From glorious hope to crushing disappointment, all in the blink of an eye! Beauty's first reaction was a cry of dismay and frustration. She had not removed the illusion! Why had the Fox's charm not worked? After so much good advice and so many fortuitous warnings, why should his words in this instance lead to naught? If only he were here to explain himself! But wait...now was the Fox's timely disappearance more easily understood! He had known she would discover his trick, and he planned to be far away when that occurred!
Perhaps she had remembered the rhyme incorrectly? She recited it once again in her head. When you sense some disguise... No, she was sure she had it right. In that case, she must have misconstrued the Fox's meaning, but at present she could think of no other interpretation. Unless...would she have to rescue the Beast from an even worse enchantment in the future? Unthinkable!
Finally she collected herself enough to realize that the Beast was still standing patiently on the other side of the room, waiting for her to give some indication of success or failure. Beauty sighed. "I thought the Fox meant that if I pictured you in my mind as I see you in my heart, instead of with my eyes, then the spell would be broken," she said. "I am sorry, but it did nothing."
Beauty's acute disappointment was immediately apparent to the Beast, who had watched her efforts with the greatest attention. Apparently the riddle from the mysterious fox was related to something other than the wizard's illusion. This attempt to remove the spell left him no worse off than before, at any rate.
In fact, whether the illusion was whole or shattered meant very little to the Beast. He was much more concerned with the fragile hope that Beauty's feelings towards him had changed; it grew stronger with her every remark, though she had not spoken precisely the words he longed to hear. "Any mirror could verify that the outward appearance conferred by this illusion is still far from pleasing, Beauty. Tell me what the mirrors cannot show - what does your heart see?" he asked.
She looked at him again quizzically, hearing the hesitation in his voice. Did he yet not know how she felt? Then she laughed at herself, for it was her own fault if he was doubtful. Small wonder if a man who had been twice refused could hardly believe that the lady would no longer rebuff his affections, and indeed that she now desired them!
She walked over to him and held out her hands, which he gently gathered in his enormous paws. Then she looked into his eyes and solemnly spoke, "My heart sees the soul that matches mine, and the man I do cherish above all others, from now until the end of eternity. I love you, my Beast."
Here was happiness the like of which he had never known! It was well worth the cost of an evil enchantment, and some painful personal struggles, to reach this reward. Of course there could be only once response to such a declaration. "Beauty, will you marry me?"
Heedless of his fur and claws, she flung her arms around his neck and embraced him. Surprised, he found himself returning the gesture before he quite knew what he was doing - and then when he did know, he clasped her tightly and joyfully spun her around a few times for good measure.
When he carefully set her on her feet again, the Beast noticed that they were both smiling at each other in an unabashedly giddy manner. The strained silence that had existed between them at the beginning of their acquaintance was gone forever. Now they had achieved an accord that gave each a perfect understanding of the other's thoughts and speech, no matter how their words overlapped as they expressed their apologies for past misunderstandings and their expectations for future felicity. Best of all, however, were the small moments of quiet behind the words and between the sentences, when a look or a glance would convey more than could ever be said.
The slowly increasing noise of celebration in the courtyards and chambers of the castle reminded the lovers that this precious time, when their joy was new and only their own, would soon be over. They would find a different sort of joy when they shared this glad news with their friends, however, and the anticipation of the reaction they would receive provided an ample source of amusement.
"My sister Serenity will be quite delighted, I assure you," Beauty said from her comfortable position at the Beast's side. "She was always convinced that you could not be the horrible monster I initially thought you were."
The Beast chuckled and settled her hand more firmly in the crook of his arm. "And will she take every opportunity to remind you that her first impression had the right of it, and yours did not?"
Beauty pretended to be affronted. "No, indeed! Serenity is far to kind to ever indulge in such teasing!" Then she reconsidered, laughing. "Or if she does, she always finds such a sweet way of saying 'I told you so!' that one never really minds it. What then of Prince Cheerful? Will he have some serious, considered opinion regarding his dearest friend's choice of bride?"
"Prince Cheerful? Serious? Not at all! I thought once that I had caught him being serious, but it was only that he had dozed off during a particularly tedious state banquet. With him you have no reason to worry, my heart - he will be perfectly ready to approve you on your own merits, and that you are Serenity's sister will only raise you in his estimation. He will roundly commend me for having the good sense to fall in love with you!"
"Yes, that shows admirable sense on your part," Beauty agreed. "I think your sister Graceful is also ready to welcome me to Castle Lochlein. When I left her only a short while ago, she seemed to have little doubt of this outcome. Are all princesses taught to be so perceptive, or did she have the benefit of information I lacked?"
"Graceful and I have had many long conversations during the past weeks - or rather, I spoke to her a great deal, hoping she would be able to understand me despite her altered form. She has ever been a sympathetic listener, and she always takes ample time to reflect on the things I say, as well as the things I do not. As a result, she seems to know my thoughts long before I do! She would most likely tell you that she saw how my affections for you would develop, even from the very beginning, when I could only express how you frustrated me, since you refused to be overawed by my very existence, so unlike the other women I have known! You need have no worries that my family will adore you," the Beast concluded. "So tell me - will your family be pleased as well?"
Beauty's laughter bubbled forth all over again as her mind presented her with the image of what would happen when she introduced the Beast to her parents. Her father would be grave and quiet, as usual, though he might remark that while so much fur could be convenient in the winter, it must be terribly uncomfortable for the Beast during the summer months. Her mother, on the other hand, would try to faint and have hysterics all at once, then shriek that the witch's curse must have been fulfilled at last. After a sufficient period of distraction, during which she would do her best to drive everyone around her to the verge of nervous collapse, she would make a miraculous recovery once she realized that the Beast was really a king, and that Serenity was to marry a prince! What a wonderful thing for her girls, she would exclaim, and of course she knew all along that everything would turn out well!
She described this to the Beast, but Beauty could not help but blush when speaking of her mother's mistaken belief that she was doomed to be turned into a toad. Such folly seemed even more frivolous than ever, especially compared to the very real transformations that the Beast, Princess Graceful, and everyone else at the castle had undergone.
The Beast saw how she colored and lowered her eyes, and he understood the reason behind it. He gently tilted her chin up so that she would look him in the face and said, "Beauty, do not be ashamed. As you so rightly reproved me once, your family are honest simple folk who care for you a great deal. For that reason alone, I would make allowance for any number of minor faults, though I am sure I will find other reasons to love and respect them as I come to know them better."
"Thank you, Beast," she whispered, both pleased and humbled by his words.
"You have mentioned others in your traveling party whom I have yet to meet," the Beast continued. "You named them the sorcerer Steadfast and the fairy Elegant, did you not? There have not been such distinguished guests in my castle since my sister's christening, which my parents considered themselves lucky to accomplish without leaving any of the local fairies off the guest list - such omissions usually result in the princess's being condemned to sleep for at least a hundred years in a high tower behind an impenetrable wall of thorns, as you know. Perhaps your magical friends might consider granting us a wish or three, as a wedding present?"
Beauty's eyes sparkled at this. "With you as my husband, I should have nothing left to wish for," she said. "The only thing I could possibly want is..." She abruptly looked away, and her words trailed off into an uncomfortable silence, but the Beast knew what she would have said. Either the sorcerer or the fairy would surely have told her if they knew how to break the wizard's spell, and if they did not know - or if their magic was not strong enough - then no amount of wishing would make any difference.
Beauty found herself suddenly furious - with magic, with wizards in general, and with one talkative but maddeningly enigmatic Fox in particular. The Beast tried to soothe her, but no effort of his had any effect. He was conscious of the incongruity that he, the victim of the enchantment, should be trying to comfort her, who suffered nothing by it; however, Beauty was in no mood to appreciate the irony.
Fuming, she stalked away from the window and back into the darker recesses of the room. Since the Fox had conveniently removed himself from the scene, Beauty needed some other object on which to vent her frustrations. The desk, which had provided much-needed support a short while before, now became her target. She whirled around and delivered a swift kick to its side.
The desk complained not at all about its change in service; the heavy mahogany slab could have borne up under a far worse assault than Beauty was capable of offering. Beauty, however, quickly found that she had not chosen the wisest course of action. (As a responsible storyteller, I would caution my readers not to follow this heroine's example. Wood and flesh, meeting in such a manner, can result in damage on only one side.)
"OW! Ow, ow, ow...!" Her exclamation of anger instantly turned to one of pain. Her face was screwed up in momentary agony, and she lifted the injured foot off the floor, in an attempt to relieve its hurt. This compromised her balance, however, and she was forced to hop and stagger a few steps before she regained it.
An arm came around her waist to support her, and a merry voice by her ear said, "Beauty! What have you done to yourself?"
It could only be the Beast, but something about the arm and the voice had changed. Where were the massive corded muscles she was used to feel? Where was the rumbling growl she was used to hear? She gingerly put her foot back on the floor, wincing as she tried her weight on it and felt the bruise, and blinked a few times to clear her vision. Then she took a good look at the figure beside her.
The man who had helped her withdrew his arm and stepped back as he saw she was standing on her own. "That desk has been in my family for at least six generations, and it usually receives better treatment!"
Had she hit her head instead of her foot? How else could she have stumbled into this fantasy? Beauty was utterly dumbfounded - good gracious, he really was more handsome than his portrait! Otherwise he was just as she had imagined, except that he seemed mightily amused by her continued silence, for a broad grin danced on his lips.
"What, no nimble riposte from my quick-witted Beauty?" he teased. "No threat that I might receive worse treatment, if I do not take care to behave in a more gentleman-like manner?"
"It's you," she breathed, looking at him wonderingly. Her mouth slowly curved into an answering smile.
"Of course it is I," he answered. "My chamberlain is quiet and light on his feet, but even he could not have sneaked in here and taken my place in the time it took for you to heap abuse on the furniture. Besides, he would have to be masquerading with a bearskin rug in order for you to mistake him for me!"
"That I should never do, my lord," Beauty said, echoing his bantering tone, "for did I not say I had your image secure in my heart? I believe I can safely promise never to mistake your chamberlain for yourself."
