Prologue: The Beast
“Hello there, handsome. You look particularly dashing today.”
It was his morning ritual—standing naked in front of a full-length mirror, speaking affirmations.
“That skin. So striking. And were there ever shoulders so broad? There’s strength in that body. Strength and beauty.” He used to choke on that last word, but he’d learned to say it like he meant it.
The affirmations weren’t for his ears. He said them for Cerise, the female who’d cursed him nearly ten years ago and now spied on him through all the mirrors in this castle. Every morning, he hoped she was indeed watching him as he claimed to love what she’d turned him into.
It was petty. But it was all he had left.
After winking one red eye, he turned, giving the mirror a dashing wave with his hairless, rat-like tail. He imagined Cerise’s face, screwed up in disgust.
He dressed, and his broad, bare feet slapped on the marble floors as he made his way to the kitchen. He was just digging into a large plate of scrambled eggs when a tap sounded on the door that led outside. He jumped at the noise. No one had visited him in nearly ten years.
“Who is it?” His voice, rich and regal, was the one part of him the curse hadn’t changed.
“Jacqueline,” came the reply.
His old governess. He would’ve flushed with excitement if his skin, cursed to retain a stark-white pallor, were capable of it. He rushed to the door and threw it open.
Hovering there was a pixie, her purple butterfly wings beating rapidly. A hesitant smile split the pale-orange skin of her face. A breeze ruffled her hair, which was colored with the reds, oranges, and yellows of a flame. The tip of her head would be barely above his knees were she standing, but she packed a lot of beauty and energy into that little form. Like all faeries, she appeared young, and in her case, it was true. Jacqueline—Jackie for short—was only sixty-five. She’d barely begun her immortal life.
She threw tiny arms around his neck, and it was all he could do not to crush her with his too-powerful muscles. He gave her the tightest hug he dared before stepping back. “Jackie, how did you get here? Why did it take so long? What—”
They were the words she’d said thousands of times in the first twenty years of his life. They were as effective now as they’d been when he was wailing in his cradle. His mouth closed.
“I was here the day Cerise cursed you,” she said. “I fled before she saw me.”
He sucked in a sharp breath. “You were there? Thank the gods you didn’t come to the front door today.”
“Cerise knew someone escaped that day. She felt it. She cursed you too. If she sees you through any of the mirrors in this house, you’ll experience the same fate as my servants. There’s a large mirror in the entry hall.” He shuddered, then leapt up, eyes wild. “Hide in the pantry. Just for a minute.”
As Jackie obeyed, he grabbed the steel soup pot from the stove and shoved it in a cabinet, then did the same with a ladle and several pieces of silver. He didn’t know if Cerise could spy through other reflective items as she could with mirrors, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Breathing heavily, he said, “Come on out. You can’t stay long. It’s not safe.”
“What did she do to your servants?” she whispered.
“Turned them to stone.”
Jackie covered her little mouth with a hand. But she’d always been levelheaded in a crisis. She pointed at a chair. “Sit.” When he obeyed, she sat on the table, cross-legged. “I’ll update you on all the things you’ve missed while trapped in this big house, and we’ll talk about breaking your curse.”
“Everyone thinks you died of a fever,” she said. “Cerise told them a mysterious beast swept in afterward and took over your estate. I know the truth, of course, but I can’t seem to correct others when they spread her lies.”
“That’s part of the curse. We can’t discuss it with anyone who doesn’t already know about it. Not that I’ve had a chance to try.”
She nodded. “You may not realize that Cerise cursed your estate too, moving it out of Faerie. It’s on Earth now, protected from mortal detection.”
He gaped at her. The thick fog Cerise had put on his land’s borders had kept him from seeing the truth.
“It took me almost two years to find the estate,” Jackie continued, “and eight more to discover a weakness in the border barrier.”
All he could do was shake his head.
Jackie darted close to his face, jolting him to attention. “I don’t care why she cursed you. All I care about is how to break it. What were the terms?”
“I have to get someone to agree to marry me. For love.”
The pixie drew in a sharp gasp. “You have less than two months to find a wife?”
His shoulders drooped. “Or be stuck in this form forever.”
