While a Beast watches me being spoon fed, I can barely taste the mix of flavour on my tongue. On the lacquered table, scattered between choice bits of smoked, shredded meats on silver plates, bronze plates of cabbage and mushrooms peek out. A thick stew sits in the corner, steam rising even from around the lid. There's even rice cakes and buns, along with scrumptious desserts, things I couldn't comfortably eat without help.
Dinner passes slowly for me. Sitting here, my remaining hand shakes on my knee. The old woman doesn't speak, and the fox spirit seems to have disappeared. From my periphery, I'm too conscious of every heated snort of smoke from the throne of gold the Beast lays on.
Just hearing my name spoken by that growl makes my hackles stand on end. My shoulders tense. The old woman draws away the spoon and bowl, and I jerk my head up to look at him.
The Beast's claws are even scarier to look at now than they were in the afternoon. Then, the sun glinted down below. Now, in the lighting of this dining hall, his eyes stand out more than ever, and his huge body is looming and monstrous.
"I don't know your name. Title." Hastily, I correct myself. "I mean, honored lord--"
"I am a Beast," the Beast tells me, crossing one claw over another. Now that he has my attention, he seems, tail flicking powerfully. "And you, not of my realm. There is no name other than what I have given you to call me."
A Beast who wishes to be called Beast. The irony doesn't escape me. "Beast," I repeat, and I would be incredulous.
The purr of his voice draws up vivid memories of this past afternoon when his mouth was over my skull and could have ripped my head off from my shoulders. I am courting death, once again, showing him my thoughts.
Almost at once, a pressure pushes down on me.
"To business now," the Beast laughs. It is deep, slow, and grating. "Guest Chao, you have been cleansed for me, and you have been fed for me. On this tower of human gold pulled off the offerings of your world, I can smell that your burned flesh has been sweetened and your stomach stuffed. My mouth waters that I may feast upon you tonight."
His head lowers down so that it no longer towers over me, and instead, meets my eye level. The Beast bares his teeth at me. I have a sudden thought of them piercing through the material of these clothes and ripping out out my gut.
"Convince me now, Guest Chao, why I should not."
I clench the material on my knee. Telling him I'm ugly the second time won't work, I know this.
"Because," I say, painfully aware of every word coming out of my mouth. My heart is pounding against, and my palm sweats. "You still have to grant me a wish."
"A wish," I repeat, against my better judgment. "You said earlier that I could ask of you one thing as a reward. And you said you will grant me a wish." I lick what is left of my lips. "The condition is...that if I can convince you not to eat me, then that gets me a reward."
"But," I continue. "How do I know you would, if I do this? If--even if I convince you not to kill me, it's all dependent on you. A Beast isn't a human. Your rules are not human rules. If you change your mind, you'd be lying to me, giving me false hope--"
"Humans are liars themselves, Guest Chao." His voice is now tense. I don't know how I can tell, but I know that he hasn't even shouted and I feel like I can't breathe. The immense pressure on me is insane. "Do they not make promises just to break them? Do the paupers and poor of your world not answer to officials and Emperors?" The thunder of his voice rising shakes the room. The dishes on the table have started clattering. "Do you think me lesser than you?"
It hits a nerve in me. Fear is the last thing I feel now. My throat tightens. "Of course not. Do you see what's le--" My voice cracks. "Left of me?"
"What is your wish, Guest Chao, that you would try to manipulate me?"
The Beast's voice is calm again, devoid of obvious anger, but I know better.
I risk it anyway.
"Please don't eat me."