She stepped forward then, out of the shadowed corner of the library and back into the bright golden beams of sunlight that poured liberally through the window. She held out her hand and the King grasped it with his own, meaning to draw her back to her former place at his side. Only when she instead took his hand and laid it against her cheek did he realize that she was seeing him differently. At last, could it be so...?
He did not even need to ask whether the illusion had finally vanished; his gaze spoke the question and hers gave the happy reply. His hand pressed warm against her cheek for another moment, and hers came up to give a reciprocal caress. With a slight continuation of the movement she was able to twine her fingers in his hair, delighting in the contrast between its soft tangles and the faint rasp of the skin at his jawline. A similar small motion brought the King close enough to admire the delicate strength of her figure and to dazzle in the glimmering depths of her eyes.
They felt that they approached by minute increments, savoring the exquisite torment of each fraction of an instant in which they were not yet melded, but were yet closer than before. No matter how much they wished to be together, they were both aware how precious was this first moment, and they wished with almost equal intensity to prolong it.
At the end, it was only fitting that the seemingly infinite distance of their past separation could be bridged so simply. All that was needed was a last dip of his head, matched by a lift of hers, for Beauty and her King to be lost in the sublime sweetness of their first kiss.
The great banquet hall of the castle was filled nearly to bursting. Servants swarmed about, putting the final touches to the decorations and darting back to the kitchens to finish preparing the many courses of the most sumptuous meal the castle had ever seen. Courtiers swirled about the floor in movements like an elaborate dance, exchanging greetings with the numerous citizens of Lochlein who had come to share the celebration. More were arriving every moment, since news of the castle's release from the evil enchantment and the general invitation to the populace had spread rapidly through the kingdom with magical assistance from the fairy Elegant and the sorcerer Steadfast.
The guests of honor waiting on the raised dais at the far end of the room were as eager as anyone to start the feast - especially Prince Cheerful, since he felt he had gone far too long without anything decent to eat - but they were also concerned about their two absent friends.
"How long ago did you say you parted from Beauty?" Serenity inquired of the princess, with whom she was already on quite friendly terms.
"An hour, perhaps - certainly no more - when she went in search of my brother. What can have happened to them?" Graceful wondered anxiously.
Steadfast overheard this remark and moved to reassure the young woman. "No ill can have befallen, Princess," he said. "Elegant and I would be aware of any other magic at work in the castle." Whether they were aware of any magic that had stopped working, the sorcerer did not say. The happy revelations would be best delivered by the King and Beauty, when they returned.
Now the fairy Elegant touched her associate on the arm and unobtrusively drew him away from the others' conversation. "I do not sense anything that could be a remnant of the wizard's spell," she said, "but there is something else I cannot identify. Can you tell what it is?"
Steadfast took a small mirror from his pocket and held it flat upon the palm of his hand. He stared intently at its reflective surface for several moments, but all the mirror produced was a faint purplish glow, and the sorcerer seemed dissatisfied with this display. "I cannot tell," he admitted, returning the mirror to its place among the folds of his robe, "though I feel I should be able to recognize it somehow. It is only a small piece of magical power, which appears quite harmless. We may as well wait until after the festivities to track it to its source and nullify it."
Prince Cheerful did not notice when the fairy and sorcerer moved away from the table for their murmured conference. He was far too busy gazing at Serenity, adoration plainly written on his features. "Do not distress yourself, my love," he told her. "The King is a fearless bold fellow, and he will protect your sister if there is anything amiss. Who would dare attack a Beast with...how did you describe him? Horns and fangs and claws? I can scarcely believe it! And have I told you in the past five minutes how charming you look in that gown?"
Serenity smiled back at him, returning his look of devotion in full. "Thank you for the compliment, my dear. I do not doubt that the King would defend my sister from harm - and he is indeed formidable in his current shape. I am more concerned with wondering if they need protection from each other." She gave a little sigh, remembering the harsh words that her sister and the Beast had exchanged when they were last at Castle Lochlein.
The group on the dais was so preoccupied with worry that they did not immediately notice when two more people entered the banquet hall. Indeed, even had they been keeping a sharp lookout, they would have been hard pressed to tell one guest from another, so crowded was the hall becoming and so constantly were people moving in and out of its enormous doorways. A close inspection might reveal that the only thing different about the new arrivals was their attire, for they were rather underdressed for such a grand occasion: an island of linen and homespun in an ocean of silk and satin.
One courtier near the door - who was rather ordinary as courtiers went, being only a sub-assistant to the under-secretary to the Second Minister of the Privy Purse - was the first to recognize these two guests. His startled gasp, followed by a salutation reduced to a whisper by his surprise, caught the attention of his companions. They turned to see what had disconcerted him, and though caught similarly unawares, they managed creditable bows and curtseys.
This murmur of sound and movement gradually flowed into the hall, until it reached the notice of the Lord High Chamberlain. That gentleman, who possessed the remarkable ability to appear unperturbed by any circumstance, no matter how unusual, then calmly proceeded to carry out the duties of his office. (Those standing closest to him would afterwards swear that his face lit up like a schoolboy's when he first understood who had arrived, but the expression was replaced so quickly by his customary impassivity that they could not be entirely sure.)
The Chamberlain raised his staff of office and pounded it three times, so that its brass-shod tip rang out against the marble floor. The crowds fell silent at once and turned towards the source of the noise, wondering what sort of proclamation might follow. The Princess had already declared the feast and holiday - there seemed to be no other event worth this fanfare, unless it was...oh, if only it was! The crowd held its collective breath in hopeful trepidation, as the Chamberlain's voice rolled out grandly above the hush. "My lords, ladies, and gentlemen, it is my very great honor to announce the presence of...his most royal and splendid Majesty, the King of Lochlein, and the Lady Beauty!"
The cheering broke out again immediately, of course, with enough force to make the flames of the candles dance. With such a reason for happiness, court manners were forgotten. The obeisances of the courtiers, visiting nobles, and other guests were swiftly followed by handshakes, back slapping, and hugs all around. No one seemed to mind the familiarity, least of all its two objects - though they took care not to let the crowds separate them too far, and smiled frequently at each other over the arms and shoulders of those who welcomed their return.
Princess Graceful practically flew off the dais as soon as she heard the Chamberlain's announcement, and she reached the King quickly, thanks to the guests who considerately opened a path for her. Brother and sister embraced tightly, their separation ended at last.
The King was the first to step back, though it was only far enough that he could look down into his sister's face. "Do you forgive me, my dear? I could not stop the wizard, and I failed you again afterwards, so you might still be a lily were it not for..."
"Dear brother, do not blame yourself for my enchantment! I seem to recall that you were rather recently enchanted yourself, and there was nothing you could have done."
"Very well, but I still need your forgiveness - for not being a better brother. All of these events might have been avoided if I had not been foolish enough to keep my treasured sister so locked away from the world. I realize now that the Princess of Lochlein is more than ready to assume her share of responsibility in ruling the kingdom."
Graceful looked wonderingly at him, but her excitement was evident in her eyes. "May I, truly? Oh, I promise you shall never regret that decision!" She embraced him again but could not resist teasing him a little. "Becoming a Beast seems to agree with you, my brother - shall I ask the sorcerer Steadfast to restore the spell, so that your character may reap further improvements?"
He was silent a moment before he answered, and Graceful worried that her elation might have carried her too far. If he thought she was mocking him, he might retract his kind offer - and though he was her brother, he was also the King, who was unused to being treated with such levity. Graceful was rescued from the awkward moment, however, before she had time to think of appropriately contrite rejoinder.
"Two excellent ideas, my lord, and they complement each other so well!" Beauty stepped forward to stand next to the Princess, having gained a momentary respite from the crowds of well-wishers. "Princess Graceful has shown herself to be capable of assuming your royal duties, which would leave you free to resume your Beastly ways in your den...er, library. What say you, sir? I am sure the sorcerer would be happy to oblige."
The King tried to maintain a dignified front, but faced with the mischievous alliance of the two women he loved best, how could he possibly succeed? A furtive twitching at the corners of his mouth betrayed him, and he succumbed to their smiles. Addressing Beauty, he said, "I may still roar like a Beast on occasion, madam, since I cannot claim to have utterly conquered my faults of temper. However, I would hope that you do not prefer me to look like one."
If the sudden warmth of his gaze was not enough to unsettle Beauty, then the way he claimed her hand to press a kiss upon it certainly was. However, she regained her composure quickly, since she was shy of expressing too much tenderness with the entire court of Lochlein watching their exchange. "Very well, my lord," she said. "I concede that I do like you better without your fur."
Graceful was astonished. Never had she imagined that anyone would dare to address her stern brother in such a fashion, or that he would respond with so much good humor! Was it the enchantment that had wrought this change, or had something else caused it? The Princess looked again at her brother and Beauty, noticing the speaking look that passed between them - and he still had not released her hand! Understanding came hard on the heels of this observation, and Graceful knew she had found the answer to her question.
Their progress into the banquet hall was decidedly slow, hampered as they were by the congratulations and celebrations of the hundreds of guests. At length, however, they reached the dais and the high table, where they were welcomed all over again by their friends. Serenity and Beauty embraced as if it had been weeks since they had last seen each other, instead of only a few hours, and the meeting of the King and Prince Cheerful was hardly less exuberant. Finally the sorcerer and the fairy came forward to introduce themselves to the King, and felicitations were exchanged once more.
It was Prince Cheerful who noticed the similar looks of satisfaction on the faces of their magical guests and who drew the correct conclusion. "You knew!" he cried. "Somehow you knew that the spell on the King had been broken, yet you said nothing! A fine joke, upon my word, to keep us in suspense." He seized Steadfast's hand and wrung it heartily, laughing over the tiny secret.
With their King restored, the citizens of Lochlein could finally sit down to the banquet. It took some little time to get the tables arranged - the servants were constantly reaching over shoulders to get all of the candelabra lit and the wine poured, and there was a great deal of shuffling of chairs as the lesser nobles sorted out who had precedence in the seating arrangements - but at last all the guests were settled.
