4) Animalistic (Beauty and the Beast)

The sand dunes were beginning to level off and the small pebbles were morphing into large stones as the desert faded into gritty hills covered in scrub brush. From there the terrain grew into large trees and rocky soil that led into rough foothills that remained dwarfed by the craggy peaks in the distance. Gemma was somewhat awestruck by the natural beauty of her surroundings yet she couldn't help but wonder if the mountains were really only so impressive because they weren't flat sand.

Riding with Griffin hadn't been nearly the hassle she had been expecting. They had long since left the merchant caravan, leaving the young couple to fend for themselves with the carriage and Armaya. Without the stares of the Arabian people, Gemma had given way to pure fright at the first chance and then been promptly embarrassed when Griffin made a big deal of it. He had stopped the horse and helped her (read lifted her off so she wouldn't fall straight down) off the horse so she could scream for a bit. Repressing her fear of horses had given Gemma a major store of adrenaline that needed an outlet. After the screaming incident, she felt a tad better but a great deal more embarrassed and began to ride on the carpet. The idea of the carriage was still too closely related to horses.

They slept in the carriage, strategically parked next to a grouping of stunted trees. The large seats that had seemed stiff and board-like earlier now resembled down covered mattresses when compared to an equestrian rear end. Griffin had quickly removed the bench's cushions and laid them on the floor of the carriage, creating a mattress large enough for both of them. He deftly unloaded a trunk and supplied pillows and blankets, despite Gemma refusing their need. It seemed that his actions for her were effortless and she couldn't help but think of her own personal Prince Charming.

At some point in the night, the cold crept in. Gemma curled into her companion, seeking warmth in the frigid carriage. Griffin slept soundly, glad to be on the move again and exhausted of a day resisting his hormones. At night, in his dreams he could forget about his curse and enjoy Gemma's unintentional teasing. He was starting to see that she was cold natured and would instinctively get as close to heat as possible. This inspired many very descriptive dreams.

He woke with the sun, a habit of a trained warrior. Gemma was draped across him in a way she hadn't been last night, with a leg between his. One arm was trapped between their chest and the other flung wide across the mattress. He traced a finger down that arm and discovered it was quite cold. He drew the arm closer, under the blanket and began to rub heat back into her. Gemma released a contented sight and shifted her hips a bit. Griffin groaned, convincing himself not to act on it. He mentally prepared himself for another day of suffering.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

They should be there by afternoon. That was the ETA she had been told. Griffin was excellent at leading the carriage on the winding path through the forest but he seemed to be a bit lost. She didn't really mind as the view was lovely. The forest was darker due to the thick covering of trees but it was lively on the floor. Gemma saw rabbits, birds and the occasional deer in the distance but her favorite creature to watch was the squirrel. They were everywhere! Even at home she loved to take Lori to the park and just watch the small animals scamper up and down and around trees. Through leaves and under bushes. They were adorable. Griffin was not quite of the same mind. The squirrels spooked the horses pulling the carriage on occasion and it was difficult for him to calm both at the same time before the crazed animals crashed their load.

"Griffin, it will be dark soon. Should we be looking for a place to stop for the night?" Gemma was starting to shiver on the flying carpet and was now wrapped in the blanket she had slept on the night before.

"I know that the gate is near. The forest is just thicker than I remember. We should press on; the animals in these woods are not always friendly after dark." He continued to search the surrounding woods for any markers or signs that would trigger memories.

"So the man we're going to see, you know him?"

"Dominic and I went to the same academy. He is older than I and it has been several years since we have talked. I did spend a summer here with his family but soon after tragedy hit. A sickness spread over their town and into the castle. It claimed his parents and Dominic had to leave the academy to take care of his sister. That was the last time I heard anything from him. But if he is still here…Gemma you have to listen to what I tell you when we meet him. Avoid conversation about his sister and stay with me at all times. The forest is not the only dangerous place."

"Griffin, I understand. Of course I'll listen to you; I have no idea where I am. I will try to resist the urge to wander off."

Griffin shook with a contained laugh. "I know. I should not doubt you because you have been an excellent traveling companion, much better than most of my usual ones."

It began to grow colder as the sun went down. The beautiful sunset did little to provide light in the center of the woods yet Griffin pressed on. They lit the lanterns on the carriage and one in Griffin's hand. And that was when she heard the first one.

Having lived in suburban America for her entire life, Gemma had never heard the cry of a wolf without movie sound effects. Her companion's only sign of awareness was a straightening in the saddle. A second howl joined in the song and it was much closer to their position. Griffin subtly changed their direction to go opposite from the wolf howl and it was working until she heard a snarl. The massive creature emerged from the woods, flanked by two more and the calling wolves sounded even closer.

"Gemma, stay on the carpet and stay up high." His voice was oddly excited despite facing three gigantic wolves and more on the way. "That tree, I know it. If you go straight behind it, there will be a clearing and on the other side there will be a cave. The wolves will not go in it. Go there and wait for me." The two moved simultaneously, Griffin charging the wild animals and Gemma rocketing to her left, eyes peeled for a cave entrance.

She found it quickly and somewhat crash landed inside it. Immediately she wished for light and the ability to be deaf. Growls, snarls and yells. Thumping and stomping and Armaya's whinny. The fight was just on the other side of the tree and she could do nothing. The carriage filled her vision as the crazed horse rounded the tree. Without thinking Gemma made hushing sounds, running closer to the animal only to stop when she realized just how large it was. She tried her best to lead the horse to the cave then detach one of the lanterns. Now armed with light, she ventured into the cave. Rough hewn furniture decorated the cave and a fireplace was carved into the right side. A rack held handmade bows and arrows and the walls were hung with pelts. Gemma sat the lantern on the table and took a seat. It was only then that she noticed her shaking hands. She tried to tell herself that Griffin would be fine, that he was trained, that he was strong. Her brain interjected that he was also outnumbered. Gemma slammed her palms on the table and two things clanked. The lantern and what? On the other end of the table lay a mirror. The reflective plate was oval shaped and the size of her face. Around it were several roses, molded in pale metal. The handle was adorned with detailed leaves and she had a feeling. Carefully she picked up the mirror, surprised at how cold it was. Her thumb brushed over a leaf on the handle and she was given not her own reflection but that of a young girl. Curious, she traced the ridges of the roses encircling the mirror. Blank, dark surface with her own picture until the fourth rose.

"You know I hate it when you do that…Gemma?"

She stared in awe at the mirror in her hand. "Claire?"

"When did you get an enchanted mirror? And where is Griffin?"

"I-I just found it and he's fighting off wolves. Claire, I'm so worried but he told me not to leave the cave."

"I'm sure he is fine." She said but her voice wavered. "If you went and watched him, he would be burying the animals."

"Gemma!" both girls startled at the cry and the girl called ran from the table, mirror clutched in her hand. Griffin was leaning against the tree and from across the clearing she could see blood. Armaya was gone and there were long gashes down his arm.

