Please read the Introduction first. Then continue reading each piece in order.
Click on the following titles to be magically transported to each piece of the triptych.
1. BEAUTY AND THE BEASTESS
Once upon a time there lived a princess. Naturally she was beautiful, as all princesses are, but more than that, she was also kind-hearted, and smart and interested in all sorts of things. One day, she caught the eye of an evil imp, who became besotted with her. “Marry me!” he commanded her. “Excuse me?” she said. Being a princess, she was unaccustomed to strangers approaching unannounced and making demands of her, whether they were human or not.
“Marry me immediately or face the consequences!” the imp ordered.
The princess looked around uncertainly, wondering where her retinue had disappeared to, and how she might remove herself from this unpleasant situation without hurting the imp’s feelings.
“Well?” the imp demanded.
“I’m sorry,” the princess began, “I don’t even know you, plus you don’t appear to be human.”
“What?!?” the imp screeched. “Many a successful marriage has been based on far less than that! You’d be lucky to land a husband like me!”
“Probably so,” said the princess amiably, “but I have no interest in marrying anyone. So you see it’s not personal at all.”
“Oh,” sneered the imp, “the old ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ eh? I’ll show you what I think of that!” And with that, he gestured with his imp arms around the princess and muttered some magic words. The princess felt a tingling sensation under her skin. Startled, she looked down at herself, and the tingling got stronger, turning into a burning sensation. She cried out in pain, and the imp began to laugh maniacally.
As she watched, her arms grew larger and became covered with fur. Her hands which had previously been delicate grew large and stumpy, resembling paws. The princess felt her clothes getting uncomfortably tight, until she could barely breathe. Then suddenly, the bodice of her dress split at the seams, and she gasped for air.
“What have you done?” she cried, or at least, she tried to articulate the words, but they came out as a long, loud howl.
“Not so pretty and stuck up now, are you sweetie?” the imp snickered at her. “But I won’t have you now. I wouldn’t have you if you were the last woman on earth! I doubt that anyone would! But you can try your best to catch yourself a husband. Here’s my offer: You have one year from today to find someone who can love you as you are. If you do, you’ll be restored to your former beauty. If you can’t, or if you tell the poor sot about this curse, you’ll stay that way forever! And you’ll have to marry me,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
“Why do I have to marry anybody?” the princess tried to ask, furiously. But once more, all that came out was an angry howl.
“Oh, shut up,” the imp snapped. “People get married, especially pretty girls. That’s all there is to it!”
The princess realized that along with her larger body and her new, incoherent manner of speech, her fingers had also changed into long, sharp, talon-like claws. She leapt toward the imp in a rage, claws pointed straight at his eyes, when *poof* he disappeared.
She sank to her knees and howled her frustration and anger. Had she still her human form, she would have wept, but alas, the imp had turned her into a creature without tear ducts. She hugged herself tightly and rocked herself for comfort as she knelt on the ground. Presently, she became exhausted from her roiling emotions, and decided to make her way home.
The princess’ presence in the palace courtyard reasonably caused quite a stir.
The King and the Queen and their entourage turned to see a large, betusked and furry beast with long talons, wearing a tattered version of the dress that the princess had last been seen wearing. They could see that it also had hooves where its feet should be, the shoes having fallen off nearly immediately. A collective cry arose, and several of the men reached for their weapons.
“’Tis the princess herself!” cried a young voice from behind the beast. The gathering turned toward the young garden boy from whom the declaration had come. The beast gestured frantically toward the boy, looking at the King and the Queen with imploring eyes.
“Young man,” said the Queen, “Please come hither and explain.” Never taking his eyes from the beast and giving her a wide berth, he approached the royal parents.
“We were all in the garden, and the princess was gathering roses when all of a sudden, everything went black. I couldn’t see a thing, nor move a muscle, but I heard everything that happened. It was an evil imp, I tell you. The princess said she wouldn’t marry him, so he turned her into this—” he gestured toward the princess-cum-beast. “He says she’s got one year to get someone to marry her or she’ll stay as she is.”
The princess, who had not known how she was to communicate the events of the afternoon to her family, was beside herself with relief. She would have wept with gratitude, but as she had no tear ducts, she could only let out a great sigh and turned her stubby, leathery palms toward the garden boy in a gesture of placation. Everyone in the crowd edged away, even the boy himself. She let her hand drop, her shoulders droop, and let her head fall to her now quite-furry chest.
“Well this won’t do,” said the Queen. “This won’t do at all! We’ve got several suitors on their way as we speak! The first is due tonight!”
“Excellent,” said the King. “We’ll make one of them marry her, and that will be that!”
“They are on their way to court a princess,” snapped the Queen, “not a beast!”
“It doesn’t matter one whit,” replied the King. “They’re here for a political match. I’m sure they’d prefer her as she was, but…” he shrugged, “whoever we pick will get over it.”
The princess could not believe what she was hearing. If she hadn’t understood the depths of her parents’ disregard for her wishes before now, it was glaringly obvious at this point.
The Queen turned to her. “Come, Miranda,” she said, holding out her hand. “Let’s get you into the bath. At least you can be clean when the gentlemen come courting.”
Taking her stepmother’s gesture as a sign of maternal love, the beast who had been Princess Miranda, scrambled to her feet. But when she approached, the Queen pulled her hand back, as though afraid it might get eaten. Wishing once more that she might weep real tears, the princess tried to hug herself. Unaccustomed as she was to her new talons, she carved a gash into her own shoulder. “Owww!” she cried out—or would have, had she not been a beast. Instead, she howled again, and the courtiers and servants all covered their ears with their hands, and cowered in fright. Realizing what had just happened, the princess ceased her noise and followed the Queen docilely into the palace.
Within the royal baths, the bathing maids shrank back from caring for the princess in her new form. She sat sadly in the bath, trying to hold the soap with her new claws. After a great deal of effort, she stabbed the bar with one claw, and rubbed it onto a washcloth, trying to work up some lather. She then carefully picked up the washcloth and rubbed it over the wound in her shoulder, hoping to stave off any infection. She wondered what would happen if she were to become injured or ill; would the royal doctor see to her, or would they call in the veterinarian? She also wondered what would happen at dinner, and whether she would be able to eat anything at all.
The Queen swept back into the room, and the bathing maids immediately jumped up and offered the princess a towel. She rose and accepted it while the Queen conferred with the head bathing maid quietly.
“Your Highness,” the princess heard the maid say, sotto voce, “I don’t believe that the princess will fit in the gown that you had selected for her to wear this evening. What shall we do?”
“You speak true,” replied the Queen, “and even if it fit, I wouldn’t want her to wear it now. All that delicate silk against that course, rough…fur! Why, it would poke right through and tear the gown to shreds!”
“Speaking of which, Highness,” said the maid, with a sideways glance at the princess, “should we shave her?”
Aghast, the princess held her arms up protectively against her chest.
The Queen and the dressing maid looked at her, then at each other. “No,” said the Queen, “I don’t think that would be wise. Just her legs, as normal.” At that, the princess vehemently shook her head back and forth and growled low in her throat. “Or perhaps there’s no need,” said the Queen, as if the idea had simply come to her. “Go the apartments of the old Queen Genevieve. She was a, er, robust woman. Surely there is something there which may fit the princess’ new figure.”
“Courtship” Day 1
The courtiers were called to stand at the table, and the progress to the dining hall began promptly. First, the King escorted the Queen into the hall. As they reached the head of the table, they turned to each other. The King kissed the Queen lovingly on the hand, and she simpered and curtseyed to him before they both sat at their places. Next came the guest, the Prince of Roobio, who was the first of the suitors who had been scheduled that week. He was a handsome fellow, somewhat older than the princess, and of course, richly dressed in velvet and brocade. He strutted into the dining hall, shook the King’s hand and kissed the Queen’s, then took his own seat at the table. Now it was the princess’ turn to enter the dining hall. There came a muffled gasp from the crowd.
“Really!” thought the princess, “Most of these people were in the courtyard this afternoon. My appearance tonight can’t be a surprise!” She found her feelings hurt, just a little bit.
The prince sat up a bit straighter in his chair, and stared at the beast that entered the room. It was large, taller than many men, and had a huge snout and tusks on either side of its mouth. It was quite furry from its face down to the neckline of its dress, and its arms were generously covered with grey, coarse fur as well, down to the talons at the end of its hands. Wait—its dress?? By Jove, the prince noticed that the beast was indeed wearing a lovely, if outmoded dress of thick, deep green brocade with embroidered flowers of golden threads decorating the bodice. About its neck was a thin, gold chain, laughably delicate against the fur, from which dangled a large ruby pendant. Amazingly, the beast also had matching ruby earrings in its wolf-like ears, and a bracelet around its wrist to complete the ensemble! The prince gawked at the thing seated in the princess’ chair, then turned to his hosts. “But where is the princess?” he asked loudly.
To the prince’s consternation, the King gestured to the well-festooned creature and said stiffly, “As you no doubt heard announced, this is our daughter, the Princess Miranda.”
The princess, mortified, did her best not to squirm with embarrassment. Instead, she looked down at her plate, and wondered how she might manage the silverware with her new claws.
“No, seriously,” the prince was saying. “This is a fine jest, and I can see that it’s quite well-behaved, whatever it is, but I came to court a princess, not a beast!”
The courtiers all fell silent, the King and Queen sat stony faced, the prince looked around in disbelief, and the princess wished with all her might that she were anywhere else. After a long moment, the King signaled to the dining staff that dinner should be served. Court records would show later that it was the shortest state dinner in history; however, to everyone in attendance, it was the longest. Awkward silences were filled in with half-hearted gossip and sideways glances. The prince studiously ignored the beast that sat in the princess’ seat, and left with rather indecent haste as soon as dessert was finished.
“Courtship” Day 2
The next morning, the beast who had been the Princess Miranda was awakened by her lady-in-waiting, carrying a tray of breakfast.
“Good morning, my lady!” she said, cheerily, placing the tray carefully on the trunk at the foot of the bed.
Miranda lifted herself on an elbow. “Goommmnnngg,” she managed to get out. Anne, the lady-in-waiting lifted her eyebrows, “Oh, you can speak now, can you?”
The princess lifted one shoulder in half a shrug, and gave a small grunt in response. Anne sat on the edge of the bed, and reached out a hand, touching the princess’ now-furry arm. “Hear me, lady. I’m sure you know that the King and Queen were most displeased by the events at dinner last night.” At this, the princess gave a snort, and turned her head away. “I truly understand that you had no interest in the Prince, but the fact is that you have to marry someone, and although we can do nothing at this moment about your new look, we all know that you are a charming and interesting person. In order to get someone to marry you, you must play up your personality; right now, it’s the only asset you’ve got.”
The princess rolled her large eyes, and pointed at the jewelry she had worn the night before, as it sat on the bedside table. “Well, yes, your father’s wealth too, and your position as a princess,” Anne agreed. “However, it’s only because of the wealth and position that you haven’t been turned out. Your only hope to become human again is to find someone who will marry you as you are. And to convince someone to do that, you’re going to have to learn to speak well again.”
Miranda made a guttural sound of assent deep within her throat. “Good!” said Anne, smiling. “Now I’ll help you with your breakfast.”
With the help of her patient lady-in-waiting, Miranda managed to eat a hearty breakfast. She had gone to bed hungry last night, having been unable to manage silverware, and when she had reached for a third bread roll, her stepmother the Queen had given her a look so poisonous as to make her drop it immediately, and she had watched sadly as the servant took it away, along with the rest of her uneaten food.
Miranda spent the day practicing her speech with Anne. She improved a bit throughout the day, but her new, beastly vocal cords would not always cooperate, and try as she might, her words came out slurred and unintelligible.
The princess began to prepare for dinner again that evening, her lady-in-waiting dressing her in another of her late grandmother’s gowns.
