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

  Before I know it, I am stomping with my bare feet on a warm, squishy, very smelly mound of wool that will one day be woven into someone’s cloak or blanket. As payment, the fuller could only offer me two farthings a day, which would not even buy the barley roll Handsome gave me at lunch. But I am allowed to keep the scraps of wool that rip off from the larger pieces, which I figure we can use to make new clothes, or even to feed the fire, if necessary.

  As I march in what looks like clay but smells much worse, holding my skirts at the knees so I do not trip, I find I am quite pleased with myself. Not even a week has passed since we lost all of our worldly goods, and here I am, gainfully employed, and not too proud to accept scraps of wool in order to contribute to the care of my family.

  “Let me see your work,” the fuller says with his usual easy smile. This is the first time he has checked on me since I began working the wool. In fact, he has been napping under a tree for most of the afternoon. Perhaps that is why the weavers are complaining.

  I step out of the bucket, nearly tripping over the edge in the process. My legs are wobbly from the steady marching, and I have to grab hold of the side to steady myself.

  The fuller peers into the bucket and shakes his head. “Your wool is almost dry. Have you not been adding urine to the clay? If you do not keep the wool moist, the fibers will not tangle properly. The weavers will not be able to make cloth out of it.”

  I tilt my head at him. “Are you telling me I have been stomping in urine all afternoon?”

  “Of course! Although you need much more, as I have pointed out.”

  “I need more urine?” I repeat, having trouble grasping this turn of events.

  He nods. “If you go over to the alehouse, you can collect quite a bit from the trench out back.”

  I stare at him to see if he is perhaps joking with me. “So you are saying that you want me to go to the alehouse, bring back a trench full of urine, pour it into my bucket, and stomp on it?”

  “That is right, young miss.”

  It would not be entirely accurate to say I have been fired from two jobs in one day. This one I quit all on my own.

  I awake to a persistent knocking on my door.

  “Come in, Godfrey,” I reply, rubbing my eyes. I did not sleep well after the laboratory incident and am anxious to inspect the damage in the light of day. I climb out of bed and wait by the dresser for Godfrey to bring my washing bowl. To my surprise, a young page enters instead, pulling a cart piled high with clothes and boxes. I cannot imagine why.

  Although attired in the fine clothes that all our castle pages are given, he looks out of place in them. He bows low and says, “Good morn, Prince Riley. I am Fredrick, but my friends call me Freddy.” He instantly reddens. “I … I mean, not to presume that you are my friend, I mean, of course, as a prince, you wouldn’t be expected to … oh, I am nervous. Forgive me!” He hangs his head, peeking up through the floppy hair that falls over half his face.

  Unsure what to do, I lean over and pat him on the shoulder. “Er, there, there, Freddy. You need not be nervous. I would be happy to be your friend. Truly. I do not have many of my own.”

  The boy looks up at me with wide brown eyes. “I am sorry, Prince. It is just that I have never been assigned to anyone of your greatness before. I want to do a good job.”

  I try not to laugh when he is being so earnest. “You have not been at the castle long. My brother is the one worthy of such praise, not I.”

  He peers into my face. “Are you not the great alchemist?”

  I stand straighter. “Is that what you heard?”

  He nods. “Your mother’s lady-in-waiting said that you spend all your time playing in your laboratory trying to turn lead into gold.”

  “I am not trying to turn lead into gold!” I cry, louder than I had intended. I lower my voice. “Nor am I merely playing, like a child.”

  Freddy shakes his head. “Oh, I know that, Prince. I believe trying to understand the true nature of the world is the highest of goals.”

  No one has ever said anything like that to me before, other than Master Cedrick, and even he never put it quite that way. I peer at Freddy more closely. Most pages are from noble families, sent away to learn the skills of the knighthood while serving the masters of the house. I have always felt a bit sorry for them. I would not want to be sent away from my family at such a young age. Perhaps Freddy fears a bad report being sent back to his own father. “How old are you, Freddy?”

  “I am ten years of age, sire.”

  “And how long have you been here?”

  “Coming on three weeks.”

  “Does your family live nearby?”

  He lowers his eyes to the floor. “I am an orphan, Prince. My mother passed on when I was a babe, and my father a few years ago. He was a knight in the service of the good King Rubin.”

  We are silent for a moment. “I am truly sorry, Freddy.”

  “Thank you, Prince. Since his death, I have been passed between distant relatives, and now your parents have brought me here, to train for the knighthood. They have been kind to me. I want to make them proud.”

  “I am sure you will make an excellent knight one day.”

  He looks down and replies so softly I almost miss his words. “I do not wish to be a knight.”

  I have never met a page who did not dream of being a knight. Of fighting in battle, of being admired for bravery and skill, honored for his good deeds and his noble virtues. “Why not?” I ask.

  Freddy begins to pace my room. “Do you know how many ways a knight can perish?” he asks.

  I shake my head.

  His pacing continues as the words rush from his mouth. “He could die in battle, pierced by a lance, clubbed over the head, or suffocated beneath his horse. Or if he does not die immediately from his wounds, the wounds could become infected with all manner of disease, or he could bleed to death. He could fall into a pit hidden by rushes and leaves, and break his neck. He could overheat in his armor on a hot August day, or freeze in winter while hidden in the woods against some unseen enemy. Or he could be captured by opposing forces and left to starve in a dungeon somewhere.”

  “Well!” I exclaim when fairly sure he has finished his list. “That is certainly something!” I dare not ask which of those fates befell his father.

  Freddy sits down on the edge of the bed and his voice falls again to a whisper. “Father was the greatest knight our kingdom had seen in two hundred years. He never lost a fight, and always stood up against injustice wherever he saw it. If a man like that could be taken in the prime of his life, what chance do I have?”

  Fortunately, he does not leave me room to answer.

  “I like to stare at the moon at night,” he says, his voice rising. “My real dream is to study the stars. I know it is absurd to think such a thing possible. I cannot change the path destiny has set for me.”

  My heart quickens with his words. I sit beside him. “I love the stars, too. I have never met anyone other than my tutor who shared this interest. You should pursue your dream.”

  He beams at me. “Truly? You believe I could do it?”

  I begin to nod, and then stop myself. If I’m being honest, one’s social position in our society does not change much. As an orphan at the mercy of other people’s kindnesses, his situation is even more dire than most. I do not want to give him false hope. “One can never tell what the future may hold,” I say carefully. “Tomorrow our lives could change forever.”

  He smiles, but his eyes dim. “My tomorrows are likely to resemble my yesterdays. But I shall remain hopeful.”

  “That is the spirit, young Freddy! Now I must go check on my laboratory. You may have heard a large bang last night.” I turn away to find my slippers.

  Freddy clears his throat. “Prince Riley? I am afraid your mother has other plans for you.” He walks over to the cart he had left by the door. “I have been sent up here to fit you in your attire for the ball. Since I spent my growing years at King Rub