"Oh God, oh God, oh Griffin." She was in such a hurry she stumbled on her skirts. A hideous snarl echoed across the clearing making her freeze. A huge animal, much larger than the previous wolves charged at her. The creature seemed to be a hybrid of wolf and grizzly bear and it growled. All she could do was meet Griffin's eyes and pray as her protector struggled to stand. From the trees, a regular wolf pounced on the knight, causing Gemma to scream his name. The threatening animal in front of her bounded over and ripped the wolf from the knight and let forth a howl to shake the trees. Instantly the forest fell silent and she could only hear the heavy breathing of Griffin and herself. Ignoring the animal she rushed to Griffin and knelt beside him. She laid the mirror on the ground to use both hands to cradle his head. The hybrid monster snatched it up in enormous jaws and loped off into the dark. Gemma took only seconds to mourn the loss of the beautiful, magical mirror before focusing on Griffin. Gently she brushed back his hair to smile at him and wipe his face with the massive sleeve of her dress.

"We need to get away from here. Let me help you to the carriage."

He stilled her action with a hand on her arm. "We are safe here. Just trust me." Together they managed to sit him up. She was in the process of wrapping his arm with strips of her petticoat when she noticed a man walking across the clearing. He bent and picked something off the ground, continuing towards them. He was well dressed but not overly so. The cloak was a deep brown, the shirt white and brown trousers. The richness came more from the quality of the cloth and the air with which he wore it than actual decoration.

He uttered several explicative in regards to the wolves before crouching down in front of a smirking Griffin. The appearance of the stranger and his language shocked Gemma as the only men to curse in her presence since her arrival had been pirates. "Stupid animal have yet to figure out that this is my wood. My absence in it does not relinquish my rule."

"It has changed much since my last visit. Hence our delay." Gemma's hand resting on her lap tensed as she saw what the stranger held up: a ruby, obviously what he had picked up from the ground. She had been so scared for her companion she just let the jewels fall where ever they chose.

"I would agree. There have been changes."

"Dominic, this is Gemma. Gemma, this is the Lord of Granite Peak." Dominic held out a hand so she extended her own to shake, forgetting the time period. The lord kissed the back of her hand before returning it and settled his gaze on Griffin.

"Lovely ring. Shall we relocate to the Castle?" With Dominic's help, Griffin was able to mount a horse. Without warning Gemma was placed behind him. Dominic led the carriage team right next to the cave and continued into the woods. A path began to emerge that they had missed in the dark.

"I thought it was a fortress but he called it the castle." Gemma whispered in her protector's ear. She had fistfuls of his shirt clenched tightly in an attempt not to squeeze potential bruises with her arms by hugging him tightly. She still was not the expert on horses and this horse did not have Armaya's graceful footing.

"Not now, Sarita." Was the soft reply. "Did you happen to see Armaya?" He asked in a clear voice.

"She came and found me. Horse is more intelligent that the master. She is a much more attractive creature as well."

"Dom has always been an example in contrasts. Incredibly crude and incredibly eloquent, depending on his mood."

"Someone had to balance your continuing propriety." They had come upon gates abruptly, the black wrought iron blending into the dark. Vaguely, Gemma could make out the shape of a wall and roofs a little further off. "Welcome to the Black Castle. The image is much more impressive during the day."

She attempted to nod as if interested but she was so tired. Traveling for two days straight and running from intimidating creatures had used all of her energy. Griffin noticed and tried to hold onto her as best as possible from his position on the horse. After several minutes on the winding path, the party reached another gate. Gemma was completely asleep and her companion hated to wake her.

"Gemma, would you like a bath before sleeping tonight?" She nodded sleepily and Dominic carried her to her room while Griffin walked behind.

"The staff has already drawn a bath, feel free to help yourself but please do not leave the room, my family has not been made aware of your presence." Griffin gently kissed her cheek and said goodnight before following his friend down the hall. The two arrived at the kitchen to find a boy eating at the table.

"Philip, this is my friend Griffin. You were very young last time he visited."

"Before the spell?"

"Yes, a long time ago."

Philip turned to the newcomer eagerly. "Are you a real knight? I will be someday. Dominic will be king and I will be his most loyal knight. Right now I cannot go to McKinley's so my cousins are training me."

"Yes and they will be looking for you soon." The young boy scampered off and the two men were alone again. "Before you ask about the state of things here, please indulge me with the story of yourself."

"Dom, I would not permit myself to complicate your life with my troubles."

"Griffin, please, let me share your concerns. I need to know that there is a life outside this damned castle. Now, when did you get married?" Griffin launched into explanation. Telling how Gemma became his traveling companion and his fake wife for his protection, to make his travels harder for his brother to track.

"Where did she come from? Her accent is quite exotic."

"She is a friend of Claire's. I met her at Eric's wedding. He married a former mermaid princess."

"Good for him. So she is posing as your wife? How does that work for your blessing?"

Griffin groaned and let his head drop to the table. "Curse. And it is torture. She sleeps in my bed Dominic. Literally sleeps. And I have trouble sleeping without her now."

"And she expels jewels."

"Constantly." Griffin nodded. "It has made our travels easier but rather unpleasant when she talks in her sleep or kisses." Waking up with a sapphire under your spine was uncomfortable.

"You kissed her? In what way does that not violate your curse?"

The knight waved a hand carelessly. "She found a loophole. Dominic, where is everyone?"

"Marcus and Demetrius are out looking for a doctor…"

"Dom." Silence blanketed the kitchen. "What happened? Philip mentioned a spell, I thought that was simply a rumor that began as an explanation of the fever."

"Well, I suppose the matter had to come up at some point. I too, do not wish to share my burden but you must be informed before sunrise. Tell Gemma what you must to keep her safe. It started with the fever it was the reason the spell was cast…"

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Gemma woke content. She slept well in a normal bed, Griffin's arm draped over her stomach and she could feel his strong body behind her, capable of protecting her in a second. She could see the sliver ring, set with a ruby and carved with a griffin that represented their fake marriage. The ring had been his since birth, a present from his grandfather. Her wedding ring had been made to compliment it.

"Good morning." Gemma smiled up at her friend. "Did you stay up late talking?"

"Not very late. We should have breakfast waiting outside our door. I have something to discuss with you while we eat." Griffin slipped out of the bed and opened the door just a bit. "Thank you Philip." He carried a large tray back to the bed where a hungry Gemma was waiting.

"So are you going to tell me a story?"

Griffin smiled and selected an apple. "You have to understand that Dominic cares very much for his family and responds to them. Nine years ago we were at McKinley's Academy together when an epidemic swept this side of the continent. Dom was called home when his younger sister Maria fell ill. Porcelain fever is fatal and slow progressing and Dom couldn't stand to watch her suffer. There have always been stories of single recoveries, miracles, so he was convinced there was a cure. He bought a dwarfish casket and placed her in it after Maria progressed into the deep sleep stage. Because of the epidemic, several of the court left and the villagers stayed away. The household and remaining family researched doctors and wizards looking for someone to help Maria and the others.

One truly nasty night, shortly after the dwarfish casket arrived, two more of the cousins fell ill. Dominic answered the door and a woman was there asking for shelter for the night. He offered her the barn but refused to let her into the castle. He was concerned that she would catch the fever but the woman would not let him explain. She revealed herself as a witch and cursed the whole castle.

"The entire royal family would be animals, to reflect the uncivilized company Dom was raised in. The household servants became objects, how she assumed Dom thought of them. The spell would release when darkness fell completely and be permanently gone if Dome could have a good soul fall in love with him in 15 years time or if he died before then. He, the selfish prince would not be able to know when he would become an animal. He would appear normal but reveal his true self when least expected. She disappeared before Dominic could explain the current situation that forced him not to allow her inside.

