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

  “I am simply borrowing it,” she says. “And I shall leave them some coin. But let us get in quickly before they return from lunch.”

  I toss the remaining ginger into my mouth, cringing at the sharp taste. Still, it is better than losing my last meal to the waves. Handsome piles our bags at one end, and we climb aboard. No doubt the journey was lovely, with fish splashing happily beneath us, the glint of sun on the water creating a kaleidoscope of colors. But since I do not open my eyes until the boat scrapes the bottom of the opposite shore, I cannot say with certainty.

  As we crossed the sea, Veronica and Handsome had been talking about the wondrous artwork gracing the walls of the home we would soon enter. They tried to outdo each other with stories of fairies and mermaids swimming together in fountains of gold. Yet when we land, a hush falls upon them. I follow their gaze to the buildings, now only a stone’s throw away. They are in ruins.

  We climb out in silence, and in silence we explore the piles of stone and wood, the remnants of frescoes, the dried-up fountains with their cracked marble tiles. Veronica sits down hard on the ground, her feet hanging over the edge of what was once a brook, and is now only dust and twigs. She lays her head down on her arms and begins to weep.

  Handsome and I remain behind her, each placing a hand on her shoulder. We stand like that for long moments, feeling the rise and fall of her sobs.

  “My mother is not here,” she finally says, voice cracking. “There is no sign she ever made it. I shall never know what she was searching for.”

  Handsome and I exchange a look. He motions with his eyes for me to say something. “But you made it here,” I say, hoping they are the right words. “You did not give up, nor let anything or anyone stand in your way. Your mother would have been so proud.”

  She sniffs and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. “But I hoped … ouch!”

  “Are you all right?” I ask, crouching down beside her. “What happened?”

  She leans over to examine her ankle. “That grasshopper just bit me!”

  I look around in time to see a small green grasshopper hop away into the dried-out ravine.

  “Grasshoppers do not bite,” Handsome says. I am sure he would have teased her further had our current situation been different.

  Veronica gets to her feet, wiping her eyes almost angrily. “Well, this one did!”

  I watch the grasshopper hop down from rock to clump of brown grass to crumbly leaf, where it stops, no doubt unaware of the drama he is causing. Veronica storms off, ranting about evil grasshoppers and ruined buildings and the unfairness of it all. Handsome goes in pursuit.

  Perhaps it is due to years of training in spotting small objects in my path, or perhaps because I am sitting alone with nothing to look at, or perhaps it is simple luck. But I am the one who spots the strawberry-size stone glowing in stark contrast to the brown leaf beside it.

  I scramble down the side of the dried-up brook, afraid to take my eyes off the shining object. The grasshopper hops away as I push the leaf aside and reach for the stone. It is just as Veronica described it. A pure pink, dusty from its burial, but still vibrant and beautiful. A small, dirt-filled hole at the tip must have held a chain at one time. I hold the stone up to the sun, and a thousand streams of light shoot out from it. It is so pretty I have to force myself to lower it. For all its sharp edges, the stone feels warm and comfortable in my hand.

  I find the others sitting on the remnants of a marble staircase, picking at pieces of tall grass growing between the stairs. Veronica seems to have calmed down. Handsome has a way of doing that. He must be an excellent older brother.

  I hold out the stone. Veronica gasps and grabs it from my palm.

  “My mother’s crystal! Where did you find it?”

  I point to the spot. “Under some leaves at the bottom of the brook. I was watching the grasshopper, and then I saw the stone.”

  She holds it close to her chest, her eyes shining, only not with tears this time. “So my mother did make it here!” Just as quickly, her eyes dim again. “But I do not understand. She never would have simply left it behind.”

  “Perhaps she lost it,” Handsome suggests.

  I think of how deep it was in the ravine. “Or perhaps she hid it. If the buildings still stood when she was here, that ravine would have been filled with water. Perhaps she threw it there to protect it?”

  She considers my words. “Perhaps she did hide it,” she says. “But these ruins look like they have been here for a century, not merely a few years.”

  “That is true,” I admit.

  “Either way,” Veronica says, staring down at the stone. “Finding this means she is truly gone. It means we can go home.”

  Handsome touches her arm. “Are you all right?”

  She nods. “Better I know the truth.” To my surprise, she turns to me and puts her arms around my waist. “Thank you,” she says.

  I, not used to hugging anyone outside my family, pat her on the back in response. “Do not thank me. Thank your biting grasshopper.”

  She laughs. “Perhaps I will!”

  But when we go to look for it, it is gone. I show Veronica the spot where I had first seen the stone. She climbs down and digs around the area until her hands are scraped up, but finds no other clues.

  When we get down to the boat, I dig through my pack and pull out the leather cord that was wrapped around the book from the monastery. I loop the cord through the hole in the crystal and tie the ends together. Veronica solemnly slips the necklace over her head. The stone thumps against her tunic, looking as though it’s been there forever. It occurs to me finally that her flowery scent is not perfume. It is simply the way she smells. I have no doubt I do not smell as sweet.

  We are quiet as Handsome rows us back to the port. But it’s a different kind of quiet than our time in the carriage. It’s the kind of quiet that marks the end of something. This time I keep my eyes open, for who knows if I shall ever see the sea again. It is hard to believe the desolate, empty ruins are right atop the cliff. Down here is so vibrant. Boats of all sizes and shapes sail by, carrying people and fish and wooden crates to wherever their final destinations lay. The world is much bigger than I had supposed, with everyone busy leading their lives, working their way toward their futures.

  It dawns on me that I have been rude by never asking Handsome about his future bride. I haven’t been putting it off for any real reason, only the time never felt quite right and I have little practice in asking personal questions. But as Handsome steers us in between two small boats carrying stacks of fruit, I decide the time has come.

  “What is she like?” I ask. “Your wife-to-be?”

  He smiles. “Suzy is lovely. I have known her all my life. She is sweet and kind to everyone. She liked that you set that piglet free.”

  I am surprised, but pleasantly so. “You told her about that?”

  He nods. “I had to go to my village with the baker to get some supplies. I was able to see her briefly.”

  He tells us more about Suzy, about how kind she is to animals, and how she loves dancing but only in large groups, and how she wants ten children. By the time we reach the shore, I have a clear image of a lovely young woman who I’m certain will make an excellent wife to my new friend.

  This time, when the boat scrapes along the shore, I put my feet right in the water instead of waiting to get out on dry land. It is cold, but refreshing, and the sand is much softer underfoot than I had expected.

  A red-faced fisherman paces the edge of the water, clearly the owner of the rowboat. Veronica quickly pacifies him with coin. We hurry past him onto the shore, our packs bouncing on our backs.

  True to his word, the carriage driver awaits us in town. We stock up on food and drink, and settle back in for the journey. Handsome talks excitedly about how he will work on perfecting his bread recipe when he gets home and makes us promise to come for the wedding. I shall miss him, but I am happy for him.

  The days pass much quic