The progress into the dining hall began again, the King and Queen leading the way. The guest was announced, this time the Duke Gordon of Psoria. The Duke was a large man, nearly as large as the princess was now, tall and pudgy, with beefy arms and legs, a thick neck and a soft-looking face. His hair was very white, and he walked as though his shoes were too tight. Had he gout? Physically, he quite resembled the portly and middle-aged King. The princess cast a glance at her attendant. “Howwolzisdu?” she said softly.
“He’s two years younger than you, Princess,” the attendant answered, just as softly.
“Nuh-uh!” the princess noised quietly in disbelief. Even if this Duke turns out to be a gentleman, she thought, how on earth can I marry someone who looks like my father? How vulgar!
At the announcement of her name, the princess walked into the dining hall and sat down as daintily as she could. The Duke showed creditably good manners as he displayed no outward reaction to the princess’ appearance. He turned to her and enquired about her health. She nodded politely and responded as best she could. The duke soon understood that the beast next to him would provide little in the way of intelligible conversation. However, instead of turning away from her, he began to talk to her.
“Your parents have a lovely home here,” he said. “I too have a very lovely home indeed. Many lovely homes, in fact, as your parents the King and Queen do too.” Miranda nodded in agreement, and to encourage him to continue. “I understand that this is the largest of their estates,” he said, at which Miranda nodded again. “This estate is about the size of one of my smaller ones. It reminds me of one of the places I have by the sea, where I go when I want to get away from everyone.”
Miranda cocked her head to the side. Was this duke slighting the home of his hosts? The hosts who were King and Queen of this country? Surely he couldn’t be that rude. Perhaps he was simply nervous; Miranda could understand that.
“Do you enjoy hunting?” he continued. Miranda shook her head to indicate that she did not, but the duke continued, “Of course you do. You probably eat a whole deer in one sitting.” He paused and took a large bite of one of the capon breasts he’d served himself. “My lands in the north have the best forests for hunting,” he said around the mound of meat in his mouth. Miranda pulled her eyebrows down and drew back slightly, hoping to avoid getting sprayed by his food. She looked with distaste down at the sleeve of her dress as a small chunk of dressing from the capon landed just below her shoulder. Surreptitiously, she flicked it off her arm and watched it land in the duke’s goblet. He swallowed his mouthful of meat and reached for the goblet, downing half of it in one gulp. After using his wrist to wipe his mouth, the duke turned back to the beast sitting next to him. “So, how big is your dowry?”
“Duuuufffsbg,” replied the princess, appalled.
“No, ‘dow-ry,’” the duke gently corrected her. “Oh, never mind; I’ll talk to your father about that. Do you usually sleep in the stable with the horses, or in the kennel with the dogs?” he asked, eyeing her earrings, speculatively. Miranda was completely horrified and mentally damned the imp to a black and eternal hell for the thousandth time. She knew that this duke would marry her in spite of her beastly appearance, likely breaking the curse, but then she would be forever tied to a crass, ill-mannered boor, and like as not treated like an animal even once she regained her human form! She knew she had to do something, and quickly. Putting her snout into her soup bowl, she inhaled it as fast as she could, turned to the duke, and with a loud hiccup, spewed everything from her stomach in his direction.
The duke turned to the King, soup running down his face. “You know,” he remarked casually, “your daughter doesn’t look anything like the portrait you sent me.” To nobody’s surprise, the duke left having made no marriage negotiations.
“Courtship” Day 3
The princess waited with great trepidation for her turn to progress into the dining hall. Her stepmother the Queen had told her on no uncertain terms that she was to turn on whatever charms she may have left and get this next Duke to agree to marry her—or else! The Queen let the threat hang in the air unfinished, and the princess, still constantly bewildered by her new self, did not have the wherewithal to ask “or else what?”
At the announcement of his name, the young Duke of Coron strolled in. The princess had been told that he was near to her own age, but he seemed much younger, with a boyish face, self-effacing grin, and ears that stuck out on each side of his head like the handles on a sugar bowl.
“He’s from a minor duchy to the west,” murmured the princess’ attendant. “A big fish in a little pond. Marrying the King’s daughter would certainly add a great deal of prestige to his position. I’m sure he’ll agree to the match.”
That may be so, thought the princess, but the imp’s stipulation was that someone must love me, not simply marry me. As the princess watched, the Duke turned and grinned at a gaggle of the young ladies-in-waiting, who smiled and simpered back at him, giggling self-consciously. This man-child will never love any but himself.
At the announcement of her name, the princess made her way to her seat next to the young Duke. He had been made aware that the princess was not possessed of classic beauty, and nailed a smile to his face as he nodded a greeting to her.
“He—oo,” Miranda said politely. The duke jumped a bit, as his intelligence had clearly made him aware only of the princess’ personal appearance, and not of her recent diction lessons. Nonetheless, he did not deign to respond. Instead, he turned slightly and caught the eye of one of daughters of nobility. He made a small gesture with his head toward the beast in the princess’ seat, rolled his eyes and winked, eliciting another giggle from the young lady of his attention. This Duke is making fun of me, right here beside me, and in my parents’ home! Miranda realized, disbelievingly. Her acquaintance with the young lady in question led her to expect no better behavior from that quarter, but she thought that a courting duke might at least make a pretense at decent manners. She kept her hairy, tusked face turned toward him, staring hard for several minutes, watching as he made eyes at the young noble ladies. Eventually, he turned toward her with a laugh. Then he noticed the fury and disdain in her eyes, which quelled his mirth nearly immediately. He swallowed hard and turned his attention to his meal.
“Tell me, good Sir,” said the King to the young duke, “how do you find our lands?”
“Oh, quite scenic indeed,” said the duke, his eyes straying back to the ladies’ table. “Very, very beautiful, very alluring,” he murmured. With a start, he remembered to whom he spoke and the reason he was here. “Yes, the journey in took me through lovely countryside,” he said quickly, “and I’m quite impressed with your fair city, and naturally with your daughter, too,” he grinned widely and draped an arm casually on the chair next to him.
Disgusted, Miranda lowered her eyebrows at him and leaned away. Had she been in her human form, the expression would have been seen as a pretty pout and elicited an infuriatingly patronizing remark or two tossed at the little lady. Luckily, her new face presented the gesture even more menacingly than she’d intended, inspiring the duke to remove his arm and lean away from her, toward the King. The King saw the duke’s movement as conspiratorial and leaned in close too. Thinking quickly, the duke said jovially to the king, “The emeralds she’s wearing are very high quality. Do you think she’d prefer a matching collar for a wedding present, or a nose ring?”
At this, Miranda dropped the goblet she’d finally managed to pick up, which landed on the handle of her fork, which turned end-over-end in the air and landed *ping* in the non-winking eye of the young Duke of Coron. After a brief visit with the royal medic, he left for his own lands having made no overtures of marriage to the royal family.
The King and Queen were furious, and banished the Beast-who-had-been-the-princess posthaste to a long-unused manor, deep in a far-flung forest. Although she was disgraced, they allowed the princess to take some few servants with her, including her lady-in-waiting and the garden boy who had been so loyal to her.
Living on her own in the forest, the princess missed her parents; however, she found the solitude quite freeing. The Queen had constantly nagged at her to “act like a lady.” “Miranda, sit up straight, like a lady,” she would say, or “Miranda, your hair is a disgrace! Please run a comb through it and look like a lady.” Her stepmother the Queen pronounced most things that Miranda liked to do “unladylike,” and most things she didn’t like to do were very “ladylike.” The queen had arranged for a courier to bring weekly correspondence, and requested to be apprised of Miranda’s progress in regaining some semblance of human behavior. However, Miranda found that her new form disallowed several of the more ladylike activities that her stepmother was so fond of. For instance, her talons simply would not hold a needle, so embroidery was out of the question. Likewise was any musical pastime, as her new vocal cords could not carry a tune that any human ear could stand for more than a few notes, and playing any instrument was now simply impossible. The princess considered music to be a passive enjoyment, and was perfectly content to leave its creation to those with more talent, and fewer talons.
Gingerly, she scratched behind her ear with a large claw. “Ladylike, my ass!” she thought, then farted loudly. She chuckled softly to herself, then more loudly when she saw the garden boy’s disgusted grimace.
During her time of exile, the princess began work immediately on exercising her voice so that she could speak intelligibly. The servants who had followed her made it a point to ask her opinion on things that they thought might be easy for her to articulate at first; then more questions were asked, in an attempt to get her to continue speaking. After several weeks, she was easily understood by them all. The trick, she knew, would be in getting someone new to understand her words, much in the way that parents fully understand their toddler’s grunts, but nobody outside the family has any idea what those grunts mean.
She also spent a great deal of time working on her table manners; she was much more concerned with being able to feed herself than with how she looked while doing so, but Anne and Hilde were adamant that she approximate her former demeanor even if her form was drastically changed, and they refused to cut her food into small pieces for her or to spoon-feed her. Mealtimes were long, but hardly leisurely, and the princess often left the table with more food on her than in her. However, Anne and Hilde were patient with Miranda’s clumsiness, never scolding when she dropped or spilled, never admonishing her to hurry, even when breakfasts seeped into lunches, and lunches into dinners. After several weeks of constant work, Miranda was able to balance utensils between her claws, spoon soup into her mouth, and maneuver various foods onto a fork. She was quite pleased with her own progress, and if she occasionally had to direct her staff’s attention out the window so that she might use her claw instead of a knife to cut meat, her pride in accomplishment was no more diminished.
However, despite her tiny triumphs and enjoyment of her freedom from court life, she remained painfully aware of her grim situation.
When the table manners became too tiresome and frustrating, Miranda and Anne would retire to the library, where Anne would turn pages for the Princess, who read aloud to practice her speech. Miranda liked poetry best, as the wordplay and alliteration offered her the best vocal exercise. Having completed several volumes, the pair began to poke around the library in search of new material when they came across a crate tucked behind a settee, partially covered with a curtain.
“This looks like more books,” commented Anne. “I wonder why they weren’t unpacked before?”
“Let’s unpack them now,” said Miranda, using one of her sharp claws to pry open the top. Inside the box, however, instead of poetry volumes, they found a large silver hoop. It was a ring, with no beginning and no end, as large as Miranda’s beastly head. Miranda’s eyebrows went down, and Anne gave a small frown as they examined it.
“What on earth do you think it is?” wondered Miranda.
“It can’t be for embroidery,” said Anne, “as there is only one.”
“You’re right,” agreed Miranda. “Also, it’s too finely made.” She turned it around and looked through it at Anne. “I wish there were someone we could ask. My parents, perhaps?”
With those words, the ring began to hum and glow in her grasp. Instead of Anne’s face encircled in silver, Miranda suddenly saw the King and the Queen, their images as sharp as if they were portraits in a round, silver frame. Miranda gasped, causing Anne to move so that she too faced the image. As the two women watched, the image gave way to show the Queen in the kitchens, and they could hear her instructions to the cook just as clearly as if they too were in the palace kitchen, rather than exiled to a forest many miles away.
Miranda and Anne gaped at each other, stunned. When their glances returned to the hoop, they now beheld the King. He too seemed to be advising a servant, one of the young bath maids, as he sat in a steaming tub…
Miranda let go of the ring. “I think I’ve seen plenty,” she said.
Anne caught it before it fell to the floor. “Let me try,” she said calmly. She lifted the ring which was once again merely a ring and held it up as Miranda had done. “I wish to see my own parents,” said Anne in a clear voice. Once again, the hoop glowed and hummed, and where previously she could see the bookshelf on the other wall, she now saw the Earl and the Countess of Marr. As she watched, they alighted from a grand carriage and approached the walkway of a large country estate. “Oh yes,” murmured Anne, “Mother wrote that they were to visit my Uncle and Aunt in the country. I’m glad they look well.” She handed the ring back to Miranda, who put it back in its crate.
Over the next few days, Miranda and Anne would occasionally look through the silver ring again, wishing for glimpses of home. Invariably, the King and the Queen were at opposite ends of the palace, she involved in overseeing some project or other, and he involved with some lady or other who was not the Queen. After the third such episode, Miranda commented, “I guess we know now who really runs the kingdom. The King my father is a bit of a prick, isn’t he?”
