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

  “What are you talking about, brother? I can see myself perfectly well. And Mother and Father, too.”

  I feel a tug on my hand and jump, nearly smacking my head on a low branch. I am not quite as tall as a giraffe, thankfully. Perhaps a baby one.

  “It is only me,” Alexander says, taking my hand again. This time I do not pull away. He places something round and hard into my palm, which I close around it. My hands might be larger, and the skin thicker, but I recognize the feel of Alexander’s gold ring with our family’s crest upon it. He never takes it off.

  “So we are invisible to everyone but ourselves?” Mother asks, fuming. “That is your solution to this problem?”

  The girl shrugs. “You were concerned what others would think when they saw you with such a creature. Now they will not see you at all. I could turn you all into beasts if you would prefer.”

  Only silence comes from Mother’s direction now.

  “Prince Riley, you have three months,” the girl says, beginning to walk along the stream. The buffalo follows, his head so low his horns nearly drag on the ground. “If you fail, which, of course, you will, your family shall remain invisible. When your time is nearly up, you shall be drawn to me, and I shall add you to my collection.”

  The buffalo yelps and the girl smacks him with the back of her hand. The sudden realization hits me that the buffalo may not always have been a buffalo! My family must have come to the same conclusion, because no one utters a sound until they are both lost from view. Then my family surrounds me in a long, tight hug that I can feel, even if I cannot see it.

  “We cannot go to the Harvest Ball like this,” Mother moans, sounding more defeated than I have ever heard her. “I cannot bear to think of all the worry when we do not show. And Riley was the ceremonial symbol of the harvest!”

  “Riley was the what?” Alexander asks, loosening his grip in the family embrace.

  “Never mind that,” I reply hurriedly.

  Mother continues to wail. “And how will we get home? Riley would never fit atop a horse!”

  “I have a theory,” Alexander says. “Perhaps we shall wake at any moment to find this all a dream!”

  “Yes!” Father agrees. “Mayhap we are all back in the carriage, dreaming still! Let us lie down in this tall grass and close our eyes.”

  It takes a moment to find a way to lie down where some part of my enormous body does not crush a leg or head of one of my family members in the process. When we have figured it out, Mother says fervently, “Good night, and may we all wake as good as new.”

  “Or better,” Alexander declares.

  I have scarcely finished telling Clarissa of recent events, when Veronica bursts through the apothecary door, just as she did an hour earlier. Only this time she is wearing a smile that shows her small white teeth. I should probably add teeth brushing to my list of grooming habits that I need to work on.

  She runs up to me and grabs my hand. “I am so pleased you are coming!”

  I glance questioningly at the apothecary, who shrugs and returns to grinding a pearl into fine powder. “I have not yet asked my father,” I reply, pulling my hand back. “So I cannot say for certain.”

  “And as her older sister,” Clarissa says, “I am not certain I am comfortable with this arrangement.”

  She turns toward Clarissa. “You are quite beautiful,” she says.

  “Thank you for noticing,” Clarissa replies. My sister is never one for simply saying thank you.

  “But there are things you do not understand in the world,” Veronica says, sounding older than her years. “Forces are at work.”

  “Forces?” Clarissa repeats, sounding doubtful. “What kind of forces?”

  Although no one else is in the store, Veronica looks left, then right, then leans close before replying. “You have read the old fairy tales? If you can read, of course.”

  “I can read,” Clarissa snaps. “And yes, I know of the tales. But that is all they are, just stories.”

  Veronica shakes her head. “That is what I used to think as well. But the stories are true. At least some of them.”

  “Like the one about the girl who slept a hundred years?” I ask. “I do not see how that could be true.”

  She nods. “But it is.”

  I can tell by the way her eyes are darkening that Clarissa is getting annoyed. She may be a romantic when it comes to love, but she has little patience for make-believe. “Is that so?” she asks. “How about the one where the girl’s hair grew so long you could climb up it? I have been growing my hair since I was six, and it does not even reach my waist.”

  Veronica shakes her head sadly, like she cannot believe she has to deal with such a silly question. “When magic is at play, the impossible can happen.”

  “Like witches and fairies?” Clarissa asks. “Goblins and ghosts and trolls?”

  “All real.”

  “Pish-posh,” Clarissa says, stomping off.

  Veronica opens her mouth to reply but then straightens up and says, “I must go now and prepare. We shall leave three days hence. Let us gather in the courtyard of the monastery, where first we met.”

  “If I go, which I still have not agreed to, what would I bring with me?”

  “I shall bring you a list tomorrow,” she says.

  “I should warn you, I have very few possessions.”

  “Whatever you do not have shall be provided for you,” Veronica says. She leans close again, so close I can smell her flowery scent. I cannot help thinking of what the apothecary said about how he makes the perfumes. I wonder if Veronica knows that, and if she did, if she would still wear it.

  “Be prepared, Beauty,” she says in a low voice. “For a quest changes a person.” And with that cryptic message, she slips out the door.

  “And you say I am dramatic!” Clarissa exclaims.

  I stand in the doorway and watch Veronica run down the street. Her legs move swiftly, almost as fast as mine. I suspect she was holding back when we first ran to check on her grandfather. Master Werlin would never have kept up. But I can keep up with her.

  I understand now why her grandfather wanted me to accompany her. Someone who believes in fairy tales and mysterious forces might forget her own basic needs. He needs me to make sure she is fed, clothed properly, and given a safe place to sleep. I protect Veronica, and Handsome protects us both.

  Master Werlin sets down his tools. “It does not surprise me that she wishes to believe in the old stories. Her own is a sad one.”

  Clarissa looks up from the glass jar she is rinsing. She is never one to miss any gossip.

  “Her father caught a terrible fever right after she was born,” Master Werlin says. “He only lasted another month. Then a few years later, her mother left on what was supposed to be a short trip. Her empty pack was later found in the woods, along with her shoes. Search parties were formed, but no sign of her has ever turned up. Everyone believes her dead, of course, either at the hands of bandits or wolves, but the girl holds out hope. Now we know why her mother left. At least Bartholomew’s version of events.”

  “Is that what the quest is, then?” I ask. “She wants to find her mother?”

  He shrugs. “Likely so.”

  Clarissa and I exchange a look. I am certain we are both thinking about the lengths we would go to if a chance existed that our own mother was still alive. I resolve to do my best to help the girl. Not that I believe her mother still lives, but perhaps I can help her accept her loss and move on. Living in the past is not living.

  Clarissa appears beside me. She lays her hand gently on my arm. Her expression is both loving and serious. I turn toward her, anticipating some older-sister wisdom and encouragement. Instead, she says, “Please tell me you are bringing a comb on your journey. How do you expect Handsome to fall in love with you and break his engagement if you look like that? And would it kill you to powder your nose every once in a while? You shine brighter than the full moon on a clear night.”

  I groa