Of Beasts and Beauties

Five Full-Length Novels Retelling Beauty and the Beast

Book Cover: Of Beasts and Beauties
Part of the Enclave Fairytale Retellings series:
  • Of Beasts and Beauties

Amid the lovely roses and razor-sharp thorns, love tangles between beasts and beauties in the romantic tale that transcends time...

Five novels retell the classic story of Beauty and the Beast, each with its own twist. Meet a dark-elf prince, a dragonian princess, a brooding vigilante, mighty superheroes, and futuristic guards, and watch as Beast meets Beauty, falling in love across fantasy, science fiction, and romantic suspense.

Each of these novels is only available as part of this set, so don't miss them: enter the enchanted castle and break the spell today!

Preorder now on Amazon!

Excerpt:

Preview of No Man Can Tame by Miranda Honfleur

The raven leered down his long, black beak at Aless as she twirled, his gaze so intense it burned.

A blur of colorful silks and jewel-toned brocades circled her and Bianca in 3/4 time. Ravens, cats, bears, peacocks, wolves… The animal kingdom had come to their king’s call beneath arched ceilings and canopied swaths, or perhaps to catch a glimpse of the notorious Beast Princess back from her worldwide hunt.

Aless hid a smile. If she behaved tonight, Papà might hear her out about the library. Books were always a sore spot with him, but maybe enough time had passed and he’d finally listen.

But surely she could fit some entertainment amid all the behaving? Just a little.

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Signore Raven leaned against a pillar and raised his chin, peering at her through his mask. Oh, he’d been looking at her all evening with those hungry, dark eyes. Signore Cat next to him was the same, ogling Bianca as if she were a plump, unwitting canary.

“Don’t look now,” Aless whispered from behind her lion mask, “but the cat and the raven have been struck dumb.”

Bianca giggled and spun, her slippered feet clicking on the parquet floor to the music of the harp, the flute, the drums, and rebecs, amid a chorus of practiced laughter and effusive tones of conversation.

Bianca adjusted her elaborate tabby-cat mask and tucked a lock of onyx-colored hair behind her ear. “The Belmonte brothers.”

Ah, so the raven and the cat were none other than Luciano and Tarquin Belmonte. Their reputations preceded them.

“Perhaps Luciano will finally become your latest entertainment?” She guided Bianca off the dance floor to the nearest trestle table heaped with fruits, marzipan torte, and custard tarts. She popped a grape in her mouth and held out a goblet until the telltale splashing of poured wine ceased. After a sip of the bubbly white, she handed the goblet to Bianca, all the while keeping her gaze locked on the Belmonte brothers.

The taller of the two, Signore Raven, had to be Tarquin, the younger brother and General of the Belmonte Company of mercenaries; the older of the two, Signore Cat, was Luciano, and after their father’s passing, now visconte of Roccalano.

Tarquin was known for his mastery of the sword and shield, and soldiery in general; Luciano was a political writer first and master of the glaive second, yet he waged war at his brother’s side unequivocally for the highest bidder. Morally fluid, physically fit men, who were good dancers and—if rumor held true—vigorous lovers, but lacked the blood and moral obligation of royalty. These were men intended to be beneath a princess—for a night or two—not at her side. At least in the Sileni court.

And that was for the best. Everyone knew that the most the Beast Princess could hope to have for herself was a bit of entertainment. That much and no more. Papà, after all, planned to force a politically beneficial marriage arrangement on her, whenever he believed expedient.

But as he well knew, she would never agree to anything she didn’t want to do.

“Say a prayer for me, Aless.” Bianca gripped the goblet tightly. She’d been fond of Luciano for months. “I love him,” Bianca breathed.

Love. She’d long given up on love, even if Bianca hadn’t. There was none to be found between duty and royalty. And if there was—it could bring down kings, queens, and kingdoms, hundreds and thousands of lives. Even if love looked for her, she’d turn away. There were more important matters, like Mamma’s legacy.

“I’m already twenty-three,” Bianca insisted, “with no other prospects, so perhaps Luciano could be more? Papà may be keen on sending you to every eligible royal bachelor in the region, but not me.”

