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For always, forever

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The night of the great sandstorm, it happened that a merchant lost his way in the wilderness; and finding himself at the gates of a great mansion, took the liberty of entering. The place was tidy but empty, and served well as shelter for both the merchant and his horse. There was food in the pantry, and a hot supper laid out at an otherwise empty dining hall; at another time the merchant would have been wary of this, but he was cold and hungry and thirsty and exhausted, and after waiting a while to see whether anyone came, he sat down himself to eat, announcing to the empty hall that it would be a shame to see that much excellent food go to waste.

Sated, and warmed by the fire, he slept through the rest of the storm's wrath, and woke to a clear day. Once again there was food on the dining table, different from the meal the night before; once again he ate without question, and went outside. In the light of day he could see what he had missed the night before, in his hurry to find shelter, for within the mansion's outer walls there grew rows upon rows of rose bushes of every color and hue imaginable. He thought of his youngest daughter, who was renowned for her beauty, and without hesitation he broke off one of the roses, a bud barely open that was one of the few that had survived the wind and sand and now shone in the warm sunlight.

Immediately there rose a growling from the shadows, as of a great wild dog. "You dare," said a voice, and from the darkness a beast stepped out, larger than any dog, larger even than the bears that roamed the woods farther east, all coarse bristling fur and snarling fangs and great sharp claws that tapped against the walkway with each step. "You dare take something that does not belong to you?"

The merchant shrank back, clutching the rose in one hand such that the thorn pricked him and he bled without noticing it. "I meant no harm--"

"That," said the Beast, "is irrelevant. Intended or not, harm has still been done. How would you like it if someone took you-- yes. Yes. These are my lands, subject to my laws. Ten years that particular rose has grown here; ten years therefore shall be your penance. Ten years in my service, in my house, and you will learn to take only what you have been given."

The merchant's face turned grey with fear, and he dropped to his knees, begging for mercy. The Beast stood unmoved, and the merchant tried a different tack: "I have children -- not children, they are fully grown, but they live with me still. Take one of them in my place -- I can spare them, and they will serve you better, for they are younger, stronger, faster--"

But the Beast's great golden eyes, with pupils slitted like a cat's, narrowed. "You compound your error." The words came with cold fury. "You, not your children, have wronged me; you will be the one to pay the price for it. I will take what is mine and no more."

"Please," said the merchant, "what if they offer themselves as trade for me? What if they choose to make an exchange?"

"My law is my law," said the Beast slowly, "but if it is of their own choice, then yes, I will accept that. But if they are forced in any way, or if you seek to cheat me -- and I will know --"

The merchant trembled at that, and babbled promises of good faith.

"Go now," said the Beast, "and return tomorrow, either you or the one who will take your place."

The merchant made haste, and returned to his home, where his three daughters and three sons waited for him. He told them of the sandstorm, and of the great fearsome Beast, and of the ten-year penalty; and to his youngest daughter he gave the rose, which trembled in her hand.

"I will go in your place, Father," she said.

The merchant's other children protested, but not very strongly, for the sons were all apprenticed to good masters, and the oldest daughter was engaged to a local man of good standing and much wealth, and the middle daughter was not particularly motivated to do work of the sort that a Beast would require. Besides, they were jealous of their sister for her beauty, and were not sorry to see her leave. "Perhaps he shall even marry you," the oldest daughter taunted.

"Perhaps so," the youngest replied, "perhaps not." And she repeated to her father her insistence on going in his place, but she did not share her reasons.

Thus it was that the merchant came with his daughter to the great mansion, and the Beast met them at the gates. gazing in silent disapproval.

"Hello," said the merchant's daughter, and although she was afraid, her eyes were clear and her voice was steady. She curtsied very prettily, as though the Beast were a great lord. "I have come in my father's place to serve you, sir, as you see fit."

"Do you come of your own free will?" asked the Beast, as the merchant edged backwards.

"I do," she answered calmly.

"Then," the Beast said to the merchant, "I accept your trade; you may go."

Barely had the words left the Beast's mouth when the merchant turned and fled, tripping in his hurry to leave.

"I love you, Father!" cried his daughter after him, but the merchant paid no heed.

"Come," said the Beast after a moment's wretched silence; the harsh gravelly voice had gentled, more like the purr of a house-cat than the snarl of a wild animal. "Come; I will not hurt you."