Anne gently took the hoop from Miranda’s paws and put it away. “The King your father may do as he wishes. It’s his right as King.”
“But why should his right as King supersede his obligation as a husband? And as a decent human being?” Miranda mused.
“It’s not for us to question the likes of kings,” said Anne.
“But Anne, assuming this curse is broken, I will be ruler one day. Are you saying that it would be my right to misbehave with whatever man might take my fancy, whether he’s my husband or not? That it’s fair and right to betray the trust of the man who cares for me enough as a beast to commit his life to me, simply because I’m ruler?”
“It does sound insensitive when you put it that way,” conceded Anne. “Let’s see if we can’t see your parents together next time.”
Miranda pulled the magic ring out of its box once more, and said this: “I wish to see my parents together.” The ring once again hummed and glowed, and there came an image of the King and the Queen in their private chamber.
“If only she’d been born a boy,” the King was saying. “A beastly son could still inherit the kingdom, along with his pick of ladies to wife. Everyone knows that; nobody cares what a man looks like!”
“I beg to differ,” the Queen replied, icily. “And besides, while her sex is hardly her doing, she is still the last one with royal blood. Any man she marries will be only a Prince Consort, not a King. I’m sure they all have that in the back of their minds as well.”
“Why weren’t the instructions more clear?” wondered the King. “Will the spell be broken once someone agrees to marry her? When the vows are spoken? Upon consummation?”
That comment from her father made Miranda shudder with embarrassment. Anne glanced over at her with shock, pity and discomfort. But worse was the next comment from the King: “If that last one is the condition, then the whole kingdom is shafted, hard! Except for her. Nobody is going to make the beast with two backs with an actual beast!”
“Hmm,” said Anne. “The King your father is a bit of a prick, isn’t he?” She gently squeezed Miranda’s shoulder and returned the hoop to its crate.
Chagrinned as she was to hear the King her father speculating on her activities in the marriage bed, Miranda had to admit that he raised a very valid question: at what point would the imp’s curse be satisfied? When would they know? At the same time, she was well aware that the answer may be moot. Banished to the forest as she was, how could she meet anyone at all, let alone someone who might marry her? If she failed, she would spend the rest of her life in this form, possibly even ending up married to the imp. Determined that this fate not befall her, she threw herself into her efforts at better communication and table manners, in the hope that news of her success would bring a homecoming summons from the Queen.
As Miranda fished in a small pond in one of the gardens one day, she heard a noise through the hedge. She glanced through a hole in the greenery and saw an old woman wandering about the garden on the other side. Curious, she watched as the stranger meandered through the flora, picking at various herbs and flower petals and putting them in her basket. Stunned, the princess burst through the hedge.
“How dare you!” she snarled. “What makes you think you can walk in and steal from this garden?”
The woman jumped backwards, stepping into one of the flowerbeds that the young garden boy had recently put in. At the sight of the beast before her, the woman began to quake. “I—I—I’m very sorry!” she stammered. “I didn’t know anyone lived here. This house has been empty for so long…”
“Didn’t you notice that this garden is now well-kept and weeded? You could have at least knocked on the door and asked!” exclaimed the beast, fully indignant.
“You’re so right!” said the old woman, near tears. “Please forgive me! I’m only looking for herbs to heal my nephew. He was bitten by a snake this morning and has a terrible fever. I must get these herbs to him right away! He is all I have left in the world! And I’m all he has, too.”
Although the princess was a beast on the outside, she was still the same kind-hearted young woman on the inside, and felt sad for the poor woman’s nephew. However, as a princess, she knew that rules needed to be observed as well.
“That’s no excuse for stealing when you could easily have asked permission,” she said severely. “You must be punished. Go now and heal your nephew, but you must come back in three days’ time for your punishment. If you do not, I will hunt you down and eat you both!”
“Yes, yes, I will be back in three days’ time!” cried the woman, falling over herself as she ran for the garden gate.
Miranda turned to resume her fishing, and nearly tripped over her lady-in-waiting, who, having come to call the princess in for lunch, had heard most of the conversation.
“What will her punishment be, Princess?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet,” said the princess, “but I must be stern. We cannot have people coming in and stealing from us at will.”
“Highness,” suggested Anne, placidly, “When she tells people of what she saw here today, I don’t think too many will dare to come for stealing but come here they still may.”
“Oh. Right,” said the princess, following the lady-in-waiting’s train of thought. “Do you think she’ll come back with the peasantry all up in arms, torches ablaze?”
“That I couldn’t say,” said the lady-in-waiting. “It depends on which prevails: her honor or her common sense. However, it occurs to me that the nephew might be useful, assuming he’s not a child. Perhaps the punishment could entail his staying here until the year is out. Now that you can speak intelligibly, you can surely woo him into loving you. It’s worth a try, anyway.”
The princess, now living without mirrors, occasionally forgot that she was not simply enjoying a forest getaway, and reflected on her situation. She realized that the lady-in-waiting was probably correct, and that this nephew could very well be the key to her regaining her true form. Keeping him here was a very good idea. Except… “Oh, Anne, it will never work with you here! You’re very pretty—not to mention obviously human. Any normal man would fall in love with you and not with me. I wish there were some way, but there simply is not,” explained Miranda sadly. Dejected, she went to her room, and took to her bed for the rest of the day.
The next morning dawned fair and clear, and the sun shined brightly through the princess’ window, nudging her gently awake. A knock sounded at the door. “My lady?” called Anne, the lady-in-waiting, “Breakfast is ready. Are you coming down or shall I bring it to you?”
“I’ll come down for it,” said the princess. “I would like to get dressed now, please.”
The door opened, and then closed gently, but nobody entered the room. “Anne?” called the princess through the door, “Please come in and help me to dress for breakfast.”
“I’m right here, lady,” came Anne’s voice next to the bed, “There’s no need to shout.”
Flabbergasted, Miranda said to what appeared to be empty space, “How are you doing that? Why can’t I see you?”
“Princess, is something wrong with your eyes now too?” Anne’s voice was filled with concern.
“No!” exclaimed Miranda, “I can see everything else, but not you! Look!” she snatched a silver hairbrush off of the bedside table and thrust it at her lady-in-waiting, its backside showing the reflection of absolutely nothing. She heard a shocked gasp. “How can this be?” cried Anne. “Look! Here are my hands! I can see myself, but I’m not reflected here!” She turned the brush toward Miranda, who cringed, seeing the Beast’s reflection in the back of the brush. “Sorry, Lady,” said Anne, “I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s ok,” said Miranda. “How do you suppose that you can see yourself, but I can’t see you, and you’re not reflected?”
“I don’t know, Lady,” said Anne, “but for now, let’s get you dressed.”
It was odd for the princess to be dressed by invisible hands, but not nearly as odd as when she went down to breakfast and once again saw the door open, and a tea tray floating gently into the room by itself! It stopped at her side. A single teacup rose from it and settled in front of her. The teapot soon followed and poured tea into the cup, along with a generous helping of milk and honey, exactly the way the princess took it.
“Excuse me,” the princess said, nervously, “but are you Hilde?”
“Yes of course, Highness!” came the surprised voice of the serving maid. “Who else would I be?”
“Yes, who else indeed?” echoed the princess quietly. Hilde and Anne looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
Anne spoke, “Can you not see Hilde either, Princess?”
It was on the tip of the princess’ tongue to deny the truth, to laugh and pretend that she’d been playing a joke on them both, but not only was she an honest person, she was also now worried. “No, I cannot,” she replied. “Hilde, can you see yourself reflected in the silver teapot?”
The teapot rose up to what ought to have been face-level with the serving maid. There was a moment, and then a gasp. “Lady, I cannot!” came her voice, dismayed.
“But I can see you, and you can see me,” put in Anne, quickly and reassuringly.
“This is more work of that evil imp, I’ll wager!”
“No,” said Anne thoughtfully from the seemingly-empty seat across the table. “I think not. Princess, do you remember what you said yesterday about a normal man falling in love with me, rather than with you in your current form? You made a wish that the plan might work somehow.”
“Do you think that this is a new spell intended to make certain that he has eyes only for me?” mused the princess. “It’s possible. But who could have cast it?” she wondered.
“Perhaps the same one who left the hoop in the library?” suggested Anne.
“Perhaps. There seems to be magic in this place, leftover from when it was inhabited before. It’s a good thing I have two more days to get used to this.”
As the day progressed, the princess found that all the servants had become invisible to her eyes, not just the female ones. Despite being invisible to the Princess, the servants could all see each other perfectly. Although her attendants numbered much smaller than what she had been accustomed to when living with her parents, it was disconcerting to think that even her small retinue could be anywhere without her being able to see them. Luckily, her beastly snout was sensitive enough that she found she was able to smell each as he or she entered a room. The team spent the next two days cleaning the house thoroughly in anticipation of their guest, until not only the princess, but also the housekeeper was quite satisfied. The housekeeper claimed that her white gloves remained white when she touched any of the surfaces. The princess could only take her word for it; as long as the glove was on the hand of the housekeeper, it remained as invisible to the princess as did the woman herself.
On the morning of the third day, the princess and her lady-in-waiting were in the library reading, as was their habit. There was a knock on the door, which opened and closed. “My lady,” came the voice of the housekeeper, “the woman from the garden approaches, and she’s brought someone with her.”
“Oh dear,” said the Princess. “Has she brought the peasantry and their torches?”
“I think not, Lady. She’s accompanied by a young man.”
Miranda and Anne rose and went to the window, where they could see the pathway which led from the gate to the front door. As they watched, the young man opened the gate for the woman who’d been in the garden three days earlier. Both were dressed well, although modestly, he standing at least a head taller than the woman, who held onto his arm as though for balance or comfort. The two women watched from the library window as he closed the gate, and then turned his face up to look at the house. With one voice, they gasped.
“Holy mother!” exclaimed Miranda. The lady-in-waiting echoed with something decidedly impatient and unladylike. Positioned above him as they were, they could see the sun light his features as though Apollo himself gazed down and caressed this man’s beauty. He had a sturdy build: broad, muscular shoulders and chest, tapering down to a slender waist and powerful-looking legs. His hair was thick and dark, with waves that he pushed away from his forehead as he looked up toward the manor house. He was clean-shaven, and his skin was flawless, unmarred by scars or blemishes of any sort. His lips full and seductive, made one wonder how they might feel on one’s … Miranda reached an arm out and drew her servant back a step, and she herself moved behind the thick curtain, making sure she was out of sight as the stranger looked up toward their window. She was unable to take her eyes from him, as he was easily the most handsome man she’d ever seen, far outshining any of the noble suitors who had been paraded in front of her. He put his arm around the woman and with a feline grace led her toward the house, controlled and purposeful.
As the pair outside approached the house, the princess turned. Tip-toe-running, she flashed out of the room and down the stairs, with her lady-in-waiting close behind. The bell rang and the princess stopped short, causing the lady-in-waiting to collide with her.
“Princess!” hissed Anne, grabbing at Miranda’s shoulder, “You cannot answer the door! He’ll faint dead away! Allow me,” she grinned, unseen by her mistress.
“Ladies,” came the gentle voice of the butler, “remember your breeding. Please wait in the parlor while I answer the door. Lady Anne, your hair looks lovely; there’s no need to pat it into place. Nor is there need to lower the neckline of your gown!” he said with a frown in his voice.
