In the beginning was the darkness, and in the darkness was a girl, and in the girl was a secret...
In the domed city of Yuan, the blind Princess Isra, a Smooth Skin, is raised to be a human sacrifice whose death will ensure her city’s vitality. In the desert outside Yuan, Gem, a mutant beast, fights to save his people, the Monstrous, from starvation. Neither dreams that together, they could return balance to both their worlds.
Isra wants to help the city’s Banished people, second-class citizens despised for possessing Monstrous traits. But after she enlists the aid of her prisoner, Gem, who has been captured while trying to steal Yuan’s enchanted roses, she begins to care for him, and to question everything she has been brought up to believe.
As secrets are revealed and Isra’s sight, which vanished during her childhood, returned, Isra will have to choose between duty to her people and the beast she has come to love.
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The city is beautiful tonight. I can tell by the smells drifting through Needle's open window--the last of the autumn flowers clinging to their stalks, their perfume crisper and cleaner than the summer blossoms that came before; fruit sweet and heavy on the trees; and above it all, the heady fragrance of the roses blooming in the royal garden.
I will be out among it all soon. The tower holds me by day, but by night I am a wanderer, a good fellow of the moons. The yellow moon, the blue moon, even the red moon, with its beams that cut angrily through the dome when the Monstrous light their funeral fires in the desert. I call the moons by secret names; they call me Isra. I am not their princess, or their mistress, or their daughter, or their prisoner. I am Isra of the wild hair and quick feet clever in the darkness. I am Isra of the shadows, my secret made meaningless by moonlight.
I am ready to see my moons, to see anything.
It's been four endless nights since I visited the roses.
The Monstrous draw closer to Yuan than ever before. There are city soldiers everywhere, prowling the wall walks, fortifying the gates, testing for weaknesses in the dome, padding the trails from the city center to the flower gardens to the orchards to the fields, and back again, in their soft boots.
They would never survive in the desert outside. Their boots are glorified house slippers, their feet soft and vulnerable beneath. I'm certain I have more calluses on my feet than any of Baba's soldiers, rough spots on my toes and heels that catch and hold on stone.
I can practically feel the stone of the balcony's ledge digging into my skin now, grounding me as I hover in the hungry air at the edge of the world. . . .
My toes itch. My tongue taps behind my teeth. My skin sweats beneath my heavy blanket. Just a few more minutes. Surely Needle will put out her light soon. My maid insists it's impossible to smell wax melting from across the room, but I can smell it, and it keeps me awake, even when I'm not biding my time, waiting for the chance to escape.
An untended flame is dangerous, and this tower has burned before.
I dream about that fire almost every night--flames blooming like a terrible flower, devouring the curtains and the bed, licking at my nightgown. Baba's strong hands throwing me to the ground, and my head striking the stones before the world goes black. And finally, the door splintering and my mother's cry as she hurls herself from the tower balcony.
That night is my clearest memory from the time before. One of my only memories. I don't remember my mother's face or the color of Baba's eyes. I don't remember romps in the garden or holiday dinners at court, though Baba swears we had them. I don't even remember the sight of my own face. My mother forbade mirrors in the tower, and after her death, I had no need of them. My eyes never recovered from the night Baba saved me from the flames. For a day or two, the healers thought they might--I saw flashes of light and color in the darkness--but within a week it was obvious my sight was gone forever. I've been blind since I was four years old, the year my mama joined the long line of dead queens.
"Terribly unfair," I've heard people whisper when they don't realize the figure in the garden with the cloak pulled over her head isn't another noble out for a walk, "that the princess should lose her mama and her eyes all at once."
I want to tell them my eyes are not lost. See? Here they are. Still in my head. But I don't say a word. I can't reveal myself. No one knows what the princess of Yuan looks like these days. I haven't been knowingly allowed out of the tower since my tenth birthday. If the Monstrous breach the walls, Father is certain I'll be safe here until the mutants are destroyed. There is only one door leading into the tower, and Baba and his chief advisor, Junjie, are the only ones who know where the key is hidden.
They have no idea that I don't need a key. Or a door.
I only need my sentry to put out her light and go to sleep!
