Battle may never end, for there chaos thrives;
And only in chaos can we live our lives.

After Snow takes the Assassin's curse, she leaves to rebuild the Four Kingdoms. But she finds the Beast impossible to control and will do anything to get rid of it and spare her kingdom carnage. Enter Rumplestiltskin, one of seven equally enigmatic and long-named dwarves. Their requirement for breaking the curse? Snow must live with them for a year. She leaves a serving girl in her place, who must lie to--and fall for--an unwitting Huntsman.

But curses can never be broken. Evil can never be killed. And Snow can never stop fighting.


5. Chapter 5

This was to be my first proper ball, and Casin couldn't be more delighted. 

I had attended a few when I was very young, but they were scarce and I was sent to bed early. I'd often wondered how my nurses and nannies would react if they knew I had gone from 'sent to bed early so I'm not tired the next day' to 'stayed up for nearly forty-eight hours in case the enemy tried to slaughter us in our sleep.' The irony delighted me even still. 

But tonight I would be dressed in a gown expensive enough to tide a family over for the winter and paraded in front of all the people in the White Kingdom. I would smile at children and hold wee babies and look flirtatious yet dangerous. Powerful yet beautiful. Elegant yet knowledgeable. I would become their perfect, revered queen. 

I nearly found it more challenging than trying to defeat Malif. 

"You are going to have to help me," I said almost scoldingly to the Beast. "I expect as many details about everyone I'm looking at as possible. Hell, in the near vicinity." The voices were happy to chatter, but as I expected, the Beast only responded in a way that left me tense and frozen. 

Casin gave me a look. 

"Do try and avoid talking to your little pet tonight, eh, Snow?" He was rifling through the crown jewels to select a color set that would "compliment without stealing the look". I had responded that if he was worried about something stealing my look, he shouldn't stand too close in that suit; today it was azure and pumpkin colored. 

"Just letting him now how things will be playing out tonight," I responded innocently. 

Jehanne came through the door. 

"Where is your gown?" Casin demanded, looking my aunt up and down. She was in a drab grey dress, her hair in a tight braid. She nearly looked severe. 

"I haven't worn a gown since I was her age," Jehanne replied evenly. "No ball needs me anyhow. Are you ready, Snow?" 

Casin began blustering, chest puffin gout so far that his pearl buttons strained to keep his peacock of a suit together. 

"No ball needs you?" he repeated indignantly. "Of course it needs you! You march back to your quarters and put on that dress. The wine matches your skin with perfection." He waved a frill-adorned wrist towards the door. 

"Nothing matches this skin," said Jehanne honestly, with a stubborn sort of patience. 

I slipped past, allowing the two to argue to their heart's content. I wasn't entirely sure who would win that fight. perhaps Oudin would step in and give poor Jehanne some peace fro Casin's antics. 

As the host of the ball, I was to be sitting in the main room as the guest's arrived. It felt gaudy, having me sit on the throne as the guests filed in. But Casin had insisted that my position not be forgotten in our haste to make me approachable. 

(It's worth mentioning that Oudin nearly spat out his beer again at the idea of making me seem 'approachable'.) 

I sat on the throne, noticing the not-so subtle sword leaning against the side. Oudin had suggested the sword would emphasize my soldiering abilities as well. 

It felt like a child's game- a lot of half-solutions that we satisfied ourselves with because we could think of no other options. To our simple minds, all needs were met. But the human element of chance was entirely forgotten in the neat little puzzle we put together. 

Casin's musicians set up in various rooms, followed by a few last-minute maids. The instruments were set up, Casin and Oudin came out, and the music began. 

"Lord and Lady Armin," said the announcer. "Maid Lillith. Maid Ola. Knight and Lady Pier." 

Normally, the main room would have been sufficient for a decently-sized ball. But this dance was not just expecting the nobles of the Four Kingdoms. We were expecting every noble, all the merchants, any peasants near us and a fair amount from the borders. As such, the entire castle and grounds were open, with nearly twenty musicians between it all. It was to be the largest ball in the history of the Four Kingdoms, followed by three more of equal extravagance. 

It was not just one of the largest balls ever held, however. It was also the most varied. There were ladies in elegant gowns, such as the one Casin had given me. There were gowns so large and gaudy that they were at first mistaken for two people. There were dairy maids in their best dresses, town girls in their clergy day best, and a few maids in what appeared to be their future wedding gowns, pieced together from treasured scraps of muslin. There were more men in formal uniforms, men dressed not unlike Casin, and farmers in their cleanest work clothes. 

I had held a presupposed fantasy that each group would mingle, chattering and laughing and swapping stories of their every day lives. I honestly hadn't given the matter of prejudice and social differences that much thought. I had simply assumed that boundaries would vanish. But the notion was every bit as ridiculous as it sounds written out. 

The rich lingered to one side of the room and the poor huddled at the other. Only the merchants- eager to strike a deal with any soul- moved from group to group. 

"This is frightful," murmured Jehanne from behind me. "Every room is the same." 

I turned in the throne to see Jehanne in the wine-colored dress, her hair twisted up in an elaborate bun. 

So, I thought. Casin won that round. 

"They don't seem to be particularly inspired or in love either," I said. 

"That's because that frilled goose of a man has you propped up prettily on a throne instead of doing what you do," Jehanne sniffed. 

"Er... what do I do?" I had limited my skills to killing people, days on end of horse-back riding and making a split-second decision when it counted most. 

"You're you. Stubbornly, unconventionally, unequivocally you." Jehanne's blue eyes scanned over the crowd disapprovingly, as though they all needed a time-out and a snack. 