He opened the door wide, as was his custom, and was about to enquire as to the names of their visitors so he could announce them, when the woman called in, “Hello?” as she looked nervously at the young man at her side. The butler realized that they could not see him, just as the princess could not, and decided to say nothing to alert them to his presence. The two stepped inside and the young man peeked behind the door. Seeing nobody, the woman began to tremble. The young man patted her hand encouragingly, and called out “Sir? Hello?” his voice, smooth and resonant, filled the entryway. As the sound wrapped itself around Miranda’s ears, she shivered a bit, and felt a tingling in the back of her neck. She entered the room, and the door closed seemingly by itself behind the two visitors, who jumped as it clicked in the frame. Turning back to see Miranda in her beastly form, the woman trembled harder and stepped back, as if to hide behind the young man. Her companion widened his eyes in amazement although amazingly not in fear as he beheld the creature of the house, standing a head taller than himself with its tusks protruding from its furry muzzle. Although its demeanor was not overtly threatening, he could see that it sported vicious claws at the ends of powerful arms. He stood fast and held the older woman close.
“You’ve returned,” said the beast, addressing the woman. “That speaks well of your integrity, even if thievery does not. I trust your nephew has fully recovered from his snakebite?”
“Y—ye—yes,” the woman stammered, trying to stop her knees from knocking together. “This is he,” she said, clutching the young man’s arm. Beholding the young man at close range, Miranda could see that distance had not belied his beauty. He was in fact even more handsome up close, and she could see that he and the woman shared the same eyes, the color of a spring afternoon and framed in black as in portraits of Egyptian royalty.
The young man patted the woman again, and addressed the beast. “My aunt told me of what happened in your garden. As you know, she trespassed upon your property only to fetch some herbs to cure me.”
“That doesn’t matter,” said the beast severely. “She ought to have approached the house and stated her business immediately. For all we knew, she could have been a burglar, a murderer, or worse!”
“What’s worse than a murderer?” asked the man.
“What difference does it make?” snapped Miranda, flustered, “She could have been it!”
“I’m not!” exclaimed the woman.
“She’s not,” said her nephew.
“It doesn’t matter now,” said the beast. “I can’t have it getting out that my lands are here for anyone to take! And besides that, you trampled my favorite flowers on your way out. Look at me: I’m a beast! Those flowers were the only thing that gave my dismal life any pleasure. FOR SHAME!”
“Please, please!” implored the woman. “I’ve returned to take my punishment. What would you have of me?”
“I would have…your nephew,” said the beast.
“What!?” cried the woman.
“I want your nephew to join my household for the rest of the year.”
“I—why?” inquired the woman.
“That is not your concern!” returned the beast, sharply. Turning to the young man, it said, “To atone for your aunt’s rudeness, you must remain my guest for the next ten months, when you may return home safely. Until then, you are to live here.”
He blinked. “Um…ok.”
Surprised, Miranda blinked back. “Ok?”
“I guess so,” he said. There was a beat of silence. Then, the man burst out in laughter. “This is a joke, right? I’m supposed to agree, and then all my friends will come bursting through that door like a surprise party, right? Good one!”
He and his aunt looked at the door expectantly.
The princess also glanced at it. She looked back at them. “Do you think this is funny?”
“No,” he said, “but I thought maybe you did.”
The Beast shook its head. “No! No! This is very serious! Either you can stay in my home by your own free will, or I shall devour your soul!”
The woman gave a cry, and the man turned pale, putting his arm around his aunt as she tried to protest. “Well,” he said, “I’d prefer you not do that! Since you made such a gracious invitation, of course I’m happy to stay here as your prison—er, that is, as your guest!”
“And this is freely your choice?” it demanded.
Wordlessly, he nodded.
“Ok then. It’s settled,” said the princess, not sure what to do next. She gave a little curtsey. “Welcome.” To the woman, she said, “You are to return to your home, and you may not visit him. At the end of the appointed time, he will return to you unharmed. All in all, it is a lenient punishment.”
Aunt and nephew turned to embrace each other, whispering words of encouragement into each other’s ears. The door opened behind them, he kissed her on both cheeks, and slowly she exited, turning for one last look at her beloved nephew before the door closed between them.
Miranda felt a pang of sympathy for the young man who stood so bravely before her, but she knew that he was her only hope in breaking the curse. “What is your name, sir?” she asked.
“My name is Benjamin,” he said. “And that worthy lady you so carelessly terrorized over flora is my Aunt Mathilde. She raised me. Now she’s left completely on her own to face townspeople who may cause her great trouble in my absence.”
“Please come and sit in the parlor,” she said gently. “I’ll see that your rooms are prepared.” Behind her, the butler silently opened a door to reveal a comfortable sitting-room. The beast gestured for the young man to enter, which he did, and the butler again closed the door behind him.
Outside the room, Anne took Miranda to task. “’I shall devour your soul,’ Lady? Seriously? What does that even mean?” she hissed.
“I don’t know,” conceded Miranda. “But it did sound very threatening, didn’t it?” she asked, a bit smugly.
“Indeed! And if your goal is stave off the angry mob and burning torches, then I suggest keeping a tighter rein on your temper!”
Miranda nodded, chastened.
At dinner time, the princess appeared before the young man dressed as she might have done for a guest at the royal palace. His eyes widened. “You’re wearing a dress!” he exclaimed.
The beast looked down at the dress it wore. “Of course,” it replied. “How else would I dress for dinner?”
He looked confused. “Are you telling me—sorry, I thought—um,”
“You thought what?” prompted the beast.
“I didn’t know you were female!” he blurted tactlessly.
“Oh!” said the princess, feeling her cheeks growing warm. At least he can’t tell I’m blushing, she thought. I guess that’s one thing the fur is good for! “Um…well, yes. Yes I am.”
He stood up immediately but before he could reach the beast’s chair, it slid out from under the table, that she might sit down.
“I can see that your aunt taught you good manners,” said the beast. Or beastess, as he now thought of her.
“Yes,” he said. “And I can see that we have servants of some sort. I was wondering how dinner might have been prepared—“ He broke off abruptly, tearing his gaze away from her talons, his face red with embarrassment.
They were saved from further conversation on the topic when the door swung open silently, and a parade of trays floated into the room, each laden with sumptuous-smelling, steaming dishes containing dinner for two. Benjamin watched in awe as each serving dish floated off the tray and onto the table, its lid magically removed and its contents generously apportioned onto his plate, and that of the beastess. At home, he and his aunt lived modestly and within their means. Although they never went hungry, neither had they ever dined so lavishly on an everyday occasion such as this, not to mention the fact that they had no servants, invisible or otherwise.
“I wish my aunt were here to see this. You dine like a lord!” Benjamin said, without thinking. “Wait—no I don’t. I’m here in her stead, and neither of us ought to be here at all!”
Miranda sighed in relief at his hasty retraction, having wondered whether his words “I wish” would bring on further complications. Fortunately, no aunt appeared. She carefully picked up her napkin and spread it across her lap.
“Why are you doing this?” the young man asked. “Am I to be fattened up so that you can eat me?”
“Don’t be disgusting!” replied Miranda, shocked at the very thought.
“You did mention eating my soul,” he reminded her.
“Yes, well,” she said, discomfited, “that’s just one of those things that people say…”
“I’m fairly certain that I’ve never said it. Or even heard it said,” he observed. “So I’m sure you can see how I may have misunderstood. Furthermore, I believe that you specifically told my aunt that if she did not return for her punishment, you would—let’s see, how did you put it? Hunt us both down and eat us?”
“Are you hungry?” asked Miranda, in an attempt to change the subject. “These prawns are excellent!” and she took a bite. After a moment when the beastess did not keel over poisoned, Benjamin popped a prawn into his own mouth, savoring it for a moment before he swallowed.
Seeing that he was not apt to continue down that line of discussion, she decided to venture into safer conversational waters.
“Please tell me of yourself, Benjamin” requested the beastess. “How did you come to live with your aunt?”
“My parents both died when I was very young,” responded the young man. “My mother died of a fever, and my father in an accident a few years later. My father’s sister was the only family I had left, so I went to live with her. I’m afraid it’s my fault she never married and had a family of her own, because who would want to take on someone else’s child?”
“I’m sorry to hear about your parents,” said the beastess. “And yourself? Are you promised to someone, thinking of a family of your own?” Her heart was in her throat as the thought occurred that she ought to have asked before she took him prisoner, and that it was too late to turn back now.
“No,” he said.
When she realized that he would offer no further explanation, she pressed on. “But surely there have been opportunities for you?”
“Yes, there are plenty of young women in our village who will no doubt make fine wives for someone, but I shall never marry,” he said as he buttered a roll.
Miranda felt herself stiffen as the thought occurred to her: what if he doesn’t like women? Again, that would have been good information to have had in the first place.
She tried for nonchalance, “Are you loath to leave your good aunt, who has sacrificed so much for you?”
The young man laughed. “I wouldn’t do that! Were I to marry, my aunt would certainly come to live with me and my bride, just as I would have lived with her and her husband, had it happened that way.”
Bride, noted Miranda with relief. Good!
Oblivious to the beastess’ fears, the young man went on. “Years ago, I fell in love with someone, but she is entirely unsuitable and unavailable to me. Try as I may, I cannot get her out of my head. My aunt calls it an adolescent crush. Perhaps she’s right, but I was never able to even look at other girls after I saw this one, and even now, I don’t seem to see other women. It would be grossly unfair for me to marry, since my wife would always have a competitor, unbeknownst to her. And so I never shall!” he finished.
Miranda felt a bit shaken by his proclamation, since her only hope lay in convincing the man to marry her, but she admired his sense of honor, not only toward his aunt, but also for the women he wouldn’t marry. There too was a small ache of jealousy for this “unsuitable” girl for whom he’d held a torch all these years.
“That’s very romantic,” said the beastess softly. “And I can appreciate your not wanting to marry without love. She must have been a very special girl indeed. Did she marry another?”
“I don’t believe that she has married anyone yet,” said the young man, “but alas, she is not for me.”
Despite her own situation, which was beginning to look more dire with every sentence the young man uttered, Miranda felt sympathy for his plight. “But if you love each other so much, and neither of you is yet married to another, surely your aunt and her parents could see past superficial obstacles and allow the match?”
The young man laughed again, this time sadly. “If only it were that easy!” he said. “But she doesn’t know I exist. And besides, although my aunt would be very happy for me wherever I found love, I don’t believe that the King and the Queen, who are the girl’s parents, would agree to a match with a mere commoner.”
Miranda’s jaw dropped, and she felt an excited poke at her side. Drat that Anne! She was to have left the room! Miranda closed her maw, turned toward the direction the poke had come from, and gave a snort of exhalation.
“Gesundheit,” said the young man.
“Please excuse me for a moment,” said the beastess, rising from her seat. As she approached the door, it opened on its own, as the young man by now expected it to do, and closed silently behind her.
Miranda went down the hall so as to be out of earshot of the dining room. “Anne?” she whispered angrily. “Anne!”
“Yes, lady!” came the excited whisper. “Did you hear that? He’s already in love with you, and has been for years! This is going to be easy!”
“First of all, YOU were to dine with the others tonight! The last thing I need is an audience! Second, he may think he’s in love with the Princess, but he is certainly not in love with his beastly jailer! This is going to be harder than I thought. I don’t know why this seemed like a good idea at all!” she fretted.
“It’s perfect, Highness!” returned Anne. “He’s only in love with an image. You’ll simply use your personality to come in past his defenses. By the time he realizes what love really is, you’ll be back to your true form. It will be a bonus for him!”
“Maybe…maybe,” said Miranda, rubbing a forearm over her face worriedly. “I’d better get back to the dining room though. But you—STAY OUT!” she whispered, poking at the air where she thought Anne might be.
“Yes, Highness!” giggled Anne, stepping blithely out of reach.
Miranda returned to the dining room and took her seat across from the young man, looking at him closely. He did not look at all familiar to her. But then, as a commoner, he would never have been formally introduced to her. Pity, thought Miranda, admiring him again. He’s not only handsomer by far than those suitors of noble rank, he also seems to have higher ethical standards than they do. Especially that last one! Yes, I certainly would have remembered having met this commoner Benjamin.
They finished their meal without further conversation, each contemplating the situation, albeit from vastly different perspectives. When the dishes were magically cleared away, the beastess suggested that they retire to the parlor for the evening, and Benjamin followed. He was about to sit across from her next to the fire when he noticed the virginal in the corner. He approached it and caressed its smooth wood.
