
The Dragon, previously standing there looking quite grim, softens again, and offers his arm, through which Jimin slips his small hand and tries not to focus too much on the long claws at the end. He can feel the scales through the sleeve of his frock-coat and he has a strange urge to push it back so he can admire them properly; they are truly the only part of him that Jimin finds beautiful. Dragons are mythical creatures but here it is – one seems to be embedded into this cursed prince, a spell so strange, Jimin can’t make head nor tail of it.
They walk out together, Jimin’s footsteps making no sound next to the Dragon’s heavy ones, whispering across carpets and squeaking a little along marble. He’d forgotten some of the magnificent views in the home, but there are some he hasn’t yet seen. He’s led down new corridors that branch out into open spaces, filled with cobwebbed columns and lights and staircases that are overgrown with ivy and flowers and strings of honeysuckle, leaving a most bewitching scent on the air. The Dragon leads him up one and near the end, the bannisters are simply covered in a wild tangle of thickened ivy and bramble, roses and magnolias and orchids and lilies –
Jimin’s face lights up despite himself as he reaches to stroke the soft head of an iris flower, nudging a bunch of carnations as they pass by. He’s careful to be gentle, knowing not to tear one off. After all, this predicament he’s in is because of a broken flower from one of these many gardens. But there isn’t a blue rose in sight, not yet.
“The Hall of Kings,” the Dragon announces suddenly, turning Jimin around to an expansive gallery that stretches down many metres before closing in double doors at the end. A tree grows in the middle, hanging with a hundred lamps, filled with glow fae, just as he saw on the bridge. The floor is black and white chequered marble and the ceilings high and embellished with swirling murals that he can’t quite make out. The eastern side of the gallery is columned, opening out onto a small jungle-type garden built in a courtyard, filled with an even bigger array of wild flowers and climbing ivy that chokes itself around trees reaching for the skies above. And on the western side, portraits are lined, going down at metre intervals. Nineteen of them.
“Was this you?” Jimin points at the first one, at a man so beautiful and so cold, he thinks it must be the Dragon. They have the same distant look in their eyes.
“No. But he was the first King of our House, back when we only ruled a small land. His name was Seokjin – third of that name I believe. Yes, it says it right here.” He taps a small plaque underneath and Jimin proceeds to ask which house. When he answers, “Daharin” he looks as if he expects the reaction he receives.
“The dragon-riders of the Ankaran Empire,” Jimin says, voice hushed with wonder. “I remember reading about them in school – “ he pauses, as memories return to him of sitting in a classroom he doesn’t quite recognise, as if the past is trying to break through but can’t. Before it can crumble his brain like it has before, he focuses on the subject matter he does remember. “I read that their line ended with the last prince who was killed by his own dragon. They call it the Telladan Empire now, it’s not as big, and a lot of the duchies became independent again.”
“I know. No one quite knew how to keep a large mass of kingdoms under control like my family,” the Dragon hums, chuckling a little as he finds another portrait. “Yoongi the Third. Great statesman. Not so much a warrior, but the legislature he left behind became a framework the Daharins used till the very last days of the empire. And here we have Namjoon – another wise King, but again, no warrior. He was a little too pious for the throne. The Beloved they called him, because he was kind to his people, yet couldn’t save them from the quarrels of his brothers which led to civil war. The Dread Wars they called them.”
Some more kings were listed, a few queens, and then Jimin pointed up at one painted on a horse, spear aloft. “I recognise him! The Warrior King! Which should be emperor, but I suppose it doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?”
“Hm. Hoseok the Conqueror. A hero of mine. Under his reign, our kingdom became an empire and he spent most of his thirty years as emperor on the back of his dragon, waging war.”
Jimin slips his arm out of the Dragon’s hold and runs down to see if he recognises another familiar face. He points up and announces, “I prefer this one! Jungkook the Great! We spent a week learning about him! The empire grew to its largest under his reign and they said that he ruled for a hundred years and there was peace and plenty in every kingdom that belonged to him.”
“A hundred years would be an exaggeration,” the Dragon chuckles, his voice growling deep, like the rumble of lava through a volcano. “Sixty, more like. But he deserved his epithet.”
“Well then I suppose this must be you,” Jimin says, running right to the very last portrait and pointing up at Hanal the Weary, the last prince who clearly wasn’t eaten by his own dragon, since he stands here before Jimin looking very much like one instead. “Why were you the Weary?”
“That is not me,” the Dragon says, and there is a stillness about him that exudes a sadness so great, Jimin can taste it.
“But then – “ he trails off, confused.
“When I was cursed, the memory of me was wiped from my lineage. My people no longer remembered me, and neither did my family.”
Jimin heart sinks, suddenly aware of the way the fire that always flickers in the Dragon’s left eye, is dying. “That’s…terrible.”
“I am up here however. If you can guess which one.”
He takes his time, trying to match each portrait to the monstrous face beside him, but with each one the Dragon shakes his head. Jimin only chooses the faces he doesn’t know, as one of them will be the forgotten Emperor, but he gets closer to Jungkook the Great and still no luck.
And then he lands on that says Taehyung the Cruel and almost walks past, as his first instinct is not to associate the Cruel with the sadness he sees. He forgets what monstrous captivity this is, and forgives his captor enough to walk past the only portrait with the worst epithet beneath it. He stops at Kallaeh the Wild, but when he turns to ask, the Dragon is still staring up at the portrait before. Jimin goes back, eyes lifting to survey the young emperor portrayed standing, sword in hand, with his empire painted behind him. In the distant sky, a dragon spreads its wings, breathing fire. Of all the dragons painted in the portraits, Jimin notices that only this one has its jaws open, flames blasting out.
“You’re Taehyung the Cruel?” Jimin murmurs, the name ringing no bells; not even in passing as he read it in history books. “Why – why did they call you that?” he stutters at first, nervous for the answer as much as he is asking the question.
“Because when a tiny kingdom at the northern end of my empire refused to yield to the Empire, I flew my dragon there and burnt it to the ground. They never had a chance to flee. Calamity fell during the night.” He speaks in a deathly quiet tone, with detached words that suggest he’s thought about it too many times to count, that he sees it in his nightmares still, and that nothing he ever does will make up for it.
Jimin scours his brain for his geography lessons and the only thing he can dredge up is mentions of the Wastelands, an area beyond the Driftwood mountains that prisoners are now shipped to and kept. Nothing grows there, nothing lives there except for the exiles of other kingdoms, people they don’t want.
“How big was the population?” he asks, voice faint.
“You can’t have – I mean – not all of them. You can’t have killed all of them – “
“500,000 died. The rest became refugees, kicked from one land to the next. They still don’t have anywhere to go, anywhere to live and are treated as wanderers that no one wants. The Elms Folk they call them now.”
He knows that. There have been a few Elms Folk who lived beyond the crops fields of the farms, in little raggedy patches of land where they kept their caravans. Mostly women and children and the elderly as the men would became mercenaries in the private armies of noble lords, sending money to their families. The Elms Folk had once been a warrior race, but were now nothing but the unwanted footnote at the edges of most unified kingdoms today.
“They called me the Starlight Prince when I was young – everyone had high hopes for me, until my father died early and I was thrust onto the throne at the age of thirteen. They continued to called me ‘Prince’ out of fondness, though I was then Emperor, but that fondness changed and ‘Starlight’ became ‘Cruel’.”
Jimin fears to ask the question, but he realises he has very little to lose. “Why did you do it?”
The fire in the Dragon’s eyes returns, a smoulder at first, and then licking into a greater flame. He looks at the boy, and Jimin feels his knees buckle with fear.
“Because I was a hot-headed seventeen year old with a dragon and a council full of advisors who treated me like a god, and not a spoilt brat who needed a slap.” His answer is plain and visceral and though nothing can quell nor excuse the grief an entire race was plunged in since the moment the dragon first came, Jimin…understands.
He feels guilty for understanding, for putting himself in the shoes of another, something he is far too adept at, but he can’t help knowing what it might have felt like.
“But fear not – I was punished,” the Dragon continues, with a grunt that sounds like a scornful laugh. “An Elms sorceress found her way into my court, spent a year ingratiating herself long enough to be given a position as my chamber maid, and then cast her spell. At the time, I had a baby son, born to a princess of one of the larger kingdoms in my empire, and he was made Emperor and listed as the son of my father, not me. I do not know quite how the mechanics of the spell worked, but they did, and there is no trace of me in the Daharin lineage today.”
“But wouldn’t that mean the Elms Folk would forget who ruined them?” Jimin counters.
The Dragon nods, sighing. “I suppose it was a small price to pay in the witch’s eyes as long as I was punished and forced to be immortal and watch my family’s line come to an end, and the last dragon die a long time ago.”
Jimin’s stomach fills with a gloom that he can’t dispel, no matter how deeply he breathes, and he shuffles about in discomfort, not knowing what to say next, to lessen the misery in the air. The Dragon is still staring at his own portrait, and Jimin sees the clench of his fist, talons sinking into coarse flesh. He moves, knowing what he’s about to do and grabs at his arm as it lifts to claw the painting in two.
“Don’t!” he cries, and has nothing more to add when those flaming eyes turn on him.
The Dragon grunts, snatching his arm away and brushes past to storm down the corridor, ground shaking with each boot that strikes it. Jimin turns to look up at the painting once more, focusing on the details done on the prince’s face.
He is beautiful, in that same cold way the other portraits are, his family just as statuesque, the bloodline birthing emperors and empresses with very little physical defects.
Madness, perhaps, is the one thing they weren’t free of.
The Dragon’s brief excursion to show Jimin the gallery of his ancestors proved its merit.
The next morning, he gets up, washes himself, and puts on a pair of black breeches and a blue silk shirt, hoping to sneak out and explore the home without the accompaniment of the Ribbons. They are kind, but they are busy bodies, and at every corner, he’s told he mustn’t touch, he mustn’t ask, he mustn’t look for too long –
Breakfast is ignored, replaced with a hunger to learn new things, new tales, fantastical ones that will carry him away on their back and remove him from his captivity if only for a short while. He doesn’t think about the memories he appears to have lost regarding where he comes from. He doesn’t think about anything but the library Yellow had mentioned, and his search for it – if the Dragon has his own princely portrait, surely he must have kept what was left of the literature regarding his rule.
Unfortunately, it skips Jimin’s mind when he finds himself in a great hall, with a floor that is dug out to form an indoor marble pool, small boats docked by the door. It’s the strangest curiosity he’s ever seen, and he wonders who thought of such a strange feat of architecture, delighted by the novelty of rowing a boat in one’s own home. He gets in, pulling on the oars, but yelps when they start to move themselves, disturbing the serenity of the azure water as they move the boat northwards. Jimin’s laughter echoes through the cavernous hall and he takes his time admiring the magnificent surroundings. The hall is made up of four more similar cavernous spaces, all columned, with windows high up that let in swords of pale light, making the blue of the water glow like an aquamarine jewel. There isn’t a soul about, but there are plenty shadows behind the distant columns, and Jimin quiets his happiness, a little disturbed by the emptiness.
But that too is forgotten when he reaches the other side and two huge oaken doors open of their own accord to welcome him into a library that is so large, it looks like it could easily house every book ever written in the world. The floor is chequered marble again, and the walls and shelves are all white, curled with golden carvings and frescos that detail the creation stories of the gods. They aren’t any deities he recognises and he realises they must be the pantheon of the Ankaran Empire, the gods worshipped by the extinct Daharin house. Ladders on wheels are positioned at various corners of the room which itself is a labyrinth, twisting and turning, shelves packed to the ceiling on every side, no expense spared to store every book. The columns holding up the ceiling are fringed with statues of winged women, aiming arrows in the same direction, and as Jimin follows it, he finds himself in the central area. It’s circular, and looks up towards a glass dome shedding light on four storeys edged by mahogany balustrades with small walk ways to reach the books held on those shelves.
