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Collecting Princesses

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Adam has been a Beast for a little under two weeks when someone comes knocking on the door to his castle. He goes down to open it himself, since most of his enchanted household can’t reach the doorknobs, and finds himself staring down at a meltingly beautiful young woman of no more than sixteen, with enormous black eyes and skin like snow and lips as red as blood.

“Are you the master of the castle?” she asks anxiously. Adam nods, and she flings herself gracefully down on her knees in front of him, clasping her hands together in entreaty. “Oh, my lord, I beg for sanctuary. Please, let me stay here.”

Adam blinks down at her, then at himself. Nope, still huge and furry and clawed. “Get up,” he says gruffly. “Why are you begging sanctuary from me?” He gestures at his own beastly form. The girl gets up just as gracefully as she knelt, and wipes at the tears streaming from her eyes. Adam fumbles awkwardly for a handkerchief, which she takes to dab at her cheeks.

And then she spills out a story that would leave Adam white with horror if he were still human, ending with, “And then he invited my stepmother to our wedding - and I did not care for her, you understand, I did not wish to ever see her again - and had his torturer place red-hot iron shoes upon her feet, and made the court watch her dance herself to death. I could not bear to stay with such a man.”

“No,” Adam agrees, swallowing back nausea. “I can see why. Yes, you may have sanctuary. Be welcome in my castle. What is your name?”

Snow settles in quite well, adjusting with surprising ease to the talking furniture, and she’s been there maybe three days when her dwarves show up, all in a gaggle, and Adam, shrugging to himself, offers them the unused dungeons and basements, which they take happily. Adam spends about a week thinking that Snow might be the one to break his curse - maybe that’s why she found the castle, maybe his wait will be only a matter of days and not years - and then realizes that he thinks of her rather the way he suspects he would have felt about a little sister: overprotective and adoring, but decidedly not in love.

Also, she makes him realize how much worse his curse could have been. Ugh, being rendered unconscious until kissed, and then forced to marry some absolute horror of a fellow who thinks forcing someone to dance to their death in red-hot iron shoes is wedding entertainment? At least Adam is still conscious, and can at least sort of choose his bride.

Snow has been there a month, dancing with the enchanted household as she helps with the dusting and the cooking, and spending long hours down with the dwarves at their inventing, when there’s another knock at the castle door. Adam answers it, since it is technically his castle, to find a young woman as beautiful as the dawn, with sky-blue eyes and golden hair, her dress disheveled and bloodstained, with a pair of infants in her arms. “Ah,” says Adam.

The golden-haired woman falls gracefully to her knees, and would probably clasp her hands except for the infants. “Are you the master of the castle?” she asks.

“I am,” Adam says.

“My lord, I beg sanctuary, for myself and my children,” the woman entreats.

“Oh, get up,” Adam says gruffly. “Come and sit down, and I’ll see if we have any goats’ milk for the children, and you can tell me your tale.”

Briar tells him of the curse that sent her into an enchanted sleep - what is it with enchanted sleeps? - and of waking, alone in a ruined tower, with an infant suckling at each breast. She doesn’t know what happened between closing her eyes and opening them, but the bloodstains on her dress, and of course the children, suggest a great deal.

“Ah,” says Adam, thinking that for all his beastly appearance, he is a great deal more human than many other men apparently are. “Of course you and your children may have sanctuary here. And I think you’ll have a lot to talk about with Snow.”

He gets used to holding infants, which is terrifying because they are so small and squishy, and to having his mane pulled by tiny hands, and to walking the halls in endless loops to lull the screaming little things to sleep. For a little while, he thinks Briar might be the woman meant to end his curse, but Briar has absolutely no interest in men or man-shaped things, and really Adam can’t blame her even a little.

Briar has been there a few months when there’s a knock on the door, and Adam, who is beginning to see a pattern, goes down to find a young woman with black eyes like Snow’s and broad shoulders and callused hands, who does not kneel but meets his eyes squarely.

“I am the master of the castle,” Adam says. “What brings you here?”

“I beg sanctuary,” the young woman says, which is frankly unsurprising at this point, and tells Adam of the bear which came to the cottage she shared with her sister, and became their dearest friend, and turned out in time to be a prince tall and handsome - who could only marry one of the sisters. “So he proposed to make me his mistress,” Rose says bitterly, “as I am the less beautiful of us; and my sister is so besotted as to think this a fine arrangement indeed. But I could not bear to be hidden away like a secret, and scorned if I were discovered, and so I have come away.”

“Be welcome here,” Adam says, and Rose moves in like she’s always been there, though she’s a little wary around Snow, who apparently shares a name and a great deal of appearance with Rose’s sister. Rose likes to be outside, working on the castle grounds, and in a scant few weeks Adam has to admit the vegetable gardens and orchards have never looked better.

