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Beauty

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Iris:

Once upon a time, the king and queen of Tarna had a daughter. By her first birthday, Princess Grace was the most beautiful child in the land, with sparkling eyes and soft, shining hair. Her parents bragged endlessly, showed her off to every visitor, and invited far more people to her birthday celebration than was strictly practical.

Iris, the faery godmother who handled royalty in that part of the world, attended the party in order to give the little princess her traditional blessing. She came with the best of intentions, since she was new to her position. She intended to grant Grace something along the lines of a cheerful disposition or the gift of persuasion, a blessing to brighten the shimmer of possibility around the sleeping child. However, after the fiftieth time the queen bragged about her daughter's perfection, Iris lost her temper.

"Nobody's perfect, not even your daughter. Yes, she's pretty. But she'll be as dull as she is beautiful." She waved her hand as she spoke, and the glittering trail of magic dusted over the sleeping girl, binding Iris's words into reality.

The queen shrieked in horror, snatching her daughter from her cradle and stepping away from Iris. "My baby! You cursed my baby!"

Grace woke, crying at the noise and her uncomfortable position, and Iris felt a bit ashamed. The queen's behavior wasn't the girl's fault, after all, but now poor Grace was going to suffer the results for the rest of her life; the shimmer of her futures was already dimming. Iris tried to think of an apology that wouldn't sound trite.

"You made my baby an idiot! What prince will want a stupid wife?" the queen wailed.

"It's not as bad as all that," Iris snapped, losing her temper again. "After all, you obviously have no brains and you managed to get married."

The queen shrieked again. By now courtiers were staring, and the king looked up from a consultation with his advisors and frowned.

Iris left before anything worse could happen.

---------------

One month later, the king and queen of Sahill invited Iris to their son Richard's first birthday celebration. This gathering was much smaller and simpler than the last one, but Iris didn't want to risk abusing her position again. She decided to show up as late as possible and bless the child before anyone could possibly upset her.

The queen of Sahill caught her sleeve before Iris could wave her hand, though, and pulled the faery to the side. "Do you take blessing requests?" she asked, sounding slightly desperate.

Iris shrugged. "That depends. If you want your son to be a great conqueror, then no. If you want him to be an excellent singer, a skilled horseman, or something along those lines, I can probably oblige you."

The queen wrung her hands. "My son... my son is... ugly. He's hideous! His face is still wrinkled, his shoulders are crooked, his legs are splayed, his nose is too big, his mouth is too wide, his eyes are mismatched, his ears stick out, and his hair is a rat's nest no matter what we do. I'm afraid that when we arrange his marriage, his wife will hate him -- and I want Richard to be happy.

"Can you make him handsome?"

Iris sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm not permitted to change anyone's physical appearance -- that's too close to transformation and the queen of Faery doesn't allow us to cast the great magics in human lands. But I can give your son a keen mind and a charming tongue. Those should help him convince people to look past his face."

The queen hugged Iris in relief, before she recalled her dignity and stepped back to adjust her robes. "Thank you, Lady Iris. And I'm sure Richard will thank you too when he's old enough to understand what you've done for him."

Iris waved her hand and blessed the boy.

---------------

Two years later, Iris found herself back in Tarna for the birthday of a second princess, this one named Hope. The queen was more subdued this time, and was constantly distracted by little Grace. The three-year-old princess was standing in front of a tapestry, painstakingly tracing her fingers over the figures and trying to see what happened to the colored threads when they vanished into the heavy fabric.

"They go behind, to the other side of the fabric, and get tied into knots," the queen said several times, and even flipped up a corner of the tapestry to show where the threads began and ended, but Grace didn't seem to understand.

"Colors go away. Brown, green, red." She ran her finger along the cloth as she named the colors. "Where do the colors go?"

"To the other side, you silly goose!" the queen said, exasperated. Grace blinked, cocked her head, and started tracing the figures again, her face scrunched into an adorable frown.

Iris felt a pang of guilt.

"Oh, it's you," the queen said, catching sight of her. "Hurry up and do your worst to Hope. Do you know why I named her that? It's because I hope you can't do anything to hurt her, and I hope I don't have any more children for you to curse."

Iris winced and hurried over to look at the younger princess. Unlike Grace, Hope was a scrawny child, with frizzy hair, muddy eyes, and a slightly crooked nose. "Well, if one daughter is beautiful but dull, the other can be plain but intelligent," Iris said to herself.

"Hope will be clever and bright," she said as she waved her hand. "And I'm sorry about Grace."

