The Rosebush

Jamal wiped his brow and grimaced as he realized he’d just smeared dirt into the sweat. Ah, well. He was already a mess; what difference would a bit more dirt make?

He bent back to the flower bed, pulling weeds and gently examining every flower to ensure they were just as they should be. When at last he finished, he sat back on his heels and this time fumbled for the kerchief shoved into the edge of his pants, using it to wipe the sweat and dirt from his face and neck.

The midday sun beat down something fierce, and this was really the worst time of day to be working outside, but he had been working since the barest threads of sunlight stretched across the sky – and he likely would still be working until supper.

Laughter spilled briefly from the house, the high, tinkling laughter of women sharing some delicious secret. Jamal bent and went back to work, trying not to be stung. It shouldn’t hurt, it didn’t hurt, and he’d rather be outside in his stupid garden than inside suffering through polite chit chat and uncomfortable fancy clothes anyway.

He picked up his trowel and stabbed viciously at the earth, going back to work on his garden with a vengeance. Dozens upon dozens of flowers, carefully gathered and planted, every last one of them flourishing.

Finishing with his trowel, he set it aside and fell back on the grass to admire all his handiwork of the day. Beautiful, every last bit of it. He might not be good enough or worthy enough for anything else, but he made a fine gardener.

More laughter spilled out, followed by the sound of Georgina’s voice, sharp and clear and pretty. His momentary happiness faded, and he drew his legs close told to fold them beneath him, fingers pulling unhappily at the grass – but not tearing it, quite.

Through the curtains that hid the yellow salon from the garden, he could see the silhouette of girls in silk and lace; pastels and bright spring colors, their fancy tea hats hiding spun-gold curls and protecting cream-pale skin from any hint of sun.

He ran a dirty hand through his own hair, thick spirals of a brown-black shade no one else possessed. If that was not enough to spell out his shame, his dark, dusky skin certainly was. His half sisters would never order him to dress up and attend them and their friends during a tea party; they would never command he escort them to this or that ball, and fetch lemonade all night.


They just asked if he would please make himself scarce and not embarrass them.

More laughter spilled out, and he stood up with a rough sound, moving to the back of the garden to work with the ivy and the weeping willow, where hopefully the sound of the fountain would drown out the noise from the house.

He lingered in the one spot of his garden that remained bare – a place he could give over to many a flower or shrub, but which he refused to do. He wanted something different for it, but had not yet landed upon precisely what.

Sighing, he moved away from the empty patch and went to tending the rest of the garden, throwing himself back into it with a fury, determined not to let anything else intrude on this one small piece of happiness.

When he finally stirred again, his entire body ached and the sun had dipped low enough in the sky that the air had cooled. He used his sodden kerchief to wipe away the worst of the grimy sweat, and listened cautiously for the sound of giggling girls.


Still, no one had come to inform him he was permitted back in those places where he might be seen…

But it was his house too…even if he…

Sighing, he raked a hand through his hair and looked down at himself.

Pants, dirty. The shirt was even worse, and the clothes were already threadbare and worn to start. He’d rolled the sleeves up to get them out of the way, making his forearms even darker than he already was.

Servants’ entrance, then. Better to be on the safe side; he didn’t want to make his sisters mad.

Trudging back through the garden, he let himself in the kitchen and then up the back stairs, gaining his room quickly.

He stopped short to see that a bath awaited him, and it made him smile even as his chest ached – Ms. Roberts, the housekeeper, was always far too kind to him. Stripping off his filthy clothes, he stepped into the tub and sat down with a happy sigh, groaning as the hot water sank into his sore muscles.

Only after several minutes of blissful soaking did he finally stir himself enough to begin scrubbing himself clean. The soap had a faint hint of honey and cinnamon to it, making Jamal shake his head and smile fondly.

At last clean, he stood up and combed through his hair as the water sluiced from his body – a body well-muscled and too dark to belong to nobility, marked and scared from hard labor, hideously unfashionable.

Mouth tight, he left the tub and quickly dressed for supper, but the superfine and linen, the velvet of his jacket, only made him feel worse rather than better. Shrugging to settle the jacket properly into place, he made one last attempt to tame his tight curls, then gave up with a sigh and made his way downstairs.

Porcelain dolls, his sisters. Utterly beautiful. Georgina’s hair was pure gold, Augusta’s had a slight hint of red to it. Long lashes and china-blue eyes, both, flawless skin. Georgina had changed into a green evening gown, Augusta a pink one. Gold and pearls at their throats, fresh flowers in their hair.

To look good should Father appear, for he always liked for them to look their very best at all times. They said nothing as he took his seat opposite them. “Georgina, Augusta. Did your tea party go well?”

“Quite,” Augusta answered, voice level and decorous, but her eyes shone with unadulterated delight. “I do believe our tea parties are becoming quite the invitation to receive. Wouldn’t you say, Georgie?”

Georgina nodded primly, sipping at a delicate rose wine. “Speaking of which, I do believe we shall neglect to invite Miss Worthington next time. She is becoming a bit too confident in herself over it.”

From the hallway, the clock struck the ninth hour. Servants appeared, the housekeeper and two footmen, to serve the first course. Jamal smiled at the housekeeper, murmuring a quiet thanks as she set out his bowl of soup. She smiled at him, and patted his hand briefly, before moving on to tend his sisters.

The soup was spicy, their father’s favorite, and Jamal frowned. Father was expected back that day; in fact, he should have arrived already. It wasn’t unusual for him to run late, of course, but still Jamal worried.

“So what do you have planned for the rest of the week?” he asked, attempting to distract himself.

“Lord Montgomery and Miss Clearwater are engaged,” Georgina said with a frown. “Their betrothal ball is two days hence, and that reminds me I must speak with our seamstress; she should have contacted us for the final fittings already. If I do not outshine that simpering Clearwater, I shan’t go at all.” She tossed her head, carefully arranged curls bouncing. Long, loose curls, nothing like his own tight and springy ones.