Of course, no sooner had everyone sat down than the King took it upon himself to stand up, wine goblet in hand, to make a toast - which made it necessary for everyone to stand up again. However, just as he opened his mouth to speak, one final guest made a perfectly timed entrance at the doors at the far end of the banquet hall, directly opposite from where the King was standing. He would have been impossible to miss, even if he hadn't been the only one in the hall with red fur, black paws, and a magnificently bushy tail.
"Let harpers harp, and minstrels sing,
For no longer a Beast is your King!
But before you do sup,
One loose end to tie up,
Then loudly let all the bells ring!"
The Fox nimbly trotted the length of the hall, until he reached the area of the floor before the high table. Every person in the room had fallen silent with amazement, so that the only sound was the soft tap of the Fox's claws against the marble floor. Having reached his destination, he bowed elegantly to the King, stretching both forelegs before him and nobly arching his tail.
Then he sat back on his haunches - with a posture so impeccably straight that not even the Rosy Dragon could have found fault with it, and his tail wrapped so that its white tip just touched his front paws - and added his own congratulations to those that had already been voiced that evening. "Your Majesty, it makes my heart glad to see you looking like yourself at last, and I wish you all joy of your good fortune."
The King inclined his head gravely in acknowledgement. "I thank you, sir Fox, for your generous sentiments. May I inquire what purpose brings you to my kingdom?"
"No good purpose, surely!" cried Prince Cheerful, before the Fox could reply. "You are the same Fox I met when I first arrived at Castle Lochlein, are you not? The very last creature I saw before I became entangled in the wizard's curse!"
"Your Highness, I believe your long sleep may have addled your memory. I did warn you about what lay within the castle, but you chose to disregard what I said," the Fox answered. The Prince made an exasperated noise and was certainly going to make some pointed remark about the incomprehensibility of those warnings, but the Fox blithely continued. "And my part in the magic is very different than what you suppose, as my very good friends will attest."
Serenity spoke up next, staunchly defending the Fox and reminding Prince Cheerful and the King how much he had helped her and Beauty on their quests. Why, without the Fox's assistance, it was quite possible that the many enchantments binding the castle and its inhabitants would never have been broken!
The King listened carefully to what Serenity said, and he was convinced that the Fox had not come to do harm. He had wondered for a moment if it might have been the wizard in disguise, come to wreck their moment of victory, but he also remembered that Beauty had mentioned a Fox, and that the wizard had lost his magical powers.
He raised a hand for silence and again addressed the Fox, who had not moved a whisker during these discussions. "In that case, sir Fox, it appears that we owe you a debt of both honor and gratitude. Is there anything within my power that I might grant you as a reward?"
"A reward? Ah, your Majesty, you have guessed why I am here! After all, for what other reason does one ever present oneself before royalty?" The Fox grinned one of his white, toothy grins and cocked his head a bit to the side as he chuckled, so that the reflected candle flames glittered in his dark eyes. "I would beg a boon, your Majesty."
"You have only to name it," the King answered.
"Oh, not from you, your Majesty! As noble and generous as you are, I fear you would do me no good at all. No, it is Beauty who can fulfill my request." The Fox turned look up at her where she sat at the King's left hand.
The King also turned to look at Beauty, curious what this could mean. He was surprised and dismayed to see how pale she had become.
"You remember what I once asked of you, Beauty, do you not?" the Fox said quietly.
She nodded. "Yes, dear Fox, I do. But..." She hesitated. "Oh, do not ask me again, I implore you! I could not bear to do such a thing!"
The King grew increasingly alarmed with every passing moment. Did the Fox have some power over Beauty, to frighten her so? Had he extracted some price or promise in exchange for helping her on her journey? His mind raced to recall old tales in which magical creatures helped young maidens...Surely not that! If Beauty were fated to marry the Fox, then he would lose her again, just when he seemed most sure of winning her!
The Fox's gaze had not wavered from Beauty's face. "I fear I must - as I told you before, it is the dearest wish of my heart, though you cannot understand why."
Serenity also could not endure seeing her sister in so much distress. She rose from her chair and came to put a comforting arm around Beauty's shoulders. "What is it?" she asked. "What must you do?"
Beauty only shook her head mutely, not even able to speak the dreadful words.
"What I have asked Beauty to do," the Fox said at last, when the heavy silence could not bear its own weight any longer, "is to take a dagger and plunge it into my heart."
The silence that now filled the great banquet hall was one of horrified astonishment. What an extraordinary and unbelievable request! Why should the Fox desire his own death? And at Beauty's hand, too! Everyone was aghast that this celebration would now be marred with blood. Their eyes returned to Beauty, to learn how she would respond.
She had not moved at all in the intervening moments but sat in her place at the high table with her gaze locked on the Fox's face. Though the King had moved to offer comfort by covering her hand with his, she did not seem aware of his gesture. Neither did Beauty acknowledge the presence of her sister, or any of her other friends. She and the Fox might have been alone in the world, so intent was their concentration.
When she finally spoke, her voice sounded infinitely lost and sad. "Must I?"
"My dearest Beauty, I beg you...my very life is yours to save or destroy." The Fox remained still, but his entire form seemed to quiver with suppressed strain and anguish.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It was far too harsh a payment in return for so much kindness and friendship, but if this was truly what the Fox wanted, she could not refuse him. She would do as he asked, even though it meant she would live with the pain of this day for the rest of her life.
When she opened her eyes again, Beauty looked up at her sister and then gently disengaged Serenity's arm from about her shoulders. Serenity understood that her sister had made her decision, and stepped back towards her own place at the table. She knew why it was Beauty for whose help the Fox had asked - they both loved the Fox, but only Beauty had the strength of will required to carry out this terrible deed. Serenity was grateful to the Fox for his understanding, since she would rather have turned the knife upon her own tender heart than bring him any harm.
Next Beauty addressed the King. "My lord, I would be obliged if you could provide me with a dagger."
It said much for the love and faith the King had for Beauty that he did not question her decision, nor did he attempt to dissuade her from her path. Such interference would only give her worse pain, for then she would have to go forward without his support. Wordlessly, he took the hunting knife from his belt and offered it to her, formally laying the sheath over his wrist.
Beauty grasped the hilt of the dagger firmly and unsheathed it in a single quick motion. It was a plain weapon, without decorative scrollwork along the blade or any other adornment, designed to wield death with merciful swiftness; its keen edge gleamed in the light of the hall.
The King himself pulled back Beauty's chair and helped her to rise from her seat, but she descended from the dais alone. She walked to where the Fox was sitting, still waiting for her, and then she knelt down beside him so she could look into his eyes. Their expression was nearly the same as it had been the first time he had asked his awful question: sadness and fear, but also a tiny flicker of something nearly like hope in their liquid depths.
She spoke softly, so that the rest of the people in the hall would not hear. "You see - I will do as you say, though my heart breaks for it."
"I thank you, Beauty, from my own heart. Have no fear that what you are about to do is surely for the best." With that, the Fox lay down on the cold marble floor and put his head in her lap.
That movement - so calm, and so trusting - was nearly Beauty's undoing. She had to swallow hard to force back tears. She would weep later, she told herself fiercely, when she could be alone. Now, though, the Fox had asked her - no, begged her - for this one last service, and she would not fail him. Beauty bent down to lay her cheek upon his head, then buried her left hand in the rough fur at his neck. With her right, she raised the dagger - and brought it down onto his chest to strike the fatal blow.
But before even a single drop of blood could spill to stain the snowy marble, a light like stars exploding and a noise like mountains falling filled the hall. Everyone within the room shouted in surprise and fright, trying to cover their eyes and ears. Prince Cheerful pulled Serenity behind him, and Elegant quickly interposed herself between Princess Graceful and the blast. Steadfast was too astonished to move at all, for he suddenly recognized the source of the power - but how that faint familiar hint of magic had now been magnified! The King barely managed to keep his feet and could only stand rooted to the spot, fearing for Beauty, who was caught in the midst of the maelstrom.
The upheaval ended as abruptly as it began, but only after another few moments did anyone dare to look to see what had happened. The sight that greeted them, there on the floor of the banquet hall, was not what they were expecting.
The Fox was gone.
In his place was a man, who was holding Beauty in a tight embrace. The King and the others at the high table could hear him murmuring into her ear, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry...I never meant to hurt you, but it was the only way!"
The magical force had completely knocked Beauty off her feet, so the firm clasp of the man's arms served as much for protection as for comfort. Now that the world had ceased shaking, however, she was able to get her balance and steady herself by placing her hands upon his shoulders. And perhaps it was not surprising if her hands still trembled a very little - even for someone as courageous as Beauty, such an experience was not to be recovered from immediately.
She raised her head to look with wonder and not a little fear upon the man who now stood before her. "But what has happened? What have I done? Who are you...and where is the Fox?"
The man smiled the gentlest of smiles and reached out to delicately wipe away the tear that had stolen down Beauty's cheek without her realizing it. "I must tell you, my dear friend, that the Fox is gone...and yet not, for I am he. Mine was the last enchantment to break here at Castle Lochlein, and your brave actions have done it! You won my friendship long ago, but now I would pledge my fealty to you all over again - for I will never forget that you wept for me." Solemnly he knelt before Beauty and kissed her hands. " As for who I am..."
He was never able to complete the sentence, for the King had finally gotten a good look at Beauty's miraculously transformed companion. He actually vaulted over the table and off the dais in his haste to reach the two on the floor. "GALLANT!"
Counselor Gallant, for it was he indeed, was now pulled to his feet to be properly welcomed by the King. The two cousins smiled and exclaimed and laughed and pounded each other on the back and generally forgot everyone else for a little while in their joy. True to his name, it was Gallant who remembered his manners first. He extended an arm to Beauty - who was very glad to realize whom she had freed, but who was still a little sad to have lost the Fox - and escorted her back up to the dais with the King following closely behind.
By the time another place had been laid for him at the table, and someone had fetched him a glass of wine, and the applause and cheers of the other guests in the hall had died down, Gallant was ready to tell his tale.
He began with the fateful day - how long ago it seemed now! - when the wizard made his clandestine attack on Castle Lochlein. He had been among the first to come to the Princess's aid in the garden, and therefore among the first to see how the King had been enchanted. And then, just when the villain was nearly within his grasp, a tremendous crash and a bright flash of light had changed everything completely. (There was a general murmur of agreement and much nodding of heads after this statement - few of the people in the hall were likely to forget that day, or that moment.)
