Her ankle was warm as he held it to pull off her cheap slipper. He remembered how deceptively delicate it felt in the curve of his fingers.
“We should dance again another night,” he said, as he held her ankle and replaced her lost slipper. He let his fingers linger.
She tossed her dark curls, and said, “If you can find me.”
He held the slipper, lost a second time as she had fled. Looking up, he smiled at the dirty, cynical, but secretly hopeful scullery maid. “Found you,” he said softly, and fit the slipper to her foot.
They had sobbed as they told him his betrothed was lost to sleeping death, horrified when he only seemed amused.
It had taken him only a glance to confirm his suspicions—she had done the deed herself. If she could not prove her stepmother guilty of an actual crime, she would create one.
Kneeling beside her, he lifted her wrist and saw the minute puncture where she had poisoned herself. He kissed the wrist, then leaned up and kissed her mouth, red as a ripe apple, or fresh-spilled blood.
Her eyes opened, she smiled. “My prince, you saved me.”
He dragged himself up the winding stairs, desperate to get away from the men following him, wanting only to die in peace. When he reached the top, he stared in wonder at the sleeping beauty lying on a stone altar.
His vision blurred, and he hobbled to her, clambered onto the altar to lie beside her. He kissed her lips, then rest his head on her shoulder. There were worse ways to die.
He heard them come, braced himself, even as he began to pass out.
Then he felt her move, heard her speak. “You will not have him.”
She shoved the witch out the window while she laughed over her victory. She watched as the witch landed in the black thorns, and lay still.
Stripping off her gown, she climbed down the tower in only her shift.
She found him in the woods, eyes dripping blood, hysterical from pain. “Beloved,” she said, grabbing his hands, holding fast. “I am sorry you suffered for me. But the witch is dead now, and your children grow inside me. Be strong for us, and guide us home.”
He held her tight, and found her lips, and did as she asked.
She watched as the Captain killed the demon who had tricked her, tried to take her child, wiping away tears of relief when it was over.
“Thank you,” she said softly, and rest her head against the Captain’s chest as he pulled her close. “Our son is safe now.”
“Yes, Queen,” the Captain replied quietly, and kissed her.
The demon was dead, and the King was dying. Soon, she would be able to openly love the man who had adored her when she was only a farm girl, before she had been used by a demon and a king.
“Princess, what happened?” he asked, but she could see he knew.
The other girls had come at her in the night, pinching, hitting, pulling, clawing. They hated she was a pauper princess from a disgraced kingdom. That she was favored anyway.
But she would not tattle, would not whine. She did not expect others to fix her problems. Lifting her chin, she said, “My skin is delicate. I think there was a pebble, or a hard pea, beneath my mattress.”
He smiled softly. “Well, only a true princess would be so delicate. Would you consent to be my princess?”
He looked at the man before him, beautiful and stark naked, save for his boots. Something of the russet fur remained in his hair, and the eyes were still a clear, bright green. “Puss?” he asked.
The man smirked, and his doubts vanished. Cat or man, he knew that smug expression. “Meow,” the man said, stepping over the bodies of the slain ogre and treacherous princess.
His heart beat quickly as Puss caught him up, voice a purr as he said, “Pleasure to meet you properly, miller boy.”
“You were watching me bathe,” he accused, before Puss kissed him.
She drew her dagger while they weren’t looking, too busy harassing her Beast.
They said she was too beautiful (and too rich, again, they did not say) to go to the scarred, bitter Beast, the forgotten soldier who lived on the hill.
He had been kind to her when the others walked away, and loved her when she had nothing to offer.
It hurt, cutting her own face, destroying her beauty. They all screamed, scattered liked panicked birds.
Except her Beast, who pulled her close and laughed as he called her quite mad, and kissed her despite the blood.
She stared at him in shock, the servant they all called Frog, as he knelt and presented her golden ball. “Name your boon,” she said as she took it.
All anyone ever wanted was boons. He smiled shyly, but determinedly, wet and muddy, pond scum in his hair. “Nothing, Princess, except to see your smile.”
Vain, they called her. Selfish. Cold. She had learned to stop giving, when all people did was take.
Her smile she gave to him freely, and her hand. “You may have it, and all the rest of me. Rise, Frog, and be my prince.”
“I should have listened to you about the old woman. There are witches in the wood.”
The wolf growled and did not reply. He could smell them, and the smell made him nauseous.
“I will go to the house, to the one already settled. You get the one still traveling.”
Growling in annoyance, he nevertheless rubbed against the Huntsman’s leg in forgiveness. They had made a mistake, and the witches had slipped in, but they would not survive long. It was their wood to protect, and protect they would.
The Huntsman stroked his fur, whispered softly, then slipped away.