-Angela Carter, "The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman."
It was agreed: Leona would stay with the Beast for twelve days, from Christmas until Epiphany, and if by Epiphany she had not agreed to marry him then she would be free to go.
She had not made the arrangements herself, of course. Rupin went straight to her father, like any other suitor, and they brokered the deal in private, as gentlemen do. It was Christmas, and Rupin, playing the good country lord, held a yearly feast for the entire town at his estate. Leona and her father had come to live in the village only three weeks earlier, so for them it was a first. Rupin seemed quite taken with her father, asking him all sorts of questions about his trading with the Indies, and even invited them to stay overnight as his guests in the castle after everyone else had gone. Of course, only later did Leona learn it was not her father who so fascinated Rupin, but herself.
Yes, she would stay with him, but no obligations were placed on her beyond cohabitation. "Merely time for us to get to know one another," Rupin said, smiling and kissing her hand like the perfect gentleman. That had been the second day of Christmas, and those were the first words he ever spoke directly to her—and she'd hated him ever since.
She soon learned that this was Rupin's normal courtship behavior: Apparently he'd had virtually every eligible woman in the countryside as his "guest" at one time or another. And yet he remained a bachelor. Judging from the quantity of gifts he plied her father with he must be nearing the point of desperation for a wife. But the decision, Rupin would not stop reminding her, was entirely hers, no matter what. "The only thing he asks is that you stay here, which is hardly what you would call a price in the first place," her father said as he packed his things into the carriage that morning. She watched him, silent, morose. "And besides," he continued, fixing a single winter rose from Rupin's garden in his buttonhole, "You could do worse by a husband. Much worse."
Indeed she could. She admitted, Rupin was charming. He was also handsome, and scholarly; well-spoken, well-dressed and well-groomed, always, with a pleasant voice and a habit of always saying just the right thing with it. His conversations were enlightening, and he made it clear that he prized her thoughts. On top of all that he was fantastically rich, and of a prestigious a family. There was even an air of mystique about him, with his unidentifiable dark complexion and accent, and the oddly superstitious way that the townsfolk, particularly the women, treated him. She, a merchant's daughter of no particular heritage and no particular beauty, could never have dreamed of attracting such a suitor.
Nevertheless, she hated him. She hated him like poison. She refused to even say his name. She called him "Beast" instead.
Generally she saw little of him, which was a relief. He attended to "business" most of the day, though what that consisted of in the darkened rooms of the drafty old castle she had no idea. She took most meals by herself and was content to prowl the grounds or spend hours in the library to amuse herself. Only at dinner and the hours immediately after did she have to tolerate Rupin's presence. Though she vowed never to say a word to him, he always somehow wheedled her into an engaging conversation. He was witty and incisive and sometimes close to brilliant, which of course infuriated her to no end. She was consistently rude and unpleasant in return, but if he was bothered he never let on. He was mild and amiable company at all times. It was maddening.
Afterwards they would retire to the parlor. Rupin had an abominable fondness for fairy tales and he would usually read a selection to her. He seemed fluent in virtually every language in the world, and translated the exotic volumes with ease. That evening, the fourth day of Christmas, he was in the midst of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," a particularly atrocious article, in Leona's eyes: It was Christmas in Camelot but King Arthur refuses to join the feast until he witnesses a miracle. At that moment, a giant in green armor rode into the hall and challenged anyone there to try to strike him down with one blow. Only the youngest knight, Sir Gawain, accepted the challenge, and he decapitated the Green Knight with a single swing of his sword, only for the giant to pick his own head up, hold it aloft, and challenge Sir Gawain to travel to his castle in the spring and let the Green Knight mete him a similar blow, if he dared.
"And did he?" Leona broke in, interrupting. Rupin didn't miss a beat, his eyes flicking up from the book.
"Did he what?"
"Did Gawain go to meet the Green Knight in the spring? I don't care to hear the rest, just tell me yes or no."
Rupin closed the book, half-smiling. "Yes," he said.
Leona snorted. "An idiot."
"Gawain? I should say not."
"It would have been smarter of him not to show."
"Perhaps. But it would have been a mark against his honor." Rupin sat in an overstuffed chair, legs crossed, one slippered foot dangling. Leona, who could never bear sitting still in Rupin's presence, paced the room, occasionally stopping to stab at the fire with a poker. She trampled the lion’s skin rug underfoot as she walked.
"I'll take a live man over an honorable corpse any day," she said. "This Green Knight doesn't seem like the honorable type, anyway. He laid out the challenge knowing he couldn't be hurt but didn't think to warn anyone about that; that seems dishonorable to me. And yet at the end of the day it's the dishonorable man who walks away with his hide intact."
"Perhaps," Rupin said, smiling a little more. "But, if you'll consent to hear the rest of the tale—"
"I will not," said Leona. "I've already taken what lesson from it I care to. I say, let my husband, whoever he may be, be a dishonorable man. I don't care if he lies and cheats and whores every night of the week if the alternative is him lying in a ditch with his head cut off because he daren't impugn his honor to stop it."
She thought she detected a rare mark of dismay on Rupin's face, just for a fleeting second, and this pleased her.
"Now my lord, I'm afraid your incessant droning has given me a terrible headache, and I must retire for the evening."
"But of course. Nothing is more important than your wellbeing," Rupin said, laying the book aside and rising. "However, if at any point tonight you find your strength returning, do consider going for a walk with me in the garden." This was the offer he made every night after the conclusion of whatever the evening's tale was. The first time Leona was startled; they were in the midst of a never-ending snowstorm and Rupin meant to go out walking in it, in the middle of the night? She hadn't the first idea what he intended if she ever agreed, but naturally, she never had, so it remained a mystery.
Rupin kissed her hand again before he left the room. "Until tomorrow night then. You remain, as always, the highlight of my day," he said, and left.
"Beast," Leona said to the closed door.