Jamal smiled. “You are both stunningly beautiful, and hardly need gowns to outshine every other woman – though it is rather mean to outshine the bride to be, isn’t it?”

Augusta laughed and poked her sister gently with a fork. “Yes, Georgie. Do let the poor thing have her one day in the spotlight. When you finally catch Lord Eastgate, you shall have your moment of triumph.”

Georgina sniffed, but let the matter drop, taking a dainty bite of her food.

“A couple of girls noticed our gardener. Didn’t you stay out of sight, Jamal?” Augusta asked, and he hated the way she still hesitated on his name. He knew it was strange, but it was his mother’s last request. Even after all these years, they still could not say it right. He should be used to it, but it stung still.

He picked up his wine and drank deeply, banishing the unhappy thoughts for at least a little while. “I never left the garden,” he said quietly.

Wouldn’t it be nice if he stopped caring? Then nothing would sting, nothing would hurt, and the way his sisters treated him like a vaguely amusing stranger would matter not a bit. He could not help what he was – a half-breed bastard neither acknowledged nor denied by his father, heathen in appearance and name. Why was that held against him? But he could ask why a thousand times and nothing would ever change.

His sisters did not respond to his comment, but instead turned to gossip and other idle chatter, dismissing him. Jamal ate in silence, straining to hear any sound of their father returning. When the clock finally struck the eleventh hour, however, he still had not arrived.

A half hour later his sisters finally finished eating and chatting, not bothering to tell him goodnight before they departed for bed.

Jamal sighed and helped the servants clear everything away, then wandered to the library. Discarding most of his evening wear, he settled down to enjoy a bit of brandy and some light reading. The house soon fell silent, as the servants finished closing up the house and snuffed all but the library lamps.

He bid the housekeeper good night and settled in to his reading, barely noticing as the clock chimed the hours away. It was just as he was beginning to nod off himself that he heard the rapid clopping of a horse up the cobbled drive. Jerking fully awake, book spilling to the floor, Jamal sat a moment to gather his senses.

Then he bolted for the front door and fumbled with the locks, finally throwing the door open – in time to see his father all but fall from his horse. “Father!” Rushing down the stairs, he caught his father close, steadied him – and wondered why the older man trembled so badly. The night was cool, but pleasantly so.

Lord Greene looked up, his eyes a fine china blue, but dark now with exhaustion – and fear, and Jamal could not fathom what there was to fear. “Father…come inside. You are so late. Whatever is the matter?”

“No,” Lord Greene said, wrenching away, turning back to his horse. He fumbled for a moment, then finally wrenched something free, but rather than display it he stumbled his way up the stairs and finally inside.

Confounded by his behavior, Jamal obeyed the gestures to follow him inside, and did up the locks again before following him to the library.

He froze in shock as he finally saw what it was his father had been carrying, and what he now set so carefully on the desk.

A rosebush. Only a small one, not even any blooms upon it, but he would know a rosebush anywhere. He looked at his father, amazed he’d been able to obtain it. “Father…”

Lord Greene’s face twisted, a knotted mass of agony that left Jamal feeling utterly lost. “I have made a terrible mistake, my son.”

Jamal’s breath caught, and his chest wrenched painfully. Never had his father so plainly admitted that Jamal was his son – a bastard, the result of a dalliance with the pretty cook one long, lonely winter, but his son all the same. “Father, what is the matter?”

“My ships,” Lord Greene said miserably. “My ships have gone missing. We fear they are sunk, and I fear that leaves me with rather limited funds.” He raked a hand through his hair, and suddenly he looked to Jamal ever last bit of his fifty six years.

He moved closer and rested a hand lightly on his father’s shoulder. “It is no matter, father. We will get by.”

Lord Greene laughed again, though to Jamal it sounded more like a sob. “That is not what concerns me; I am no fool not to have planned for such an occurrence. No, my agony lies in what occurred on my way home.”

Jamal frowned and gently tugged his father to the fireplace, pushing him down in the seat he’d only recently vacated himself. Retrieving his brandy, he thrust it into his father’s hand, sitting quietly upon the footrest until Lord Greene resumed speaking.

“I became lost,” Lord Greene said at length. “I know not how, for I’ve traveled these roads a thousand times and more. Still, lost I became…and stumbled across the Gray Castle.”

“Incredible,” Jamal exclaimed. Everyone could just see hints of the Gray Castle, buried far away and deep in the dense forest that separated their town from the rest of the world. See but never reach, for not even the best of the local hunters had ever been able to find a path to it.

Once, it was said, a great lord – some even said a prince – had lived there. Years and years ago, so far back that no one could remember anything about it, except to say that everyone in the palace had simply vanished one day. No rhyme or reason, and ever since all that was seen of it were the towers peeking just over the edge of the forest.

Now Lord Greene did begin to sob, quietly, and the pitiful sounds wrenched at Jamal.

He poured more brandy, and held the wrinkled, so frail-seeming hands in his own. “Father, it is all right. You are home safe and sound, now.”

“No,” Lord Greene said miserably. “I thought the castle abandoned, you see. All the roses, so many colors, I thought they grew wild.” He glanced up at Jamal, expression intent. “I though they would suit the garden, you see. So I went about getting one. Only—only—only when I had finished…” He shuddered, and Jamal barely caught the brandy snifter before it could tumble to the floor.

Setting it aside, he held his father’s hands tightly. “Father…”

“A beast,” Lord Green said hoarsely. “A terrible, awful beast came upon me, and demanded to know what I was doing with his roses. That I had no right to take that which belonged to him.” He shook harder still, and Jamal half-feared he would fall apart. “I explained, and apologized, but he said the damage had been done…”

He shook his head, and looked at Jamal, blue eyes so intent. Jamal had always wished, secretly and quietly, that he had those blue eyes. He looked nothing like his sisters, and only their slightly flat noses spoke of any relation between him and his father. If he had blue eyes, he’d always thought as a child, he’d at least look like he belonged.

