Science Fiction & Fantasy

Transcendent Annual Series

Advertisement

Fiction

Windrose in Scarlet

i.

Red slays the wolf, and another bursts through the kitchen window and bites her in the stomach. Glass gets in her hair. She smashes the chopping knife into its head, then runs out the back door, gulping for air. She doesn’t stumble. The wood must be at war with itself: Some trees let her pass, others scratch her. The howling recedes; the howling’s at her ear. Eventually her boots skid on marble and she falls, her heart a hammer against her ribs. She curls up to make herself small. At least I’m all bones. They won’t enjoy me.

Her wolf—the wolf she loved, or thought she loved—stopped wanting to eat her at some point. He only wanted to own her.

She doesn’t know about other wolves. She doesn’t care. She’s crying, she realizes, which is stupid, but: maybe that means some part of her really loved him, some part that’s still back there baking pies and running fingers through his hair, happy in her blindness, relieved to be home. Some part that doesn’t know the black jaws of pain, closing over her through the cold.

ii.

Beauty finds the crumpled girl at the perimeter of the chateau: covered in clotted blood, dark against her bright red hood. Her eyes are half-open, cloudy like a corpse’s, but her chest shudders when Beauty puts her ear against it. Beauty removes her coat and bundles it against the girl’s side, attempting to staunch bleeding that has long stopped. She hesitates. Then she covers the girl’s eyes and shouts for help, since someone is always listening, ready to meet her demands.

“But what are you doing here, my lady?” Sabine asks when she arrives, holding her skirts away from the dirt and leaves. Beauty smiles, apologetic, and together they haul the girl—who weighs nearly nothing—to safety. Once they’re past the castle doors the girl gasps, jerking against the shock of warm air. She reaches out and Beauty seizes her hands. Her eyes are black as crows’ wings.

“Are you a fairy?” she asks, mad with terror.

“No,” Beauty answers, but the girl has lost consciousness again.

They bring the girl to the guest room, the one Beauty stayed in when she first arrived. She stitches her guest up, grateful the girl isn’t awake to witness her own gruesomely flapping wound. The stranger stays asleep, so Beauty keeps vigil at her bedside. She finds herself invigorated by this strange turn of events—it has disrupted her investigation, but she hasn’t met anyone from outside the castle since the spell was broken, and she has always wanted adventure, even if it comes in the form of a bloodsoaked girl. The stranger might tell interesting stories; she may even want to be Beauty’s friend . . . but what if she only wants to leave?

Beauty can’t resent something that hasn’t happened yet. Beauty can’t admit to herself what she wants (it is different than not-knowing); she can only confess that she hasn’t felt this curious in so long. Perhaps when the girl awakens, they can find out more about the fairy’s wards together . . . or at least exchange tales and tragedies, over tea.

She doesn’t know if Vincent will approve, but Vincent will not be back for weeks yet, away on business in a country across the sea. That’s fine; Beauty trusts herself with wild things. Broken things. Some hobby I’ve developed, Beauty thinks, then props her knees up and reads her latest book: a series of letters between a dying prophet and his second (but most loyal) pupil, part treatise on faith, part depressing love story. Once she became the chateau’s lady, she decided to take up other hobbies—gardening, transcribing music—her “little distractions,” Vincent calls them laughingly. But reading will always be her first love.

Still, she is diverted by the sleeping figure, and often puts her book away to study the stranger: her lashes like coal, her colorless lips, the thin skin under her collarbones. Her lengthy fingers, gripping the sheets tight in some nightmare.

“Who put a spell on you, dear?”

Beauty touches the dark hair spread on the pillow, and tries not to feel too tender.

iii.

Red dreams of a face like a flower, like something pulled from the pages of a book. Sometimes she lifts her hand and feels a touch in response—an admonishment, or yielding? She wants to tell the toucher: I am afraid of fairies, they cast wicked spells and call it mercy. She wants to say: Leave me. Then: Don’t leave me. Her thoughts are tangled with loneliness and loss; sometimes she is conscious enough to wish she were dead.

She wakes up alone. Daylight streams through a window. Birds are cooing. The air is sweet, there is flavor to it: fruit, like berries. This is not her home, nor is this grandmother’s house.

Memory slams into her: what she did, why she did it. She shoves her blankets away and scrambles off the bed—she has to escape, now. She stumbles, catches the back of a chair, crashes to the floor. Her hood flutters and falls gently over her face, turning the world red. It’s cleaned of dirt and blood. She breathes in. There you are, she thinks.

The door opens. Someone gasps and lifts the hood away from her. “You’re awake,” the girl says. The flower-face. She’s even more breathtaking in waking, but then, Red is not used to beautiful things.

Red blinks.

“You’ve been asleep for days. How do you feel?”

“Better than I should, probably.” Red touches the side that the wolf tore off, experimentally. There’s pain, but her abdomen seems to be whole. She groans, covers her face in her hands.