She crossed the room to the windows, watching. This room afforded a good view of the garden, where Rupin took his otherworldly constitutional. Snow drifted gently outside; it had snowed every night since she came here. Frost tinted the petals of the roses blossoming in the garden. Yes, the roses blossomed even in the winter, and never wilted in the cold, and were fresh and red all the year around. Rupin's roses were quite famous for that, though he claimed he did not understand their special qualities at all and did not even know where they came from. There were many strange things about the castle, such as that Rupin appeared to have no servants or staff and yet Leona always returned to a room to find it clean and tidy, and food appeared for supper every night without fail. Again, Rupin credited this to the castle's nature and claimed no understanding of how it all worked. She was not sure if she believed him.
Now she watched him as he wandered back and forth through the maze formed by the rose hedges, until eventually he vanished from sight. She was taken by a sudden urge to throw on her coat, run down, and follow him, if only to find out what it was he did out there all the time. But of course, she wouldn't, and couldn't; that would be a surrender, in her eyes. Instead she went to her bedchamber. She didn't bother snuffing the lamps in the parlor, knowing they would take care of themselves, in the way that they do.
She tried to read before bed but she kept hearing Rupin's voice in her mind, reciting the words. She threw the book down in disgust. Instead of reading, she spent time brooding over how much she hated her father for stranding her in this unbearable confinement, now and then thinking instead about how much she hated Rupin for lulling her gullible father with his money and smooth talk in the first place. With the effort of hating the two of them in turns, she was soon quite worn out. Somewhere nearby, a clock was ticking, slowly winding itself down (or did the clocks here wind themselves? She supposed they must…). She settled down under the heavy covers. She counted the movement of the seconds. Sleep crept over her…
She awoke with a start. The room was hotter than hell. She sat up panting, seemingly unable to get enough air into her lungs. Her skin was on fire. She ran to the window and threw it open, mindless of the snow blowing in, stripping off her night clothes and gasping as the icy air caressed her naked, sweat-drenched flesh. This happened every night here; she woke at midnight, every night, burning up and feeling a distinct ache deep down in her body. She pushed her knees together self-consciously, but the feeling remained: a wet throb in her loins. Her skin was so sensitive that the touch of a single snowflake landing on the erect point of her nipple made her quiver. Even the feeling of air rushing past her lips as she breathed made her want to writhe in excitement. Her hands crept down her body, gliding over the curve of her thighs and up to—
She saw something. Across the way, in a tower room she believed was Rupin's, a light shone, and illuminated the space on the balcony outside. Was something moving out there? Yes, the balcony door was opening now, she saw, and a shape was silhouetted against it. But not an ordinary shape? She leaned out, suddenly unmindful of her nudity. The hot feeling was fading and the extremity of the weather touched her directly now, but she didn't want to close the window or move away. What was going on?
Rupin's window (if it was Rupin's window) opened fully and the shape, whatever it was, loped out, its figure black against the flickering yellow light in the room. It was some kind of animal, though she couldn't say what; it was a huge, whatever it was, almost the size of a horse, but lithe and graceful. Its movements reminded her of a housecat. It went on all fours and paced the length of the balcony. A long tale twitched behind it. Its movements seemed hardly real. It paced, as if in thought, or perhaps waiting for something. And then, in one bound, it leapt the balcony railing, falling out of sight.
Leona was so shocked she almost screamed, and she ran out onto her own balcony (mindless of her bare feet in the snow) and looked down; she expected to see the broken body of the thing laying there, but instead the creature appeared to have landed on its feet. Visible only in the dim light reflected off the snow, it stood for a moment with tail twitching faster and faster, and then, quick as you please, it took off, running for the garden and vanishing behind the rose bushes. Leona stared for several minutes more, but it did not reappear. After a moment, the light went off in Rupin's window. Leona turned back into her room, fastening the doors, troubled. Her feet ached from exposure to the snow. Somehow, a blaze had kindled in the fireplace while her back was turned; that was always the way here, and she had stopped questioning it. Wrapping herself in a robe, she sat and pondered the flames.
The shape of the unknown creature, half-glimpsed, lingered in her memory. What was that thing? Did Rupin have some kind of exotic pet? A menagerie, perhaps? Was he planning an absurd holiday surprise for her, the enormous feline part of some circus show? But no, nothing about the way the animal moved made her think of it as tame or trained. She knew what it was doing in that moment that it paused; sniffing the air. It was a hunter. It was out after something right now. And what, she wondered, was its prey?
She huddled a bit closer to the fire. She fell asleep again there, and at some point during the night she woke again, believing she could hear, faintly, a far off cry, a roar of savage exultation. But she drifted into unconsciousness again, unable or unwilling to find out if it was real.
It was the eighth day of Christmas. Life went on as it had. Rupin's treatment of her became even more lavish, the food served at dinner even more decadent, and the gifts he gave all the more extravagant. And of course, her dislike for him festered like an infected wound. She felt she might have left the castle altogether in spite of the terms of the agreement (Rupin was so callow in his desire to be loved that she doubted he would seek reprisal against her father even if she welched), but the few times she gave serious consideration to it the mystery of the strange animal incited her curiosity enough to disregard the idea. Her thoughts turned to that shape in the snow more and more often of late. She could not account for it, but she felt a burning desire to know what it was.
Naturally, her first thought was to ask Rupin, but something made her stop. The animal, whatever it was, must be some secret of his, and it seemed to Leona that she could antagonize him more by finding it out on her own. Though she'd seen it only once more, two nights after the first sighting, again leaving via the balcony window across the way, she was certain that it stalked the grounds every night, and now that she knew what to look for she found signs of its coming and going every morning; though its tracks rarely lasted long in the constant snowfall there were still always a few distinct prints in the morning (alarmingly, always near some entrance to the castle). It was, as she suspected, a hunting cat of some kind, though one large enough to leave paw prints the size of saucers. Once, excusing herself for a morning walk, she ranged as far afield as she dared and discovered signs of its hunting: blood frozen in the snow.