"I know," said the merchant's daughter, for her trust and kindness ran as deep and rich as the bistre of her skin. And she went inside with the Beast, relieved in her heart that they walked separately, without either the possessive grip of a man with his property or the more lustful sort or touch of a man who saw the curves of her lips and breasts and hips as invitations to something more.

When they were inside the mansion, the Beast stopped, and said, "What is your name, my dear?"

"You may call me Beauty," she replied with a trace of bitterness to her voice. "Everyone does."

The Beast's great head dipped in acknowledgment of that, but the next question was, "Is that what you prefer?"

Beauty paused at that, for it was the first time anyone had asked her for a preference. To be called Beauty, to be praised for the curves of her body and the smoothness of her skin and for the broad halo of hair framing the warm symmetry of her face, was a compliment. It was meant as one and should be taken as one, or that is what she had always been told. At least she said, "My name is Ashaka, sir; but you may call me as it pleases you. I am not offended easily."

"Beauty suits you well," said the Beast, "but I prefer names over titles."

Gathering up her courage, Ashaka asked, "What am I to call you, then, sir? For I can hardly call you Be--" She stopped, flustered, as it occurred to her that 'Beast' might be an insult.

But the Beast smiled, a great flashing of teeth that was not nearly as alarming as it ought to have been. "There is no need to call me 'sir', for starters: I am your friend, if you will have me, not your master."

"But you told my father he would serve you--"

"That would have been your father's fate, but only as a punishment for what he chose to do. You are not your father. Further, I have no need of servants. Friends, though, are few indeed."

Ashaka considered that. "It is a strange sort of friendship," she mused, "that is based on ten years of confinement."

The face of a beast is more suited to anger than to embarrassment, but somehow the Beast managed the latter. "It does not need to be ten years--"

But Ashaka shook her head firmly, and did not let her brown eyes show anything other than calm resolve. "I said I would take my father's place for all that entailed," she said firmly. "I will stay for ten years."

"You will change your mind," said the Beast, in a tone of quiet resignation. Then, more firmly: "But for now, consider this place and everything in it to be yours. If you have a need, simply speak it, and the magic of the house will provide it for you. Anything you wish, except living things."

"I wish," Ashaka said with a smile, "to know your name."

"I am Beast." And with that, the Beast turned and left, and Ashaka was alone.

She spent the day exploring the house and all its rooms; it was very empty, and silent but for the sound of her footfalls and her breathing. This experience was new to her, for she was rarely alone. Her father's house had two bedrooms for the seven of them, eight when their mother still lived, and inside there was always chaos. This place was immaculate, without even the presence of human servants to dust or polish or clean, and quiet.

It was also, she realized, very lonely.

The Beast's voice called her to dinner, where she found the large dining table set with more food than any two people could eat. There was only one place setting, and the Beast settled at the far end of the table from it.

"Will you not eat?" Ashaka asked.

"Not now," was all the Beast said. No further explanation came.

"Then tell me of yourself -- who you are and why you live here. If it pleases you too," she added, remembering her manners and that she was nothing more than a guest.

There was a blazing fire in the fireplace, and the Beast stared into the flames for a long time without answering. Ashaka was on the verge of breaking the awkward silence when the great shaggy head turned to look at her again. "There is not much to tell," the Beast said slowly. "Once I lived here as a human; once, my whole family did. Once, a very long time ago. And then a curse fell upon us, and they died, and I became trapped in this form, and the magic binds me to the house as much as it binds the house to me, and together we live unchanging and unnoticed."

"Is there no way to end the curse?" Ashaka asked, and she flinched at the noise the Beast made in response until she realized that it was laughter, harsh and bitter.

"There is, but it is impossible."

Ashaka nodded her understanding. "Like the fairy stories," she said, "where the hero must climb a mountain of smooth glass and cross a river of fire to fetch a golden apple from the tree that stands at the top of the world, or some such."

"Perhaps," said the Beast. "But there is no hero to this story, and the nature of the magic means that I cannot leave this place to find my golden apple. Are you done eating?" For Ashaka had stopped.

"Yes," she answered, and immediately the last of the food vanished from the table. "Where does it go?"

But the Beast said only, "I do not know," and in that quiet growl there was no room for more questions.