“What’s wrong?” Flower-face seems upset by this reaction; she gets down on her knees. Red realizes she has not been near another girl in forever. She feels lightheaded, suddenly.

“This castle is under a fairy’s jurisdiction, isn’t it?”

“How can you tell?” The worry is replaced by interest, and Flower-face takes Red’s hands away to peer at her in wonder. She’s the toucher, Red realizes. “I suspected as much but I don’t know how to learn more. Do you know a lot about enchantments?” A pause. “Do you know how to break them?”

“No.” Red tugs her hands away. “You’re a fool if you think spells work under ordinary rules that we can learn and memorize, like lines in a poem. They don’t play that way.”

Flower-face isn’t hurt, or angry. Instead, she’s excited. “Have you met many fairies, then?”

“Just one,” Red says. “I wish I hadn’t.”

“I’ve only met one, too. I broke her enchantment, but I didn’t exactly know I was doing it, and it wasn’t under terms I like. I think it keeps me here. I’ve been trying to summon her.”

This is surprising enough that Red forgets her dizziness. She gazes at the girl. “Who are you?”

“Isobel,” the girl answers. “This is my—husband’s estate.” The way she pauses over husband makes Red uneasy; she feels like a rogue, suddenly, sitting in this grand lady’s room and calling her a fool. She is struck by the openness of her savior’s face, the way it blooms through the petals of her dark brown hair. Her big, beseeching eyes. Red has betrayed her terrible nature, which was a stupid thing to do, because she actually feels safe, and embarrassed with it.

“I’m sorry, Lady Isobel,” she says. “I’m not used to people. I only thought . . . it seems the wolves couldn’t follow me here. I should be dead.” Her hands are trembling; she curls them into fists, to still them. “I was spared death once before, thanks to a fairy’s magic.” She doesn’t voice her next thought: I wish I wasn’t saved then. Or now.

“Don’t call me lady—call me Beauty.” Her host doesn’t blush, but quickly adds, “They all use that here. They take after their master, and anyway it’s what my father used to call me, so I don’t mind.” She stands and holds out her hand; Red takes it, and lets herself be pulled up. “What’s your name?”

“I . . . I can’t remember. He always called me Red.”

Beauty pats her hand. “Well, Red. You are welcome here, for as long as you like.”

Red falters against this gentleness; it feels too much like danger. But she has nowhere to go. She can’t outrun the forest. For now, at least, she can stay somewhere warm with beds and doors and people who don’t know yet how broken she is inside.

“I’m very grateful,” Red says. She doesn’t try to curtsy; she knows she would fail.

iv.

Beauty hasn’t sat in the dining room since Vincent left, and is pleased to have someone to share meals with. Red gawks at the large table, fidgets in her seat, tips her head up to gaze at the ceiling with its column of chandeliers and fresco paintings of cherubs. Beauty is worried that Red might not have an appetite, but when lunch arrives her guest is ravenous and asks for more, meat especially.

“Sorry. I’m starving,” she says. She only declines when dessert appears: cherry pie, red guts wobbling. Beauty eats hers, but doesn’t miss the way Red averts her gaze.

Sabine brings them tea, smiling at their recovered guest. Red smiles back, uneasy, revealing too much of her gums.

Beauty knows that kind of smile.

“You said you weren’t used to people,” Beauty starts. She knows this line of inquiry might hurt, might cause withdrawal, but her curiosity can’t help itself. “What does that mean?”

Red meets her stare, and Beauty thinks: This is a girl who only recently learned to be afraid. “I’m used to wolves that look like people.”

Beauty taps her fingers on the table. “My husband was a beast,” she offers. “As a man his name is Vincent, and he is a very wise and cunning businessman, of the nobility and with impeccable manners. But when I met him he was wild as the forest; he bared his teeth and roared.”

“He was a beast? Or still is?”

Beauty shrugs, as if to say, it doesn’t matter. “Tell me of your wolf, then.”

Red laughs—a short, scratchy laugh, not at all delighted. “I wouldn’t call him mine. I’m not sure we were more than strangers, though we lived together for years.” She swallows. “He killed and ate my grandmother. I was sure he’d kill me too, but I’d aided a fairy earlier that day while I was lost in the forest, so of course she appeared and tried to make a happy ending of it.”

Beauty waits.

“She made his paws tender.”

Beauty has a sudden urge to tell her to stop, to distract her by saying shall we walk out into the garden, to see the roses my father nearly lost his life for, picking one for me when I didn’t even really want it, I didn’t want anything, I was happy? I don’t like to hear stories of suffering, but that isn’t true, Beauty has always been invested in seeing a tale through to the end. She holds her tongue.

“I don’t know what made the spell break,” Red continues. “I don’t know if I’m glad it did. But the minute it shattered I knew I could not carry on, so I killed the wolf, and his pack tried to kill me.”

“You’re safe here,” Beauty says automatically.

“Am I?”