There was so much wrong with that statement—where to even begin? “First of all, Papà hasn’t sent me to ‘every eligible royal bachelor in the region,’ and—”

“How is that untrue?” Bianca gulped the wine, then upturned the goblet and drained it entirely. Liquid courage? She glanced over her shoulder at the Belmonte brothers.

“Two. Two royal bachelors in this past year. The Kamerish prince and the Emaurrian—”

“In this past year.” Bianca raised her chin. “And they are all the eligible royal bachelors. All the others are already married or betrothed.” She frowned, her eyes meandering up and off to the side. “Or little children.”

Still, the way Bianca had said it had been all wrong, as if Papà had sent her to innumerable men. Since she’d reached marriageable age, it had been… perhaps… a dozen or two.

And this year, one prince and one king did not an army of royal bachelors make. “Secondly, Papà is only keen on sending me around because he wants to get rid of me. Unlike his favorite daughter.”

Bianca shrugged a languid shoulder and set down the goblet. “It’s only because he finds you so meddlesome.”

“Meddlesome?” She straightened.

It was meddlesome to want to improve her own country? To learn what the paesani needed and to try to see it done? To finally see Mamma’s legacy fulfilled?

Everyone knew what Papà expected of her, yes—but that didn’t mean she couldn’t want anything more, that she couldn’t have dreams of something more. That she had to accept what someone else wanted for her.

“I want to do more than just be foisted onto whomever Papà deems useful enough to him,” she grumbled.

Sighing, Bianca shook her head. “Difficult. And that’s why you’re still the Beast Princess.” With a final shrug, she sashayed back onto the dance floor.

Heat spread across Aless’s skin like nightfall, climbing over every inch until all was dark. But she hadn’t been the Beast Princess all her life without learning to tame her temper.

Bianca was just irked that Papà would likely never allow her to marry Luciano—as much as Bianca fawned over him, that didn’t make his blood royal.

Trying to ignore the rapid pulse in her ear, she popped another grape into her mouth and eyed the dance floor as she cooled.

Guests dressed in the height of Bellanzole couture mingled and danced, wearing masks. Nobility and the nuovi ricchi invented this adventure, preened for one another as usual, ignoring the deep problems in the kingdom. The fashion, after all, was to shock, within an allowable variation, of course. That is, not shocking at all.

Except for Tarquin Belmonte. In a raven mask, black brocade doublet and trousers, and a feathered mourning cloak, he filled out couture well, and he had a lot of nerve showing up to a masquerade at the Palazzo dell’Ermacora dressed in funereal garb.

She grinned. A man with a spine. Good. At least one courtier who didn’t fall all over himself bowing and scraping before Papà. To arrive cloaked in death was to object. An intellectual, or a malcontent, perhaps. Beneath all that muscle and beyond his rank as General of the Belmonte Company, did he object to the oppression of the paesani?

And the Immortali—did he find the ostracizing of them, the bigotry, unbearable? Mamma had always welcomed everyone, rich or poor, Sileni or not, who wanted to live peacefully and learn.

The Sileni were not a hateful people, had not been in centuries, but now they hated with what seemed like the practice of millennia. They had formed the Brotherhood and attacked the Immortali, spread hateful rumors, wanted to massacre them all, peaceful or not.

It was unthinkable. The non-beast Immortali were unusual, yes, sometimes even repugnant, but not universally evil. Most just wanted to survive peacefully, raise families, live quietly. Everyone in Silen—human or Immortali—deserved that chance. She’d been reading a newly transcribed copy of A Modern History of Silen, its new additions. But like every copy of the book, it contained ample blank pages at the end, just like the ones in the older copy Mamma had given her. Ones she hoped to fill with an account of the peace forged between her people and the Immortali.

Did Tarquin feel the same?

To arrive in such a king’s court in the garb of a raven was telling. Especially for a mere signore. Perhaps he shared her ideals, even if he wasn’t royal or good enough for Papà’s approval.

She sighed. Yes, according to court custom, such a man was beneath her—and he would be, tonight.

Eyes locked with his through her lion mask, she turned, rearranging her ample costume mane behind her, and glided through the crowd with ease, mingling, brushing off eager courtiers as she stalked from the Sala di Forza and out onto the balcony. She traded brightly colored silks and paintings of Forza’s many mythical victories for the faraway diamonds dusting the black velvet sky.