That night, lying on a large comfortable bed in one of the house's many rooms, with a down comforter to keep away the chill and as many pillows as she wanted, Ashaka wanted to sleep. But the silence of the house was oppressive now, and she kept thinking of the sadness in the Beast's golden cats' eyes, and she could not sleep.

Eventually, too restless to stay still, she got up and wrapped the thick comforter around her like an unfashionable sort of dress, so that she might wander. She went to a balcony she'd discovered earlier, so that she might look up at the stars, and for a moment she stood barefoot and gazing up; but movement at the corner of her vision caught her attention, and she realized the Beast was there as well, hidden in shadow.

"I'm sorry," Ashaka said, "I didn't mean to intrude--"

"Stay," said the Beast, without emerging from the shadows. "You are not able to sleep?"

"No." Ashaka took a deep breath, the night air clean and cool. "I was thinking, though..."

"Yes?"

"I know very little about magic, but I know -- I believe, anyway -- any curse can be broken. We just have to figure out how."

The beast gave a warning growl. "Do not try. No good can come of it."

"Don't you want to--"

"NO," thundered the Beast. Ashaka took a step back, but she knew that anger would not be enough for the Beast to hurt her.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I only meant..." And she trailed off, unsure of what to say.

"It is nothing," the Beast said. "You meant well. You just ... you know nothing of this situation."

"I know that you are in pain," Ashaka said softly. "And that saddens me. Good night, Beast." And she glanced up at the clear night sky, at the stars shining down, and then went back inside, her steps as soundless as a cat's.

The next day, as if nothing had happened the previous night, Beast greeted her with gentle politeness and asked her if she was in need of anything. She learned that she could ask for books -- for any book in the world -- and spent most of the day in a flurry of indecision, asking for first one book and then another, delighting each time one appeared in her hands.

"You enjoy books," said the Beast dryly, towards the end of the day.

"Oh, yes! Don't you?"

"I did once." Beast held up one paw, flexing the claws not in threat but in demonstration: these are not human hands. "Not as much any more."

And so Ashaka suggested that she read aloud so that they both might enjoy what was in the books. This became a daily ritual for them, Ashaka reading -- sometimes one of her favorites, sometimes one selected by the Beast, sometimes one that was new to both of them -- in a loud clear voice, and the Beast listening. And in time Ashaka discovered that on the colder nights, it was quite cozy to lean against the Beast, for the cinnamon-colored fur was softer than it looked, and the Beast generated heat like a living furnace, and was in general more comfier than even the stuffed plush chairs that she had been using. And the Beast enjoyed her presence there as well, for there were not many who would cuddle with a fearsome beast.

And in time, they came to tell other stories. Ashaka's father the merchant had often brought back unwritten tales from faraway lands that foreign traders, and so Ashaka passed on those stories as well, or made up her own. The Beast in turn told clumsier and more halting stories that Ashaka listened to in contentment, letting her head rest on the Beast's fur. She could sometimes, depending on where she sat, hear the thudding of a heart not in sync with her own but going at its own steady pace.

But while Ashaka would sometimes tell stories of her childhood, of growing up in a house with five siblings, of the mischief that her brothers often got into, the Beast never once spoke of any time before the curse. There was one day even when Ashaka found a portrait, tucked hidden and neglected in one of the rooms, of a family posed together: mother and father standing behind two children, one of four years of age and one of perhaps seven, all pleasant of face and looking relaxed and happy. She described this to the Beast later that evening: "Is that you? Your family?"

Beast looked at her with narrowed golden eyes that matched none of those pictured, and did not answer. But the next day, Ashaka went back to the same room and found the portrait had been moved to face the wall. When she pulled it back she saw that the face of the younger child had been scratched away.

It took a month before the Beast admitted that yes, that portrait had been from several years before the curse, but refused to say more of that time.

Spring came early, with the brilliance of flowers and the bright green of new plant growth bringing color to the land. Ashaka had been at the Beast's side for six months, and Beast grew restless as the weather warmed. Finally Ashaka sighed and asked "Whatever is the matter, dear Beast?"

"I expect," said the Beast with reluctance, "that you ... miss your family a great deal. That you ... will want to leave me soon."

"Didn't we cover this already?" Ashaka faced the Beast, the better to show the truth in her eyes. "I am staying here for the full term of ten years. Unless--" A thought occurred to her that made her hesitate. "Unless you want me to leave?"