“I’ll keep you safe,” Beauty answers, though the words surprise her coming out of her mouth: She’s smarter now, older, knows how the power of promises spoken in the heat of a moment—or anytime—can wreck you. Crumble things you’ve hoped for, or form thorn barriers around you. Grip you in talons and shake you from side to side, making you dizzy and sick. Besides, Beauty has no business offering this girl protection. Red, despite being just a few days away from nearly dead, is more physically fit, as Beauty couldn’t help noticing when she patched her up. Yet there’s something about Red that makes Beauty want to gather her up and tuck her somewhere soft and secluded, which gets worse when Red looks at her askance.

When Red grins, tentatively, Beauty is further surprised at how her heart skips.

I shouldn’t be making promises I can’t keep, she thinks.

And: This sanctuary isn’t mine to give—it belongs to someone, as I do.

“What if you’re the thing that will hurt me?” Red asks. Beauty laughs, shakes her head, reaches out to touch her guest’s hand, wonders if she is misunderstanding, why she’s both excited and afraid.

This time, Red does not tug her hands away.

They exhaust the afternoon walking through the garden. Beauty points to the roses, says those are Vincent’s pride, but doesn’t mention her father, not yet. She’s not trying to make this a grief contest. Anyway, she would lose—because she’s happy with her beast now, isn’t she? Her fairy intervention turned out all right.

Red does not seem very interested in flowers. She keeps looking at Beauty with intensity, then looking away. Beauty doesn’t mind scrutiny, but she feels unaccountably awkward under that gaze.

Finally Beauty asks: “Why did you say that?”

“What?”

“About whether I’ll hurt you.” She coughs; she doesn’t want it to mean something it doesn’t mean.

“It came to mind,” Red says, a slip of a smile flitting onto her face. Quick as hummingbird wings. When she shrugs, Beauty decides to just accept it.

Red insists she wants to help with dinner so they impose themselves on the kitchen, which shocks everyone. Beauty wonders why she never did this after she saved the castle. “Madame, Madame!” Paul, the cook, laments, while Red stands next to him and tastes his soup. It’s delicious, but has he considered adding fennel?

They have dinner together and this time there is no talk of paws or murder. Instead Red asks Beauty to tell her something interesting, and Beauty narrates the plot of the latest book she’s read: about pirates, and tentacle monsters from the deep velvet sea.

Now that Red is conscious, Beauty can’t stay at her bedside, so that evening she knocks on her guest’s door and brings her a lamp and a stack of books she thinks Red might like, including the pirate one. She pauses before leaving the room. “Will you stay?” she asks.

Red closes the cover of the book she was inspecting.

Beauty clears her throat. “I mean, I would be very happy if you stayed. If you wanted to.”

“Yes,” Red answers, to staying, to wanting it. To her.

v.

Red understands loneliness. Even on the good days, back in the cottage with its flower print curtains and grandmother’s bones weeping, unheard, under the bed, she would blink and get a sense of being miles away from everything that mattered. Tears would slip from her eyes, while she was out chopping wood or hunting game for dinner—haha, she’d think, this is strange, I should ask my wolf about it. But she never did. Instead she’d get lit up inside when he appeared, scooping her into an embrace and nuzzling her neck. No matter how big she got, he could always carry her, one deft motion of his arms and she was aloft.

He’d carried her, too, when he was about to bite her head off. Then the room had frozen and the fairy had appeared, blazing like a fantasy.

All those friends and relatives that visited—they were all his pack, weren’t they? Who was it that chomped her that night? Aunt Meg? Frederich? Little Rowan? She knows she shouldn’t but she can’t help thinking about it, especially when she bathes and finds the wounds, perfectly spaced on her front and back, mirror-marks where her flesh was gouged out. Still tender when she touches that space. Red understands loneliness as much as she understands pain, terrible twins that hang over her like a curtain; even so, she’s surprised to recognize it in Beauty, as much a part of her as the pink on her cheeks and the way her mouth is so expressive, twisting and pouting and curving all the time. Red likes that mouth. She doesn’t admit this to anyone, not even really to herself, but she thinks it. A lot.

Her assessment of Beauty is thus: She believes herself to be a great nurse to broken things, and this is true, but she does not see—or does not like to see—the cracks that line her own careful joy, threatening to shatter. It’s a precarious way to live. Red would know.

When Red said yes to staying, she didn’t know for how long she meant, or how long the offer was extended. Red has no plan. This can’t last, something in her says. This story is not yours. There is danger here: She cannot like Beauty’s laugh any more than she already does, she has nothing to offer, the master of the chateau may yet turn her away. This is not really living, as wonderful as it is.

But staying is easy, so Red does, and the wolves keep mercifully away.