That the creature was dangerous she was certain. That its inexplicable but apparent habitation in the castle put her in danger was certain as well. But she wasn't afraid. In fact, she enjoyed the idea. And she enjoyed the sure knowledge that Rupin did not suspect that she knew anything about it. Indeed, she once or twice became almost pleasant with him, which he seemed to take as encouragement, though in reality she was only enjoying a private sense of superiority about having ferreted out some part of whatever it was he clearly wanted to keep from her.
And so days went by.
On the eighth day, Leona found an appointment card in the tray by her door; they sometimes appeared there, when Rupin was planning something special. She groaned; the Beast was calling. The card asked her to meet him at eight o'clock, an hour earlier than usual, in a room in the east wing. She had explored the castle extensively her first days here and knew the chamber in question to be only an empty study almost completely free of furnishing. Rupin must have done something with it. She sighed. A waste of time in the making.
When the hour approached she made certain to arrive inconveniently early (she had observed that this annoyed him more than being late, and so the extra few minutes in his presence was worth it) and was about to knock on the chamber door when she corrected herself; no reason to start being polite with Rupin now. So she simply barged in, and when she did she stopped, wide-eyed, gaping, and then, careful not to make any noise, she crept back out. She flushed and looked at the blank face of the closed door, uncertain, and then she bent down to peer through they keyhole; had she really seen what she thought she saw?
The room, formerly empty, was now completely transformed, its walls covered with oil paintings of singular and exquisite quality, but that was not what shocked her. Rather, it was Rupin; he was in the center of the room, leaning with one hand on a table for support, and his other hand was…Leona squinted, angling for a better look. Yes, there could be no doubt about it: Rupin had his trousers down, and in his free hand he held his prick, rubbing it back and forth.
She bit her lip to keep from giggling. Even through the heavy door she could hear the concerted effort of his grunting. He almost sounded as if he was in pain, and the narrow, focused expression on his face only augmented the impression. What in the world was he doing here, alone, in front of the paintings no less? And why? Surely he did not do this every time he planned to meet with her? The thought simultaneously sickened and amused her.
She considered his prick: The engorged head appeared shiny in the lamplight. Surrounded as it was by the blue velvet lining of his trousers and the gold-fringed hem of his coat, it put her in mind of a naval officer standing at attention. She had to muffle her giggles again. Still, there was something crassly appealing about the image of Rupin of all men, bent like a jackknife over himself, face knit with effort. She saw how taut the sinews of his arms were as he held himself up, and how firmly he planted his slippered feet on the carpet.
And, in truth, she was pleased by the degree of his endowment. It made her tingle.
The scene seemed so uncharacteristic of him that she wondered if she was perhaps dreaming. She realized that she had long regarded Rupin as if he were some sort of eunuch and perhaps even literally thought it was so. The concept of Rupin and sex had previously been as far apart in her mind as any two things could be; it wasn't that he wasn't attractive, in a shallow way, but more that he was the sort of man who would be afraid to make love to you for fear that it might somehow offend you.
But now Leona wondered, what kind of man was Rupin in bed, and how often does he take someone there? He employed no maids or kitchen girls to have his way with. But he had courted every woman in the township; was that the reason he never married? Was he a secret Casanova, smuggling his would-be betrotheds off for long nights of furtive but passionate fucking in quiet corners of the castle and then breaking it off once he grew bored of them? Or was this lonely, earnest masturbation his only outlet? Neither would surprise her, at this point.
She continued to watch, fascinated; she wondered what would happen if she opened the door right now. Assuming Rupin didn't die of shame on the spot, how would he react? What if she were to cross the room and take his cock in her hands? What then? What if she were to get on her knees and lick up and down it, savoring the taste before popping it into her mouth? What in the world would he do?
But she stayed where she was. She was waiting to see him finish. Minutes passed though, and it became apparent that if she did not interrupt then he would just keep going on and on. So, standing, straightening herself, and hoping she was rid of her telltale blush, she knocked on the door. She imagined Rupin jumping up, startled, trying to cover himself in a panicked rush. She knocked a second time to give him cover, then entered. He looked for all the world like his normal self. He came to her, took her hand, kissed it; he was not wearing gloves and neither was she, meaning that the bare hand that a second ago had been fondling his penis was now caressing her fingers. It was loathsome and fascinating at the same time.
"My dear lady," he said, "how are you tonight?"
She was about to make her usual rude reply but decided at the last second that this called for a different approach. "I'm exquisite, good sir, thank you so much for asking." And she gave him her most dazzling smile. Rupin let only a half second's surprise show before regaining his usual placid demeanor.
"Lovely," he said. "I'm so glad you've joined me tonight. I wanted to show you the new addition to the household."
The old, empty gallery was no longer empty. Framed oil paintings hung on the walls, a series of artful nudes, apparently only just arrived that day, though from where and delivered by who he did not say. Leona regarded them with veiled contempt; she had little patience for art. But she feigned interest, and made a point of standing very close to Rupin as he played tour guide for her. Her proximity seemed to make him uncomfortable, though he showed only subtle signs of it: a tension at the nape of his neck and the stiffness of his gait. Leona was delighted.
"This one is from Titian," he was saying. "Not an original, but a reproduction from his own workshop, and quite valuable in its own right." Leona looked: It was "Danae and Eros," with Danae naked on the bed, a sheet covering her loins in such a way that accentuated rather than concealed them, and overhead, Jupiter appearing as a cloud of gold. At her bedside, little winged Eros shied away, as if even he is taken back by the abject longing in her eyes as the god descends to ravish her.
But all Rupin would talk about was the "skillful extension of the lighting" in the scene.
The next was another Titian, "Venus of Urbino." Rupin was in midsentence: "I'm always struck by the sense of domestic tranquility about the scene—"
"Domestic tranquility?" Leona arched her eyebrows in a way that always made whatever she was saying sound particularly withering.
"Well yes," said Rupin, somewhat flustered at her interruption. "She's clearly preparing for her wedding night. You can tell—"
"And do you think that domesticity is what lingers in the mind of a woman on her wedding night?" Leona rolled her eyes. "For that matter, do you think the artist chose to place this woman's loins at the very center of the frame because he wanted you to think about 'domesticity'?"
