"I'm only back for a week," she said. She looked well-fed enough, but her cheeks were pale, and she wouldn't meet my eyes. "He'll miss me otherwise. He said he'd die."
"He won't die," I said gently. "He's manipulating you. No-one dies for love."
"He's not like other people."
Now that I could agree with. What decent person would threaten to kill a man for taking a rose? What normal person would imprison a young girl for a year, and then only give her a week to see her family? She wasn't ready to hear that though, so instead I said: "It's good to have you back, Belle."
"It's good to see you too, Cally. I've missed you, and Papa too." She smiled, but still wouldn't meet my eyes.
In her hand she held a mirror. I reached out for it, suddenly desiring to do what we always did as children: to admire our identical faces, side by side. But she snatched it away. "Don't touch that!"
"What's the matter?" I asked. "I just wanted to see us, together again."
"We can use the bedroom mirror for that," she said. "This is mine."It was bliss to lie down with her by me again. We had shared a bed all our lives: I hadn't slept well since she left, a year ago. But I didn't sleep the night she came back either. I waited until her breathing was deep and regular, and then crept down to see Papa. As I thought, he was as worried as I was.
"He seems to have bewitched her," I said.
"She doesn't seem to want to do anything except stare into that mirror of hers," said Papa. "I don't think it's an ordinary mirror – I don't know what I saw in it, but it wasn't her reflection."
"And the ring," I said. "She told me it was magical, that she just has to twist it round three times clockwise and she'll be back in his castle. She got here by turning it anti-clockwise."
"We have to do something," said Papa. "We can't let her go back."
I nodded."You're just jealous!" she screamed. "You're just jealous, because we love each other and no-one loves you."
"I thought you said he kept asking you to marry him and you kept saying no," I said
"I've changed my mind," she said. "Being apart from him... It's made me understand that he is everything to me."
"So you'll marry him?" I said.
"Yes," she said. "Yes, I will." And she smiled and hugged the mirror to herself and rocked from side to side in child-like glee.
"It's the fair next week," I said. "You always used to love the fair."
"I love him more," she said.
"You could buy him something there," I said. "A token of your love. And it doesn't do to seem too eager. Stay an extra day, it'll only make him love you more, I swear."
"Well," she said. "I don't see what harm one day could do."At the fair, she was almost back to her normal self. We listened to the music, and we danced, and bought new ribbons for our hair, and she bought him a fine purse of red velvet. As the sun started to set, we sat down on a grassy bank and talked about old times.
"Excuse me," she said at last.
I thought she meant she needed to go behind a tree, but instead she turned from me and looked in her mirror. "Oh!" she said. "Oh... no!" And then she fainted dead away, and the mirror fell onto the soft grass.
I picked it up and looked. I saw a rose garden, with neat rows of red and white roses, and lying between them was a man. At least I think he was a man: he was so deformed that I could see at once why Papa and even Belle called him the beast. He looked pale, and his breathing was shallow. He was – at least – doing a very good impression of someone dying for love.
Sighing, because it had come to this, I took the ring from my sister's finger and put it on my own, then twisted it three times clockwise."Belle," he said weakly.
"Hello," I said.
"Belle..." he said, trying to lift his head. "I'm... dying. Kiss me! I beg you, one kiss before I am gone forever."
"Oh dear!" I said, and knelt down beside him. I picked up his left wrist, which terminated in a swollen and knarled monstrosity, not recognisable as a human hand. "Well," I said, "your pulse feels all right to me. Why do you think you're dying?"
"Because we were apart for so long," he said. "I... I..." and then he slumped back.
"I didn't mean what do you think is causing your death," I said. "I mean why do you think you're dying? What symptoms do you have?"
He stopped breathing. I waited patiently, my arms folded. Then he started breathing again, but only a tiny little bit, obviously hoping it was invisible. I continued to wait. Eventually he emitted a loud moan. "What... happened..." he said. "Where am I? I saw a light... a beautiful light. And there was a voice, and it said: 'you have one more chance – only the kiss of a beautiful maiden can save you from death.'" He opened his eyes and looked up at me expectantly.