"No!" The answer was immediate, and the Beast looked away with embarrassment as Ashaka laughed in delight. "I just ... I don't expect anyone would want to stay here."

"Oh, Beast." Ashaka started forward, and then paused. "May I hug you?"

"You don't need to ask permission," Beast said gruffly, despite being pleased at the offer.

"Well," said Ashaka simply, "some people just don't like hugs. But if you do--" And she threw her arms around the great furry bulk that was the Beast. Into the warmth of the fur she said, "I like it here. I do. Without you it would be lonely, but... oh, Beast."

And gathering up all the courage necessary, which took some effort, the Beast said awkwardly, "May I -- may I hug you back?"

"Of course, don't be silly." Ashaka burrowed closer in as the Beast's arms came to encircle her. She felt safe, protected, and quite comfortable.

After a while, without moving, the Beast said, "So, you don't mind it here? You don't mind ... me?"

Ashaka considered that. "At first I was afraid. Of what you would expect; of what you would require of me. A little bit afraid of you, even, for I didn't know you, and you can be... intimidating." One hand came up to rest against the side of Beast's face, which turned without conscious intent towards the gesture. "But I do like it here. I like you. I might even possibly be starting to lo--"

"NO!" the Beast roared, pulling away with a visible shudder. "Don't say that. Don't ever say that."

"Because you are a beast?" Ashaka frowned at that. "Do not even beasts deserve love?"

"Not this one." The harsh voice had dropped to a rumble; the Beast's eyes were wide, cat-slitted pupils dilated. "Ashaka, please. You don't know."

"No. I don't. So tell me. What is wrong?

The Beast was silent for a long time, still trembling a little, and Ashaka could not tell whether it was rage or fear or something else. Finally the golden eyes closed in something close to defeat. "The terms of the curse," the Beast said finally, reluctantly. "It can only be broken if -- if I find someone to love, and if that person -- if they come to love me in return."

Ashaka let that sink in. "So isn't it a good thing, if I...?" She let the words trail off.

"No." The Beast's voice trembled, like the shivers of wind that ripple a deep lake. "I do not love as others do. I cannot. It is not ... it will not happen. And you -- oh, Ashaka, you do not know whom it is you think you love."

"I think," Ashaka said with a slight stomp of her foot, "that you are the dearest sweetest Beast I have ever met, and I do not care if you ever turn back into a man."

"That is the trouble." The Beast looked away. "Once, you asked for my name."

Ashaka's heart thudded in her chest, but she kept her voice calm. "You don't have to share if you'd rather not," she said. "I think I understand -- it reminds you of the time before the curse, doesn't it. The days you will never get back."

The Beast's whole body shuddered again. "I will always be a Beast. But you -- you have shared yourself with me, and it is only right that I do the same. Especially now." The Beast hesitated again, then took a deep breath and said, "When I was human, my name was -- is -- Sarai."

Ashaka stared wide-eyed at the Beast and then burst into delighted laughter. "You think that changes how I feel? Oh, Beast." She laughed again, like a burst of sun on a cloudy day. "It makes not difference to me. What I love is in here --" She stepped forward and lightly touched the Beast's head. "-- and here --" Her hand moved down to a decent approximation of the Beast's heart. "I do not care if you are a Beast -- Beastess -- or a human woman, or for that matter even a stone statue come to life. That is only your outside. It is you that I love."

Ashaka stood on tiptoe and stretched up so that she could kiss the soft short fur on top of the muzzle. Then, smiling with embarrassment, she turned and fled, leaving the Beast staring stunned after her, one paw raised in bafflement to touch her muzzle where the kiss had landed.

She did not see the Beast for the rest of the day, and ate dinner alone. When the time came for their usual time of sitting by the fire to read or talk or just enjoy the other's presence, the Beast came out of the dancing shadows only to say: "You are free to go."

Not entirely certain she had heard correctly, Ashaka whispered, "...what?"

"You may go," the Beast repeated. "Leave this place." The low, sinister growl would have been intimidating even a few months before, but Ashaka could hear the fear and uncertainty behind it. Instead of recoiling in fear -- or doing as she was bidden, meek and obedient, the perfect daughter -- she stepped forward, swallowing the burst of nervousness that fluttered inside her.