Red regains her strength as one day melts into another, fluid as the poetry Beauty recites while they walk in the garden, or sit reading in the library. “Listen to this,” Beauty says, then she recites a soldier’s aubade, or a fragment from the diary of a girl who lost her lover at war. Sometimes Beauty has letters to answer; in those moments, Red occupies herself in the kitchen or the garden, horrifying Paul-the-cook and Andrei-the-gardener, reassuring Sabine when she shakes her head and says, “Don’t, please, madame. Your skirts will tear.”

“It makes me feel useful,” Red explains, even as she wonders what they all think of her, this random guest in their master’s house, an anomaly to the enchantment that settles over all of them—for they seem as much a part of the castle as any other turret or stained-glass window. Functional, immovable, and utterly at peace.

Of course a fairy would make such a place.

Eventually Beauty resurfaces and drags Red away to play cards or debate the ending to one of her romance novels, both things Red finds awkward. Unfamiliar. She’s being a girl, she realizes. They’re things someone her age would do, with friends, if they hadn’t been stupid enough to walk through a forest so boldly many years before; if they hadn’t trusted that their blind courage would mean no consequences. Beauty shows her how to press rose petals between the pages of heavy books, and some complicated clapping games. One afternoon they uncover a set of rapiers in one of the unused studies, and they traverse the length of one hallway clanging swords, jabbing at each other, giggling. “Careful of your wound!” Beauty calls, while Red laughs. Sabine is scandalized, and tsks at them. Beauty eradicates her disapproval by wheedling for scones with jam, because nothing pleases her servants more than serving her.

They’re sweaty by then and collect themselves at the top of the grand staircase, breathing shallowly. Red watches a bead of sweat descend from Beauty’s forehead to her chin. Her mouth dries.

“Sometimes,” Beauty pronounces, “I look at you and I see a girl who grew up too quickly.”

“And you suppose you don’t look that way? We’re probably the same age. And too old to count as girls, really.”

Beauty laughs. “I like how you treat me. It’s been a long time since I had a friend.”

Red knocks her feet together to avoid inspecting the pain in her chest. There’s no way to know you like other girls until you’re exposed to them. Girls are nothing like wolves, but that’s not why she feels this way. It’s Beauty. She’s unusual, lovely, wears loneliness like a hood and curiosity like a stack of bracelets, always jangling. Silence settles between them like a layer of dust, until Red looks up at the ceiling—so monstrously high—and asks, “Where were you before this castle?”

Beauty tells her story of the village and the two older sisters and the father she loves dearly; of the plucked rose and how she refused to let her father die. When she arrived the castle was one unending echo of a beast’s roar, tattered and broken, no servants then, not in this form. At first he would strike her and curse her, but she tried her best to be gentle. Then the magic did its work, and she grew to see how he was kind, underneath the layers that weren’t human. If he had flashes of cruelty, if he was wrong to threaten her father—she puts these forth as if she has thought about them a great deal—that was only his animal nature showing. It was the fairy’s punishment, you see.

Red closes her eyes. There are so many places a girl might bruise, beneath her pretty clothes. “And then you broke the spell?”

“And then I broke the spell. He was dying, because of me. I only wanted to save him.”

Red opens her eyes. Beauty’s smile is crooked; she’s blinking against welling tears. “It wasn’t wrong, what I chose. And I do care for him very deeply. He’s kind to me. I wasn’t wrong.”

Then why are you crying? Red doesn’t ask. Instead, she takes Beauty’s hand. This is not an invasive gesture; they’re friends now, aren’t they? And Beauty has been doing this from the beginning. She folds her fingers over Beauty’s, ignoring the way they tremble. Beauty bends over and tucks her face into her knees. Red smooths her palm down Beauty’s back. I look at you and I see a girl who grew up too quickly. I look at you and I see a sacrifice with no altar and no blood, nothing the eye can see.

“You did the best you could,” Red whispers.

vi.

It has been more than a week. Red is mostly healed and hasn’t disappeared yet, and so: the forest. The investigation.

“I’ve been trying to figure out the extent of the enchantment. I marked it up to here—where I found you.” Beauty scuffs the ground with her boot. There’s no marble, nothing but fallen pines and dirt. “If you don’t leave by the front gate, you end up in the thick of the forest.” They walk together beyond it, ten paces, twenty, and then Beauty smushes against the air, as if she is falling into a curtain. Red sees the landscape shimmer, iridescent, like the film on a soapsud. “Do you see? This is stretching out further every time I check, so I suspect it’s either fading or weakening, but it still exists. These wards keep out anything that can harm the chateau, but they also keep all of us in. I have not been able to leave, and no one else wants to.”

Red reaches out her hand, and the rainbow barrier doesn’t show up. They look at each other experimentally.

“Who would you see if you left?” Red asks.

“My father. To know if he has forgotten me, or only pretends to, because that would be less painful than realizing he has lost me.”

“Why didn’t he come to live with you when you wed Vincent?”

“Why didn’t anyone accompany you to your grandmother’s house?” Beauty has barbs, too. She watches the words find their mark, in a spasm across Red’s face. Anyway, they both know what to blame: careless incantations, the airy laughter and delicate smiles that follow.

