By Beka Gremikova
Today was yet another day her curse might lift—and Iris couldn’t let it.
She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling as waves of Priam’s love reached out from his wing of her castle. His affection buffeted like a breeze, twining around her limbs—and tearing into her beast-curse, the curse that killed her a bit more each day. A curse fit for one who had offended Aphra, the Curator of Beauty.
Iris shook her limbs and rolled off her bed. The curse’s familiar tingling filled her as she crawled to the antechamber, her claws clicking against the cold stone. The still air made her heart beat even louder in her ears: Accept his love. You’ll be free!
Her throat closed. He wants the beautiful princess behind the beast. That’s all. If the curse lifted, Priam would realize the truth.
There was no beautiful princess.
Just an ugly woman, Aphra’s taunting voice whispered from Iris’s past. Nothing’s valued above beauty, girl. No spells can save you from his rejection.
Certainly not the plants’ magic, Iris thought wistfully, gazing at the lush greenery adorning the antechamber, all gifts from Priam’s family greenhouse. Skylights dappled the foliage with sunshine, and each leaf glimmered and thrummed with a verdant glow.
The tingling in her limbs intensified to prickling pain as the curse gnawed at her stooping body. Snatching a leaf from a nearby plant, Iris pressed it against her tongue and waited.
The discomfort subsided, overwhelmed by the cooling caress of the plant’s pulsing magic. While it couldn’t cure her curse, it helped soothe the symptoms. She grabbed a watering can and hobbled from plant to plant.
As she reached her scarlet rose bushes, the pain resurged in a fierce, near-blinding attack, and her knees buckled.
“You’ve made me a laughingstock, Princess of Demarken.” Aphra tore a rose from a nearby bush. “Why didn’t you dedicate yourself and your rule to me?”
Iris bit her lip. “I chose the Curator of Merchants because I felt my rule should focus on trade—”
“Too good for beauty, are you?” Aphra’s voice shook. “Every other Curator expected you to pick me, you little beast.” She flung the rose at Iris’s face. “See who cares about trade when you’ve no beauty to speak of!”
A gentle touch brushed Iris’s shoulder, startling her. “Lady Iris,” whispered her maid. “Master Priam’s worried you haven’t come down yet. He’s waiting in the gardens.”
Her heart wrenched, both longing and dreading to see him. Every day he asked her to accept his suit, and every day she refused. If he saw her and didn’t want her anymore…
She sucked in a shaky breath. It would prove Aphra right.
But we can’t live in this limbo forever. She rose, nibbled on another leaf to soothe the agony, and trudged after her maid to the gardens. If I won’t let him break my curse, maybe… he should leave.
Priam waited on an arbored path, surrounded by flowering arches. With his dark, tumbling curls, smooth skin, and well-muscled body, he seemed like a Curator of Beauty himself.
Too perfect for this world. Too perfect for her.
His feelings wrapped around her like a fog, tugging at the curse as though they could rip it out of her body.
Why can I feel your… affection? she’d asked him once.
He’d smiled at her. You’ve been cursed by the Curator of Beauty. Well, I’ve been blessed by the Curator of Love, so those I love can know they’re valued and never have to doubt.
But she did doubt—because how could she believe that after years of rejection, this man could embrace her?
“You have to leave!” she blurted.
His eyes widened. “Why?” He took her clawed hands in his. “Won’t you let me love you? As you really are? Don’t you want that?”
Of course! “But I’m…” I’m not as you think. “I’d rather stay like this. If you don’t like it, then…” Go away. The words stuck in her throat.
His eyes flashed. “This is killing you!” He took a deep breath. “And I want you as you were created to be—human—not what Aphra cursed you into. I know my feelings won’t heal everything—but they aren’t a lie. I want us to face each other honestly.”
His words, as gentle as rustling leaves, wrapped around her limbs like a soft cocoon, waiting. She simply had to accept, and they’d soak through her skin and strangle the curse to death. She held her breath.
He lifted his hands to her face. “Iris, please. Whether you send me away or we stay like this… we still lose something.”
Tears stung, and she squeezed her eyes shut. The magic of his words hovered over her skin.
Just accept. Be free! her heart screamed.
Could she keep living like this?
No. But could she really let him leave?
“Iris,” he whispered, and his voice broke, “Will you accept my love?”
“Yes,” she choked out. The waiting magic swept through her like a cold, cleansing spring rain. It left her shivering, and she stared down at fur-less arms speckled with moles. She could feel spots breaking out on her face. Trembling, she tucked her frizzy hair behind her ear. “Well, here’s your princess. Are you happy?”
“Yes,” Priam said quietly. “But are you happy with me?”
She blinked. During her curse, he’d seemed… shiny. Now, though still attractive, he also boasted weathering on his cheeks, a scraggly, uneven beard, and bags under his eyes from…
Sleepless nights worrying about imperfections that the curse had hidden from her? Worried that she might be disappointed?
How well the curse had disguised them from each other.
Priam bit his lip. “Well, Iris? Do you still love me?”
Iris wrapped her arms around him. “Yes,” she whispered. “How could I not?” She blinked back a wave of giddiness, and this time the tingling she felt had nothing do with a curse.