“There’s more at stake than your looks and your servants,” Jackie said. “Cerise did such a good job creating the border barrier that even she can’t penetrate it. Months ago, she sent dozens of armed faeries to find a way through. As soon as they succeed, she’ll steal your estate, bring it back to Faerie, and declare herself queen over all your lands and people.”
His heart stuttered. Cerise would never get away with such an action if her fellow Fae knew he was still alive. Stuck in this beastly form, however, he could never prove who he was. His kingdom was small . . . but it was his. It had been ruled by his family since before the Fae had a written language. He pulled in a lungful of air. “I have to find a wife. One who will actually love this.” He gestured to his beastly body. “It’s impossible.”
Jackie floated in front of him again, her green eyes sparkling with mischief. “It’s not, now that I know how to get through the barrier. I’ll bring faeries here—females who want to marry.”
“They’ll never come. Not for a beast.”
Her high voice trilled with laughter. “Cerise’s lies backfired. They think you’re a beast who was strong enough to take over an estate and move it out of Faerie. You may not be pretty, but in their minds, you’re intriguing, powerful . . . and wealthy. They’ll come.”
“How am I supposed to make one of them love me in a matter of weeks?”
Jackie fluttered about the room, her small forehead wrinkled in deep thought. Several minutes passed before she landed on the kitchen table and looked up into his red eyes. “It will be challenging. That’s why we need to create an atmosphere that heightens their emotions and gives them a reason to fight for you.”
His hairless brow furrowed. “How?”
Her bright smile made her whole face shine. “We’ll have a forty-day competition. The winner gets your heart.”
“A competition.” He let out a low laugh. “It just might work. I wish you could be here for it. I could use your guidance.”
She placed her small, soft hands on his pale-as-death cheeks. “I’ll bring the females here and get them inside the barrier. If there’s a way for me to help you further, I’ll find it.”
Chapter 1: You’ve Heard the Stories of Faeries in this Forest
I’m holding the most beautiful hat I’ve ever made—thick wool, flawlessly knitted. It’s mostly cream colored, but I used a little of my precious green-dyed yarn for a single row of pines around the middle, like the trees in the forest near our village.
This hat will keep someone else’s head very warm. The money it brings in will get me closer to patching our roof, so my own head can stay dry.
I’m considering whether there’s an easier way to shape the hat’s crown when my sister’s voice breaks into my reverie. “Aeryn,” Yvonne says, “the sun is setting!”
I gasp and stand, still holding the hat. The ball of cream yarn drops from my lap, turning brown as it rolls along the dirt that serves as a floor in this house. A yelp leaves my mouth as I grab it and brush it off, before shoving it and the hat into my work basket. “Why didn’t you tell me how late it was?”
Yvonne’s curly blonde hair quivers as she shakes her head. “Don’t blame me! I was busy darning socks for Mrs. What’s-Her-Name.”
As I pull on my cloak, boots, and an old hat, I snap, “There are four of us. Someone should be able to keep track of the time.”
“Brigitte is trying to put together something for dinner.”
I huff. My brother Marc is twenty-one, a year younger than me. You’d think by now, he would have a job, but he always has some excuse. I grab a lantern and sling an empty bag on my shoulder, suspecting I’ll need it. “I don’t know why I’m always the one who has to do this,” I say as I leave our little house.
“Yes, you do know.” Yvonne’s voice follows me through the closed door.
She’s right, I do. I’m the oldest of four siblings, and our father is more likely to listen to me than anyone else. When he gets paid every other Friday, I rush to the mine to convince him to hand over his coins so I can buy food for the family.
Unless I forget. Like today. He left the mine at least half an hour ago, and it only takes fifteen minutes to walk home. That means he took a detour.
And I’m sure I know where he is.
I jog along the dirt road into town, every little stone making its presence known through the thin soles of my old boots. I shouldn’t have brought the cloak and hat. The early-spring air still holds winter’s chill, but running makes me warm. Within five minutes, I’ve shoved the hat in my pocket.