“Oh, Jamal. I did not mean to do it. The beast said the rosebush I had taken was one of his most precious roses; that their like can be found no where else in the world. I had taken it, and it could not be put back…and so, he said, a price must be paid.”

Jamal frowned, fear beginning to war with anger, that some ‘beast’ would be so cruel to an old man who had only wanted a gift for his daughters.

“He demanded to know in full why I was stealing his roses, and so I explained. He said if they were so important, then I should send one of my children to thank him properly. That if it was not done in a fortnight, we would regret it…” He trailed off, and lowered his head, almost as if he prayed over their still clasped hands.

“That is beastly indeed,” Jamal snapped. “You meant no harm, he should not have acted so, and I will most certainly go and thank him for his confounded roses.” He stood up and stormed from the library, ignoring the way his father called after him.

Furiously he packed a bag, tossing in all that he might possibly need. Likely he would be gone a day or two, and he added his heavier cloak at the last, on the chance he was out when the night was chilliest.

That done, he discarded his house apparel for sturdier traveling clothes, heavier linen and his leather riding breeches, tall boots and a light wool jacket. Prepared, he shouldered his knapsack and strode to the door – then paused, and moved instead to his bed.

He reached beneath his pillow and withdrew what he always kept there – a simple brass locket, so old and worn it barely deigned to open anymore. Inside was a lock of spun-gold hair. The hair was his father’s, from the younger days when he had seduced Jamal’s mother. The locket was all he had of his mother, the only indication she had ever existed.

Shoving it into the pocket of his jacket, he made his way back downstairs.

“My son…” Lord Greene said. “You do not understand. It truly is a terrible beast which lives in that castle. Such wicked magic I have never seen.”

Jamal scoffed. “There is no such thing as magic, Father. I will address this matter, and then I will return and plant the rosebush.” If he did this, then maybe, just maybe, his father would keep calling him ‘my son’. For that…for that he would face a thousand beasts and more.

On impulse, he stooped and kissed his father’s cheek, then turned and all but ran for the door.

“Jamal! Wait!”

He froze, shoulders tense – but Lord Greene only pressed something into his hand. “The beast said you would need that, to find your way back to the castle.”

“I’ll be back,” Jamal said, then pulled his hand free and took the horse his father had left in the direction of the stable to see it was taken care of and a fresh one saddled.

Half an hour later, he was racing toward the forest, determined to find the Gray Castle and the so-called beast which dwelt within it.

By the time he reached it, the castle was little more than a blur to his exhausted eyes. The faintest threads of gray light were beginning to show in the sky, but Jamal barely noticed.

He dismounted as he reached the iron gates barring entrance, but the dismount was more a fall and he barely kept himself from smashing face first into the cobblestones. Shaking his head, tightening his grip on the gold pendant which had supposedly been his guide here – though he thought it had rather more to do with discovering paths he’d never noted before than some magical amulet – he stumbled forward, leading his horse only from sheer habit.

Blearily he noted the castle was beautiful…and not run down at all. He’d expected some crumbling estate, worn down by years of neglect. But even tired he could see everything was pristine and new-looking.

He lifted a hand to knock upon the door, but even as he touched it, the door swung soundlessly open. Starting to feel nervous rather than just simply angry, he pushed the door all the way open and stepped inside. Shoving back the hood of his cloak, he took in his surroundings.

The entryway was massive. He thought it might be bigger than his entire house. Even his breaths seemed to echo, and his steps were shockingly loud as he crossed the black and white tiled floor. Dark wood gleamed in the flickering light of a few candles, all the doors firmly shut.

He paused by the marble stairs, reaching out to lightly touch the banister, taken by the way it was carved to resemble ivy, right down to the delicate little flowers. He pulled off one glove to better feel the wood, the exquisite detail of the carving.

A soft sound made him start, and he jerked guiltily away, looking around anxiously, heart in his throat. “Hello?” he asked softly. “I—uh—” He recalled his father’s cold and trembling hands, the fear and agony on his face, and anger rose up to replace his own nervousness. “I’ve come to thank the castle resident for our rosebush. Is anyone here or has the bastard who terrified my father over a flower run off like the coward he is?”

“Who are you?” A voice demanded, booming out. It was deep and rough, echoing everywhere, and only a slight strange shifting of the shadows gave Jamal the idea of looking up.

High above, just leaning on the banister, was a shadow. Nothing but a silhouette could he see, so dark was the upper level, candlelight reaching only just enough to distinguish one shadow from another.

Not much more than head, shoulders, and a bit of torso was visible, and all of those only a little less dark than his surroundings. There was something odd about his shape, but Jamal could not quite grasp what was wrong.

“I dislike when people help themselves to what his mine.”

“He did not mean to be a thief,” Jamal said hotly. “My father explained that to you! Everyone thought this castle deserted.”

The voice echoed down, like stone rubbing against stone. It made him shiver and go still. “Only fools assume, and does it look as though my castle stands neglected and unused?”

Jamal glared up. “He intended no harm, and apologized, and offered to leave the rosebush!”

“Bah!” the man echoed down. “An empty gesture.”

“No, it most certainly was not,” Jamal bellowed, tempter snapping entirely. He snatched up a candle and took the stairs two at a time, shouting as he climbed, whipping around the turn at the top. “He made the offer sincerely, and meant no harm throughout. You have overreacted, and caused an old man more grief than he—”

He dropped the candle in shock as light landed upon the master of the castle. The light went out, leaving them in shadow, and Jamal drew a shuddering breath as he tried to reconcile what he’d seen before the lights went out.

“I think,” that rough voice said, “that your father’s upset had less to do with my words than with my appearance. Are you going to run screaming into the night?”

