-Angela Carter, "The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman."
It was agreed: Leona would stay with the Beast for 12 days, and then decide whether or not to marry him.
Rupin and Leona’s father brokered the deal during Rupin’s Christmas banquet, at his castle in the countryside. Rupin seemed quite taken with her father, asking him all sorts of questions about his trading with the Indies, and even inviting them to stay overnight after all the other guests had gone.
Only later did Leona learn it was not her father who so fascinated Rupin, but herself.
The agreement was only that she would stay with him and then hear his marriage proposal. She was under no obligation to say yes, or do anything else except keep him company for the holiday.
"Time enough for us to get to know one another," Rupin told her, kissing her hand like the perfect gentleman. That had been the second day of Christmas, after the banquet, and those were the first words he spoke directly to her.
From that moment on she hated him, and it was then she nicknamed him “Beast.”
Judging from the gifts he offered, he must be nearing the point of desperation for a wife. Leona wondered why he’d never married anyone else in all these years, but her father showed a remarkable lack of curiosity about it.
“You could do much worse for a husband,” he told her as he climbed into the carriage that morning. He’d fixed a single winter rose from Rupin’s garden in his buttonhole, still red and vibrant despite the snow on the ground. “And if you for some asinine reason decide to tell him no then there’s no harm done.”
Leona had no intention of accepting any proposals, of course. Rupin was charming, she admitted. He was also handsome, and scholarly, well-spoken, well-dressed and well-groomed, with a pleasant voice and a habit of always saying just the right thing.
His conversations were enlightening, and he made it clear that he prized her opinions. Plus he was fantastically rich, and from a prestigious 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) regarded him.
She, a merchant's daughter of no particular lineage and no particular beauty, who had lived in the region for only three months, could never have dreamed of attracting such a suitor normally.
Nevertheless, she hated him.
Generally they saw little of each other, 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. 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 a conversation. He was witty and incisive and sometimes close to brilliant, which of course was incredibly annoying.
She was consistently rude and unpleasant in return, but he never seemed bothered. He was mild and amiable company at all times, never becoming angry no matter how hard she tried.
After dinner they would retire to the library. Rupin had an abominable fondness for fairy tales and he would usually read a selection to her. He seemed fluent in virtually every language known, and translated 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.
She waited until the part when the Green Knight challenged Gawain to a contest (even though Gawain knew the knight was immortal and could never be killed) and then spoke up.
“And did he accept?” she broke in. Rupin’s eyes flicked up from the book.
"Yes," he said.
Leona snorted. "Idiot. It would have been smarter of him not to show."
"But that would have been a mark against his honor."
Rupin sat in an overstuffed chair with his legs crossed, one slippered foot dangling. Leona, who could never bear sitting still in Rupin's presence, paced the room, occasionally stabbing the fire with a poker. There was a lion skin rug in front of the hearth that she took particular joy in trampling.
"I'll take a live man over an honorable corpse any day," she said. "At the end of the day it's the dishonorable man who walks away."
"Maybe," Rupin said. "But, if you'll hear the rest—"
"I will not," said Leona. "I've already taken what lesson from it I care to. 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, and this pleased her.
"Now my lord, I'm afraid your story has given me a terrible headache. I must retire."
"Of course. Nothing is more important than your wellbeing.”
Rupin set the book aside. "But 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 the evening's tale. 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. He kissed her hand again.
"Until tomorrow night. You remain, as always, the highlight of my day," he said. Then he left.
"Beast," Leona said to the closed door. Then she went to the windows. This spot afforded a good view of the garden where Rupin took his otherworldly constitutional.
Snow piled high outside. It had snowed every night since she came here. Frost tinted the petals of the roses 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 not to understand their special qualities, saying that they’d always grown here, long before he lived in the castle.
There were many strange things about the castle: For example, Rupin seemed to have no servants or staff, but the rooms were always 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. Leona wasn’t sure if she believed him.
Now she watched him as he wandered back and forth through the maze of rose hedges, until eventually he disappeared from sight. She didn't bother snuffing the lamps in the library or dousing the fire when she left; it would take care of itself, like it always did. She went to bed.