Gallant did not at once understand what had happened, and so confused was he by the shock and pain of his sudden transformation, that it was all he could do to follow his first instinct: to flee. He found himself outside the castle without knowing how he had come there, and although he could tell some change had occurred - the ground was much nearer than usual, and the trees looked much taller - he still did not know what it was.
After wandering in the woods beyond the castle for some time, his senses became more his own and he found that he was thirsty. A stream discovered nearby provided him with a drink and yet another shock. At the last moment he realized that, instead of filling his hands with water and bringing it to his lips, he had quite naturally put his face down to the water and lapped it up with his tongue. And what a reflection greeted him - he was a fox!
However, it would seem that he was not just any fox, for he was still capable of rational human thought and - when he made the attempt, thoroughly frightening a passing squirrel - human speech. He also found, when he exerted his new animal body to try its strength, that he possessed extraordinary speed. (Gallant looked rather embarrassed as he described how he had spent the rest of that afternoon darting from one end of the kingdom to the other - it hadn't felt completely right to be playing such games while those left within the castle were suffering, but he couldn't help enjoying his new talents.)
Even beyond that the magic had transformed him, for his mind also held a strange new knowledge, almost clairvoyant in its scope. Knowing that he would meet Prince Cheerful there, he had returned to Castle Lochlein later that evening. It was at this point he learned that he could not completely control the Fox he had become, for he took as much pleasure in tricks and riddles as he had in his newfound speed. Try as he might to give a straight answer to the Prince's questions, rhymes were the only result.
Prince Cheerful was heard to grumble that the Counselor could perhaps have tried a little harder to make himself understood - it would have saved everyone a great deal of trouble! Serenity hushed him and apologized for the interruption, after which Gallant continued.
He became aware of Beauty and Serenity's presence in the kingdom through the same mysterious agency that had alerted him to Prince Cheerful's arrival. He did not know who they were, or how their fate could be tied to those within Castle Lochlein. Therefore Gallant watched them secretly for a short while and then played his little trick to determine what kind of people they were. Finding them to be compassionate and courteous, he decided to follow his impulse to bring them to the castle, where he left them with some more well-intentioned and inscrutable verses.
The second departure to which the magic compelled him brought Gallant at last to his meeting with Caprice. He watched her and tested her in the same way, but she certainly did not impress him as her sisters had. Such a vain, shallow, and selfish creature it had not been his displeasure to meet for quite some time! (Gallant bowed an apology for his harsh words, but Beauty and Serenity took no offense, for they were able to imagine precisely how Caprice had answered the Fox.) He stood back and let the mischievousness of the Fox take control, setting the girl on a very different road than the one she had intended.
In a similar fashion, the Fox continued: following where the magical inclinations led him, meeting Beauty and Serenity just when they wanted him the most and Caprice just when she wanted him the least. He quite enjoyed helping the two sisters who were his friends and plaguing the one who was not, so for many weeks he was content to continue as the Fox, without worrying how he might ever become Gallant again. It was only near the end of his travels with Beauty that his premonitions yielded the Fox any glimpse of his own fate.
The knowledge came while Beauty was seeking the Ebony Prince. One moment the Fox was passing the time playing tag with a particularly irritable and vociferous bluejay, and the next he was struck like stone with the dread of what had to be done to save himself. He had not spoken of it to Beauty for some little time afterwards; his fear was still too great, and he nurtured the hope that the magic would present him with some other solution. He was spurred to action by the realization, which entered his thoughts in the same mysterious way as it had throughout this adventure, of what worse future lay in store if he did not take this opportunity. If he were not released from the spell, then he would be doomed to remain in animal form forever, gradually losing all human thought and feeling, and also losing all of his special powers, until he truly was no more than a fox.
Although his first request for Beauty's help failed, he was undaunted. He had no choice but to bide his time and later ask again - and again, and again, if need be. The subsequent episode with Caprice and the gnome and the later rescue of his friends at Castle Lochlein served to raise his spirits and bolster his courage. If those magical spells could be undone, then surely his could as well? So he had picked his moment this evening and sought Beauty's assistance once more.
And here was the happy result! While he deeply regretted any pain he had caused them, his very good friends Beauty and Serenity were now more than welcome to exact repayment for it from him, in the years of faithful service he would owe them both. Then raising his glass in a salute, he led the assembly within the hall in a rousing tribute to the brave women who had - with a little help from a very clever friend, he added, with a sparkle in his eye - saved the kingdom of Lochlein from the terrible enchantment. Three cheers for Beauty and Serenity!
One would have thought that now the banquet could finally get under way. Since it is the storyteller's prerogative to know precisely what was happening in even the farthest, most shadowy reaches of that enormous banquet hall, I can tell you that the cooks and pages and baker's boys were becoming mightily impatient. Yes, of course they were glad that Counselor Gallant was no longer under a spell, and of course they were curious what had happened to him when he had disappeared and they were turned invisible - but then again there is only so long a roast goose can be kept warm over the kitchen fire without becoming dry and burnt, letting all of the head cook's efforts go to waste!
So for their sake, I will try to hurry things along a little bit. The cheering died down, and someone finally convinced Gallant to sit down and stop making extravagant toasts. The meal was served without mishap, much to the relief of the kitchen staff. And what a meal it was! In all the history of Castle Lochlein, there was only one other to rival this banquet - and your storyteller may even condescend to tell you about that one someday. The fish and the fowl, the game and the meats, the endless parade of salads and fruits! The pages carried every platter before the high table for approval before distributing them among the guests.
However, it was in the desserts that the cooks truly outdid themselves. An infinite array of ices and jellies and candies and tarts came streaming out from the kitchens, but it was the final confection that put them all to shame. Every masterful baker on the kitchen staff had worked together to create a perfectly marvelous cake that was decorated to resemble the castle's central garden. Paths paved with thinly cut almonds wound their way through beds of candied violets, passing under trellises of sugared rose petals. In the center was a spun-sugar representation of the golden lily, and placed beside it were two marzipan figures that had been cleverly sculpted and painted to resemble Serenity and Beauty. Finally, half-hidden under the rose trellis, with his fur reproduced in roughly shaved chocolate, was a figure of the Beast.
This magnificent piece of edible artwork was roundly applauded, and everyone declared that they had never tasted anything so delicious. The King broke the head off the Beast-figure and ate it with great satisfaction, while everyone at the high table laughed. When Beauty scolded him for his greediness, he responded that while he trusted his portrait painters for an accurate likeness, he did not similarly trust his cooks. Prince Cheerful then followed suit by seizing the marzipan figurine with the painted golden hair; taking a neat bite of it, he opined that it was not nearly as sweet as the lady it was designed to mimic. Serenity playfully retorted that so much sugar would probably disagree with him.
"I trust not," the Prince replied, gazing warmly at his lady-love, "but then I have the rest of my life to find out." And before Serenity could stop him, he had sprung to his feet to claim the attention of those at the lower tables. Buoyed by his affection (or perhaps by the extra glass or two of wine he had drunk), he made short work of announcing the reason for his great happiness: not only had he and his friends been freed from the wizard's enchantment, but also the Lady Serenity had consented to be his wife.
The cheering began all over again, while the Prince bowed and Serenity blushed; and the crowds would not be satisfied until he had proved the truth of his proclamation with a kiss.
Not to be outdone, the King stood next - although he had the good sense to glance at Beauty for her permission before he did so. The look in her eyes would have been enough to propel him to much greater feats than addressing his subjects, and he found himself suddenly wishing there was another basilisk he could fight.
"You will doubtless remember," he began, "that before the wizard visited us, the castle was rather overpopulated by a variety of noblewomen, all of whom had arrived at my invitation because they hoped to be the next Queen of Lochlein. Searching for a wife was a worthy goal, but at the time I did not realize that I was going about it all wrong. I must have met hundreds of them, but there was never one who caught my interest, and I was left to wonder why they could not see past the King to the man beneath. I was later to learn that their attention to me was just as superficial as mine was to them.
"Meeting Beauty and Serenity was quite a revelation, for they did not see me as a King or even as a man, but only as a Beast. This angered me at first, then puzzled me, and finally saddened me - for I knew that I was more than my appearance, if only I could show them. Serenity was always kind and polite to me, but all too soon she was called away on her quest to rescue Prince Cheerful from the glass coffin. Even then it was clear where her heart lay, though it took me some time to admit it. And I will make sure you appreciate everything she has done for you!"
He tried to glare as his friend the Prince, but the effect was ruined by the smile that would keep breaking out from behind his stern fašade. Princess Graceful laughed with the others, but she was amazed once again - she had seen her brother smile and tease more this evening than at any time in the past few years! She hoped she was correct about the announcement he was about to make, but just to be sure she kept her fingers crossed underneath the tablecloth.
The King continued, "It would be something of an understatement to say that Beauty and I did not get on very well at first." A chuckle of muted merriment ran around the hall after this remark - being invisible had not deprived most of those present of their ability to see and hear, and the King's encounters with Beauty had had more witnesses than either of them knew. "However, you will all be pleased to learn that her opinion of me has improved somewhat, and I will endeavor to keep her so favorably inclined. It is less important for me to think that I have finally chosen a Queen than it is for me to most gratefully realize that Beauty has chosen me as her husband."
Beauty could only smile and be glad at this further evidence of how the King had changed since she first met him. She did not need to wait for the shouted encouragement of the guests in the hall before rising to stand beside the man she loved, winding her arms about his neck, and placing a warm kiss on his mouth, which the King returned with equal ardor. Serenity, Prince Cheerful, and the others at the high table, who were hearing this very glad news for the first time, were generous with their congratulations.
Several hours later, when the company in the banquet hall had finally had their fill of food and festivity, when the guests were finally persuaded to depart (but only with the promise of another celebration of a nuptial sort in the not-so-distant future), and when the two pairs of lovers could finally bear to be separated, Beauty and Serenity found themselves alone in their bedroom. The bevy of maids who had escorted them - twice as bustling now that they were visible - were not satisfied that their new mistresses were comfortable until they had built up the fire, turned down the beds, and dressed their two charges in wonderfully soft silken nightgowns.