Where does he even begin?
This is all he’s ever wanted. The knowledge of the entire world at his fingertips, but now that he stands here staring at it, Jimin wants to curl into a small ball and cry. It doesn’t feel as good as it should, and his shoulders sink as he turns to walk his way back through the maze and return to the library doors.
But just as he passes his sixth corner, his eye falls on the bottom most rung of a ladder, and a book that’s out of place on the shelf behind. The spine is familiar, a deep emerald with gold lettering. The Golden King. It’s a more pristine, less dog-eared version of his own book, the one he’d brought with him in the basket of dolls to read as he waited for the elves (before that was ruined by the Pied Paper.) His own is still sitting on the window shelf of his room, but maybe sitting and reading this one whilst in this intimidatingly beautiful set of rooms will lessen the nerve-wracking awe the library inspires.
So, using logic he doesn’t think makes sense, Jimin picks up the book and climbs on top of the ladder to perch himself on the flattened top, opening the book to the first page.
It’s an adventure quest, one his mother first read to him as a child, and the ending is utterly tragic. The dwarf king and both his princelings die in a battle against the orc army, and no matter how many times Jimin has read that particular scene, he still bursts into tears. He spends an hour reading, not skipping a single word even though he knows them by heart at this point, and there it comes, the prickle at his eyes as he approaches the end of the battle and the king is found lying at the foot of a mountain, impaled in the chest with an axe. It’s so quiet, he doesn’t hold in the sobs, fist curled at his temple as he holds the book far enough so that his tears won’t ruin the pages. He knows he’s not quite so much crying for the ending as he is for what it represents – he remembers his deceased mother, but nothing else, no life around her, no memory of his home – just the sound of her voice and the comforting touch of her hand on his golden hair.
He’s so absorbed he doesn’t realise he has an audience, until he happens to glance up.
For how tall, and quite frankly loud, the Dragon is, he makes no sound with his approach. Jimin is caught by surprise, cheeks tracked with tears and hair ruffled by the constant perusal of his fingers (a habit of his when distressed.) The expression is difficult to read on the Dragon’s face, but he seems interested, more so by the boy’s reaction to the book, than the book itself.
“Tragedy?” he inquires.
Jimin laughs, voice a little thick, as he wipes his face. “No, not really. Well, not in the vein of the great tragedies of old. It’s nothing. Just a silly little book. For children really. It reminded me of a time I actually don’t quite remember – nostalgia – as I said, silly – “
He goes quiet and holds out the book as the Dragon comes to a stop at the foot of the ladder. He gives the blurb a quick scan and then opens it to the first page – Jimin can’t help but notice how gentle his hands are as they handle it, the talons not even creasing the paper. It makes sense. The curator of this library has to love books beyond measure, and he is seeing proof of it before his eyes. It softened his heart to see, something he is surprised by after the things he learnt just yesterday about the truth of his captor. The Dragon hands the book back.
“I don’t believe I’ve read this one,” he says. “I have an eternity of literature as you can see, but I suppose I’ll have plenty more time to get through it. This one can move its way to the top of the list.”
“I suppose you probably were used to reading the classics as a prince,” Jimin smiles, bashful as he runs his hand over the cover and then gets up, preparing to turn and descend. A pair of large hands take hold of his waist and Jimin lets out a gasp, almost dropping the book as he’s lowered to the ground like he weighs nothing more than a doll.
“Au contraire, I was rather fond of a gothic romance or two hidden behind a great big tome that could fool my tutor into thinking I was studying the ancient tongues,” the Dragon answers, and though it’s hard to tell, Jimin swears his lips twitch, as if he’s just kept a smile from creasing them.
Smoothing down his shirt (and still a little shaken at how easily he was manhandled), he laughs a little breathlessly. “No! Gothic romances? A prince? But they’re all so…” he trails off, not wanting to denigrate any book, but unable to keep from having an opinion.
“Gawdy? Cheap? Sensationally erotic?” the Dragon offers, flourishing his hands out with a little patter of his long, clawed fingers.
Jimin laughs harder, as there’s really nothing more he can do. Those sorts of books were read by bored housewives whose husbands had long since ceased to bed them, not by teenage princes during lessons. Very much to his own surprise, the Dragon begins to laugh too, the more he sneaks glances at the chubby-cheeked young boy beside him, who seems to find the whole thing highly entertaining. He isn’t sure that it’s that funny, but Jimin’s laughter is infectious and he hasn’t found himself chuckling like this in a long time, not even over a good book.
That afternoon, Jimin has lunch with the Dragon in the banquet hall, and after they’re done, he sits and reads The Golden King to him, whilst the sky outside turns an array of burnished pinks and purples and orange, the sun hovering its last rays over the edges of the forest.
Some of the Ribbons turn up to light up the candles, and replenish the logs in the fireplace, but the pair are left mostly to themselves, only Jimin’s soft voice echoing in the great hall as he reads through page after page, never getting tired. When he’s done, the Dragon is still in the same position, one leg crossed over the other, wine glass in hand as he gazes into the fire. Beauty is curled up between them, having joined halfway through the book’s reading.
“I have something to ask,” Jimin says as he puts the book down.
He receives a grunt, as his captor sits up, looking as if he were about to fall asleep. “That was a good book.”
“You don’t have to pretend you liked it, it’s alright,” Jimin chuckles, “It’s not to everyone’s tastes.”
“There were a few discrepancies in the plot, but you have a lovely voice. I enjoyed it.”
“Oh. Thank you.” He forgets what he wanted to say for a moment, a little flustered. “But I wanted to ask something else.”
“What is it?”
“Have you cast a – a spell on me, to make me forget where I came from? Only, I remembered my mother this afternoon, but it was like having one piece of a puzzle, and I couldn’t think of anything else I knew, about her or me or the life we had. But I know that she is dead.”
The Dragon shifts his glass from one hand to the other, talons clinking against crystal. “It’s the food. The more you eat of it, the less you remember. It’s meant to be a mercy, so your stay here will be easier, but I suppose the broken memories are more of a nuisance than anything.”
“My mother’s memory isn’t a nuisance,” Jimin says a little sharply. He closes his mouth before he can say something else impulsive, but the Dragon doesn’t appear to take offence. He does something surprising instead.
“Would you like to see your father and your village?” he asks.
Jimin’s hands shake as he sits up straighter, hardly daring to believe the chance he’s been offered. “Y-yes. Please.”
The Dragon whistles for Dogoba (Red) and she comes rushing in a whirl of scarlet silk ribbons. “Yes Master?”
“The powder if you will, Dogoba.”
She vanishes and then reappears a few minutes later with a small jewelled container which upon opening, reveals a cascade of cobalt blue powder. The Dragon instructs Jimin to take a handful and throw it in the fire, which the boy does, uncertainly so.
The fire turns blue, rippling like water, its crackled energy doused to a calmer one that acts as a mirror when images begin to flit through. It’s a snapped moment of understanding, of always knowing, like he’d never forgotten anything in the first place. And as he sees each familiar face after another, Jimin lowers to his knees, crawling closer, eyes round and filled with the reflections.
His house appears, and he steals a breath, heart hammering, knowing that he’ll be shown his father next, and that his face will become common knowledge to him again.
But instead, he sees his lounge, dilapidated as ever, but this time, filled with mourners dressed in white. A coffin stretches across the length of the windows, and it’s covered in flowers, a framed painting sitting amongst them. One look at the smiling face of the man painted there and Jimin screams, lunging as if to jump into the flames.
Strong hands pull him back, and Beauty barks at the top of her lungs. All Jimin can hear is his own voice, crying for his father, wanting to go back, legs kicking out at the monster holding him captive. But he can’t escape, not this tight hold pinning him against a much harder, much stronger body. All he can do, is stop struggling and go limp, the sobs hiccupping from his mouth as he cries the same way he did when his mother left him a half-orphan –
And now he has no one.
Beauty growls at the monster as he lowers back into his seat, Jimin secured in his lap to keep him from jumping at the flames again. There doesn’t seem to be any danger of it though. He’s not moving, face expressionless as tears dry on his cheeks, the occasional tremor shaking his frail body.
“How long have I been here?” Jimin rasps.
“It does not matter. He – “
“It took him a month to die without me. A month,” Jimin repeats, and he breaks down again, crying into the Dragon’s waist coat. He has nowhere else to turn for comfort except the cruel hands of the creature who caused this.
“The images you saw are from a month ago,” the Dragon corrects him, and though he’s speaking quietly, the rumbles in his chest roll through Jimin’s body. “He died the night before you went to work in your shop for the last time.”
Jimin lifts his head to stare at him. “How would you know that?”
“I live in a house of magic. Do you not think some of it is available to me? I found out everything about you the moment I took you from that forest,” the Dragon answers him, and this close up, Jimin shudders because his face is truly hideous, and what little skin that isn’t covered in scales, is twisted and red like fresh scars, not a smooth inch in sight. But he forces himself to remain still and not give into the disgust and the fear, even though his body is yearning to get away. “You bid him good bye that morning, and you left him breakfast, but you saw his eyes closed and thought he would be better left to sleep and forget his troubles for as long as he could. They found him three days later when your disappearance was noted, and he was still there, with cobwebs in his beard and on the breakfast you made him.”
Jimin makes a sound crossed between rage and grief, slapping the beast right across his face, and then flinches back as he realises what he’s done. He doesn’t know what it’s for. The cold, callous description of his father’s abandoned corpse, the fact that he’s stolen the secrets of Jimin’s life without being given permission, or just once again, that he’s punishing Jimin for the crimes of a she-elf.
The Dragon doesn’t react to the slap, though he wipes at his chin a little. “You came to the forest at a most opportune time, almost as if fate planned to cut your ties with that village. They’re all leeches. They took your family home and are planning to turn it into a communal building. No one asked what would become of your rights except one of your friends – one half of a set of twins, I believe.”
“Let me go.”
“Jimin – “
“Please. Let me go.” He pushes at the creature’s arms and when they slacken, climbs off his lap, his legs no longer as weak as they had turned when he’d knelt before the fire. It’s orange-yellow again, innocently crackling away, as if it hasn’t just destroyed his entire life – or whatever he has left of it.
He refuses dinner that night and will allow no one into his room except Beauty, who curls up on the foot of the bed as he curls near the top.
Had Jimin eaten the food, he would have forgotten by now. It’s a tempting thing to erase this ugly pain scratching at his chest, but it would be a dishonour to his father. As much as it hurts, he wallows in it, until the tears begin to fall and he cries like a heartbroken child, not even his beloved mongrel able to nuzzle some comfort into him. She remains awake, pacing by the bed as he sobs, intelligent as most dogs are to the emotional disturbance in their favourite human’s heart, but powerless to stop it.
However, her role as his protector doesn’t go unneeded and when the clock strikes midnight, she’s facing the door, teeth bared and growling under her breath. Jimin doesn’t hear it creak open, but Beauty’s sudden aggression makes him lift his head from the pillow, the insides of his skull pounding from how much he’s cried. He can sense the presence in the room and whispers, “Red?”
There isn’t a drop of light to illuminate the figure, all the curtains drawn tightly shut, and all Jimin can do is wait for it to approach. Beauty’s fallen quiet, so it can’t be a threat. Someone she knows, it must be. Except the voice Jimin hears is one he doesn’t recognise, smooth and deep and soft, like cinnamon soaked in honey, calming his rattled nerves.