Rupin shifted, uncomfortable. "Ah, but she's covered," he said. "To indicate modesty."
"That's not a modest expression," Leona countered, pointing to the figure's face. "And you can't fail to notice the flowers dropping off the garland? Even you, Rupin, must realize what that symbolizes." She stood close to him again; very close. "It seems to me that this painting tells us that no matter how you try to stifle human nature with domestic trappings, the basic, driven, animal lust that preys on us all will win through." She turned her head so that her breath tickled the side of his neck when she talked. "Don't you agree?"
"Quite," said Rupin, straight-faced.
A thought struck Leona. "Do you mind if we retire to the study?" she said. "I’m suddenly in the mood to hear your reading voice."
"But of course," Rupin said, obviously now relieved to escape the paintings. Leona put her arm through his as he escorted her down the hall, leaning into him just a little. His discomfort was delicious. She neglected the chairs in the study and instead reclined on a couch, crossing her legs in such a way as to ensure that a few inches of her pleasing, round calves were visible. "Do you mind if I request something tonight?" she said.
"Whatever you like."
She indicated a volume on a nearby shelf: "The 1001 Nights." Rupin did not react but merely handled the book with the air of a dutiful retriever. Leona searched her memory for the perfect selection, finally requesting "Julnar the Mermaid and Her Son Badar Basim." Though not so well-read as Rupin, she knew the material quite well. She waited for the point she knew was coming, when the sultan went to spend the first night with his new virgin concubine, then interrupted. "That's not how the story goes," she said.
Rupin looked up. "Pardon me?"
"The story, that's not how it goes, I've read it before," Leona said again. "You must be making a translation error. Here, let me see." And she snatched the book right out of his hands. The language on the pages was just gibberish to her, but she pretended to read it:
"The king discovered that the girl was a pure virgin, and he marveled that she should have remained unspoiled in the hands of the slavers for so long. She still did not speak to him, but neither did she object when he laid her on the bed and disrobed her with trembling hands. Her moon-white skin sent a hot flush all through his body as he examined her well-shaped legs, curved hips, flat stomach and round, generous breasts. She was like a perfect sculpture all in white marble, and yet her flesh was warm and alive.
"He tested the inviting, pliant smoothness of her maidenhead, expecting her to wince or cry out but finding that she was receptive. She watched him with her dark eyes and still spoke not a word. What a strange, wondrous creature, thought the king as he disrobed, preparing to rend the girl's maidenhead and claim her for his own. He nearly ripped his garments with his trembling fingers as he stripped down. She watched him with detached curiosity."
"I don't think I recall this part of the story ever being quite so…vivid,” Rupin said, muttering. Leona ignored him.
“His mouth covered hers. His fingers explored her body. Her skin was like the petals of a soft, delicate rose. He thought, for a moment, what a shame it would be to pick the beautiful blossom, but of course, he could not help himself. He was made for such things, and she, he was convinced, was made for him. There was no decision to be made, only nature to be obeyed. So he covered her with kisses and prepared, in body, mind, and soul, to claim her.
“What miracle is this, he thought, as he traced the profile of her figure with the tip of one finger. Her skin was like silk. It filled him with hot desire. He felt a heady rush, as if he drank too much wine at once. She was intoxicating all on her own. He felt the aching burden of his want, or perhaps even his need, to indulge fully in the sweet pleasures promised by her body and by the furtive, secretive glances of her dark, silent eyes.”
“You are putting quite a stamp on the text.”
“Her legs parted. She accepted him in. He wished only that she would look him in the eyes and speak his name, but she was silent, mute, as always. Perhaps she cannot speak at all, he thought, instantly heartbroken at the idea that he would never hear this delicate, beautiful bird sing. Or perhaps, he thought, she will sing when I give her a proper reason to. Yes, perhaps then she will sing as long and loud as a nightingale.”
“Really now!” Rupin tried to sound fussy and offended, but Leona could tell by the smell of his hot sweat that it was more than his sense of propriety she was working on. She leaned back further, lifting the book to allow him a view of her breasts straining against the neckline of her dress with the effort of the forced, panting breaths she was taking in order to make her voice appropriate throaty and alluring. She parted her legs the tiniest bit and kept reading.
"She did not cry out, but only gasped, and then let out a noise something like a sigh, and that was all. Her hot, soft flesh was completely pliant underneath him. He overmastered her completely. They spent the entire night together on the divan bed, the king lost in hot ecstasy, the slave girl as mysterious and aloof as ever, though her body was inviting. Her breasts shook and swayed with the motion of their lovemaking, a hypnotic rhythm that held the king's eyes. He was amazed by how clean and unblemished her naked body was, smooth and flawless. She was sweet cream from the pitcher. She was the gentlest of waves on the beach. She was the most delicate, inner petals of the flower. She was sugar on his tongue.
“They upset a vase on the nearby table, scattering flowers across the floor. The motion of them turned hard, insistent, even violent. The king was afraid he may hurt the girl, but no, she was more than able to accept the most fervent of his attentions. Perhaps she was even matching them, as if he had awakened something in her, or she was coming into the discovery of it now. A door that, once unlocked, could never be closed again. She arched her body and hung onto him and he scooped her up in his embrace, bringing her ever closer, vowing never to let her go. By the time the first fingers of bright dawn crept into the sky outside, a kind of madness had set on the king, the sort that comes with the fulfillment of a wish long unknown to the wish-maker but that, when realized, sets him into a frenzied hunger, raw and insatiable.
"The writhing, twisting, seething motion of their forms tangled together was like the surface of the ocean just before a storm, the heaving tides straining against one another and threatening always. Indeed, the king felt much as a capsized sailor in the midst of a tempest, swept away by the crushing mass of waves that were his intense desire for the slave girl and the gratification he found in indulging what he wanted. What kind of satisfaction was this that only birthed a new and more fervent desire immediately in its wake? Where was the final the relief from this hot hunger? Where was the line between them? Had they always been two separate halves waiting without realizing it for this moment when they would finally and eternally become one? This was the fevered thought the king had as soon as the aching, shuddering, crashing, all-consuming force of his—"
"You'll pardon me, I have to go," Rupin said, standing up like a shot, teetering on his feet for a moment as if he might fall and then all but running from the room.
