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Beauty and the Beast: The Only One Who Didn't Run Away Read online

  “It is not your fault,” I assure him, even as my last ray of hope burns out. “Perhaps no man can undo the curses of a witch.”

  The doctor stumbles backward, grabbing his medicine bag and clutching it to his chest. “A witch! You said nothing of dark magic afoot. There is only one man I know of who knows the secrets of a witch’s power.”

  Hope flutters in my chest. “Truly? What is his name?”

  “Moravian S. Pilsner is the name,” he replies. “But —”

  “Can you tell me where to find him?” I ask, not wanting to hear any buts. “I shall reward you heavily.”

  “He is twenty years dead and gone,” the doctor replies. Then he gives me one curt nod and scurries from the room. I sink into the nearest chair and rest my head in my hands.

  The library is completely quiet. My fate, and all our fates, appear sealed. I debate crawling back into bed and dramatically throwing the blanket over my head, but truly, what good would it do? It would only upset my parents. They will lose me to the witch in a few short months. I need not make them worry more.

  Father clears his throat. “I believe we have but one option left.”

  “What is that?” Alexander asks. “Flee to the countryside and hide in the forest for the rest of our lives?”

  “We are the royal family,” Father avows. “We do not flee or hide. What we shall do is quite simple.” He pauses here for effect, then says, “We shall simply find a girl to fall in love with Riley.”

  At that, Alexander bursts out laughing. I would laugh, too, but I no longer seem capable of it.

  “Where would we possibly find such a girl?” Mother asks. “She would have to be blind. No offense, dear,” she says, patting me gently on the arm.

  “None taken,” I mutter.

  “She does not have to be blind,” Alexander says. “Only really, really, horrifically ugly. If Riley was her only hope of marriage —”

  “I need some fresh air,” I say, standing up abruptly. This results not only in the chair falling backward into a large vase but also in making me dizzy. Not willing to show weakness, I press on through the library doors, then pause on the stairs. I wait to see (or rather, hear) if they are following me, but the hallway remains quiet.

  I am alone and glad of it.

  Sadly, I cannot actually get any fresh air, at least not on the castle grounds. As far as I know, the tower balcony is still locked. Not that it would look good for a beast to be lording over the land from such a high vantage anyway. I shall have to make do with sitting by an open window.

  I have not visited my lab since the explosion, nor have I given my experiments any thought. In light of what has happened to me, everything else — my bagpipes, my research into the unknown, even my interest in the stars — seems most unimportant.

  But I now find myself eager to be in a familiar, comforting space that is all my own. I hurry up the two flights, careful not to trip over my own large feet as I ascend the narrow stairs. I still manage to bash my forehead against the door frame as I enter the lab. Thicker-headed now or not, I can already feel the swelling.

  The lab seems larger than I remembered. After looking around, I realize it only appears larger because so many of my belongings are gone. All burnt to cinders, or shattered into tiny shards of glass and ceramic. Why did I ignore the first lesson Master Cedrick ever taught me? “Always know the properties of your ingredients before you use them.” So what does Prince Riley, famous alchemist, do? He finds three unmarked bottles, mixes them together, and then heats them. I rub my wounded forehead.

  The furnace is gone, of course, having crashed to the ground below, and a brick or two is still missing from the wall. The carpenters who fled upon the sight of me never returned to complete the repairs. They must have figured since the queen was missing, there was no reason to risk being a beast’s dinner for one last brick.

  All the rest of my worms are gone, too. Whether they were casualties of the explosion, or of the maids’ brooms, I shall never know. It is just as well, since immortality will have to wait. I certainly do not wish to live forever in this condition.

  The view outside the laboratory window is both familiar and strange. I am used to seeing much activity on the Great Lawn. Squires training, or children playing tug-of-war or leapfrog or lawn bowling, the sound of their laughter reaching me all the way up here. Not to mention all the workers who would normally be coming and going, busy with their daily tasks. The grounds are quiet now, as though someone spread a blanket over them. I allow myself to take a few deep breaths of air, grateful the winds are blowing away from the dung heap. I never realized how much I loved my home until now, when I am essentially a prisoner in it, unable to even claim my own name. I shall sorely miss it when I truly do become the prisoner of a witch talented enough to make me want to dance.

  Me, dancing willingly! It is unnatural!

  I turn to what is left of my stacks of notebooks and page through the hardened parchment. So many hours spent here, so many small discoveries, insights, tiny mysteries unfolded. My dreams of being a true scientist will never come true now. Of that I am sure. I lose myself in the notebooks as the shadows lengthen on the walls. It is nearly dinnertime, but I am not hungry.

  A squeeze on my arm alerts me that I am no longer alone. I have long since stopped jumping at the unexpected touch or voice at my side. “Hello, Mother,” I say, certain it is her by the scent of lilac and jasmine. At least someone in my family continues to care about their personal hygiene. Father has been getting pretty ripe.

  “I am sorry to disturb you,” she says, which are words that in all my years I have never heard from her. Everything is so changed now.

  She takes a deep breath, and I steel myself for what is coming. “I advise you to take a long soak tonight, and perhaps allow Godfrey to do some … grooming?”

  I sniff under my arms. Perhaps Father and Alexander are not the only ones to let themselves go.

  “I am making some finer clothes for you,” she continues, “and I expect you to be on your best, most charming behavior.”

  Did I miss something? I was never charming as Riley; I am much less so as the beast. “Why am I doing all this?”

  Another deep breath. Then, “Because tomorrow you have a date.”

  “A date?”

  “Three, actually. Godfrey went into the village and found three girls willing to meet the beast.”

  I am stunned at this turn of events. “But Godfrey can barely find the nose on his face.”

  “Alexander went along. He was Godfrey’s eyes. He had been begging to get out of the castle anyway.”

  I groan. This day could not get any worse.

  “Oh,” she says, “and bring your dancing shoes.”

  The sun will soon set on our third day at The Welcome Inn, and we are quickly wearing out our welcome. Veronica has complained to the innkeeper about the uncomfortable beds, the lack of lanterns in the hallway, the lack of soap in the latrine, the blandness of the stew, the rowdiness of the alehouse downstairs, and the general absence of anything interesting to do in this town. So far all the innkeeper has done to remedy the situation is to instruct the cook to toss a few chunks of meat into the stew. Considering their appearance coincided with the ceasing of the wild dogs’ barking, we leave them on the bottom of our bowls.

  Veronica has made an unlikely friend in the enormous bodyguard, Flavian. He said Veronica reminds him of his own daughter, who he had to leave behind in his search for work. Every time Veronica storms down to the innkeeper to complain about something, Flavian, clearly amused, slips her a ginger candy.

  Although I would be hard-pressed to blame it on the innkeeper, this town truly is quite boring. We have been in every shop four times and visited every stall at least as many. While the baker here does make very delicious cinnamon buns, we were asked not to return due to Handsome being unable to keep telling the baker all the things he was doing wrong. We did stumble upon a lovely field of wildflowers, though, and have now ama