There had been no room to breathe in there. All of the palazzo's ballrooms dazzled, but the Sala di Forza was a tribute to one of the Terran faith's greatest heroes, Forza, son of Nox and a mortal woman, a demigod of great strength. Painted with his exploits, great hunts and battles celebrating strength, war, and masculinity, it was Papà’s favorite.

It was suffocating.

With Papà, it was always strength, war, and masculinity. And since he didn’t allow her to learn any of the martial arts—and she loved books as Mamma had—there was just no way to win with him.

She gripped the stone balustrade. Just like Mamma, she’d wanted to build a public library for all—where human and Immortali alike could learn—and Papà had all but exiled her.

Yet Bianca wanted to marry a mere noble mercenary general, and she was the beloved favorite. Lorenzo, her brother and Papà’s precious heir, could whore his way through Bellanzole and bathe in wine, and his reception could be mistaken for that of Forza himself.

She closed her eyes and took three deep breaths. The soft, fresh scent of roses embraced her, surrounded her, as they had countless times in her dreams and fantasies. The same dense, overgrown courtyard of rosebushes in full bloom sprawled before her, mysterious and lovely, exhaling the most spellbinding perfume in the clearest, purest air. She reached out a fingertip and could almost feel the velvety soft petals—

“The lion’s den is the balcony, is it?”

Next to her stood a vision in black feathers, nearly six feet tall and built like a gladiator. Tarquin Belmonte. She blinked, and that spellbinding perfume faded. “Don’t you have a carcass somewhere to peck at?”

A half-laugh. “I have sight of better game.”

Suppressing a grin, she shook her head. “Bold as a raven.”

He rested his hand on the stone balustrade, too, his warm skin just barely touching hers. “Nothing less than bold can be expected to win a princess.”

“Is that what you came here for?” Nobody dealt in boldness like the Beast Princess. She turned to him, covered his hand with hers, and reached for his raven mask. “To ‘win’ me?” When he didn’t move, she took it off.

Carnelian-brown eyes gleamed in the starlight beneath black lashes and matching close-cropped hair; the corners of his mouth turned up mischievously, as if he knew something she didn’t.

She hadn’t expected a handsome face to match the tall, well-muscled physique. But then, she hadn’t seen Tarquin Belmonte in years—since before he’d taken over his father’s mercenary company and grown into that role. And my, had he grown.

“Princess Alessandra,” he said sotto voce, his Roccalano accent melodious, “I have come here for anything you wish of me.”

She should have laughed, but no part of her could muster anything like it. Not at him. Not at those bold words.

His gaze stroked over her once and again. “I know it is a masquerade, but why a lion? And a male lion, at that?”

She smiled, reaching for borrowed words. “Telling you would reveal the answer in the most unexciting way.”

He quirked a brow. Let him sweat a little.

Lively notes plucked on the harp inside—a quessanade corrente.

“Then shall we begin the revelation with a dance?” He offered her his hand.

She took it and replaced his mask upon his head. One night. He could be one night’s entertainment, and he needn’t be more.

He tucked her arm around his and led her back into the grandeur of Sala di Forza.

Across the room, Bianca danced with Luciano, two matching masked cats, but Papà’s willowy page, Alvaro, approached them. He bowed and spoke to Bianca, who smiled, nodded, then promptly bid Luciano goodbye before gliding to the hallway.

Only one thing could drag Bianca away from her quarry.

And now Alvaro, his young face lined grimly, made his way to her. He bowed. “Your Highness, Princess Alessandra, His Majesty requires your presence.”

She spared Tarquin a disappointed shrug. Their revelation would have to wait.

“It must be the Immortali again,” Tarquin said darkly. “A corruption that must be eradicated from the kingdom.”

A corruption?

She frowned, but such fire smoldered in Tarquin’s eyes that it burned the question from her lips.

“Your Highness,” Alvaro prompted.

With perfect form, Tarquin inclined his head to her, and she acknowledged him before turning to leave. It couldn’t be the Immortali. Papà had summoned her, and what Tarquin didn’t know was that Papà would never desire her presence for input regarding an important matter—such as conflicts with the Immortali.

As she followed Alvaro, she shivered. Papà wanting to see Bianca was nothing new, but he could barely stand to look at his other daughter. His Beast Princess. Everyone knew that.

Especially me.