“You’ve drenched your pillow in tears,” the voice whispers, and Jimin feels a tug at the corner of the pillow, trying to pull it. He sits up, and the pillow is replaced with another. A human hand touches his shoulder and it’s the first physical contact he’s had with another person in what feels like years – he almost bursts into tears again.
“Who are you?” he mumbles, reaching to take the tinder box and light up the candle at his bedside. But his wrist is covered by long, tapered fingers, pulling it back.
“You can’t see me in the light.”
“Because then the curse will be forever transfixed. And I will never inhabit my natural form again.”
Jimin’s gasps, a shivering sound, as he understands. “It’s you. But you’re – “ he can feel the hand on his skin, and there are no talons. It’s soft and warm.
“I return to this form at midnight and remain so until dawn, but I cannot look at my own reflection and I cannot let another living being see it, except for the servants. I suppose it was the witch’s final mercy.”
“W-why are you here? Have you visited me while I was asleep before?” Jimin questions, suddenly feeling exposed as he pulls the sheets up against himself. He isn’t even naked under them, but it’s strange to have a man whose face he can’t see standing before him. He tries to recall every detail of his face from the painting, but it doesn’t work quite as well as he expects.
“No. But I thought you might be awake tonight. I haven’t shown kindness to a fellow human being in a long time, and I don’t quite wish to become a complete monster just yet.” The Dragon brushes the backs of his fingers down Jimin’s cheek, his face puffy from crying, and then coaxes him to put his head on the pillow and try to get some rest.
Try as he might, Jimin can’t, though he goes very still and pretends.
Eventually, the Dragon gets up and the hem of his dressing gown whispers across the rug as he returns to the door. Something stirs in Jimin – a similar need for human comfort maybe – and he turns.
“Would you be able to stay for the night? I promise not to look at your face. I’ll even blindfold myself so that if you’re still here at dawn, I don’t accidentally see you because Beauty has nudged open the curtains or something.”
He is met with silence.
But then –
“As you wish, child.”
Jimin sinks back into the pillows after wrapping his eyes with a silken scarf draped over the headboard of the bed, and waits for the dip in the mattress. Though the Dragon remains securely on the other side of the very large bed (with Beauty coming to lie between them), it’s still incredibly reassuring to hear his breathing. Jimin is distracted enough focusing on it that he doesn’t remember to cry before he feels his eyes beginning to close. Before he can, he speaks again, sensing the Dragon isn’t yet asleep, not quite.
“I’ll forget her in the morning I suppose. But I keep remembering what my mother told me about her family, and I want you to hear it so one of us remembers. The food doesn’t have an effect on you.”
“What did your mother tell you?” the Dragon asks, and Jimin thinks he could listen to his human voice talk forever, it is so dearly reassuring.
“Well, on her human side, she belonged to one of the great families of the kingdom, the ones who always visited the King at his court, and was intended in marriage for one of the King’s youngest sons. But she ran away the night before her wedding with my father, who was only a fairly well-off merchant at the time. My father kept her very happy, and fortunately, when she died of pox she never saw our house sink into misfortune along with his ships out at sea. Not long before she passed, she told me that her mother was the Elven Queen who had an affair with her father and gave the baby to him to raise. I never quite believed it because I thought perhaps Grandpapa was only telling her a pretty story to console her over the loss of her mother. But I think there may be truth to it now, and if I’m not able to remember one of her most cherished secrets, someone should.”
“Consider it heard. Though I am surprised you didn’t believe her.”
“Why is that?”
“The tales of the woodland folk do not cross your river?”
“Maybe in taverns, but I don’t frequent such places.”
“No, I suppose not. You seem too proper for that. A well raised, young gentleman. It’s almost like the plot in one of those gothic romances you laugh at so much. The destitute novice trapped in a large mansion at the mercy of a rich captor.”
“Except they fall in love at the end, and I have no intention of – “ Jimin stops, considering that perhaps he may hurt some feelings.
Instead, the Dragon laughs. “You can finish that sentence. If you were to fall in love with me, I’d question your sanity.”
Jimin sniffs, and curls up. “What were you going to tell me about the woodland folk?”
“Their queen is famous for her affairs with human men. Your mother may have had many half-brothers and sisters littered across the land. After all, immortals have all the time in the world to produce children. Which of course, does mean you aren’t completely alone in the world. You may not know your family, but it’s out there.”
Jimin thinks he hears a touch of forlorn despair in those words, and he remembers that the Daharins are an extinct lineage and that for the Dragon, there is no one left. Coupled with his father’s death, the sadness of the entire evening’s events and culmination is too much, and he no longer has tears left to shed.
Just a hollow shell cupped inside his heart, before he sinks into a fitful sleep.
The next day, Jimin begins to forget with the first sip of tea at breakfast.
By the fifth day, he is back in that clouded part of his mind where he has no life except this one, and it’s an agreeable state to see him in, for both Beauty, the ribbons and the Dragon himself. Without the troubles and woes of a child forced to grow up too fast, Jimin is stripped down to his truest essence – playful, curious, enchanting, and incredibly delightful to hold conversations with, much to his captor’s sullen surprise.
At first, Jimin senses the patronising tone in the Dragon’s voice, as if he doesn’t expect they’ll be talking for long. But as the conversation stretches, his body language changes from indifferent to absorbed, and they can sit for hours talking about the arts, history, geography, astronomy, philosophy, poetry.
Jimin reads every day, voracious with his appetite for books, and he starts to make notes on the topics that particularly interest him, specifically so he can return and debate with the Dragon (and argue over every small thing they don’t agree on with spirited enthusiasm). To his credit, the older never shows any discontent, or fatigue with Jimin’s eagerness, and humours him as if they don’t have decades more to go of the same thing if Jimin lives to his full life expectancy.
Taking Red’s advice, the Dragon hires a few mercenaries passing by the woodlands to gather more of the red clay from the fields to the west of Jimin’s village. They are disgruntled at being used as errand boys, but one look at their patron and they agree without argument. He sends them on a journey to the village next, straight to the haberdashery to buy every fabric they have, in every colour, as well as glass beads and ribbons and lace and lovely scraps of straw for the hats Jimin uses for his dolls.
He surprises the young man with the entire array of materials, all laid out in a room that’s built to look like a workshop, just for him.
Jimin is speechless, drifting inside with his hands clasped against his chest as he stares around him with wide eyes.
“I thought perhaps you could sell a few to the elves as you first wished – I’ll make sure they give you a good price for them,” the Dragon says with his usual gruffness. He looks grumpy, as if the very thought of haggling with the elves exhausts him, but it melts into an expression of shock when Jimin runs to throw his arms around his waist.
“Thank you!” he exclaims, muffled by the expensive velvet of the Dragon’s coat as he squeezes him as hard as he can.
“You’re – “ he clears his throat, gathering himself “ – you’re quite welcome. Hm. Good. Well – er – I’d better leave you to it then – “ he turns to leave, seeming a little unsure.
“You can stay if you’d like,” Jimin says kindly, and when the Dragon turns, he sees him standing in the light of the open window, eyes golden-brown and hair glowing as if every strand is alight. His words fail him, and he struggles for them, unused to feeling so off-kilter and not really liking it.
“No, no, I’ll leave you to it,” he ends curtly, and leaves before Jimin can convince him to stay.
But he comes to his room that night and sleeps on the other side of the bed, quietly conversing until they both fall asleep.
And then three days later, he enters the workshop, finally having gathered the courage to allow this young human’s enthusiasm to filter past the cobwebs littering his mind. Jimin’s intelligence is one thing, keeping the Dragon entertained and stimulated in a way the ribboned servants cannot. But it’s an altogether different matter seeing him work at his dolls, as he explains what he’s doing and his eyes light up with a passion that long ago died inside his captor’s heart. In fact, he can’t remember when he last looked at anything the way Jimin looks at his dolls.
Alas, if there had been a mirror, the Dragon would have seen the same look in his eyes that very moment…as he watched Jimin.
Tonight, just like the other nights, the Dragon climbs into his bed, six months since Jimin was first stolen away to the mansion.
No, not the Dragon.
It began with a soft utterance of it as they sat together in Jimin’s workshop. Now every afternoon is spent basked in the sunlight that only really graces that part of the house. The Dragon spends his time reading, sometimes out loud so Jimin can listen, and in the corner, a string quartet plays, instruments moving on their own, no visible beings there to control them.
Jimin asked for the Dragon to pass him a box of green glass beads – “Taehyung, could you pass me those?” – and was answered with a dead silence. He looked up to see the Dragon staring at him as if he’d cursed his very ancestors, and that moment, Jimin’s heart fell to his boots and he quickly apologised for using his name without permission. But he was given a stiff, “It’s fine,” and the green beads were given. After that, he called him it three other times and there was no reaction beyond a glance his way, when the fires didn’t burn quite so strongly in his eyes, and he was calm.
The name still feels foreign on his tongue, but the after taste is like home, a honeyed warmth in the back of his throat when he finishes speaking it. It makes the very tips of Jimin’s toes tingle to say it, and he thanks all the stars that the other can in no way shape or form decipher the constellation of his thoughts.
This night is different. They lie on their sides of the bed, the room shaded in absolute darkness, and the rhythm of their breathing intertwines and lulls against the distant sound of the wind creaking through the trees outside. Jimin lies facing him, and though he doesn’t know for sure, he knows Taehyung is facing him too. Before he can help it, his hand stretches out, surfing over the expanse of cool sheets, until it finds another, as warm as his own but larger. The sharp little gasp he lets out is audible.
“You really aren’t – “ he stops, unsure how to put it.
“Beastly?” There is that voice again, like caramel, less like the flicker of fire on hot coal.
Jimin lets out a reluctant laugh. “I wasn’t going to say that.” He trails off, teeth sinking into the plush of his lip when he feels Taehyung’s hand tighten over his, thumb sweeping over the petal soft skin of his inner wrist. And then he feels him begin to pull. The man does it a couple times before Jimin takes the hint and inches forward, slow and uncertain, heart hammering in his throat. His knees are weak – what a relief he’s lying down. He stops shuffling closer when he feels Taehyung’s breath disturb the fringe of hair lying flat on his forehead, dipping down against the pillow in strands of silk. The other leans in, nuzzling it.
“Your hair is like spun gold,” he murmurs, “It glints in the sun like the astrolabe my father gifted to me on my tenth birthday.”
“That’s…very specific,” Jimin replies.
The little scoff of laughter in response incinerates what’s left of his insides, and they’re all melted now, a heated mess. Taehyung’s hand still holds his captive, thumb doing the steady sweep over his skin, like a pendulum, back and forth, back and forth –
Jimin shifts, trying to get more comfortable, and as he does, his other hand brushes Taehyung’s chest, almost as if he’s attempting to push him away. But he isn’t. He really isn’t. And thankfully, Taehyung understands because he pushes closer instead. Jimin’s ears are ringing as he lifts up his fingers, tentatively exploring the thick column of his neck, smooth to the touch, feeling it curve into a jawline that could cut marble. And then he finds his chin, and the dewiness of his bottom lip –
There his fingers stutter, and Taehyung parts his lips more, the wet tip of his tongue stroking out over Jimin’s skin. He’s smiling, and Jimin can feel the way his lips stretch, how they’re moulded into that smirk he professes to hate so much during the daylight, when it’s scarier to behold, and yet now, he can’t help but want to giggle over it. Giggle. His common sense slaps him, chiding him for acting like a little boy with a crush, but he ignores its sobering chastisement, preferring to work out the contours of Taehyung’s perfect lips and imagine them pressed up against his own –
He doesn’t have to imagine for long.
