Don’t go past the anteroom, he warned me, claws worrying his tattered shirt. You cannot trust anything that comes out of his mouth. Promise me, Lysette, promise you’ll remember it’s not me.
I remember my vow as I lay a shaky hand on the door’s handle. The guard is in the nook, in place of one of the armors. He nods to me in encouragement, but I know he is wary. He knows what is inside that room, and, like his master, he does not want me to see it.
But I must.
I worry, but not enough to turn back. I have seen this man, my Beast, in the midst of a rage, terrible fangs flashing as he roared to the skies. I have seen his vicious strength as he brought down wild animals in defense of me. I can look upon his monstrous visage now and see the gentle soul that dwells inside.
If I can do that, I need to do this, too.
I wish you would reconsider.
I didn’t. I cannot.
I have already accepted everything else about my Beast. Though his claws frightened me at first, they have never harmed me, nor have his fangs. Though he is giant, in height and strength, he takes such care when he moves that I no longer worry walking beside him. I have come to love everything he thought would scare me away.
Why should this be any different?
“My lady?” the guard says and I realize I haven’t moved.
“I am all right,” I tell him. He is here to keep me safe, and I can see by the look in his eyes that he is prepared to do his duty. He has orders to put my life above his master’s and, though it will pain him, he will do what he must if it should come to that.
It worries me far more than the monster waiting beyond this closed door.
I do not let it show.
The handle is rusty and sticks as I unlatch the door. It is heavy, but I manage to push it open enough to pass through. I should close it behind me, I know, but cannot seem to bring myself to do it; the anteroom is fully dark and I crave the light of the hallway to guide me.
I hear breathing farther in the chamber, by the window. My heart throbs and I am unsteady in the pitch black room. I pick my way carefully, move slowly, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
I can see faint shadows of forms now. The windows I walk toward are giant, but covered with drapes. Even so I can make out the full moon’s glow.
A rustle of movement makes me hesitate.
Chains rattle, and I know. I know he senses me near. My palms are moist. I clutch my skirts tight and make myself move forward.
A sharp inhale. “Ah,” he breathes. “Company.” I scarcely recognize the voice.
The chains tumble to the floor and I hear him moving, dragging them behind, to one side of the room. The spark he makes to light a candle cracks like lightning in the room and makes me flinch. One candle lights another, and another, and still another, until the entire room is aglow. I am at the edge of the anteroom now. This is as far as I am to go.
His back is to me, a ragged shirt hanging on a frame that looks deceptively sparse in it. But where the neck gapes to his shoulder I can see muscle. The massive manacles encircling his wrists and ankles were each too heavy for me to lift when my Beast showed them to me yesterday. But this creature is not hindered by them in the least. Indeed, he adjusts them as I would a delicate bracelet.
My mouth is dry, I am far more nervous than I expected to be.
He stoops to the fireplace, flicks his arm sideways to move the heavy chains out of his way so he can light a fire. “So you finally got the courage,” he says.
“Y-you know who I am?”
He chuckles, more of a scoff. “Oh, I know.” He turns and I see his profile, backlit by the fire. He has long wooden stick in his hand to tend the fire; there are no iron pokers in this room. Nothing he could use to free himself. “You think I don’t hear your sniveling voice every month? You think I don’t smell that disgusting sewer water you call perfume all over my home?” He shoves to his feet and I flinch.
Worse, he notices. Though I cannot see his face clearly, I … sense his amusement.
“I hear the servants talk about you like some goddamned salvation. They all think you’re a saint come to do battle with the Devil himself. Well?” He snaps the chains like a silken train and comes around the massive bed, into the light. “What do you think of him?”
Dark golden strands of hair fall over the face of a fallen angel. Strong jaw, proud nose, dark brows and a hard, twisted mouth. But his eyes… They aren’t what I expected to see. They are empty. Cold. Eyes of a true monster.
I promised. And I can see it now. This is not my Beast.
He sneers. “You’re no savior. I know exactly what you are. You’re the bitch that thinks to banish me. From my own house, no less. Harridan,” he accuses, his fury rising with each word. My Beast could never be so cruel. “Trespasser. Interloper. Whore!” No, this is not my Beast.
But this was my Beast.
Before he became cursed.