In the dimly lit hall, Bianca offered her a thin smile. A pitying smile.

Papà had only one use for his Beast Princess.

Holy Mother’s mercy. Aless shook her head and swallowed. Not again.

He would send her away again for another courtship. So soon.

But to whom?

***

Aless glared up at Papà, seated up on his throne beneath the high vaulted ceiling. He looked the epitome of regal, dressed in expensive violet silk brocade and wearing the jeweled crown on his coal-black hair streaked with ash. Royal guards in red cloaks lined the room, standing in perfect formation, immovable, intimidating.

He’d called her here, and Bianca, to show them exactly where they stood—far, far below—and who he was. King.

For once, he’d actually detailed the kingdom’s dire need; piracy had depleted the navy, and while the coast needed defending, the heartland was rife with Immortal beasts attacking the paesani and unrest between humans and the Immortali.

“That scoundrel Sincuore and his pirate rats have all but devastated our navy. Our resources must be diverted to replenishing it, meaning we need protection and peace in the heartland.” Papà stroked his close-cropped beard. “The Belmonte brothers have both come here expecting marriages in exchange for their services, but I have only one daughter to give to the Belmonte family, and she is going to Luciano.”

Bianca smiled at her. So she was getting her Signore Cat.

But why had Papà called them both here?

“We are making peace with Nightbloom.” He leaned back in his throne.

The dark-elves? Papà was going to stop the hatred after all—

He’d said he had only one daughter to give to the Belmonte family. That meant…

By marriage.

To the dark-elves.

Her blood ran cold.

He’s offering me up to Nightbloom?

Holy Mother’s mercy, he wanted her to marry one of them? They had claws and fangs, lived in underground caves where not a single rose would grow, and they ate lizards and algae. She shuddered. They had creepy yellow irises, ghostly white hair, and blue skin like a snake’s.

She cast her gaze aside, at the massive tapestry of Forza slaying the hydra. That mythical monster was about as attractive to her as a dark-elf male. She didn’t hate them, but she definitely didn’t want to marry one of them, kiss one of them, sh-share a marriage bed—

She fought back a gag. Those clawed hands on her body, fanged teeth in a mouth kissing hers—

A shudder rattled her bones. Peace was a worthy end, but Papà couldn’t expect her to—to wed one of them.

She didn’t want to. She would never.

“Bianca, you will be wedded to Prince Veron of Nightbloom,” Papà declared, and her gaze snapped back to him. “And Alessandra, you will be married to Luciano.”

Unbelievable.

Bianca’s smile faded like a pappose dandelion in the wind. Her olive skin paled, and the sheen of her agate eyes dulled.

No, it was all wrong. Everything.

“Papà.” Aless shook her head and rubbed her sweaty palms into her tulle gown. “How can you do this? Surely you know Bianca fancies Luciano?” She wrapped an arm around Bianca’s shoulders.

He breathed deeply. “This is what’s best for you.”

I know what’s best for me.” She glared at him.

Bianca can be trusted to do her duty. You cannot. Luciano will know this by now”—her reputation, of course, preceded her, too—“but Prince Veron is not a Sileni. He won’t understand your… spirit, and this kingdom needs a peace with Nightbloom to succeed. We’re fighting wyverns, harpies, basilisks, and all manner of beasts—we can’t afford to fight the dark-elves, too. Their numbers could help us quell the Immortali beasts in the heartland, help relieve the burden on our military. There will be a wedding ceremony here, then another in Nightbloom, and the peace will be sealed.”

She stomped her foot. “I refuse to marry Luciano. You must release Bianca from this… this nightmare of a betrothal.” She took off her lion mask and threw it onto the marble tile.

Papà dropped his forehead into his hand. “Alessandra, this wedding will happen with or without you. You can either appear in person or be married in absentia, but you will be married, and Luciano will take you to Roccalano, with or without your assent.  You will do this, or you will be useless to this kingdom.”

Useless. He’d called her that before, a long time ago, although she was certain he hadn’t known she’d been listening. When she’d been eight years old, Mamma had been lamenting the latest physician’s torture devices.

Must we put her through so much suffering? This treatment must be agony, Mamma had said. And yes, that back brace had been extreme, too rigid, too tight, painful to tears.

We must, Papà had answered sternly. Unless her spine is fixed, she’ll be useless in this world.