Leona finally allowed herself to laugh as he went. She thought about following him, but no, she decided, let him go, off to his bedchamber or to his gallery or wherever it was he went at such times. She closed the book and hugged it to herself, pleased with her night's work. Perhaps Rupin would be so embarrassed now that he'd consent to letting her go early, before Epiphany? That would be the most gratifying victory of all, to know that she'd broken him, to know that she'd deprived him of the extra time in which he might have hoped—
There was movement outside, down below, in the garden. Was it—? Yes, it was Rupin. He'd gone out for an evening walk in the snow, just like usual. Leona sagged a little. Was that all? Had she not antagonized him enough to warrant even a minor change in his routine? She threw the book down, pouting. She was suddenly bored. Bored, and angry, and disappointed, a terrible combination. She was struck with the sudden, mad urge to grab a log from the fire and set the entire room ablaze, but instead she left. She went to her room, taking the fur-lined boots from the closet (a gift from Rupin; everything in the closet was a gift from Rupin, but thus far she'd elected only to wear her own garments, brought from home) and the fur-lined coat as well, wrapping herself tightly and then barging out into the elements.
The snowfall was gentle tonight but thick, and it obscured her view. She took a single covered lamp to light her way, and Rupin's tracks were still fresh enough that she could follow him. Yes, follow him and confront him, though what she would say she did not know. She only knew that she was angry, and that her anger demanded such a confrontation. Her pride was much-abused by this entire affair and she'd held her tongue until now, but there were limits, it seemed, to what she could endure, and for whatever reason she had reached them. The only solution now was—
She stopped short. Drops of red dappled the snow in front of her, staining the ice. One at first, then another a little ways away, and then more, and when she turned the corner around the hedge of a rosebush (unnatural winter blossoms shifting in the wind, restless) it was as if the ground itself bled. And there, just a little further on, visible at the dim edge of her lamplight, was the body of the fawn, its neck bent and legs tangled together. It must have been wandering off, lost, and crept in to nibble the foliage on the bushes, and then…then…
Leona heard the crunch of heavy feet on the snow. The creature's padded paws were soft and its movements supple, so she knew that if she was hearing it then it must not be far away. Perhaps it was already right behind her. Her light flickered with the shaking of her hand. Don't turn around, she thought, irrationally. If you don't turn around, if you don't ever see it, perhaps it will not really be there. But of course, she wanted to see it, wanted it to be there. Even if it meant her life, she wanted it. So she turned.
Later, she would comfort herself that at least she did not scream. It helped, perhaps, that she saw it for only a second. More than a second of those agate green eyes, those powerful paws, that lean, muscular body, the lustrous texture of its fur and the smears of crimson blood on its muzzle, would have been too much. The shifting wind brought the scent of its carnivore feasting to her nostrils. No tame pet, this. It was a leopard, but much too large, taller than a man at the shoulder, its jaws huge enough to swallow her whole, or crush in one bite. It stared through her. Though it had just feasted, its hunger would never be satisfied. It could gorge on her unspoiled flesh and be hungry again before the meal hit its belly. This was the story its eyes told her.
And then she dropped the lantern. It shattered, and darkness took her. She held her breath; in the dark she would still be perfectly visible to the great cat. Should she run? But what was the point? She wouldn't make it a step. Instead she waited. At least, she thought, it will probably not take long. A virile hunter like this can kill in one pounce, or a single swipe of its paw. She imagined her body sprawled out next to the fawn, her blood and its commingled, her skin as white as the snow beneath her. It was a pleasing image, somehow, as beautiful as the portraits in the gallery. She closed her eyes, spreading her arms, waiting for beautiful death.
Of course, nothing happened, and nothing for a minute more, and eventually she could only conclude that, somehow, the hunter had spared her, though it was some time before she dared move. She'd let the snow pile up on her like a churchyard statue and when she reached shelter again she was numb from head to toe. Or is that the fear still, she wondered? She was grateful that, as she sat by the fire, hugging herself, she could not be certain whether it was the cold or the fear that incited her trembling.
Twelfth Night. The final day of Christmas. Tomorrow Rupin would hold the Feast of the Epiphany and again invite the entire village into his home, including her father, and it was then, of course, that he meant to formally ask for her hand. Would he do it in private, she wondered, or in front of everyone? In front of everyone was most likely, she decided.
He was in the midst of reading her some horrid Russian fairy tale, but Leona was not paying attention. She was busy trying to burn a hole through him using just her eyes. Yes, he'll make a big show of it, she thought. The great Rupin, deigning to marry a mere merchant's daughter, lowering himself to her level. How gracious, the people will say, how gallant! And she is a lovely girl, they will whisper to themselves (lovely, but not beautiful); yes, that much they'll grant her, though their voices will have an edge of pity, always, as if to say it was a shame that such a lovely girl with such a noble husband could never be a true noblewoman in her own right. How sad, how perfectly tragic, how wondrously picturesque the whole thing would be!
"Beast!" she muttered.
"Pardon me?" Rupin glanced up from the book.
"I was calling you a beast," Leona said, louder. She stood and went to the fireplace, jabbing at the burning logs with a poker. The light from the embers reflected in the glass eyes of the lion skin rug, gilding its bared fangs.
"How very charming," Rupin said, his tone mild.
"Do you find me charming, Beast?" Leona said, turning halfway. She still held the poker.
"As sunshine on a winter morning," he said, absently. "Now, I seem to have lost my place. I think it was—"
She snatched the book out of his hand and threw it across the room. He sat back, crossing his arms, nonplussed.
"Forget that," she said. "I asked you a question. Do you find me charming?"
"I already answered you."
"I didn't like that answer. Give me another one."