Lying in bed that night, she declined to count sheep in favor of counting the ways she’d be revenged on her father when this confinement was over. Each little torment made her smile. With that smirk on her face she drifted off to sleep…
And woke hours later with a start. The room had become hotter than hell. She threw off the covers and ran to the window, throwing it open, heedless of the snow blowing in. She stripped off her night clothes and gasped as the icy air stung her naked, sweat-drenched body.
It should have helped, but it didn’t. The heat was not a principle of the room but of something inside of her. She pushed her knees together, feeling self-conscious despite there being no one around. Her hands crept down her body, gliding over the curve of her thighs and—
She saw something. Across the way, in a tower room she believed was Rupin's, a light shone on the balcony. Was something moving out there?
Yes: The balcony door was open, and a shape was silhouetted against it. It was not a human shape. She leaned out, unmindful of her nudity. Rupin's window (if it was Rupin's window) opened fully and the thing, whatever it was, climbed out.
It was some kind of animal, as big as a horse but as lithe and graceful as a cat. It paced the length of the balcony on all fours, its tail twitching, perhaps waiting for something. And then, in one bound, it leapt the balcony railing and was gone.
Leona was so shocked she ran out onto her own balcony and looked down. She expected to see the broken body of some animal lying there, but instead the creature appeared to have landed on its feet. Visible only in the dim light reflected off the snow, it took off as quick as you please, running for the garden and vanishing behind the rose hedges.
Leona waited for several minutes more, but it didn’t reappear. After a while, the light went off in Rupin's window.
She fastened the doors. Her feet ached from exposure to the snow. Somehow, a blaze had kindled in her fireplace. Wrapping herself in a robe, she sat and pondered the flames.
What had the half-glimpsed creature been? Did Rupin have some kind of exotic pet? Was he planning an absurd holiday surprise for her, the enormous feline part of some circus show?
No: One look had been enough for her to know that it was no tame animal. It had been sniffing the air as it paced. It was a hunter. It was out after something right now.
And what, she wondered, was its prey?
Christmas passed one aggravating day at a time. Rupin's treatment of her became even more lavish, the food at dinner even more decadent, and the gifts he gave all the more extravagant. Her dislike for him throbbed like an infection.
She felt she might have left the castle altogether in spite of their agreement (Rupin was so callow 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 giant animal made her disregard the idea.
Though she'd seen it only once more, 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.
The resident creature was an object of intense curiosity for her. She wanted to know what it was, and the idea of leaving the castle without plumbing the mystery further was unacceptable.
Naturally her first idea 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.
Once, excusing herself for a morning walk, she ranged as far afield as she dared and discovered signs of the midnight hunting: blood frozen in the snow.
That the creature was dangerous she was certain. That its inexplicable but undeniable 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 didn’t suspect 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 wanted to keep from her.
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 six 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. Rupin must have done something with it. A waste of time in the making.
When the hour approached she made certain to arrive inconveniently early. She’d observed that this annoyed him more than being late, and so the extra few minutes in his presence were worth it.
She was about to knock when she corrected herself. No reason to start being polite now. So she simply barged in, but when she saw what was inside she stopped, wide-eyed, and then, careful not to make any noise, crept back out.
She flushed and looked at the blank face of the closed door. Had she really seen what she thought she’d seen? She bent down to peer through the keyhole.
The room, formerly empty, was now covered with oil paintings of singular and exquisite quality. And Rupin stood with one hand pressed to a table for support, and his other hand was…Leona squinted.
There could be no doubt about it: Rupin was masturbating, fondling his long prick right there in the middle of the room.
Even through the heavy door she could hear his grunting. He almost sounded as if he was in pain.
Why in the world was he doing this here and now? Did he do this every time he planned to meet with her? The thought simultaneously sickened and amused her.
She looked at his prick. She couldn’t help it. The engorged head appeared shiny in the lamplight. Surrounded as it was by the blue velvet lining of his breeches and the gold-fringed hem of his coat, it put her in mind of a naval officer standing at attention.
Still, there was something crassly appealing about the sight of him bent like a jackknife, 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 slippers on the carpet. She even wondered if she was dreaming.
Leona realized that she had long regarded Rupin as if he were some sort of eunuch, and maybe even thought it was really so. The concept of Rupin and sex normally seemed as far apart as any two things could be.