In the hallway outside the solar, she had covered her mouth, hidden her tears, smothered her sobs. Even at eight years old, she had resolved to learn everything she could about running a kingdom, even if she had to do it alone. And to never be useless, no matter what Papà thought of her.

And here she was. Boxed into the only purpose he had for her.

Or so he thought.

Bianca sobbed into her shoulder, and Aless rubbed her back gently.

“And Bianca?” she asked. “She clearly doesn’t want to marry that dark-elf male. Will you see her dragged away to their… their cave?”

“If that is what is required.” He regarded Bianca, and his gaze softened. “But Bianca has always understood the burden of royalty. I have faith she will not disappoint.”

What a man of honor, this prince! He’d drag Bianca kicking and screaming to his hole in the ground? “Such a moral and kind man you’ve chosen for her.”

“He is,” Papà answered, unperturbed. “He’s trying to mend the rift between our people. He’s a paragon among his kind.”

“Maybe you should marry him, then.”

Bianca swept her forearm across her eyes and rested a hand on her arm. “Aless… It’s all right. I’ll… I’ll do what Papà says.” She sniffled. “And haven’t you been saying how much you’ve wanted to do something important for our kingdom? Luciano is… a powerful man, and I’m… I’m sure you’ll be a good influence. This is your chance.”

Bianca was in love with Luciano, and Papà had just announced her betrothal to a dark-elf! How could Bianca stand there and say this was all right? Bianca had been waiting for a marriage since her sixteenth year; she was twenty-three now, had finally fallen in love with a man, and was to be married off to some… monster?

Papà was right; Bianca would do her duty. But in doing so, she’d utterly destroy her life. How could she just accept this?

If it were me, I’d fight tooth and nail. I’d find a way to make him release me, even if no one helped me. I’d do it on my own.

If it were her…

Bianca offered her a sad smile and a nod as she turned toward Papà, but Aless grabbed her arm.

Her heart thudding in her ears, she met Bianca’s gaze. She wasn’t going to marry her sister’s love. She wasn’t going to let Bianca live a bleak life. She could make it right. She—

Bianca drew in a sharp breath and shook her head. It didn’t matter. She didn’t need Bianca’s permission.

“Papà,” Aless said, sweeping up her tulle skirts as she clicked up to the first step of the dais. “Send me instead. I’ll wed Prince Veron.”

Behind her, Bianca gasped. “Aless, you can’t! You don’t know what you’re doing! A dark-elf—”

“No. I do know what I’m doing.” She watched Papà’s face, but it betrayed nothing. “Please, let Bianca marry Luciano, and I promise I will marry Prince Veron.”

Papà rested his chin on his fist. “Alessandra, you know I love you. But if we are being honest, you are willful, short tempered, sharp mouthed, and presumptuous. You are everything a man doesn’t want in a wife.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to object, but he did say short tempered.

She sighed. “I won’t say a word to him until the wedding. I will swear the Vow of Silence.”

A vow not to speak to the groom. Many parents in Silen demanded this of their daughters for arranged marriages.

A grin tugged at the corners of Papà’s mouth. What amused him more? Her keeping her peace now, being married off to one of the Immortali, or promising to keep her mouth shut?

Perhaps all of it. “This is an easy choice. Make Bianca happy,” she said, squeezing Bianca’s hand, “and get rid of me. All in one fell swoop.”

Papà sighed with heavy shoulders, no doubt weighed down by two decades of her disappointing him. “I’m not trying to ‘get rid’ of you.”

She shrugged. He could couch it in whatever words he chose. He’d decided he’d had enough of her, and that he’d needed to sacrifice Bianca. Each of them knew this truth, hard as it was, no matter what else he said.

But his silence stretched, and Bianca’s hand went limp in hers.

“With this marriage”—Papà stood—“you will be making peace between two nations. There is no greater thing anyone can do for our kingdom, Alessandra.”

He’d agreed to it!

She wanted to grin, but… she’d just won a wedding to one of the monstrous Immortali. Perhaps there was something more she could add to the bargain. “And the library?”

He looked away.

After years of research, she’d worked tirelessly on the proposal, but he and Lorenzo hadn’t replied. He could at least answer her. “I handed you plans for it, and lists of all the masters to build it and people to run it, scribes to teach reading and writing, and suggestions to finance—”

“That’s what your mother wanted, and look what happened to her!” Papà shouted.