Beauty sat on one of the beds, hugging her knees and watching Serenity comb out her long golden hair. "How nice it is to have the opportunity for another midnight conversation with my favorite sister after so long apart! I find I can hardly believe everything that has happened since the last time we spoke like this."
"Even your vivid imagination could not have made a dream this marvelous," Serenity answered, "so I am content to believe what has happened. And if it were a dream, I would not wish to ever awaken!"
"You love the Prince very much, do you not?" Beauty asked; she knew her sister well enough to understand what that new tilt in her smile meant.
"I do, most certainly - almost as much as you love your King." Just as perceptive, Serenity knew what her sister's new tone of voice implied.
"Oh, I cannot begin to say how dearly I love him, which is the most amazing thing of all! When did you ever know me to be at a loss for words?"
"Never," Serenity said, dryly. "I am glad to know that you will be happy with him, Beauty, as I will be with my dear Cheerful, but..."
"...But I will miss you dreadfully," Beauty finished for her. "It won't be the same, will it? You must promise to visit often, and to write even more often than that."
"Of course I will! And you must promise the same."
"You have my word," was the solemn answer. "But there is one more thing that we must promise each other."
"And what is that?" Serenity asked, curious.
"That having overcome witches and wizards and curses and quests and sorcerers and dragons to win our hearts' desires, we will live happily ever after."
And they did.
Once the victory celebration was done, and after the two pairs of lovers had agreed that they would certainly be the happiest people in all the kingdoms of the wide world, the first order of business was to inform Beauty and Serenity's family of the glad news. The King therefore sent his most splendid coach and two of his most impressive and grandly liveried heralds to fetch them from their small cottage on the edge of the deep dark forest.
The ear-splitting shriek that erupted from the throat of the woodcutter's wife when she beheld this magnificence was enough to bring all of her neighbors running. At first the good woman was convinced that it could only be a hallucination conjured by the witch next door (who still wasn't a witch, but try telling the woodcutter's wife that), and the fear that her family would never be free of the witch's spells promptly gave her a fit of hysterics. Perhaps a vision of a gilded coach was a warning sign that she would imminently be turned into a toad!
The heralds could not proclaim the events at Castle Lochlein until the woodcutter's wife had calmed down somewhat, after hearing Solemnity and Echo's usual assurances that they would not abandon her if she had to live under that comfortable lily pad in the mill pond. She did not believe the heralds at first, and even when they swore to her a second and then a third time that yes, they had seen Beauty and Serenity at the castle with their own eyes, and no, they were not goblins in disguise, sent by the witch next door to torment her. At last, the woodcutter's wife seized the parchment scroll to read it for herself - and there at the bottom was indeed the royal seal of Lochlein! Overcome by the thought of her daughters' very good fortune, she promptly had hysterics all over again. From this second attack, however, she recovered much more quickly than from the first - and without having to console herself with wondering whether flies tasted better than spiders!
The woodcutter's wife took a deep breath, drew herself up proudly, shook off her daughters' supporting arms, marched over to the witch - who was leaning over the fence of her kitchen garden, watching the proceedings with great interest - then snapped her fingers right under the witch's nose, and cried triumphantly, "Ha!" Then she bustled back into her own cottage and created a marvelous uproar with her preparations for the journey to Castle Lochlein.
(I should point out that the so-called witch was not at all offended by the remarkable behavior of the woodcutter's wife - quite the contrary, in fact. No sooner had the woodcutter's wife disappeared behind her righteously slammed door than the "witch" was doubled over with laughter. She had become quite used to her sister's misapprehension about her magical talents over the past few months and took a great deal of amusement from playing along with the joke. Along with all of her fashionable black dresses, she had acquired a pointy black hat, a black cat, and a broom made from a rickety bundle of twigs. And whenever she made a big pot of soup, she always took care that the woodcutter's wife, looking out her own kitchen window, could see her mysteriously muttering over it as she stirred in the seasonings.)
So it was that a few days later, a very harried-looking Echo and Solemnity descended from the gilded coach at the gates of Castle Lochlein, followed by the woodcutter and his wife. By the look on their sisters' faces, Beauty and Serenity could guess that their mother hardly drew breath for the entire trip.
She was actually still talking as she was handed out of the coach, but her amazement at the grandeur of Castle Lochlein silenced her, if only temporarily. Her intimidation lasted through her introduction to the King - eyes wide and mouth shut, she just managed to bob a respectable curtsey - but she had recovered her powers of speech by the time she was presented to Prince Cheerful. "Oh, your Highness," she chattered as he smiled at her, "I am certain you could not find a better wife than my darling Serenity! Oh, it is too much happiness! A prince, and heir to a kingdom! I was sure she could not be so beautiful for nothing! Even Beauty has exceeded my hopes, I must admit, for I never imagined she would do better than the son of the blacksmith, who lives just down the lane from our little cottage, with whom she would have been quite well settled, even if he does have something of a limp, poor lad, from the time he accidentally dropped that horseshoe on his foot..."
Serenity took her mother's arm and steered her towards the entrance of the castle with the ease of long practice. At the same time, the King appeared at Beauty's elbow to give her a reassuring smile and to help her greet her father. The woodcutter embraced his second daughter warmly and murmured into her hair that he had not heard two words of sense spoken together since she and Serenity had left home. He did not refuse the King's hand when it was offered, although he looked over the younger man narrowly before he accepted it; he must have liked what he saw, for he declared that his favorite daughter had certainly found herself a worthy husband. Beauty blushed to hear her father's praise, but of course she could only agree.
The voice of the woodcutter's wife reached them again presently, from where she waited by the great doors of the castle. The sorcerer Steadfast and the fairy Elegant had come forward to meet the new arrivals, causing the woodcutter's wife to reach a new and even higher pitch of excitement. Oh, what luck for her girls! To have not one but two practitioners of real magic at their wedding! With such powerful friends looking after them, surely they could expect nothing but the best fortune after this!
At last she turned to her husband, to include him in her raptures. "And just think! Even if that nasty witch next door had succeeded in turning me into a toad, the sorcerer or the fairy could very likely have turned me back again, and all would still be well!"
"HMPH!" was the woodcutter's emphatic reply. The four girls looked at their father in amazement. After so many years, was it possible? Had he finally lost patience with their mother's misguided fancies? They waited anxiously for him to continue, and they did not have to wait long.
"No more toads, wife! If it was at all necessary to turn you into a toad or turn you out of one, I am perfectly capable of doing it myself! It has been many years since I retired from practicing the magic arts, but I haven't forgotten a bit of it, I assure you!" This pronouncement surprised the woodcutter's wife so much that she was struck entirely mute, giving the woodcutter a quiet moment to face the sorcerer and shake his hand. "Ah, Steadfast, old bean. Been a while since we met, hasn't it?"
Steadfast blinked for a moment, but then his face lit with recognition, and he flung his arms around the woodcutter. "Sardonic, you rascal! My long-lost brother! You disappeared after going off to negotiate with that manticore, and everyone in the sorcerers' council thought you were dead! Come inside, and tell me what you have been doing all these years!"
The revelation that their father was a sorcerer, albeit a retired one, was startling to say the least, and the woodcutter's four daughters were eager to hear his explanation. However, no matter how much they wheedled and begged and pleaded, he would not tell the story until he was ready. When everyone was finally settled into the guest quarters and had washed off the dust of the road, after they had exchanged their travelling garments for fresh clothes, and after they had eaten a refreshing dinner, only then did the woodcutter consent to satisfy their curiosity.
He smiled to himself as his daughters vied with each other to make him comfortable. Would he be more relaxed in the drawing room, instead of at the dinner table? Wouldn't he rather sit in this chair, closer to the window so he could feel the cool breeze from the garden? Would he like a footstool on which to rest his feet? Could they fetch him another glass of wine?
When their ministrations were done, he sat quietly for another few moments, meditatively puffing on his pipe and glancing around the room before he began. His daughters watched him attentively, hardly recognizing their own father; Steadfast had insisted upon loaning his brother his second-best robe, so that they were seeing him dressed for the first time as befit his sorcerous rank.
Sardonic relished this rare opportunity to be the center of attention, for it had suited him in the past years to be only a quiet presence in his family. While his wife was working herself into yet another frenzy over an imagined magical curse, or making herself sick with anxiety that her neighbor's chickens were laying better than her own, he had been content to let his daughters soothe her fears. They attended to this task all the better knowing that they did not also need to soothe their father, whose capacity for maintaining an unruffled temper exceeded even Serenity's. He would chuckle quietly over his wife's folly, exchange a wry smile with Beauty, and then pick up his axe and go back to work in the deep dark forest behind their cottage.
His tale was quite simple, and quickly told. Having been born into a family that had a tradition of producing sorcerers and enchantresses for generation after generation, his magical powers were discovered when he was very young. He completed the necessary apprenticeships, rising from magician to wizard to sorcerer in a short time. Yet even when his credentials were established, he did not end his studies. His chief delight was researching magical creatures, and it soon ceased to surprise his friends that he would travel hundreds of leagues to debate philosophy with a centaur, or that he would risk the cold northern seas to learn the finer points of swimming technique from a selkie. This specialized knowledge made him much in demand when small villages would come under attack by these creatures; such was his growing fame that he would be recognized, and the creature causing the trouble would be willing to stop and talk about his grievance. In most cases, the dispute would be solved peacefully, and he would receive congratulations from all sides.
However, the young Sorcerer Sardonic still felt that there was something missing in his life. Having grown up in a magical family, and studied with magical friends, and practiced sorcery with magical peers, he found he lacked knowledge of those who had no magic. He could not quite understand why the villagers would thank him so profusely for saving their homes, since for him rebuilding a house was as easy as snapping his fingers. Likewise he was puzzled by the farmers who thanked him so heartily for averting the destruction of their fields, since for him reaping a harvest would take no more than a wave of his hand.