"Which answer would you prefer? I will suit my reply to whatever you desire." He was all but smirking at her now, she was sure, though his smirk was, as ever, an elusive thing, hiding behind a haze of something that seemed almost too much like sincerity.
"Do you think me beautiful?" she said. "Do you think I am witty and fair?"
"I believe I composed a sonnet on this very subject."
"I used it for kindling. Answer the questions."
"Why do you want to know?" His voice became more firm. He sat forward a little. There was something in his demeanor she'd never seen from him before, something that almost bordered on aggression.
"You mean to ask me to marry you tomorrow." It was not a question.
"If I do?" Rupin said. The storm was particularly violent tonight, and the wind howled against the windows, and at times Leona thought the old castle might shake to pieces over their heads.
"Do you think I'll say yes?" She jabbed a log again.
"I cannot even imagine."
"Do you think any woman would say yes?" She was almost shouting; spit flew with each word. "No woman ever has, I've noticed."
"And do you have an opinion on the subject?" He began filing his nails. They looked long and ragged.
"As a matter of fact, I do."
Things had been different since the night of the gallery. Her victory over him was short-lived; from that point on he'd seemed increasingly sure of himself, and all of her efforts to fluster him wilted. And the creature, the great cat, was no longer about the grounds, it seemed, for she had not seen nor heard a sign of it since that night. Its absence made her edgy. She was sure Rupin was somehow responsible. Her anger grew daily. Now, with the reality of Rupin's proposal looming, anger blossomed into rage, white-hot and uncontrollable.
"It's because you're not a real man, Rupin."
"And what am I? A beast?"
"Not even that! A beast has mettle, at least, a beast has natural instinct. A beast feels. You're more like…a painting of a man. Yes. A figure without substance."
"And this is why you think no one has agreed to marry me?"
"Oh no," she said, with mock casualness. "I assume it's because those women all preferred to find a husband who will actually fuck them."
She threw the poker onto the firestones with a clatter, then took the chair opposite his. He had moved not an eyelash throughout this conversation.
"Have you ever fucked a woman, Rupin? You don't look as if you have. In fact, I can imagine nothing less likely. I think you'd break. Like a porcelain doll."
Still he did not react. She sneered and pulled up the hem of her dress, revealing the long, sensuous curves of her well-turned legs. She pulled them up a long way.
"Did I ever tell you I'm not a virgin? I slept with a man last year. I was fucked by a man, actually, if someone like you can even distinguish the difference. He was a young trapper. He came to sell pelts to my father. I snuck out to the stables with him after midnight. It was dirty in there. Completely filthy. I didn't mind though. Do you want to hear how he did it to me?"
Rupin was silent, frozen, a statue.
"Come on, let me tell you all about it. It'll be educational. It's as close as you'll ever get to putting your hands on me, I can promise you that. Are you thinking about it right now? Well are you, Rupin? If you won't answer, then maybe I'll just check for myself."
She thrust her hand into his lap, and now finally he moved. He bolted to his feet, in fact, and the look on his face stopped her dead in her tracks, but only for a moment.
"You shouldn't talk like this," he said, muttering. He ran his hands through his hair, a distressed gesture she'd seen him use only once before.
"Why not?" she said.
"You shouldn't, you shouldn’t…" he said again, and it seemed as though he were not truly talking to her. Without another word he left, and she knew without even going to look that he was heading out into the garden once again. She sat with her back to the window, refusing to watch him.
Tomorrow it would all be over. But no matter what happened tomorrow, it could not erase the indignity of it all. If Rupin had come to her father and asked for her hand like any normal suitor she could have lived with being married off to him, loathsome though he was. Yes, she could have played the martyr to her satisfaction then; lots of women had done it. But to be simply…lent out, in this way? Like a good draft horse, borrowed for the season? And the suggestion that she would ever, ever consent to marry him of her own free will, that she would ever lower herself to that of her own accord? That was too much. It was a slight she could never forgive. She wanted to wound Rupin's dignity as fatally as he had her own. She wanted him never to recover.
And her father? What price should he pay for his hand in all this? She hadn't even considered him yet. He would be here tomorrow. And what should he find when he arrived? She had a vision of herself hanging from an elegant noose twisted out of the lace curtains in her room. Yes, that would be a scene they'd never forget, wouldn't it? Or perhaps she should try to find at thin spot on the frozen lake and drown, like Ophelia among the reeds. There was a certain poetry to the notion. Not that she really wanted to die, of course. She simply wanted to make a gesture grand enough to convey the proper, stinging rebuke to those who had slighted her so. It would be just as good to—
The sound was like a bolt of lightning: Leona stood up straight, every hair on her turning upright. It was the roar of the great hunter; the creature was right outside, right now, in the garden! Her first thought was that Rupin had met with it; her second was that, if she was going to die to preserve her pride, what better way than to be the spotless, innocent lamb rent by the jaws of that exquisite animal? She was halfway to the garden before she even realized what she was doing. Her body had a will of its own. Soon she was out in the night air, the cold pinching her cheeks red, marching blithely to her death, or as close to it as she could get.
The storm had finally, finally stopped and the moon was out. The moonlight reflected, blinding white, off the fallen snow, dazzling her like a field of diamonds. She tried to walk and soon found herself disoriented, stumbling, almost lost even after only the short trip from the door. She had no idea what she was doing; a spell of madness propelled her forward. She nearly blundered straight into a thorny, ice-covered hedge, and it was there that she realized she was not alone. From the other side came the sound of huge paws crushing the snow down.
She held her breath. It took another step. She inched along with it, moving in the same direction, eyeing the bend up ahead. She could almost feel the litheness of its movements, conveyed to her as if by the vibrations of the air. When it moved, she moved with it. She imagined their two trajectories mirroring one another, dipping ever closer, both fixed on a single point now only a scant distance away, at the end of which—what would happen? She pictured a stone falling into the water, obliterating its reflection even as itself was swallowed up. Neither could survive the meeting. But still they did not yield.
