It was the autumn of my twenty-first year when she came to live with me, my love and tormentor, my beauty. The peasants rejoice now at her triumph, ignorant of the misery she caused. I know the truth, through it has cost me dear. I see her for the evil thing that she is, yet love her still.
It is easy to look back and curse her faithlessness, thinking if I could reverse the sands of time, things would be different. I would have taken what she so boldly offered, then banished her from my sight. But time makes heroes of us all and I think myself so much more deserving than I was.
My parents, the king and queen, were at their largest estate, leaving their son, pathetic cripple that I am, at a country chateau, in the care of a few servants.
The servants were chosen for their loyalty and discretion, for while my absent parents insisted they loved me, the security of our kingdom demanded that my condition remain secret. I had no choice but to live in seclusion.
They brought her from a poor house, though I don’t know the details of that transaction. She was about fifteen years old with shining auburn hair and cruel, laughing eyes. I fell in love instantly though it was many weeks before I allowed myself to be seen by her.
She was my obsession. Daily I would watch her scrubbing floors and washing windows. I became amused listening to her low, impolite curses as the senior staff ordered her about. Once I snipped a lock of hair while she slept, imagining binding her to me. Of course such nonsense did not work, but it was glorious to have a piece of her. I have it still, curse my weak heart.
That night as I hovered over her pallet with my sharp scissors I knew suddenly that I could take this girl as was my princely right. Almost my hand lowered to stroke that perfect skin, but I hesitated, fearing her horror as her eyes focused on my misshapen face. I fled to my chambers with the pilfered hair and consoled myself in the way of lonely boys, all the while thinking of her.
It was two months after she arrived that I decided to reveal myself. Fall had given way to winter, forcing her to remain almost constantly indoors. I trailed behind her silently as a ghost for days. In my fervor I believed each gesture, each murmur and sigh, was a gift for me alone, a voyeur’s prize.
She was dusting the library one day in midwinter and I, as usual trailed behind, thinking her more fascinating than the moldy tombs. She was murmuring to herself about the uselessness of a library. Obviously she could not read and bemoaned the hours spent cleaning it. I thought her ignorance charming.
She invaded my sanctuary with her scent and touch. I knew that even if she never opened a single tome, the place would be forever branded with her presence. Here in my most sacred retreat, I must do something to end this torment.
My hump quivered in anticipation and fear as I took my first tentative step from the shadows. I moved so quietly she did not notice me at first, so absorbed was she in her task. When she finally looked up the blood rushed from her face. Her lovely eyes grew bright and the feather duster, which she had wielded as gracefully as a fairy wand, tumbled through lifeless fingers.
“Oh my,” she breathed. And that was all that was said for a long while. My tongue was thick and dry in my mouth, my body refused to move. How glorious it was to finally be seen! Glorious and terrifying.
“Are you… are you the prince?” she asked hesitantly. I nodded, still unable to speak, but elated that she knew me. I thought there might be something regal in my bearing that caused her to recognize me. I did not know then of the vicious rumors circulating or realize any would know me from the fineness of my clothes. On that day I thought her the cleverest girl in the world.
My greedy eyes drank in the sight of her watching me without fear, though with an assessing gleam. Was it obvious then that I was besotted with her? Probably, though I was powerless to change. She quickly excused herself from my presence, though inwardly I rejoiced. She had not screamed or cried at the sight of me, nor called me a beast.
My vigil consumed me in the weeks that followed. I watched her until I thought my heart would surely burst. A game was being played between us, for she must have sensed my presence after that. By the end of winter I felt I knew her as intimately as my own soul. She would talk to herself when there was no one but I around and soon I knew her likes and dislikes, her dreams and fears. I knew the precise temperature at which her small nipples would appear and her charming way of thrusting one slender leg from under the covers while she slept.
She began to dress with an artful carelessness, driving me mad with her hair which seemed to beg for my touch, and bosom which would heave and sigh in its too tight bodice, for no reason at all. Once she lifted her skirts to adjust her coarse woolen stockings and I nearly fainted. Her prize for that display was a single red rose, the last of my mother’s garden, left upon her pillow.
Despite my observations I still felt that I did not, perhaps could not fully possess this girl. That pilfered lock of hair was all I held, but that was not her. The silken strands did not contain the essence of my Belle.
The other servants knew of my infatuation, but I would not abide their interference, not even my dear nanny, faithful servant and surrogate mother since my birth. She looked on with sadness, but I would not heed her.
“That girl is a flighty temptress,” my nanny said to me after once catching me crouched behind the stairs, watching Belle pause in her work, sigh and gently massage her neck. The sleeve of her dress had fallen down, revealing a shocking expanse of creamy shoulder to my hungry gaze.
Nanny would have dismissed the girl right then. Belle’s slight, mocking smile unnerved the old maid, but I could not let my love go. I attributed Nanny’s reaction to jealously. I was the prince after all, the undisputed ruler of my domain and for the last twenty-one years, she had been my world. Naturally Nanny would protest to another taking her place.
One evening a celebration was planned by the local peasantry. It was a dance to celebrate the coming of spring and a masque as well. I was thrilled by the prospect. For one glorious night I could walk among my people without shame or fear. I would drink and dance and laugh with the beautiful Belle by my side.
I heard her say to one of the serving maids that she desired more than anything to be a peacock. I immediately set about making her dream come true. The disapproving Nanny was dispatched to procure a dress made of blue and gold –the same colors as my crest, I thought happily. I forced myself not to watch her dress through the chink in her wardrobe I had fashioned and instead waited in breathless anticipation for her to appear.