It wasn't that he wasn't attractive, 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.
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 nearly every woman in the township, according to local gossips.
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 growing bored of them?
Or was this lonely, earnest masturbation his only outlet?
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 go take his cock in her hands? What if she got on her knees and licked him up and down it, savoring the taste before popping him into her mouth?
She assumed he would be utterly ashamed and melt into self-loathing, which was a pleasing thought. Then again, maybe he’d surprise her even more by throwing her down and having his way with her right there on the floor.
That made her queasy, but might be just uncharacteristic enough to be worth it…
But she stayed where she was. She wanted to see him finish. Minutes passed though, and it became apparent that if she didn’t interrupt then he would just keep going on and on. So, straightening herself and hoping she was rid of her telltale blush, she knocked as firmly as she could.
She imagined Rupin jumping up and trying to cover himself in a panicked rush. She knocked a second time, then entered. He looked for all the world like his normal self when she came in. When he kissed her hand she noticed he was not wearing gloves, meaning that the bare hand that a second ago had been fondling his penis was now caressing her fingers…
"My dear lady," he said. “How are you?”
“I'm exquisite, thank you so much for asking," she said, and she gave him her most dazzling smile.
Rupin let only a half second's surprise show before regaining his usual demeanor. "Lovely," he said. "I'm so glad you've joined me. I wanted to show you the new acquisitions.
The old, empty gallery was no longer empty. Framed oil paintings hung on the walls, a series of artful nudes. Leona 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.
Each selection was even more explicitly erotic than the last, but Rupin never commented on this. Instead he lectured quite tiresomely about the technique of each. She watched him to see if his face would give away any hint of an ulterior motive, but he never flinched.
Her curiosity aroused even more, she stopped him in the middle and said, "Do you mind if we retire to the study? I’m suddenly in the mood to hear your reading voice."
"Of course," Rupin said. If he was surprised again he was better at hiding it. “Your pleasure is always the most important thing.”
Leona put her arm through his as he escorted her down the hall, leaning into him just a little. 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?"
"Whatever you like."
She indicated a volume on a nearby shelf: The 1001 Nights. Rupin 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. She waited for the moment she knew was coming, when the sultan goes to spend the first night with his new virgin concubine (actually an enchanted mermaid, although he doesn’t know it yet), then interrupted.
"That's not how the story goes,” Leona said.
Rupin looked up. "Pardon?"
“You skipped a part. Let me see it." 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.”
She looked up. “See? You left this part out. What a slipshod scholar you must be.” She “read” on:
"He tested the inviting, pliant smoothness of her maidenhead, expecting her to wince or cry out but instead finding that she was receptive. She watched him with her dark eyes and spoke not a word. What a wondrous creature, thought the king as he disrobed and prepared to rend the girl's maidenhead and claim her for his own. He nearly ripped his garments 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. 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. 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 to indulge fully in the sweet pleasures promised by her body and by the furtive, secretive glances of her dark, silent eyes.”
She looked up at Rupin again. He hunched in his chair, like a small child being scolded.
“Her legs parted. She accepted him in. He wished only that she would look him in the eyes and speak his name, but she stayed mute. Perhaps she cannot speak at all, he thought, instantly heartbroken at the idea that he would never hear this beautiful bird sing. Or perhaps, he thought, she will sing when I give her a proper reason. Yes, perhaps then she will sing as long and loud as a nightingale.”
Rupin cleared his throat. Leona leaned back, lifting the book so that he would have a view of her breasts straining against the neckline of her dress. She parted her legs the tiniest bit.
"Her hot, soft flesh was completely pliant underneath him. He mastered her completely. They spent the entire night on the divan bed, the king lost in hot ecstasy, the slave girl as mysterious and aloof as ever. Her breasts shook and swayed with the motion of their lovemaking, a hypnotic rhythm that held the king's eyes.
“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. Sugar on his tongue.
“The motion of them turned hard and 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.
“What kind of satisfaction was this that only birthed a new and more fervent desire? Where was the final the relief from this hot hunger? Where was the line between them? Had they always been two separate halves waiting 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—"
“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 watched him go and then laughed.
She thought about following him…but no, she decided, let him go, off to his bedchamber or to his gallery or wherever. She hugged the book to herself.