Jamal scowled at the mockery in his tone. “I think you are a beast in manner as much as appearance.”

Laughter filled the hallway, and Jamal could hear and just barely see as the—the beast, for truly that’s what he was – moved closer. His heart lodged in his throat, making it impossible to swallow, to breath, and only sheer force of will kept him from taking a step back.

Because he knew that’s what the beast expected him to do, was trying to make him do, and Jamal wasn’t going to play into it. He couldn’t play into it. He’d come here for his father, damn it.

Laughter washed over him, and Jamal was surprised at how warm the breaths were, carrying a hint of brandy. He looked up, seeing nothing but eyes that held an animal shine, yellow and fierce.

A gargoyle, that’s what he’d seen before dropping the candle. Skin the dusty gray of old stone, tough and wrinkled like a lizard’s, short obsidian-looking horns jutting from the top of his bald head, and a touch of surreal in the wholly normal, lordly clothes he wore.

He thought he’d caught a glimpse of tail, but that was too much for him to take, especially when the beast stood close enough Jamal could feel his body heat.

Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to speak. “I have come to thank you for the rosebush…my lord. I apologize for our disturbing you. Is there anything we can offer in recompense for your trouble?”

“Hmm,” the rough voice rumbled thoughtfully. “I think you should stay.”

Jamal blinked. “What?”

“If you want to repay me, stay a time.”


“I would enjoy the company, and if you are so fascinated by roses then I can show you a great many.”

Jamal frowned. “You demand someone come and thank you or we would regret it, and now you invite me to stay a time and see your roses? What game are you about? I do not care to be mocked, sir,” he snapped.

“So I see,” the beast replied. “Were you a cat, I think your back would be arched and your hair standing on end. Are you going to hiss?”

Jamal clenched his hands into fists. “I believe we are finished here. I bid you good night sir.” Clocks chimed, more than he could pick out – tolling one, twice, trice, fading away finally after tolling a sixth time. He turned on his heel and headed back toward the stars.

A hand suddenly snagged his wrist, and this time there was no mistaking the claws that tipped the long, boney fingers. Claws. It made his heart race something fierce. What was this creature? How had it come to be here? “Stay,” the beast repeated. His voice was oddly solemn, nothing like the dry, mocking tone he had used before.

“Stay?” Jamal repeated. He shook his head. “If I stay, my garden will fall into neglect.”

“It will keep for a time,” the beast replied. “Stay with me – just until the fall.”

“Through the spring and summer?” Jamal asked. He couldn’t stay that long—

Except, who would miss him? Not his family, when they would barely admit to being such. What would he do here, though? At least back home he had his garden, and other chores around the house, helping his father to keep the house running, occasionally assisting with the bookkeeping…

“Come with me,” the beast said abruptly, and all but dragged him along – down the stairs, and along the black and white floor, through a room that seemed made entirely of glass walls, with furniture he passed too swiftly to really see—

Leading out into a beautiful garden.

Roses. There was so many of them, in a vast array of colors, just visible in the weak light of the coming dawn. He moved in a daze to the nearest, unable to believe he could see and touch roses. They’d never really interested him, roses. It wasn’t a flower native to their part of the world, expensive to import, hard to grow – which was why his sisters had wanted them. Exotic and rare, a status symbol to brag about. Jamal had never cared for them.

These, however…he’d never seen their like. “They’re beautiful,” he said softly, running his fingers whisper soft over petals of palest pink.

“Yes,” the beast rumbled.

Jamal turned, able now to see more of the beast – astonished to see that what he’d taken for a cloak before was actually wings. The man truly was a gargoyle, right down to the knotted face and too-sharp teeth, animal eyes and a slightly hunched posture. He broke away when the beast caught his glance.

“So will you stay?” the beast asked after a moment of silence. “I promise, I will not eat you or any such thing. ‘Tis only my appearance which is beastly.”

“As well as your manners,” Jamal retorted, speaking before he could bite the words back.

The beast flashed his teeth, and Jamal realized he was grinning. “My appearance and my manners, then. This way, I will show you to your room before you fall over in my garden.”

Jamal realized abruptly just how tired he was. In his fear and ire he had pushed his exhaustion away, but now it crashed down upon him. “Very well,” he said quietly.

“This way,” the beast said, and turned to lead him back into the castle proper, through halls that would have left him gawking in awe if he were awake enough to make proper note.

By the time the beast stopped, and pushed him into a massive room and a bed that seemed to encompass most of it, Jamal had only enough wits left about him to pull off his boots before falling into bed.


Sunlight woke him, and he had to close his eyes and roll away before he could open them without fear of being blinded.

He stared uncomprehending at his surroundings. The room was easily twice the size of his bedroom, perhaps larger still. It was decorated in deepest yellows, trimmed in green and gold, a theme of sun and leaves spun throughout.

The bed curtains were still tied back, fine heavy velvet that rivaled even that which his sisters purchased for their winter gowns. He let the cloth fall from his finger and slid from the bed, shoving tangled curls from his face.

Roses. The beast. He was in the castle, and had agreed to stay…

He shook his head to clear it, wondering if all he’d seen last night – this morning? – was really true.

There was no such thing as magic or beasts… surely he had imagined it.

Fumbling with his boots, he finally managed to get them on, then made his way toward the door – and stopped in the hallway.

He had no idea where he was going. All he did remember clearly from the night before was the sheer enormity of the castle. At one point he passed a clock, and realized with dismay he’d slept well through breakfast and dinner, and was only a few hours from the supper hour. He’d not realized he’d been that tired.

Shaking his head at himself, he finally found a stairwell that looked vaguely familiar – and the black and white floor at the foot of it was familiar indeed. Downstairs, he again stood uncertain. His stomach growled, and Jamal decided he could at least look for the kitchen while he wandered about.