Therefore he decided that he would try an experiment. After finding a small and pleasant village with a vacant cottage at its outskirts, he presented himself as a woodcutter and took up residence there. From the moment he entered the village, he performed no magic and so learned what satisfaction could be earned from his own honest toil. To his surprise, he found that he enjoyed it. It pleased him that the axe would swing straight and true only because of the strength in his hands and arms, and it pleased him more that the other villagers came to appreciate his woodcutting skills.
By the time he surprised himself further by falling in love with one of the prettiest girls in the village, he was a well-accepted member of the little community, and no one raised a voice to object to the marriage. If his wife soon afterwards lost her youthful bloom and proved to be rather sillier than he expected, he did not allow himself to be distressed; by then his five daughters were sufficient consolation, and he felt no desire to return to his previous magical life.
"And have you really never used magic again, from that day to this?" Beauty was the first to speak when her father's tale was done, as he had expected. Though initially awed with the rest of them, she soon perceived that his new robes did nothing to hide the familiar twinkle in his eye - and after all, a change of clothes was not enough to make her love her father any less.
"Well," he answered, "I confess I performed a few very small spells, but only far out in the woods, where you and your sisters and your mother would not see. In particular, there was an old hollow tree stump that became an ideal scrying pool when it was filled with rainwater after a storm. There I could watch you and Serenity and Caprice after you went away and reassure myself that you weren't getting into too much mischief."
"Papa, you didn't!" Beauty cried. Her mind had immediately presented her with some of her most embarrassing episodes of the past months, and she was mortified to think her father might have witnessed them.
"Be easy, my dear," he said. "I could not watch you constantly, and in any case I could only see each of you for a few moments at a time. I had no intention of prying into your affairs but only wished to know that you were well, as I can see you are." He gestured for Serenity to come beside him as well. "Now tell me - are you both very happy?"
"Yes, papa," Serenity replied, glancing back towards Prince Cheerful.
"Yes indeed, papa," said Beauty, stealing a similar glance towards the King.
Sardonic smiled, but his eyes were suspiciously bright. "Then I suppose I must give you my blessing and somehow learn to do without you."
The only possible reply Beauty and Serenity could make to this was to embrace their father tightly, glad to know for certain that his robes did not make him so very intimidating after all.
The next day, Beauty entertained her sister Echo by taking her on a tour of the castle. Echo vaguely admired the lovely furnishings, but she seemed easily distracted by another subject, which puzzled Beauty greatly. When did her sister take such an interest in shoes?
Did Beauty know who had made the lovely, dainty slippers that the maids had brought for her to wear that morning? Were not the stitches in the soles very tiny? Could she conceive how difficult it must have been to stretch the silk just so? Bewildered, Beauty turned to her sister and requested an explanation of her newfound passion for footwear. She became even more mystified when she saw the blush that colored Echo's cheeks.
However, Echo's secret was revealed quickly, for she had only wanted an opportunity to confess her happiness. Her sisters were not the only members of the family soon to be wed! On that day - oh, like yesterday, it seemed! - when their mother had paraded them all down to the crossroads in the market square, when their fates were determined by goosefeathers and the passing breeze, little had Echo suspected what would happen!
As Beauty no doubt remembered, the direction Echo's feather had taken did not at first seem very fortuitous. The eastern road away from the marketplace led nowhere but back to the woodcutter's cottage, and as they had met no potential suitors on the walk from the cottage, it seemed hardly likely that Echo would meet one on the return trip. At the time, she had hardly been thinking of a husband at all - she was far to busy first with wishing she could have followed Caprice, and then with the pain of a stone she picked up in her shoe.
It was a very sharp stone, and even in the short time required for her to limp to the side of the road so that she could take off her shoe and be rid of it, the stone gave her a blister. Imagine her surprise, then, when she heard a voice from behind her, offering assistance! It was none other than the village cobbler, who had been gathering mushrooms for his dinner, and who had taken a shortcut which had brought him out of the woods at this very spot beside the road.
Echo had seen him in the village on occasion, perhaps passing him in the street on market days, but never had she noticed what a charming smile he had, or how very lively and sparkling were his eyes. And so clever, too! Why, in no time he had helped her take off her shoe and remove the offending stone - and immediately he noticed that the shoe was made to fit too loosely on her foot, which was how she must have picked up the stone in the first place! He promised that if she would visit his shop on the morrow, he would undertake to make for her the most comfortable, best fitting pair of shoes she had ever owned.
The young cobbler was as good as his word, for Echo's new pair of shoes was certainly better than any she had worn before. And perhaps it was that her feet were no longer pinched and chafed, or perhaps it was the young man's sparkling eyes, but Echo and the cobbler managed to fall in love because of those new shoes - and they were to be married just as soon as she returned home!
Beauty was overjoyed for her sister and enveloped her in a happy embrace. But if their hearts were so well intended for each other, why should they delay? At a word from the King, the young man could be brought here to Castle Lochlein, to share in the celebrations!
Echo thanked her sister for the thought but firmly demurred. Her cobbler was a simple fellow, and he would likely feel awkward and uncomfortable in such rich surroundings. No, they would wait to have a quiet ceremony with the rest of their friends at home.
And besides, Echo told her sister, she had a much more important reason for keeping the engagement in secret: she had not yet told their mother. Since the cobbler was neither a sorcerer nor a prince nor a king, he would be insufficiently exalted to satisfy the woodcutter's wife; not only would he not be good enough for her daughter, but also he would not do to break the false witch's imaginary curse! Everything would work out much better once Beauty and Serenity were married, for then the woodcutter's wife could make no objection to Echo's choice of husband.
Beauty laughed at this reasoning, but she had to agree it was just how their mother would react. However, even if Echo would not consent to have her wedding celebrated with that of her sisters, Beauty would not let her depart from Castle Lochlein without a suitable gown for the occasion and something special in the way of a wedding present.
The army of maids and ladies-in-waiting who attended to Beauty's wardrobe provided the first of these, and so a few weeks later everyone back at the woodcutter's village said that Echo certainly did make a lovely bride. (And this was not even a surprise to those who remembered when the woodcutter's wife was one of the prettiest girls in the village - it was only natural that her daughters should take after her.) The fairy Elegant herself provided a wedding present for the happy pair: the sharpest and slenderest steel needle that anyone in the village had ever seen, which could pierce the toughest leather as if it were butter. With such an instrument to ply his trade, the cobbler could stitch together five pairs of shoes in the time that anyone else could finish one pair. Thus the cobbler's success was assured, and he and Echo would live very happily together.
Now while Beauty and Echo were walking through the corridors of the castle, Serenity entertained her sister Solemnity by showing her the garden. Solemnity dutifully admired the pretty flowers, but she seemed easily distracted by another subject, which puzzled Serenity greatly. Why should her sister wish for a vegetable patch in the midst of all these ornamental plants?
Did Serenity notice that those rough walls would be just the thing to support some climbing beans? Would not that sunny spot be a perfect place to grow some pumpkins? Could she imagine these paths lined with tomatoes instead of lavender? Bewildered, Serenity turned to her sister and requested an explanation of her newfound passion for lettuces. She became even more mystified when she saw the blush that colored Solemnity's cheeks.
However, Solemnity's secret was revealed quickly, for she had only wanted an opportunity to confess her happiness. Her sisters were not the only members of the family soon to be wed! On that day - oh, like yesterday, it seemed! - when their mother had paraded them all down to the crossroads in the market square, when their fates were determined by goosefeathers and the passing breeze, little had Solemnity suspected what would happen!
As Serenity no doubt remembered, the direction Solemnity's feather had taken did not at first seem very fortuitous. The western road away from the marketplace led nowhere but out to the common farming land of the village, and it seemed hardly likely that any eligible suitors would be found in that direction. At the time, she had hardly been thinking of a husband at all - she was far to busy first with finding a shady tree under which she could seat herself, and then with reading the new book of organic farming methods she had carried along.
It was a very interesting book, and in moments she was immersed in detailed passages about irrigation, useful insects, fertilizers, and crop rotation. Imagine her surprise, then, when she heard a voice from behind her, startling her attention away from the engrossing pages! It was one of the younger farmers from the village, who had finished tending his crops for the day, and who had taken a shortcut which had brought him out of the fields at this very spot beside the road.
Solemnity had seen him in the village on occasion, perhaps passing him in the street on market days, but never had she noticed what a charming smile he had, or how very strong and broad were his shoulders. And so clever, too! Why, in no time he noticed the book she was reading - and immediately he asked her opinion about it! They were delighted to find that they were in perfect agreement about the book's most sensible suggestions, and they both questioned its more dubious instructions as well.
The young farmer became even more enthusiastic when he and Solemnity finally got around to introducing themselves - for hadn't she once won first prize with her squash at the village fair? He had been meaning to seek her out to ask her advice about the proper way to grow squash, but until now he had been too shy. And perhaps it was that he praised her gardening abilities, or perhaps it was the young man's broad shoulders, but Solemnity and the farmer managed to fall in love because of that prize squash - and they were to be married just as soon as she returned home!
Serenity was overjoyed for her sister and enveloped her in a happy embrace. But if their hearts were so well intended for each other, why should they delay? At a word from the Prince, the young man could be brought here to Castle Lochlein, to share in the celebrations!
Solemnity thanked her sister for the thought but firmly demurred. Her farmer was a simple fellow, and he would likely feel awkward and uncomfortable in such rich surroundings. No, they would wait to have a quiet ceremony with the rest of their friends at home.
And besides, Solemnity told her sister, she had a much more important reason for keeping the engagement in secret: she had not yet told their mother. Since the farmer was neither a sorcerer nor a prince nor a king, he would be insufficiently exalted to satisfy the woodcutter's wife; not only would he not be good enough for her daughter, but also he would not do to break the false witch's imaginary curse! Everything would work out much better once Beauty and Serenity were married, for then the woodcutter's wife could make no objection to Solemnity's choice of husband.
Serenity smiled at this reasoning, but she had to agree it was just how their mother would react. However, even if Solemnity would not consent to have her wedding celebrated with that of her sisters, Serenity would not let her depart from Castle Lochlein without a suitable gown for the occasion and something special in the way of a wedding present.
