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

  “How?” Clarissa asks. “By challenging the squires to a footrace and charging them a shilling when you win?”

  “Do you think I could earn that much? I am certain I would win!”

  I have missed the sound of Clarissa’s laughter, but she indulges me now. “Beauty! No squire would risk his knighthood by being outrun by a girl.”

  She speaks the truth. We start walking again, and I continue to ponder how else to take advantage of my speed. “I have it! I can be a messenger! Papa’s friends are always muttering about how slow the messengers are, and how by the time they receive word on anything, months have passed. I would make an excellent messenger.” I can already imagine myself running like the wind to some distant land, an important document rolled up and tucked inside my belt loop. I would run so fast that I would leave all my fears behind in the dust. And no one would be able to fault me for wearing pants. A messenger could not be expected to run in a skirt across roads of dirt and rock.

  “A messenger needs a horse,” Clarissa points out. “You, however, do not have a horse. Besides, the roads are much too dangerous for a young girl to travel on her own. You are the one always scolding Papa for riding after dark, or staying at an inn without a guard. You must keep thinking.”

  I sigh. I may jest that Clarissa’s head is full of more air than a pig-bladder balloon, but she knows a lot about the ways of the world. Plus, I have a feeling my fears would follow me no matter how fast I ran.

  We continue to follow the stream until we reach the mill. A line of farmers and peasants stands with arms full of bundled stalks of rye, wheat, or malt, waiting for their turn to have their crops ground at the millstone. I watch as the power from the stream turns the huge waterwheel, which then turns the millstones in a graceful partnership. An argument has broken out amongst the group, with angry voices and flailing arms. This is a common occurrence at the mill, since the miller is known throughout the village as a cheat.

  A man in a gray traveling cloak has stepped between the miller and the farmer. From what I can tell, the farmer is accusing the miller of not handing over the full allotment of flour due to him, and the stranger is telling the miller something in a low voice. A few rotations of the waterwheel later, the miller ducks behind the giant millstone and returns, grumbling, with another sack of flour for the farmer.

  “Who is that?” I ask Clarissa, pointing to the stranger in the cloak.

  “I have heard Papa and his friends speak of him,” she replies. “He can tell if someone is lying, and then he convinces that person to own up. He must get a lot of business at the mill.”

  As we watch, the farmer doles out three handfuls of his flour to the stranger before picking up the handles of his wheelbarrow and heading off. The stranger adds his small sack of flour to a growing pile at his feet, and leans back against the fence, no doubt waiting for another fight to break out. “I can do that job!” I exclaim.


  “Certainly! I always know when people are fibbing.” I do not tell her that since I have some practice with lying, I am an excellent candidate to catch someone else doing it.

  Clarissa throws her head back and laughs. “Beauty, you never know when I am fibbing.”

  “Yes, I do. Like the other day, when you told me I had a turnip in my hair, I knew you were only jesting.”

  She laughs again. “No. A turnip really had taken up residence in those curly locks of yours.”

  “What?” I reach back to feel the top of my hair. I do not feel any vegetables.

  “It fell out the next day as you ran to greet Papa when he came home from his latest trip. Truly, sister. You need to comb your hair more often. If you like, I can comb it before bed as I do my own.”

  I sniff. “No, thank you. I am quite capable of combing my own hair.”

  “Then why not do it?”

  I shrug. “I simply forget.”

  She rolls her eyes. We pick up our pace as the sun sinks lower in the sky. The road soon veers away from the stream and toward the forest, thick with trees and the sounds of unfamiliar wildlife. I get a chill, although it is a warm day. By the time we reach the wooden cottage with the thatched roof and the tiny windows, we have walked an hour and not seen a single person.

  “This is it,” Clarissa says, stopping on the overgrown brick path that leads to the front door. “Right where Papa said it would be.”

  “Do you have the key?” I ask. A glance at the rusted old door handle tells me we will not be needing one. “Never mind.” I step forward to reach for it. But before I can grab the handle, the door swings open to reveal the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Long black hair straight as a sheet on the dry line, eyes the color of the green sea glass I once found along the riverbed, skin like the finest caramel. And I am not prone to sentiment.

  Clarissa and I stumble back in surprise. Papa said nothing about a beautiful woman coming with the house. To my further surprise, Clarissa reaches out to touch the woman’s arm. “Mother?”

  Upon the queen’s orders, the entrance to the tower room has been nailed shut until further notice. My bagpipes are locked inside, along with my astrolabe (which I use to chart the planets) and my collection of dried plums that look like various members of the royal court. I would be quite irked at this, were I not focused so keenly on a more pressing problem. Instead of transcribing the five rules of knightly behavior as instructed by Master Cedrick, I have used my last piece of vellum to come up with five compelling reasons why the royal caravan should leave me behind when they set out for the Harvest Ball tomorrow at a kingdom so distant we shall be forced to spend the night.

  My feet remain quite swollen from the dance last night and will not fit in my dress shoes. I shall be forced to wear my slippers, and everyone will whisper about the queen who let her son wear slippers to a ball.

  While admittedly unlikely, what if all the girls take one look at me and are so overcome by my dashing good looks that they no longer want to dance with Alexander? I should not want to damage his self-esteem in any way. He may give off an air of confidence (some may even say overconfidence), but inside he is quite fragile.

  I have an exam next week on the proper way to storm a castle. If I am forced to go to the ball, I may turn on my family and storm THIS castle while you are all dancing without a care in the world.

  I do not travel well in the back of the royal coach on bumpy roads. The journey to the Harvest Ball is nearly a full day. I shall complain bitterly the entire journey.

  My experiments are at a very sensitive stage. If I leave, weeks of work shall be for naught. Plus, I ask for very little.

  I wait until the stewards have whisked away our plates from supper before reciting my list. Mother listens, her hands folded in her lap in that queenly way of hers that is supposed to indicate a gentle, patient nature but fools no one. When I have finished, Alexander sprays the table with the mouthful of cider he had been about to swallow. “I am not fragile. Neither inside, nor out!”

  “Not so, son,” Father says, leaning back in his seat. “You helped me care for that wounded falcon, and when it did not survive, you wept.”

  “I was three years old!” Alexander cries.

  “Nevertheless,” Father says, calmly picking gristle from his teeth with the tip of his knife. “Your brother has a point.”

  Alexander lays his head upon the table in frustration.

  “Thank you for your support, Father,” I tell him. “I can always count on you to be the voice of reason in this family.”

  Alexander begins dramatically banging his head against the solid oak table. He would never say it aloud, but I know he does not approve of Father’s non-kingly gentle nature. Or his fondness for good-natured trickery. Or his inability to sit still during a meeting with his lords and barons for more than a moment without glancing longingly toward an open window.

  Sure, Father sits on the largest throne in the castle and wields the largest scepter. And whenever he gives an order in his deep, measured v