Turning to the right, he made his way through room after room. Even the hallways were more luxurious than anything his father had ever bought or sold – and being one of the wealthiest merchants in this part of the world, that made for much luxury indeed.

He paused in front of a massive window, fingers just touching the glass as he stared out at the garden beyond – the roses he vaguely remembered, but this was not the rose garden. This one made him feel wholly inadequate as a gardener. More flowers than he could name, so many beautiful trees…

Glancing to the side, he spied a door, and all thoughts of food fled as he let himself outside. The scent of green things and flowers surrounded him, and Jamal threw himself into it, exploring everything, feeling green himself as he saw so many things he did not have or simply could not do.

Finally he collapsed on a beautiful stone bench, beneath the shade of a tree he did not recognize, drinking in the beauty around him.

Movement from the corner of his eye drew his attention, and he startled at the sight before him – last night had been no dream, and what had seemed frightening by night was only more so by day.

“No figment of your imagination, I’m afraid,” the beast said, his voice containing an already familiar mocking note. “I am a beast, as real as the garden making you sigh.”

Jamal drew himself up. “You must admit your appearance is rather startling, sir. Gargoyles are meant to stay upon the roof tops, not flutter about the gardens making fun of jealous gardeners.”

The beast threw his head back and laughed. “A gargoyle! Is that better or worse than beast? I cannot decide. Why are you jealous of my garden? Why do you call yourself a gardener, when you are of the Greene family? That lot always had a silver spoon placed in their mouths, and I doubt that has changed overmuch.”

“I am only a gardener,” Jamal said, sadness washing over him, as painful as ever. “Your garden is beautiful, and I remember the roses as being breathtaking. My own garden is quite pitiful by comparison.”

He got a strange look that he could not read, then the beast turned abruptly away. “Then you may have this one, if you like. I care only for my roses; this garden could use someone who cares about it.”

Jamal blinked, and stood. “Wait—what—”

The beast was walking away, however, and Jamal could not quite manage to catch up with him.

“If you are hungry, the kitchen is two lefts and a right away,” the beast said, and then he was gone, leaving Jamal standing alone just inside the castle once more.

Heaving a sigh, determined to ask just what exactly he’d meant by that statement when next the beast deigned to appear, he took the two lefts and a right and all but tripped right into the kitchen.

It was stuffed full, more food than he thought would be needed to feed an army. Bemused, growing used to feeling that way, he made himself something to eat and then wandered his way back to his room – or, at least, what he assumed was his room.

A bath waited for him, and it made him feel suddenly homesick.

He was here through spring and summer, and he suspected he would not be allowed to leave for so much as a day until then… did his father miss him? His sisters? Would someone tend his garden in his absence or would they neglect it?

Were they relieved he was gone?

Shying away from that thought, refusing to believe it, he shucked his clothes and clambered into the tub. It was only when he climbed out of it again some time later that he realized he had nothing to wear.

Hesitating, he at last shrugged and moved to the wardrobe in the corner.

It was full, stocked with clothes that put his wardrobe at home to shame. Even his sisters would rage with envy. Shaking his head in wonder, he finally selected some evening wear, smoothing his hand over the butter-soft velvet.

When would he wake from this strange dream? A guest in a castle owned by a beast…

At least he had learned his way around a bit. Downstairs, he paused in the hallway. Should he venture to the rose garden? Explore more of the castle? The day was already gone and he’d been awake only a few hours, and most of those spent in the beautiful garden.

“Refreshed?” the beast asked, and Jamal whirled around to face him.

“Quite,” he said. “Must you always slink about and try to take me by surprise?”

The beast bared his teeth, grinning in his strange way of his. “I take my amusements where I can find them. It occurs to me I’ve not asked your name. How remiss of me.”

Jamal grimaced. “My name is Jamal.”

“That is not a name of these regions,” the beast said thoughtfully, drawing close. He looked so strange, a gargoyle dressed like a gentleman. It should have been laughable, but Jamal somehow didn’t feel like laughing.

Claws picked delicately through his dratted hair, and Jamal forced himself to remain still. “I guess that would explain certain aspects of your appearance, but you are also unmistakably a Greene. Did your father perhaps marry a foreign lady?”

Jamal tore away with a rough sound. Unmistakably a Greene. Ridiculous. “More like dallied with a foreign cook,” he choked out, and turned to bolt aimlessly down a hallway. Childish, he knew, but he could not bear dredging up his birth.

He stopped at the first room he saw flooded with light, finding himself in some sort of sitting room. Bookshelves lined one wall, and a fire crackled in a small fireplace; the rest of the room was given over to small tables and plush chairs.

With a long sigh he collapsed in the nearest chair, staring glumly at his hands. His sisters had beautiful hands, delicate and soft, smooth and unmarred. His father’s hands were a bit more worn, but always clean, equally unmarked; the hands of a gentleman.

His own…still there was dirt beneath his nails, countless scratches from thorns and hitting his tools wrong, bites from all manner of bugs…the hands of a peasant. He’d never be a gentleman. Never a proper Greene, to go to the big city with his father, visit all the clubs, be introduced to his father’s friends, make gentlemen friends of his own…

No, he was just a bastard child to be kept at home and left to play in the garden.

“I apologize,” he said stiffly as heard the beast enter. “I’ve yet to learn your name, and ran off before I could hear it.”

“Mmm,” the beast murmured noncommittally. “You are upset because you are a bastard child? That is not your fault, and nothing about which to be upset.”

Jamal shrugged and did not look up from his ugly hands. “Try being locked away your entire life because your father cannot bear to show you, but cannot quite rid himself of you either. I have always called him ‘Father’ but the first time he called me son was the day he came home terrified of a beast from whom he’d stolen a rosebush.”