“This is lovely,” he said. “Do you play?”
The beastess shook her head and indicated her talons, which were much too large for the instrument, and too sharp to touch the keys without causing damage. “And you?” she asked.
“I have an ocarina and a gemshorn, which my aunt enjoys hearing in the evenings, but I’ve never seen a virginal before,” he said. “I understand that the mayor possesses one, but my aunt and I are not social intimates of that man. May I try it?”
Benjamin sat at the instrument, stroking its keys gently for a moment before applying pressure and producing a sigh of delight from the virginal. He moved his fingers along the keys and picked out a simple tune.
“You’ve never even seen one before? You’re managing impressively,” remarked the beastess.
“Thank you,” replied Benjamin. He added his other hand and began to move his fingers across the keyboard. Soon he was playing a popular, sprightly tune.
“Amazing!” said the beastess. “You obviously have a natural musical talent. I have none.”
“Have you tried?” asked Benjamin.
“I used to play the harp…” began Miranda, but then she noticed Benjamin casting a skeptical look at her claws. “…but I kept snapping the strings,” she finished. “Please continue.”
They passed the evening in this way, with Benjamin picking out this tune and that, and the beastess making an occasional appreciative comment.
Eventually, the beastess rose from her seat. “It’s getting late,” she said. “I’m going to retire. Tomorrow you may have the day to yourself. I will not force my company on you. I request your presence only in the evenings. Please make yourself at home, but do not leave the grounds.”
“Thanks, I guess,” said the young man.
“I’ll leave you now. If you need anything in the night, the servants will accommodate you.” She rose to leave. At the door, she paused and turned back to him. “Benjamin, will you marry me?”
He gasped in surprise. “God, no!” Shocked at her question, and at the vehemence of his response, he was unable to say any more.
Unruffled, the beastess nodded, and turned to go, closing the door gently behind her.
The next morning, Miranda awoke to Anne’s excited knock at her door.
“Yes?” she called sleepily, “Is it already breakfast time, Anne?”
The door opened and closed silently, and Miranda could hear Anne’s quick footsteps as she hurried to the bed. “Lady!” she said breathlessly. “You must get up and get dressed!”
Miranda propped herself up on a hairy elbow and yawned. “What’s going on?”
“You have a guest, remember?” Miranda could easily hear the glee in Anne’s voice, and imagined a wide smile on her friend’s face. She sighed and lay back down on the pillow, throwing her arm over her eyes.
“Anne, I told him I wouldn’t inflict my company on him overmuch. I’ll see him this evening at dinner.”
“What sort of tactic is that, Lady? How can you charm the pants off of him if you spend only a small amount of time with him? And may I tell you this: I’ve just come from the baths and it will definitely be worth your while to charm this man’s pants off of him!”
“What?!” cried the princess, sitting up abruptly. “Anne, were you spying on our guest? Shame on you!”
“It was a simple reconnaissance mission, Lady. I peeked in on him only so that I might report back to you, and for no other reason! Not one selfish, prurient, voyeuristic reason whatsoever!” Anne feigned hurt feelings, but the smile remained in her voice, which she now lowered slightly. “And when I peeked, I really peaked! The man is hung like a stallion!” she reported, fanning her face and neck.
“Really? A stallion, you say?” Miranda asked in awe before she caught herself. “Anne, no more spying! It’s not only unethical and rude, it’s also just a bit creepy. How would you like it if he spied upon you in the bath? Oh—never mind, just stop it!” she said, flopping back down on her pillows.
“But my Princess, there are so few perks to being invisible, I ought to be allowed to take advantage of the few that there are! Besides, Stevens already took me to task over it, and ousted me discreetly from the room.”
At this, Miranda gave a quick, sharp, mirthful laugh.
“Yes, I quite forgot that Stevens could still see me, even if you and our guest cannot!” Anne giggled.
“I shall rise and dress shortly,” said Miranda. “Would you please bring a tray up? I’d like breakfast in here, please.”
“Certainly, Princess,” Anne curtseyed and left the room still giggling.
“A stallion!” said Miranda in wonderment.
True to her word, the princess left the young man to his own devices all the next day, intending to only keep company with him in the evenings. However, as she and the invisible lady-in-waiting stood on the footbridge gazing over the pond, he approached her, carrying a fishing pole.
“Good afternoon,” he greeted her. “I found this fishing gear in one of the sheds. I hope you don’t mind if I make use of it.”
“Not at all,” she said. “You may make use of anything you find here to make yourself comfortable and happy.”
“Thank you,” he replied. “About last night…” he began, “I hope that you weren’t offended by my response to your marriage proposal.”
“It wasn’t exactly flattering,” said the beastess, “but no, I was not offended.”
“Good,” said the young man, relieved. “It’s just that I don’t even know you. Plus, you don’t appear to be human.”
Hm, reflected the princess, that statement felt much more kindly when I was the one saying it. Still though… “You raise two very valid arguments against such a union,” she said to the young man. Turning back toward the pond, she clasped her great claws together and leaned her hairy elbows on the rail, so as to appear as unthreatening as possible. “However, as you’ll be my guest for the next ten months, I would expect that we’ll get to know one another quite well.”
The young man stepped slightly away from the beastess, nervously. “I’m sure it will be lovely to know you,” he began, politely and automatically. Then, catching himself, he said, “No, in fact, I’m not sure of that at all! You terrorized my aunt, when her only crime was to enter the gates of a manor which has been abandoned for as long as anyone can remember, and now you’ve taken me from her, when I am the only family she has left, and she mine! What gives you the right to take me prisoner? Oh, I know, I know these lands belong to you, but on an ethical, humanitarian level, what gives you that right? I ask you!”
The princess lowered her furry head and spoke quietly. “There is more going on here than you realize. None of these events would have occurred under normal circumstances.” She felt Anne grip her arm in warning, and heard a whisper in her ear, “Be careful, lady. Do not give yourself away!” Realizing how close she’d come to revealing the curse, she sadly turned and walked back toward the manor.
“Princess,” said Anne, once they were far from the young man’s hearing, “you must guard your words carefully. If you tell him about the curse, you will never be free, and will have to live here as a beast for the rest of your days!”
“Or worse,” Miranda agreed, “I would have to marry that imp! But let me ask you this, Anne: you were there when he laid the curse, and I said the very words to him that this young man said to me just now, about not being human. I didn’t mean it unkindly, but do you think it sounded that way?”
“I can see both sides, Lady,” Anne responded. “To this young man, you do not in fact appear to be human, just like the imp did not appear to you to be human. He can’t possibly know that you are human. I don’t believe he said it to be hurtful, just as you didn’t say it to be hurtful.”
An idea came to Miranda. “But Anne,” she said, “could it be possible that the imp is just as human as I am, and only under a curse?”
“No, Princess,” said Anne, positively. “The imp performed a magical curse, proving that he is not human.”
“Oh good,” said the princess, relieved. “For what that’s worth.” Then, since she had a generous nature, she asked, “But what if the imp wanted to be human? If so, my words could have sounded more harsh than I’d intended them.”
“But even if he wants to be human, he cannot be and never will be. You have no control over that, my lady, and you do yourself a disservice by dwelling on it,” said the lady-in-waiting, wisely. “All you can do at this time is get that man to fall in love with you.”
“It’s not going to be easy to charm a man as hostile as Benjamin is,” observed Miranda. “Not that I blame him for his hostility.”
“Just be yourself tonight,” advised Anne.
Miranda was already seated at the table when Benjamin came in to dinner. “Thank you for joining me, Benjamin,” she said as he sat across from her.
“I hardly had a choice, did I?”
“There is always a choice. I merely requested your presence at dinner. I told you that I would not force my company on you, and I shall not.”
“So I could choose to stay in my rooms for dinner?”
“And I’d still be allowed dinner? And no nasty repercussions for myself or for my aunt?”
“I would have no recourse. And of course you would still be fed; you are my guest.”
“Just checking,” he said, as the parade of steaming trays began floating into the room, their smells beguiling his nose. “All right, I think I can eat here with you tonight.”
They put their napkins in their laps and picked up their forks. Miranda tried to think of something to say. “I understand that these are the fish you caught this afternoon. You’re very gracious to provide tonight’s dinner, Benjamin,” the beastess thanked him.
He shrugged. “I enjoy fishing. And the solitude took my mind off my troubles.”
I get it, I get it! thought Miranda. I’m your trouble! Can you not bend, just a little, please?
After a bit of silence, Benjamin looked up at her suddenly. “Do you have a name?” he asked. “What should I call you?”
Miranda realized that she had not even considered introducing herself, as that had never before in her life been necessary. She had not thought of what he might call her. She could hardly tell him her name! “What would you like to call me?” she asked.
“I think of you as Beastess,” he admitted.
“Unless you prefer Lady Beastess,” he put in. You’re obviously a person—er… a being of rank. Do beasts have rank? You seem like gentry.”
“Oh—er,” started Miranda, discomfited by his assessment. “Just Beastess will do. We need not stand on ceremony.”
After a few more moments of silence, the Beastess said, “I should like very much to know more about you. How do you and your aunt make your living?”
“My aunt is an herbalist. That’s how she knew what to gather to cure my snakebite fever. Although how she knew that particular herb was here is beyond me. Her own garden holds an infinite variety of flora which she uses for healing the villagers’ maladies.”
“And yourself? Are you her apprentice?”
“No, I am a smith by trade.”
That explains the shoulders, thought Miranda, admiring what she could see as he sat across from her. …and the arms. And the chest…
Benjamin continued, “I was apprenticed as a boy to a good man with whom my aunt was quite close. I believed for a short time that my master and my aunt might eventually marry, but I soon realized that he spent more time with the tanner than with any woman in town, so,” he shrugged, “that wish never came to pass.”
“Are you saying that the smith had been forging his iron on the tanner’s leather?” asked the Beastess.
Benjamin laughed loudly at this, the sound merry and joyful rather than harsh or judgmental, to Miranda’s great relief. “Yes, that’s exactly it! Very astute, and well-put, Beastess. Kudos!” he chuckled.
To her surprise, Miranda found that she did not mind the soubriquet in the slightest. “And nobody in the town sought to persecute these gentlemen for their relationship?” queried Miranda.
“It was an open secret, as I came to realize later. They bothered nobody and nobody bothered them.”
“I’m glad to hear that the people in your town accept those whose loves differ from their own,” observed Miranda.
“Yes, well, they’re only human after all,” he commented.
Drat! thought Miranda. It always comes back to that!
“Alas, my master died some few years back, and I have no apprentice yet myself. So not only is my aunt on her own, but the town is without a smith in my absence.”
“Perhaps something could be arranged,” mused the Beastess.
“Such as what?” asked Benjamin.
“I’ll think on it,” said Miranda, having already decided to have Anne write to the queen for a blacksmith for Benjamin’s town.
They spent their second evening together much more companionably than it began and before they knew it, the evening was over. The Beastess rose and curtseyed to him, bidding him good night. As before, when she got to the door, she turned back and said, “Benjamin, will you marry me?”
“No!” he said with an incredulous laugh. Once more, the Beastess nodded and left for her rooms.
The next afternoon was rainy, and Miranda was reading in the library when Benjamin entered.
“Hello” she said, looking up from her book. “I can go in another room if you’d like to read in here.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “It’s your house after all.” He wandered over to a bookshelf, browsing.
He turned to the Beastess and said, “I saw a stable on the far end of the property but did not get to it yesterday. Do you keep animals?”
“I have only one horse, my stallion,” she replied. Stallion! The word echoed in her ears as she looked down at him then quickly away.
“How is it—forgive the question, but how can such as you ride even a large stallion?”
Miranda flushed a little at the phrasing of the question, again thankful for the fur. If only you knew she thought. Aloud she said, “I have not been riding the horse. He brought my belongings here.”
