Wherever I tried to live, they would blossom. Outside my father's house. In my sisters' fine gardens. Black petals with a heady, musky perfume--roses not of this world, but the next. Always they were edged in dew, no matter how the sun burned. Once I touched the droplets, put my fingers to my lips, and tasted salt. And I could not forget.
At last, then, I returned, to this dead castle where the long table is always set for dinner. The servants are gone; I do everything myself. I plant and cook, wash and mend, and try not to feel the cold that seeps through velvet and wool and fur, no matter how many layers I wear. I am cold to my bones now, always, because I was too late. I stayed away too long, and when at last I hurried back, he was dead. I told him then how I loved him, but it was not enough. Not quite enough.
Each night, I polish the silver candlesticks, light the beeswax tapers. The table is set with china, with crystal, everything glittering in the dim and dancing light. By the table's head, a great silver platter waits like a frozen lake, like an open mouth.
The moon rides high. From outside comes a scuffling scrape of claw on stone. I have laid no kindling, but the fireplace blazes, feeding off nothing, and I shiver in the sudden heat. When he takes his place at the table, the smell of wet earth and dead leaves chokes my throat, but oh, I have missed him. His suit of crimson velvet is torn and streaked with mud, the lace at the sleeves rotted and dangling. One eye is gone, but the other looks kindly on me.
White bone flashes beneath his hide, and he drops the night's meat onto the platter. Blood pools sluggishly around it. I have no idea what it is; it seems to have no shape I can recognize, no place where legs or head might once have been. He carves it with delicate grace, laying a slice on my plate. It tastes, as always, of blood and earth, and I find I am beginning to savor it. As my fork clinks softly against the thin china, I can almost hear faint echoes of music, the quartet that would have played as we dined.
I buried him that day, but not well enough. Not quite well enough. And in my splintered dreams that night, I was shown everything that might have been. The claws that might have been hands. The bone and hide that might have been warm flesh. If I had not been too late.
When the platter at last is empty, he speaks, in a voice like moth-wings, like dry leaves, like a scattering of black petals.
"Will you marry me, Beauty?"
And again and again, but never enough, lips wet with salt and blood, I kiss him, and tell him yes.
This story originally appeared in Enchanted Conversation.
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