"The witch was wrong, like most people that assume are. Dominic was not a spoiled heir in need of a lesson and the royal family works together, for the most part, to try and find a cure for Maria who remains in the casket. So they are still here and during the day, they are in animal form with the exception of Dominic."

Gemma ate her fruit silently. She contemplated the story for a while, trying to figure out why Griffin told her the full truth. He could have just lied and said that Dominic had a love for exotic animal collection. She voiced this and Griffin let a hint of a smile show.

"You would have had questions the second you saw his cousin Catherine. The royal court ofGranite Peak was not made up of weak people, all of their inner animals recognized what the witch failed to therefore we have panthers and bears in the hallways as opposed to bunnies."

"Have they been looking for a girl to fall in love with Dominic? I would think that would be important as well."

"Dom has decided to be a martyr and kill himself if they cannot find a cure in the 15th year and release the rest of his family. I believe he blames himself much more than his relatives do." Here he paused, looked very manly as he sipped his coffee and hesitated. "I never thought about lying to you, despite being given approval to. However, in telling the complete truth I was hoping that you might know a story that parallel's this one. Please do not feel as if I am abusing our relationship but I would greatly appreciate any help you could offer."

Gemma calmly nibbled at a biscuit. She loved it when Griffin did this, talked to her openly and complimented her in a roundabout manner. He was so cute in situations where he would be polite but try to act as if he was only because of the curse. The rest of breakfast was spent discussing their relationship, cute little comments that implied many things but still were proper enough for his curse to allow. Dominic, he explained, knew that they were not truly married but the rest of the household would not be able to accept any relationship less than engagement.

Griffin had an appointment in the town closest to the Black Castle, the official reason for their visit to this part of the land, and Gemma was invited along. She changed into one of her favorite dresses with the reasoning that no one within a hundred miles would know she had worn it just a few days ago with the exception of Griffin. She loved the burgundy red color scheme and how it brought out nonexistent highlights in her hair. Mostly she loved the deep, hidden pockets that worked well to store her magically appearing jewels in. Gemma almost fell over as a man knocked into her. She was confused as he was neither Dominic nor Griffin yet seemed at home in the castle. He caught her, righted her and apologized profusely.

"Why are you out of the room?"

"Griffin and I are traveling to the town. I apologize if I sound rude but who are you?"

The man smiled and bowed. "Sebastian de Marca, cousin of the Crown Prince."

"Oh, I was led to believe that you would be more…animal shaped." At that eloquent moment, Sebastian began to laugh and a giant panther turned the corner. The tips of the cat's ears sparkled with slight opals/onyx and a beautiful golden necklace dangled like a royal collar, also set with black jewels. As soon as the panther reached them Gemma understood why Griffin had told her the truth.

"Good morning Bastian, Leo would like you to look into something. He is in the map room." The beautiful voice that came from the panther was completely human. She had both catlike and oddly human traits that must have merged in the nine years of the curse. Her long tail swished and curled in constant motion yet she ignored the movement of a spider on the floor. Sebastian gauged her reaction before nodding to the big cat.

"Gemma, it was a pleasure to meet you but alas, I must serve my family. I leave you n the excellent care of my older sister Catherine." He left and it occurred to Gemma she was now alone with a panther that might be unhappy with her presence. The feline spoke again.

"You are not responding in the way I expected, you look calm."

"What were you expecting?"

Catherine gave the panther equivalent of a shrug. "Disgust, fear, unhappy to be in a cursed household. Instead you stay and talk with me, retaining the same level of caution you had with Sebastian." She turned her dark head to better study the storey teller. "Why did you require caution with my brother? I can sense it."

Gemma smoothed her hands over her dress front. "He looked normal. I was told the entire royal court was changed into animals, therefore the one I meet who does not fit requires caution. Was he supposed to be in the Castle? Is he a powerful magician who broke his curse but could not break the entirety? He might be a burglar."

Catherine laughed with definite undertones of a purr. "Nothing that sinister. He was simply out of the castle when the spell was cast. Only those of us under the roof were affected and Sebastian returned to us and tried to carry out our business that requires a human face."

"Gemma! We are leaving now." Griffin called, appearing at the end of the hallway. She and Catherine parted with the promise of talking more later.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

"Why have they not found a cure for Maria yet? It's been nine years and they have no progress. And they remain cursed!" Gemma pouted in the carriage, she had been ranting since they left the Black Castle and Griffin could only agree with her.

"Do you know the story, Sarita? Is there a way we can help?"

She let out a frustrated groan. "There are so many versions of this particular story and I can't help until another part emerges." She relaxed defeatedly in her seat before asking who they were going to meet.

The leader of the local militia resided in this town. Dominic was not particularly fond of the man and they only met once a year. Technically Dom could order the troops to aid Griffin but he was a fair ruler and thought the people should be aware, especially since the Black Castle was such a distanced ruler. Griffin was not pleased that his companion was going to her. The man they were meeting had a reputation of being a brute, reaching his position through force. Griffin had experience with this kind of man, what bothered him was the snippet Dom let slip. "Gaston like women, in the same way he likes stag." Griffin had dealt with men like this as well but he detested them. Whether the curse affected his opinion of if it was his well rounded childhood, he wasn't sure.

"Stay with me at all times. I mean that Sarita." She nodded but didn't actually hear what he was saying. They arrived in town and Gemma was surprised by how different it was from the town near Rosietta. The buildings were larger but poorly kept up. There were many more men in the streets and an overflow of children. She asked Griffin about the differences and he explained what a good regent was responsible for: public school, preparing an armed reserve, trade with other towns. While the town of Granite Peak was no longer paying taxes to Dom, they were not receiving guidance and structure. Sebastian had tried to keep the responsibilities but the towns people became suspicious and charged the Black Castle. Rumors spread and no one enters the forest. Gaston was the current mayor, gaining the position because he was the best hunter and a very opinionated man.

"Why do you want their help? Especially if they no longer have a reserve."

"Dominic's cousins were generals for his father. They taught the reserves and the men still have some of that knowledge. They used to be the best guerilla warfare group. Despite their lack of training in the past they could be restored to original power with the right leader."

The house the carriage stopped at resembled a hunting lodge. The building was much larger than the surrounding ones and built from split trees as opposed to mud bricks. There were a few glass windows, set and sealed with red clay, which made the building stand out even more. Upon entering the house, Gemma realized it was in fact, a hunting lodge, as proven by the massive number of mounted animal heads. It was both very intimidating and rather nauseating. Gaston was a large man dressed in clothes that emphasized his largeness. She gravitated closer to Griffin. Her protector might not appear as big or muscled as Gaston yet he had fought off several wolves and pirates and held his own.

"My friend from the north, your visit surprises me but I welcome you." The words of their host were secondary to his tone. "I hope you are comfortable in my home." As they walked down the hall, Gaston leered at her. It sickened her more than the pirates, they had the decency to recognize a claim yet here she was standing next to her 'husband' and this beast of a man was openly lusting after her.

"I believe the woman would be more comfortable in the library while we discuss business." Though she was reluctant to leave Griffin's side, Gemma would prefer to be in a different room than the large hunter. She stepped into the library and Griffin followed.

"Are you feeling well Sarita?" He whispered. "You look pale. My talk with him will be short and then we may leave."

"Just hurry, there is something about him that repulses me."

