She wears green, and he does not think to check for a spark of fire, though she had impressed him last night with her courage. He thinks to intimidate her, and she—
She calmly tells him — tells him — “Never come in my room again.”
He was a prince, he is master here, and she thinks to command him? “May I remind you who makes the rules around here?” he says, and he knows his voice is low and carries with it the hint of a snarl. She should be afraid.
She tosses her head. “We’ll see about that.”
He is stiff in these clothes and he wants to move, to hunt. He feels…
“Don’t look at me,” he says. She looks too much, and is not afraid. Perhaps it is habit.
(Perhaps this is a good thing? Later, perhaps. Not now, not when he is forced to scramble for authority in his own castle.)
“Eat.” She cannot look if she is eating. Surely that will distract—
She’s still looking at him, he can feel it, when she asks, “You’re not eating with me?”
Eating with her? “No.” Does she truly wish to watch him devour a carcass like the wild animal he is? “Not in front of you.” Gods, is she still watching him? He catches her reflection in his knife — she is, insolent woman — and
Younger than he’d thought. That much steel in her bones, he’d thought years of life in her blood, but she is fresh of face and solid of form.
And she’s still talking. “May I speak or must I die in silence like a child?”
Oh, she’s young. Impetuous. “But that’s what you are, an arrogant child.” He watches her as she chatters on, as though he were any man, and his claws scrape on the knife as he watches her red lips form the words, and it is too much. She is young, and innocent, and arrogant, “And you talk too much!” he roars, throwing the knife down.
(He doesn’t need to see her in the tiny surface.)
(He tells himself this doesn’t mean that he needs to not see her.)
There is silence, and it is probably good for his sanity that he does not see the little smile as she drinks her wine, a smile that agrees with him and is amused by him nonetheless.
There is a sound — she has set down her wineglass. “I know what pleases you,” she says.
She’s. Still. Talking.
“That I’m feeling the emptiness.”
She doesn’t stop. He is almost impressed.
“And whose place is this?”
Surely she must know. “Everything here belongs to me.”
“How you talk, you could be anyone.” He can hear the smile in her voice now, remembers an echo of it in courtly games and politics. She says, “It disappoints me.”
He forgets everything he’d been thinking about the slow predator’s battle that is a dinner. He forgets everything and turns to her in incredulity. He rises. “I disappoint you?” he hisses. “Really?” He moves forward, and her breath catches and the vein in her neck jumps. She is afraid, then, finally. “Are there…other things about me that displease you?” His voice is a quiet snarl and he feels great satisfaction in how she—
Does not answer his question.
Is there…not anything else about him she objects to?
(He cannot believe it.)
“You’re not saying anything.” The snarl is gone, the hiss as well. This is a whisper, and it is pleased. If there were something else she objected to, she would say it. He has known her for so few of his many days and already he knows this of her.
(He feels hope.)
She draws courage with a breath. “Every day I wait while you decide my fate. You’re playing with me like I’m a toy in your paws.”
Lions will do that to their prey.
But…there are different ways to play.
He has not stopped moving toward her. “If you’d only permit me to, I could fulfill all your desires.”
She surges to her feet, the fire dances across her skin and he remembers the strength of green living things. “And you think a beast like you could fulfill a woman like me?” she demands.
He is drawing back before he knows it, like a dog cowering before the alpha, and he snarls and jumps upon the table in outrage. He is king here, not her, and he will not cower! He springs down the table and she jumps, looks away—
And looks back at him.
No, she will not cower either, and he does not think he can stand her bravery a second longer.
“Don’t look at me! DON’T LOOK AT ME!” he roars, and her eyes close, at long last. “I know what I am!” Beast, hunter, prince, all words for one who conquers. “Resist me all you want!” Her eyes snap open and find his and do not flinch away. He feels pain, and a desperate longing. “You will be mine!”
He leaps away before he can make good on this declaration in a way he will regret, and he tears through the castle on all fours, itching to catch something in his claws.
(Perhaps fortunately for him, he does not hear her grumble her way to her room and declare that she will “teach that animal some manners!”)
He spends the next day watching her from afar. She is exploring his castle, and she has finally learned of his hounds’ existence. He watches with great interest as she leads them around a corridor and ducks quickly behind a tapestry to wait for them to pass so she can see them clearly. It is interesting that his hounds have chosen to follow her. They hunt not for prey but for a mistress.
“I always knew you were unfaithful,” he said long ago. He cannot fault them for it. He, too, is hunting for her, drawing her closer.
The bell tolls 7 o’clock, and she is already eating.
He did tell her to do last night.
He did a lot of things last night.
He makes his way around the table — he doesn’t need to circle her but of course he does — and asks of her, “I’d like to excuse myself for last night.” She says nothing. “You were right,” he pauses long enough for her to say something, as women usually do to such a statement, and she says nothing. “Do you like my gifts?” The blue looks well on her, the royal color better than the green.