It’s impossible to tell who moves first, but suddenly, their noses nudge together, and then the lips follow in quick suit, soft and moulded and warm, teeth scraping over flesh, fingers locked tightly together. Jimin inhales as Taehyung exhales, and the feeling is indescribable. It’s intimacy like he’s never felt before, imbued with the impassioned urgency of newfound attraction, of a hunger Jimin’s never experienced, begging to be sated. It feels like bliss to wrap his arm around the broadness of Taehyung’s shoulder and feel his body to be smooth and warm through the night shirt, though he misses the scales (just a little). It throws him off balance to not be able to see him, to not observe the changes in his expression, the redness in his cheeks, as if it’s proof Jimin needs to comfort himself with, that he isn’t the only one losing his mind. The painting of the prince is beautiful and distant, and he can’t picture that breath taking face displaying raw human emotion, even if he can feel it pressed against his neck where Taehyung is making quick work of covering his skin in love marks.
“Wait!” Jimin gasps, as he feels his strong hands find the waistline of his silk trousers. He’s suddenly very aware he isn’t wearing undergarments and that his manhood is semi-erect. Judging by the weight on his thigh, Taehyung’s is no better.
There’s a pregnant pause.
“You haven’t felt the touch of a man nor a woman before,” Taehyung says slowly, and it’s a statement of realisation, not a question. Jimin shivers as he feels the back of that beautiful hand brush the hair off the side of his face.
He shakes his head, swallowing nervously, suddenly feeling very small and very unsure. A terrible thought strikes him. Perhaps the monstrous part of him is more ingrained than even he himself knows. He might take what he wants anyway. But he feels guilty for thinking it the moment Taehyung kisses his forehead, slowly sinking back onto the bed beside him, arms bundling Jimin closer still until their chests are pressed tight.
“Sweet child,” he mumbles, kissing the plump softness of Jimin’s cheek, breathing him in. “Pretty child…”
“Don’t call me a child. I’m not,” Jimin mutters, though even as he says it with a sullen pout, he knows he sounds rather childish.
“No, you’re not. You’re a man. But I am a hundred or so years older than you. I can’t help but observe how green your youth is.”
“Are you…alright?” Jimin ventures to ask, and when Taehyung asks what he means, he whispers, “Down there,” to which the older man’s laughter shakes through him.
“I will be.”
“How long has it been since you’ve…bedded someone?”
“Quite a while, I must say.”
“Since before you were cursed?”
“That’s a long time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Green said that there have been elves, dwarves and goblins who have stayed out their lives here. I see why goblins and dwarves might not be to your taste, but elves are closest in looks to humans. Far more beautiful too. Why not with…your elvish prisoners?”
He feels the prince’s chest rise and fall as he heaves a contemplative sigh. “Truthfully, I do not know. I left them to their own devices, provided they did not try to kill me or escape – both extremely foolish decisions. I was never…interested. I probably would have left you alone had Red not encouraged me to get you out of bed before you wasted away between these sheets.”
Jimin says nothing to that, but he holds onto him tighter, hoping there is still some time left till dawn. Even as his mind tells him that he is embracing his captor, he wants to hold onto him securely, feel his warm firmness against his body and the way he tucks his chin on Jimin’s head.
Perhaps it stopped being a punishment, unwilling captivity, when he ate the food, or perhaps it was when he found himself seeking the Dragon out for conversation, or making a note to tell him things he found interesting when he wasn’t around. The difference in their ages is large, and their experiences are vastly set apart, but Jimin finds it homely to lie in his arms and listen to him talk about the world in a way he himself has never experienced it. After all, Taehyung was an emperor once, royalty, riding on the back of a dragon through the vast skies, a joy experienced by very few men.
They lie curled up, Jimin’s back to Taehyung’s chest, arms wrapped together, when the dollmaker asks, “What happened to your dragon?”
“I assume the witch killed her. I never saw her again.”
“What was her name?”
“Kaliya. Her scales were red and black, like the ones you see on me during the day. The sorceress was determined to have the last laugh, and a mockery she certainly made of me.”
“An old woman in the village used to say that all curses have a lock and a key to be undone. Maybe there’s one for yours.”
“Was this old woman a witch?”
Jimin chuckles, burrowing back against Taehyung and inhaling his comforting cinnamon scent. “You know, I think she might have been. The rest of the village always thought so. She chose not to marry because she said ‘men are the only unbreakable curse.’ “
The prince’s arms seal around him and he laughs, deep in his chest, the vibrations against Jimin’s cheek travelling to the tips of his fingers. “Probably was a witch. She’s unlocked the secret to a long life. But I don’t think my curse has a chance to be lifted. And the sorceress who cast it is long dead.”
If Jimin can detect the lie in his voice, he makes no indication of it.
Moments later he is asleep and the prince stays awake, long after, until dawn is near and he quietly escapes Jimin’s hold to exit the room.
They have their first argument, a week later, about something so inconsequential that by the time both are tired of not speaking to one another, they’ve forgotten what it is they fought about. At least, until dinner one evening and Taehyung’s hand reaches for the plate of dumplings, one eye on Jimin the whole time. The younger stares at them, as it all comes back to him and then they freeze, gazing at each other.
“After you,” Taehyung says, politely offering him the plate, and Jimin presses his lips together in a smile as he takes a couple with a quiet thanks. The first time, Taehyung emptied the plate into his mouth even though he’d seen Jimin reaching for it, and then forced him to watch as those terrible fangs gnashed them into pieces before sinking them down his throat.
And then they’d fought over Taehyung’s terrible table manners, with Jimin arguing that his beastly form was no excuse to eat like an animal and that it made him quite sick to watch him sometimes. It’s an uncomfortable reality for the prince that his ungainly form during daylight hours makes it difficult to do most things he would have otherwise done with finesse, but since the fight, he’s made an effort.
The things harder to pick up were noted instantly by the other, and before the growl of frustration could sound, Jimin would pick them up himself, spoon-feeding him with a big smile on his face because he rather enjoys it. And at the end of dinner, he’s made a habit of wrapping his arms around the Dragon’s shoulders from behind and pressing a big kiss to his scaly cheek.
Yes, they have become quite domestic, two people attuned with one another’s needs and desires, careful not to upset, focused only on harmony. One might call it an ideal marriage, or at least the description of it that no one ever seems to live up to. Except they aren’t married, and Jimin doesn’t even appear to be in love.
The same cannot be said for Taehyung, as with every aching day that passes, he realises he’s brought upon himself the one torture the sorceress has not.
Falling in love with a mortal, someone who will die before he, because the curse will keep him alive against his own will. As he teaches Jimin to dance in the ballroom the way they once danced at the Ankaran Court, his eyes churn with sadness when they land on the bright, glowing face of the young man, his golden locks tumbling around his head when he spins, hand clutched in Taehyung’s as if it’s the most precious, most breakable thing in the world. He steps on the Dragon’s toes a lot, a little rough around the edges, but his body has a natural grace, and Taehyung can’t help thinking that had he met Jimin whilst he was still Emperor, how different everything could have been. How much better. How an entire nation would have been saved from the humiliation and the agony it had gone through due to one teenager’s poor choice.
“Ankaran dance is beautiful!” Jimin exclaims as the music comes to an end, “It’s a wonder anyone ever stopped dancing at your court. It makes me feel alive, like a butterfly!”
“You dance like a butterfly and sing like a nightingale – is there anything you cannot do?” Taehyung laughs, grasping him as Jimin takes a flying leap in the hopes of catching him off guard. But he never does. Taehyung’s eyes are always on him, watching for the smallest change in movement, and he takes him and holds him up high above his head, spinning him around as Jimin’s laughter ripples through the air like sun rays twinkling off the surface of oceans. When he is lowered, he isn’t put on the ground immediately, instead held against Taehyung with one arm, whilst his own link around the back of his neck.
His laughter quietens, but the kindness in his eyes remains as he gazes at the Dragon with a little smile, uncertain. Taehyung doesn’t put him down, and the smiles fade as the atmosphere changes.
“Perhaps you are the grandson of the Elvish Queen,” Taehyung says. “You have the spirit of the elven folk. Perhaps you will live longer, just like them.”
“Yes, but I won’t remain as beautiful. I will get old, and wrinkly, and I don’t think I want to live so long if my body doesn’t work as it does now. Dancing wouldn’t be quite so much fun then, would it?” Jimin nudges him with a wink, wondering why he hasn’t been set down on the ground yet, but comfortable on his perch.
“I will dance slower for you. And carry you, just like I am now,” Taehyung answers.
Jimin inhales, and the sound trembles, as the statement takes him by surprise. Not due to its inherent simplicity, but the implication behind it. “Y-you will still want to humour an old man?”
“With my looks gone and maybe even the clarity of mind?”
“I will love you all the same.”
Now Taehyung sets him down, stunned by his own slip of tongue.
Jimin’s eyes are round as saucers, and though he doesn’t move away, he doesn’t say a word either, head reeling with thoughts he can’t make sense of. When the Dragon excuses himself with the pretence of checking the front gates for a disturbance they both know isn’t there, Jimin doesn’t make a move to follow as he usually would.
That night, he takes dinner alone.
Jimin doesn’t see him for a few days after that, and Red informs him that the Master is out patrolling his territory and hunting down the creatures trespassing his borders. His land edges the Elvish realm and countless times the Queen pays for the return of hostages that fail to heed her warnings and stray into the Dragon’s lair.
It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, but it still fills Jimin with a sadness he can’t explain. He doesn’t want to see me anymore. It’s the longest time they’ve spent apart since he first arrived and it reveals how much it hurts not to have his companion around, not to have his friend there with him. Jimin pens many letters over the course of those days, intending to slip them under the Dragon’s door for when he returns, but he scraps each and every last one, none seeming genuine enough.
He said he’d still love me. Which means he loves me now. But how can he love me? Do I love him? I am very fond of him, yes, but love – I don’t know what love should be like. Definitely not like a marriage of convenience. Like fairytale lovers then – but their love always begins as fresh as a daisy, and both find each other at the same time and fall in love at the same time. But he stole me away, and I…maybe I’ve just learnt to cope with this the best way that I can by finding in him a companion. Maybe I would run for the hills if I was given the first chance to escape. I can’t love him. This is…not love.
The more Jimin tells himself that he would never love the Dragon if given a choice to do whilst free, the more he misses their heartfelt conversations and the prince’s dry, witty humour that leaves him in stitches. Jimin isn’t very good at telling jokes, and often has to think quite hard for one (which only he ends up laughing at.) But Taehyung is effortless, slipping wisecracks in, here and there, and catching the younger completely by surprise, laughing with him simply due to how hard Jimin drowns in his mirth. He has an intelligence Jimin is enthralled by, never intimidated, or silenced by his own lack of experience. When Taehyung tells him things, it’s like Jimin’s known them all along, not as if he’s being taught by someone older and wiser. It feels…equal.
None of these thoughts help to lessen the pain of missing him.
After five days go by with no sign of the Dragon, Jimin starts to lose his appetite, pacing by the window, yearning to see the pearly white coat of his horse cut through the dark, wicked trees and the gates swinging open to allow him in. Beauty keeps vigil with him, now as attached to the Dragon as she is to Jimin, no longer growling when he enters the room.
On the seventh, the gates open and the Master of the house returns.
At the first sound of hustle and bustle from the Ribbons, Jimin leaps to his feet, eager to rush down to meet him, but he stops when he hears the front doors crash open and the Dragon roars for Red. Watching from a safely hidden spot on the balcony above, Jimin sees him drag in a male elf by his long, silver hair, and fling him aside as if he’s nothing more than a sack of useless dirt.