The corner of his mouth quirked, a sign Gemma translated as ironic. "I should not have brought you here." He stated. Before she could reply he kissed her forehead and left her to the library.

As the storyteller examined her surroundings, she realized that the word 'library' was very misleading. The room contained a single bookcase that housed only hunting books. There was also a shelf for a Bible and what appeared to be ledgers of Gaston's hunts and kills. None of it appealed to Gemma so she sat on the sofa and contented herself with contemplating Dom's family.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Griffin was irritated. His host continued to talk war stories and boastful ventures but he had yet to agree to the pledge of support. The prince was also aware of Gaston's actions and regretted exposing Gemma to him. He was very aware of how far away he was from his charge as the meeting room they were in was in the opposite wing of the lodge. A small round man entered the room and whispered into Gaston's ear, much to Griffin's displeasure.

"Excuse me for just a little, there is a local matter I must address." The prince agreed, thinking that he could pick up Gemma and leave instead of remaining at the lodge. He waited a few beats and tried to navigate the halls of the lodge.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Gemma was bored to tears. She felt guilty because Griffin had to deal with such a crude and uncivilized person and she was simply bored. And then the unthinkable occurred. Gaston entered the library and came to stand before her. He bent over, effectively trapped her between his trunk-like arms. If it hadn't been real she would have laughed at the absurdity of it.

"You are quite lovely. You know it too, glancing at me in the hallway. I know that my presence affects you just as you affect me. So my dear must we have this tedious hunt of me the hunter and you the prey? Why not proceed to the inevitable." Gaston leaned in for a kiss and Gemma froze. She was still in shock from his little speech, was the man completely insane? As soon as his lips made contact with hers she moved into action, struggling to get away. Gemma attempted to duck under his arm and crawl down the couch to freedom but this only enraged the hunter, causing him to grab a fistful of her dress and pull her back. "You little tease. Do you not know that it is cruel to tempt a man? You deserve a punishment wench." He roughly assaulted her mouth before yanking her up and shoving her back against a wall. Gemma continued to struggle, hoping to land a blow and escape. She yelled, mainly "Stop!" and "Get off." But there was also a panicked cry of "Griffin!" Gaston was too intent on hiking her skirts up and keeping her still to notice the rubies dropping from her lips.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Griffin was congratulating himself on avoiding his host. He could even see the library door, a sign he hadn't gotten lost. From the other end of the hall he could hear sounds of a struggle and easily identified Gemma's voice. Instinctively his dagger appeared in his hand and he burst into the library. With more restraint than he though he possessed, Griffin leveled the dagger to Gaston's throat.

"Remove yourself from my wife at once."

"I was simply teaching you woman a lesson about teasing and …" the blade pressed harder against the vulnerable area. The hunter released his hold on Gemma and stepped to the side. The girl warily shuffled away from the wall and behind her companion.

"I truly hope you understand how utterly stupid your actions were." The eyes of the prince were cold, as was his voice. Gaston was the opposite, filled with seething anger.

"You fool; a woman should never compel a man." Griffin chose not to answer, leading Gemma out of the lodge and back to the carriage. It was hard for him to ignore the desperation with which she clutched at his hand. The ride back to the Black Castle was silent, him seething inside but knowing that his anger would not help Gemma. She never released his hand.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Deep in the forest, a man was urging his horse to continue. The tired animal needed rest from towing such a large contraption but his master had no time for breaks. Philip the inventor had forgotten about his daughter's return home. Such important things escaped him on a regular basis actually and in a spot of luck he had remembered this particular event at the last moment. However, it was dark and his daughter had no doubt reached the house already and Philip really wanted to see her. His haste irritated his old horse, causing a stop in the middle of the forest.

Prowling beasts lurked in the shadows, the horse could smell them. Owls and birds of the night flew through the trees, also spooking the steed. Suddenly the wolves attacked their ferocious growls too much for the skittish horse. The rider was thrown from his seat and both horse and cart went careening into the woods. Philip tried to fend off the wolves as best he could but he was an inventor, a man of science. He knew how to navigate the forests but he was as skilled as most of his neighbors. Armed only with a tree branch he quickly fell to the wild animals.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

The cousins were out patrolling. Catherine only called it patrolling to humor her brothers, in truth she just loved to ride, even after 9 years as a panther. She heard the wolves calling as she raced her husband around the edge of the property and pulled up short.

"Leo, I think we should have Dominic track the wolves tonight. They have been restless as of late, especially after last night." So the young man rode out with his cousins Sebastian and Marcus, intent on reestablishing his role as Alpha male once again. They tracked the wolves to a road where the crazed animals were struggling with a man. The wolves recognized the strength and scent hidden within Dominic's human form and left their prey, revealing the extent of the man's injuries.

The normal habit of the royal family was to leave the wanderers or lost souls on the edge of town; somewhere they would be easily discovered and taken care of come morning. Sebastian objected this time, recognizing the crazy inventor as a good person and in serious need. And so the poor man was brought back to the castle for care. Gemma was incredibly happy to see the injured inventor, despite being shaken by her earlier experience. She tended to his wounds as best she could and tried to explain to Griffin what this meant.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

That night as they readied for bed, Griffin gave her plenty of privacy, leaving the room for long periods of time as she undid her hair and emptied her pockets. He had been around assaulted women before but they had never been in the higher class and he had never shared a room with one of them. Gemma was from a different world, where harassment was common and confronted instead of ignored and was somewhat amused by his actions. She appreciated the space he was giving her but she was not scared of him, Griffin would never hurt her, curse or otherwise. In truth, she would much rather have him around.

"Could you unlace me?" She asked softly, unable to open the corset on this particular dress as it laced down her back. "You are getting better at it." she teased but he still hesitated.

"Are you sure that is wise?"

With a sigh, Gemma turned to face him, folding up her cloak. "In my world, there are several different reactions to sexual assault. They differ depending on the person. I am not the breakable fragile type." But she did remember how Griffin had possessively wound an arm around her waist and the way he held her to him while waiting on the carriage. It was one of the first times he had touched her without hesitating.

"How do you react?" Well, she didn't really want to answer that question in its entirety but he was now unlacing her as he asked and she couldn't seem to stop her words.

"The part I hated was that I was helpless. So I have a longing to find a man and put him in a situation where he is helpless." The corset was loose enough to slide down and step out of. She did so and he began to undo the buttons that ran down the back of the burgundy outer dress. "The other part of me was simply scared," his fingers stilled, finished with the buttons and hesitantly pushed the outer dress off her shoulders. Gemma tugged the cloth until it fell, leaving her in the white shift as she turned to Griffin. "And when I'm scared, I just want to feel safe and protected." Without the sleeves of the dress he could now see bruises on her arms. He lightly traced the spots, fascinated that she did not flinch away from his touch like he expected. Guilt flooded him for letting this happen to her and he softly caught her up in a hug. Gemma gripped fistfuls of his shirt, making sure he didn't pull away from this uncharacteristic intimacy. This was where she wanted to be. It was the closest thing she had to home in this crazy world. It was safe.