“From far away,” she said shortly. “Benjamin, I promised you that I would not force my company upon you except at dinnertime, yet you seek me out daily. I enjoy your company, but I wonder why you seem to want mine?”
“Fair question,” he nodded. “To tell the truth, I want to know you. I want to know what sort of creature would terrorize an elderly lady over a plant which grows wild in your garden, and would then keep a stranger as prisoner for months on end. And then you treat this prisoner as an honored guest, allowing me freedom of the house and of the grounds. You say your motives aren’t malevolent, that you won’t eat me, and you say that there are circumstances which dictate your odd behavior, yet you refuse to explain. So I must get to know you to find out what sort of being you are, that you behave on the one hand so reprehensibly, yet on the other, so kindly.”
“I’m glad you feel you’re being treated kindly,” said the Beastess.
“Except for the part where I can’t leave and must have no contact with my family,” he put in.
“Except for that, of course,” she agreed wryly.
“This manor house has been empty forever,” said the young man. “Where did you come from, and why did you come to stay here?”
Miranda was silent a few moments, trying to decide how to answer honestly without giving away her secret.
“I came here so that I might not disturb people’s sensitivities,” she finally said.
“But from where? And which people?” he persisted.
“I cannot answer those questions,” she said sadly.
“Cannot? Or will not?”
“But why not?”
“Benjamin, please. I know you have no reason to trust me, but please believe me when I tell you that my story is a dangerous one, and I shall not tell it to you.”
Benjamin eyed her curiously, then shrugged. “That shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose. Yet you tell me I need not be afraid of you.”
“That’s right. Please just trust me.”
Benjamin shrugged again. “What are you reading?” he asked. The Beastess showed him the cover of the book on her lap. Songs of Sylvania. “A music book?”
“Just poetry,” she replied.
“Oh. How dull,” he said dismissively, returning his attention to the shelves.
“The authors of all the books on those shelves evidently lived in this forest long ago,” the Beastess offered, trying to make conversation. Benjamin grunted non-commitally in response.
“What’s this?” he asked, pulling out a slim volume. A Compendium of Herbal Healing by Matilda Nightroot. “This author has a name similar to my aunt’s, Mathilde Root, and she writes of my aunt’s specialty!” His eyes were alight as he flipped through it. “Fail-proof Love Potion,” he read. “Damiana…hawthorn…rose… suma…dong quai,” he smirked a bit, then looked up. “My aunt‘s recipe includes cardamom,” he commented.
The Beastess, who had approached for a better view, noted, “There’s something penciled in at the bottom.”
He turned the book sideways and squinted at the faded handwriting. “Cardamom!” he said triumphantly. “I should like to show my aunt this book sometime.”
“Somehow I think she wouldn’t find in it anything she doesn’t already know.”
“Perhaps not, but I think she’d enjoy seeing it just the same.”
“Does your aunt’s recipe work?” Miranda tried for a casual note.
Benjamin grinned, “It’s worked on some.”
“Did anyone ever ask her to make it for you?”
“One or two may have,” he allowed, “but either she didn’t do it or it didn’t work.”
“At the end of our time together, feel free to take it to her,” promised the Beastess, wondering whether she ought to take note of the recipe herself.
In the coming weeks, as he had declared, Benjamin sought out the Beastess several times a day, not only at dinners. Benjamin and Miranda formed an easy although cautious acquaintanceship. Benjamin discovered that the Beastess was well-educated in the human fashion, and was familiar with several human languages. Not only that, but she was remarkably well-versed in the local geography, and asked intelligent and thought-provoking questions about life his small hamlet. He was also impressed by the depths of her generosity. With each social problem he mentioned, she endeavored to suggest or hint at a viable solution.
For her part, Miranda was pleasantly surprised by how well-read her rural blacksmith was, for all his lack of a formal education. Moreover, he had a truly caring spirit, not only toward his aunt but for the well-being of all the members of his community.
Benjamin and the Beastess often walked together in the forest. The Beastess was surprised by how much he seemed to know about the birds and the trees, but how little he seemed to know about the various flora. “Since your aunt is an herbalist, why is it that you don’t know the plants that grow here?”
He was surprised at her surprise. “My aunt is very good at what she does, and I’m very good at what I do. My aunt knows nothing about smithing, after all. Do you know a great deal about your family’s business?” he asked.
“Of course,” said the Beastess. “It’s what I was born to, knowing that one day I would take over.”
“I see,” he said. “And what business is that?”
Miranda did not need to be poked by an invisible Anne to realize the danger in this question. “My family…we…have a flock to tend,” she said carefully.
At this, Benjamin burst out laughing. “A flock! Can it be possible that a family of beasts are shepherds?” Practically doubled over in mirth, he did not notice at first the Beastess’ stony silence. Eventually his laughter died and he saw the wounded expression in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he began, ashamed. Then an idea came to him, “Oh! Did you mean that your family are some sort of clergy?”
The Beastess shook her head and began to walk on. He trotted to catch up. “Wait, please! I truly didn’t mean any offense. That was very thoughtless of me, and I sincerely apologize. So you’re neither literal shepherds nor clergy. Is this another of those things that you cannot and will not answer?”
“Yes. And even if you guess, I don’t know whether I can confirm or deny without causing further damage to the situation in which I find myself, and so I’ll do neither.”
“I’m so sorry,” he repeated. “This is the second time you’ve alluded to some sort of trouble, and it must be a bad one if you can’t tell me. Is there something I can do to help?”
The Beastess stopped and looked him in the face. “Yes. In fact, you are probably my only hope.”
“What is it? Tell me what I can do! I’ll do it, and the trouble will be over. And then I can go home, can’t I?”
The Beastess began walking again. “I cannot tell you the role I need you to play.”
“Seriously? This is ridiculous! You can’t tell me anything about yourself; you can’t tell me what this mysterious Trouble you’re in is about; you say I’m the only hope, but you can’t tell me what I can do to help! And I thought human women were a puzzle!”
The Beastess stopped walking again and looked at him with an odd expression. She opened her mouth to speak, but abruptly closed it again, turned away, and resumed her pace. Miranda’s heart ached at his phrasing of “human women” but she knew that if she made any comment, the rest of the story would come flooding out, and all would be lost. She wanted to cry from the bottom of her soul, but for once was glad to be physically unable to do so.
As they walked in silence, she noticed that the forest was growing darker. When she remarked upon it, the young man replied, “Yes, it certainly feels like rain. If we could see the sky from here, we could know for sure.”
“Let us turn back. Maybe we can get back to the manor before the weather changes,” suggested the Beastess.
They turned around to go back the way that they had come, and soon began to hear the sound of rain on the canopy above them. After a bit of walking, the young man realized that he didn’t recognize anything. “Do you know where we are?” he asked nervously.
Miranda, realizing that she’d been following his lead blindly, said, dismayed, “No, I thought you did!”
“No,” he said, “it looks as though we’re lost. Which way do you think the manor is?”
Miranda thought for a moment, then pointed to the right. “Maybe that way?”
He gave a slight laugh. “That’s as good a way as any!” and started off. After they’d walked a bit further, they began to feel the rain seeping its way through the leaves above and dripping on their heads.
Soon Miranda’s sharp Beastess eyes spied a small cave, lightly covered with moss. “Look!” she said, pointing. “Shelter!”
“Where?” he asked. She put her furry face down by his and extended a talon in the direction of the cave. As she did, the opening exposed itself to him. The moisture from the trees seeped down around the opening, and he could see that it would be warm and pleasant inside. He grabbed her arm and pulled her to vedriti just as the rain began to fall into the forest in earnest.
The cave was cozy, dry, and big enough for the two of them to sit comfortably, leaning their backs against either wall and stretching out their legs in front of them.
Her large claw hit a roundish object, which rolled across the cave toward the young man. He picked it up and examined it.
“What is it?” asked the Beastess.
“A gourd,” he answered, turning it over. “It’s all dried out,” he said, shaking it. “It seems to be hollow in the center.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small knife, deftly carving a few small holes in the piece. Miranda watched curiously as he pocketed his knife, shook the gourd free of debris, then brought it to his mouth. Blowing gently on one of the holes, he moved his fingers skillfully across the others, producing a high, sweet wail. Their eyes met, smiling, as he coaxed a tune out of the forest’s waste. He played a soothing melody which seemed to complement the sound of the rain outside. Miranda leaned her head against the cave wall, watching him and feeling wholly contented as the music washed over her. A mouse made its way into the cave, apparently drawn by the music. It stood up on its hind legs, looking at the young man, and seemed to sway a bit to his tune. Within minutes, it was joined by a few others, all seemingly fascinated by the young man’s song. Too soon, he brought it to an end, and brought the gourd down to his lap. When the music stopped, the mice shook themselves, looked around bewildered, then scampered off again.
“That was remarkable!” exclaimed Miranda. “First, that you could even make a playable instrument out of something you found on the ground; second, that you could play the thing; but most of all the effect you had on the mice! You’re like the pied piper or something!”
He smiled, appreciating the compliment. “Yes, well, it’s often said that music tames the savage—Oh!” he stopped himself, mortified.
“It’s all right,” she said quietly, the feeling of contentment having vanished just as the music had done. “I know how I must seem to you.”
His face reddening, he tried to be conciliatory, “No, no!” he briefly put his face down into his hands, “I really didn’t mean to say that at all. And I’m dreadfully embarrassed by what I said earlier about your family. The truth is, I don’t think of you as a Beast at all. I mean, not in that way. Not in the, you know, the Grrr!” he made claw gestures with his hands, “savage way. I mean, your appearance is a bit rough,” he plundered on, reddening further, “but the truth is, I really like you. Despite everything, I think you’re…very nice,” he finished weakly.
Miranda smiled at this rare glimpse of awkwardness and insecurity in her guest. “I think you’re very nice too, Benjamin,” she said, then nudged his toe with her hoof. “Despite everything.”
Benjamin smiled and chuckled, as she had hoped that he would.
“Is there anything you can tell me about this Trouble you’re in? Did you hurt someone?”
“I haven’t harmed anyone, if that’s what you mean. I did inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings though. It was that which ultimately led to my coming here.”
“A-ha,” said Benjamin. “A banishment then. You must have offended someone with great power.”
Once more, Miranda knew that she must tread carefully lest she spill the entire story.
As she was deciding what to say, Benjamin started, “My aunt is also in a situation of offending someone in power, but not because of anything she’s done. The mayor and the assistant mayor have been pressuring her for years to sell them her cottage and lands. I’m afraid that one day they may try to take it by nefarious means.”
“Why would they do that?”
“The assistant mayor is a vintner whose lands border my aunt’s. As I’ve mentioned before, she has vast and thriving gardens, so I believe he covets that area for his grapes. As for the cottage, the mayor has a mistress who has long admired my aunt’s cozy house—not to mention the fact that it lies on the opposite end of town to the mayor’s house, far from the eyes of his long-suffering wife. The mayor and the assistant mayor are both scoundrels of the highest degree. I would put nothing past those two and their plotting.”
“What a pity that the heirs to these positions are so crooked,” said Miranda.
“Heirs? No indeed! They’re elected! But they keep bribing the right people and tampering with the election results to maintain their power.”
“Outrageous!” cried the Beastess, shocked. “They must be stopped!”
Benjamin, startled by her sudden outburst, said carelessly, “Yes, well, that’s how people are sometimes, Beastess. There’s not much to be done to oust them.”
We’ll see about that! thought Miranda.
Benjamin continued, “I’ve done what I can to keep tabs on them until now though. As blacksmith, I make their horseshoes, and I’ve personalized all the shoes for those two rascals’ horses. That way, if they lurk around my aunt’s cottage, I’ll know.”
“Benjamin, that’s brilliant!” Miranda laughed, admiringly, suddenly longing for him to admire her too.
He smiled and held out a hand. “Come on,” he said, standing. “The rain is letting up. Let’s head home.”