"Did I offend you?" The Beast gave no reply. "If it's what we talked about earlier today -- I am sorry, then, not for meaning it, but for saying it if you didn't want to -- oh, Beast, please. You don't have to worry. I won't let how I feel about you change anything."

"But it changes everything, don't you see?" For a moment the Beast looked almost vulnerable, like a lost child. Then she shook her head, sending ripples through her fur, and turned away. "And I will not have you thinking you love me just because mine is the only face you see."

"It's not that--"

"Go home," Beast repeated gruffly.

Ashaka took a deep breath, and then let it out slowly. "I'm not going to leave you just because you're scared."

"Scared--" It was practically a yelp, and despite the severity of the situation, Ashaka found herself smiling a little at the contrast of such a squeaky sound coming from such a large and fearsome Beast. But the Beast continued in a stronger tone, "Go home, Ashaka. Go back to your family. To the real world. Not forever, not if you don't want to, but for a few days at least. Make sure that this is what you truly want."

"Must I?"

The Beast turned back around to face her, the great golden eyes shimmering with what Ashaka realized were unshed tears. "If you stay here with me, you won't share my curse directly, but it will affect you. You will share my loneliness and my isolation. You came here as a prisoner--"

"I came of my own free will," Ashaka interrupted hotly. "Don't you remember that part of the bargain?"

The Beast huffed something that was halfway a sigh and halfway a laugh. "You came in exchange for your father's servitude, then. No matter. It was not truly a free choice. If you are to stay here with me, not as a servant but as a ... friend? ... I want you to do it fully aware of what you give up. I know that while you stand here you think this is what you want, but I need you to be sure. For my own peace of mind if not yours."

Ashaka looked at the Beast for a long moment. "And I think you're being ridiculous," she said finally, but nodded. "I will go to my father's place" -- for the old house they had lived in no longer quite felt like home to her -- "and gain his blessing, and return here in three days. And then," she added severely, "I want to hear no more of this sort of nonsense, all right? You are my Beast, and nothing will ever change that."

"All right," the Beast said with surprising meekness.

Ashaka had come with very few things, and she fully expected to return, so there was nothing to pack. All she had to do was walk out the front door. But before she had even left the room, she hesitated and then turned back. "Before I go, tell me one thing. For most of the time I was here, I believed you were a man -- yes, yes, a Beast, but a man in your heart, who had once been a boy. Everyone outside these walls believes the same. And you know it, too; you only told me otherwise when you felt you had to. So... why?"

The Beast was silent for a very long time, and with her back to the firelight the fearsome face was in shadow but for the gleam of her eyes. Then she said, "I didn't really mean to, at first. Everyone just assumes. But it's easier -- safer -- a male beast is threatening and evokes fear; a female beast is, well, pitiable and weak. At least that is the way the world sees things. And I am afraid that a great many people outside these walls would want me dead, except that they are scared to try, out of fear that I would rip them limb from limb. If they knew the truth..." She trailed off.

"I don't pity you," Ashaka said, quiet but fierce. "And you aren't weak, not in the slightest." She wanted to run over and hug the Beast, but it did not seem the right time. "But I will keep your secret. And I promise you, I will return."

She left, then, and did not have the strength to look back and see whether or not the Beast stood outside watching her leave.

The merchant rejoiced wildly upon her return. "My darling girl, returned to me! I thought you were surely dead. Oh, Beauty, my Beauty, my jewel! Did he harm you? How did you escape? No, wait, we must have a feast to celebrate your safe return! Say nothing," he added over Ashaka's protests, "it is no burden. Go, wash up, put on your finest dress--" He shooed her off, calling to their cook.

The small table was crowded that night: Fred at the head, with Ashaka at his right hand; the eldest daughter and her husband, a proud and beautiful man who rarely spared his wife a glance; the middle daughter alone, though she herself was due to marry in two weeks' time; and all three sons, summoned from their apprenticeships to come celebrate at a feast that, in Ashaka's opinion, was far too extravagant for the situation.

There were of course a myriad of questions for Ashaka. How she had fared, how horrible it must have been living with such a Beast, how she had escaped, how very brave she must have been, did she think the Beast would come after her. One question after the other, spilling faster than she could answer, so she answered none of them.

Finally the merchant tapped his glass for silence. "I propose a toast," he said through the remaining murmur of conversation. "To my daughter, to Beauty, whom we thought gone from us forever. May she never leave again."