"What kind of situation would make a man helpless to you?" he asked quietly. Gemma didn't want to try and explain dance clubs to him, or how girls could use feminine wiles to get what they wanted. That wasn't what she needed to think about while pressed firmly against Griffin. She didn't answer but curled tighter.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

"Papa? Papa 'm home." There was no response so the brunette let herself into the small cottage and began to look around. She knew it was possible he had forgotten or mixed up the day. She pulled her trunk into the room and tidied up until she became tired. When she woke in the morning and her father had not returned, she still was not very worried. She continued to clean up the house and fill the little empty space on the bookshelves with her medical and procedural books. When her father came home it would be that much more of a surprise.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Gemma still felt safe when she woke. Her head rested on his chest and a secure arm draped across her back. She was surprised that Griffin was still in bed as he usually stuck to a fairly strict military routine. She reluctantly left the warm embrace and dressed for breakfast before looking out the window. While Gemma couldn't tell time by the sun, she knew that it was well into the morning. Perhaps the nocturnal nature of their hosts was rubbing off on them. In the kitchen she found a red fox chasing a lithe black cat. The cat wore a green ribbon instead of a collar. The cat made a magnificent leap onto the counter and then the top of the cupboards and stretched out up there.

"Now now Philip, I told you I would win." Her tail swished contentedly.

"But you cheated." The fox whined from the floor and Gemma realized this was more of the royal family and obviously children.

"How many times have I told you to be careful?" Cried another voice, definitely more of an elderly woman but there was no other figure in the kitchen.

"Hello." The fox darted into an open lower cabinet but the cat simply stared at her. "I'm Gemma."

"Aunt Catherine was right, you are pretty." Spoke a small awed voice from the cabinet.

"That is Prince Philip, Dominic's younger brother. I am Sophie and my mother had the pleasure of meeting you last night." The cat spoke with the authority of the oldest sibling and Gemma was fascinated by her. "Do you need help finding anything?"

"I can wake the husband for you if you like or maybe just boil some tea." Gemma glanced back around the room to see a mouth on the tea kettle. This was one of the house hold help that she had yet to meet.

"I was just looking for something simple to eat, perhaps an apple?" She paused then curiosity won. "And if you would like, I would love to know more about the royal family and the Castle."

"Oh boy, she loves to talk." Cautioned Philip, still in the cabinet. Sophie jumped down from the cupboards and landed lightly on the kitchen floor.

"Hush. If you follow me we can get an apple from the cellar and then I can show you around."

First, Sophie showed her an elaborate family tree, complete with pictures. Apparently keeping it up to date was a hobby for Esperanza. Dominic's father, King Alonzo was technically still alive and so he held the title but the curse and his daughter's illness had affected him greatly. The curse gave Alonzo bear form but he eventually he gave into his animal side and ran off into the woods years ago. Shortly following, Queen Elena passed away from sheer exhaustion.

"And then the only real adult was Great Aunt Carla and she went crazy. Her two boys and her husband died from the fever before the curse set in. So her daughter, Esperanza tried to take care of her. We all thought Great Aunt was gonna throw herself off the top tower after the Queen died. They were never close sisters but still." Gemma tried to process all of this terrible news, amazed at the family tragedy.

Sophie certainly did like to talk. She was almost 14 and could almost remember what being completely human was like. She talked about how she was older than Philip even though he was in the generation above her because the King and Queen waited a long time to have children. On and on she went, as if being a cat half of the time was completely normal and not the most interesting part of her life.

It was over an hour later when the young girl had the urge to take a nap. Gemma took the opening as a chance to visit the newest castle resident. Sebastian was watching over the elderly man and it occurred to her that the task had fallen on him because he was one of a select few who could during the day. Feeling as if she hadn't helped, Gemma relieved him and went about changing the bandages. A little while later, Dominic stopped by to check on her and the man. He apologized for the behavior of Gaston but she firmly interrupted the Crown Prince.

"A person is only responsible for another's actions if they order it so. Gaston was acting of his own accord and you have no need to apologize on his behalf."

"You really are quite remarkable, did you know?" She blushed and stared at the floor. "And I have no idea why Griffin is fooling himself. Curses do not have loopholes."

"But, Sebastian." She said, naming the exception to his curse. This only caused Dominic to give a lopsided smile and a sigh.

"Sebastian was out that day but there has always been a rumor that he might not be a part of the de Marca line. My aunt was captured by a rebelling faction shortly after she had the twins and she never talked about her experience. Not that it had any effect on my uncle. He loved Bastian just as much, even though there was no way to tell."

"But you said there was no way to be sure. He could be a loophole, thus proving nothing." Nothing except that this family deserved happiness after everything they had been through.

"How fares the patient?" Asked the prince, changing the subject. "Is he ready to be taken home yet?"

"No!" Gemma said with a bit too much force. She knew that if the story were to play out, Belle (or whatever her flesh and blood version was called) had to come looking for her father. "No, he really must stay here. He has yet to wake up and I am worried he might be suffering some infections. He needs to be cared for and Sebastian said that he lived alone on the far edge of town." Dom closely studied Gemma before reluctantly agreeing to let the man stay. She was logical and thoughtful but he wondered why she cared so much for a complete stranger.

"Well, you should have help. Sophie will watch him while you sleep. She should enjoy that responsibility." He left and Gemma began to reflect on his loophole theory. The implications scared her so she focused on the sweet old man in front of her, hoping he wasn't hurt too badly.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

On the third day, she woke late in the morning. The young woman had been up late the night before, hoping her father would return while she was reading. Then she heard the pitiful whinny of Jacques their horse. Excited, she burst through the door, ready to hug her father for the first time in months but he was nowhere to be seen. Instinctively she knew that something was wrong, her father would never leave the old horse willingly. Jacques was covered in leaves, twigs, and briars all from the forest. She knew that the only people who could find her father were the least willing to do so but she headed into town, hoping to find some hunter sympathetic to her cause.

Hours later, the brunette was frustrated, angry and even more worried. There had been a faint hope that her father was in the village, having already been found but that was quickly dashed. None of the hunters had seen him in weeks; much less on their hunts and not a single one could be convinced to help her find him. Her last resort was to ask for a search party and the only person who could mandate that was the mayor. She had made a habit of avoiding Gaston since she was a child. He was a composite of practically everything she despised about humanity in one disgusting package. She pushed her ill feelings down and took the final steps up to the front door. The large slab of wood was opened by the mayor himself, surprising her.

"Why Belle, when did you return to the village?" The smile on Gaston's face made her cringe internally. She was expecting a servant to answer and wasn't quite prepared to be in his presence yet.

"Yes, I preferred it that my travels be known only by those I come to visit."

"And yet you are on my doorstep. It has been far too long since you graced the town with your face."

"Have you seen my father?" She asked abruptly, refusing to let his prattle distract her. "No one else has and I fear he may have been hurt in the forest on the way home."

"Now Belle,"

"Madame Dr. is my proper address sir." She interrupted quickly, hating the way he crooned her name.

"Of course. You know better than anyone that your father may have wandered off and will wander back at the end of the month. If you are lonely in the cottage, you have an open invitation here." Gaston opened the door more to welcome her in but Belle retreated slightly.

"I am well aware of my father's habits and that is why his absence disturbs me. Our horse returned this morning covered in forest underbrush, my father would never leave him."

"If my men have not seen him in the woods then he is not in our woods and that is final. Now, as to your lodging,"

"Form a search party, the hunters were not looking for an old man, they were looking for deer. And how far in do they hunt? There are miles of woods they never visit."

"He's not on our land and I refuse to risk my men for a crazy old man who is most likely dead." The tone of his voice showed that he was bored now. "Your beauty alone is not enough to convince me. Another arrangement however…"

"Scared of children's tales are you? You disgusting brute, I will look for him myself if you are that afraid." She turned and quickly began walking back to her horse.

