Lara Ek

Hungarian-American teaching English in China. I also write.

Hungarian-American teaching English in China. I also write.

Beast and the Beauties – Part 2

Winter was long that year. The snows piled high around the outside walls, shutting in the broken houses out front so that only the thatch showed, piling nearly a man’s height on top of the walls before tilting and falling inward, to leave little melting patches in the summer garden. Ice lashed the trees and cracked their limbs, and sleet drove against the locked front gates. Nobody traveled, and even in the forest, the animals stayed in their dens, huddled and freezing.

Winter was long, but the Beast was glad, for every snowfall lengthened the time Cecilia stayed in his company. He liked that. It mattered nothing to him that he must eat alone and quickly, gulping down his meat and lapping up his drink, away from the dining room and at late and early hours. It mattered nothing that he must stay hidden, walking silently and standing at the ends of halls and huddling outside doorways to speak. It mattered nothing that Cecilia knew little of lords’ affairs, and nothing of government, and spoke only from the ignorant view of a land-worker. All that mattered, to the Beast, was that she was here, and that she walked in his halls and spoke to him.

She still fairly lived outside in the gardens. Early in the enchanted gardens’ Spring, Cecilia went out to each of the rose-bushes and gathered the dried, curling-brown hips. She returned to the house and cracked them open, piling the seeds by color, and the next week she dug up several long troughs of earth in a square, in a grassy area west of the house, away from the main gardens. The Beast watched bemusedly, and asked her what she did, but Cecilia only smiled and said, “watch.” So the Beast watched as she finally finished, and then as she went around, rose seeds in one hand, dipping down to push them into the ground and push earth over them. She planted the whole square with rose seeds, and when she finished she stood, and wiped her hands, and said, “now we wait.”

They waited, and as the garden was enchanted, it took only a week for the first sprouts to show. Cecilia went out every day to look, and she brought out water, and tobacco-juice to kill the aphids, and asked the Beast to send the servants with fertilizer, that she spread thinly around all the sprouts.

They waited another week and the sprouts were knee-high. Another week and they were up to Cecilia’s hip. She brought out long thin branches she had whittled and stuck them in the earth between certain blooms, and curled the vining roses’ stems about them; she had the servants bring a stone bench and place it inside the square, and there she sat nearly every day after, working her stitching or tending to the roses. The Beast could not come close – there was nothing nearby to hide behind – but he lurked by the castle’s wall and spoke across to Cecilia, and in the evenings when she went in, he had the servants bring torches while he lay on the stone bench and surveyed her garden.

Beast and the Beauties – Part 1

In a prosperous country where fairies and men still lived beside one another, there was once a king who had three sons. The two older ones were everything a king could want in princes: upright, diligent, attentive to their duties, and honorable in every way. The oldest was set to inherit, the middle to be a great duke and adviser to the first, and the king was in every way satisfied with them.

But the youngest, oh, the youngest! The king had tried to have him raised in the same manner as the elder two, but something had gone terribly wrong, and the youngest prince was not at all like his brothers. He was diligent, so far as it suited him – but the moment he tired of study, nothing could induce him to remain sitting, and he ran wild about the palace. He had the semblances of honor when in court – but when not under the king’s eye he broke his promises, insulted the character of others, and showed himself to lack integrity. He was impatient with both man and beast, striking his servants and his animals when they did not obey him exactly, and he was discourteous in both speech and manner. Worst, he was ungenerous, and though the king provided him with any manner of riches, he hoarded them jealously, and would not part with a single golden cup of it.

This distressing behavior continued for years, and worsened as the prince grew. His older brothers looked on in concern, and the king as well, for how could he, in good conscience, trust the rule of any part of his kingdom to such a prince?

The queen, though, had a plan. She was of a mixed line, her mother being fairy and her father being human, and so in her blood ran the fair folk’s love for pure and perfect justice. The prince’s failings had long rankled her inhuman side, and she thought perhaps to test the prince, and if he failed, to teach him a harsh lesson.

So she explained her plan to the king, and he agreed reluctantly, for he did not want his son to fail. That autumn he sent the young prince to a remote castle, with instructions to care for the lands surrounding, and to guide the people through the winter. It was a tall order, but the elder two princes had been doing such things for years, and the youngest prince had clamored long that it should be his turn, too. The prince was delighted at the appointment and left without even a goodbye to his family.

The queen waited a fortnight. Then, one day, she called on her fairy blood and transformed herself into an old, old woman, and went to the young prince’s lands to see how they fared.

Well, it was just finishing up harvest, and so they did not fare too poorly. The people were still gathering their grains and storing them, milling them, and preparing for the winter. There was some little complaint that the prince rarely heard their charges, and dispensed justice indifferently. Very well, the queen thought to herself, and went to see the prince.

She petitioned at the door, calling herself a traveler and hoping for a place to stay. She waited in the courtyard for perhaps an hour before servants led her to the kitchens and gave her a meager bowl of soup and a crust off a two-day-old loaf, then told her to sleep in the corner. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was asked.

And the next morning the queen left, and went home, and told the king what she had found.

A month later, as winter was properly coming on and the trees were losing the last of their leaves, she changed herself again, and went again to the prince’s lands.

Now, the people were discontent, for there was less grain left from the harvest than they had hoped: the prince had taxed them highly, just before winter, and kept his own stores full while the people outside could do nothing but hope there would be enough to last winter through. He listened still more rarely to the cases put before him; people petitioned him and waited hours before admittance, where, if they were allowed speech, their charges were dispensed with quickly and sharply, with no consideration of the actual case. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.

She waited long at the door before finally being admitted to the courtyard, where she saw servants sitting about and talking, or sleeping, and a very few running frantically to their actual tasks. She waited another long while before being admitted to the kitchens, handed a five-day-old crust, and then being ordered to the stables to sleep. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was told. The next morning the queen left. She went home, and told the king in anger of what she had found.

A long, cold month later, she changed again, and went again to visit the prince.
This time it was hard midwinter, and the people suffered. The prince had levied a second tax – smaller, certainly, than the first, but enough to keep himself in comfort and his kitchens full. He never heard petitions now; the mayor returned from the castle with edicts, and people complained in taverns about the prince’s disinterest and his gluttonous manner. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.

She was not admitted. No one stood at the back gate, and, finally, with a bit of magic, she let herself in, and wandered the courtyard. The servants lounged in the stables or stood about the kitchen, talking or playing at dice and cards. Finally one shouted to the others – where had this old woman come from?