I muffle a frustrated sigh with my fist. She's probably sewing in bed again. Needle has sewn me a dress each month for the past year. This one is green, she told me.
Lovely, I said, and rolled my eyes. As if I need another dress. I'm drowning in dresses. I've begged her to stop--or at least make something for herself--but she won't listen. One would think she's deaf as well as mute. If one didn't know better. If one hadn't been caught sneaking out of one's bedroom a dozen times, betrayed by the squeak of the bed frame or the crack of an anklebone.
That's why I have to wait. I have to be sure. . . .
Another half hour ticks away with maddening slowness. I've decided Needle has indeed forgotten to put out her candle--again!--and am about to throw off the covers, when I hear the shup of the silver cap smothering the flame, and catch a whiff of smoke and the tail end of Needle's soft sigh as she curls beneath her blankets. Needle doesn't make many sounds, but of those she does, that sigh is the saddest.
I'm suddenly ashamed of myself. Poor, tired Needle, the common girl without a voice, sworn to serve the princess without sight.
When I'm queen, I will give her a better job. Something far away from me and the burden of my misbehavior. When I'm caught sneaking from the tower--and I will be caught, no matter how careful I am; there are only so many precautions a blind girl can take--she will be the one who's punished. I know that, but I can't stop. I need the night. I need the feel of my hair lifting from my shoulders as I run.
There is no wind in Yuan. Wind is a fairy tale, a magical, invisible force that stirs the planet, assuring living things that the world still moves. Under our dome, the air is too still. It smothers, clutches, a hand tightening into a fist that will someday crush the city to pieces.
It's been nearly a millennium since those outside the domes were mutated by the toxic new world, but the past two hundred years have been the most devastating for the people living in the cities. All but three of the original fifteen settlements have fallen to the monsters in the desert. The messenger birds from the king of Sula and the queen of Port South come less and less frequently. One day they will stop altogether.
Or perhaps our birds will be the first to have their freedom. Either way, Yuan is living on borrowed time. Though probably not as borrowed as mine. . . .
I wait a few more moments--until Needle's breath comes slowly and evenly--before slipping out of bed and eating up the thick carpet between my bedroom and the balcony with eager feet. Seventeen steps to the bedroom door; twenty-seven down the hall, past the sitting room, through the music room, and out onto the balcony; then three more and the careful fall to freedom. Careful, so I don't follow in my mother's footsteps. Careful, so my escape is only for the night, not for forever.
I brace my hands on the balcony ledge and push off the ground with bare toes, drawing my knees up to my chest, landing atop the parapet in an easy crouch. My fingertips brush the cold marble; my cotton overalls draw up my shins.
The overalls are an orchard worker's suit with wide legs and deep pockets. I stole them from a supply shed near the apple orchard two years ago. Now the legs grow too short. I am seventeen and very tall for a person. Very, very tall. I am taller than Baba, taller even than Junjie, whom I've heard called "an imposing man." I am long and tall, and my skin is coarser than any other I've touched. Even Needle's work-roughened hands are softer than mine, the princess she bathes in cream, washes only with honey soap. My rough, peeling flesh was my greatest clue, back when I was still sorting out the mystery of myself.
Now I understand. I know the real reason I'm locked away from my people.
"I may be tainted, but I'm not a fool," I whisper into the too-tranquil air. It gobbles up my words and swallows them deep, smug in its assurance that the quiet order of the dome will never be disturbed. Seconds later, I bare my teeth in my most ferocious smile, and jump from the ledge.
The night comes alive. Cool air snatches my hair, lifting it from my shoulders, tugging at my scalp. It rushes up my pant legs, shivering over my belly and up my neck. My blood races, and my throat traps a giddy squeal. The tips of my toes beat with their own individual heartbeats as they make contact with the curved edge of the first roof and I take a running leap for the second, deliciously alive with fear.
I've made this descent a thousand times or more, but still a taste of the original terror remains. The first time, my feet didn't know the dips and curves and footholds for themselves. The falls--the six curved roofs below the tower balcony--were only a story told by Baba as we sat in the afternoon sun. My fingers and toes are my eyes. I couldn't see the truth of my way out until I was already over the edge, dropping the ten feet to the top of the first roof. But it was there. Just as my father had said. As were the second and the fourth and the sixth, and the last tumble into the cabbage garden.