The beast scowled, and his eyes seemed suddenly to glow. He almost looked angry, but Jamal could not imagine why he would look so. Perhaps he simply could not read his expressions properly. He found his hands taken in a grip that was rough but surprisingly warm. “You are unmistakably a Greene, for what it’s worth. You have the face, the build, and most certainly you have the eyes.”

Jerking away, Jamal stood and moved across the room. “I do not appreciate blatant lies,” he snapped. “My eyes are nothing like the blue of my father, my sisters. I have his nose and nothing more, and even if I did resemble him – that does not make me anything but a bastard, a gardener.”

“Blue?” The beast repeated.

Jamal said nothing – then yelped when his arm was roughly taken and he was dragged from the room, down yet more hallways that he stood no hope of remembering.

He realized after a moment they were in a portrait gallery. They halted abruptly before a portrait of a man Jamal did not recognize, but who looked vaguely familiar. He was older, surely close to fifty in the portrait. A slightly flattened nose and curly dark brown hair. Handsome, he supposed, in an understated way. His eyes were not blue however, but—

“The first Lord Greene,” the beast said. “I believe the title went to a different branch of the family in the eleventh generation. They live in the city now, or did several years ago. They were long famed for their honey-colored eyes, when so many of their peers had green or blue.”

Jamal could think of nothing to say, entranced by the portrait to which he now realized he bore a strong resemblance. “So…”

“You look more like a Greene than your despicable father.”

“He’s not despicable,” Jamal said, but the words were dragged from his throat with an effort. He loved his father, but…

“Mmm” the beast replied. “I’m afraid I must disagree. I know despicable when I see it; it is a trait of which I was guilty for a great many years. I’m sure I still slip into it.” He winked. “Certainly my manners need work, according to a reliable source.”

Jamal smiled weakly, eyes still fastened to the portrait. “It hardly matters what I look like, in the end. I am only a gardener, unless my father ever decides otherwise. Given I am two and twenty years now…” He was not likely to ever be anything but a gardener.

“That is not so old; too young yet to resigning yourself to being a gardener.” A hand closed around his wrist again, and Jamal once more found himself being dragged away.

“I can walk just fine, you know,” he said.

The beast laughed, and without the mockery it was an entirely different sound. “Of course.” His wrist was let go. “Follow me, then.”

Jamal did so, silent and confused. In short order they were back in the sitting room he’d stumbled across before, but this time he was pushed down into one of the chairs closest to the fire. He noticed now that one of the chairs had a book lying across one arm, a glass upon the nearby table.

“This has ever been my room,” the beast said. “Even before I was turned into…” He motioned to himself, then sat down gracefully in the chair.

“You weren’t always so?” Jamal asked, then frowned. “Still you have not told me your name.”

The beast smiled. “It is Rastus, though I was most often called Beast. I acted like one long before I became one in fact.”

“Oh,” Jamal said softly, more confused than ever. “Magic does not exist, or so I always thought.”

“There is more truth to the old stories than most realize,” Rastus replied. “My family has always been deeply entrenched in magic. Personally, I think the ability one best lost, but I am perhaps a trifle biased.”

Jamal nodded. “You’re different when you’re not snarling and making a mockery.”

“Ah, but I make mockery so well,” Rastus replied, smiling briefly. “It is a hard habit to break, and you make a fine sight when you are in a temper.”

No one had ever spoken to him so, even if the words were not meant as they sounded. Jamal flushed and dropped his gaze, not certain what to say.

More soft laughter, a sound to which he was already growing used. “I doubt you are hungry yet, as you ate quite recently. Would you perhaps like a tour of the castle?”

Jamal slowly glanced back up, half expecting some jest, but there was only a faintly inquisitive look upon the gnarled face he was slowly learning to read. “Yes,” he said. “That would be nice. Perhaps I’ll learn enough I will not keep getting lost.”

Rastus grinned. “I got lost frequently as a boy. I think the castle is designed to be confusing, to make it harder to invade in the days where that was a problem. Come, I will show you all the tricks I know.”

Nodding, Jamal stood and followed him out. “Why are you a beast?” he asked.

“I deserved it,” Rastus said. “Perhaps someday I’ll be lucky enough to break the curse…but if not, I am used to this form.” He shrugged, and gave a brief smile. “At least I am not some hairy mongrel, right? That would be abhorrent. Come, we’ll start with the west wing. It’s the slightly less confusing of them.”

“As you wish,” Jamal replied.


“Are you lost, gardener?”

Jamal turned at the sound of the rough, teasing voice. “Perhaps a bit, beast,” he replied. “This maze has so many twists and turns.”

Rastus laughed. “I once got lost in it after too much wine. If you think you are lost now…”

“I can only imagine, thankfully,” Jamal replied, tilting his head back to smile as Rastus drew close. “What are you doing here at so early an hour?”

Claws caught on his curls, picking through them, a strange gesture that Jamal still could not discern the purpose of, even months later. Not that he minded, really. He’d long grown used to it, even come to expect it. “I woke early, and saw you from the window.” He motioned toward the massive sunburst window that crowned the library and overlooked all of the land behind the castle. “I could not tell from your movements if you needed assistance or not.”

“Assistance,” Jamal conceded with a grimace. “I did not think the maze would prove this confusing.”

“Come, then. I will show you the way,” Rastus said, and held out his hand.

Jamal took it, the tough, leathery feel of it comforting in its own strange way. Rastus looked like a monster, but he could not fathom why anyone would consider him one otherwise.

They walked in silence, and he wondered why it did not bother him to walk hand in hand with a beast. Why it did not bother him to spend all his time with Rastus…

Why did he need to question it though? Other than thoughts of his family, he was the happiest he’d ever been. All his life he’d spent at home, with only brief visits here and there to the smaller shops where no one knew or cared who sired him.

Rastus was clearly so learned, a man of the world – or had been at one point – and he seemed not to care a wit about the circumstances of Jamal’s birth, treating him like an equal. Perhaps it was only because there was no one else to talk to, but Jamal tried hard not to think about that.