“Dungeons!” he barks at Yellow and Green, who immediately snatch up the elf and start pulling him in the direction of the prison cells below the mansion.
Anger. Jimin can feel it radiating off him in waves as he stalks through the entrance hall, tearing off his overcoat, the flames in his eyes spitting outwards. Suddenly, the Dragon looks up in his direction, as if sensing his presence, but Jimin ducks into the shadows, cowering.
He doesn’t visit Jimin’s room that night, and for the first time, the younger is relieved.
He still can’t sleep however, and after much persuasion of Pink and Blue both, he manages to convince them to take him down to the dungeons so he can see the prisoner. He knows there are others down there, awaiting release through hostage tribute, none bound to be here like Jimin because of a blue rose. But they will be alright, someone somewhere will pay for their release, whereas he is trapped.
The dungeons are the only part of the house Taehyung hasn’t voluntarily taken him and though they are no less impressively built than the rest of it, the grim dark stone and lack of light leaves no doubt in Jimin’s mind as to why.
“Don’t look left or right. Don’t talk to any of them,” Pink hisses, as Jimin lifts up a torch from its bracket. “And don’t talk to the male elf too much. Tricky creatures they are.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Jimin mutters, “I’m stuck here because of one.”
The he-elf is sprawled on a scattering of straw in his cell, but rather than in a state of distress, he’s lying on his back and utterly calm, eyes fixed on the moonlight pouring in through the tiny window in his cell. When Pink, Blue and Jimin’s shadows cast over his immobile form, he turns his head. The Ribbons he ignores. But when he sees the golden-haired boy, he sits up with an animal grace, smooth and fluid, eyes lighting with that mischief of elves that is so well-known.
“Well, what do we have here?” he remarks. “An elfling? But no, your ears are rounded. And yet your beauty is like a lily petal, fragile and mournful. Our kind is rather known for the sad, cold sort of beauty, aren’t we?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’m not one of you,” Jimin scowls.
“Careful,” Blue mutters, as the he-elf draws nearer, and he truly is exquisitely formed, from the plane of his broad shoulders to the way they slope towards his slim waist. Silver hair flies down like a curtain when he clutches at the bars of the cell and studies Jimin.
“You are half-human,” he murmurs, fascinated. “Mother or father?”
Jimin struggles to remember past the enchantment of the food he eats every day and answers, “Mother. Half-elf.”
“Unfortunate. Our half-kindred aren’t as immune to illness. My name is Nahaer. What is yours?”
“Ji – “ he stops, remembering what he was once told about giving an elf one’s real name. Names hold power. “Rumpelstiltskin.”
Nahaer’s eyebrows shoot up. “You’re joking.”
“Alright. Then tell me – Rumpel – how is it that you walk free in the Dragon’s lair? Surely he hasn’t grown a fondness for eating young humans, has he? I heard he was a savage, but not that much.”
“He caught me with a blue rose, gifted to me by one of your kind,” Jimin retorts. “Tell her I said thanks. It should be her here, but he never believed me.”
“You don’t mean Lyria, do you?” Nahaer frowns. He pauses as if to think, and then snaps his fingers. “She-elf with the dark cloud of hair and a golden headpiece? Yes, she told us about what happened, she feels very bad. She thought you would get out before the Dragon ever caught a whiff of a blue rose being stolen. He counts them obsessively, you know. You must have been very slow on your return to the bridge.”
“I never even got a chance to go a few yards – “
“How long have you been here?”
“Six months – or eight. I lose count. I can’t remember things very well regarding when I was kidnapped and the loved ones I left behind. It’s the food. Don’t eat it if it’s offered to you.”
“Elves don’t need food as much as humans, I’ll be fine,” Nahaer snorts, crawling back to his straw. “Well, Master Rumple, I do pity your plight, but if he hasn’t eaten you yet, you can be assured you will live the rest of your short life in luxurious captivity. Better than most humans get nowadays, no?”
Before Jimin can answer, a door clangs upstairs and his blood runs cold. Pink and Blue squeal in fright, and vanish into thin air, but he’s caught, forced to stand and watch the large shadow on the staircase descend, until it diminishes and is replaced by the form of a large beast.
“Who gave you permission to come down here?” the Dragon growls in a voice like thunder.
“I-I’m sorry, I was just – “ Jimin begins to say, but never finishes as the monster closes the distance between them with a few large strides. The boy’s scream is stolen from his throat as he’s lifted up and thrown over the Dragon’s shoulder, reminiscent of the time he was snatched from the Dark Forest, bad memories, ugly memories he doesn’t want.
But back then, he wouldn’t have had the nerve to kick his legs and batter the Dragon’s back with his fists in a bid to be put down, struggling until his face turns red. His efforts go ignored, small fists doing nothing against the hardness of the scales all over his captor’s body, and he’s carried like a rag doll all the way to his bedroom. The door kicks open and the Dragon throws him to the air, landing him on the bed so hard, Jimin almost falls off before he catches hold of the bedpost.
“If I have to lock you in here, you know I will!” the Dragon roars, so angry that even Beauty (who was previously having a nice nap in the corner) cowers and hides her tail between her legs. “Do not meddle in affairs that do not concern you! You are a prisoner here, never forget that!”
“You won’t let me forget!” Jimin screams back, with courage he doesn’t know he has. “Is this how you treat someone you love? I hate it! I hate you! I will never love you! You are cruel like they said, and you will remain cruel! Not even a thousand years would change you!”
“WATCH YOUR TONGUE!”
“YOU WATCH YOURS! DON’T YOU DARE TREAT ME LIKE I’M YOUR PLAY THING! I MAY BE YOUR PRISONER, BUT I AM STILL FREE TO DIE! YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE THAT LUXURY!” A vein pulses in his temple, and there’s a ringing in his ears, head spinning. He’s never felt such rage in his life, and he’s never seen such rage either as he’s seeing in the eyes of his captor.
For a moment, Jimin thinks the monster will draw forward and tear his head from his neck and be done with it. But then, he turns and slams the door on the way out, almost breaking it off its hinges. Then, the lock turns and the jangle of keys disappears, and Jimin screams one last time, unable to do anything else to express his frustration and his anger.
It doesn’t last.
He curls up on the bed, empty and deadened, too tired even to cry.
I knew it was too good to be true.
Red brings him dinner that night, and surprisingly, he has an appetite for the first time in days. It’s almost as if his body is holding out in defiance, demanding food so that it can use some more of his newfound courage to scream and yell at the monster who has him trapped.
There’s a pile of books sitting on the windowsill, a welcome distraction from the sleepless night threatening to overcome him, and Jimin finds respite between their pages as the clock draws closer to midnight.
The last thing he’s expecting then, is a knock on the door.
“Who is it?” he calls, expecting one of the Ribbons to answer.
His body draws taut, and he lowers the book to the sheets. “Go away,” he calls, voice coming out strong, much to his own satisfaction. “I don’t want to see you.”
“I came to apologise.”
“I have ten candles lit in this room. If you walk in, your curse will be fixed and you won’t have a chance to turn back. So, go away.”
There is silence, and for a moment, Jimin thinks he’s gone. And he doesn’t know why but that upsets him. But shuffle against the wood of the door reveals he’s still there, but with his back against it.
“I don’t know what came over me. I shouldn’t have treated or spoken to you that way. I have no excuse.”
“You do. You’re my captor. You can treat me however you choose. I’m just the person who stole a rose from your gardens after all,” Jimin says blandly, fingers rubbing over the cover of his book, agitated.
“I was at first. But then things changed, and perhaps I was unable to face them with the courage I once had. I do not have it anymore. I am weak, in many ways, most especially when it comes to facing my human side, the one I like to pretend vanished long ago. I do not see you as a captive anymore. I see you as a friend.”
“Then let me go.”
“I cannot. I made the oath over the blue roses long before you were born. I am many things but not an oath-breaker.”
Jimin sighs, and glances in Beauty’s direction as she whines and paws at the door. “I think I’m going to regret this.” He gets out of bed and goes around blowing out every candle until the room is swathed in complete darkness, before heading for the door and pulling it widely open. He can’t see anything outside either, except for when Taehyung moves, and just a faint outline of his form can be seen when Jimin’s eyes adjust to the darkness. Beauty vanishes through the doorway, off to go outside to relieve herself and have a little walk.
“You think of me as your friend,” Jimin states. “That’s what you meant when you said you loved me?”
Taehyung waits a moment before answering, “Yes.”
Jimin pulls the door wider open and steps aside to let him in.
Taehyung doesn’t say much after that when they get into bed together, but neither does he attempt to pull Jimin to him as he has done for the past couple of months. Instead, they both feign sleep, but lie wide awake, staring into darkness.
Sometime around one ‘o’clock in the morning, Jimin shifts around, feeling for the water jug on the nightstand and then sits up to pour some into a glass. He takes little sips, wondering if Beauty has chosen to sleep in another part of the house tonight – she hasn’t yet come back, scratching at the door. He puts down the glass and lowers to the pillows –
Only to feel an arm under his body.
He gasps in surprise, hand reaching out, and it meets with a chest, and then a face as Taehyung sits up too.
“Were you trying to sneak your way into a cuddle?” Jimin asks.
There’s a little huff and a snicker and then Taehyung replies in a deadpan voice, “No. I just rolled over.”
“Then why are you sitting up?”
“Because you are.”
“Alright. I’ll lie down.” And he does, slowly, gazing in the general direction of Taehyung’s face. He expects the older to also sink down, but when he doesn’t, Jimin tugs on his sleeve to make him.
Instead, he feels those warm lips pressed to his own, and Taehyung’s long, dark curls falling all over his face. Jimin reacts without pause or hesitance, hands trawling through his hair as he holds him close, one leg going around him to pull him close. He’s had a hard time admitting to himself that he also misses this, the intimacy that they both don’t discuss, the kisses they share, the heat –
Tonight is different from the very start.
The kisses don’t get lazier, signalling that they’re about to fall asleep.
They get more passionate, fistfuls of clothes pulled tight, and the bed groaning as they tumble about. Jimin ends up on top, rested on the slight curve of Taehyung’s hard chest, his hips straddled over his waist, that painful rush of arousal already travelling down south. When Taehyung’s hands go under his shirt now, he doesn’t twitch back in surprise, he lets them, pulling it up further for him, wanting to feel his grasping touch all over his sides, his hips, his chest.
The man has him gasping, head thrown back, whimpering with each solid bite Taehyung lavishes on his neck. The tips of his fingers pinch at his nipples and the sound Jimin lets out is one he’s never made, wanton and needy, hips thrusting to alleviate some of that pleasurable agony in his trousers. Taehyung stops when Jimin’s hands push down between them, fingers exploring at his waistband, as if to ask if this is what he really wants.
“I want to,” Jimin whispers, and Taehyung doesn’t ask if he’s sure. There is no need.
It’s a new realm of pleasure and delight for the younger, things he’s fantasised about but don’t match up to the real thing. To be wrapped around a man naked, is even better, though the covering of clothes makes the whole thing more sinful, he finds. He falls into the sheets with Taehyung’s head between his legs, crying out in sheer ecstasy as his mouth wreaks havoc. He doesn’t stop even for a moment, shows nothing but hunger, and has Jimin screaming within minutes, thighs quaking as his cock pulses in Taehyung’s greedy mouth, milking it dry.
He’s still incoherent when the older lifts him into his lap, whispering that it’ll be easier for his first time if he rides. Jimin doesn’t know what he means, but trusts him, hugging him with both arms and legs as he continues to moan under his breath from the aftershocks of that wonderful high. He only comes to his senses when he feels something zip through the air and land on the bed.
“What was that?”
