The Beauty of Being a Beast by Jennifer Estep

Eifert kept staring at me with a bewildered expression. “I don’t understand.”

I stepped closer to him and bared my teeth in a wide, vicious smile. “I am finished with your stupid curse. There will be no more boys, no more dresses, no more flirting and simpering and prancing around like a circus animal. I’m going to go down to the village, defeat the Razors, and return to my castle. And then I will spend the rest of my days reading and writing and exploring the woods and protecting the villagers. I will live quite happily ever after being a beast.”

Eifert’s blue eyes bulged. “You—you can’t do that! You have to break the curse! You have to find true love!”

I snorted. “Why? So you can inflict your sadistic will on whatever innocent daughter I might have in the future? No. You have no power over me, Eifert. Not anymore. And the curse ends with me tonight—one way or another.”

The wizard kept staring at me, a mixture of shock and disbelief filling his face. His features flickered like a sputtering candle, and he suddenly looked old, weak, and weary, like a flame that was about to be snuffed out.

I looked right back at him, an unexpected and unusually soft emotion flooding my chest and cooling some of my sizzling anger. “Perhaps it’s strange, but I actually feel sorry for you.”

The wizard’s shock vanished, and he jerked back as though I had slapped him. Eifert’s face hardened back into its usual smooth, ageless mask, and his eyes darkened, as though they were filling up with ominous storm clouds. “What did you say?”

“I feel sorry for you,” I repeated. “It was wrong, cruel, and heartless of Jacinda to pretend to love you just so she could steal your castle. Perhaps you were right to curse her as punishment for that deception.”

“But?” he snapped, a low, dangerous note in his voice.

“But you could have ended it there. You could have left Dammerung and tried to find happiness with someone else. But instead, you keep coming back here generation after generation and punishing women who had nothing to do with hurting you. I’d say that makes you the one who is truly cursed, not me.” I shook my head. “Goodbye, Eifert.”

Then I stalked past the wizard, leaving him alone on the balcony, staring at his own reflection in the mirrored wall.

* * *

I went down to the castle gates, which were standing wide open. By this point, the villagers were running in this direction, trying to get inside as fast as possible. I pushed past them, heading the opposite way.

“Thank you, Lady Mottern!” someone called out.

Soon all of the villagers were shouting their thanks. I nodded and gave them all an awkward, toothy smile, but I kept going.

“Griselle! Griselle!” a voice called out behind me, a bit louder than all the others.

I glanced back over my shoulder. Drury was clutching a long, sharp kitchen knife and was also fighting through the crowd, but he didn’t have my beastly strength, so he kept getting pushed back. I didn’t have time to wait for my friend to catch up, so I waved at him and kept going.

Besides, this was my fight, not his.

The Razors were moving much faster than I had anticipated, and they had already swept through the village, although it didn’t seem they had looted, burned, or destroyed any homes yet. No doubt, they wanted to sack the castle first.

I met the invaders in the middle of the gray stone bridge that led from the castle over the river and down into the village. I stopped in the center of the bridge, and so did they, all of us sizing each other up.

The Razors were girls and boys in their late teens and early twenties. They were dressed in fine jackets and gowns, although most of their clothes were torn and dirty, as though they just wore the garments until they slaughtered someone else and took their slightly cleaner, fresher clothes. Each one of them was clutching a sword or a dagger, and thanks to my beastly eyesight, I could easily see the dried blood staining many of the blades.

A girl who looked to be about my age strode forward and struck a pose, resting her hand on the gold sword belted to her waist. She was quite beautiful, with hazel eyes, rosy skin, and dark brown hair pulled back into a pretty braid. Unlike those of the other Razors, her clothes were pristine, and she looked like a warrior princess in her bright fuchsia jacket, white pants, and shiny black boots.

“Nigella, I presume?” I drawled.

She smiled. “And so the Beast speaks. Lovely. It’s so much more fun when your prey realizes exactly what’s happening to them.”