(He’ll realize later, maybe, that cats sometimes bring their masters dead animals as gifts, that many creatures do such things to court their intended mate.)
She says nothing.
“Why do you not answer me?”
“I miss my family.”
He draws away, hissing quietly under his breath. “Forget them; they are gone forever.”
“It may help you to turn your back on the past, but I can not give up mine.”
He growls. “What do you know about me? Nothing!”
“Nothing,” she agrees, darkly amused. “You’re right.”
He wants to change that.
“I’ll make you a deal,” she says suddenly.
(It isn’t sudden, she must have been planning this the entire evening.)
“A few hours with my family.”
That is not very much, but it is more than he wants to give. “And for what?”
“A dance.” He turns away in disgust. Does she truly think that he would want—
“In exchange you will let me see them.”
When he speaks, his voice is hoarse and sounds like he feels: a man dying of thirst. “You are treating me like a beggar.”
“I can lead, if you’re afraid.” Her voice is low. Amused. Confident.
She wears blue but she is fire, and she burns steadily but brighter than he even in his most incandescent rage.
He thought she had been joking about leading.
She is not.
She raises her dress above her ankles and when she begins the dance he feels…
She dares him with every movement, head held high, mouth pursed in determination. She stops rather soon, and he thinks that will be the end of it. She was making a point, before she joins him for the dance proper and—
She calmly places one hand on his chest and pushes him back.
He sways before her.
As she leads he feels oddly…safe.
She stops, and breathes, and places one of his gloved claws around her waist, and folds her fingers among his. She is careful, but that is the only thing that differs from normality.
“Dancing with me doesn’t scare you?” he asks.
Her head tilts. “You lead,” she says, and it does not sound anything like meek submission. He wonders how she can make it sound like a challenge.
(How she makes everything a challenge.)
They dance around the room, spinning. He remembers another time, another dance, another—
He can see nothing but her.
(He likes to think that he is lightheaded from the spinning.)
She gently lays her head on his chest, as though tired, as though seeking comfort, seeking safety, protection.
(Oh, but he hopes.)
“Could you love me?” He cannot help but ask it, though he wishes he had not in an instant.
She draws back in surprise — he feels bereft — and she slams two of her little hands into his chest and shoves him away from her. “We made a deal,” she says. “Keep your promise.”
This…feels oddly like she is retreating. The hunter in him senses a weakness, and he presses forward. “It’s been a long time since I promised anything.”
She draws in an angry breath. “You dress in the finery of a prince,” she accuses, the force of her outrage making him take a step back before he realizes it. He growls but she is already moving forward to claim the space and he pulls back again. “You claim you’re a man, but you’re just a cruel and lonely beast,” she hurls at him, and he bends beneath the weight of her words.
(He’s cowering as he retreats, he knows he is.)
“Try whatever you want, to unnerve me, to bribe me — you all but disgust me!”
He is driven from the room before he realizes he is running. He needs to stalk something, to feel it give way before him, to have conquered, to know he is prince and master. He goes hunting. It satisfies him to claw at the branches beneath him, to coil and leap and tear into his prey.
This he can do, and he does it with all his might, hoping to drown out her words.
His mind finally goes blissfully blank. The blood is still warm as he carries his kill home over his shoulders. He has been a Beast long enough to know what he likes.
(He is a man angry enough to throw the carcass before the tapestry of his dead wife and devour it there.)
For a second he thinks he hears something, and he snarls at it, but nothing is there. He goes back to his meal, though he can almost hear the infernal woman asking him to eat with her. He can almost smell her—
He can smell her.
She was here.
He throws himself down the stairwell, mouth open to catch her scent.
She is running.
He chases after her on all fours, roaring into the night. He warned her. There are other beasts in the forest besides him. He must catch her first.
(He must catch her.)
Out through the narrow chasm, through the forest beyond. He can see her now, cat’s eyes gleaming in the dark, and he puts on another burst of speed. She is to the lake and he smiles. In an open space she cannot hope to outrun him. She is his.
He makes one last leap — she has turned and seen him behind her, and her dress flares out. He catches the hem of it in one claw and she falls, turning. She gasps as he lands above her.
(She is his.)
Her eyes are wide as she looks into his own. She is afraid, but there is a confidence there that speaks of experience. They are equals, in her eyes, in his.
“Now you know who I am.” He is breathing almost heavier than she is.
She is afraid, but of what he could do. Not of what he will do. It is a distinction he hadn’t known he wanted.
“Tell me again that I disgust you.”
“Are there… other things about me that displease you?”
Her hands are free. They could push him away if she wanted. Her eyes drop to his lips for the barest moment but he sees.
(She is his!)
“Tell me,” he breathes, and leans forward.
Her eyes close.
She does not stop him.