“A bottle of olive oil.”
“What do you think, sweet creature?”
Jimin’s lips circle into an oh and then it’s taut excitement again, entwined with nerves when he hears Taehyung uncap the bottle and spill some out onto his palms. Jimin’s never even thought of anything up there, never mind another living being. For some reason, he never thought sex between a man and a man could be similar to that between a man and a woman, and yet here he is, with those beautiful fingers stroking him, preparing him, distracting him –
Taehyung kisses him again, tongue rolled deep into Jimin’s mouth as the tip of his oiled up finger manages to prise its way inside. The boy moans, the feeling foreign but not painful as such, and tightens around him. Both Taehyung’s hands are busy, one stroking Jimin’s cock erect and the other massaging his taint, and stretching him open with the tips of his fingers, keeping him immersed in pleasure until his body starts to lose its ability to keep itself together. Jimin feels drunk, lips wet as they merge with the prince’s, and he can barely stop the sounds escaping him the more Taehyung pleasures him down there in ways so skilful, he can’t figure out what his fingers are doing except that they’re doing well –
He has two inside of him at one point, and though the stretch burns, it fades into the background when Taehyung curls them, finding a place inside him that makes the soles of Jimin’s feet tingle and his toes dig into the sheets. He moans long and loud, and Taehyung rewards him with another, and another, all the while praising how well he’s doing, how good he feels, how perfect he is –
By the time it’s his own turn for pleasure, Taehyung has Jimin shivering in his arms, trying to form words and failing. Jimin feels the tip of his cock push against his opening, and he braces himself, thinking it won’t be much worse than the fingers. But he isn’t prepared, and with just the tip, he’s crying out to stop.
“Does it hurt?” Taehyung coos, kissing over his collarbones, but not making a single move to pull out.
“Y-yes – but I can manage it – j-just give me a moment – “ Jimin gasps, closing his eyes as he tries to get accustomed to it. It feels harder and much thicker than Taehyung’s fingers, and it’s a sensation his body isn’t used to or is fond of. His walls clench reflexively and Taehyung’s shuddering reaction steals Jimin’s attention. He realises he wants that again. Against his better judgement, he rolls his hips down and Taehyung slips halfway in with a strangled groan, drowned out by Jimin’s cry of pain.
“Slow – slow down, Jimin – “ Taehyung says quickly, keeping him steady to hold him off from sinking down fully.
“No – I’m not a coward,” is Jimin’s response which takes Taehyung by surprise long enough for the younger to push down again, and this time, scream as he takes him into the hilt. Now, he has to stop, legs shaking as they grip at Taehyung’s waist, and the elder holds him, kissing down the side of his neck, stroking his hair, so gentle that it’s hard to believe he’s ever a monster when the sun’s rays come up.
Eventually, Jimin begins to get used to the fullness, and he grinds back and forth, small pushes, not too much, wanting to see if Taehyung’s cock can find that place his fingers can. One particularly vigorous push reveals that yes it can and he has his first orgasm without needing his cock stimulated, or before the other even thrusts.
“I-I’ve never felt that before – that was – “ he gasps at the end of it, nails clawing at Taehyung’s back as the aftermath rolls through, coils of delight thrilling his system to the very roots of his hair.
“Did you like it?” Taehyung croons, smiling as he kisses at the corner of Jimin’s mouth, half-amused and half-very-much-aroused by how he’s exploring himself and almost acting like Taehyung is nothing but a prop towards that end.
“Y-yes – c-can it happen again? Jimin asks, so overcome by this new feeling, he hardly dare believe it could happen a second time.
“I can make it happen over and over, pretty one. Would you like to see how?”
Jimin nods, forehead pressed to Taehyung’s and teeth biting at his lip as he prepares himself.
And oh how he does.
It’s one thing to manoeuvre himself on that thick length. It’s altogether different to feel Taehyung move, to feel his strength as he holds Jimin up and thrusts, hips pumping steady, no stuttering, no pause, just a constant piston of pleasure that has the younger crying and shivering his way to another orgasm in no time. They remain coiled around each other in that position for another one, this time mutual, Jimin’s thighs fluttering around Taehyung’s hips like butterfly wings as they ride it out.
And then they pause for water, and Jimin wants to do to Taehyung what Taehyung has done to him.
He moves down, licking up his slackened length, exploring with his tongue. Though he has the same parts, it’s still a new experience to taste another man’s, and to hear him moaning overhead as Jimin’s mouth suckles and licks and gently bites in places where the veins throb hardest. Once he’s stiff again, Taehyung wants to be inside him and Jimin can’t agree fast enough. He rolls over onto his back and welcomes his prince between his legs once more, knowing it’ll be a little easier for him to enter this time.
The new position is more intimate, if it’s even possible, and it certainly gives Taehyung all the power, to pleasure him and fuck him as he wants. Jimin finds himself breathless a lot, clinging to the bigger male, as his hips roll and push and draw back, only to repeat, until he hears Jimin squeak in his ear, a sign he’s about to come.
He can’t manage any more than that, already half-asleep in Taehyung’s arms as the older rocks his way to his own peak, deep inside Jimin as his teeth bite into the abused, soft skin of his neck.
When they fall back to the bed, Jimin cuddles closer, wanting to feel the security of Taehyung’s large, firm body against his own, and as he does, he mumbles, “I don’t think you love me as a friend. I think you love me like the love they share in those gothic romances you like so much…”
And with that, he passes out.
When Jimin awakens, it’s still dark in the room, though the pleasantly scintillating smell of olives lingers in the air. He doesn’t know quite what’s woken him as there’s no sound, but he could have sworn a voice had hissed something into his ear.
He forgets where he is, who he’s with, why he’s there, mind encased in that clouded fog of unknowing that masks the threshold between sleep and consciousness. In fact, he still thinks he’s dreaming when he reaches for the tinder box to light up a candle and see what time it says on the clock just opposite. The flicker of the match is quiet, and the glow of the flame immediate, casting enough light across his side of the room to see the clock.
It’s twenty past three. Two hours before dawn.
Jimin grunts, mumbling something as he moves around and prepares to blow the candle out.
Then his eye falls to his left.
And there he is.
Stretched out in peaceful slumber, wearing only his silk trousers, chest bare and hard and scarred in places as if by the wounds of a sword. It’s the prince from the portrait, but glowing, more human and more ethereal at the same time, his dark hair a cloud as it fans about the pillow and tumbles around his face in loose ringlets. Thick, long lashes skirt the tops of his cheekbones, and the bushy eyebrows from his monstrous form have the same shape now, though more finely cut. There’s a mole on his lip, his nose and at the inner rim of his eye, tiny details the painting never gave up, but Jimin can see for himself this close up. There’s even a little scar towards the right corner of his mouth, just a little thing, like a faerie’s kiss burned into his skin.
Jimin keeps the candle up, frozen, forgetting everything he’s been told about the curse.
And then Taehyung’s eyes open.
Jimin shrinks back, as if caught in a crime, and almost drops the candle onto the bed. He blows it out, and says Taehyung’s name, but the sheets are already disturbed, and the mattress’s weight evens out.
Jimin doesn’t see him the next morning.
The house is cast in a dead quiet, as if a funeral is taking place. The usual distant noise and clatter of the Ribbons going about their chores is silenced, and not even the clocks are wound up to ring at the turn of each hour.
Jimin sits outside Taehyung’s door the entire morning, afternoon and evening, begging to be let in, but he isn’t answered. Red comes around eventually, and coaxes him to return to his room, that the Master doesn’t wish to be disturbed. Jimin goes, reluctantly, and proceeds to cry himself to sleep that night when the door doesn’t open and Taehyung doesn’t walk in.
It must mean the curse had broken its final straw.
Jimin has ruined him.
Early the next morning, Beauty wakes him with a lick to his face, and Jimin opens his reddened eyes to the Ribbons hovering around the bed, staring at him.
“What is it?” he whispers. “Is it Taehyung? Is he alright?”
“The Master wishes for you to leave,” Green says in a quiet voice.
“What?” Jimin blinks, confused.
“He says he will break his oath for your sake. You may leave. But that if you tread on his lands again, he will – he said – that he’ll kill you.”
Jimin swallows down tears, nibbling on his lip. When he’s composed himself some, he asks, “Did he turn back? Last night?”
The miserable silence is answer enough.
That cold, winter morning, Jimin’s first step outside of the mansion’s gates lifts the enchantment of the food he’s eaten habitually. He remembers everything, and it does him no good. It’s sadness upon sadness, now being fed on by the greatest misery of all – the knowledge that he’s hurt someone he cares deeply for, someone he never wanted to hurt like this, not even at the start, when they were still strangers to one another.
He still has the prince’s love bites littered over his neck, the ghost imprint of his beautiful hands bruising his flesh, his weight deep inside –
But with every step he takes further away from the mansion, little basket of dolls and the dog-eared book in hand, those physical memories lessen their hold, lose their edge, diminish. He doesn’t know where to go. He doesn’t know where he can go. There is no home for him in the village, no one willing to take him in unless he’s a scullery boy or something equally menial. After months spent nourished and dressed and tended to like a prince, Jimin doesn’t think he can go back to something quite so dull.
So, he heads towards the Elven lands.
He uses Nahaer and Lyria’s names to avoid having his head sawn off at the neck, and once they allow him to approach the gates into their citadel, the story he tells the captain of the Queen’s guard of where he’s come from, gives him a direct route to the palace itself. No one has ever managed to leave the Dragon’s lair without a price paid in exchange, and here, Jimin has been voluntarily freed. He deserves to live by the estimation of the Elves.
But the Elves also latch onto the information as a newfound weakness in the Dragon’s armour and set about sending hunting parties to his lands, testing the limits. When the first night passes with no retaliation, they know their greatest foe is defeated. It doesn’t take long for the news to spread, and soon enough, goblins, dwarves, orcs and elves are using his territory as a free crossing through the Dark Forest, though they still do not dare approach his mansion. His prisoners are freed through ransom, and Nahaer is one of them, the reason Jimin manages to remain in the Elven citadel.
Thanks to the silver-haired elf’s patronage, Jimin is given a position as one of the bell-ringers that herald the passing of the hour at the citadel tower, and thus life settles into a blind monotony.
It’s quite beguiling to him, to live in one of the most enchanted lands in the known world, filled with creatures of beauty and light, whose very footsteps appear to glide on air, and yet Jimin is jaded, looking through everyone and everything, as he goes about his daily duties with the lacklustre effort of a ghost. He doesn’t care for this beauty that would have once lit up the stars in his eyes. The wickedness of the Elves is ill-masked to him, not even by their pretty clothes and hair and ears –
He’s starting to prefer beauty that isn’t easily seen, hard to find, hard to reach, but when it’s there, cupped in his palms, it’s the loveliest thing he’s ever held.
He misses him.
As the days wear on, Jimin wonders if Beauty is at least giving him comfort. She never left with Jimin, and the last he heard from Yellow, she had spent her night with Taehyung, curled up at his bedside where he lay motionless. The more triumphant tales Jimin hears of the woodland folk encroaching on the Dragon’s territory, the more he worries, for he knows Taehyung is no better than Jimin was when he was wasting away in his room, empty of the joy he once had in life. No, he is probably worse, having lost the small mercy of his own form for a few hours, forever.
Night after night, Jimin goes to sleep, thinking of him, hoping he’s eating, maybe reading a book or two to get a little distraction, or going for a walk in his gardens – when he knows Taehyung isn’t, and will never do so again.
And then the devastating news comes one morning, as a hunting party of elves return through the gates of the citadel, banners streaming high in triumph.