The year was drawing close, and despite their general camaraderie, Miranda was no closer to achieving her goal. Each night she continued to propose marriage, and each night he refused her gently but definitely.
One day as they kept company, she noticed that he seemed antsy. “Benjamin, you haven’t been able to sit still all afternoon. Is something on your mind?” she asked.
“I’m very worried about my aunt. I’m not sure why, but I have a bad feeling that she may be in trouble,” he said.
“How could you possibly know that? What makes you think so?”
“I don’t know,” he repeated. “It’s just a feeling. But my feelings are usually accurate.”
Miranda had put the viewing circle out of her mind as much as she could after that last episode with the King and the Queen, but she thought of it now. “Come with me to the library,” she said. “Perhaps your mind can be put to rest.”
Once in the library, she pulled the hoop out of its crate and handed it to the young man.
“I’m not much in the mood for embroidery,” he commented, confused.
“Hold it with both hands,” she instructed, “and say out loud what you wish to see.”
“Very well then,” said Benjamin skeptically, “I wish to ensure that my aunt is in no danger.” As before, the hoop shimmered and hummed, and an image of Benjamin’s Aunt Mathilde appeared in its circle. She was wearing old-fashioned clothing and sat writing at a table.
“Is that your home, Benjamin?” asked the Beastess.
“No,” he said, looking more closely. “That is the kitchen in this very manor! It looks different somehow though…newer, perhaps.” They looked at each other, thunderstruck, then looked back to see the image fade and then show an outdoor scene. Benjamin’s aunt was once again featured, only this time in contemporary clothing, kneeling in her garden, humming softly to herself and pulling weeds. She paused at the rhubarb and flicked a caterpillar off its leaves, then continued at her task.
“She looks well and happy,” commented Miranda.
“Yes,” said Benjamin, not fully convinced. Suddenly the image changed and showed an interior scene of several men seated in a parlor, a fire in the fireplace, and a virginal in the corner. “It’s the mayor and his cronies!” exclaimed Benjamin. “What’s going on here?” Then they heard the conversation between the men in the hoop.
“I tell you, Craven, I need that land to expand my vineyard!” the assistant mayor was saying.
“Yes, I know, Uncherole, and I want the cottage. We’ll need to get that old crone out of the way first though,” replied the mayor.
“We could accuse her of witchcraft. That would be easy enough,” suggested one of the other men. “The sticky part would be in proving it.”
“How about this,” the mayor mused, “my cat had kittens this morning and two were dead. We could sew one of the heads onto the other one’s body and say that she made my cat birth a two-headed kitten.” This idea was met with a chorus of approval.
“That’s a good start,” chimed in a fourth man, “but there’s nothing dangerous about a dead two-headed kitten.”
“You’re right,” said the assistant mayor. “We need more. I’ve got it! I happen to know that hemlock grows in the back of the old witch’s garden, where it butts against my property. It’s the only place in town where hemlock grows. What if some of that hemlock were to make its way to the main street well?”
“By God, Uncherole, that is diabolical. It’s underhanded—despicable! Good thinking!” cried the mayor, slapping his cohort on the back approvingly. “You take care of the hemlock, I’ll have Mistress Penny do the sewing, and the rest of you—get out there and begin the rumor-mongering!”
The image dissolved and when Miranda looked at Benjamin, she saw that his face was ashen.
“This is unconscionable!” he cried. “I must go and put a stop to this dastardly plot! Beastess, please—I know I was to stay here until the end of the year, but it’s only a few days early, and I can’t stand by and let my aunt be destroyed by these cowards!”
Miranda was shaken. When she saw the image of the scheming men, she knew that Benjamin would need to go and intervene; indeed, she too wanted to go and intervene! But she also knew that the time was short, and if he chose not to return, she was lost forever. She stared at him, speechless and wide-eyed.
When she didn’t respond, he tried again. “Please, Beastess, I beg you not to be indifferent to my good aunt’s plight. If she’s harmed, you will bear some great responsibility as well as these men!”
The Beastess shook her head as if clearing cobwebs. “Of course you must go to her, Benjamin. I wouldn’t dream of trying to stop you in this circumstance. You must take the horse so that you can get there quickly and stop these machinations against your aunt!”
“Thank you, Beastess!” he cried, throwing his arms around her in a quick hug. To her further surprise, he leaned up and kissed her on her furry cheek too. “I will return just as soon as I’m able.” Off he ran to the stable, before Miranda had a chance to respond or even fully realize what he’d just done. She sat staring at the closed door for some time, trying to decipher the meaning of the first image, wherein Benjamin’s aunt sat in the manor house kitchen.
Back in the village, all seemed as it had been when he left, greatly relieving the young man’s fears. “Aunt Mathilde! Aunt Mathilde!” he called, throwing open the door to their cottage, surprising her at the cookstove.
“Benjamin!” she cried, flinging herself at her beloved nephew in a giant hug, “I thought you had to stay with the Beast until the end of the year? Did you slay him?”
“Her, Aunt Mathilde. Beastess. It’s a girl.”
“What?!” cried the aunt. “Who knew?”
“It was—I mean ‘she was’ wearing a dress.”
“Forgive me if my attention was more attuned to its claws and fangs rather than its couture!” said the aunt.
Benjamin chuckled at his aunt’s indignation. “I can understand that. I didn’t notice the clothing myself at first. It was a little awkward.”
“So is it—she—whatever—dead?”
“No! No, indeed not. I came home to protect you, Aunt Mathilde. The Mayor and his cronies are conspiring to take your land!”
“Oh, nonsense,” said his aunt, dismissively, returning to the stove and stirring the pot which simmered on its top. “They never tire of trying to do that! Well, except for those times when they need me to cure their—ahem—‘love aches,’” she said archly. She muttered into her pot, “Last week was the third time this year! Not a clean man, that mayor, nor the red-haired doxy he puts it to either. That pair!” She shook her head.
“Aunt Mathilde, listen to me. This time there is a true plot underfoot to burn you for a witch!”
“A witch!” laughed his aunt. “What will they think of next?”
“I propose we don’t try to find out,” said Benjamin.
“And how did you come by this knowledge?”
“The Beastess has a magic…thing…which showed me the goings-on in the town. I wanted to see how you were doing, and it first showed me you tending the garden, then it showed me Mayor Craven, Assistant Mayor Uncherole, and several of the elders discussing your land!”
“You saw me tending the garden this morning?”
“Yes,” he replied, “you were pulling weeds from around the rhubarb, and flicked a caterpillar off one of the plants.”
“That’s right, I did that!” exclaimed the aunt. “You say you saw this through the magic hoop?”
“I didn’t say it was a hoop, but it was.”
“I thought you did. Do you suppose that someone is looking through a magic hoop at us right now?”
The pair looked around themselves, slightly paranoid by the thought. “Creepy!” pronounced the aunt.
“Be that as it may, the Mayor is gathering a mob to come for you!” At once, they heard a pounding on the door.
“Open up!” came the Mayor’s voice through the door. “We know you’re inside, Mathilde, plotting to curse us all, just like you cursed my poor Belle and made her give birth to a two-headed kitten!” He held up the patched-together carcass, eliciting the hoped-for response from the crowd.
Mathilde put her hand on Benjamin’s arm, wide-eyed with distress. He squeezed her gently and walked calmly to the door, opening it to face the mob outside. “Mayor Craven!” he greeted the leader. “Elder Pike, Elder Steel, Mrs. Krupsky, what a surprise to see you all here!”
The crowd looked equally surprised to see Benjamin, as everyone knew of his absence, and all had heard from the Mayor about how he had abandoned his aunt after witnessing her witchcraft.
“Stand aside, Benjamin,” proclaimed the Mayor, loudly. “We have no quarrel with you; move out of the way, and let us take your aunt for the justice she deserves!” He moved to enter the cottage, but Benjamin stood more firmly, nearly filling the doorway.
“And what justice would that be, Mr. Mayor?” he asked.
The mayor turned is body slightly so that he faced the crowd a bit, and raised his voice. “Your aunt has been practicing witchcraft, as we all know!”
Benjamin raised his eyebrows, “Witchcraft? Are you sure?”
“Quite sure!” boomed the mayor.
“She has recently cured both you and Mistress Penny of the pox. Is that the witchcraft to which you refer?”
The mayor turned apoplectic. “Nobody has cured me of anything–” he began, crimson-faced.
“No? Then perhaps you need a larger dose. Aunt! The mayor complains that he’s still symptomatic. Bring on the pox cure, please! And what of you, Mistress Penny?” he called to a buxom woman toward the back of the crowd. “Still symptomatic with pox?” A few of the others in the crowd chuckled at this, and Benjamin could tell by the looks of consternation which of the men had recently been entertained by the Mayor’s light-o-love. One of them self-consciously adjusted his codpiece.
The woman in question turned a deep shade of red, nearly matching the Mayor’s, and pushed her way through the crowd, red curls seemingly tightening with her outrage.
“Benjamin Black!” she shrieked. “How dare you?!”
“How dare I what? Defend my home from your clutches?”
The assistant mayor pulled the woman back away from the door, whispering angrily in her ear as the mayor tried to regain control of the situation. “Not only has your aunt cursed my poor mouser, she also attempts to poison the town with her hemlock!”
“Outrageous!” cried Aunt Mathilde. “That hemlock is virtually inaccessible! To even reach where it grows, I’d have to trample the bitterroot and the primrose that lie before it! I’d even have to step on the fagara, and Mayor, you’d be most uncomfortable if that plant were damaged!”
The assistant mayor shouted, “Perhaps the witch flew to her hemlock!” causing a cry to rise from the crowd.
Benjamin raised his voice, “Nobody here can fly. Let’s go to the garden and see whether it’s been trampled.”
The crowd in front of the door rumbled its assent as Benjamin led the way, picking delicately through the vegetation.
“Do be careful!” fretted Aunt Mathilde. “Please stay on the path! I know it’s narrow, but—oh!” she cried as one of the townspeople trod on a strawberry plant.
“Look!” pointed a woman, “It’s already quite trampled back here!”
“There was no flying here,” another voice agreed.
“But this isn’t the mess of a human,” said a third.
“Hoof prints!” shouted a young boy. “And look—there’s letters in ‘em!” He squatted for a closer look. The mayor and assistant mayor looked at each other, wild-eyed.
“A-S-S-“ the boy read each letter solemnly. “M-U-N-C-H. Assmunch!” he finished proudly. “What’s an Assmunch?”
“Assistant Mayor Uncherole!” came another voice, shocked. The assistant mayor, who had been edging to the back of the crowd, now stood surrounded by the outraged faces he had led to the house of the herbalist, only their outrage was now directed at him! Several of the men nabbed him and dragged him out of the garden to the chorus of Aunt Mathilde’s pleas for them to be careful with her plants. At this, they hoisted the man up over their heads firmly and carried him from the garden.
The mayor, trying to save face, began to remonstrate. “Uncherole! How could you perpetrate such a wicked scheme against this good lady?”
The assistant mayor began to blubber to the crowd. “It was him! It was the mayor the whole time! He did it! He sewed the cat’s head on the other cat! He wanted the house for Mistress Penny! He wanted the gold that Mistress Root’s said to keep in the chimney! It was him, not me!”
At this, several of the other townspeople nabbed the mayor as well. Carrying both men, they took them to the town square and locked them in the stocks.
Many of the townspeople sheepishly apologized to Aunt Mathilde, and several offered to help restore the garden where the crowd and the assistant mayor’s horse had damaged her work. She accepted apologizes and offers with grace and poise, and in no time at all, her plants and her livelihood were neatly back in order.
The day’s excitement having waned, Benjamin and Aunt Mathilde settled in for a light supper, and to share the events of their lives during the time they had spent apart. Benjamin was astounded to find that a new blacksmith had shown up only two weeks after his stay with the Beastess had begun; furthermore, the main street had been paved, two new teachers had come to the town, and nearly every social problem about which he had expressed concern to the Beastess had been either solved or at least addressed.