"But I am not staying here," Ashaka said.

That, more than the merchant's attempts, had everyone at the table drop to dead silence, with all eyes staring at her. She lifted her head, staring defiantly back at each in turn. "I didn't escape. The Beast let me go because--" Because she thought Ashaka would miss this, but that much truth wouldn't do. "Because I wished to see you all again. To say goodbye."

The youngest son was the first to understand, and spoke in horror: "You're returning to him? To that thing, that Beast?" The term was an insult the way he said it, and Ashaka found herself aching a little inside on the Beast's behalf, for in her opinion no one, however horrible, deserved that sort of vitriol.

The middle daughter added spitefully, "What, did he propose to you, and you thought that he was the best you could do?"

"I will not allow it!" roared the merchant, his face turning purple with anger. "You will not marry him!"

Ashaka found it hard not to laugh, but for all the wrong reasons, so instead she bit her lip and said quietly, "The Beast and I are happy together, Father. Of course we will not marry if we do not have your blessing--"

"You absolutely do not!" he spluttered.

"--but I will return there," she continued calmly, "and you cannot stop me. And why should you? Without marriage, there is no dowry to pay, and I tell you that I am happy there. The Beast is kind to me, and I do not lack for food or drink, or books--"

"Books," echoed the eldest daughter, who had never been one for reading; "faugh."

"--and I am treated well, and have everything I could want. Why would I not want to go back?"

"Because he is a monster! He would have killed me!" Ashaka frowned, and the merchant hastily corrected, "Enslaved me, then. For ten years!"

"Because you stole one of the few bits of beauty in that lonely place," Ashaka said.

The middle daughter sneered. "Making excuses for him now, are you" she taunted.

"Not excuses, just ... understanding." She turned back to face her father. "And I believe that your service would not have been as long, nor as arduous, as first stated. The Beast was angry at the time, but have you not also said things in anger that you later regret?"

The merchant spluttered without answering, and only repeated, "You will not go back there! I forbid it!"

Ashaka went quiet and very still. "I see," she said at last.

The merchant, reading her subdued demeanor as capitulation, gave a shaky smile. "It is good to have you back, my daughter."

"It is good to be back," she said, picking her words carefully so that she wasn't quite lying, "for I had almost forgotten what I was missing." And she smiled at her father, every visible inch of her the proper and well-behaved daughter, knowing that she only had to endure it for a few days.

She slept that night in the bed that had once been her own, in the same room as the middle daughter (the eldest having returned to her husband's house for the night). The merchant locked the door -- "For your safety," he said with an earnestness that was almost believable, "in case the Beast decides to come after you" -- and when Ashaka went to open the window to look out at the stars, she discovered that the window had been bolted.

The bed might have been hers once, but it was hard and small, the quilt patchy and worn thin in spots, and compared to the beds in the Beast's house, it was downright miserable. And the house was definitely not as quiet, especially when the middle daughter in the bed beside her started snoring, and through the walls she could hear the regular creaking rhythm of one of the brothers having sex.

"I miss you, Beast," Ashaka whispered at the ceiling, wondering if the Beast had any way of hearing her. Surely the magic of the house could find a way, if she wanted to. "If you can see me, know this: I love you, and I will return to you."

The next day there was much to keep her busy, enough to leave her exhausted and with a pounding head at the end of the day, wishing more than ever for the quiet peace of the Beast's house. It did not escape her notice that she was never once left alone, which could have been coincidence -- after all, she had been gone for over six months, so perhaps they were just making up for lost time -- but was more likely deliberate.

The day after was much the same, leaving Ashaka exhausted and frustrated, and with her suspicions confirmed. She declared that she wanted to go wildflower picking, in itself a benign activity, but the merchant made the middle daughter go with her. "For company," the merchant said with one of the broad false smiles that he used for trading, but the middle daughter spent much of the time griping about being Ashaka's jailer.

Finally, in frustration, Ashaka finally snapped, "Enough! Go back home, then, if it's so miserable being here with me."

"I'm not allowed to. Father would be furious."

"Tell him you had no choice! Tell them the Beast came and overwhelmed you, and you barely got away with your life."

Her sister looked at her with a thoughtful frown. "Beauty, what's gotten into you? You used to be nicer."