I stood for once proudly at the base of the main stairs dressed impeccably as Apollo, my misshapen face hidden behind a golden mask and hump concealed by a shiny breastplate of Grecian design and cloak. Though we had not communicated since our brief meeting in the library aside from clandestine gestures, she boldly approached me now as if I had had the courage to ask to escort her to the dance. I held out my arm and she took it. I trembled beneath the firm grip of her work-roughened fingers.
At the dance there were whispers as we entered arm in arm, but I paid them no mind. I felt as bold as a god with my beautiful love beside me. I felt powerful and loved.
“Tell me,” she asked during a country reel. “Are you a changeling?”
I forced a laugh at the question, all too familiar with the superstition. “Perchance,” I answered. “There could be another, healthier, whole version of myself, switched at birth by nasty sprites.”
“Or perhaps you are under a wicked spell,” she surmised, emboldened by my teasing. “Your true self will be revealed by a kiss of love.”
I was so astonished by her words I lost track of the music and stood there staring at her as if her lips were made of ambrosia. I could have kissed her then before the gathered populace, indeed I would have done much more. But she danced away from me. She laughed mischievously at my reaction and I had no choice but to follow.
If I were wiser I would not have displayed my lust so openly. I would not have allowed her to toy with my affections. Or, better yet, if I were a wiser man, I would have heeded the covetous looks of the man by the fire.
He was tall like my father with the same coloring and hair underneath his sparrow mask. I thought contemptuously that he must be one of my father’s bastards and ignored him. Fool that I am, I did not recognize the burning jealousy in his eyes as he looked upon me. I did not see the lust behind his mask as he gazed at my love.
I left her for a moment to fetch some punch. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the bastard move to approach her and my heart froze in alarm. Did he not know she was mine? How could that villain dare approach my love? When I made my way back to her bench they were both gone, retreating into the dark woods beyond.
Inwardly I seethed. I fumed and raged and howled silently behind my mask. I cried there among the peasantry and was thankful they could not see.
It was then that I became aware of the whispers that had been floating about me all night, the cruel looks and sighs.
“I heard he captured her,” someone whispered loud enough for me to hear.
“She calls herself the daughter of a wealthy merchant who has fallen upon hard times, the poor dear.”
“What kind of man would sell his daughter to save himself?”
“What kind of a beast would accept?”
I fled from the dance, not willing to hear more. Though my face was covered in its beautiful golden mask of Apollo, my people saw naught but the beast within me. Even Belle, my beauty, ran from me into the arms of another.
I took back my mother’s rose, finding it wilted and tossed into the rubbish heap, my precious lock of hair, and shut myself in my rooms.
For three days I have lain here with no fire to warm me. I have only my tears to drink and feel naught but the festering wound in my heart. My beauty has left me for another, the son my mother should have birthed. I tell myself that if I had known of the danger I would have banished my bastard brother from my sight. I would never have given my beauty that dress and instead locked her up as the prisoner she proclaims herself to be. But in my heart I know I am lying. I love her more than air, more than my wretched self. If she would but come back to me all would be forgiven.
Belle is my misery, my hunger. I watch her in the tiny magic mirror given to me by my mother. If I could not be a part of the world, she reasoned on that long ago birthday, at least I could witness it. But now the sight of Belle and my bastard brother frolicking in the woods like lusty sprites is an agony I cannot bear. Does she look upon his beauty and wish I were he were I?
For three days I watch them, I cannot tear my gaze away. I know I will die if Belle does not come back to me. They whisper together, making plans I cannot hear, but I am fearful of the hard glint in my brother’s eye and Belle’s calculating smile.
On the sunset of the third day I see her tiny feet approaching the chateau still wearing the lovely dress from the dance. She enters and makes her way towards my chambers. Below I can hear muffled shouts followed by running feet and screams. I ignore that, concentrating on my love’s slow progress.
I can feel each footstep; each beat of her heart as if she were a part of me. Her heart is beating strangely fast, but it is with anticipation, not fear. She is smiling and I smile with her, though I am afraid.
She slowly opens the door and my eyes drink in the sight of her. She is beautiful, but there is a cruel sneer on her lips. My bastard brother stands beside her, a bloody sword in his hand. He looks at me, his kin and ruler, with distain.
Slowly Belle approaches. She leans down and removes the golden mask still on my face. For a moment, she tenderly caresses my cheek, but her eyes are pitiless. She looks at me like a cat gazing at a mouse.
Rising, she takes the mask and places it upon my brother’s face as if crowning him. “Long live the prince,” she declares.
It is strange watching my executioner step forward. He is calm and practiced, strong and brave as I have so often longed to be. Perhaps I am a changeling and this is the true prince come to take his rightful place. Even my parents would not object to the switch.
The sword descends quickly, impaling me through the heart into my luxurious bed. My blood mixes with that of my faithful servants staining the blade. I wonder in the moments before I die if the peasants will soon be telling another tale and praising the beauty that broke the spell upon the beast.
Lauren Marrero currently lives in Walnut Creek, California.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I love to meet new people and imagine how they would act in an adventure.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
Writing is therapy for me. It gives me such a feeling of accomplishment to finish something I can be proud of.
What do you think is the most important part of a fantasy story?
Keep it interesting. Every moment should capture the reader's attention. If one scene isn't enthralling to write, it will probably be boring to read too.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
I love the endless possibilities of fantasy. There are no limits.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
WRITE... but make sure to take a close look at your budget before quitting your day job. :)