Jems are the official currency of Tarsan. Each strip of paper, five inches by two, is embedded with metal, colored like the rainbow, and has a portraits of the head of a Great Family. The common denominations are 1, 5, 25, and 50 though the highest, 1000j, is rarely seen outside of banking.
— Timons da Kasim, Wedding Bands to Chips to Paper: Tarsan’s Physical Wealth
Happy that she found a place that made spiced rolls, Beauty leaned against the corner of a building and watched the town strolling past her. It was mid-day and almost everyone in town would be working in the mines or out doing chores and shopping. They moved with a grace, like dancing, as women and children crossed the street gathering up their supplies. The swirl of day dresses and whispers of gossip were only occasionally interrupted by the passing of a horse rider.
To her surprise, the town had a pair of mechanical hounds owned by one of the town’s rich. She watched as they thudded down the street, belting out steam as they paced after her while carrying heavy loads of dress boxes and crates from the local grocer. The woman leading them strolled ahead of them, chin up high without looking around.
Beauty was surprised to see the hounds. The only people who shaped their mechanical devices after animals were the desert clans. Less than a year ago, some terrible battle had triggered an exodus from the sands. Now, it was rumors that the clans were invading toward the coast that had triggered the fears of invasion.
She looked around at the smoke rising up from the east of the town, on the lower side where the black smoke rose up in a wall of dark and shadows. It left soot on everything, but the upper echelons of the city were for the rich such as the woman passing her.
“Do you see that?” whispered a passing woman to another. “How long before we realize she is paying for those people to invade.”
“Such brutal devices, they ought to be illegal again.”
Beauty shook her head while she finished her roll. The rich woman was going to find the nastier side of humanity soon enough. Memories of the villagers invading the palace with pitchfork and torches flashed through her head. They had rushed her and pinned her to the wall. She could never forget the feel of hard hands holding her wrists behind her back while she watched men attack her precious beast. The roll in her throat suddenly tasted like ash. With a whimper, she forced herself to swallow it.
She had seen when things turned ugly and had no intent in remaining in Fires Down Below to experience it again.
Pushing away from the wall, she headed down the street toward the laundry district. Old Mads may have dumped a chamber pot on Daman’s head, but Beauty still needed to see if her curses were mere words or if they had some bites.
She almost missed a familiar whistle. One high, and then a sweeping low. With a start, she looked around until she spotted a coil of auburn hair dancing out of an alley. The figure whistling turned and she caught a flash of Daman’s face.
Her stomach fluttered with anticipation. She crossed the street and passed a pair of men walking together. They moved in time with each other, signs that they had been together for many years, but their movements were stiff. She dismissed them and strolled down the far side of the road until she reached the alley. With a quick peek along, she stepped into the darkness.
Daman caught her and pulled her deeper until the sounds of the road had been muffled by stacks of boxes and drying laundry. “I missed you,” he said in a low voice.
Heart beating loudly, she tilted her head up and kissed him.
Among the dripping laundry, they kissed slowly. The world ceased to exist for a moment and it was just her and her prince.
When they broke, she was pressed up against the wall with his body tight against hers. She could feel his hardness against her hips. A shiver ran up her spine as she remembered the last time he had her pinned to the wall, back when he was a beast and he had to hold her up with one knee as his claws pinned her wrists above her head and his other hand mauled her breasts.
Hungry to feel the excitement, she drew her hands up along the sharp brick wall and kissed him.
His fingers caught one wrist and tried to catch the other but he wasn’t big enough. After a moment, he reached up with both hands and held her tight as their lips sought each other again. This time, their kiss had more passion as she strained to remember the rush of their first time.
When they broke again, she was panting. With a smile, she stared into his eyes.
“I missed you,” he whispered.
“It’s been only a day.”
“Not that long.”
Beauty arched an eyebrow. “You woke up at noon, I take it?”
“Earlier, maybe an hour before. They had this spread of eggs and and some of the cheeses from the other side of the mountain. And their eggs have this sweetness that we don’t have at home. Apparently someone here knows how to poach properly,” he said with a grin. “What did you have?”
“Bread, cheese, eggs. At least the water was cold.”
“Is the inn in poor shape?”
“No, my love. The innkeeper’s son, Kas, was distracted polishing his sword and almost let it burn. Fortunately, his little sister was willing to grab the ruined meal for a friend and made a new batch for me. She’s a sweetie.”
Daman frowned. “I don’t think I know the people who cooked for me.”
“You should ask their names. You know everyone back in the balance.”
He kissed her nose. “I spent forty years trapped in that place and them with me. How could I not learn their names?”
“Forty years or forty minutes, knowing their names always helped.” Beauty smiled. “They were always nice to me, even when I first came in.”
“Well, you are beauty incarnate.”
“And you were my beast,” she whispered with a broad grin.
The word drifted between them.
Beauty tugged her hands down. Having them pinned over her head felt good, but it also reminded her of a better time. The hunger for it was still there but it couldn’t be sated in an alley.
“So,” Daman cleared his throat, “any luck?”
She give him a summary of her morning. “Then I was going to double-check Old Mads.”
He shook his head. “Don’t bother. I’ve kicked and insulted every old woman and bastard from here to the gate, and her twice as much. For all her curses and swearing, there wasn’t even a flicker of magic around her.”
“Sounds like I need to give her something for her misery? Money?”
Shrugging, he thought for a moment. “Maybe some, but also some Dark Piffin. I heard her saying she would kill for that but I don’t know what it is.”
Beauty thought about her morning. “Piffin’s is a small brewery up on the north side of town. Seems to cater to the richer side of things. I heard good things about them and their stouts but not their lagers.”
“Get her a small flask then? Just on the side? And maybe fifty jems? You have enough, right?”
Beauty kissed him back. “For my prince, anything else?”
“Sounds like we need to head out of town for the last two on your list. What do you think, the misty valley or that blue tower?”
“Tower? Trus says that men had been transformed into beasts and haunt the woods.”
“Sounds perfect. An hour before sun up? I saw a tall, dead pine tree as we were coming in. It was up a few hundred feet along the mountain, but looked like it would be a good place to meet.”
She nodded. “I’ll be there, my love.”
Daman slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her back. “Be careful out there. I saw some men I didn’t. They moved like they were in the infantry, marchers.”
Beauty thought back to the two men she had passed.
“They are strangers to town, but asked a lot of questions.” The concern faded and he grinned. “Just like my beauty.”
“I hope,” she said between his kisses, “that I’m more subtle with my questions.”
He broke and stared into her eyes. “No one hears your questions, your visage erases their memories before they ever realize they were answering you.”
“Flirt,” she said.
“Trust me, I plan on asking you many… many… hard questions later.”
With one final kiss, she pushed herself away. “Soon.”
He smiled as the flicker of longing came back. “Soon.”