"I thought Casin was clear about showing them a modified me." 

Jehanne's nostrils quivered like a temperamental horse's. "To the salt lake with Casin! You get off that ridiculous throne and mingle." 


"Go tell a man about killing Than the Nord. Go tell a young girl how you don't plan on marrying. Talk to an old lady about how even a soldier needs to darn a sock and how her doing so in front of her son might have saved his toes from frostbite." She made a shooing motion, face set stubbornly. 

"In other words, everything I was fussed at for as a child?" 

"In other words, everything that anyone has ever loved you for. Go.

I stood, which got the attention of most everyone in the room. I turned to Jehanne again. "Does that mean I can also wear my armor?" 

"There is still a line, Snow. But please, do complain about not getting to wear to wear armor to someone just as uncomfortable as you in formal clothing." She cast a glance to her own dress. 

I kissed her cheek. "I do hate gowns, don't you?" I said in an exaggerated conversational tone. Jehanne grinned and shooed me out into the crowd. 

It was not unlike going about a war camp, I told myself. Hostile stares, people seizing you up, no one really as likely to slit your throat as you think. Comforted by the synthetic familiarity, I inserted myself int o a conversations about swords over spears. 

"A person trained in spear-work will have a far better reach," one man was arguing. 

"Proficiency in a sword is far more valuable, Karl," said another. 

"Bah," I spat. "Pitting the two together with the same amount of training makes the swordsman look very bad. He would have to have a lifetime of training. In times of peace, swordsmanship is of value. In a hasty war, you want a large force of well defended spear-men." 

They appeared a bit put off at the sudden intrusion- and by their queen no less- but they wouldn't be soldiers if they didn't continue pressing their points regardless. 

"Well defended? Shouldn't agility be more prized?" It was a young soldier, likely the son of a present general. Such boys thought they had more tactics and training than they actually did, but their positions were secured by their fathers fame. 

"In a one-on-one fight, perhaps," mused another man. 

"Agility is little use in the very thick of a battle. You could hardly keep enough senses about you to spare your front as well as your backside," I said. "Best have a plate there to do the job for you." 

I wasn't entirely certain of my reception at the ball as a whole. But I do know that certain groups took a liking to me, and that if nothing else, I was enjoying my own time there more. 

"But what would your father think?" asked a noble girl, looking scandalized after I'd taken Jehanne's advice of telling them how I currently had no plans to marry. I left out the part of it being because I would outlive both my husband and children if I did so. Lady Terin, Lady Mogue, and two maids named Collet and Loyse were enraptured. 

"That would be the same man who made the mistake of marrying Malif," I said. "I can hardly consider him to be a good source on marriage." The girl tittered. 

"I wanted to join the army like you," said Collet. "But the wars are all over now." She was a farmgirl, tan and sturdy. We had all begun sitting properly- the poor maids trying their hardest to copy Terin and Mogue's posture. But now I had straddled a seat like a horse, and peasant and noble alike lounged leisurely. 

"War is hard on anyone who hasn't lived through it yet," I said. "And it's harder on us than most. Not through any fault of our own, usually. Well, save for certain times of month..." The noble girl's faces flushed. "But if you're brazen about your sex, it's harder to get along." I contemplated for a moment if I should continue with my story. "There was another girl there, one named Margot." 

"What happened to her?" asked Terin. The young noblewoman had said nothing that wasn't in the form of a question so far. She didn't look the bookish sort, but Mogue had sworn there was none so curious or intelligent at the ball. 

"She didn't do a good job of hiding her gender at all. Looking back, neither of us did. But she was caught by her general, who was not so kind as Oudin." 

"And was she sent home?" This time, the question was asked by Collet. 

"Worse. Her general was furious, and sent her to the front lines. The Suicide Row, it was called." The girls looked at me, engrossed in the story, eager for the tale of how she defeated all the enemies and saved Suicide Row from seemingly inevitable slaughter. 

I looked down at my goblet. "She was killed int he first day." 

"Was the body found?" asked Terin. Mogue smacked her on the bosom. 

"That's not the point of this story," Mogue hissed. Collet looked surprised. 

"Then what was it, Lady Hoity-Toity?" asked the farmgirl crossing her arms. 

"What a sacrifice was made to unite the kingdoms," said Mogue. "It's not about war or glory or whatever you're fantasizing about, milk maid." 

I studied the plump girl in surprise. Perhaps Terin wasn't the most intelligent here tonight. 

I left the girls after some time to join the dancing. Jehanne had interrupted a discussion about the uses of gunpowder with a merchant to remind me what a ball was for. 

"I don't think I've done a proper dance before," said my first partner. he was a merchant's son himself, not high enough for a noble dance or lowly enough for village celebrations. 

"The last time I danced, I couldn't have been more than thirteen," I confided. "Mutual agreement not to make a fuss when we step on one another's toes?" 

It turned out that the footwork for word-fighting- a skill we'd both invested in- was not too different from dancing. We ended up stopping mid-dance to discuss the similarities of war, battle and blood with passion, romance and love-making. The young boy, who was really more of the philosophizing type, was delighted at the conversation. but I could have told even without the ever-present voices that I was making enemies among the conservative nobles about us. 

The night wound on, music and talking growing louder and louder. Then I realized that it was not the ball, but the voices. Suddenly, every patch of bare skin was as evident as a fire blazing in a forest. Hearts beating, blood pumping, life pulsing before me. So tantalizingly exposed. 

"Kill them," screamed the Beast, with such force that I mouthed the words. 

The voices quieted slightly, but they continued to pulse, volume never set. 

Then they erupted again. 

"He's here he's come the Huntsman he searches.



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