The horns ring out, and the elven lord at the head of the little gathering, cries out in a clear voice, “The beast is dead!” He is met with an uproar, as the elves spiral into a maddening delight, the sound so ferocious that it carries up towards the palace where the Queen steps out onto her balcony for the first time in months. Her face isn’t usually seen, not even by her subjects, but there she stands, tall, tan and golden-haired, her head resplendent in a crown made of starlight gems, just like the ones promised to Jimin by Mrs Nwaigbo.
As he stands at the tower watch post, he forgets that this is the first time he’s laying eyes on his grandmother herself. He forgets to be awed by her terrible beauty and the authority she exudes, with her sword at her hip and her armour glinting pale silver in the sun. He forgets everything except the sentence –
The beast is dead!
Jimin turns tail and runs.
In the chaos breaking out all over the city as they celebrate, he manages to slip through the streets, unnoticed, or ignored. The guards that should be at the front gates are pouring ale and don’t care to look around and see who might be racing past. Jimin runs over the bridge that crosses the moat dug around the citadel and runs for the forest as if he has devils nipping at his ankles.
He doesn’t stop running, doesn’t pause to catch his breath, or even think.
It’s a mindless, frantic panic, a need to see for himself before he breaks down and screams.
The mansion’s gates are wide open, covered in crawling ivy and the front doors are broken, as if someone has smashed their way inside. Chandeliers lie shattered on the floor, and outside, the heads of blue roses scatter across the snow, deliberately cut off. Every room he passes inside has broken furniture and cracked windows – whoever the Dragon’s enemies are, and there appear to be many, have left no stone unturned in ensuring his home is destroyed.
The things they must have done to his body.
Jimin can’t breathe as he descends the final staircase and sees the remnants of the Ribbons lying lifeless on the hallway carpet. Yellow, Green, Red, Pink, Blue, Violet and Red. They lie tangled up, nothing more than the decorations for fine clothes they first started out as, before the lost souls those poor, cursed humans had given them life.
“Taehyung – “ he gasps out, tears falling onto Red’s remains, and such fear as he’s never felt in his life except once, when the doctor emerged from his mother’s room with a face that said it all.
The door into the prince’s room is thrown wide open and Jimin comes to a dead halt when he finds himself in the entryway.
This room, like the others, is in disarray.
But he’s there on the bed, whole, untouched.
Jimin will always know death when he sees it, and he can see it in Beauty’s curled up form too. She’s lying beside him, head rested against his side, and there’s no telling how she passed or when. No wounds, nothing.
His strength leaves him and Jimin’s voice cracks as he whispers out No.
By some miracle, he stumbles nearer the bed, both hands reaching for Taehyung’s, covered in scales and tipped by the talons Jimin once hated. Now, he holds them against his heart as if they’re the most prized jewel in the world, as if they’re the only reason his heart can continue to beat. He brushes his hair off his face, gently removing the half-mask to reveal shrivelled, burnt scar tissue, so severely wrought that bone can be seen in places. Even as the gentle touch of Jimin’s hands become desperate, cupping his face, stroking his hair, pulling at his shoulders, Taehyung doesn’t move, chest lying still and failing to draw in air.
“You can’t die…you can’t be dead!” Jimin sobs, voice keening high, tears rolling thick and fast. “You can’t! I won’t let you! I still have so much to say, so much to do – you can’t leave me! Taehyung!”
He covers his face in kisses, every bit of the burnt flesh, the scales, the closed lids of his eyes – his beautiful eyes, which still managed to stay the same even when he became a monster. He kisses him until his lips go numb and the soul is starting to leave his body. And then all he can do is rest his head on Taehyung’s chest and cry, tears soaking through the material of his shirt, spread over where his heart once beat strong.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I did this to you,” he whispers, a hand slipping into Taehyung’s larger one. “When I first came here, I would have done anything, given anything to be set free, and now all I want is for you to wake up so you can keep me prisoner again, b-because being here freed me. It freed me from the weight of existing, of never being good enough to encourage my father to live for my sake, of my mother’s death, of all the people in the village who pitied me like I was a beggar-orphan. You made me feel like I was someone worth knowing, not just a footnote in someone else’s story.” He stops to cry harder, not caring how much of a mess he’s become. He wants the pain in his chest to let him breathe, but it’s getting worse by the second. “I don’t think you’re cruel, I don’t think you were ever cruel. You made a mistake and you’ve paid for it ever since and if it makes me a bad person for forgiving you for it, I don’t care. You’re not evil, you never were. But if loving you makes me a horrible person, then – “
He stops then, as the truth hits him far too late.
It’s too late. And that only makes him cry harder, face buried in Taehyung’s chest like it once used to when they would hold each other to sleep. Over and over, he cries, “I love you” as if in some distant realm where Taehyung has gone and Jimin can’t follow, the prince will hear him.
And the tears continue to flow.
The elves might have told him of the power held in tears shed for love. Nothing overrules Death, but there are things lesser than its finality that hold much the same impression. Jimin doesn’t know that the being lying under him isn’t dead, nor that the tears now pouring down his face and melting into Taehyung’s shirt, are imbued with a power as old as time.
But he does feel the first thud of his heartbeat.
And when he does, he lifts his head with a gasp, thinking he’s imagined it at first, his mind playing a cruel trick.
But a quick placement of his hand and he feels the second beat. Beside him, Beauty stirs, the rigidness of her limbs becoming flexible once more as she whines under her breath. Jimin sobs in relief as he reaches for her, one hand still pressed to Taehyung’s chest as he waits. The dog doesn’t appear to think anything’s wrong, and greets Jimin as if she’s just bidding him a good morning, three licks to his face and then off she bounds from the bed, running out.
And then his attention turns back to the Dragon.
Except he’s not, anymore.
Before Jimin’s entranced eyes, the burns pale and merge into his natural skin colour, the scales shrink and disappear. Jimin’s fingertips cup under his jaw, as he moans under his breath, a sound of disbelief as the Dragon melts away to leave the human prince in his wake. But he’s still slow on showing joy, because his eyes aren’t opening, they’re still closed and he wonders if now he’s finally dying, returned to his original form first.
“Please, please, please,” he whispers brokenly, fingers sealing tight between Taehyung’s lifting his hand to his mouth and pressing kisses all over the back of it.
And there it is.
His lashes flutter, the first whisper of breath kisses his lower lip and a curl of hair slides off his forehead when he moves, a miniscule inch. Jimin starts to cry again, just as hard, tears splashing onto Taehyung’s shirt, but for a wholly different reason now as he keeps the prince’s hand held tightly in his clutch.
“Taehyung?” he whispers, cupping the soft swell of his cheek, “Taehyung, my prince…”
His eyes open and Jimin feels himself shiver as he is allowed to see his beauty once more, doused in light, with no consequences to come after. Those eyes of his, so dark under candlelight are actually hazel, peppered with golden flecks, like pools of copper and honey under the curl of his lashes. He stares at Jimin as if he’s never seen him before, stunned and out of his mind, a man who has walked the threshold of Death and lived to tell the tale.
And then he sits up and Jimin gasps as he’s grabbed and pulled forward. For a split moment, he’s almost afraid the other is still angry, but it isn’t a confrontation. Taehyung is too overwhelmed to speak as he binds the smaller into his arms with such tightness, such strength, it’s as if he’ll never let him go, not even if he were paid with all the gold in the world.
“My little elfling,” he whispers into Jimin’s hair, and it’s the first time Jimin’s ever heard him use the word. It’s because Taehyung uses it in his mind, whenever his eyes fell on the young man, and a foreign sensation squeezed his heart, one he believed he could never give into. It’s always been his little elfling never just elfling. And Jimin’s only learning of it now.
“I’m so sorry for what I did – I’m sorry – I really am – “ Jimin struggles to speak amidst the kisses Taehyung is lavishing on his mouth, the prince simply not allowing him to. Taehyung finally silences him with a deeper kiss, lips locked tight and tongues wrapped like velvet, hasty and greedy and rushed and relieved. Jimin’s nails grip into Taehyung’s shoulders like pincers but he doesn’t even flinch, doesn’t care, as he kisses him like his only supply of air is captured within Jimin’s lungs and he needs it just to continue existing.
When they break apart, both are crying, breathless and speechless. Jimin whimpers a little as Taehyung presses fond kisses to his neck, but is content to just hold onto him and feel his weight pressed against his own, a feeling he thought he’d lost forever.
A sudden yell from outside draws their attention, and the voice is familiar.
“Come,” Taehyung whispers in a rush, and takes Jimin’s hand. He doesn’t pause to survey the mess made of his home, flying down the stairs with his elfling in tow until they find the entrance hall where the doors are still wide open and six people Jimin’s never seen before in his life are gathered around Beauty.
“Red!” Jimin gasps as something familiar about the way she moves strikes him. There’s always been a more solid bustle to her red ribbons, and then he turns to see Pink, tall and reedy and old, with a blue moustache that could make any sorcerer seethe with envy. He doesn’t know their real names except for Red’s, but he knows them and they know him, by the way their eyes light up and their hands reach out to squeeze his arm, his shoulder, as if they know the lifting of the curse is his doing and their gratitude is too great to put into words.
Taehyung is far too distracted yet to embrace his loyal servants, hunched over Beauty who is cowered into the earth, whining under her breath.
“What is it? What’s wrong with her?” Jimin asks, falling to his knees beside him.
“I don’t know,” Taehyung answers, fingers trembling as he checks for her pulse.
Then, a most peculiar thing happens.
Beauty barks, for the last time, but it’s deeper than her usual tone, stronger. In the back of her throat, Taehyung catches sight of the light burning there first, and when he does, he yells for the others to get back into the house, to move, move, move. Jimin he lifts bodily, half-dragging him back up the stairs as the younger wants to know what’s happening to Beauty, what’s wrong with her –
And then the mongrel’s body contorts and stretches, the ugly sound of bones snapping drowned out by the growled howling emitting from her maw. She’s transforming by their very eyes, fur shedding away, revealing darker skin underneath, shimmering, reddish –
“By the Lady of Light – “ Jimin whispers.
“Dragon!” Taehyung roars with laughter.
It takes the other a moment to sense that this is not a moment to fear, because whatever is happening to the poor dog looks dreadful. But then the little excited shrieks and gasps from the servants hammers it in. It only takes a blink, a second to look away, before Beauty’s canine form bursts into a hundred pieces and a dragon unfolds as if it were wrapped up inside her like a neatly folded book.
The beast is huge. Larger, she grows, larger and larger, until her sinewy neck passes the tops of the trees, fanged teeth white in the bright sunlight, and powerful jaw flexing, as if she’s testing her body for the first time.
But it isn’t the first.
Taehyung is rushing down the stairs, screaming her name, and it isn’t Beauty anymore.
She bellows when she sees him, and her spiked tail flies free, crashing into the side of the house and bringing down bricks, but neither rider nor dragon seem to notice or care.
Whoever Beauty had been, she had not remembered her former rider, and as Jimin stares at the heart-stopping sight before him, he recalls the village elders swearing they had seen the very same female dog wandering through the countryside before. He doesn’t know what to do first, marvel at the fact that Beauty is far older than him, or that she’s always been a dragon under a curse, last of her species, a creature of legend and myth and sparkling fireside tales.
And the beating heart of Taehyung’s lost legacy.
The corners of Jimin’s eyes sweeten as the dragon crouches and curls her wing and neck around her prince with a deep hum that could be called the drakyn equivalent of a cat’s contented purr. Her pupils dilate, and her eyelids close as she nuzzles him where he’s got his arms pressed to her side, hugging her as best he can. She’s larger than his gardens, her tail still wreaking havoc and smashing down the walls around the mansion.