When the tavern comes into sight, I slow to a walk, catching my breath. I know I’m a mess, my pale skin bright red from exertion and strands of strawberry-blonde hair sticking to my sweaty face. Oh, well. My days of impressing people with my looks are long gone.
As I enter, my father’s laugh fills the room. I spy him sitting on a barstool, handing coins to the busy bartender. Everyone around him is patting his bony back, thanking him. A big smile splits his scruffy blond-and-silver beard.
“Damn it,” I mutter. Swearing is the single satisfaction poverty has afforded me. I wasn’t allowed to do it when I was considered a lady, but when we sold our possessions, we let go of a lot of silly rules too. I need such words at a moment like this, when I realize my father isn’t just buying booze for himself, but for those around him too. If he’s spent all his coin, we won’t have any food for the next two weeks.
I weave through tables. When I pass well-heeled patrons, my heart aches for the security of a past I can’t return to. For the first twenty years of my life, I took our large house, full of luxuries and servants, for granted. Then pirates took Father’s merchant ship, and he had to sell everything to pay his debts.
That was two years ago. I can’t hold the pirate attack against him. It wasn’t his fault. Now, however, he barely makes anything at the copper mine. When he spends his limited income on drink . . . well, there was a time when I forgave him freely, but that’s gotten harder and harder the more often my stomach is aching and empty.
“Father,” I say breathlessly when I reach the bar, “let’s go home.”
He gives me a grin turned slightly wobbly from alcohol, and God help me, I want to slap his flushed cheeks. I’d never do it—I love the man—but how could he betray us again?
“Aeryn,” he says, “I’d offer you a drink, but I’m sorry to say . . .” He pats his pockets, which I’m certain are empty. He turns to the men around him and speaks in the booming voice that served him well when he was a merchant, making deals on the goods he traded. “Do you all know Aeryn? My eldest, the pride of my heart. She’s turned into such a beauty!” He lifts a hand to pat my cheek, and when he lowers it, his elbow knocks over a mug of beer.
My whole body is now warm with embarrassment. “Let’s go. Now.”
Father doesn’t argue. He’s reasonably alert and steady on his feet, thank heaven. I hold his hand, not letting go even when we’re out of the tavern and have turned onto the road.
“You’re going the wrong way,” he says, trying to pull me in the opposite direction.
I tighten my grip and keep walking. “We’re heading into the forest to forage for food for the next two weeks. All we have left at home is half a loaf of stale bread and a small cheese rind.”
He pulls me to a stop. “That can’t be right! We have mushrooms and salted fish, and I think even a few apples—”
“We had all that. It’s gone.” I don’t tell him I caught Marc feasting on the rest of the fish when he thought we were all in bed last night. My father doesn’t need his heart broken yet again by his wastrel of a son.
Father’s face drops. “But the money from your knitting . . . ?”
“We use it for rent and home repairs.” Of course, it seems there’s never any left for the repairs the landlord refuses to do.
He blinks. “I know nothing about foraging.”
“I’ll show you what to do. I’ve gotten good at it.” I pull him along, increasing my pace. It’s nearly dark out, and my lantern oil is almost gone.
We enter the trees together and soon find a patch of dandelions—weeds to some, but salvation for a hungry family. Even the roots are edible. I curse when I realize I forgot to bring a spade. “We’ll dig with our hands,” I say. “Go deep; get as much of the roots as you can.”
We set to work. Before long, I have to use one of my precious matches to light the lantern. “Hurry!” I say.
We dig up all the plants and shove them in my bag before moving on. Father tries to make conversation, but the same anger that quickened my steps has also closed my mouth.
I head for an area where I recently saw some kudzu, another plant with edible roots. When we arrive, I shine my lantern over the entire area and let out a long sigh. The soil is overturned, and the pretty, purple flowers are all gone, along with the green plants they were attached to. Someone else got here first.
“It’s dark, Aeryn,” my father says, “and I just felt a drop of rain. We should go home. You can come back tomorrow, with your sisters.”
“No!” I shout. “We’re not leaving until I fill this bag! I’ve covered for your mistakes enough times!”
“You’ve heard the stories of faeries in this forest. They’re dangerous!”