"We will not come looking for you Belle!" He yelled out but she did not turn. "Belle!" But she was deaf to those who would not help her.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Gemma was walking around the grounds with Catherine, enjoying the impressive view of the Fortress in the afternoon sunlight. She also felt it would be a good idea to have an ally in her plan for the prince. Both women had interesting family stories and Catherine was amazed that extended families lived so far away from each other in the place where Gemma was from. This turned the conversation to the people in their families and then towards Dom.

"All these years, has Dominic never looked for his true love? I would expect that to solve more problems than curing his sister, not that it is a less noble cause."

"Dom is insufferably selfless. He refuses to help himself while Maria lies on her death bed and to be honest, he has never believed in true love. Our family for example, his parents had an arranged marriage and it worked quite well but they did not find each other in a lovestruck chance meeting. My parents did, yet they were always dealing with tragedy. Dom considers myself and Leo to be the exception proving the rule."

"He believes in unfoolable magic but not in true love? That is so sad." Gemma pocketed the sapphires and amethysts before reaching out to pluck a flower from a nearby bush. "Catherine, I guess by your tone that you would enjoy seeing your cousin happy, and not simply because it would free you from the curse."

The large cat gracefully nodded, jewelry sparkling in the sunlight. "This is true. As much sadness has befallen our family, it has brought the remainder of us closer together. All I truly wish is to see him find someone as I have found Leo. My brothers, they do not seem to need someone as badly, on the other hand, they do not have the throne looming over their heads."

"If I could somehow, assist in the search for Dominic's love, would you be willing to help me?" She posed the question as she shredded the flower, hoping that Catherine would not ask how she had information.

"Certainly. Some new energy into the project would be much appreciated and could your ideas be the reason why we have an elderly guest at the castle?"

Gemma smiled at how intelligent the older lady was. "Well, yes, that might be connected. I am worried about his health as well, he has yet to wake completely." She threw the bare stem of the flower to the ground. "Do your brothers patrol the woods every night?"

"Yes, and they have been particularly vigilant since the wolves have been stirring."

"Could you arrange it so that anyone found on a patrol would be brought back here, injured or otherwise?"

Emerald eyes tracked her every movement and Gemma realized what strength was behind them. "Do you expect someone to be visiting our woods soon?"

The storyteller smiled and twisted a strand of hair around her finger before spinning to walk back to the castle. Internally, she hoped that this would make a difference, that she could help such well deserving people.

"Is there a particular kind of jewelry Sophie would like for her 14th birthday? A particular stone perhaps?" The panther followed the girl, wondering exactly what made up Gemma, the caring and accepting young girl from a strange land.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Dominic was out patrolling again. This time, Griffin was accompanying his friend and they were reminiscing about school day pranks. It was unspoken that those days had been easier for both men and they laughed a rare thing for both. The conversation drifted to general exploits, many of which included females when Dom was involved. Naturally, his train of thought carried over.

"Your girl, Gemma, where is she from?" Dominic looked relaxed but he was quite the opposite, completely aware and on the lookout.

"She comes from another world. The same world as Luke, the magician courting my cousin, the one who took out the Shaver army a few years back."

"Magic then, she came to you through magic. If that is the case then perhaps it is not inherently evil."

Griffin hid a slight smile; he had a difficult time believing that Luke was evil because he practiced magic. He had a hard time even picturing the man evil under any normal circumstances. "In my opinion, it is like any other weapon and its nature is simply that of the one who wields it."

"You always had a tad of damned diplomat in you."

"You never had enough in you." Griffin countered.

"But the girl, you kissed her 'Fin. I heard about the last time that was tried. If you have a way to break curses, that magician maybe…" Dominic reached out and snagged a low hanging branch, ripping it from the tree for fun. Muscles rippled under dark skin and it occurred to the younger that his friend always possessed the strength of his beast.

"Gemma…I think she may be under a spell as well…"

"Really? So you noticed that she spits up precious jewels too?" The prince teased.

"I believe another spell. She was touched by a fairy. God only knows what magic comes from that."

"She is gorgeous, you can tell that can you not? Curses or no, how do you survive sleeping next to that body and no talking around the subject again. How far does that little loophole of hers extend?" Griffin urged Aramaya forward to divert the sudden burst of rage he felt building. It wasn't so much the words Dominic was saying but the tone and implications that were attached.

"I apologize for my words." The prince said, but it was a tone that said Griffin was going to have to deal with this topic later. "I try to live vicariously when it comes to the opposite sex and your relationship, however twisted is the only one that does not include a blood relative of mine."

"If you actually tried to break the curse, you might provide yourself some life experience. Look, you can start now." He gestured to a female figure on a horse ahead of them on the path. Though he appeared casual, Griffin was proud that his companion had been correct yet again. Soon it became obvious that the other rider was looking for something because of the incredibly slow pace she was traveling at. The men were intrigued. Even more so when she pulled out a small dagger when they rode up beside her.

"Good evening mademoiselle, may I inquire to your presence in this woods?" The word 'alone' was implied in Griffin's question.

"Do you travel this road often gentlemen? I am looking for something dear to me that was lost here." The men exchanged glanced and Griffin was certain that this was the girl Gemma wanted at the castle.

"What kind of object are you looking for? There is a possibility that we have it at home." Dominic's words were rather cold and certainly not comforting to the girl.

"We do come through here quite a lot. If your object is noticeable, we might have picked it up."

"Have you found anything in the past week?" She asked but Griffin could clearly see that she did not expect them to have her father.
"We picked up some old man a few nights ago." Dominic answered quickly. Once he saw her eyes light up he continued. "He is at our home but he has not fully waken or recovered from his attack."

Again, Griffin tried to smooth over his friend's delivery and tone down the shock. "We can take you to him if you like. There are people there watching him all hours of the day and I really believe he was more scared by the wolves than hurt from them."

"Please, he is my father. I must tend to him."

"You are welcome to return with us if you wish to do so." Dom threw out, trying to be polite. Instead it made the whole situation sound creepy, as if they were luring her to their home. While Belle tried to come up with a polite way to decline and then follow the men and rescue her father, a chorus of wolves howled to the clear sky. The second howl was closer and there was no mistaking that the wolves were coming to mark their territory. The crown prince instantly swung down from the saddle and handed the reins to his friend.

"I am sorry miss but you no longer have a choice. Take her back and bar up the gates. I will be able to get in. The wolves are extremely restless tonight, go quickly." The large man was already stripping off his clothes to bundle them neatly so they would not rip if he had to fight or transform. Griffin, though he wanted to stay and simply brawl it out with crazed animals, knew that he would only get in the way. Instead he beckoned the girl and her horse and turned back to the castle. The girl was very reluctant to leave Dominic but her horse recognized a leader in Aramaya and began to follow anyway. She was just complaining to her horse when the wolves broke through the tree line causing her to scream. The earsplitting sound was abruptly stopped when she witnessed Dom catch a wolf mid air and toss it into a tree trunk as if it were a child's toy. None of the horses were particularly fond of the wolves so they surged forward and kept a quick pace all the way back to the fortress. The girl said little on the race back, she wasn't really given the chance. When the gates rose out of the shadows, she visibly balked and slowed her horse.