She shuddered. Mamma had died, but she’d devoted her life to sharing knowledge with others, teaching everyone willing how to read. She’d always been known as the wild heart no man could tame, but Papà had loved what she had loved and done the impossible—or at least he’d pretended to support her. Mamma had wanted to build a public library, more than anything, and after her death, everyone had forgotten that. Just as they had forgotten her.

But I haven’t. “Papà, please—”

“Libraries mean paesani who can read, write, and think, who can write pamphlets and treatises, and protest instead of working. Find new ways to destroy us.” He heaved a sigh. “This is a volatile time. The kingdom cannot take such a risk.”

“Papà, that’s—”

“The truth. And Alessandra, do you have any notion of what it costs to build a library and keep it maintained?”

“Yes. It was all there in the—”

“Not monetary cost. You laid out a tax plan to see it done. But the non-monetary costs of taxing our signori, especially now, when many of them are stretched thin or deep in debt to finance defenses against the Immortali? There’s a harpy nest just outside of Stroppiata! We have bigger concerns right now. By enacting your plan, I’d be sowing the seeds of rebellion myself.

“Our survival has not come without sacrifice. Your sister, Giuliana, she married Emaurria’s Prince Robert to become queen, to help protect our kingdom and forge favorable trade terms when her time came. And she was killed. We lost not only our precious Giuliana, but the boons she would have granted our kingdom. And you failed to captivate the new king.”

Captivate? The king was in love with another woman; there had been little else to do but leave gracefully. “He was already—”

Papà held up a hand. “Whatever the reasons, you failed. This is a responsibility you must accept and now account for. The terms are set, and fulfilling your duty now will mean no more paesani lives lost to battles with the dark-elves; no more money spent on it by signori for defenses against them; and it will mean a military ally against the other Immortali, knowledge of this new world, and valuable trade.”

There was no use trying to convince him. He’d already made up his mind; she and Bianca were no more than pawns.

Her library, a place where anyone could go to learn and grow, nobiltà or paesani, human or Immortali—it had only ever been a dream, just like the courtyard of overgrown roses and its spellbinding perfume.

But she—she would do what was required to make peace between her people and the dark-elves. It didn’t necessarily have to be marriage.

I’m not useless. But I won’t let you define my purpose.

She crossed her arms and lowered her gaze. “Fine.”

“Good.” He descended the steps and placed a hand on Bianca’s shoulder. “Your wedding will be three days after Alessandra’s. Congratulations, luce dei miei occhi.” He cupped her face in one hand. “You will make a beautiful bride.”

Bianca smiled as he dabbed at her tear-streaked cheeks. Her large, doe eyes were soft. “Thank you, Papà.”

He grinned back at her, then raised Aless’s chin with an abrupt finger. “Alessandra. Try not to destroy the peace. I know it is difficult. But try.”

She scrunched her face, and his eyes gleaming, he walked away, his guards trailing him.

Her life could be over, and he jested? Holy Mother’s mercy.

She’d agreed to wed the dark-elf prince, and to say nothing to him until their marriage vows, and so she would. She would complete the wedding in Bellanzole and the consummation, and say no words to him until after that.

No words. She smiled. But there were other ways to get a point across.

***

Veron swept out an arm and caught the stone before it could hit his fey horse, Midnight.

Good catch, wasn’t it? he thought to Midnight, who only snorted.

“Get out of our kingdom!” an elderly human woman wailed at him from the small crowd, spittle flying from her mouth.

“Divine take you!” another cried. “And all the rest of the monsters!”

Monsters.

“Silence!” Riza spat. “You human filth dare attack Prince Veron? Danika, Gavri”—she cocked her hooded head toward two of the kuvari guarding him—“cut out their tongues. Now.”

Danika and Gavri dismounted, boots thudding on the spring grass, and drew their vjernost blades. The small crowd shrank away.

“Captain,” Veron said, muffled through his face mask. Danika and Gavri halted, though they stood ready to attack.

Riza turned to him and inclined her head the merest fraction. “Your Highness.”

One of the human children ogled them wide eyed. Veron chuffed softly and tossed the stone to him.