"I'm sorry." Impulsively she hugged her sister, half aware as she did so of how she missed hugging the Beast with her thick bulk of fur. "It's just, well, none of you understand."

"Then help us. Help me. Why are you so intent on going back there? Why is Father so afraid you'll run off?"

He was afraid, Ashaka knew, because that was what she planned on doing, but she didn't dare say that. Her best chance of escape now was subtlety. Instead she said, "Have you ever been in love?"

"With a beast?" her sister asked in horror.

With a sigh, Ashaka said, "With anybody, or even with a place. Something so magical that you could stay there -- with that person, or with that place -- forever, and never be unhappy."

"No," responded her sister slowly, "I can't say that I have."

"And yet you are due to marry."

"Marriage is not about love," her sister said. "It is about status, and it is about the best match you can make. Look at our sister: her husband is beautiful, and wealthy, and of high rank."

"He is beautiful," Ashaka agreed wryly, "and he knows it. His attentions are to himself, not to her. Do you think she is happy?"

"Y-yes," said her sister without conviction.

"And will you be happy when you wed?"

Her sister frowned. "Yes," she said, with even less certainty, and Ashaka felt a pang of sympathy; from what she had seen of her sister's husband-to-be, he was a very smart man but with a tongue as sharp as his intellect and honed as a weapon.

"Then you know why I wish to return. But Father has forbidden it, and that is the end of that." With forced cheerfulness she returned to picking wildflowers, her sister silent beside her.

For the rest of that day and the next several, Ashaka played the perfect daughter. In a way, it was returning to what she'd been before meeting the Beast, but it felt more like an act than anything. And by the fifth day no one made any comments, direct or otherwise, about Ashaka leaving. So that night she asked the merchant for the window in their room to be opened -- "because it does get hot at night, and I can't breathe well" -- and he was willing to comply.

Ashaka went to bed that evening and feigned sleep until the house was as quiet as it ever got at night, the snores and creaks muffling any sounds she made as she got out of bed. She didn't dare light a candle as she made her way to the window.

The night air smelled of spring, of far-off rain and of new life and of freedom. Their room was upstairs and well off the ground, but she knew anyway how to get out, silently and safely.

She was halfway out the window when her sister, who had seemed asleep, said: "You're going back to ... to him, aren't you."

"Please," said Ashaka.

"I won't stop you," the middle daughter said, sounding resigned. "I just ... I still don't understand."

"Maybe you will someday. I hope you do. And thank you." Ashaka hesitated. "Tell Father I'm sorry? And tell everyone that I love them, I do, I just can't stay here. I would die if I did."

Before her sister could reply, she edged herself the rest of the way out the window, climbed down the corner gutter drainpipe just as she had as a child, and fled silent into the forest.

It was close to dawn by the time she reached the Beast's house. The sky was a pale grey, and choruses of birds were starting to sing. Ashaka felt her heart rise with every step closer that she took. But inside, she found the house still and silent; and, when she called out to the Beast, there was no response.

Puzzled, she wandered through the usual rooms with no luck. It was as though no one lived there any more. And in the bedroom that she had slept in while there, everything was undisturbed, except for a book that she had left half-read on the nightstand, and in its place a single rose, neatly clipped and set in a vase. It was just starting to droop, and when Ashaka brushed her fingers against the velvety blossom to lift it up again, one wilting petal fell off and fluttered to the nightstand.

"It was my timepiece," said a voice behind her. Not the Beast's husky growl: a woman's voice, low in timbre but very human.

Ashaka, startled, whirled around. There in the doorway stood a girl her own age, with an unfamiliar face and bearing. "Who are you," she demanded, "and what are you doing here?"

"As to the latter, this is my house and I have as much right to be here as anyone. As to the second--" Her thin wide lips curved in a smile, and her eyes seemed to sparkle. "I suppose I have changed since you last called me your Beast. If this helps--" She curled her hands into claws, her face wrinkling into a snarl that was made ineffective by laughter that crept out. "No, that does not help, does it. But I am -- I am the one you returned for."

"I don't understand." But she stepped closer, and started to notice things. How the henna-toned skin was freckled and dappled in the same patterns as the shifting of color in the Beast's fur. How the shaggy, untrimmed ebony hair that fell straight and flat around her face and down her back had the same coarseness to it. How the brown eyes with their round pupils still had a ring of gold around the edges, the same color as the Beast's.

