The Beauty of Being a Beast by Jennifer Estep

“Come! Come to the castle! Before the Razors arrive!”

In response, doors opened, and villagers poured out of their homes and shops, heading toward the castle.

But they weren’t the only ones moving through the cold winter evening.

In the surrounding forest, dozens of torches blazed, all heading in this direction, looking like fireflies flitting through the snow-crusted pines.

The Razors were already here.

My hand dropped to my sword, and my talons scraped against the silver hilt. More anger and determination sparked through me. I wasn’t going to let some greedy marauders slaughter innocent people just because I had the misfortune to be cursed—

“Contemplating your failure with this latest boy?” a low, snide voice asked.

I rolled my eyes, but I turned toward the man standing on the balcony. He looked to be in his fifties, although wizards lived for centuries, and you could never tell how old they truly were. A mane of salt-and-pepper hair dipped and rose all around his head, almost like a wavy iron crown. His blue eyes were as cold and empty as the mirrors that adorned the castle, and his pale skin was curiously free of wrinkles, except for a few faint lines around his eyes and mouth. He was wearing a long blood-red robe that featured patches of gold thread shaped like jagged teeth, curved claws, and other symbols, and a gold pendant shaped like a wolf with ruby eyes dangled from a gold chain around his neck.

Eifert, the wizard who had cursed my great-grandmother Jacinda, along with the rest of the Mottern women.

That, too, was another boring, predictable story.

Mottern Castle used to belong to Eifert, until Jacinda had wandered into the gardens to pick some pansies to sell in her village shop. Eifert had taken one look at Jacinda and fallen madly in love, but my great-grandmother hadn’t felt the same.

Instead, she had seen the wizard’s adoration as an opportunity.

Jacinda had aspirations far above being a poor, struggling florist, so she had pretended to love Eifert, right up to the moment he had impulsively given her the castle as an engagement present. Once a gift is given, it can never be taken back by force, so Jacinda had kicked Eifert out of his own home and had anointed herself Lady Mottern.

The wizard had been so enraged at being played for a fool that he had cursed Jacinda to become a beast—until she found true love. Conning a wizard was no small task, and my great-grandmother had easily gotten one of the village boys to fall in love with her, despite her new, unattractive fur coat. And so Jacinda had broken the curse, although Eifert had decreed that all of her female descendants were doomed to suffer through it as well.

Now Eifert kept staring at me, a smug expression on his face. He always visited whenever I sent a boy away. He liked to see my supposed devastation. I truly had been devastated the first few times, but now all I felt was irritation.

“What do you want?” I gestured out at the torches rapidly approaching the village. “In case you haven’t noticed, I have other things to worry about right now.”

“Oh, don’t be concerned about the Razors,” Eifert purred. “You’ll be safe here in the castle, Griselle. I made sure of that.”

I rolled my eyes again. “Of course. You wouldn’t want the Razors to kill me and deprive you of the sadistic joy of continuing your curse.”

“Well, it seems like you might be the very last Mottern. After all, you have less than a week until your twenty-first birthday. Why, you might not break the curse at all.” Eifert clucked his tongue in false sympathy.

Disgust spiked through me, and not just because of his mockery. If he hadn’t started this curse, then the villagers might not be in danger from the Razors now. But of course, Eifert wouldn’t—couldn’t—see things that way, just as he didn’t realize that his curse had stopped bothering me long ago.

I faced the wizard, angrier and more determined than I had ever been. “If I am to be the last Mottern, then so be it.”

Eifert blinked. “What do you mean?”

I shrugged. “I don’t care if I break the curse.”

He blinked again, and then again, as if he didn’t understand what I was saying. “You…you don’t mean that. You can’t mean that.”

“That is exactly what I mean,” I snapped. “Do you know how annoying your curse is? How ridiculous? How utterly tedious? If people can’t look past my fur and fangs and see what kind of person I really am, then they don’t deserve my friendship, much less my love.”