He wished his father…

Did his family miss him? Oh, he wanted to tell them all about this. Then their faces would light up, and they would ask him questions and pay attention to him, and treat him like family for once and—

“You look as though you are a million miles away in that pretty head of yours, Jamal,” Rastus said, gentle amusement in his voice.

Jamal flushed at being described as pretty, knowing Rastus was just teasing him, and shrugged. “I was wondering after my family,” he said. “They do not know that I am alive and well here. My father was terrified of what might become of me. I’m sure he fears the worst.”

Rastus scowled and abruptly let go of his hand, stepping ahead of him. Jamal called after him, but Rastus said nothing, and before he could call out again he was brought up short.

They were in the center of the maze, which was far from what he’d expected it to be. He’d never bothered to look at it from the library, wanting it to remain a mystery, a challenge, and a surprise.

It was most certainly a surprise. Hedges shaped to look like fanciful creatures – unicorns, dragons, and griffons. At the very center was an ivy-covered gazebo, the base surrounded by roses. Inside it was lined with deep, padded benches, a quiet little hideaway for those who had no desire to be found.

“Summer is drawing to a close,” Rastus said stiffly. “Already the nights grow chilly, and the leaves have begun to turn.”

Jamal frowned. “Yes…”

“You no longer need stay here,” Rastus continued. “I consider the rosebush paid in full, and appreciate your keeping me company for so long. If you miss your family so much, you should go and see them, of course.”

Oh. Rastus was…dismissing him? It was true Jamal had hoped to go visit his family, but he’d hoped… he swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat. “Of course I have been homesick, and would like them to know I am doing quite well here, but—”

“Then by all means go and see them,” Rastus said curtly, and turned to stalk away.

Jamal caught his sleeve, but only just. “Can—can I not come back?” he asked, hating that he sounded as though he were begging. “I don’t want to leave you; I just want to see them briefly. What is so wrong with that?”

Rastus relaxed in his grasp, and slowly turned around. Gently he took Jamal’s hands in his own. “Do not go home,” he said, eyes glowing as he looked at Jamal. “Stay here with me. I will make you happy.”

“I—they’re my family. They love me, in their own way. I cannot simply forsake them…”

“As you wish, then,” Rastus said heavily, letting go of his hands. “If you want to return here, I’m sure you’ll be able to find your way.”

Jamal frowned, balling his hands into fists, wondering that they suddenly felt cold. “Don’t I…need that pendant or something?”

“The pendant only works once per person,” Rastus said. “If you want to come here a second time, you must find the path yourself. If…if you want to be here…” He shook his head. “I thank you for staying all this time with me. You’re the only one who has ever stayed the length of time I requested. I hope your family is happy to see you. Farewell.”

He turned sharply away and vanished from the maze, and though Jamal shouted after him, no reply came. Miserably he plunged into the maze, wondering how he was supposed to get home when he could not even find his way out of the castle maze.

Yet find his way he did, nearly spilling right out of, into the garden which Rastus so many weeks had declared he’d given to Jamal.

His garden.

Except it wasn’t. His garden was small and insignificant, befitting of his station. This garden belonged to the mysterious lord of a lost castle. A lord who had dismissed him so easily, and did not particularly seem to care if Jamal returned or not.

Ignoring the ache in his chest, Jamal focused on the fact he would be seeing his family again soon, and ran upstairs to pack.

He left barely an hour later, riding the horse he’d barely seen since arriving in the strange, magical castle. The forest seemed a dark, strange place, as if part of a dream, and as he gradually reached familiar trails it all became even stranger still.

More than once he looked back, but no sign of the Gray Castle presented itself, and he wondered miserably which parts of his life were real, and which the dream.

At last, after what seemed like too long a journey, he reached his own drive.

Twilight was falling, the sky deep purple and blue, and he could see the servants going around lighting all the lamps.

Dismounting, he led his horse to the stable and handed it off to the footman, smiling at the happy exclamations to see him again.

Striding to the house, he let himself inside and strode into the parlor where they would all be waiting for the dinner bell.

“Father!” he greeted as he strode inside, smiling in excitement.

“Jamal?” Lord Greene asked, a look of disbelief on his face.

He faltered, smile fading as he realized there was not a single bit of welcome in their faces. Instead his sisters looked as though they’d been given a nasty shock. His father looked dismayed and…guilty?

What was going on? Why…shouldn’t they be a little happier to see him? Disconcerted, Jamal backed away, stopping when the back of his shoulder hit the doorframe. He licked his lips and tried again. “Um—it’s good to be home…I…”

Nothing in their faces changed. He noted absently that he’d interrupted them while Augusta had been about to start playing the harpsichord, and to judge by the book on the table beside her chair Georgina had been reading poetry. The scent of tobacco hung in the air, and he could see the remnants of his father’s cigar in the ashtray. They’d obviously been enjoying a nice evening together as a family.

Had they missed him at all? Jamal suspected he knew the answer, had known it all along…and it shouldn’t hurt, should it? Yet it did.

Turning, he left the salon and moved blindly through the halls, through the kitchen, headed for the only place in his father’s house where he’d felt at peace.

When he reached the garden, he stood aghast. It was in ruins. No one had cared for it; weeds abounded, the plants had run wild, mildew was all over the fountain…

Then he saw the rosebush, still carefully bundled, sitting on the stone bench at the front of the garden.

It should have pale green leaves and delicate pale gold petals. The petals should be large, the outermost nearly the size of his thumb. In full bloom, the blossoms should fill his palm. They should smell sweet, and outshine everything else in his humble garden.

Instead, it was dead.

The sound of feet drew his attention, and he half turned to see his father approaching.

“Jamal…” Lord Greene said slowly. “Where have you been all this time?”

“With the beast,” Jamal said, taken aback by his father’s tone. What had he done wrong? “He bid me stay with him until the fall, in repayment for the rosebush.”

