Curses, one field of the dire magics, are in the domain of hedge magic. They typically require strong emotions to create or break.
— Hasidar Ridlin, On Lesser Magical Techniques
Rain broke out before Beauty could make it to the Letterset Inn. One moment, there was a rumble, and then in the next, it poured out in icy knives that warned her how close they were to winter.
She shivered and drew the cloak tighter. Her backpack tugged on her cloak, making it hard to keep her supplies and her face both dry. After a few seconds, she gave up and let the rain plaster her hair against her face and dripping down her throat.
Beauty turned on Printers Lane. Seeing it empty brought a quiet relief. She didn’t like crowds in new towns, the press of people always left her feeling vulnerable and helpless.
She smiled to herself. She had enough of that in the prince’s palace, back when he demanded her presence in exchange for her father’s life. Little did she know that she would be longing for those days again when Daman growled and snarled through his days, struggling to put on a facade of humanity with a body of a beast.
The Letterset Inn stood between two printers, just like the map said it would. The narrow building rose up like a wedge until it expanded to cover the second floors of both printing shops.
She stepped inside into the entry hall and shook her cloak to free it from most of the rain that beaded on its oiled surface. With a shrug, she removed her pack and held it in her hand before heading out of the short hall and into the inn proper.
An older woman, maybe in her forties, watched with a scowl etched on her face. She had a steaming cup next to her. “Help you?” she asked.
“I made a reservation a week ago, under the name Beauty?”
“That your real name?”
“Yes, youngest daughter of six.” Beauty smiled to herself, it had been a while since she had seen her siblings but she didn’t miss them. Her brothers were no doubt cheering for the upcoming war and her sisters would still be trying to get beautiful dresses and jewelry.
All Beauty wanted from her father was a rose.
The older woman scoffed. “Terrible name. Your parents had high hopes, I take it?”
Beauty ignored the jab and shrugged. “Maybe, but it is still the name my parents gave me.”
The other woman sighed. She pulled open a drawer and pulled out a packet. It was a bank satchel, ordered by Daman a few months ago and sent ahead. It had details about the reservation along with some money for her.
Flipping it open, she pulled out three marked envelopes. Finding the first one, she opened it and peered inside. “What’s the code?”
Beauty smiled. “The candle can sing.”
The innkeeper sighed and shrugged. She pushed the envelope for Beauty over before opening the third one. A thick stack of bills stuck out of the opening. She fluttered through it and then made an appreciative sound.
Beauty tapped the edge of her envelope against the counter. She already knew it had money in it for her. “Deal?”
The woman opened a drawer and pulled out a key. “Yeah, deal. Number one on the second floor. My name is Trus, I run the place during the day. My son, Kas, handles night. If he gives you trouble, just kicked him and tell me. I’ll set him straight. Pid’s my little girl, she does errands and helps clean.”
“Anything else I can help you with?” asked Trus, her tone growing more cheerful with the influx of cash.
Beauty cringed. She hated the next part. Three years of trying and she still didn’t know how to ask up front. “Actually, I have just a few short ones.” When the woman gestured for her to continue, Beauty asked, “Any witches in town? Curses? Um, old ladies that terrify everyone?”
Trus’s face froze.
Beauty kept going. “Maybe fairy rings? Places to avoid?”
The smile started to droop.
She closed her mouth.
“Why kind of questions are those?” Trus asked.
Beauty shook her head and held up her free hand. “No. No, I’m… I’ve had bad experience with being cursed. It isn’t something I want to ever go through that again.”
“Curse or a man claiming it was a curse?”
She thought about Daman and her shoulders sagged. He was supposed to be her happily ever after, not an empty reminder for the both of them. His transformation had left an emptiness in both of their hearts.
“A man,” Trus said with annoyance. “It’s always a man.”
“A lot of both, a man and a curse.”
Trus shook her head. “Don’t worry, you’ll grow out of it. Just don’t keep going back to him. See a man like him? Run away. Never go back to the bastard.”
Beauty smiled to herself. That was the entire reason both of them were there.
“But, if you are avoiding dire magics, you probably want to stay out of the north. There are some valleys up there that are always filled with mist and strange sounds. And mine number six. Those places are definitely cursed. There is also Old Mads down in the laundry district and the Master of Magics among the smiths.”
Trus glanced at the ceiling. “Maybe the guy in the Blue Tower? He’s a mage or something also. The mayor tried to send a round of guards up there to collect taxes but no one ever came back.”
Beauty struggled to hide her hopes. “Sounds terrifying.”
“Yeah, but then they said they didn’t die. They got twisted by magic and are crawling around in the woods around the tower, like some monster.” Trus cringed. “Not safe at all.”
