The monster let out an earth-shattering roar. The crows took flight, circling dizzyingly into the clouds. The wolves flattened their ears, preparing for battle. Anla sighed, clattering up the stairs.
“What?” she asked. “What? Stop making that racket.”
The monster groaned. “No one was answering the bell.”
“They're all asleep,” she said sternly. “And well deserved too, after the tantrum you threw last night.” Not that she begrudged her master his occasional fits of despair. She reverted to them too sometimes, quiet in the garden with what remained of her fire desperately lit, a weak flickering cry for help in the darkness. When he cried to the heavens, the townspeople shivered at the thunder.
Anla waited for the witty rejoinder, but he was silent, digging his claws through the thatch of what had once been human hair.
“Alec?” Anla asked.
“It is all for naught.” He pointed at it: the last petal, clinging on to its trembling brown stalk. “Anla,” he said, and he sank to his knees before her; “I am so sorry…” and Anla was sorry too, sorry that he hadn’t been given a chance to grow up and learn from the mistakes he had once made, sorry that even though the sorcerer had magicked people into stone and brass and gold, this sorcerer hadn’t realised there’d been somebody who loved Alec for the boy he was, even as she looked forward to the man he would become.
She made her way over to him. He picked her up, cradled her gently in his arms. Her fire did not singe his fur. It never had.
That was when they heard the knock.
Anla and Alec exchanged a look, and he whirled her out of the room and down the stairs. And in stepped a lithe young woman in overalls, wheeling along a large suitcase at her heels.
“Where might I find the master of this castle? I require lodging for at least a fortnight. More, quite probably.”
Alec put Anla down gently on the bannister, strode forwards. The lady did not flinch at his monstrous form. For a moment, looking at them, Anla felt sure that the spell would be broken and they would live happily ever after.
The thing was…
Well. It did not matter what the thing was. The lady, identifying herself as Beth, had studied hermeticism, which was probably a branch of science that Anla might have known if she’d managed to go to university like she’d once hoped to. Beth was terrifyingly intelligent, and commandeered the use of the library and the dungeons, often rushing upstairs with her clothes stained and muttering to herself about counter-stirs and herbs.
Alec found this all very charming. He ate with her at dinner and sat with her in the gardens and listened intently to whatever she had to say, and when Anla asked during their nightly chess games how he felt about her Alec grinned at her and said “Why do you care, Anla?” which was so insufferably Alec that Anla glared at him and put his king in check.
She was also very kind, and she spoke to Anla about things Anla normally only spoke to Alec about; how the smith’s daughter had been the prince’s playmate and confidante since birth, how the worst part about being a candle holder was the constant wax dripping over everything, and that she clattered noisily down the stairs and could not go in the sun and she’d wanted so to study in a warm continent, to travel the world.
And on the day the last petal hung, her master collapsed to the ground with a roar that shook the townspeople’s floors. Anla knelt by his side, offering warmth, praying and pleading “How dare you, you promised me, you promised.” Alec had never promised her anything in the long years they’d known each other except that he’d beat her in chess next time, that he’d run faster in the next race, that she was the worst person alive - promised, and punctuated with a scowl - and he didn't know how anyone could put up with her teasing.
She was telling him this, begging him to remember and return, when Beth pushed her unceremoniously aside. “Sorry, Anla,” and she was by Alec’s side, blocking Anla’s view of him.
The kiss made the castle rattle. There was no earth-shattering moment; no delicate tendrils of magic. There was Anla as a candleholder and then there was Anla watching her limbs jolt outwards with a sort of detached fascination. There was a startled bark from the garden as Kent, previously a barking wooden stool, turned canine again. I want to go to Australia, Anla thought. I want to go everywhere. She could now. That was the magic.
She walked outside bemusedly. There was sun. She was not melting anymore. She sat, stood, ran; she collapsed to the ground and hugged her arms around herself.
Beth found her a long while later. Darkness had fallen, and Anla was not inevitably lighting it up with her candlelight; it was wonderful. Beth was still slightly taller, still exuding an air of competence and kindness and warmth. “He’s looking for you.”
“I always used to be better at hide and seek,” Anla said. Beth smiled. “I don’t doubt.”
“Thank you,” Anla breathed, still disbelieving in her human skin. Beth watched her curl her fingers into fists and spread them out again. “Thank you, Beth.” She had Alec back and she’d lose him to someone who’d saved them all. Was that not a bargain Anla could live with? Not that Anla had ever truly had him, but… well, at least now she had the rest of the world.
“Found you,” Alec said, lighting up the shadows with his wide grin and wildly human skin. He was smiling at her. “You were always terrible at this game.”