Over the course of the next few years, as Briar’s children grow from infants into plump and happy children, Adam’s castle gains many new residents: Ola, whose father wanted to sell her to a bear. Ella and her stepsister, who fell in love and had to flee their mother’s abuse. Ani and her talking horse’s head, Falada - that one gives Adam nightmares, mostly because the horse is dead and the head still talks. Marie, whose late husband made a habit of marrying young women, waiting until their curiosity got the better of them and they peeked into his secret workroom, and then messily dismembering them. Rapunzel, who has been kept in a tower all her life, and ends up having to live in one of Adam’s castle’s towers, because she doesn’t quite know how to deal with the world when it’s not seventy feet below her. Griselda and her infant daughter, who Griselda’s husband was going to kill in order to test her devotion to him. Rosalinda, who was imprisoned in a tower by a king who wanted a mistress and didn’t care if she wanted the job, and who escaped only just before the queen’s executioners arrived to remove the queen’s rival. It seems like every few months Adam finds himself listening to the story of yet another beautiful, miserable young woman, and goodness knows the castle is big enough for all of them, so…

It’s rather nice to have it full of people, really. And it is much harder for Adam to feel bad about his curse when he has heard Lissar’s story of being made to marry her own father, or Marlene and her bird-brother’s tale of filicide and inadvertent cannibalism, or Maleen’s sad explanation that her father walled her up in a windowless dungeon for the crime of being in love with the wrong prince.

At that point it seems downright churlish for Adam to get stroppy about just being a Beast. It could be so much worse! He would like to find a woman to break the spell, of course he would, but mostly because it seems dreadfully unfair for his entire household to be animated furniture. For himself - well, it would be nice to have hands again. Claws are dreadfully clumsy sometimes.

It has been seven years since he was cursed, and Briar’s children are old enough to wreak some proper havoc, with Griselda’s little Anna usually right behind them, when there’s yet another knock on the door. Adam goes to open it, and finds himself looking down at a stunningly lovely young woman with wide brown eyes and untidy brown hair, who glares up at him and demands, “Are you the master of the castle?”

“I am,” Adam says slowly.

Where is my father?” the girl says. Adam blinks, and then remembers that a week ago, in the snowstorm -

“The inventor?” he asks, and the girl nods. “Oh, he’s down in the dungeons -”

The girl’s eyes go wide with fury. “He’s what?”

“ - with the dwarves, inventing something,” Adam finishes awkwardly. The girl blinks, startled, and some of the tension goes out of her shoulders. “Would you like to come in?”

“Ah,” says the girl. “If I do, will I be trapped like the other women?”

“Trapped?” Adam asks, baffled, and the girl frowns.

“The village - the people all say the monster in the castle collects beautiful women, and keeps them captive,” she says.

“Oh,” Adam says. “That’s...not quite what’s going on, I’m afraid. Come in and be welcome, and I promise you won’t be trapped.”

The girl steps in warily, following Adam down towards the kitchens - Snow is probably best suited to explaining this particular misunderstanding - and they’re halfway there when Thorn and Petal come careening down the hallway and leap into Adam’s arms. He catches them, of course; he’s gotten good at that since they started pulling this particular stunt.

The girl is gaping. Adam shrugs a little. “These are Briar’s children, Thorn and Petal,” he explains. “Say hello to the inventor’s daughter, children.”

“My name is Belle,” the girl says weakly.

“Hullo, Belle!” Thorn chirps, and Petal leans forward to pat at Belle’s hair and grins.

“Run along, children, I suspect Rose is looking for you,” Adam says, putting them down, and Belle stares after them as they scamper away.

“Women come here for sanctuary,” Adam explains gently. “Apparently, I’m less a beast than many more human-seeming in the outside world.”

Belle grimaces a little. “That...makes sense,” she says slowly, clearly thinking of some incident or other, and follows him the rest of the way to the kitchen in thoughtful silence. Snow and the housekeeper are arguing amiably about soup, and Belle pauses in the doorway, gaping, at the sight of a talking teapot. Also a talking stove.

“Hullo, new girl!” Snow says, turning away from the pot of soup she’s stirring and smiling in welcome. “Come and sit down and have some tea!”

Belle does, still looking discombobulated, and Adam takes his specially-made teacup off the shelf - it’s much larger than any of the others, and has handles suited to his claws, and he thanks the dwarves for it regularly - and sips tea while Snow explains how the castle has turned into a sanctuary.

“But,” Belle says, “the Beast?”

“Adam’s a sweetheart really,” Snow says, and Adam puts a clawed paw over his face and wishes he could blush. “We kind of...invaded, really, but he’s been very good about letting us stay.”

“This is your home, so long as you want it,” Adam rumbles.

