Of Beast and Beauty Online - Stacey Jay

ONE

ISRA

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

boots.

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

world.…

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

balcony.

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