Maybe Rupin would be so embarrassed now that he'd send her away early. That would be the most gratifying victory of all, to know that she'd deprived him of the extra time in which he might have hoped—
There was movement down below, in the garden. Was it—? Yes, it was Rupin. From the window, she saw that 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 interruption in his routine?
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, sent from home) and the fur-lined coat as well, wrapping herself tightly and then barging out into the elements.
The snowfall was gentle but thick, and it obscured her view. She took a single covered lamp, and Rupin's tracks were still fresh enough that she could follow him. What she would say when she found him she didn’t know. She only knew that she was angry, and her anger demanded confrontation.
Her pride was much-abused by this entire affair, and she'd held her tongue until now, but there were limits. If her father had ordered her to marry Rupin she could have lived with that, much as she hated him. She could have played the martyr to her satisfaction then; lots of women had.
But this ritual of lending her out, like a good draft horse, borrowed for the season? That was simply barbaric. And the suggestion that she would ever, ever consent to marry Rupin of her own free will? That was the ultimate insult.
She might be forced into such a thing, for lack of the power to prevent it. But she would never choose it. That he thought such a thing was possible was the most beastly thing about him. His presumption was why she hated him. And the reason why he had to pay.
She worked herself into such a fury that she almost didn’t see it right in front of her: a splash of blood, frozen in the snow. A little at first, and then more, and when she turned the corner around the hedge of a rosebush (unnatural winter blossoms shifting in the win) it was as if the ground itself bled.
Here was the body of the fawn, its neck bent and legs tangled together. It must have been lost and crept in to nibble the foliage on the bushes. And then…
Leona heard the crunch of heavy footsteps on the snow. Her light flickered with the shaking of her hand. Don't turn around, she thought. If you never see it, maybe it won’t really be there.
But of course, she wanted to see it. Even if it meant dying.
Later, she’d comfort herself that at least she didn’t scream when she turned. It helped, perhaps, that she saw it for only a second. Any more of those agate green eyes, those powerful paws, that lean, muscular body, and the lustrous texture of its fur smeared with blood would have been too much.
It was a leopard, she saw, but many times larger than any other of its kind. The king of cats. The shifting wind brought the scent of its carnivore feasting to her nostrils. The animal stared through her. Though it had just eaten, 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 and waited for the killing moment. At least it wouldn’t take long. A virile hunter can kill in one swipe of its paw. She imagined her body sprawled out next to the fawn, their blood comingling, her skin as white as the snow beneath her. She waited with arms spread…
But it didn’t happen. She stood there in the storm, holding her breath, but inexplicably she kept on living. The great cat, it seemed had gone, and she was alone again.
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 he meant to formally ask for her hand.
He was in the midst of reading her some horrid Russian fairy tale, but Leona wasn’t 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. How gracious, the people will say, how gallant!
And she is a lovely girl, they will whisper (lovely, but not beautiful). Yes, that much they'll grant her, though their voices will have an edge of pity, 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 perfectly tragic…
"Beast!" she muttered.
Rupin glanced up from the book.
"Yes, I was calling you a beast," Leona said, louder. She went to the fireplace, jabbing at the burning logs. The light from the embers reflected in the glass eyes of the lion skin rug, gilding its bared fangs. "Do you find me charming, Beast?" Leona said.
"As sunshine on a winter morning," he said, absently. "I seem to have lost my place. I think it was—"
She threw the book across the room. He crossed his arms.
"Forget that," she said. "I asked if you find me charming."
"I already answered you."
"I didn't like that answer. Give me another one."
"Which answer would you prefer?”
She switched tracks. "You mean to ask me to marry you tomorrow. Do you think I’ll say yes?"
The storm was particularly violent tonight, and the wind howled against the windows. At times Leona thought the old castle might shake to pieces over their heads.
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 great animal was no longer about the grounds, it seemed. She hadn’t seen nor heard a trace of it since that night. Its absence made her edgy. She was sure Rupin was responsible.
“You know you’re not a real man, don’t you?” she said, still holding the fire poker.
"What am I then? A beast?"
"Not even that! A beast has mettle. A beast feels. You're more like a painting. A figure without substance. Have you ever fucked a woman? I bet not. I think you'd break. Like a doll."