She peered around the bend at the same moment it did, and their common field of vision locked them together. Its eyes made her knees weak. In the moonlight she saw the tiny puffs of steam from its hot breath and the quivering of the whiskers around its muzzle as it inhaled her scent. She saw the gleaming claws flex with each step it took. They were so close that, had she time, she could count the spots on its hide, one by one, like a child trying to number the stars. And whose hand was that reaching out to touch the creature, to comb fingers through its fur and feel the heat of its rising flanks? Surely not hers? And now the warning growl, her death-knell, and the sudden realization of mortality, though of course it came too late to save her. Her madness broke but she wasn't prepared for the horror that would come with the onslaught of sanity, so she blotted it out. There was no point in thinking about what would happen next; it was already done.
She waited, but the fatal moment did not come. The great leopard did not pounce on her, did not rend her to death, did not shred her sweet flesh with its teeth. Something strange seemed to be happening to it: It grew smaller, and as it became more slight its hide rippled, and its limbs changed shape, and the fur dropped away. The spots became a constellation of freckles against milky skin and the proud, defiant cast of its face gave away to all-too familiar features. Only the eyes remained the same: green agate. Eventually the cat was gone, and in its place a dazed, huddled, naked man in the snow, confused and broken, his body still racked and aching from the pain of the transformation.
Of course, it was Rupin.
Another log on the fire. His face glowed in the flames. She sat at his feet like a dutiful daughter, listening to him talk. He wrapped himself in a blanket, as if it could protect him. "It was seven years ago," he said. "I was young. Thoughtless. I spurned lovers without a care. One of them decided to teach me a lesson." He shifted in his seat a little.
"A curse, naturally: that I would take the form of a beast every night, and that the curse wouldn't be lifted until a woman consented to be my bride." He traced the roses in the chair's upholstery with one finger. "Of course, no one would marry me when they knew the truth."
"But why?" said Leona. "If marriage would end the curse then what did the curse matter?"
Rupin shrugged. "The taint of the devil was all over the thing. You don't know what these superstitious country folk are like; I'm lucky the were too afraid to burn me at the stake. Even if the curse ends, the mark of it will never leave me, in their eyes.
"Or perhaps they simply didn't savor the idea kissing lips that had tasted fawn's blood every night."
He laughed. Leona, unconsciously, licked her lips.
"You can see, of course, why I asked for you. You and your father are outsiders, you don't have the same…prejudices, as these people. I thought you might…" He groped for words before settling on: "Understand. Somehow. In some way. I don't know."
He made a helpless gesture. "A foolish notion, I can see. I'm sorry to have brought you into this.”
Leona stood, rubbing his bare arms. "Oh, Rupin," she said. "I'm…" The lump in her throat was pride. She swallowed it. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn’t know. How could I know? How you must have suffered…"
He looked away. "Not suffering. Just shame. Guilt. I would think of killing myself, sometimes, but I wondered, would the curse end when I died, or would it go on still? Would I be a beast in my tomb, forever? It was unbearable…"
"It must have been," Leona said. She rubbed tears away from her eyes. She sat down on Rupin's knee; he started, amazed. "You poor thing. Please accept my apology, Rupin"
"Why are you apologizing now? What difference does all this make?"
She struggled for words. "If I had known you were a man with such a capacity for…well, anything at all, I would never have treated you this way."
"I don't understand?"
"Shhh. It's all right, darling. Don't think about it. Don’t think about it at all." She combed her fingers through his hair (thinking about the shaggy, clean, beautiful fur of the Beast as she did), and leaned down, her lips finding his. She kissed, and kissed, and kissed, and as she did she drew him up out of the chair, a little bit at a time, pulling him down onto the lion skin rug with her.
The animal pelt felt so good against her naked back. Rupin was on top of her, fumbling with her clothes; she ran her fingers through his hair and could not help but compare it to the fur of the Beast. When she closed her eyes, even for a moment, she saw the stern, calculating face of the Beast in her mind. She forced her eyes open, banishing the image. Orange firelight bathed Rupin's face as his hands moved over her. It was coming up on midnight, and the heat was creeping down into her body, like every other night. She flexed herself against him, again enjoying the sensation of the fur rug rubbing against her body. So comforting, that feeling. Yes, so comforting and so alluring…
Rupin's mouth on her mouth; Rupin's hands on her breasts; Rupin's thighs pressed against hers. These things were solid, tangible, real. But happening at the same time, in some corner of her mind where thoughts and memories became equally as real, she relived the memory of touching the Beast; she remembered its body as intensely hot. She recognized it as the same heat that tortured her every night. The Beast was made of that heat. The thought intruded on the immediacy of what she was doing and she tried to force it away; she let her hands crawl down Rupin's bare back. She pushed her mouth up against his, harder. A log cracked on the fire and a single orange ember spat out, landing just next to her face. She ignored it.
He had a fixed look in his eyes. His eyes, agate green, just like the eyes of the Beast. She remembered the delicious thrill of being held in its gaze, still and shuddering all at the same time, paralyzed with the combined agony and ecstasy of that fear. She imagined running her hands across the Beast's flanks, feeling the rise and fall of its ribcage with the hot breaths steaming from its muzzle. She imagined splaying her hands across its hide, tracing invisible lines between its spots. She pictured herself draped naked across its back as it carried her along, the velvety smoothness of it feeling so good against her skin, so warm, so inviting…
"Not like this," she said out loud. Rupin stopped, startled. She pushed him off and then sat up, turning so that she was up on all fours, her rear arched into the air, inviting. "Like this," she said. "Take me this way. This is how I like it." His hands ran down her sides and cupped her behind, squeezing. She had never noticed before, but Rupin's hands felt rough. Not like the hands of a pampered lord at all, really. She braced herself for what came next. Was he hesitating? Or was he savoring the moment? The Beast, she knew, would have had none of that; with the Beast it would have been hard and immediate. Rupin, though, did not keep her waiting forever, or even for all that long; his calloused fingers held her in place while the tip of him searched for entrance and then, finding it, slid into the wet ache at the center of her. She purred.