"Who are you people? The cursed men of the forest? Cannibals?" she tried to retreat but the gates were slammed shut before she could cross the few yards to freedom. The young woman pulled out her knife and began to curse, neither of which helped calm her horse.

"Please! Calm down." Called a voice from the gate house. Griffin looked and saw Catherine and Gemma emerge, they had shut the gates. To his horror, the latter rushed toward the upset girl and horse, much too close to sharp knife and strong hooves. It was possibly the innocence in her face or simply the magic the storyteller possessed but the pair calmed.

"I promise there are no cannibals here. We have an excellent chef." Catherine stated with a sliver of a smile. She was probably thinking about the chef becoming a large grill brush during the day. "You are welcome here."

"What is your name?" Gemma asked, petting the horse with one hand and pocketing jewels with the other. "I am Gemma and this is Lady Catherine and Sir Griffin."

"Dr. Belle LeFervers."

It might have gone unnoticed by the other two women but Griffin saw the quick burst of a smile. "Your father is inside. I regret to tell you he is hurt and has not been awake since his arrival several nights ago."

"My father?" the remaining wariness left her body and she was soon on the ground demanding to see him. Catherine took the three horses to be cared for as the young couple led the doctor inside.

Sophie was happy to see them and incredibly proud to be watching over the injured man. Gemma realized that eh pure black of her hair was the same color as her fur in cat form. Likewise, the ribbon in her hair matched the earlier collar. Somehow, the child resembled her mother in both human and cursed form. Belle immediately went to her father's side and began pulling instruments and bandages and vials from the pockets of her traveling cloak. Watching, the young storyteller practically trembled with excitement and slipped closer to her companion to whisper.

"This is so perfect. The first girl we find, and she's a doctor, perhaps she can help with Maria and they can fall in love. And she's so beautiful." Instinctively Gemma grasped his hand as if it were an anchor to keep her from completely geeking out over another childhood dream realized.

"Is she right for him? She looks so…delicate."

"Are you kidding? The way she handled that knife and how she was gonna take on all of us and how much she loves her father?" Her happiness was sending her language back to slang and contractions yet Griffin understood her.

"Excuse me; you said he has not been awake?" The whispering quieted as Belle finally spoke.

"Not completely. He appears to be in a dream like state. He let me feed him soup, and made some hushed mumbles but he has not opened his eyes."

"You were able to feed him though?"

"Yes…do you know how serious his ailment is?" Gemma inquired softly. She had to remember the reason Belle had come to the Castle in the first place.

"He is old and it takes longer for his body to heal. I believe he injured his spine in a fall. Thankfully you have kept his wounds clean so there is no infection. He should recover but it will be difficult." A ferocious growl cut through the night followed by a massive bang that could only be the large oak doors of the castle.

"Dom is home." Griffin remarked. "Sophie, could you go get some water or tea for our guest?" the small girl nodded happily and scampered off to the kitchen. Only seconds later a monster burst into the room. Gemma knew instinctively that it was Dominic but she still flinched and pressed closer to Griffin. The cursed form of the prince resembled a werewolf with somewhat human legs covered in hair and a very wolf like upper body, also covered in thick fur. His chest was huge, shoulders spanning twice the size of her waist. His arms were more or less human ending in fingered hands with sharp nails but his face was changed into a wolf like snout and jaw. Most startling was the bright red against the black of his fur. Belle shook under his gaze but she did not move away from her father. After a minuet of frozen fear and Dom's labored breathing the prince began to shrink. Before their eyes he shifted back into his human form. There were four long claw marks across his chest and various smaller scratches and a bite wound on his side. Gemma and Griffin sat him down, despite protests. The smile on his face was still that of a predator and his white teeth contrasted with his dark skin just as they had with dark fur.

"The pack had a new alpha male. That is why they have been so aggressive recently. I put him back in his place, ripped off his tale cocky bastard." Gemma realized Belle was still frozen, staring at the talking prince.

"Doctor, this bite looks terrible; could you possibly stitch it up?" The question of medical assistance snapped her into reality and she pushed Griffin out of the way to control the cleaning. "This is Madame Dr LeFervers. Doctor, this is Prince Dominic." Griffin calmly introduced the two. Belle paused in her dabbing at the word 'prince' but quickly resumed, pouring antiseptic into the deep scratches.

"A female doctor?" Dom's voice still held undertones of a growl but mostly he sounded intrigued.

"It may seem a foreign idea here in the backwaters of a hunting province but there are many like me in the cities." She stated defensively. "Luckily wolves, like dogs, have incredibly clean mouths as far as animals go. Infection is not likely."

"Where did you study?"

Belle was surprised when there was no trace of suspicion or mocking in his voice. "Grimsnake University."

"They specialize in rare illnesses, correct?" She was starting to realize that this prince was genuinely interested and well informed.

"Correct. I went there for that particular specialty. It seemed more practical than magical ailments."

"You are welcome to stay here and look after your father until he is well. We can provide you with anything you need. I just have two requests if you agree." Dom let out a semi growl as she poured cleanser over the bit wound.

"Thank you for the offer but I would prefer to care for him at home." She replied quietly and firmly. "I can move him tomorrow morning and only ask for one night of your hospitality."

"You misunderstood…" Catherine said from the doorway, her presence startling Gemma. "He offered because that is how my cousin acts. But he is also regent, you cannot refuse a prince."

"I have the right to refuse anything but a specific royal command." Belle replied while smoothing a bandage over the last of the prince's wounds and stepped back.

"If you are the kind of doctor you appear to be, you will want to hear his requests." Catherine stepped into the room to size up the other woman. "And Jackson is rather unhappy about the gashes in the front hall. You know how long it takes for him to repair those when he is a lamp." The four who knew the erratic manservant all covered snickers at the image of him throwing a fit as a full length candelabra.

"What are your requests?" Belle's question surprised everyone but Gemma. Dominic recovered quickly and answered her.

"You do not judge the occupants of this castle and you care for my little sister."

"Why all the seriousness?"

"I will explain further tomorrow. We should all head to sleep." As soon as the word sleep was spoken it occurred to Gemma how late it was for a non nocturnal person. They dispersed quietly, Catherine promising to get someone to bring clothes from Belle's house and Dom trying to avoid Jackson on the way to his room.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Belle didn't scream when she saw a panther in the hall the next morning. Instead she fainted. When she woke, she was in a room full of blue and purple; flowers, drapes, pillows, everything. Dominic was standing over the other small bed staring into a glass casket.

"This is my sister Maria. She caught Porcelain Fever when it hit years ago and she was getting worse. I put her in the dwarfish glass hoping to stall until we could find someone to heal her. You are the most qualified person we have come across, not many educated doctors are eager to walk into our castle."

"Porcelain fever? There have only been 20 something cases where a doctor was able to examine a living person." Belle sat up and joined him. The girl under the glass was stunning for someone on the cusp of womanhood. Her skin was pale; a trait of the disease and her black hair flowed around her torso. In many ways she looked a lot like her brother, the regal tilt of her chin even in her coma.

"Can you help?"

"Yes, but I want to make most of the remedies before we open the glass. I will have a list of ingredients by sun down." Belle circled the casket slowly until she was directly across from Dom. "We still have yet to discuss the more interesting occurrences of last night. And why I saw a panther in the hall today. These things make me wonder if a degree in magical ailments is more practical than my original thought."