For a moment, my body aches for the days when he’d pull us kids close—two of us on his lap, two sitting at his feet—to read us faerie tales. He didn’t stop when we outgrew both his lap and the fantastical stories. He just switched to more grown-up books, reading them in his warm voice. My favorites were the true ones, books about nature, history, design, and far-away cultures.
The people who bought our house worked his books into the deal. We left every single volume behind.
I swallow the memories down. “You don’t believe those faerie tales any more than I do, Father. Now come on!”
I push forward, fury filling my head until it aches from the pressure. Tears blur my vision, and I barely even see the path in front of me as my feet move ever faster. I forget what I’m here for, too distracted by the pain in my head and my heart.
A few drops of rain plop on my cheeks and hands. Then, it’s like someone took a sickle to the clouds. Cold sheets of water drench us in seconds.
“We have to go home,” my father says.
In the dim lantern light, I scan the area. It’s blurred by rain. But even if the sun were shining, nothing around me would be familiar.
We’re lost in a frigid forest.
“Do you know which direction home is?” I ask my father.
As he shakes his head, the lantern flame goes out, the oil spent. Darkness envelops us.
I set down the useless lantern—I’ll have to come back for it later. “Give me your hand!” I shout. Father and I grope around until our cold, slick palms are smashed together, our fingers intertwined so we don’t lose each other. Then I run, pulling him behind me.
“Stop!” he cries. “You don’t know where you’re going!”
I barely hear him. All I can think is that this feels more like winter rain than spring rain, and we may freeze to death, and my siblings at home need food, and they’ll wonder where we are, and it’s my fault we’re lost, but it’s my father’s fault this happened at all, and . . . and the only option is to keep running, my free hand extended in front of me.
The trees in this part of the forest aren’t too close together, but my fingers still frequently scrape against bark and branches. We change direction countless times. A branch finds my face, scratching my cheek. I wince and keep running.
Soon, the forest grows thicker, and we have no choice but to walk.
“Darling,” my father says, “the trees are blocking a lot of the rain here. Let’s stop. We’re lost. We need to wait out the storm.”
I hate the thought of spending the night here, but I don’t have a better idea. I sit against a tree trunk, wrapping my soaking-wet cloak tight around me. As soon as I’m settled, I begin trembling. My teeth are chattering, and I’ve never been so miserable.
This is my fault. I’m the one who makes plans for our family, ensuring we have food and can pay the rent. Tonight, I let my emotions get the best of me. If only I’d put more thought into this, we would’ve never gotten lost. A little moan exits my throat.
“Oh, Aeryn.” My father sits next to me and pulls me close to his side, like he did when I was little. “We’ll be all right, darling. As soon as it gets light and the clouds disappear, the sun will tell us what direction to go. We’ll be all right.”
His warmth seeps into me, despite how wet we both are. My breathing slows. At this moment, he’s not the man who lost his fortune and started drinking to forget his troubles. He’s just my daddy, holding me tight.
I’m about to fall asleep when I hear something that makes me sit up, every muscle on alert, ears straining.
It’s a wild hog. And where there’s one hog, there are more. Good meat, if you’ve got something to kill them with. We don’t . . . which means we’re the meat. Hog attacks are common around here.
They’ll dig their tusks into us. Take great, ripping bites.
My heart threatens to punch through my chest as I picture it.
Our screams will fill the forest, unheard by any but our attackers. We’ll at last go silent. They’ll continue feasting. When they finish, only our bones will be left behind, to grow brittle on the forest floor.
I can’t bring myself to breathe. I’m frozen in place . . . until my father whispers in my ear. “Run.”
We leap to our feet and, hand in hand, rush through the thick trees.
The rain and our footsteps are so loud, I can’t tell if we’ve left the hogs behind. And we certainly can’t stop to listen. We run and run and run. My skin is icy, but there’s fire in my lungs and legs. I keep expecting to collapse.
But it’s my father who falls, crying out, his fingers releasing mine.
I fall to my knees next to him. “Father!”
Between moans, he manages to speak. “I tripped. I think—” He lets out a groan full of agony. “Oh hell, I feel something poking through—the bones—”
“Bones?” I gasp.
“My leg—it’s broken.”