The army of maids and ladies-in-waiting who attended to Serenity's wardrobe provided the first of these, and so a few weeks later everyone back at the woodcutter's village said that Solemnity certainly did make a lovely bride. (And this was not even a surprise to those who remembered when the woodcutter's wife was one of the prettiest girls in the village - it was only natural that her daughters should take after her.) The sorcerer Steadfast himself provided a wedding present for the happy pair: the sharpest and strongest steel scythe that anyone in the village had ever seen, which could slice through the toughest plant stalks as if they were cobwebs. With such an instrument to ply his trade, the farmer could reap five fields of wheat in the time that anyone else could finish one. Thus the farmer's success was assured, and he and Solemnity would live very happily together.
Caprice was far too busy to bother with something as inconsequential as her sisters' wedding. The time wasted in traveling to and from Castle Lochlein could be used far more profitably elsewhere. (Besides, the gnome was still terrified by the thought of what the King and Counselor Gallant might do to him if he dared set so much as a toe within the boundary of the kingdom.)
Although at first they were inclined to bemoan their rotten luck in ending up married to each other, Caprice and the gnome soon discovered that the situation was better than they thought. While nuptial feeling was nonexistent, they worked very well as a business partnership. After all, their primary goal was the same: to accumulate a great deal of wealth in a very short time, with as little effort from themselves as possible - and hopefully great vexation to someone else.
Their schemes met with moderate success, for while neither of them was exactly intelligent, they were both crafty and clever. Many a young knight or nobleman, fooled by Caprice's cries for help into believing that she had been kidnapped by the gnome, was astonished to find himself the victim of a robbery instead of the hero of a rescue. The fraud could be perpetrated three or four times before the local authorities became suspicious, in which case the thieving pair would simply move their operation to a fresh locale.
The gnome would have been content to remain a highway bandit all his days, but Caprice was dissatisfied. She had left home with grand dreams of princes and castles and rooms piled high with gold coins, and a motley collection of stolen purses and pilfered jewelry was a pitifully slow way to bring those dreams into reality. How could they increase their "earnings"?
An apparent solution presented itself one bright sunny day as Caprice and the gnome neared a large rushing river. Even above the noise of the swirling water, a great splashing and thrashing was audible. Curious about what was happening, Caprice and the gnome dropped into the concealing grasses and crept cautiously nearer. What a strange sight met their eyes!
A tall, thin man was standing on the riverbank; he resembled nothing so much as a motley scarecrow, dried until the wind might blow him away. He was dressed gypsy fashion in clothes of every color: a yellow shirt, a green jacket with a leather belt, red breeches, and on his feet a much-battered pair of boots. On his head was a large felt hat and in its band was a scarlet cock's feather, which drooped nearly as much as his long mustache.
The strange man did not notice Caprice and the gnome peering at him from across the water, since his attention was fully occupied by the horde of rats racing by his feet. He unceasingly cried, "Hop! Hop!" and pointed with his finger to the middle of the river, where the water formed an enormous whirlpool. Without hesitating, the rats took the leap, swam straight to the whirlpool, plunged in head foremost and disappeared.
The teeming swarm continued unabated for a long while, until at last there came a large rat, white with age, who could only be the leader of them all. The white rat stopped and exchanged a few words with the strange man, and then he jumped into the river after the others. His work completed, the strange man turned and walked away.
Caprice and the gnome needed to share no more than a look. Something odd was going on here, and they were determined to find out what it was. Moving quickly, they searched about until they found a shallow part of the river where they could cross, and then they hurried after the strange tall man. By the time they caught up with him, it was dark, and the man had stopped for the night at a tiny traveler's inn. Caprice and the gnome positioned themselves outside the window, so they might hear what the man said to the innkeeper.
"A busy night you've had, master ratcatcher!" the innkeeper was saying.
"Yes, it was indeed, but I knew my pipe would not fail," the strange man answered.
"Well, the townsfolk will be glad tonight - the first good rest they will have had in a while, I'd wager, without all those rats chewing away in the walls of their houses. And now all that remains is for you to collect your fee! How much did the town council promise you for your work?"
"A gold crown per head," was the short reply.
There was an amazed whistle from the innkeeper. "That's more than fair, and no mistake. So just how many rats were there?"
"The leader, Blanchet, gave me his count before he went to join the others. There were nine hundred and ninety thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine, well reckoned."
Caprice and the gnome listened no more. At a gold crown a head, the strange man was on his way to claim a fortune! And to think that this odd fellow earned it from catching rats! But how on earth did he do it? The gnome, who knew the uses of magic, could swear that the ratcatcher had worked no spells. Wait...what was that pipe he had mentioned? Perhaps it was enchanted! If they could steal it for themselves, then its power could bring them riches!
Their plan was no sooner imagined than it was carried out. Once the ratcatcher was asleep, the gnome crept into his room on silent feet, and his inquisitive fingers soon found the pipe bundled onto a chair with the man's discarded clothing. In the blink of an eye, he was outside the inn again, and he and Caprice went dashing down the road. By the time the sun rose, they were congratulating themselves for a clean getaway and a very fine trick - just imagine the ratcatcher's face when he awoke to discover the loss of his magical pipe!
By the time the sun cleared the hills and spread its rays gently over the countryside, however, their attitude had undergone a marked change. Catastrophe - again! Caprice's pragmatic temperament made her wish always to test her new toys before she entrusted to them the success of any enterprise that might yield monetary reward. So she therefore snatched the pipe out of the gnome's hands, put it to her lips, and attempted to trill a few notes. A more cacophonous avalanche of sound has surely never been heard before or since! But that the noise was not musical was the least of their worries - more disturbing was the discovery that Caprice's performance did not call forth any rats that might have been lurking in the hedgerows.
No, Caprice could not make the pipe summon rats. Instead it brought skunks! She and the gnome took one look at the black and white flood that approached them, then she let out a shriek and he let out and oath, and they both pelted down the road, helter-skelter in the opposite direction, as fast as their feet could carry them.
When they finally left the skunks behind and had caught their breath, there were a quite a few angry words exchanged. Obviously Caprice should have let the gnome try the pipe first; after all, it was obvious which member of this reluctant partnership had more magical experience. Under his skillful fingers, the pipe would certainly operate as it was intended. Before Caprice could object, he snatched the pipe away from her and began to play it. Alas, the honking and snorting that resulted when the gnome tried an arpeggio was even more discordant than an angry elephant with a head cold.
The gnome could not make the pipe conjure rats, either. Instead it brought porcupines! He and the Caprice took one look at the prickly herd that approached them, then he let out a shout and she let out an oath, and they both pelted down the road, helter-skelter in the opposite direction, as fast as their feet could carry them.
When they finally left the porcupines behind and had caught their breath (really, this was entirely too much running for one morning!), there were yet more angry words exchanged. At last it was agreed that they would make one more effort before giving the pipe up as useless. But which one of them should make the final attempt? Caprice said that she should play the pipe - even if her playing still brought skunks, they were still animals that some grateful town might pay well to be rid of. Perhaps they could use the pipe to lure the skunks into a town first, and then lure them out again later? However, the possible odor from nine hundred and ninety thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine skunks was something to consider...
The gnome scoffed at the very idea. Only he should play the pipe - even if his playing still brought porcupines, some grateful town would pay much more to be rid of them than it would for skunks. Or had she never discovered just how painful the sting of a thrown porcupine quill was? Far worse than the temporary bother of a bad smell, he assured her. He grudgingly admitted that her idea about luring the animals into the town first did have some merit, however.
Caprice would not budge from her opinion, and neither would the gnome, but a quick arm-wrestling match settled the matter. Caprice won, of course - and smugly grabbed the pipe away from the gnome again. This time she was more cautious; she tried no trills, no scales, and no cadenzas. She simply put her lips to the pipe and played a single note, quietly at first, then growing in volume as her confidence increased. She ended without even a wrong squeak from the pipe and looked triumphantly at the gnome, as much as to say that it had only been a matter of time before her natural talent shone though. (Maybe they could earn their living for a while as itinerant musicians? She thought she had heard of a town - Bremen, wasn't it? - where unique music was much appreciated.)
But then there was a slight rustle in the bushes that lined one side of the road. And then there was a louder rustle from the bushes that lined the other side of the road. And then there burst upon them a perfect sea of small brown rodents, hundreds upon hundreds of whiskers and tails and paws and bright black eyes, pouring down the road in unending numbers.
Caprice and the gnome turned and fled, but their earlier running had tired them, and the small animals that pursued them were very swift. It was the most they could do to stay at the very front of the seething torrent, enduring the occasional nip from the sharp teeth at their heels. They were nearing the end of their strength when they looked up ahead and realized with fright where the lemmings were driving them: towards the edge of a cliff!
With a last desperate surge of exertion, they leaped out of the way just in time and lay collapsed on the ground as the animals raced past them. Last of all came the leader of the lemmings, white with age, and he stopped for a moment to stare at them.
"Nine hundred and ninety thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine, well reckoned," he said. Then he reached out a paw and took the ratcatcher's pipe from out of Caprice's nerveless fingers, saying, "And let this be a lesson to you, of the dangers of meddling with things you do not understand!" Then he leaped after the rest of his comrades and disappeared.
This episode did have some small effect upon Caprice and the gnome, since it was by far the worst mess in which they had ever entangled themselves. However, their reformation lasted only as long as their fright did, and they lost the lesson as soon as they could laugh about it and forget it.
And so did their adventures ever continue.
At Castle Lochlein, preparations for the wedding continued apace. The woodcutter's wife was in her element in the midst of this hustle and bustle, for she insisted upon being allowed to inspect every detail of the arrangements - only the best for her daughters! For the most part, the staff of the castle managed to work around her, letting her be involved enough for her own satisfaction, but not enough to actually hamper their efforts. However, she made a serious error when she invaded the sacrosanct precinct of the castle kitchens. The only person who unequivocally would not tolerate her meddling was the head chef, a man of inspired culinary creativity and volatile temper. The woodcutter's wife dared to question his choice of ingredients for the wedding cake - a masterpiece of the confectioner's art, which would entirely eclipse the achievement of the garden fantasy cake served at the victory banquet - and the head chef retaliated instantly. He drove the woodcutter's wife out of his kitchens in a rout that would be forever known in the history of Castle Lochlein as "The Great Egg Battle."