"Will apologies fix my daughter? Will she get better because you feel bad?" the queen said, scowling. "You've finished your business. Now get out."

Iris left.

---------------------------------------------

Grace:

There were three things Grace knew for absolutely certain. She was pretty. She was stupid. And Hope was a thousand times better than she was.

Hope said that wasn't true -- they were both princesses of Tarna, which meant they were equal -- but later Grace heard her sister telling her ladies in waiting about the conversation. "A thousand times better is stretching the point too far," Hope said, "and I want to know who said something like that in front of Grace."

"But you admit there's a point to be stretched," one lady said, laughing. "Maybe ten times better would be more accurate?" After a moment, Hope shrugged, and the ladies in waiting laughed.

Hope was smart. Hope understood things. If Hope thought she was better than Grace, then it was true.

Besides, everyone agreed. Their father only ever talked to Hope, because Grace was too stupid to understand politics. Their mother yelled at her and never looked her in the eyes. Strangers were different at first -- they smiled at Grace and talked to her because she was a princess. But Grace couldn't talk about much, just embroidery and gardens, and she talked slowly. She lost words and said the same things over and over again. The strangers got bored. They realized she was stupid.

Then they talked to Hope, because Hope was quick and clever and knew all the right things to say. Their eyes got bright, they smiled, and then Hope's friends whispered in their ears, telling them Grace was so stupid that the king couldn't give Tarna to her and her husband. Even a smart man wouldn't be able to fix all Grace's mistakes; not when even Hope couldn't keep her out of trouble. So the throne would go to Hope instead.

Then the new people laughed and spent even more time with Hope.

Because Grace was stupid. And Hope was a thousand times better than she was.

---------------

In the spring when Hope turned sixteen, their parents threw a huge party and invited people from all the other kingdoms. They wanted to find a good prince for Hope. Grace helped Hope into her dress, fixed her sister's hair, and stood in line to curtsey at the new people. She waited until the musicians started to play dances -- Hope had a lot of princes and lords talking to her, so everything was all right -- and then slipped away.

She sat on a fountain rim in the gardens, arms wrapped around her knees. She remembered her own sixteenth birthday, two years ago. No foreign visitors had come, and there hadn't been any dancing, but there had been a roast boar and her favorite cake, and Hope had given her a goblet of wine because she was grown up now. Then Hope's friends had refilled the goblet over and over, until the room had gone unsteady around Grace. She had climbed onto the table, knocking over plates and goblets, and told everyone that she was going to be a great queen someday, and Hope would be sad all the time because none of her friends really liked her and she didn't like anyone either.

Hope had smiled a funny, stiff smile, grabbed Grace's hand, and pulled her out of the hall. Their mother had screamed at them both, and Hope had stood there and apologized instead of shouting back. Their father had sighed and said he was disappointed that they couldn't get along, and that Hope couldn't control her followers. Then he'd told them both not to act undignified, which Hope said meant doing silly things where people could see. Hope had smiled again, still funny and stiff, and promised not to disappoint him again. Grace had nodded, and tried to obey, even if she didn't always understand what was silly and what wasn't.

Now she hid in the gardens and watched a shiny, blue-green beetle crawl along the inner rim of the fountain. It got confused by two broken stones and twitched its antenna at the water, so she laid a twig across the gap for it to use as a bridge. She wished somebody would build a bridge for her so she could get past all the things that confused her.

"That was kind of you," a voice said.

Grace turned, wondering who would be talking to her instead of enjoying Hope's party. It was a boy about her age, dressed like a prince. But he was so funny-looking! His shoulders were hunched and crooked, his knees turned out, his nose was big and lumpy, and his hair stuck up in uneven patches. His right eye was brown, and the left was brilliant green.

"You have funny eyes," she said. "They don't match. Do you see different things in each one?"

The boy laughed. "I don't know -- I never tried to find out!" He closed his right eye and squinted at her, then closed his left eye and looked through the brown one. "No, you're still pretty however I look at you. You have the true beauty of a good heart."

Grace frowned. "Are you a prince? You should be at Hope's party."

"Yes, I'm the prince of Sahill. But parties are boring, and I don't particularly like Princess Hope. I'd rather sit out here and talk to you." The boy sat cross-legged beside Grace. "By the way, my name is Richard. You can call me Ricky."

Grace was confused. "Nobody wants to talk to me. I'm stupid. You should go talk to Hope -- she can talk about interesting things." Besides, it was Hope's party. The princes and lords were supposed to meet her, not sit in the gardens with Grace.