Her body flexed back and forth in front of his. Yes, this felt right. Even better when he fully mounted her, lying across her back, his hands braced on the floor, his arms running over hers, so that their bodies were locked in the same position, neither able to move without pushing against the other and driving him further and harder into her. Now she had her eyes closed all the time and she could not suppress thoughts of the Beast, could not stop picturing it mounted above her this way, almost crushing her underneath it. She imagined the muscles and sinews of its inhuman body, strong as steel. Its body was a machine and she was caught up in it, it threatening to crush her if she relented even for a second. And the hard, throbbing, insistent push of the Beast into her, deeper and harder than ever before; yes, she imagined that, too. Her nails raked the floor and a chorus of growls, shrieks, and squeals burst out of her.
The heat of its body was too intense for her to handle. She was going to scream, even though she knew it would mean the end of her. She opened her mouth and inhaled, but as she did the Beast's jaws clamped around her neck and her throat; she froze, terrified, unable to move, unable to cry out. It held her like that, helpless and still, frozen in place, while it continued having its way with her. The great claws of the hunter spread out next to her hands (so small in comparison) on the floor; the furrows she'd left in the boards and the texture of the rug were nothing compared to the great rents that the Beast made with those paws. It was unstoppable, like the storm, like the fire. Could her body contain everything the Beast was putting into it? Was she a vessel sound enough to hold it all? Or would she break underneath it, shatter into pieces, wilt, die?
The Beast still held her, sharp feline teeth scoring her pale flesh. The rough, sandpaper texture of its tongue lapped at her and made her wince. Her knees were sore and her arms were close to giving out, but if she let herself go, if she fell forward, her own weight and momentum would snap her neck in the Beast's jaws. How much longer until it was satisfied? Was it ever satisfied? There was still hot blood on its breath. The scene should make her sick, she knew, but it didn't. She pushed herself up with all her might, but it was harder and harder with all of the might of the Beast pushing, pushing, pushing her away and down, the hard muscles of its flanks flexing and straining over her. It could not go fast enough, she realized; even its strength was inadequate next to its want.
Her eyes snapped open; her mind focused on the present and her vision of the Beast faded. She was so caught up that for a second her head spun and she could not differentiate where she was or what she was doing, but then she felt Rupin's hands on her again, his human touch. Yes, Rupin, not the Beast, she chided herself. Rupin's body on top of hers, Rupin's limbs straining, Rupin's breath on her neck, the rigid length of Rupin's cock inside of her. She snatched at one of his arms, drawing it across her throat so that he was holding her locked against him, threatening to choke her. He tried to relax the pressure but she told him no, more, and he listened, constricting, tightening on her, choking her off until her lungs screamed for air. Pain helped her focus; think about the man, she told herself, think about Rupin, think about only the man, only the man's body, only the man's breath, only the feeling of the man, only the feeling of—
Her fingers clawed at the furry hide of the rug again and the feeling of it summoned the memory of the Beast's hard, powerful body back. "Oh God!" Leona cried, a strangled sound, and Rupin cried out too, a distracted ecstasy on his part. Leona gaped as she felt the pressure spurting and filling her; it was a surprisingly potent sensation. He released his grip at the same time and she fell forward, collapsing, panting. She buried her face in the floor, unable to meet his gaze for a moment. The fire burned low. She growled under her breath.
Soon the blaze burned down to embers. The room stayed warm. They stretched out on the rug, twined in each other's arms, looking into one another's eyes. A curious anxiety hung on Leona; something else was to be done now, but what? The impression of a task left half-finished lingered but refused to take definite shape. Rupin also seemed to have more on his mind.
"Perhaps this next matter should wait until your father is here…" he said.
She nestled closer to him. "Midnight has come and gone. It's the morning of Epiphany now. You can ask me. Really, you can."
He nodded. "Leona: Will you be my wife?"
In answer, she grabbed his hand and kissed it. It seemed good enough. He smiled. They held onto each other a while yet. Then, almost hesitant, Leona asked, "Do you feel…different?"
"I'm not sure."
"How can we tell if the curse is lifted?"
"I don't know.” He shifted a little, sitting up. "Now that you mention it though, I do feel a bit odd."
"Odd? How?" She sat up with him, her hands on his shoulders.
"I don't know how to describe it. It's like…a straining. I feel like a lock that's just had the key put into it. I feel like—"
"Darling, your hands!"
He looked down; his hands had grown bigger, and his fingers were thick and padded. When he flexed them, they both saw the claws. And now the spots were traveling up his arms, and then spreading over his body. He tried to talk, but his mouth was no longer shaped as it should be. Leona backed away, confused. She shook her head. "Not right," she said, "it's not right. Darling, are you sure the curse would be lifted when someone agreed to marry you?"
"Yes!" Rupin said, with some difficulty. He dropped to all fours, an upright stance now being impossible. "That's what it said: Once I had a bride, I would never change forms again."
Leona thought for a moment. She realized what it meant. Then she laughed; she didn't mean to, and she regretted it the instant it happened, but she laughed all the same. And then she cried. "Oh Rupin," she said. "I'm sorry. I'm terribly…no, that's a lie, I'm not sorry. I'm just sorry for you. I'm afraid that's all I can do."
If Rupin had an answer, it was lost forever. He stood up on all fours, shaking out his fur, flexing his long, powerful legs. His tail twitched back and forth agitated. Tears welled up in his great green eyes. Leona, still naked, threw her arms around his neck and hung there, kissing the tears away.
"Oh, my Beast," she said, stroking his fur. "How beautiful you are."
It was the morning of Epiphany. The castle doors locked behind them. They would never open again. Smothered in furs, Leona walked the garden path, and beside her, the Beast padded along. The roses on the hedge drooped, already starting to wither in the cold. She hung a garland of them around the Beast's neck. The fragile petals scattered across the snow behind them.
They went over the frozen river, and into the shadows made by the trees and down into the valley, away from prying eyes, forever. And that was where they would stay.