Very few animals are capable of talking. When one speaks, one should probably listen.
— Vikor Nik-Maldin, The Wolf’s Voice
With the tower peeking over the woods and following the bloody spoor left behind by the fleeing giant mountain lion, it took little time for Beauty and the prince to reach the mage’s tower. They drew both of their swords before they got within a furlong of the building’s base; they had both had their shares of isolated buildings that the more powerful mages and witches called home.
“Bet you’re glad we aren’t in the marsh now?”
Daman chuckled. “Oh, remember Lady Tifilin of the Dark’s? She had that waist-deep water with all the leeches in it? That stuff was thick and got everywhere.”
Beauty cringed. “Yes.”
He smirked. “At least it was fun for me taking them off you.”
“That’s because mud doesn’t stick to you and bugs leave you alone. You can go swimming in muck and come out smelling like roses.” She gave him a mock glare. More than once, she had to scoop thick mud or slime off her while Daman just flexed his chest muscles and smile before it all slid off him. One price of being a prince, she guessed.
Daman paused. “I don’t smell like roses.” He puffed up his chest. “I smell like sandalwood.”
Beauty gestured to a small path paved with flagstones leading through a trellis that marked the entrance of the white fence that surrounded the tower. “You should still probably pay attention, woodsman, but we’re approaching.”
The area surrounding the base surprised her. Most of the towers they had visited treated the entrance to the tower as an unnecessary requirement. They had gates, fences, and moats. Almost every time she saw a pair of statues on each side of a door, there was a good chance it would animate and try to kill them. However, the Blue Tower had done something different. She never expected to see a pair of small cottages, a vegetable garden, and a small fountain bubbling up just beyond a white picket fence.
Daman slowed to a stop. “That’s different.”
The tip of Beauty’s sword lowered. “Maybe he’ll be friendly?”
“That would be a first,” muttered Daman. His sword remained ready to strike.
The ground began to shake underneath her, a steady thud of something large approaching. She looked around until a loud roar drew her attention to the far side of a cottage where the giant mountain lion came rushing around. The creature bounded over the fence and landed heavily on the path between Beauty and the tower.
The lion roared again before crouching down and baring his teeth.
Beauty looked at Daman and then purposefully sheathed her sword. “You can talk. You don’t have to threaten us.”
Ahead of them, the lion pawed the ground and roared again. The sound was deafening.
Daman’s sword wavered for a moment. With an exasperated sigh, he spun his sword once and rammed it back into the sheath. “Yeah, he’s faking it.”
The lion’s head jerked. The beast pulled back to roar again.
Daman crossed his arms over his chest. “Go on.”
Instead of roaring back, the beast glanced at Beauty and then back to Daman. Then, with a snort, he slumped back to the ground. “Shit,” he muttered under his breath in a low growl.
Beauty held out her bare palms. “Not wielding a weapon. We just want to talk.”
The lion shook his head. “No, you should get out of here. The person who lives here is a terrible creature, not man, not woman, but something beyond! Zi’ll curse you into the shape of some terrifying beast like myself!”
He waved his massive paws at them. “Run! Run away before you share my fate!”
“Well, good,” Daman said.
“G-Good? No, run away!”
Daman shoved his hands into his pockets. “That’s what we’re looking for. Is the mage in?”
“Really?” asked the lion. “That doesn’t scare you?”
Beauty shrugged. “It’s why we’re here. We’re looking for someone who can transform my prince into a beast again.”
When the lion stared at Daman, the prince nodded.
“You… want to be transformed also? But… you’re so pretty now.” A low growl rumbled in his throat, but it wasn’t a fierce one. It sounded playful.
Daman shrugged. “Yeah, I am. I mean nothing compared to Beauty here.”
The lion didn’t look at her. Instead, he remained focused on Daman. His tail slowly wagged back and forth as the eyes trailed up and down. There was a different emotion, one that she had seen on many people in their travels. Daman was a beautiful man, with long flowing hair, and he attracted lust like flies.
She sighed and shook her head.
“You really want to be cursed?” asked the lion.
“Yes, with all my heart. I’m looking for someone to break True Love’s Kiss.”
“And you think Lanier can do that?”
Daman chuckled. “That’s the mage’s name, Lanier?”
The lion opened his mouth to say something but then closed it with a snap. Looking down, he muttered, “Shit.”
Then, he shook his head. “No, Lanier isn’t here. Zi’s looking for fell magic somewhere high in the mountains. It could be days or even weeks before zi returns.”
The door to the cottage that the lion had run around opened up and a young girl leaned out. Pid called out loudly. “Jorul! Lan says its your turn to roll the dice! And you have to eat my crusts!”
Beauty giggled. “Pid!? Is that you?”
“Beauty? Beauty! Why are you here!?” Pid screamed as she ran out of the cottage. Her bare feet smacked on the flagstones as she rushed through the trellis, past Jorul the Mountain Lion, and flung herself toward Beauty.
Kneeling down, Beauty caught her and gave her a tight hug. “I was looking for Lanier.”
“Oh, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Well, I didn’t know his name.”
“Zirs name. Lanier is a zi.” The girl’s voice was firm and insistent.
“Oh,” Beauty said in surprised voice. “I didn’t know zirs name when I left. I didn’t even know I would be meeting Jorul before I left. How did you get here so fast?”
Pid spun around, her brown hair smacking against Beauty’s shoulder. She pointed down toward town. “There is a small gate between the blue houses. You go straight up from our front door and you can squeeze in.”
Beauty smiled. “How clever.”
“You wanted to meet Lanier?”
“I do,” Beauty said with a broad smile.
“Zir’s not here,” muttered Jorul but he didn’t even put effort into making his voice sound convincing.
Pid stamped her feet. “Yes, he is. Stop lying. Come on, I’ll bring you to him.” She took Beauty’s hand and lead her to the cottage. Her grip was firm and commanding.
Beauty grinned and followed.
As they passed Jorul, the lion muttered “shit” before turning and following next to Daman.