As the last petal of the rose fell to the ground, the beast was revealed to a prince, the man she was destined to love forever.
— Rose and Monsters
The town of Fires Down Below was an mining town that had risen in the glory of fueling the fires of war before the embers were allowed to darken with peace. A century later, the bonfire had been ignited once again in a desperate rush to mine iron deposits needed for the coming battles of magic and machine.
Beauty couldn’t miss signs of the town’s resurrection as they rode in from the south. Weathered signs almost bleached out by sun and wind had fresh paint splashed over the faded symbols of old. The new life, however, didn’t come with the graceful elegance of the old age. Letters were sloppily forms over neat print and former painted images had been replaced by crude symbols.
There was a sense of fatalism in the air, born by the knowledge that the town would snuff out months after the war ended. Everyone know it and they treated the rising town as a temporary inconvenience in the quest for dominance.
She didn’t have a good feeling for the town, but it was on the route her prince and she had planned out earlier during the season. Going through Fires Down Below would take them across the mountain pass and back into Gepaul for a month-long journey back to the palace and home.
Next to her, her prince sighed. “I miss my bed,” he said in the warm voice of a cultured man who had been born to riches and luxury.
Beauty smiled at him. He always brought a joy to her heart, but it was tempered by a longing for his old voice, the snarls and growls that beat against the walls and caused her chest to tremble. “Only a few more months, my love.”
A coil of Daman’s hair blew across his face. He tilted his head to the side and it slid off, billowing behind him. He chuckled and went through the motion of pushing it away. Despite four days of camping and cold rain, his shirt and trousers remained pristine as if they had been freshly washed. Only one button had gotten lost to reveal his muscular but hairless chest.
Beauty admired her prince. He was exactly what she dreamed for as a young woman, the perfect man for the youngest daughter of an old merchant. “At least you get the enjoy the finest inn this town has to offer.”
A faint darkness crossed his perfect blue eyes and then he shook his head with amusement. “Oh, yeah, how can I not enjoy the Royal Palace? That makes it what… nine on this trip?”
She smiled. “Ten, remember the one is Glaston?”
“That was the Royal Rider’s Palace, an entirely different thing. That place was decorated with the ass end of a royal horse heading out to be turned into glue.” His smile brought a flutter to her chest. There was a hint of the creature’s wry grin in his expression.
“I hope it smelled better.”
He crinkled his nose. “No. These small towns have a poor idea of what is royal.”
“Oh?” she asked wryly. “Thinking about getting rid of the castle and becoming an innkeeper?”
Daman leaned back and gestured to his body. “Looking like this? I would make a fortune. But I’d rather be back home with you.”
Beauty reached out and held his hand. “I know, my love.”
They both returned to ride their horses with their memories to keep them company. Soon, they reached the front gate and Daman took a slight lead as he guided their horses toward the opening.
A pair of guards stopped them, hands held up high and spears at the ready. “To the side!”
Beauty and Daman obeyed, they were in a foreign country and he had no sway over them. Gracefully, they backed their horses to the side just as a wagon rolled through the gate.
It was a massively-built monstrosity dragged by six drought horses that steadily pulled it forward. Large wheels pulverized rocks underneath as it rolled past them. A heavy canvas fluttered to the side revealing iron bars imprinted with the town’s seal. A ton and half of metal to be shipped out for the Tarsan war machines.
One of the guards looked at Daman and Beauty sharply. His eyes dropped to focus on the hilt of Beauty’s sword sticking out of her pack.
“It’s peace-bonded,” she said quietly. She already knew it would take her less than four seconds to make it deadly but he didn’t need to know that.
He grunted and stepped forward.
She moved against Daman and pressed her back to his chest.
Daman slipped his arm around her and pulled her tight. He bowed his head to rest it against her. His lips kissed her ear and she let out a happy sigh. He kissed her again then whispered to her, “I miss have you in my bed too, even like this.”
Her smiled faltered.
The guard inspected the weapon, testing it a few times, before shrugging. He glanced at Daman’s sword but didn’t bother checking it for safety. With a disinterest voice, he said, “Head on in.”
“Thank you, good sir,” Daman said smoothly in a voice that caused the guard’s chest to puff up with pride. Together, Beauty and her prince headed inside the gate with their horses following behind.
Inside, the view from the road didn’t make Fires Down Below look any prettier. Graffiti and grime fought for attention and obscured the old buildings that had managed to survive for decades. A fresh slap of paint didn’t hide the gilded edges and elegance from the prior years. Beauty saw a lot of half-done repairs, rope and patches.
Daman stopped and held out his hands. “This is where we go our separate ways.”
Beauty handed the reins of her horse before pulling off her back and sword. Setting the bag between her legs, she strapped her weapon around her waist. Once secured, she plucked out six knifes from the saddle to return them to sheaths inside her sleeves and boots. A leather strap with an attached hook went around her waist, tucked underneath the sheath with the hook nestled against the small of her back.
As she transferred her weapons, he spoke. “You’re staying at the Letterset Inn, it’s along that wall about five streets and then in between the two printing companies. Two blocks according to the maps. It’s a good place and my contacts said it is out of the way with quality almost as equal to my room.”
It only took her a few seconds before she was affixing the small knife in her auburn hair and make sure it was secured before letting her curls spill out over her shoulders.
He watched her with a smile.
Catching his gaze with her hands up in her hair, she favored him with a smile. “Like what you see?”
“Always. Always and forever, until the next life.” His smile faltered slightly. “Soon. We’ll get me back to the creature I was and then we’ll go home for our happily ever after.”
Soon. That was the word that had kept them traveling for three summers. Three years of searching for some way to bring back the man he used to be, the beast she had fallen in love with, and the body that he missed with all his heart.
Beauty stepped up and pressed her body against him, stealing a quick hug before too many people noticed she had arrived with him.
Her prince wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. “Be safe, my love.”
“Get cursed and turned into a horrible beast again, my prince.” She looked up in his eyes. “Come back to me as the man we both loved.”
They kissed briefly before parting ways.
Beauty pulled the hood of her riding cloak over her head and leaned against the wall.
Daman strode further into town, leading the two horses. A ripple of power rose around him as he called out. “Where is the finest place a proper prince could eat!?” he bellowed.
Around Beauty, strangers looked up as they were drawn toward him. She had seen it a hundred times before, the perks of interest and curiosity that caused a crowd to gather around him.
She waited until she had a clear path and then crossed past the gate before heading along the stone wall.