“Aunt Mathilde, I wish I had thought to bring you a book I found in the Beastess’ library. I left in such a hurry that I did not think of it, but she told me I could share it with you when our time together is over. It was a book of herbal healing and potions, and you’ll never guess—the author was named Matilda Nightroot!”
His aunt turned away abruptly and stirred the pot hanging in the fireplace. “Curious,” she said. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Oh!” said Benjamin, suddenly remembering, “You’ll never guess what else! When I first asked the magic hoop to show you to me, it showed me you in strange, old-fashioned clothing, and of all places, you were seated in the kitchen of the Beastess’ forest manor!”
Aunt Mathilde made no response, apparently fascinated by the contents of her pot. After some silence, she observed, “It’s a good thing your Beastess had this magic hoop so that you were able to uncover the plot.”
Benjamin shook his head in wonder at the evil that might have unfolded had the plot not been foiled. “How far were they willing to take their terrible plan?” he marveled. “Certainly they intended your death, but to put that plant so near the well! It could have been disastrous for many!”
“You and your Beastess’ magic hoop have saved the day, Benjamin,” declared Aunt Mathile. “But hemlock?” she remarked, almost to herself, “All good witches know that hemlock is used for immortality,” she smiled a secret smile. Before Benjamin could respond, she asked him, “Are you staying here, then, or will you return to this Beastess?”
“I need to return, Aunt Mathilde. There’s something she needs from me, and despite everything, she’s been very generous, so I don’t mind returning the favor. She let me come home to you as soon as we knew you were in trouble.”
“What about the eating-the-soul business?”
“That was all bluster.”
“What is it that she needs?”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know what she needs, and she can’t or won’t tell me. I’m not a mind reader, but I’d like to try to help.”
“You’re a good man, Benjamin,” said his aunt, affectionately.
“I was raised well,” he returned, kissing her lightly on the cheek.
“How have you been spending your days there?”
“The days are quite leisurely. You wouldn’t believe it—there are invisible servants! It was startling at first to see doors open and close by themselves, as I’m sure you remember, and to see my clothes float out of the closet and lay themselves on the bed, or the dishes floating to the table and serving themselves to me. They seem to anticipate my every need.”
“Well-trained servants indeed,” observed his aunt. “Do they speak to you? Could you find out through them what the Beastess needs from you?”
“I’ve tried speaking to them on occasion, but they don’t respond to me.”
“So for all practical purposes, it’s just the two of you, all day and all night long. What do you do? What do you talk about?”
“We walk in the garden or the forest, we fish, we read books and play chess. We talk about everything. She’s surprisingly easy to talk to, although sometimes hard to draw out. I wanted to get to know a bit about her because I was intrigued by how she could treat you so poorly, and myself so well. Now I honestly enjoy her company. She’s quite witty, and as I said, she treats me well, despite the inauspicious beginning. I know much about her character, but nothing about her background or family. When I ask straight out, she refuses to answer.”
“Is that a fact…?” said the aunt, thoughtfully. “What does she ask of you, other than your company?”
“Not a thing,” he started, then remembered a detail. “Well, that’s not completely true. Every evening before we retire, she asks me to marry her—Owww!” he cried out, as his aunt gave him a clout on the head.
“There’s your answer, you great oaf! It’s been in front of you the whole time,” said his aunt.
“What? You must be joking, Aunt Mathilde. There is no way I’m marrying the Beastess!”
“I don’t see why not,” remarked his aunt, sharply. “You just said that you enjoy her company, you admire her character, and you want to do what you can to help her.” Here, Benjamin opened his mouth to reply, but she cut him off. “It’s not as though you’ll ever be eligible to marry the princess, so don’t yammer on to me about your silly fantasy!” Benjamin closed his mouth, and the aunt continued. “Since the only thing this Beastess asks of you is your hand in marriage, I don’t see why you won’t simply acquiesce.”
“It’s not my hand that objects,” Benjamin mumbled.
“What!?” exclaimed his aunt, clouting him about the head once more.
Benjamin nimbly moved away from her reach, and protested, “Aunt Mathilde, what if you were in my shoes? Would you marry a he-Beast, with all that the vows entail?”
“If I admired this he-Beast as much as you say you admire the Beastess, then yes. Yes, I would!”
“It’s been nearly a year since you’ve seen the Beastess. Seeing what’s in store could well change your mind. Especially when it came time to consummate the marriage.”
The aunt sighed impatiently. “Just close your eyes and think of—well, I’m sure something will come up.”
Benjamin was silent for many minutes, considering his aunt’s suggestion, his position, the Beastess and everything he had observed about her during his months of imprisonment. During their first evening together, she had asked about his relationship with his aunt, and how a marriage would affect it. She seemed to respect his feelings about family. That was a plus. Consummation though was another matter. He gave a small shudder. On the other hand, obsessed as he had always been with the young Princess, it wasn’t as though marriage to the Beastess would cramp his lifestyle in that area. He brightened a bit at the thought that the Beastess already knew of his passion for the Princess, and so would not expect to completely gain his heart. She certainly had his respect already; affection, even. It would be a marriage of convenience, nothing more, nothing less. Many marriages of convenience were nonetheless happy marriages.
“All right then, promise me you’ll be at the wedding.”
“Of course I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss your wedding! And besides, I must witness you marrying someone who isn’t the Princess!” she laughed. Benjamin gave his aunt a kiss, then quickly swung himself up in the saddle and galloped toward the forest.
As he approached the Beastess’ manor house, the grounds seemed to be in great disarray; the plants seemed thirsty, as though there had been a drought, and the gate hung off its hinges. Concerned, Benjamin pulled the horse to a stop, dismounted, and threw the reins over the post.
“Hello?” he called, hurrying up the walkway to the front door “Beastess?” As he approached, it swung open silently, as he’d expected that it would. As he entered, he was greeted by the sound of muffled crying by several disembodied voices. Perturbed, he hurried through the house, calling for her. “Beastess! Where are you?” he shouted, increasingly alarmed to hear no answer and to find each room empty. “Beastess!” he hurried up the stairs and found the door to her chambers closed. He hesitated momentarily, as he had never before been invited in, and then he turned the knob and opened the door. He gasped as he beheld her lying on her bed, seemingly as withered as the gardens outside. “Beastess! What’s happened?” He hurried to her side and took her paw in his hand. “Are you ill? Shall I fetch my aunt? I’m sure she can cure whatever it is that ails you. Please, speak to me!”
The Beastess slowly turned her head toward him and gave a sigh. “You’ve returned,” she said in a belabored voice. “Why? You could have… lived out your… life… in your… in your home. Why did you… come back?”
“What? I came back because I told you that I would. I came back because that was our arrangement,” he put his other hand on her head. “What’s wrong? How can I help you?” he begged, truly disturbed and leaning in close.
“Benjamin…”the Beastess spoke with great effort, “go back to your aunt. I release you…from our agreement.”
Shocked, Benjamin clutched her paw more tightly. “Beastess, not this way! I want to stay with you as long as you need me. I want to help you!”
The Beastess closed her eyes and was silent. Chilled, Benjamin watched her chest for signs of breathing. She opened her maw to speak and he nearly went limp with relief. “Those…opportunities…” she said, breathing hard suddenly, “are gone. I fear it’s too late.”
“NO!” Benjamin shouted, crawling onto the bed next to her and wrapping his arms around her. “No! Beastess, please don’t go. I understand what you need from me. Marry me, please! I want to do this!”
She blinked and turned her face toward him. “Ben…jamin?” she breathed out, questioningly.
“Please,” he said, holding her close to him. “Please Beastess, stay with me, and I’ll stay with you. Please marry me,” he said, his face buried in the rough fur of her neck. Her body gave a sudden, violent shudder, and he held on more tightly. “Please,” he said again, “Marry me, Beastess.”
She groaned, then gave into a fierce cry of agony. “Beastess!” Benjamin cried, drawing back to watch her face as her body continued to contort in pain. He had never felt so helpless as he watched, torn between wanting to leave and bring his aunt, whom he knew could help, and fearing that his friend might die before he was able to return. As he watched, the Beastess’ writhing body levitated slightly, and seemed to glow. “Beastess, what’s happening!” he shouted, jumping to his feet. The floating, shimmering form before him grew smaller in front of his eyes, and the coarse, rough fur he was accustomed to disappeared, replaced by smooth, human skin. The snout he’d so often seen trying desperately to eat with grace shrank, the whiskers falling off onto the bed, the tusks disappearing, and the fangs shrinking down into human teeth. Benjamin watched in wonder as the great, furry ears also shrank and lost their fur, disappearing under long, soft and silky human hair. As the Beastess’ newly transformed body landed softly on the bed, Benjamin’s jaw dropped as well, beholding for the second time in his life, the beautiful Princess whom he had loved since he was a boy. Tentatively, he reached out a hand and touched her shoulder, bared now that the large dress she had been wearing fell in heaps around her form. “Beastess?” he asked softly, trying to understand what had just happened.
She turned her face to him, opened her eyes sleepily. “Yes, Benjamin,” she said, exhausted by her recent change. Then she smiled.
“But you can’t be…” he began. His mouth opened and then closed again, as he was rendered quite speechless.
She chuckled low. “I am,” she said. “And I thank you with all my heart for freeing me.”
“I—You—What?” he stammered. “You can’t be—“ he shook his head wordlessly and sat down heavily on the bed next to her.
“Yes, I am!” she insisted, laughing now. She lifted herself onto an elbow and took his hand in hers. “I was under a curse. I had to find someone who would marry me as I was, or stay that way forever. You were my last hope, and today was the last day. Thank you, Benjamin. You are a kind and good man. I would be honored to marry you.” She sat up and took his face in her hands.
“But—I’m not good enough…that is, I’m not noble—“
She kissed him gently so as to silence his protestations. “You are more noble, and more worthy than any of the suitors who courted me before.” She looked deeply into his eyes. “I will be ruler of this land! I can pick my own mate! But it took a curse to make the right mate pick me. With you at my side, Benjamin, we will bring about a peace that this land has never seen before. That is, if you still want to marry me, knowing now who I truly am.”
Benjamin threw his head back and laughed, then put his arms around his intended. “Who you are is a bonus I never expected! I admired you greatly for you what you were inside. The fact that the outside of you is someone I’ve dreamed about for years, well…” he drew her down and kissed her passionately. “I think I can live with that sort of surprise,” he murmured.
When Miranda and Benjamin went downstairs, they found the happy faces of all the servants, whose visibility was restored with the break of the curse. All were pleased to be going home once more.
Miranda and Benjamin fetched Aunt Mathilde from the town and brought her to the royal palace for their wedding. When they arrived, they found that the king had died only that morning, having been found by one of the young chambermaids. When the queen arrived, the king was naked with a silken noose around his neck and a grin on his face that was simultaneously giddy and ghoulish.
The funeral was immediate, after which Miranda quietly thanked the queen for her hand in the improvements in Benjamin’s hamlet.
After Miranda’s coronation, she and Benjamin invited both the dowager queen and the herbalist to stay with them in the royal palace. However, the queen decided to retire to a forest manor. “I understand that one can meet handsome men in such a locale,” she said. Aunt Mathilde chose to return to her hometown, promising to visit often.
Anne, caught up in the bustle of court life after the year of isolation, enjoyed the attentions of several of the young noblemen. However, she only deigned to keep company for very long with those young men who could outride her. Across the fields, that is.
The Prince of Roobio married a princess from a land which bordered his own. She was very pretty. And that was about all anyone could say about her.
The Duke of Psoria was thrown from his horse while hunting. His favorite hunting cat devoured him whole.
The Duke of Coron married a young noblewoman from his own lands. During her pregnancy, the duke contracted several venereal diseases. The young noblewoman’s family was more powerful than the Duke’s, due to their wealth and his debts. They effected a hasty divorce, wherein the Duke ended up living in a hovel with several other pox-ridden young men.
Miranda and Benjamin lived happily ever after.