Of Beast and Beauty Online - Stacey Jay
THE city is beautiful tonight. I can tell by the smells drifting through
Needle’s open window—the last of the autumn flowers clinging to their
stalks, their perfume crisper and cleaner than the summer blossoms that
came before; fruit sweet and heavy on the trees; and above it all, the heady
fragrance of the roses blooming in the royal garden.
I will be out among it all soon. The tower holds me by day, but by
night I am a wanderer, a good fellow of the moons. The yellow moon, the
blue moon, even the red moon, with its beams that cut angrily through the
dome when the Monstrous light their funeral fires in the desert. I call the
moons by secret names; they call me Isra. I am not their princess, or their
mistress, or their daughter, or their prisoner. I am Isra of the wild hair and
quick feet clever in the darkness. I am Isra of the shadows, my secret made
meaningless by moonlight.
I am ready to see my moons, to see anything.
It’s been four endless nights since I visited the roses.
The Monstrous draw closer to Yuan than ever before. There are city
soldiers everywhere, prowling the wall walks, fortifying the gates, testing
for weaknesses in the dome, padding the trails from the city center to the
flower gardens to the orchards to the fields, and back again, in their soft
They would never survive in the desert outside. Their boots are
glorified house slippers, their feet soft and vulnerable beneath. I’m certain I
have more calluses on my feet than any of Baba’s soldiers, rough spots on
my toes and heels that catch and hold on stone.
I can practically feel the stone of the balcony’s ledge digging into my
skin now, grounding me as I hover in the hungry air at the edge of the
My toes itch. My tongue taps behind my teeth. My skin sweats
beneath my heavy blanket. Just a few more minutes. Surely Needle will put
out her light soon. My maid insists it’s impossible to smell wax melting from
across the room, but I can smell it, and it keeps me awake, even when I’m
not biding my time, waiting for the chance to escape.
An untended flame is dangerous, and this tower has burned before.
I dream about that fire almost every night—flames blooming like a
terrible flower, devouring the curtains and the bed, licking at my
nightgown. Baba’s strong hands throwing me to the ground, and my head
striking the stones before the world goes black. And finally, the door
splintering and my mother’s cry as she hurls herself from the tower
That night is my clearest memory from the time before. One of my
only memories. I don’t remember my mother’s face or the color of Baba’s
eyes. I don’t remember romps in the garden or holiday dinners at court,
though Baba swears we had them. I don’t even remember the sight of my
own face. My mother forbade mirrors in the tower, and after her death, I
had no need of them. My eyes never recovered from the night Baba saved
me from the flames. For a day or two, the healers thought they might—I
saw flashes of light and color in the darkness—but within a week it was
obvious my sight was gone forever. I’ve been blind since I was four years
old, the year my mama joined the long line of dead queens.
“Terribly unfair,” I’ve heard people whisper when they don’t realize
the figure in the garden with the cloak pulled over her head isn’t another
noble out for a walk, “that the princess should lose her mama and her eyes
all at once.”
I want to tell them my eyes are not lost. See? Here they are. Still in
my head. But I don’t say a word. I can’t reveal myself. No one knows what
the princess of Yuan looks like these days. I haven’t been knowingly allowed
out of the tower since my tenth birthday. If the Monstrous breach the
walls, Father is certain I’ll be safe here until the mutants are destroyed.
There is only one door leading into the tower, and Baba and his chief
advisor, Junjie, are the only ones who know where the key is hidden.
They have no idea that I don’t need a key. Or a door.
I only need my sentry to put out her light and go to sleep!
I muffle a frustrated sigh with my fist. She’s probably sewing in bed
again. Needle has sewn me a dress each month for the past year. This one
is green, she told me.
Lovely, I said, and rolled my eyes. As if I need another dress. I’m
drowning in dresses. I’ve begged her to stop—or at least make something
for herself—but she won’t listen. One would think