"There is a curse that changes my family into animal shape during daylight. That was the judgment part of the agreement, you saw Catherine this morning. There are certain members of the family who have not dealt well with the curse. They live in the East wing and that is why I ask you not to go there. Can you work under these conditions?"

"Certainly. Humans value themselves far too much. It should be refreshing interacting with you who have explored a more primal state."

The prince began to turn and leave the room before facing the doctor once again. "Thank you. Honestly, if Maria were well…this family could benefit from good news." He left without waiting for a response and Belle's eyes followed him out the door. She gazed at the girl again before returning to her notes; she was determined to heal this patient. Besides, she wasn't sure that the royal family would accept any other result.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

"Last time I did just fine when you told me what to do."

"Please quit pouting Gemma; just try to remember the order." Griffin held out a hand and his partner reluctantly placed hers on it.

"I just don't see why I need to learn all these dances." Here, the heel of her shoe caught on her skirts as she was being twirled, causing her to tip over. Griffin caught her rather gracefully but the image was ruined as the young woman spit out a few onyxes that scattered across the dance floor.

"You need to learn because the next two provinces on our travels are very traditional and easily offended. A princess would have been taught all the native dances of every province at a young age so you have to learn them. You are improving, I promise."

The two travelers were in the recently cleaned ballroom of Granite Peak. Gemma had come close to fainting when she saw it the first time; she still couldn't get over the excitement of fantasy places being real. Now she was dancing on the floor where she imagined Belle and Dom would dance one night; probably after Maria was well. Part of her distraction was this image of the whole family in formal wear, in human form, watching the couple turn gracefully. A snicker from the other side of the room brought Gemma back. Belle stood in the doorway, her doctor coat and apron ruining the image of a fancy gown. Cat Sophie twined around her ankles, a pink ribbon cheerfully bright against Belle's navy day dress.

"Wow, if you waited until night, I could help you learn the dance." The young girl suggested.

"Yes, see, I need to be taught the woman's part by a woman. You cannot understand how difficult it is to simply 'do my part in reverse'. And I think you are leaving something out of it."

"Gemma, we cannot afford to delay. You need to learn this today so that we can leave in the morning." Griffin clenched his jaw when he saw that she wasn't resuming the start position for the dance. When that muscle tightened she knew that he was frustrated and in the back of her mind it occurred to her that she was often the cause of that frustration. "Please, Sarita try to learn this."

"I could help." Belle suggested. "I cannot make any progress until Bastian returns with my ingredients."

Griffin tried to dissuade her, explaining that it was not necessary and that the doctor should rest some but Belle would have none of it. She very clearly stated that Gemma would manage to offend both Denalians and Centritons simultaneously, something that rarely happened. And so she joined their tutorial, taking up a seat in the middle of the floor and watching as the pair danced their way down one side of the hall. Sure enough, Griffin had forgotten a certain extra step here and there that the woman was supposed to take. With Belle present, the foreign girl finally understood the sections where she traded partners or circled another female.

"Excellent." The doctor praised some time later. Sophie purred from the floor, she had scampered off to get Phillip and the two children had volunteered to complete the foursome in the folk dances. Despite being in their animal forms, their presence helped Gemma visualize the complex intertwining steps. "You should practice in your gown though. Such a dress is surely weighted differently than the one you are wearing now."

"After supper, after supper!" Sophie cried, placing her front paws up on Griffin's calf. "I want to wear a gown too."

"If Madame Doctor suggests, we shall obey." The knight was in a better mood since Belle had taken over the coaching. He became Gemma's ally whilst dancing so that she wouldn't get scolded by a childhood hero. The frustration lessened as well, once she began to learn the steps and only needed to practice them. "Until supper however, we should begin to pack. No need to waste time."

"Fine but I'm going to need help closing my trunks now that Catherine gave me more dresses. Why can't all the countries agree on a single style that is fashionable?"

OOOOOOOOOOOOO

"My…!" Belle stood in awe in the hallway. She had just come from delivering the second dose of Maria's medication. There had been no change in the four hours from the first dosage but that could be an indicator in itself because the girl had not gotten worse. That was exciting but it was not what had stunned the doctor. The dress, satin edged in lace with actual gems sewn on the bust; in a deep scarlet that Gemma would have never tried before.

"Catherine gave it to me because she said I needed something more in the style of the area. Do you think it's too bold?" She self consciously smoothed the gathered fabric below her waist.

"No, the dress is gorgeous, divine. I simply have not seen anything so fine before." Belle's fingers grazed the satin lightly, as if she was afraid to ruin it by really touching it. Gemma knew that look of awe and knew that it was the first step to getting Belle into the new life ahead of her.

"It is beautiful isn't it? I think you would look lovely in something like it. But maybe a different color, something more like yellow…or gold."

"Good evening ladies." Dominic nodded politely as he came upon them in the hall. "Madame Doctor, how is the treatment coming along?"

"There has been no visible improvement since the first dosage." She noticed the slight tensing in the prince's features and continued softly. "However, she has not declined at all upon opening the glass. I believe that is a sign that her body is still capable of fighting. I plan on continuing to medicate her with the hope that she is stabilized and then improves from there."

Dom nodded and chose to switch topics. "You look quite lovely Gemma."

"Thank you. I was told that I should practice all those dances with the dress. I believe that Catherine and Leo are joining us as well to complete my education. Belle, you should come too."

"Oh, no, I do not have…no…" It was amazing how the idea of royal things made the normally confident doctor so insecure.

"I'm sure that Catherine has something else, and if not I know that I have plenty of dresses…although they may be too short for you. And you should be there, if I mess up Griffin is no help."

"My Lady, I really think that…" Gemma ignored Belle in the politest way she could, knowing that if the older woman really wanted to be left alone, she would simply storm off instead of being dragged to a ballroom.

"And that means you have to have someone to dance with, I wonder if Sebastian or Marcus have heard. Dom, you will be making an appearance, correct?"

He made a very unregal face with a hint of a snarl. "Griffin has forcefully requested I appear. I was simply going to visit Maria and then come down."

"Fantastic."

OOOOOOOOOOO

The dress she wore was blue and it was more ruffled than gathered and she wasn't wearing gloves but as Belle and Dom waltzed around the ballroom, Gemma could see a bit of the fairy tale princess who laughed with talking plates. The storyteller sighed happily and rested her head against Griffin's chest, the side without all the medals hanging.

"I assume your plan worked." He asked quietly, leading them in a small circle before continuing around the room. She simply nodded. "And how is it that you can dance this perfectly without any instruction?"

"Where I'm from we dance this way as well. Not to mention how much simpler it is, no trading partners, no twirling in and around other people, no lines moving in opposite directions…" Her hand gently tightened around his arm, "Just flow."

"Thank you for helping him Gemma."

"Oh, I think they would have found each other eventually. Her father would have gotten well, Dominic would have found out there was a new doctor in town. Events would have happened, I just sped things along."

"Thank you Gemma." Her blush rivaled the fabric of her gown.

The Most Royal Family Tree

Residing in the Fortress of Granite Peak

Catherine=PhilipAlonzo=ElenaCarla=Jesse

Demetrius/Catherine=Leo, Bastian, MarcusDom, Maria, PhilipJesse, Esperanza, Jose

Sophie

Italicized are deceased and the / means they were twins.

Children are listed eldest to youngest, left to right.