The Beauty of Being a Beast by Jennifer Estep

Peter’s shoulders straightened, and his thin, skinny chest puffed up with pride. I had no idea how devoted and loyal Peter was to Arisa, but I always said something inane like that when I released the boys from their promises. It seemed to make them feel better, as though they had accomplished some small thing in their time here.

I might be a beast, but I wasn’t a monster.

Peter kept staring at me with his annoyingly joy-filled face, so I waved my fur-covered hand, indicating that he could go. He shot to his feet, almost knocking his chair over, but instead of immediately running from the room, he lingered by the table.

“It’s not just that I want to return to Arisa,” he said. “I’m worried about everyone in the village. And you too, Lady Griselle.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

Peter shifted on his feet. “There are rumors that the Razors are marching toward Dammerung. That they plan to attack.”

The Razors were a notorious group of bandits, thieves, and murderers who made their home in an abandoned keep deep in the Black Forest. Every few months, they would appear like ghastly spirits escaping from graves and attack whatever travelers or villages were unlucky enough to be in their path. The Razors took what they wanted, burned the rest, and returned to their hidden keep. Then, a few months later, when their stolen wine, food, and gold ran out, they would reappear in a different part of the kingdom and strike again. So far, Dammerung had managed to escape their notice, but apparently no longer.

“Well, if the Razors are coming, then you should absolutely return to the village and make sure that Arisa is safe, along with your parents and the rest of your loved ones.”

Peter’s head bobbed up and down in a frantic rhythm. “Thank you, Lady Griselle.”

He gave me a quick bow, then scurried out of the room without a backward glance. I remained sitting, still drumming my talons against the tabletop, thinking about this new threat.

“You got rid of him already?” a dry voice drawled, interrupting my musings.

Footsteps sounded, and another boy stepped into view. He was dressed in a simple blue jacket, with black leggings and boots, and a white towel was thrown over his left shoulder, indicating that he had been in the kitchen cooking. His dark brown hair was neatly brushed back from his forehead, and his tan skin gleamed in the soft, dreamy light cast by the crystal chandelier overhead.

Drury glanced over at the cuckoo clock, then back at me. Merriment sparked in his green eyes, and a grin stretched across his face. “That was fast. It’s not even six o’clock yet.”

I rolled my eyes at his teasing. Drury’s family had worked for mine ever since my great-grandmother was originally cursed, and we had been friends since childhood. Drury was an amazing chef, and he oversaw the kitchen staff and dealt with the servants, while I prowled around the castle and wasted time trying to make boys fall in love with me.

I threw my napkin down, pushed back from the table, and got to my feet. Despite my beastly appearance, Drury was still a few inches taller than I was, and I had to tip my head back to look up into his face. Unlike Peter and all the other boys who had come here, Drury kept his eyes on mine. He had never flinched at or shied away from or been scared by my beastly form—not once, not even when the curse had first taken effect. That was one of the many things that made him such a dear friend.

“What is this rumor about the Razors marching toward Dammerung?”

Drury’s smile vanished. “Peter should have kept his mouth shut.”

I arched a bushy eyebrow at him. “So the rumor is true. The Razors are coming to raze the village.”

He sighed. “Apparently so. Some of the woodsmen spotted the smoke from their campfires two days ago. The Razors will most likely march into the village sometime tonight.”

I eyed him. “What else aren’t you telling me?”

Drury sighed again. “There have also been some rumors that Nigella, the leader of the Razors, fancies herself to be quite the hunter. That she enjoys killing all sorts of creatures but the more unusual and magical, the better.”

“So the Razors are coming here because of me. Because Nigella wants to bag a beast.” I threw my hands up into the air. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Drury shrugged. “You have enough to worry about with the curse and your birthday coming up next week. Besides, the Razors won’t be able to get into the castle.”

No, they wouldn’t. Eifert, the wizard who had enacted the curse, had enchanted the castle so that none could enter who wished to harm me. But the magic didn’t extend to the village, which meant that Peter, Arisa, and everyone else would be at the Razors’ mercy. Unless…