Ricky shrugged. "Maybe you're not as quick as Hope, but then, Hope would never try to help a lost beetle. She'd just flick it away." He smiled. "She's all jewels and steel, but you're alive and growing, like a flower -- and flowers are much less cold."

Grace wasn't sure what he meant, but she thought it sounded like a compliment. "Thank you," she said. She tried to think of something to say, something to keep him interested, but she only knew about gardens and embroidery. Maybe, if she was very lucky, he might like gardens too. She didn't think he'd like embroidery. Boys never did.

"Do you like gardens?" she asked.

"Of course! They're quite inspiring, and somehow soothing at the same time, and also many plants have useful properties. But I don't know much about caring for plants or arranging a garden -- do you?"

Grace latched onto the last part of his speech and smiled. "I know a lot about gardens. Do you want to know?"

Ricky smiled back at her, and somehow, with his eyes shining and his shoulders loose, he wasn't ugly anymore. "Tell me."

---------------

"Who was that absurd person who escorted you in from the gardens?" Hope asked Grace that evening as Grace pulled jeweled pins out of Hope's hair and undid her sister's fancy braids. "A court jester? A servant of one of our guests? You shouldn't get too close to people like that, Grace; it demeans our position as princesses of Tarna."

Grace frowned. "His name is Richard. He's the prince of Sahill. And he isn't absorbed; he's nice."

Hope twisted away from her mirror to stare at Grace. "Absurd, Grace -- that means ridiculous, and unsuitable. And if that man's a prince, he's definitely unsuitable! I pity his parents, his country, and the woman who marries him -- living with that face would be a trial -- and he's not making any useful connections by hiding in the gardens instead of talking to people. That makes him shortsighted as well as ugly."

"He wasn't hiding; he was talking to me," Grace said. "And it doesn't matter if I'm pretty, so it doesn't matter if he's ugly, right?" Ricky was clever. He listened to her, he helped her put her thoughts in order, and he explained his own thoughts carefully so she understood. Anyone who married him would be very lucky.

Now Hope frowned. "Grace, I know you mean well, but let that go. People don't make sense, and society makes even less sense, so worrying about these things will only get you into trouble when you come up with wrong answers. Thank you for helping me tonight, but I'll call a maid to deal with the rest of this costume. You go get some sleep."

Grace put her handful of hairpins on Hope's claw-foot bedside table and left her sister's grand bedroom. Her own room, at the end of the corridor, was much smaller. Her bed didn't have posts and a canopy, her dresser didn't have gold feet, and she had no mirror. But she had a balcony and nobody minded if she kept flowers there, and she didn't need a big room, a funny bed, or a painted dresser.

She didn't need mirrors. She knew she was pretty. It didn't mean anything.

Grace hummed as she set out her embroidery frame. Ricky had promised to meet her in the garden tomorrow so she could explain to him about roses. He listened when she talked, and he didn't mind that sometimes she couldn't make words come fast, or that she got mixed up and said things more than once. He talked about a lot of things, and he didn't mind that she didn't always understand.

He liked her better than Hope.

Grace liked Ricky.

---------------

"You know, we're a lot alike," Ricky said two days later as Grace showed him how to take plants from the greenhouses and put them along walkways so the garden always had flowers.

Grace set down her trowel and looked at him. "But you're smart."

Ricky shrugged. "I suppose so, but that's not the important thing. You see, I think that people tend not to really see either of us. When they meet me, they think, 'What an ugly young man,' and even once they know me, they still think of my appearance before anything else. When people talk to you, they think, 'She speaks so slowly, and she doesn't seem to understand what I'm saying.' And then they don't bother to get to know you and realize that you do understand things if you have some time and an explanation or two."

Grace took a minute to puzzle through this. Ricky dug a hole and settled a small geranium into it while he waited.

"People only see that you're ugly, and that I'm stupid? They don't see that you're nice?"

"And they don't see that you know a lot of things, or that you have a good heart," Ricky said. A smile flashed over his face like sunlight flashed on the garden fountains. "I think you're one of the most intelligent people I know -- you know enough not to play court games. You realize that gardens are more rewarding."

Grace was still confused by Ricky's compliments, but she shrugged and said, "I like gardens. And I like you. It doesn't matter if you're pretty or not. If people don't see that you're nice, they're stupid."

"That's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me," Ricky said. He lifted another geranium from Grace's basket, but instead of setting it into a hole, he just held it. "Grace, I'm going to be the king of Sahill someday. Most princesses and ladies I've met can't get past the way I look -- they may think I'm tolerable as a friend, but never as a husband. I like you better than any of them. You make me smile. And there are a lot of gardens in Sahill that need somebody to love them..."

