Of Beast and Beauty, стр. 1
To Riley and Logan
But he that dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose.
IN THE BEGINNING
IN the beginning was the darkness, and in the darkness was a girl,
and in the girl was a secret. The secret was as old as the cracked
cobblestone streets of Yuan, as peculiar as the roses that bloom eternally
within the domed city’s walls, as poisonous as forgotten history and the
stories told in its place.
By the time the girl was born, the secret was all but lost. The stories
had become scripture, and only the very brave—or very mad—dared to
doubt them. The girl was raised on the stories, and never questioned their
truth, until the day her mother took her walking beyond the city walls.
In the wilds outside, a voice as fathomless as the ocean spoke to her
of a time before the domed cities, before wholes became halves and
bargains were made in blood. It told of a terrible choice and even more
terrible consequences. It begged her to listen, to live.…
In the early days, I was one, the voice whispered. I was this world and
this world was me, and the dance was seamless and sweet.
Then the ships came from a faraway world. They came belching
smoke and fire, stinking of space and beings living and breathing, loving
and hating, hoping and despairing in close quarters for too many centuries.
I watched the humans spill from their ships, blinking in my sun, marveling at
my moons, weeping as they set foot on land for the first time, and I
was … curious.
I teased my magic between their spindle fingers, into their seashell
ears, around the pulsing heads of their babes, finding them as delightful as
my native creatures, but soft and unprepared for life on our world. Knowing
they would die without my help, I began to touch them, to transform them.
It was what I had done since the beginning, when I was only the land and
the sea and a longing for something more to keep me company.
But the humans were afraid of my touch, of the magic that caused
their smooth flesh to scale and their bodies to bunch with unfamiliar
muscle. They cursed me. They praised me. They retreated into the great
domes they had built and hid themselves away, locking those already
touched by my magic outside their gates and calling them Monstrous.
They made promises and offerings and dangerous bargains, pulling at
me until I was no longer one but two: the Pure Heart and the Dark Heart,
something both more a n d much, much less.
The Dark Heart, my shadow self, soon developed an equally dark
hunger. It told the Smooth Skins in the domed cities of its longing, promising
them safety and abundance in exchange for blood and pain, for the
voluntary laying down of a life, the ultimate act of devotion. It gave them
magic words to speak and took their rulers as offerings, and in each city, in
the place where the sacrificial blood was spilled, enchanted roses grew, a
symbol of the covenant between the Smooth Skins and their new god.
Decades passed, and the Dark Heart fed and grew powerful, stealing
vitality from the planet, determined that none but its chosen few should
thrive. And so the Smooth Skins in the cities learned to bleed, and the
Monstrous outside learned to hate, and I faded away, stretched thinner
with every passing year, until only a precious few heard my voice.
Finally, I realized I had to reach out to the Smooth Skins in a new way.
Before it was too late. Using the power of transformation upon myself for
the first time, I took the form of a Monstrous woman with long black hair
and white robes, a body to give the Smooth Skins one last chance to show
I went from city to city, introducing myself as an enchantress, a
priestess of the planet. I begged to be allowed inside. I begged the Smooth
Skins to abandon their dark worship and accept the gifts of their new world.
I begged them to make me whole, to restore the innocence I’d lost when
they had begun to call me god and devil.
But the gates of the domed cities remained shut. The Smooth Skins
had no concern for the rest of the world, so long as their own desires were
met. They spit harsh words through the cracks in their walls. They shot
weapons through slots in their gates. Arrows pierced my chest, and my new
blood spilled onto the ground.
I stumbled into the wilds, seeking shelter, but in the camps of the
Monstrous I found no aid. Sensing I was not truly one of their own, they
bared their teeth, called me witch, and turned me away.
My new body dying and my hopes for peace shattered, I gathered the
last of my magic and sent a curse sweeping across the world. I cursed the
eyes of the Monstrous to run dry, never to know the release of tears, but I
cursed the Smooth Skins even more terribly. From that day forward, a
precious few of their babes would be born kissed by the Monstrous traits
they despised. The rest would be born with missing pieces, trapped in bodies
as twisted and wrong as the Dark Heart they worshipped.
The Dark Heart managed to spare a few of the city dwellers—those
from the families who had spilled blood for their god—but my curse had its
way with the rest. The rest of the Smooth Skins became more monstrous
than the creatures they feared, and no amount of blood spilled in their royal
gardens could make them whole again.
There is only one way to undo the curse: if even one Smooth Skin and
one Monstrous can learn to love the other more than anything else—more
than safety or prejudice, more than privilege or revenge, more even than
their own selves—then the curse that division has brought upon our world
will be broken and the planet made whole.
For a time, I had hope that my last act of cruelty would sway the
humans in a way my pleas for mercy had not. But as time
passed—hundreds and hundreds of years slipping away as I tossed on the
wind, a ghost haunting lands where I used to live and breathe—I saw I had
accomplished nothing. The world outside the domes continued to die. The
land and the creatures upon it cried out for aid, but I could only watch as
elders suffered and young ones starved. I had nothing left to give. I had lost
everything but my voice.
And what good is a voice when so few will listen?
Will you listen, child? the Pure Heart of the planet asked the girl. Will
you do what the others would not? There is proof of the story I tell. I can
show you where to look. I can help you find the truth.
The truth had been hidden away, the voice told the princess, but she