Still he didn’t 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.
"I’ve slept with men before. If you’re going to propose you should know that. Let me tell you about the last one: 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. Do you want to hear how he did it to me?"
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. He ran his hands through his hair, a distressed gesture she'd seen him use only once before. He left, and she knew without even going to look that he was going to the garden.
She sat with her back to the window, refusing to watch him. Tomorrow it would all be over. But no matter what happened it couldn’t erase the embarrassment of it all. She wanted to wound Rupin's dignity as badly as he had hers. She wanted him never to recover.
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 he'd never forget, wouldn't it? Not that she really wanted to die, of course. She just wanted a gesture grand enough to convey the proper, stinging rebuke. It would be just as good to—
The sound made every hair on her body turn upright: the call of the great cat, as loud and as bloodthirsty as ever. Coming from…just the other side of the library door!
Leona held her breath, and her heart froze. She heard the click of its claws dragging across the tiles just outside. The whiteness of a blizzard outside blotted out all of the windows. Leona approached the doors, touching the cool brass of the knobs and turning them.
It was there. Its eyes made her knees weak. They were so close that she could have counted the spots on its hide.
She backed away as it came in, the whiskers around its muzzle twitching as its lips pulled back around the warning growl. She backed up until her spine was against the fireplace stones, and when there was nowhere else to go she slid to her knees. Is this really happening, she thought? Please, whatever happens, don’t let this be a dream…
The animal shouldered past the tables and chairs, knocking everything out of its way. Soon she was on her back on the lion skin rug and it was standing over her, peering down. She felt the tips of its fur, soft and coarse at the same time. Its breath (and the scent of blood) choked her. She gasped as its rough tongue licked her cheek.
This is it, she thought. This time she would really die. She was afraid, but still pleased. They’d find her here, sprawled out on the floor of the library like the body of the fawn in the snow. It seemed as beautiful an image as any in Rupin’s art gallery. A shame she hadn’t thought to take off her clothes. It would have made a picturesque nude scene….
Without thinking, she raised her head and gave her killer a kiss. It was a small gesture, pressing her lips to its muzzle for less than a second, but it engendered a tremendous reaction.
The animal backed away, as if her kiss had been a spark from the fire. Leona sat up, afraid at first that it was about to run. But something else entirely happened: it changed.
The great leopard grew smaller, and as it diminished its hide rippled and its limbs changed shape, and the spots became a constellation of freckles against tanned skin. The proud, defiant cast of its face gave away to all-too familiar features. Only the eyes stayed the same: hard and staring and deep.
Eventually the cat was gone, and in its place was a dazed, huddled, naked man, his body still racked with the pain of the transformation, sweating and panting as if he’d just finished a fight or a race or a nightmare, or something in between all three. Leona blinked several times, expecting him to disappear, but he remained.
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.
"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 curse, naturally: that I would take the form of a beast every night, and that the curse wouldn't be lifted until a woman agreed 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 found out."
"But why?" said Leona. "If marriage would end the curse then what did it matter?"
"The taint of the devil was all over the thing. You don't know what these superstitious country folk are like. I'm lucky they didn’t burn me at the stake. Besides, who would savor the idea kissing a mouth that’s tasted fawn's blood?"
He laughed. Leona, unconsciously, licked her lips.
"You can see, of course, why I asked for you. You and your father are outsiders, so you don't have the same…prejudices, as these people. I thought you might…" He groped for words. "Well, it was a foolish notion. I'm sorry to have brought you into this.”
Leona rubbed his bare arms. "Oh, Rupin," she said. "I'm…" The lump in her throat was pride. She swallowed it. "I'm sorry. How you must have suffered…"
He looked away. "Not suffering. Just shame. I might have killed myself, but would the curse even end then? Or would I be a beast in my tomb, forever? It was unbearable…"
"Please accept my apology anyway."
"Why are you apologizing now? What difference does all this make?"
"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. But it's all right, darling. Don't think about it.”
She combed her fingers through his hair (thinking about the shaggy, clean, beautiful fur of the Beast as she did), and leaned in, her lips finding his. She kissed, and kissed, and kissed, and as she did she drew him up out of the chair and down onto the lion skin with her.