Forcing the smile from her lips, Beauty nodded while memorizing the information. “Thank you.”
“Girls have to keep each other safe, right?” Trus said while slapping her envelope of money against her palm. Then she looked at Beauty. “Hang up your cloak over the heater vent over there. It will dry it out faster than the room.”
Beauty thanked her and shucked off her cloak. Her auburn hair spilled out on her shoulders and she felt the prickle of cooler air dancing along her skin.
Unlike Daman who couldn’t keep his shirt buttoned, she wore a far more appropriate outfit for travel: a heavy, button-down shirt and black trousers.
Trus glanced at her and then did a double take. Her jaw dropped slightly before she looked away sharply with a blush.
Beauty headed over to hang her cloak.
“Your parents were damn lucky, weren’t they?” she muttered just on the edge of Beauty’s hearing.
Beauty smiled to herself.
The door banged open, bringing a rush of wet air and a cheerful young girl. “Mama! Mama! I saw something!”
“What are you doing, Pid!? Close the Couple-damned door before you let the rain in!”
Pid spun around and slammed it shut with both hands. It bounced on the frame, but she shoved it close. It didn’t latch before she turned around and ran to the counter. Her long, dark brown hair stuck to her back, it was wet from the recent rain. “Trus! Mama! There is a prince!”
Beauty froze for a heartbeat.
“A prince?” Trus said with a mocking tone. “Really?”
“Yes! One from Gepaul with lots of money and horses. And he is pretty! With flowing hair and tall boots. All the girls are swooning over him. He kicked Old Mads when crossing a street and she started cursing him out.”
Beauty’s heart beat faster, maybe they wouldn’t have to visit the tower?
The door banged open again with a squall of air.
“Damn the Couple, what happened?” snapped Trus, but her voice was rising up with her interest. She hurried around the counter and shoved the door close until it latched.
“The prince, he went back but then Old Mads dumped her chamber pot on his head. Rightfully bonked him in the skull and everything.”
With her back to the others, Beauty grinned.
Trus groaned. “What then?”
“It just dripped off him. One moment, he’s covered in piss and shit. Then he just smiled and it-it rolled off! His hair wasn’t even wet!” The girl screamed and bounced. “A prince! He’s really a prince!”
Trus knelt down. “Where is he staying?”
“Um, Royal Palace but Baen said he hasn’t checked in. Instead, he’s buying rounds at the Amber River and getting really drunk.”
The girl’s mother sighed. “I… I should see if I can convince him to stay here.” She looked around and then patted Pid’s shoulder. “Go get Mama’s hat. I need to go.”
“Okay!” Pid rushed past the counter and into the back rooms.
Sweating, Trus cleared her throat. “Are you comfortable with going to your room? I… I could use the money if he stays here. Can you believe it?”
Beauty couldn’t tell Trus that her inn was the one place the prince wouldn’t stay. It was part of their roles in trying to get him cursed again. With Beauty traveling with him, there wouldn’t be attempts at marriage nor could he be the ass that had gotten him cursed in the first place.
That was Daman’s role in these towns, to be the rich asshole and hopefully stumble into being cursed again.
Pid rushed back with Trus’s hat.
“Stay here and watch the counter. This lady is staying here. Just let her get some food when she’s hungry, understand?”
With the fierce determination of a small business owner, Trus smashed the hat onto her head and plunged into the rain outside.
Beauty finished hanging her cloak and returned to her bag.
“You know how to use that sword?” asked Pid, her eyes wide as she sat on the edge of the counter. Her legs swung back and forth.
“But you’re really pretty.”
Beauty smiled. “Yes, but sometimes being pretty doesn’t really help me.”
The young girl stared with wide eyes. “Like when?”
“Oh, once I had to fight off a demon horse that was chasing us. I took my sword and I tried to stab it, but it kept turning into mist.”
Pid gasped. “What happened?”
“A friend of mine is immune to most evil magic now, so he dove into the horse’s lake and found an old metal shoe that kept it there. We melted it and then the horse went away.”
That was the biggest fear in Daman’s and her hopes, how could he be cursed into becoming a beast again. More than a few mages had told them that his original curse was so powerful that it would override any other curse magic that took place. But, it would take powerful magic to get through Daman’s defenses; finding true love shielded both of them from most dire spells.
“W-Wow.” Then a brief pause. “I thought pretty girls get the horses with horns? That’s what Mama says.”
Beauty smiled and reached up to gently stroke the bridge of the young girl’s nose. “Pretty girls like you always get the unicorns. Lovely unicorns with little flowers on their flanks that call you best friends.”
“Yes, I promise.”