"Maybe it was something you ate," I suggested.
"You... you've changed, Belle," he said. "It was her, wasn't it? Your sister. She's poisoned your mind against me. Poisoned your mind to everything true and deep, and trapped you in the everyday world of her prosaic little mind."
"She told me she thought it was usually a bad sign when a man prevents a woman from seeing her friends and family," I said.
"She doesn't understand true love," he replied.
"She also said that it was manipulative of you to keep telling me you'd die without me."
"I was only telling the truth."
"Well, you seem a bit better now," I replied brightly. "How about you try to get up and we go inside. It's beginning to get a bit chilly out here."For the first few steps he staggered, but then he gave up even that, and we walked into the castle, and went straight to his library. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen – higher than a cathedral, with more books than I thought existed in the whole world.
"You look the way you looked the first day you came here," he said, fondly. But then those piercing blue eyes in the midst of his wreck of a face stared straight into mine, and his lumpy, misshapen jaw dropped. "You're not her, are you? You're not Belle. You must be the sister."
"Cally," I said. "Pleased to meet you." My hand was behind my back, and my thumb rested on the magic ring, ready to make my escape should it turn nasty.
But to my surprise he sank down the floor and started sobbing. "You're right," he said. "I know you're right. But what other chance do I have? Look at me! You women, you're all so shallow. You only care about looks..."
"So what did you do to her?" I asked, remaining standing, my arms folded. "Did you drug her or something? Is that why she could only stay for a week? The drugs would wear off?"
He laughed. "No," he said. "I would have done. I had the drugs all ready, but there was no need. She liked me. Only as a friend, but she liked me. We would sit here all day and read together and talk and..."
"Nothing like that," he said. "I didn't touch her."
I believed him. The performance earlier had shown he was a terrible liar, and Belle herself had told the same story. So it wasn't as bad as it could have been...
"I was waiting for her," he said. "All I wanted was for someone to kiss me. Because they wanted to. Not because I'd asked them, but just because..."
"All you wanted?" I said, and then I sank to the floor, and found his mouth amongst the hair and flesh, and kissed him. It wasn't particularly unpleasant: he had very fresh breath, by male standards at least.
"There," I said. "If that's all you wanted then perhaps you can leave my sis... oh!" and before my eyes, his flesh became smooth and even, his figure straight, and all the excess hair melted away. Before me was sitting one of the most conventionally good-looking people I've ever seen (apart possibly from myself and my sister.)
"You see!" he said, grinning, and admiring his smooth, but manly, hands.
"I'm not sure I do," I said, still staring.
"I was under a curse!" he said. "A witch turned me into a hideous beast, and my only chance to turn back into the prince I truly am would be for someone to kiss me of their own free will, and not because they knew about the curse."
"Oh," I said. "Good. Well, now the curse had been lifted, and presumably you won't have the same problems finding a girlfriend as before, perhaps you could leave my sister alone."
His face fell. "But I love her!" he said.
"Well," I said. "I don't think you've behaved very lovingly towards her. I'd want to see some kind of proof that the inner beast has gone before I could consider letting you see her again."
"Letting?" he said. "Letting!? In what kind of world do you think you have the right to 'let' me see my true love?"
I considered for a moment. "In the kind of world," I said, "where you get to condemn my father to death, or my sister to a lifetime's imprisonment, just for stealing a rose."
He hung his head. "I do see what you mean," he said. "But I was so desperate to lose the curse..."
"That's no excuse," I said.
"No," he said. "I know. I'm sorry."Well, I confess that I had been hoping for the kind of happy ending which involved Belle forgetting about her beast and settling down with a nice man or woman who had never held the opinion that it was OK to lock her up or manipulate or emotionally blackmail her. It was not to be. A year and a day later I walked behind her down the aisle to where her handsome prince was waiting.
From what she had told me, their wedding night was going to involve far more whips and chains and handcuffs and specially built dungeons than I really wanted to think about. (One in the case of specially built dungeons. Any number of specially built dungeons is too many.) But she is happy, and she is allowed to see us whenever she wants, so things are probably going to be all right.