He pulled aside his leathers to expose the royal black sun tattoo over his heart to the humans. “No harm was done, Captain. They did not know me.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Highness—”

“No harm was done.” Firmer this time.

Mati’s orders had been clear: Keep your peace, but do not allow any harm to come to the valaz. Harm none unless he is harmed. And even Riza wouldn’t dare to disobey his mother, queen of Nozva Rozkveta.

“Highness.” Riza nodded coolly. “Mount up!” she bellowed to Danika and Gavri, then turned on the humans, scowling. “Remember this day, humans. You keep your tongues at the mercy of Prince Veron u Zara u Avrora u Roza, Valaz u Nozva Rozkveta, Zpevan Kamena, Volodar T'my. But disrespect His Highness again, and I won’t be able to hear his mercy over the sound of your blood spraying.”

Subtle, Riza. Very subtle.

The crowd scattered, some humans sprinting away, others running with occasional glances over their shoulders. The human child stood frozen, eyes wide as moons, clutching the stone to his chest.

“Hyah!” Riza urged her horse forward.

He sighed inwardly, smiling behind his face mask at the human child as the cavalcade moved once more, continuing down the cypress-lined road to Bellanzole and the soaring Palazzo dell’Ermacora. He’d always liked children, and human ones were no different, even if they didn’t recognize royalty.

Dark-elf royals did not adorn themselves in the golden crowns and circlets to which the human peasantry were accustomed to seeing on theirs; dark-elves knew their royalty by their bearing, their demeanor, their faces, and as a last resort, by their black sun hearts, tattooed by royal czerni ink at birth, which would someday inkbond each to a mate. Humans hadn’t seen one of his kind in millennia; their ignorance was understandable, if inconvenient.

Nozva Rozkveta’s scribes had been working tirelessly to bridge the gap between Old Sileni and the modern tongue, and although he, his party, and many of the other dark-elves spoke the modern tongue now, that didn’t cure the ignorance.

Mati had sent him—and the entire host of dark-elves—on a mission of peace, leaving camps of dark-elf troops in his wake to help keep the peace for themselves and the humans against the beasts, all part of the bargain struck between Nozva Rozkveta and the kingdom of Silen.

Was it too much to hope for his fellow elves of the dark to set aside their loathing for the humans, just long enough to make it to Bellanzole and back to Nozva Rozkveta? Never mind full sympathy and tolerance. That would take time.

The humans didn’t have firm slate-blue skin, sharp claws, large amber irises, fangs, or marble-white hair, and those traits alone were enough to condemn the elves of the dark as monsters.

The humans were full of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of anyone who did not look, sound, and think just like them. As divisive as that fear was, it didn’t have to be deadly if they’d only just recognize it for the irrational madness it was, and resolve to overcome it by actually learning about one another.

Today, that fear had deepened. And if no one acted to stop it, this was how relations between their peoples could continue—divided; in a land now teeming with Immortals, the humans would die without the information the dark-elves could so easily provide, and the dark-elves would die without the trade the humans could so easily provide.

Or they could mend this rift. Starting with him. It was the humans who should’ve acted first to apologize for their ignorance, but if he waited for them, everyone would die to it first.

He rode up to Riza, who eyed him peripherally and hissed.

“I do not question my queen’s wishes,” she said.

“But you, Your Highness,” Gavri cut in, shaking her head vehemently and sending her braid swinging from side to side, “our most valued valaz, are doomed to wed one of them? It is a sad fate.”

“Do not question Queen Zara,” Riza hissed at her, and Gavri inhaled sharply but nodded.

He’d known both of them his entire life; they were as much his friends as they were his royal guards. They could always be trusted to tell him the truth.

He gazed out ahead, at the humans’ world of lush green, so different than home, with its flowstone walls, helictite and ribbon-stalactite adorned ceilings, treasures like anthodites, frostwork, and moonmilk decorating the alluring darkness.

Human mages shaped this sky realm with magic like the Stone Singers shaped the deep realm with song, spelling buildings and roads like the Stone Singers sang stalagmites, stalactites, columns, and pillars.

The humans and their sky realm were different, but difference was not inherently bad. That was a lesson that humans could learn. He’d brought a myriad blooms grown from the wellspring of Nozva Rozkveta’s power, a gesture he hoped would demonstrate the bridge that could exist between their realms.

