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La Belle Laide

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Once upon a time, there were three sisters. The first was named Glory, and she was the most beautiful woman in the world. The second was called Splendor, and she was yet still more beautiful. The youngest was the fairest of all, and her name was Beauty.

Beauty only came out at night.

Their father was a wealthy merchant who had made his fortune in the shipping trade. His wife had died in childbirth, and because of this he doted on his three daughters. He brought them beautiful dresses in exotic styles and fabrics, and enormous jewels set in necklaces of precious metals.

For Beauty, he brought blood.

The merchant was a shrewd businessman, who made his fortune by taking good chances and finding strange and beautiful things from stranger, more beautiful places. But one day, his luck turned, and his ships were lost at sea. Within a few days, it was known that his estates were ruined. His creditors came and took away the beautiful dresses and the enormous jewels and left the family with nothing. The merchant’s health began to fail as well.

Beauty would have her blood.

The merchant decided to move his family to a small village, far away from the city that had ruined him. They adjusted slowly to plain country life. Glory swept the cottage and cooked the meals. Splendor mended cloth and bargained for food at the market. Their father sat in a chair by the fire, dozing and dreaming of his old life.

Beauty hunted for strangers.

One day, a messenger came from the city with word that one of the merchant’s ships had been found. He must return to settle the ship’s affairs, and to pay debts, and perhaps to pocket any money that was left over. “Our fortunes may be turning,” he said to his daughters. “Is there some token you would ask of me, as I remember you while I am far away?” Glory asked for a necklace of diamonds. Splendor asked for a gown of silk.

Beauty said, “Give me something to eat.”

The merchant’s journey was long and slow, and his return was longer and slower, for winter had fallen by the time he finished his business. As he was nearing home, he was overtaken by a fierce blizzard and found that he had lost his way. He struggled on, anxious to find some warm place to take shelter. After some time, he realized that the snow had stopped falling and that he had come upon an enormous castle. He entered, calling out his sad story and begging shelter and sustenance from the castle’s lord.

The lord left him alive.

When the merchant returned home, he told his daughters of his journeys. “I could not bring you jewels or fine dresses,” he said. “I brought you nothing but my bones, and fortunate am I to have even those. On my journey home, I sheltered in the castle of a great and monstrous demon, who spared my life only so that I might send one of my daughters to die in my stead. I would not have allowed this terrible bargain, but he cast me out with his magic and I could not find the way back to him. He sent with me this cursed rose as a token.”

“I smell him,” Beauty said.

Though her family begged, Beauty would not be dissuaded from taking her father’s place. Her sisters cried, and her father fell to his knees before her in his grief. Still she packed her few possessions, took up the rose, and roamed the woods in search of the dread sorcerer. When she found him, she entreated him prettily for her life, and he agreed to let her live, so long as she lived with him as his bride.

His corpse fell to the floor, and she licked his blood from her teeth.

The sorcerer soon grew to love Beauty, for she was gracious and wise as well as beautiful. He brought her trinkets to show his affection, and solicitously attended on her at dinner. He gave her the liberty of his entire estate, and did not deny her anything within his power to give.

“Fetch,” said Beauty, above the screams.

But Beauty was a cautious woman who did not give her affection easily. The sorcerer’s love for her began to wear him to the bone. He searched further and longer, faster and more desperately, in hopes of finding something that would win her love in return. But Beauty missed her family, and could not be satisfied apart from them. Finally, the sorcerer granted her leave to visit them, if she would only promise to return, for he could not live apart from her.

His fangs glinted faintly as she rode through the dark forest.

Her family was overjoyed to see her. They wept and clung to her, begging her to tell how she had survived the demon’s spells and freed herself and returned home. She showed them the sorcerer’s rose and explained sadly that while the sorcerer cared for her every need, he would not allow her to leave him for long. They beseeched her to cast aside the rose and flee from its terrible charm, but she knew that the spell was too strong. With heavy hearts, her sisters held her in their arms. They resolved to follow her to the castle and destroy the sorcerer.

Beauty tugged the nooses tighter around the necks of her shambling entourage.

When she returned to the castle, the sorcerer lay lifeless at the foot of his grand staircase. She wept over his breast and twisted the rose in her hands in relief and regret. As she confessed her love to his still form, a blazing light shone forth from the castle walls. Before her eyes, he was transfigured from his beastly form. She clutched him tightly, as the walls of the castle crumbled around them and his old magics cracked under the force of the change. Her sisters rushed to her side. Through the dust she spotted the pale face of her father. She bared her teeth.

“Your move,” she said.