“If you hold my hand, perhaps we can leave together. Perhaps that was a line missing from this spell.”

Beauty hesitates, then nods. “But we turn back at the first sign of danger.”

“The wolf taught me how to be a hunter.” Red waves the giant knife she took from the kitchen. “I’ll protect you.”

“That was my line.”

Red smirks, takes her hand, and walks through the barrier. Beauty holds her breath, expecting not to get past it, but suddenly they’re on the other end, and everything feels more alive—chirping insects and rustling leaves, the smell of moss and damp wood. Beauty spins, turning her face up to see how high the trees extend. For a moment, dizzy with this open world, she forgets what she’s looking for. She could run away right here, leave it all behind: the staff, the chateau with its endless comforts, the rose garden that remains her beautiful betrayal, the man who kisses her with the violent worship of only the most pious, whose eyes are some days her beloved’s and—on rare days—her jailer’s. Is freedom worth the cost of that happiness? Did the fairy intend her to weigh these things against each other?

And how does Red fit in—dropped, like a bird trapped indoors which has smashed itself against the windows and needs tending? Now healing, this bird is something Beauty envies: its memory of song, its desire for the sky. How she can leave, any time.

They walk together, deeper into the trees, and Beauty wonders what to look for: some sign that she hasn’t been holding herself here. That something else can be freedom. “She might appear as an old crone,” she announces. “We must be nice to anyone we meet.”

“Or, she could appear as an unspeakably beautiful dame,” Red answers. Beauty is about to agree when she hears a growl from very close by. She has heard that sound before, a deep rumble that descends into the bones. She twists her head, slowly, to look over her shoulder. She is knocked to the ground. Her face smashes into dirt. The creature on top of her snarls, then whines. She feels warm liquid. Red shoves it off her. “Run!”

Beauty scrambles to her feet and runs. Behind her she hears the scattering of leaves, innumerable paws, her friend’s fury as she curses. She turns back—I can help—but no, she will only slow Red down. “GO!” Red shouts, and Beauty slams into the barrier. It burns as she sinks through, it feels like her flesh is melting off; her tears evaporate as they leave her eyes in agony. Then she is on the other side and everything is silent, sunny, smelling of strawberries. She gets to her feet. She can’t see her friend through the trees. “Red!” she screams. “RED!”

She touches the barrier and pushes, harder and harder, even as her hand burns—she has tried this before and paid for it (Vincent cuddling her arm, though his eyes narrow when he asks what did you do and she just smiles). She winces against the pain, the way her flesh starts to crisp, grits her teeth hard and keeps pushing—

—a hand catches hers. She tugs backwards. Red falls through. For a second there’s a perilous howling beyond her, then silence as the barrier shuts again.

“Your hand was burnt!” Red cries.

Beauty slaps her. Her hand is fine. It doesn’t even hurt. “You’re bleeding!” Beauty shouts, which means: What took you so long, you frightened me. Red’s cheeks are scratched, and there’s a trail of blood leaking down her elbow that starts somewhere Beauty can’t see.

“I’m fine,” Red says. “Hey—your nose is bleeding.”

Why does she lie? What does she think she is hiding, or protecting Beauty from? Beauty swipes her nose. “It’s nothing—it’s from when I fell.” She inhales against her fury, squinting up at Red. Then she touches the ribbon of Red’s shirt, at the base of her throat. Red flinches. “I need to see it,” Beauty says. “We should stop the bleeding.” And, more softly, while she picks through the knot of the ribbon: “Was it the same wolves?”

Red nods. Her mouth is a bitter line. Her lips are thin, pale and chapped. Beauty envies her those lips. They’re not an invitation to anything, they don’t invoke roses. They’re only doors for words to pass through.

Beauty unties the ribbon, then tugs at her shirt, and Red pulls it up over her head, straightens, so that Beauty can see the gash on her arm in the shape of a laughing mouth. Beauty is overcome by the sight of it. She ties Red’s shirt over the wound, compresses it, then waits. Waits. Red tilts her head like a bird.

Beauty can’t help herself. She puts her lips to Red’s collarbone and holds herself together so that she doesn’t cry. Beneath her skin Red’s pulse beats a drumline, a warning chant: this was a bad idea, you knew it.

Red takes Beauty’s face in her hands, searches her eyes. “What are we doing?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” Beauty says. But her body does.

vii.

It’s funny, Red thinks—funny in a way that feels sacred, a hymn for people unused to prayer, syllables awkward on their tongues while they try to find the right words, hoping their belief gains conviction in being spoken. They’re in Red’s room, she’s wearing Beauty’s coat, they aren’t looking at each other, but they’re holding hands, a gesture that could mean friendship or camaraderie or fear. Maybe all of it. If they let go, they’ll be forced to meet eyes, they’ll have to decide: Will a new space grow between us? Or not? Will you be able to understand what I mean even if I don’t say it? Will you be able to draw back the shame of my wanting, the thick velvet of it, to see my desire as something pure—a way to lay flowers at your feet, as I’ve wanted to since I saw your face?