He trailed off and Grace blinked in puzzlement. "You have gardeners," she said. "Gardeners like gardens."

Ricky bit his lip, and then offered her the geranium. "Yes, but they're paid to like gardens. You like them for themselves. Grace, will you marry me?"

Grace couldn't think what to say. Ricky wanted to marry her? Nobody wanted to marry her! Sometimes men put their hands on her and tried to kiss her, but she didn't like the way their eyes went dark, and she knew they were lying when they said they loved her and wanted to marry her. Ricky's eyes weren't dark like that. He wasn't lying.

"Yes," she said, and took the geranium from his hands. Ricky leaned forward -- she flinched, just a little -- and he kissed her cheek instead of her mouth. "I'm sorry," she said.

"I understand." Ricky's voice was gentle, and Grace thought that he really did understand about the men with dark eyes. "My family is leaving soon, but I'll come back in a year and take you away from Tarna. You'll like Sahill," he promised.

Grace closed her eyes and tipped her face back to the sun's light. She pretended she was a flower, and Ricky was going to transplant her to the right kind of ground, like she did for all the flowers the gardeners had to put in the wrong places because Hope liked the way they looked and didn't care if the plants died. "In a year?" she asked.

"One year."

Grace cradled the geranium in her arms and smiled.

---------------------------------------------

Ricky:

"I set the terms at a year," the king of Sahill said to his son, "so you'll have time to change your mind." He lifted his hand from the reins of his horse to still Ricky's protest. "I'm not saying that you will change your mind, or even that you should. I'm saying that you might. Politically, it's a sound choice -- alliance with Tarna strengthens our position in the border quarrels with Daglaine -- but the girl herself... She's sweet to look at, and I trust you when you say her heart is warm, but a king needs a partner. He needs a queen, not just a wife. Princess Hope would be a more intelligent choice."

The king turned away and left Ricky to consider his words as they rode through the hill duchies of Nevais that separated Tarna and Sahill. Ricky considered them long and hard.

By the time their small party reached the royal castle of Sahill, doubt gnawed steadily at the edge of his mind, despite the picture of Grace and her geranium that he held as a mental talisman. He found that it was hard to remember the warmth of her smile, especially when he sat at his father's left hand and watched the king dispense justice, argue with his council, or fight carefully phrased battles of words with his vassal lords.

His mother, who sat at the king's right hand, spoke rarely and quietly, but when she did, people listened. When the king proclaimed a strict ruling, she took aside the affected parties and soothed them with smiles, attention, and vague promises to bring the matter back to her husband's attention. She oversaw the management of the castle and court, and pieced together the people's mood from innocuous gossip. She was the king's partner -- not just a wife, but a queen.

Grace couldn't do that.

And yet...

Ricky wrapped the warmth of her smile around his heart and began to research teaching methods, causes of idiocy, and rumors of magical cures. Two weeks later, as he sat in the great hall, leafing through a book that claimed a daily dose of saltpeter and lime could counter the unbalanced humors that slowed a man's mind, he overheard a traveling harpist telling a group of pages the story of the cursed princesses of Tarna.

Ricky set down his book and interrupted the gathering. "I'm sure you have work and lessons you're avoiding," he told the pages, "and if you stay here someone worse than I am will catch you." As the boys hurried off, he turned to the harpist. "I've never heard that the princesses of Tarna were cursed. When did this happen?"

The harpist looked surprised. "It's an old curse -- you haven't heard? I thought you were betrothed to the elder princess, your highness."

"I am," Ricky said sharply, "which is why I'm interested."

"Oh," said the harpist. "It's not much of a story, but it goes like this. At the elder princess's blessing birthday, the queen boasted of her daughter's beauty until the faery godmother lost her temper and cursed the girl to be as stupid as she was beautiful. Then the younger princess was born ugly; the faery granted her wisdom, but she couldn't do anything about the girl's face. So each princess has what the other needs, but neither can help the other. That's the curse of Tarna, your highness."

Ricky mumbled an absent thanks and returned to the castle library to think.

Grace wasn't naturally slow; she was cursed by a faery's wayward magic, the same sort of magic that had granted his own sharp mind. If Grace and Hope each had what the other lacked, then he and Grace were surely in the same ironic trap. It was a pity their faery gifts couldn't be shared...

Ricky stared blankly at a tapestry for a long minute, before he dashed off to see his father.