The animal pelt felt so good against her naked back. Rupin was on top of her. Together they fumbled with her clothes. When she closed her eyes she saw the stern, calculating face of the Beast in her mind. It was coming up on midnight and the heat was creeping down into her body. She flexed against him, again, enjoying the sensation of the fur rug on her bare back. So comforting, that feeling. 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 hat 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.
Its body had been intensely hot. The Beast was made of heat. She let her hands crawl down Rupin's bare back and 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.
She remembered the delicious thrill of the Beast pinning her on this spot, and the feeling of its rough tongue on her skin. She imagined running her hands across its flanks, feeling the rise and fall of its ribcage and the hot breaths steaming from its muzzle. She imagined splaying her hands across its hide and tracing invisible lines between its spots…
"Not like this," she said out loud. She turned so that she was up on all fours, her rear arched into the air, inviting. "Take me like this," she said. "This is how I like it."
His 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 savoring the moment?
The Beast would have done it right away. The Beast would be hard and immediate, like with the fawns. Even Rupin didn’t keep her waiting 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 him. 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.
She pictured the Beast mounting on her this way, almost crushing her underneath it. The muscles of its inhuman frame would be as strong as steel. It was a beautiful machine, and she was caught up in it. The throbbing, insistent push of its cock deep inside her would be hard, too. Her nails raked the floor and a chorus of growls, shrieks, and squeals slipped out of her.
She was going to scream, but even as she opened her mouth the Beast's jaws clamped down on the nape of her neck. She froze; it held her like that, helpless and trapped in place while it continued having its way with her. One bite and she would die. Its claws splayed out on the floor next to her hands (so small in comparison). Could her body contain everything the Beast was putting into it? Or would she break into pieces?
Her knees were sore and her arms were close to giving out, but if she let herself fall her own weight and momentum would snap her neck in the Beast's jaws, so she had to remain upright.
She pushed herself up with all her might, but it was harder and harder with all of the power of the Beast pushing, pushing, pushing her down, the muscles of its flanks flexing. It couldn’t go fast enough, she realized. Even its strength was inadequate next to its want. There was still hot blood on its breath. She loved the smell.
Her fingers clawed at the furry hide of the rug. "Oh God!" Leona cried, a strangled sound. The Beast growled under its breath, and then it was spurting and filling her up. It was a surprisingly potent sensation. It released its grip at the same time and she fell, panting in a heap. Her hips and rear stayed arched in the air so that it could continue pumping her again and again. She purred at the hot, satisfying feeling and buried her face in the floor. The fire burned low.
They stretched out on the rug, twined in each other's arms. Of course, it had been Rupin making love to her, not the Beast. But she liked to imagine it had been the other way. Maybe, on some level, it really had.
But now a curious anxiety hung around her. 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. You can ask me."
"Can I? Very well. Leona: Will you be my wife?"
In answer, she grabbed his hand and kissed it. It seemed good enough. 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. I don’t have any experience with curse breaking.” He shifted a little, sitting up. "Now that you mention it, I do feel a bit odd."
"It's like…a straining. Like a lock that's just had the key put into it. I feel—"
They had become bigger, and his fingers were thick and padded. When he flexed them, they both saw the claws.
And now spots traveled up his arms and 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. “I don’t understand. Shouldn’t the curse end when I agree to marry you?”
"Yes!" Rupin said, with some difficulty. He dropped to all fours, an upright stance rapidly becoming impossible. "Or I thought…Leona, you DID want me to be a man, didn’t you?”
Leona thought for a moment. Then she laughed. She didn't mean to, and she regretted it right away, but she laughed all the same. "Oh Rupin," she said. "I'm sorry. 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 shook out his fur and flexed his long, powerful legs and tail. Tears welled up in his great green eyes. Leona, still naked, threw her arms around his neck and hung there, kissing them away.
"Oh, my Beast," she said, stroking him. "How beautiful you are."
It was the morning of Epiphany. Smothered in furs, Leona walked the garden path with the Beast at her side. The castle doors locked behind them, never to open again.
The roses on the hedges drooped, already starting to wither in the cold. She hung a garland of them around the Beast's neck. Their fragile petals scattered across the snow.
They went over the frozen river and down into the valley, away from prying eyes. And that was where they would stay.