The face like a flower. Not like a rose. Not intoxicating or perilous—but brighter, lighter, encompassing both sunlight and the shadows around it. Daisy, chrysanthemum—lily?

Beauty extricates her hand. Steps closer. Looks into Red’s eyes: an assessment. Beast-tamer, Red thinks. She came to a damaged castle and loved a monster; she can love anything. Red always comes up with notions that make her sad. It’s one way of guarding against the world, her wolf explained, while he lay next to her in bed and caressed her hair. If you think of it all as trash you won’t be sad to discover you were right. You already knew.

“I can’t tell what you want,” Beauty says, slowly. “I’m afraid you’re humoring me because you think you owe me something.”

Red shakes her head. “I’m afraid, too—that this is another enchantment, not real.”

Beauty’s eyes have the look of polished glass. “We can be afraid together,” she whispers. Then: “If this is an enchantment, won’t a kiss break it?”

Red wishes she knew how to be unselfconscious. How to answer in a way that communicates: I am embarrassed that I’m so wrong you need to ask. A phrase, a nod. Or, to kiss her first. To dare. That last one, she decides, will best say what she wants: Have I wanted anything this much? Will it be all right, assuming we break together?

Then it’s funny again, after they’ve gone breathless, walked backwards and toppled inelegantly onto the absurdly soft coverlet. Beauty says, “Your arm,” and Red says, “It doesn’t matter,” because it doesn’t, not with Beauty’s hair tumbling through her fingers, Beauty’s skin hot beneath her palms, Beauty’s open eyes an endless sky of deep blue that disappears, suddenly, when she gasps in surprise.

• • • •

Red has a theory: When you’ve only loved monsters, you forget how to be gentle.

She’s wrong.

• • • •

What kind of beast could bruise such a body? This is one, isn’t it? They’re all faded, aren’t they?

Don’t speak of it. She puts her palm over Red’s mouth. I mean it.

• • • •

They don’t want to get out of bed. They don’t want to eat. The door is locked and Sabine calls nervously behind it, until Beauty says they’re fine, they’re just resting, everything is fine. Red’s eyes are on the verge of closing, she feels like a fly stuck in nectar, melting into the sheets. Everything is sweetness. They should have a bath—Beauty is saying—clean out the wound properly—let’s not risk it getting infected. Red, are you listening?

Red reaches for Beauty, for the softness under the blanket she has wrapped around herself, for the musical curve of her waist. Hang on, Red says. Can you just—come close again? I want to hold you. I want to—

All right, Beauty says, leaning over to press one, two, three kisses on Red’s forehead. Fine.

• • • •

Why do you keep laughing?

Because—it’s funny—you make me happy. Oh, don’t cry, I’m sorry—

I’m crying because you’re happy. I cry easily, you know this.

• • • •

Eventually they pick themselves back up. They play their parts again, and wash themselves—laughter echoing on the tile, It was mostly scratches, see? Wait—ouch!—and appear for dinner, over an hour later than is proper, the sky outside the grand windows navy. There are things to unpack: the barrier, the wolves, the way something ties it all together, but right now it doesn’t matter. After the main course, Beauty slides her foot up the back of Red’s leg, grinning down at her plate. They’re being silly. They’re being girls.

Red feels she has found something—what’s the word? She reaches out a hand and taps Beauty on the thigh, once, sharply: Stop it.

Beauty laughs. Mouths: I’ll get you for that.

Precious. That’s what she’s found. Something precious.

viii.

Beauty knows they should leave. That they can’t stay here—not together.

But where will she go? Where can they go? How do they escape? Easier not to think about it. There is still time. When Red is not injured. When they’ve got a plan for the wolves. Before Vincent returns . . .

Can she do that? Would she? Has her spell been broken? Does she want to trade it, for this?

A day passes, then another, as in a lull of honey: stolen kisses behind the pages of a book, waking up to find Red curled against her spine, so different than what I’m used to, so much more what I want. What she wants. What she hasn’t thought about since she first kissed the beast while he lay almost dying and suddenly it was no longer a beast’s mouth but a man’s mouth, sunlight flooding everywhere while she thought, in a panic, I don’t think I meant that. She loved him one way, and she didn’t want him to die, and she reconciled the two in an approximation of happiness because it seemed the safest way to survive.

But real happiness is different. Touching her lips to Red’s knuckles to watch her smile, feeling her body explored with a reverence that makes her embarrassed and sometimes, impatient. I love the seriousness of your fingers, she tells Red, and together they descend into a catalog of things they love in each other, a cartography of desires.

It’s a thunderclap when the message arrives, punctuated by Sabine’s delight as she delivers it: “Dear lady, our master shall be returning tomorrow. He is eager to be reunited with you.”