How there was compassion in those eyes, as well as a bit of shy awkwardness. How her hand, rising to rest lightly on Ashaka's arm, had the loose grip of someone used to claws. How her other hand held the book that had been at Ashaka's bedside, one finger stuck in it like a marker where she had stopped reading.

"Your timepiece," Ashaka said slowly, processing what she was taking in. "This rose, you said it was your timepiece. How."

The other woman -- Sarai, this had to be, if she was the same person as the Beast; she bore a strong resemblance to the woman in the painting that Ashaka had found once -- glanced at the rose, then let her hand drop away from where she was in contact with Ashaka. "It was from the same bush that your father took from," she said in a quiet and steady voice, as though she were picking her words carefully. "I picked it when you left, and I knew that if you did not return by the time it had withered, that you had chosen to stay with the outside world." As a human, the uncertainty on her face was easier to read. "I know you said you would only be gone for three days, but I also know -- oh, it hardly matters. You're back."

"I meant to return sooner," Ashaka assured her, "but Father all but kept me prisoner. But I'm back, and for good." She hesitated, suddenly uncertain. "Unless you don't want me to--?"

But Sarai threw her arms around Ashaka, drawing her into a tight embrace. "I missed you," she said. "I ... oh, Ashaka, please do stay."

It was different, hugging her in human form. Ashaka tightened her grip around a handful of hair, trying and failing to pretend it was fur. "But how are you human? I thought the curse--"

In her arms, Sarai went still but did not pull away. "The curse," she said after a few unsteady breaths, "has been broken. Partially."

"I do not understand."

"The general terms were that it would end when I found someone to love me, that I could love as well. And for a long time I despaired, because it is the beautiful and the rich and the pleasant that get mates, not Beasts with anger in their hearts."

Ashaka brushed hair away from Sarai's face, tucking it behind the curve of an ear, still marveling at the humanness of it all. "And then I came along?"

"Yes." Sarai ducked her head, as if unwilling to look at her directly. "But it turns out that..." Her words trailed off.

"Go on."

"...as you see me now, I become at dawn. But by sunset the curse returns, turning me once again into a Beast. Every night since you left, it has been so."

"Well," said Ashaka fiercely, "it is not because I do not love you, for I do, with every fiber of my being."

Sarai's smile brightened her face like the dawning of a new day. "I know," she replied softly. "And I -- I find it hard to speak the words but I do return the sentiment, for I fear you have stolen my heart."

"I only have what was given to me freely," Ashaka said, and smiled in turn. "So why has the curse not broken fully, then?"

"I was too consumed with hopelessness to pay close attention to the exact terms. If the general terms could not be satisfied, what did the details matter? But it does matter now, and the truth is ... we must not just love one another, but prove it by marriage and by consummation of that marriage."

She seemed on the verge of saying more, but Ashaka blurted out first: "Love and marriage are not the same! My sisters are wed, or will be wed, to those that do not love them; I know equally of those who love but can never be joined." Then she took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, I interrupted you, what were you saying?"

Sarai pulled away and began to pace, her bare feet soundless on the floor as the Beast could never have been. "When I was young," she said at last, "I knew that I would never marry. Could never marry. I knew even from a young age that I could love no man, no matter how kind or handsome or intelligent. And as for the other factor--"

"--it is not appealing, is it," Ashaka said; but her voice held neither recrimination nor reproach, and when Sarai looked startled at her, she spread her hands in a helpless gesture of surrender. "I would not have mentioned it otherwise, but I have never seen the purpose in sharing a bed beyond the warmth it provides for sleep."

Sarai's astonishment gave way slowly to astonishment. "Then you feel as I do."

"In more ways than you think." Ashaka's smile turned impish. "Besides, my Father has forbidden us to marry, and it would be a shame to disobey him in all things."

"Oh, Ashaka," cried Sarai in delight. "But what of the curse? If I remain half human and half Beast forever..."

"Are the transformations painful?"

"No, or at least they haven't been."

"Then I see no problem," Ashaka said promptly. "My dear Beast, it is you that I love; I said that before. It hardly matters what form you are in. And I should think that your Beast form is better to snuggle with on cold winter nights."

"Do you mean it?"

"With all my heart," Ashaka promised, and then added, "I should like to hug you again, if I may."

"Always," Sarai said, and meant it.