“It’s what I was born to do, Gavri,” he replied, and her head perked up. “I’ve been raised knowing my life is not my own, but to be bargained away by my mother, to strengthen Nozva Rozkveta and our people.”

Riza nodded. “And you perform your duty with honor and valor.”

Gavri bit her lip. “But they… they are just so ugly.”

He laughed under his breath while Riza hissed at her again.

When Mati had told him he was to marry one of the humans, he’d determined to do his duty regardless of his personal feelings. But oh yes, humans were ugly. Their women, he’d heard, weren’t taut and toned like dark-elf women; human women were soft like the very livestock they raised for slaughter. They had no fangs or claws, which even dark-elf children had. And their skin—thin, delicate, and the color of cooked meat. By Deep and Darkness, it was all he could do not to gag.

But he didn’t have to desire the human. He just had to wed her. And there was far more to marriage than mere desire. There was trust, partnership, encouragement, companionship. And any human woman who’d agreed to marry him had to be open minded; that alone gave her potential as a partner. In any case, there was nothing more important than doing Mati’s will, for the peace of Nozva Rozkveta.

He drew in a deep breath. He was only twenty-seven—unless he counted the 2,372 or so years all the Immortals had been petrified since the Sundering… which he didn’t—and by the end of the week, he’d be married. To a human.

By her agreement to the marriage, she welcomed him into her life. That much was certain. And it meant this peace between them would succeed; and once it did, the peace between their people would, too.

As long as she was honest, he could trust her, and as long as they could trust each other, this marriage had a chance.

“We will do what’s right. This marriage will go smoothly,” he assured them both. Besides, Riza had helped him choose an impeccable Offering gift for the princess. “And once it does, all of this unrest will dissipate.”

Riza scoffed, then shrugged. “I pray to the Deep for it, Your Highness.” Hesitating, she lowered her gaze for a moment, her brow furrowed. “But… Gavri’s objections aren’t entirely without merit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the humans, it is that they can never be trusted, especially when it comes to doing what’s right.”

COLLAPSE

Books and Authors in Of Beasts and Beauties

No Man Can Tame by Miranda Honfleur
Fiery princess Aless and dark-elf prince Veron didn't ask for an arranged marriage designed to bring peace to the seething hatred between their people, and Aless certainly doesn't intend to stay in it. She has other plans to make the tenuous alliance work without the marriage--that is, until she begins to look beyond the sharp claws and fangs, slate-blue skin, ghostly white hair, and presumptions to see the beauty found within... But when Veron finds out about her plans, will betrayal end them, or will true love conquer all?

In the Garden of Gold and Stone by Ryan Muree
Compassionate and dutiful Nida anxiously awaits the day her new sisters hatch in their temple sanctuary. But without a human male, that day will never come. When Rowec, a human warrior from a local village, gets captured by Nida's people, he's offered freedom in exchange for his participation in their hatching ceremony. Nida learns the cost of bringing her sisters to life--and she must embrace the beast within to save them or save the human she's grown to love.

Eye of the Beholder by Emily Allen West
Band-manager Rose flees her stalker ex to a mysterious island, hoping to find sanctuary with her cousin. But what she does find is a walled-off rich vigilante fighting a human-trafficking ring... and fighting to be himself again after his mind and body have been ravaged by war. Will he lose that battle, or will love break down the wall between them and save them both?

Excalibur by Emerald Dodge
Sharp and fearsome superhero Heather and her San Diego team have struck a dark deal with a local gang: in exchange for helping the team escape a lethal foe by faking their deaths, the gang will take credit for "killing" the team, known locally as The Beasts. With the clock ticking down and few allies to help, their lives--and their deal--only becomes more complicated when Heather and her teammate Courtney begin to fall for two gang members.

The Blooming by Katherine Bennet
New guard Sophia will do what it takes to protect her country--except lose her father. When she volunteers to take his place in a dangerous assignment, her fiery commander, Niko, seems intent to prove she doesn't belong. Little does he know she has no intention of quitting. When their team is ambushed on a mission, Niko and Sophia must work together to save their team and expose the enemy that betrayed them. If not, they'll lose everything they never knew they wanted.

About Author

Miranda Honfleur

Author, reader, nerd :)

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