Lord Greene drew closer, not quite close enough to loom. “The rosebush which is dead, despite the fact that he said it would remain alive so long as I sent someone to thank him and apologize?” He moved closer, eyes hard. “It’s dead, which means you did not go to see the beast as I wanted.”

Jamal froze, suddenly feeling cold. “As you wanted?” he asked softly, meeting his father’s blue eyes unflinchingly. Lord Greene started to speak, but Jamal didn’t give him a chance. “I’m not stupid, you know,” he said.

“My son…”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Jamal snapped, years of hurt coalescing into sharp rage. “You don’t consider me your son – at least, you don’t want to. What sort of father keeps his son locked away and reduces him to the role of servant in his own home?”


“Tell me, father, for whom did you really steal that rosebush? Not for my garden, you took it for my sisters.” He turned away, striding to the dead rosebush, touching it gently. “That’s why it’s dead. I don’t know much, but I’ve learned a thing or two – including a bit about magic. You stole this rosebush for Augusta and Georgina; it should have been one of them to go see the beast.” He let his hand fall. “You tricked me into going instead.”

Lord Greene said nothing.

Jamal clenched and unclenched his hands. “Did you ever love me at all? Why did you keep me around if you cared so little for me?”

“Of course I did, Jamal,” Lord Greene replied, but his voice was weak.

“You don’t. You don’t. I’m no longer blind enough to think the way you treat me means love.” He gasped as another realization struck him. How stupid was he that he never saw anything until too late? He glared furiously at his father. “Love is accepting some one. Love is not caring about things like birth or appearance. Love is letting someone go, even if they’re being stupid, even if you want them to stay.”

Lord Greene tried yet again to speak, but Jamal didn’t wait to hear what it was.

He was done. Finished. He should have listened when Rastus asked him to stay – Rastus who clearly had known all along the reception Jamal would receive from his family.

Bolting through the house, ignoring his sisters standing in the salon doorway, he threw open the front door and raced down the steps, across the yard back to the stable. A few minutes later he was riding back the way he’d come. Twice he thought he heard someone call out his name, but it was no voice he felt like heeding, or ever wanted to hear again.

The moon was a sharp crescent in a cloudless sky, surrounded by brilliant stars. Beautiful, but not enough by which to see.

He didn’t care. If he had to travel by pitch blackness, then he would, because he didn’t want to wait until morning to be back where he belonged – with someone who loved him, and whom he loved—

Suddenly he saw it. Only faintly, but it was there all the same. Tightening his grip on the reigns, he urged his horse to a faster pace, barely remembering to breathe as he waited anxiously for the castle to come into view.

When it finally did, he nearly fell off his horse in relief.

He drew up short as he realized what was so different, slowing to a stop as he passed through the iron gates which opened for him.

The castle was blazing; it seemed like every last lamp and candelabra was lit. Was something wrong? He dismounted and left his horse on the drive, knowing someway, somehow, it would be cared for.

Pushing his way inside, he gawked at how bright everything was. Normally only the barest lights necessary were lit. With only two people about, nothing more was needed. The castle looked completely different, the night now nearly as bright as day.

Where was Rastus?

He hesitated, thinking, then smiled faintly and wended his way through the halls until he at last reached the sunroom, and the door which led out into the rose garden.

Beneath the light of the crescent moon, every last petal and leaf looked as though it were dusted with silver. They glowed, as though carved from moonlight, yet each rose still displaying its individual color. Red, pink, yellow, orange, palest violet and brilliant white.

Reaching out, he gently caressed the nearest flower, pale gold like the bush that had died back in his father’s home.

“You found your way back.”

The voice was still deep and rough, but not as ragged or near-broken as it had been before.

Dropping his fingers as though scalded, Jamal turned around.

His eyes widened, breath catching. “You—”

A man who looked roughly thirty stood before him, tall and broad, shoulder length hair falling loose about his face. The clothes were familiar, and fit this form so much better. It couldn’t be…surely…

Yet the smirk on that fine mouth was familiar, as was the light in those amber eyes.

The smirk widened as the man drew closer, until Jamal could smell the achingly familiar scents of brandy and roses upon him. “Can I help you?” he asked, daring to taunt and Jamal was torn between laughing and smacking him, and he wondered how it could be, what had happened.

“I was looking for a beast,” he said, playing along.

“No beasts here, I’m afraid.” He drew closer still, and Jamal wanted badly to touch, to determine once and for all if he was awake or asleep. “I don’t suppose I might suffice? I can be quite beastly, I promise.”

Jamal smiled, not protesting the arms that slid around him, drew him close. “Only if you can be quite beastly, my lord.”

“I’m told my manners are often lacking,” Rastus said, the words soft, and they were close enough their breaths mingled.

“How is this possible?” Jamal asked, lightly touching the man who held him so easily, unable to hold onto any thought for more than a moment, mind utterly overwhelmed.

Rastus laughed, and brushed a whisper-soft kiss across his lips, and any thoughts Jamal was still capable of holding collapsed completely. “Doomed to stay a beast until I learned kindness, and that real beauty is more than skin deep…until I learned to love, and someone could love a beast.”

“Oh,” Jamal said, laughing weakly. “Does that mean I can stay?”

“You never had to leave.”

Jamal nodded, ducking his head. “I’m sorry.”

“Aw, now. None of that. I am sorry your family does not appreciate what they had in you.”

He shrugged, then shook his head and looked up. “The only family I have is right here.”

“One beast? That’s not much family,” Rastus teased.

Jamal tugged on the lapels of his jacket, wishing he knew how to take the final step. “One beast, one mongrel, it sounds perfect to me.”

“Quite so,” Rastus replied, levity fading, and finally gave the kiss Jamal wanted so badly, tasting of brandy, and the scent of roses seemed stronger than ever all around them.