For their part, Beauty and Serenity had hardly a thought to spare to wonder what mischief their mother was getting into. Most of their time was spent being distractedly in love with their fiancÚs - exchanging lopsided smiles, staring deeply into each other's eyes over the luncheon table, strolling hand in hand beside the moat, and even composing the occasional sonnet. Any time left over from that all-important business was used to welcome the many guests who were arriving daily at the castle, each of them eager to take part in the festivities.
Beauty was pleased to see once more the people who had helped her with the quest to rescue Princess Graceful. The miller's daughter and her dwarfish husband came, as did the king from whom Beauty had won the diamond flask. Not far behind was the queen from whom she had won the emerald watch - escorted by none other than the Ebony Prince! The prince had undergone quite a reformation, and he had Beauty to thank for it, as he confided to her when they stood aside from the other guests for a short conversation. Her words, upbraiding him for his immense vanity, he had taken to heart, so the queen's profession of love touched him more deeply than he ever expected. Finally beginning to understand the error of his previous ways, he vowed that he would mend his faults for her sake. Therefore the queen had agreed to marry him, but with one condition: he could not look at himself in a mirror for a year and a day before they would be wed. This demand had appeared reasonable to the prince, so he had accepted the challenge. The fairy Elegant, who was the prince's godmother, as Beauty no doubt recalled, was providing additional encouragement at the prince's request. Instead of enchanting all the mirrors in the prince's kingdom (which might have caused some difficulty for his subjects), she had cast a small spell over the prince himself, so that if he looked at his reflection he would be transformed into a peacock once more.
Some old friends had also come to pay their respects to Serenity, whom they remembered from her quest to find Castle Rahonain. The three fishermen were the first to appear, pleased to know of her success and wishing her every happiness with Prince Cheerful. In addition, they carried greetings from the Eagle, the Ant, and the Fish, all of whom sent Serenity their fondest greetings.
After the fishermen departed to seek their chambers, a woman approached. Serenity thought she looked familiar, but she had to look again before she realized who it was. She dipped a hasty curtsey and nearly reached for Prince Cheerful, wanting him to make his bow also, but the woman stopped her.
Amazingly, she smiled - surely an expression that Serenity had never seen on her face before! "You need not make any bow to me, my dear. Having given up my kingdom, now I have also given up my title. Thanks to the intercession of the fairy Elegant, I have come here today to bring you a gift, and thanks to another I am Scornful no longer."
She who had once been Queen Scornful went on to explain her altered situation. Serenity had left the island before the former Queen's final confrontation with fairy Elegant, so now for the first time she heard how the Queen had been stripped of her stolen magical powers and left to contemplate her crimes. She thought long and hard of all the wrongs she had done - after all, there was not much else to do, alone as she was on that island behind the setting sun. She came to know both regret and remorse, but what finally undid her was the thought of her dear father. He had loved her so much, but what would he think of his daughter now, were he alive to see her?
Her tears and anguish that night seemed to call forth an equal storm from the heavens, with thunder raging across the sky and the wind whipping the ocean waves to dizzying heights all around the island. When the Queen's tears at last abated, the storm did too, and it was with the first light of day shining on her tearstained face that she resolved to renew herself. Feeling a need for some fresh air, she wrapped herself in a warm cloak and went for a walk along the beach. She had not gone far from the castle when she found, to her surprise, a man sprawled unconscious upon the sands, the apparent victim of a shipwreck that must have occurred during the previous night's storm.
Somehow she managed to get him back inside the castle and into a warm bed, and over the next few weeks she tended his injuries until he had regained his strength. It mattered not to her whether he was prince or peasant; he was simply a man who needed her help, and so she gave it.
The unknown sailor and the Queen had many days and evenings of quiet conversation as his wounds healed; most wondrous of all - though it may be no surprise to those who are familiar with this sort of tale - the Queen felt herself falling in love with this stranger, as if her heart had finally been healed as well. Keeping in mind her resolution to move beyond her old self and gathering her courage, one day she told the sailor about her past, all the horrible things she had done, and how she had earned the name Scornful.
The man was silent for a long moment, but when the Queen dared at last to look into his eyes, she found him smiling at her.
"That may have been your name once, but I could never use it to address you now. The woman who has shown me such kindness over these weeks deserves something better. In my eyes, you are like the world's most precious and rarest flower, blooming here alone amidst the ocean's wilderness - and so, if you will permit it, I would call you Florimonde."
The Queen's happiness was great to hear this, but the man went on to increase it by assuring her that her love was returned - he had only kept silent out of the fear that her feelings were not the same as his. Then it was his turn to confess his past.
He was not a common sailor, he said, but a royal exile like herself. Once he had ruled his own kingdom, with a bright future and nothing he could possibly lack: subjects who respected him, and a young wife who adored him. However, his life was shattered in just one night. His dear queen was brought to bed early of their first child, and though physicians and midwives struggled mightily, both lives were lost. Such a calamity he could never have imagined, and his inconsolable grief became a kind of madness. He neglected his kingdom, leaving its rule to his lords and ministers, and instead spent all his days weeping over the grave where his wife and infant son had been buried together.
His life became a torment, for everywhere he looked were reminders of what he had lost. In blackest despair, he threw down his crown and scepter; then one night he stole down to the harbor, found a small boat, and sailed away. In his travels, he faced many dangers and discovered many pleasant lands, but always his grief drove him onwards, back to the sea and his restless flight.
But no grief lasts forever, even one so deep and raw as his. One day he woke to realize that his wife's face was no longer a constant image in his mind. He remembered her still, but those thoughts were of the happy times they had spent together, only slightly tinged with melancholy. Now he wondered what had become of his kingdom in his absence. He was amazed to discover, when he stopped at a small fishing village for provisions and news, that he had been at sea for seven years. Immediately he decided that he must return home; either his subjects would forgive him and let him take up the reins of his kingship once again, or they would have replaced him and he must now face their judgment for desertion. No matter the result, he still must go.
However, one thing he had learned in the past years was that the sea's will is often different than that of the men who steer the vessels on its surface. The winds pushed him off course or refused to blow at all; currents pulled him everywhere but his one chosen direction. Then at last, there was a mighty storm, greater than any he and his little boat had weathered before, which tossed him about like a feather. Six enormous waves he survived, but the seventh swept him off the deck and into the water; he thought he would surely perish.
His relief to find himself alive, with his hurts being cared for, could not be expressed. As his body mended, his heart became more and more enamored with the lady who tended him; how could he fail to love the beautiful face, the soothing voice, the deft hands, and above all the indomitable spirit she possessed? Having suffered so greatly himself, he could see the same marks in her. Now that they had both survived, was it not right that they should be together?
When he asked her if she would leave the island with him, to re-enter the world and be his wife, she flung her arms about his neck and joyfully said yes. At that moment, a white dove fluttered in at the window, wearing a small scroll tied on a ribbon around its neck; it could only be a messenger from the fairy Elegant. The Queen was briefly afraid - had she done something to break her bargain with the fairy? Would her departure not be permitted? However, the message when read was reassuring, and they soon learned that the fairy meant to assist them. Very pleased with the changes the Queen had undergone, and sympathetic to the shipwrecked king's plight, she had sent her golden chariot to carry them away from the island. However, before she took them back to the Sailor King's homeland, there was one stop she thought they should make first.
"And so I have come here," concluded the Queen - or Florimonde, as we should now call her. "I will not stay, but I wished to give you a present in honor of your wedding." She held out a heavy iron key, which Serenity took, a question showing plainly in her eyes. "Yes, it is the key to the front gate of Castle Rahonain. It was my hope that you and your Prince might find it a suitably isolated and romantic spot for a honeymoon. Afterwards the fate of the castle is up to you: keep it if you like, or throw the key away and let some future adventurer discover it."
Then she kissed Serenity on the cheek and took her leave. Serenity was still waving farewell at her retreating figure when Prince Cheerful turned to her and wanted to know with whom she had been speaking all this time. Serenity assured him that it would be quite a story, and some of it he knew already - but she was glad to say there was a happy ending.
At last the joyous day arrived! The wedding of Beauty and Serenity with the King of Lochlein and Prince Cheerful was such a grand and magnificent affair that it would be talked of and remembered for generations to come. The citizens of Lochlein would fondly repeat every detail for their children, who in turn passed it to their children, and onward down the years so that the magical tale of the castle's enchantment and its rescue by the brave and beautiful woodcutter's daughters was never lost from memory. The opulent clothes worn by the wedding guests! The delicious food served at the wedding banquet! The many toasts offered by Counselor Gallant! (Three hundred and ninety-six, one for each of the guests of honor, and every single one in rhyme...obviously he retained some of the talents he owned when he was a Fox! His sly cleverness was also very useful when it was time to renegotiate trading agreements with the neighboring kingdoms.)
Beauty and the King made speeches and accepted everyone's congratulations, but they never really took their eyes off one another; Graceful applauded and laughed in all the right places at everything they said, ecstatically happy for her brother and new sister. Prince Cheerful and Serenity would have spent the whole night dancing, if the court musicians could have kept up with them, and then they slipped off to a corner for some quiet conversation to make up for the days and weeks of togetherness that they had missed while he was locked in the glass coffin. The sorcerer Sardonic beamed impartially at everyone; his habit of silence was hard to shake, so it was difficult for him to express his pleasure. Eventually his brother Steadfast spared him the difficulty of even trying, whisking him off to the library with the aid of the fairy Elegant so they could hear more about his past adventures. Thus they managed to elude the mother of the brides, whose joy continually overflowed in glad tears all evening as she circulated through the guests. (Her every step was shadowed by a page bearing spare handkerchiefs and smelling salts - a thankless task, but the fellow received a sizeable bonus with his week's wages that made it all worthwhile.)
The festivities lasted for seven days and seven nights, each more wonderful than the one before. A little mouse managed to steal a crumb of the wedding cake on the seventh night, and it was from him that I learned the whole story.