“Oh—that’s—surprising. He’s not meant to be back for at least a week.”

Sabine purses her lips. Then, as if to come up with a worthy excuse for her lady’s lack of eagerness: “Worry not. The chateau will be ready for him, madame.”

Of course. She is not the master here. “Send the messenger back,” Beauty instructs, in a daze. “Let him know we have a guest.”

Red is not her guest; maybe she never was. From the moment she appeared, Red has been her key and her keeper. Now she places her hand on Red’s chest, and thinks: I’ve never been selfish until now. This, I would trade for the fairest rose, knowing the cost.

“What do we do now?” Beauty whispers. “The fairies won’t be on our side. They never are, for tales like this.”

“Then we’ll have to figure it out together, won’t we? We promised we’d protect each other.” Red lifts her hand and kisses it as in a promise, but both of them have been here before, and neither forget to be afraid.

• • • •

They pack what they can: clothes, canteens of water, a knife, another knife, the only book Beauty can’t bear to leave. Sugar for the swiftest horse, that with a prayer might outrun the wolves. They’re just about to sneak down the staircase—while the rest of the house is sleeping, risking darkness—when the lights of the carriage swing into the driveway. Vincent’s estimate is never wrong. Perhaps he meant to catch her in the act of running away.

Beauty’s throat closes up, but she forces herself to be brave. “I’ll speak to him,” she says, shooing Red to the top of the stairs—but what can she say, what is there to say?

He might understand. They were friends first. Beauty hopes, despite everything.

She doesn’t want to break any hearts. She doesn’t want to make him angry. Would he be angry, with her?

Vincent descends from his carriage. He is not alone. Behind him is a fine gentleman with silver hair beneath his top hat. The great doors creak open. For a moment, Beauty is awkward and lost in his presence, as she was when they first met—then she opens her arms for an embrace. “Dear,” she says, while he pulls her tightly against his bulk. “Who is this?”

“I heard we had a guest,” Vincent says. “And I brought one myself—this fine gentleman I met at the inn last night. He says he is looking for his wife, who might have an ailment of memory.”

Beauty does not let her breathing betray her. She looks up at her husband, sunnily, though her blood thrums in her veins. Behind him, the wolf looms, apparent hunger in his eyes. He removes his hat and tips his head. When he smiles at her, his smile is not unkind.

ix.

Red can smell him. Red would recognize that smell anywhere. He’s not like other wolves. He had a laugh like thunder and his paws were gentle while they ran the length of her body, and she thought she loved him. There was a hole in her mind where all the terror once was. It broke open that evening while she was making pie, to go with the rabbit stew bubbling on the stove. She was humming. She was not thinking of captives. She had forgotten the next step in her recipe and pulled down a cookbook and wondered at the name on the cover—a familiar name. A name like hers.

Suddenly she could hear grandmother’s weeping bones.

That’s all it took, a moment of thinking clearly, and with it everything crumbled, with it everything broke. She killed him but he has come back for her, because that’s not how the story ends.

She killed him but he is coming up the stairs now, and in a moment of terror she thinks of running. But she has nowhere to run. This time she’ll make a clean job of it. End things the way they do in Beauty’s stories: with a finality unlike life itself.

He whispers: “Red. Red as roses, red as blood—heart of mine.”

Red clutches her knife. Her wolf stands before her. He breathes in deeply, savoring her scent, and looks down at her.

“Why is your knife drawn?” He sounds sad; his eyes are filled with that blinking wonder: as if he can’t believe her, as if she is something he doesn’t deserve. Even now, knowing what she knows, part of her wants to fall limp like a rag doll at this look. I was wrong, I was a fool, hurt me again.

Then he touches her shoulder, and the touch is not like Beauty’s, and her head clears. Her voice doesn’t tremble the way her hands do. “Why are you here?”

“To bring you home.”

“You aren’t my home.”

For a moment he keeps himself together, wretchedly. Then he licks his lips.

“You should not have broken the spell.”

Red moves, but he’s a wolf again, faster and stronger, and he falls on her with a fury.

x.

The rules have changed. They are each operating in their own fairy tales now, and this is the chapter before the last. Vincent’s guest has climbed the stairs to meet her guest, and now she must focus on Vincent, on the way he reaches out (his paw) to touch the pulse point on her neck, the way his voice is bright, feather-light, when he asks, “Darling, who gave you this?”

The slow drumbeat of her heart turns staccato.

As always, it’s her eyes that betray her first, welling with tears. Her mouth forms the words “I’m sorry” but she doesn’t say it—can’t say it—because she isn’t sorry. In his eyes Beauty might be wicked for her wanting, but she isn’t sorry because what she wants isn’t wrong.

A ridge of fur grows between his eyebrows, knotting together in misery, while in his mouth his teeth grow longer, sharper. “But I thought you loved me!”

“I do. But not the way I did as a girl.” You were kind to me, and you kept me, and I don’t know where loyalty ends and love begins.