I plop down on the hard ground between the cabbage rows--no fertile patch of land is wasted in Yuan--and fold back into a crouch, staying low as I shuffle back and scatter the dirt with my hands, concealing the two deep prints from my landing. There is rarely anyone this close to my prison, but I don't set off right away. With all the guards milling about, Baba surely has a patrol stationed near the tower.
I wait, squirming my toes, ears straining in silence broken only by the faint buzz of the hives at the bottom of the hill. The bees are quieter at night but still busy. I like the hum, the evidence of nonhuman activity. We used to have wild birds under the dome, too--all different sorts, some night singers, some day--but the last of them died years ago. Father said it was an avian epidemic.
"Why didn't it take the messenger birds, then?" I asked him at the time. "Or the ducks and geese by the orchard pond? Why did only the wild birds die?"
"Wild things don't always survive under the dome," he said.
There was something in his voice that day. . . .
It made me wonder if he knows I'm not as biddable as I pretend to be, if he knows I'm wild, and doesn't hate me for it. Or at least doesn't blame me. It's not as if I asked to be born this way, with a taste for defiance and a longing for the hot desert wind, the wind I felt only once, the day my mother took me for a forbidden walk outside the city walls.
I'll never have that wind again--if I left the city for any length of time, I would die of thirst or sun poisoning, if the Monstrous didn't get me first--but I can have my night runs. I can have the autumn smells, the satin of rose petals between my fingertips, and the sweeter sting of the roses' thorns.
My mouth fills with a taste like honey and vinegar mixed together. The rose garden. How I love and loathe it. How I need it and hate the needing. But still, I'll go there first tonight. I want to see the color of the sky, know which of my moons hangs heaviest above the dome. I am efficient in my darkness, but how I crave the moonlight!
It's hard to wait, but I don't move a muscle, don't twitch a nostril, even when my nose begins to itch in the way noses never fail to do when you're not able to scratch them. Two minutes, three, and finally my patience is rewarded with the soft, rhythmic scuffing of leather boots on stone.
Scuff, scuff, scuff, scuff. I am a soldier, this is my song, and I shall scuff it all the day long. I am a soldier and these are my boots, the biggest shoes for the biggest brutes.
My lip curls. Soldiers. Ridiculous. Yuan needs a third as many, and those should be stationed at the Desert Gate and Hill Gate and around the wall walks, where the rest of the city won't have to bear witness to their strutting about.
Our only hope is to keep the mutants out. If they make it inside, the city will fall. If we've learned anything from the destruction of the other domed kingdoms, it should be that. The Monstrous are bigger, stronger, with poison seeping from their claws, and skin as thick and hard as armor. They can see in the dark and live on nothing but a daily ration of water and cactus fruit. They are brutal beasts determined to destroy humanity and take our cities for themselves.
But our bounty will never be theirs. If they kill the keepers of the covenant, Yuan will turn to dust like the other cities and the land beyond our walls. Magic is loyal only to those who have bought and paid for it. With blood. Hundreds of years of blood, blood enough to fill the riverbed beneath the city and carry us all to the poison sea.
As soon as the soldier scuffs away, I scurry between the rows of cabbages on tiptoe, leaving as little sign of my passing as possible, counting the eighteen steps to the road, the four steps across it, the fifteen steps down the softly sloping hill--also planted with cabbage; oh, the cabbage I have eaten in my life--and into the sunflower patch. My fingers brush their whiskery stalks, feeling the heavy flowers bob far, far above me.
What People are Saying About This
It's been a really long time since a book made my heart speed up, my breathing shallow because I was so engrossed...It's just been a while since a book managed to truly blow me away. --(Bookseller Review from Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore)
Stacey Jay really takes ownership of the story. She truly transforms this classic love tale, breathing new and creative life into an old plot line. Of Beast and Beauty is a fantastic young adult romance. --(Bookseller Review from Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore)