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.


3. Chapter 3

"Rule one," said Casin, holding up a fore-finger. "People trust a face. They listen to a mouth. They believe in a body." 

"That's three," Oudin said, pouring beer into his goblet. He gave Casin's hopped beer a disapproving glance. 

"It's one," Casin argued. "I'm telling her to be present. Sure, she can send out a mandate telling everyone in the four kingdoms she's their queen now. But if she's there, every woman will be inspired and every man in love." 

"She couldn't possibly go to every town in the kingdom," protested Jehanne. 

"Which is why she tahnks her luckys tars that there were four kingdoms. And a rich businessman who is very interested into how this all turns out." 

"What are you suggesting?" asked Jehanne, tired of Casin's games after only a few moments. My face was identical to Oudin's- stony with a hint of amusement around the eyes. 

"I am suggesting a chance for anyone who wishes to see our beloved Snow for themselves to do so. Four kingdoms, four castles-" He gave a grin. "-and four balls." 

Oudin nearly spat out his beer. 

"Four what now?" 

"Balls?" asked Jehanne. "As in dances?" 

Oudin took another drink. "Not what first came to mind..." he mumbled into the lip of his cup. 

Jehanne raised an eyebrow while Casin pretended to look scandalized. The edges of my lips turned up in amusement. 

"Four balls then," I said. "And anyone is invited?" 

"Anyone and everyone," said Casin. 

"And you would pay for all of that?" Jehanne asked suspiciously. 

"The amount of business deals struck during a pleasant, alcohol filled dance are not to be trifled with, Jehanne dear," said Casin. "And after attending a feast like that, everyone will want to get a hold of my caterers." 

"Humans cannot even be trusted unless there is a motive for themselves," said a napkin wadded beside Casin's plate. Most voices merely reported what was going on around me, or perhaps the stray thought or far-away conversation. But certain voices seemed to come out of inanimate objects and have a life of their own. 

"Finances- arranged. People- herded. A bit of excitement so the kingdom isn't too bored- a given with Snow in charge. I should say we slayed potential objections thoroughly." Oudin set down his cup, thin lips curving into a smile. 

Jehanne, however, had a final concern. 

"And are you willing to do this?" She was looking directly at me. 

"Well, I can hardly consider a dance to be my Métier," I said. "But it seems to be the best solution." One side of my mouth quirked back up. "I should say that running straight at the challenges worked out very well in the end." 

I had been half-hoping a war would be the solution. The Beast was eager for bloodshed, urging me towards each person that dare show a vulnerable spot. I could see why the Assassin had secluded himself into a fortress for centuries. Feeling compelled to constantly rip out my closest mentor's throats was thoroughly unsettling. 

"Then I suppose that settles it," said Jehanne. "Four balls it is." 

Oudin let out a chuckle. "Four balls..." he muttered. 

There was plenty to do at this castle before the rest could even be thought of. A few soldiers and guards had remained, bbut the White Kingdom ranks were still abysmal after just a few months of Malif's reign. So as Casin planned his dances and Jehanne resorted order to the coffers and kitchens, Oudina nd I set to training. 

"Snow is aware that wars are over, isn't she?" I overheard Casin asking a cook one day. I chuckled. 

War is never over. 

My war would last an eternity. 

I did wonder how long it would take for others to notice I wasn't aging. I wondered how they would react, and who I would outlive. Or rather, who I would feel loneliest about out-living. 

Would I be revered? The warrior queen that never died? Or despised, like the tales of Baba Yaga, the immortal witch? 

Where do things stand, I asked myself. 

Very well, currently, I replied. 

"Not long," snarled the Beast. "You need not wait long." I felt as though blade-points were pressed just to my scalp at his voice. The pit of my stomach was frigid and body taught, like a cat balancing on a thin gate. 

"Very soon" did not seem to include the following week, however, in which Casin sent out instructions, plans, and invitations for the other three balls. Soon, the White Castle was flooded with decorators, chefs, seamstresses, gardeners, and any other number of Casin's crew. Jehanne bore it all with an enviable patience, but Oudin and I were more put-out than anything. 

At one particularly frantic day, we were sitting in the armory, staring at the floor as though we had returned from some arduous battle. I think he might have argued that this was harder than any battle he had endured. 

"It's bad enough that there are so many people here. But I haven't even been able to get the guard numbers up to scratch," said Oudin glumly. 

"It's just..." he continued when I didn't reply. "Does there have to be so many flowers? I can't even breathe properly." 

That got me to laugh. 

"And I swear, if one more seamstress tries to take my measurements... I mean, I already have uniform! And like hell if I'm going to sit there while they stab me with needles." 

"You're just so handsome," I said, struggling to keep up a deadpan. "They'll use any excuse to get near you." 

"That's Oudin," said a voice from behind us. "The gallant charger of more than thirty battles, but unable to outlive a seamstress' pin." 

Oudin rubbed his face, shaking his head. "S'not the natural state of a place." 

"Hello, Jehanne." 

"Someone would think you two were trying to hide," Casin said. His hideously colored figure waddled through rows of swords and spears as he motioned to us, lace of his cuff flapping indignantly. 

"We were," Oudin said. 

Casin gave me a "control that uncivilized lout" look. "Never mind that. A seamstress is waiting." 

Oudin sat up straighter. "As I just finished telling Snow, I have my clothes thank you very mu-" 

"Not you, idiot!" Casin snapped. "It's for her." 

"Into battle," I murmured. 

Oudin clapped a hand to my back. "Glad it's not me." 

With those comforting words, I was off. 

During the tailoring session, the voices never quite shut up. The seamsterss never said a word, but the curse was quick to tell me every move she made and exactly how she felt about tryign to give me clothing that didn't make me look washed out. 

"She's worked with people people but not people with skin like snow she adds a pin she doesn't like the color but it's better than the last Casin is coming into the room she's upset you would look better in that other blue if your hair was gold lips are too dark it's hard to make a muscular figure look voluptuous another pin on the shoulder." 

"How does it go?" asked Casin cheerfully. 

"Wonderfully," said the seamstress. 

"Terribly," I said at the same time. 

The poor woman shook so hard she stuck me in the thigh. "Milady isn't pleased?" 

"No, no!" I said, almost frantic. Feelings. Why did artists have to have so many feelings? "I'll be pleased with any work you do. I just know it must be difficult to work with my... extreme color palette." 

The seamstress seemed relieved and began babbling about color possibilities, but Casin was watching me suspiciously. He flattered the seamstress after a few moments and made empty promises about possibly sneaking some more gold into her purse for her fine work before shooing her out the door. 

"So you won't be attempting to wear armor to the ball, then," he said with satisfaction. 

"Would anyone sophisticated enough to contribute to a conversation about color palettes dare to wear armor to a dance?" I asked innocently. I stepped off the raised platform and began to pull on the armor. I began to wish I could wear the armor. It would be safer, if nothing else. 

Casin made a face as he prodded a shoulder pad with a pudgy finger. "You tell me." He looked back up, small eyes suddenly sharp. "Actually, do tell me." 

"Tell you what?" I took the shoulder pad from him and buckled it on. 

"How you know anything about color palette." 

I looked at his vivid purple and green outfit. "Are you one to question fashion sense, Casin?" 

"I'm one to question people, what they know, what they want, and what they think." He polished a pearl button, faking insult. 

"A lot, not much, and very little," I answered. 

"What do you really mean, Snow?" Casin's eyes narrowed. "How did you defeat Malif? It is connected, isn't it?" 

How in the world could he know that, I thought. 

I pulled on my belt, sword sheath smacking at my calf. I was, in actuality, thinking a lot very quickly. I had no real reason to hide the curse; everyone would find out eventually, and Casin likely quicker than most. And Casin was in the group of people I trusted. 

But I was already a stark deviant from normal. Common knowledge of my curse would either solidify my position of barely short of goddess or cast me out as strange beyond mortal redemption. 

"The Assassin, Casin," I whispered. "It is little secret, about his abilities." 

"It's said he can divine the world around him, that nothing escapes his eye," Casin said. He leaned forward with a hungry eagerness. "That he is nearly omniscient, blessed with strange powers." 

"Very nearly. Nothing escapes his ear. But it is no blessing. It is a curse, particularly if the beast is strong." 

I explained to Casin all that I could, and afterward he scoured my mind for details like a mouse in an empty cupboard. 

All the while, the voices kept me in check on my surroundings so that none could eavesdrop. 

"Can you hear my thoughts now?" asked Casin. 

"Thoughts are tricky. Emotions are easier. The more a person wants their thoughts hidden, the harder it is for the voices to interpret them." 

"Fascinating," Casin murmured for the seventh time, by the rug's count. "And he no longer has these abilities?" 

I chuckled. "Why? D'you have a paying customer who wants him taken out?" 

Casin flashed a grin. "Lots of people want that monster dead, sweet." 

"Well, I'm afraid to tell you he's as dangerous as ever. And the least likely to cause death as he's been in a while." 

Casin shrugged. "Worth a go, wasn't it? Well, let's both of us keep your little voice problem under wraps. Hate to see all my hard work go to waste." He kissed his fingers and pressed them to my hand before leaving the room. 


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