“See, like that,” Snow says, patting his arm. “And he’s awful good with the kids.”

“I noticed,” Belle says thoughtfully.

“So what’s your story?” Snow asks. Belle blinks and shrugs.

“Actually, I came looking for my father. He was supposed to be back three days ago. Ah - Adam said he was down with the dwarves, I think.”

Snow looks briefly taken aback. “Oh, the inventor? Yes, he’s been down there for days. I keep hearing little explosions.”

Belle sighs and covers her face with her hands. “Yes, that’s my father, then.”

“How concerned should I be for the structural integrity of my castle?” Adam asks warily.

“The dwarves will keep him from damaging anything important,” Snow assures him. “So will you be staying with us, then, Belle? There’s still a good handful of spare bedrooms - Griselda and I can have one made up in no time.”

“If it’s...if it’s alright with Adam,” Belle says slowly. “It sounds like my father is happy here, and to tell the truth neither of us really enjoys living in the village. I can - I can help out?”

“Hm,” Snow says, tapping a finger on her lips. “We’ve got the cooking and cleaning pretty much under control, between me and Griselda and the enchanted servants; Rose and Ani have the gardens and the animals pretty well in hand...well, we’ll find something, I’m sure.”

“I can show you around, if you like,” Adam offers. “While Snow and Griselda figure out which room to put you in.”

“Thank you,” Belle says slowly, smiling up at him. “That would be very nice.”

Adam offers her his arm almost absently - he’s gotten used to doing so with his collection of princesses, after all - and only realizes that that might have been a bad idea when Belle visibly hesitates. But then she takes a deep breath, nods to herself, and takes his arm, so Adam shrugs mentally and leads off, gesturing to the dining room as they pass, the great ballroom - several of the princesses like to dance, and most of them can play instruments; Adam finds himself drafted as a partner more often than not - and various receiving rooms and such. They’re most of the way through the public areas of the castle when they finally reach the library, and Belle stops dead in the doorway with a look of awe and hunger in her eyes.

“I’ve never seen so many books in all my life!” she breathes.

“Well, it’s currently a bit of a mess,” Adam says. “Would you like to take over keeping it organized?”

Could I?” Belle says, delighted. “Oh, thank you!”

Adam shrugs. “You’re welcome.”

Belle settles in surprisingly easily among the princesses - they’re not all technically royal, but it’s the easiest collective term - and Adam, somewhat to his own astonishment, finds himself dropping by the library almost every day, helping Belle shift the books around so their placement makes more sense, or listening to her read aloud from a particularly entertaining passage, or even lifting her up so she can read the titles on some of the books above the level of the ladders. Belle is very good company, cheerful and friendly and intelligent, and Adam finds himself making more and more excuses to spend time with her. Somewhat to his surprise, she seems equally happy to spend time with him, and even comes to seek him out on the days he doesn’t make it to the library.

He’s not sure when she got assigned the seat next to him at the dinner table, but she’s there every night; he’s also not sure when she got assigned the bedroom nearest his, but it becomes routine for them to wander back to their shared corridor after dinner, laughing together over some shared joke or other.

Belle and her father have been in the castle for three months on the night she turns to him, as they reach the door to her room, and says, “Adam,” in a tone he’s never quite heard from her before.

“Yes, Belle?” he says, looking down at her curiously.

She reaches up to stroke her fingers through the fur on his cheek, a thoughtful look on her lovely face. “Adam,” she says quietly, “what is your curse?”

“To live as a Beast until some maiden should love me, and I her,” Adam says softly.

“All the maidens here love you,” Belle points out. “And you them, I know.”

“They are my sisters,” Adam says, “and I adore them. But it is not quite the same thing, you know.”

“And me?” Belle asks slowly. “Am I your sister as well?”

Adam swallows hard. “If you wish it,” he says carefully.

“And if I do not wish to be your sister?” Belle presses.

“Do you wish to leave?” Adam asks, a lump rising in his throat. “You know you are not my prisoner, Belle.”

“Oh, I am doing this entirely wrong,” Belle says, and goes up on her toes, and presses her lips to Adam’s. Adam’s jaw drops. “I love you, Adam.”

“I -” Adam says, so delighted he can barely speak. “Of course I love you, Belle.”

And then there is a moment in which it feels as though the entire world has been picked up and turned on end several times, and when the world stops spinning, Adam finds himself looking down at Belle from a much shorter vantage than he has grown used to. Faintly, he can hear cheering rising from the downstairs halls. He looks down at his hand in hers, and yes - yes - it is a hand, a human hand.

“So that’s what you look like without the curse,” Belle says thoughtfully. “Well, you’ll be easier to kiss without the fangs.”

Adam laughs, and bends to kiss her, surrounded by the rising sounds of joy.