When Taehyung finally pulls away, he turns to look up at the small group gathered and chuckles in such delight, it’s like he’s about to grow wings himself and levitate.
“You’re all freed of your service!” he announces to the servants. “You’ve been harnessed to me against your will long enough – you may take whatever riches there are in this house and rebuild your lives wherever you choose. I will not begrudge you your departures.”
There is a lull in their murmuring amongst each another, and Red, ever the spokesperson, shuffles forward, her plump cheeks shiny as she smiles and laces her fingers together. “If I may, Master, I would ask that we be allowed to remain here in this home. Whatever families we had, they will have been long dead by now, our ancestors having forgotten our names. And they themselves will be living in the old Empire, far from here, across the Shrivelled Sea. It’s a journey most of us are too old, and too weary to undertake, and surely, with the lifting of the curse, we are mortal now, we will die. We would very much like to spend our last days in the home we’ve known all these years, but with the freedom to leave its gates now if we chose.”
The prince doesn’t give it a moment’s thought. “Whatever your wishes are, they are granted. But you will not live as servants any longer. You are free to live here as you wish and leave as you wish. Nothing will be asked of you and everything given. It’s the least I can do for the burden of having me at the helm for all this time.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say you were a bad master, by any means,” Pink mumbles gruffly, and is followed by murmurs of agreement, and nods, and the polite discernment that in fact, they could have spent their time a lot worse than flying through the air in the form of ribbons.
“Will you be staying here with us, Master – I mean, Your Highness – oh dearie me, I don’t know what to call you anymore– “ Green blusters, her (surprisingly) blue eyes blinking nervously as she turns to the others for help, the entire group of them attached at the hip.
“Taehyung is quite alright,” he answers with a scoff of a laugh as he runs his hands over Kaliya’s scaled neck. “I do not know. Perhaps I might. But word of a dragon will travel fast, and beyond mere inquisitive folk, there will be many a king and queen who will spend their efforts to capture her and bring her to them in a bid to inspire the lost might of the Ankaran Empire. So perhaps I will need to take her to the Driftwood mountains and build a home there to keep her safe. I do not know. I have things to do before then.”
“What things?” Jimin suddenly speaks, having remained quiet up till now, eyes fixed on Kaliya (who he is still too afraid to come near, though she keeps staring at him, very much aware of who he is.)
Taehyung’s jaw clenches, and he walks around the span of his dragon’s wing, finding purchase on the crook of her front leg to use as a heave up onto her back. He holds out his hand to Jimin and the boy’s jaw drops.
“M-me? No, I can’t – “ he gasps.
“Why not?” the prince frowns. “I thought you weren’t afraid of anything.”
“I-I’m not, b-but I think I might be afraid of heights.”
“No, I think you are afraid of dragons, my love,” Taehyung says kindly, patting Kaliya’s back. “Come. She’s still Beauty inside. She knows your face, your voice, your scent. Look, she’s encouraging you herself.”
Kaliya is huffing through her nose, like the friendly chuff of a tiger, and though Jimin manages to force a tentative smile in her direction, he’s still too afraid to draw nearer. At least not until her tail whips around and nudges him forward before he can dodge it. It’s a strong enough push to land him right at her side and then Taehyung is reaching down again and Jimin has no choice but to put his arms up to be pulled onto her ridged back. He’s breathless and terrified but exhilarated once he feels her warm body swell under the straddle of his legs, holding onto Taehyung for dear life.
“Y-you don’t have reins or a bit or anything?” he mutters in fear as Taehyung’s hands latch onto the soft, webbed spikes of her back.
“Try breaking in a dragon with reins as you might do with a horse. See where that gets you,” Taehyung says over his shoulder, dark eyes flashing with amusement, before he turns and shouts something in the Ankaran tongue that Jimin doesn’t recognise.
But Kaliya seems to, and with a heave, she begins to circle, aiming towards the Dark Forest. Jimin buries his face into Taehyung’s shoulder, refusing to look up in case he throws up or simply lets go by accident and slides off her. So when she lifts into the air, he misses it (thankfully) and only opens one eye when he hears the prince laughing. All he can see from left to right is the span of her great wings, claws marking their corners and the skin stretched between each bone, coloured a translucent carmine. Kaliya lets out a roar that shakes the treetops, and Jimin knows it will be heard for miles, the first sound of its kind for many centuries.
“Where are you taking her?” he shouts over the rush of wind, still refusing to look anywhere but the back of the dragon’s head and sideways at Taehyung’s hair flying in the wind. His face is grim now as his knuckles grip on her scales.
“The Elven lands.”
“To warn them what happens when they do what they did to my house.”
“Taehyung, no!” Jimin doesn’t know how he knows that he’s aiming to set fire to the entire citadel, but the surprised flinch that runs through him says volumes. His hand slips around his waist, pressed to his front, warm palm soft against his shirt. “Mercy. Show them mercy. Frighten them but please don’t destroy them. They don’t deserve it. Not all of them. And the ones that do, I’m sure they won’t go near your lands again.”
“You don’t know the Elves like I do,” Taehyung argues over the flap of Kaliya’s wings as she hovers, “Once they know I no longer live here, they’ll come down on my lands and the house and torment my people living under its roof!”
“Or they might not! They might be afraid of your reappearance in the skies at any time – the threat of a dragon is enough!”
“Jimin – “
“Taehyung, the Ribbons are your people, but the Elves are mine!”
And they don’t deserve even an inch of his mercy, nor Taehyung’s, but Jimin knows that this plan of action is wrong.
Taehyung doesn’t respond, instead saying something to Kaliya in the Ankaran tongue, to which she lunges down and starts to fly straight for the Elven queendom. Jimin’s fingers grip into Taehyung’s shirt, as his heart hammers, not knowing what’s about to happen but that if the older has chosen to ignore him, nothing will save the Elves today.
The bells of the citadel start ringing the moment she appears in the grey skies, but there isn’t much use in preparation to fight her. They simply don’t have the weaponry for beasts believed long dead.
Kaliya roars as she streaks downwards and Jimin’s scream is lost in the noise. He can only imagine the terror of seeing the winged monster descend upon the city, but just moments before she can crash into the rooftops, Taehyung closes his eyes and when they open, they’re white, his mind conjoined with his dragon’s, steering her with it. She levels out, and a wing knocks into an abandoned watch tower, bringing it crashing down, as she cuts a straight line towards the palace. The citadel tower gets the same treatment, but Jimin’s eyes are open enough to notice the elves guarding it have already evacuated – her tail strikes it and the screams on the streets below are swallowed by the rage of her bellow as she skirts past the very sides of the Queen’s palace, missing it by the breadth of a hair.
And then just like that, the dragon changes her path and flies up into the air, higher and higher, until she disappears into the clouds from whence she came. That day, the entirety of Elvendom did not soon forget, and the Dragon’s lands were never plundered nor cut across again.
“Are you satisfied, elfling?” Taehyung calls sometime after, as they soar over the forest – it’s much larger than Jimin could have imagined. His eyes have returned to their usual honey-brown, and he reaches his hands down to cup Jimin’s which are still holding him tight.
“Yes,” Jimin manages to squeak.
“You don’t sound very satisfied – “
“Jimin, do you know what I do when I’m scared?”
“What?” Jimin almost sobs as he takes a peek downwards and feels sick.
His soul nearly flies out of his body when Taehyung prises his arms off and he feels himself sliding down Kaliya’s smooth, scaly side. He’s too terrified to scream, and so much of what happens next is in silence. With strength that seems to be a lingering remnant of his beastly form, Taehyung pulls Jimin around to his front, lying him down on his back and forcing his legs to wrap around his waist. He leans down, hands smoothing up Jimin’s trembling arms, interlocking with his fingers at the very end, and kissing him until his lips throb.
“I look up at the sky and look for shapes in the clouds – by the time I’m done, the fear is forgotten,” Taehyung whispers against his throat.
Jimin whimpers, but it’s swallowed by another kiss, and then another, and another, until his eyes fill with blue skies and he isn’t shaking quite so badly. The subtle rise and fall of Kaliya’s body is soothing against his back, and seeing nothing but clouds and blue is calming, better than seeing the ground racing past below. Taehyung straightens, but keeps a hold of Jimin with one hand and his dragon with the other, grinning as the elfling’s lips curve into a little smile, eyes dazed and bright.
“Better?” he asks.
“Better,” Jimin murmurs, blinking tears out of his eyes. “To think…my parents never knew I’d be the first commoner to fly on a dragon in hundreds of years. I wonder what they’d say.”
Taehyung’s hand slips under his spine, and gently, carefully, he lifts him up, head bowing to kiss his cheek and keep him distracted, keep him from looking down. “You are no commoner,” he says quietly, “you are the grandson of an Elven Queen, the lover of an Ankaran Emperor and friend to a dragon. You have never been a commoner, Jimin. You are my precious elfling, my gem, and I love you with a heart I believed had stopped beating a long time ago.”
Jimin stares at him in awe, unable to believe such words had come from such a grimly set mouth, and yet as Taehyung’s smile starts to appear, his own follows suit until he throws his arms around the prince’s neck and covers his face in kisses that leave him giggling. Another thing he’s learning to love about this changed voice and form of his – he has the ability to sound ever so dear when he giggles, though as the Dragon, Jimin thinks the overall effect would have been quite…foreboding.
“Where are you taking me now?” he murmurs, pecking at Taehyung’s lips with his own, so close to him that he can see every individual lash on his eyelid flutter in the wind.
“Just for a little ride, to let Beauty stretch out her wings,” Taehyung smiles back, holding him secure.
“Will you still be calling her Beauty?”
“Perhaps it will be our little nickname for her.”
When he says our Jimin melts, though he holds himself together on the outside. It’s like the promise of a future where he won’t be parted from his prince, not ever, not again. “Will we take her to the Driftwood mountains then?”
“I think we’ll have to. But I also think that the time for peaceful slumber will be a short one. I have things I need to do, debts that need paying.”
Jimin frowns. “Like what?”
“Finding the Elms Folk a new land to live and govern themselves. I think a dragon will be convincing enough for the Telladan Emperor to give up a portion of his empire, don’t you? After all, he wouldn’t want his reign undermined by a mysterious Ankaran with royal blood and a dragon to his name. It would be terrible publicity.” He says it with such mock concern, Jimin can’t help but burst out laughing in delight, adoring how his personality hasn’t changed a jot – he’s still the same wry Dragon with a penchant for sarcasm. The same Dragon Jimin fell in love with.
“Yes, I think it’ll convince him,” he chuckles, pressing his nose against Taehyung’s neck and inhaling that sweet scent to his skin he always has, something Jimin’s become familiar with through their nights spent sleeping side by side. “And I think you’re doing the right thing.”
Taehyung embraces him a little tighter. “As long as I have you to advise me and still my hand when it lifts to strike. The years may have given me more wisdom, but a dragon’s blood always rages hot at the worst of times.”
“Always,” Jimin murmurs. “You’ll have me always, dragon prince. I am yours.”
And when Taehyung leans back to look into his eyes, he sees Jimin’s words written there in the honesty of his sweet brown eyes, a truth that warms his cold heart and melts what remains of the ice around it, promising the sweetest ending to a fairytale of their very own.
It’s a tale older than them, older than empires, older than the stars themselves –
It’s a tale as old as time.
Not everything was explained in this story, as in details about the curse, or the Ankaran Empire as I wished to keep it in the style of fairytales still, where it’s still fuzzy around the edges.
Please leave your thoughts below, I would love to hear them ^^ (also, even as a guest reader, you can comment and leave kudos. It makes the effort spent writing worthwhile <3 )