“My castle will crumble around me—”

“No! Hold on to it. You don’t need me to be as you are. You have good people here, who love and respect you. Stay as you are.” She puts her hand on his arm but he flings it away, hiding his face between giant paws. This makes her raise her voice, bare her temper. “You must live on your own! And I must have my freedom. No one asked me what I really wanted. I am not here just to be another rose in your garden!”

“Then you should not be here at all,” he growls.

xi.

Red draws on the floor with her blood, her wolf’s blood. He hasn’t torn out her throat yet, has only bitten enough to hurt, not kill—but she can’t win, not like this.

Red casts her mind to every memory of that day in the wood and cries out, desperate: “If this is not how you want things to end, appear before me now!” She tries to say it; her words are a garble of blood.

Everything turns over. She is on her knees in the woods. She has not yet been to grandmother’s house. She does not exist in a fractured world. Instead, the world is sunlight, and she is only occupied with finding her way through the forest. But there is a bunch of flowers gathered in her fists and a horrible crone asking her if she would be so kind as to give her those flowers instead—I know they are for your poor dear grandmother, but I have no grandchildren myself, and they smell so sweet, child . . .

Yes, the fairy answers. You were kind.

“And I paid for it.”

I gave you a kind of happiness.

“It meant that I wasn’t who I am. It was a lie.”

What is it that you wish, Little Red?

Red catalogues the things she could ask for, knowing she may never get this moment again. A fairy will bend the rules twice, but no more.

She could ask for revenge. She could ask for time to unwind. She could ask for death—sweetness, in its way. But when she shuts her eyes she sees a flower, petals that move as lips do, calling her name. That’s the truth she wants to follow through till the end.

She is surprised by her answer, but only a little. “I want to learn who I am with her. I think she makes me good.”

And what will you give, Little Red?

Far away Red can feel the wolf breathing against her neck. Hear another beast’s roar. Red spreads her fingers apart and looks at her palms—empty of offerings. But something about their shape invokes wings. Birds aching to fly away.

This is the price of her fairy tale. She opens her mouth to pay it.

xii.

She smells flesh, in the wood. She follows it. She’s hungry. Saliva drips in strings from her jaws.

She senses her prey stalking behind a line of trees, and waits, patiently. If she catches it off-guard, she’ll catch it dead. She prefers things that don’t struggle.

Her prey stills. She tenses, then leaps through the trees, ready to pounce—

It’s not a human. It’s a wolf. She whines in disappointment, then squares herself for a fight. Meat is meat, after all. Bares her teeth. Looks into the wolf’s eyes, strange eyes, eyes black as crow’s wings.

The wolf blinks.

She blinks at the wolf. Looks down at her enormous paws. Sits backwards and feels tears brim, dammit, even in this form.

The wolf draws close to her, and begins to lick her tears. Then suddenly it’s not a beast’s tongue against her fur, but a girl’s mouth against her cheek, pliant and tender. She presses her thumb to the girl’s collarbone. She collapses into the girl’s lap, leans into her, plants a kiss on the curve of her hip. “Is it you?” she asks. “It must be you.”

“And you’re not a fairy, you’re not a dream. You’re here.”

They embrace, shakily, but their limbs are so confused that the fall back onto the forest floor, and lie there gathered in each other’s arms, first laughing, then crying. It’s strange, but she thinks she’ll quite enjoy remembering to be human, to do human things: kisses, embraces. How to be a girl, and a beast, and nothing but herself.

xiii.

“Once upon a time, there were two girls.”

“Don’t say once upon a time, it’s so boring.”

“Oh, right. You’ve told me that before.”

B stretches out her legs, observes the shadow they make against the wall. Continues: “First, apart, they tamed some beasts. But they were lonely and not very happy, even if it seemed like the story should end there. When they found each other, it was like sunlight. They realized they didn’t want to live that way forever. That there were other things they could do. Together.”

“Like?”

“Oh, space travel. Vampire hunting. Pro wrestling. You know.”

“What about the Beast and the Wolf, then?”

“We-e-ell. They might have torn each other apart. They were very hungry and very angry. Or maybe they saw each other as a mirror, and had their own happily ever after, as wild things do.”

“So you haven’t figured it out.” R touches her friend’s knee, and grins, showing all of her teeth. She is wearing the red cardigan her grandmother knitted for her, and eating a jam sandwich.

B, which might stand for bookworm, cleans her glasses on her blouse before putting them back on her nose. “You’ve caught me. I still don’t know how it ends. Just that it doesn’t end the way you expect.”

“Good,” R says. “I like unexpected things.”

With thanks to Nica, Stef, Tamsyn, and Brandie.

Isabel Yap

Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. Born and raised in Manila, she has also lived in California and London. She is currently completing her MBA at Harvard Business School. In 2013 she attended the Clarion Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in venues including Tor.com, Strange Horizons, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction. She is @visyap on Twitter and her website is https://isabelyap.com.