---------------

The royal faery godmother of the kingdoms between the Middle Sea, the great Forest of Adun, and the frozen Bay of Seals was named Iris, and she lived in a valley in the Dawnfinger Mountains. This Ricky was easily able to ascertain. That valley's location, however, was harder to find.

"You can't go searching for her without a clear direction," said the king of Sahill. "Your best chance would be to attend the blessing birthday of a prince or princess, which would also be a good diplomatic gesture. I believe the king of Ariland is hosting a celebration for his third grandson this winter."

"That's too long to wait," Ricky said, thinking of the quiet pain he'd seen in Grace when she wasn't smiling, and he set himself again to the riddle of the faery godmother's location. By midsummer, he came to an interesting conclusion.

"The faery are creatures of magic, so if a man were sensitive to magic, he could easily find one. I'm not particularly sensitive to magic, but I do carry a faery spell cast by the very woman I need to find. Furthermore, a heart's true desire is a form of magic itself," he told his parents, "and my heart's desire is to help Grace. This should let me grasp the faery spell and find the lady Iris."

The king and queen exchanged long looks, but eventually they agreed to let Ricky set out on his quest. He left the next day, before they could think of any reasons to stop him. Only his squire and two guards rode beside him; he felt safer traveling incognito, and wanted to look foolish in front of as few people as possible if his theory proved false.

At first Ricky rode somewhat aimlessly in the direction of the mountains, waiting for his heart's desire to set a spark to the faery spell and make his direction clear. He never did feel a strong urge along any path, but after two weeks he realized he and his three men had already reached the Dawnfinger Mountains, and were riding up a narrow dirt path to a small cottage wreathed in ivy, honeysuckle, and morning glory. An apple tree stood nearby, heavy with fruit and blossoms at the same time, and a woman stood on the porch, waiting for them.

Ricky noted the peculiar tree, the woman's softly glowing skin, and the pointed ears visible through her feathery hair, and he reached several conclusions at once. Swiftly, he swung off his horse and bowed. "Lady Iris. I hope I haven't disturbed you too greatly."

The faery godmother smiled. "You haven't, Richard. Now come in, have tea, and tell me what brings you so far from Sahill, in service to your heart's desire."

His men stayed outside. "I'll watch the horses, my lord," his squire said. "Be careful; faeries are tricky." Ricky nodded his thanks for the advice, and walked into Iris's house.

Once he had finished his tea and told his story, Iris frowned. "I could solve your problems without all this tinkering," she said, "but if I use any of the great magics in the human realms, the queen of Faery might well undo my work. However, it seems to me that my exact words, when blessing Grace, were 'Yes, she's pretty. But she'll be as dull as she is beautiful.' So in a way, her beauty is also a faery spell, and your idea might work."

She stared pensively into her teacup. "I feel responsible for Grace since it was my magic that harmed her. I'll do my best to help you, within my queen's limits."

"Thank you," said Ricky.

"It should be possible to extend your individual blessings until they cover you both," Iris said. "You can share your intelligence with Grace. And since her blessing has two parts -- beauty and dullness of mind -- and since your blessing would negate half of hers, she can share beauty with you." Iris smiled. "Your mother wanted me to make you handsome. Normally I can't grant blessings of that sort -- they stray too close to the great magics -- but it would be a marvelous trick to make you handsome as a side-effect of correcting my miscast blessing."

Ricky ignored that for the moment. While it would undoubtedly be pleasant not to have people stare at him wherever he went, Grace was the one who truly needed help. "How do I share my blessing with Grace?" he asked.

"By wishing on your heart's desire, of course," Iris said. Then she held up a hand in warning. "The magics must balance. If Grace doesn't make the same wish within a year, sharing her gift with you in turn, then your wish will be undone. You won't get a second chance. I suggest you talk to her before you do anything further."

Ricky nodded, thanked Iris for her tea and her advice, and rode swiftly out of the mountains toward Tarna. His heart sang; he had found a way to break Grace's curse.

---------------------------------------------

Grace:

Several months after Ricky left Tarna, not long after midsummer, Grace began to feel strange. When she woke up in the morning, the inside of her head itched. When she talked to the gardeners, she noticed that they talked slowly so she could understand what they said, but they were talking too slowly. When she overheard a foreign lord tell a complicated story with a funny ending to Hope, it made sense, and she laughed.

Hope stiffened in surprise, and then turned to face her sister. "Grace, you shouldn't sneak up on people! Anyway, it's not a good idea to laugh just because other people are laughing. You might embarrass yourself."

"I laughed because the story was funny," Grace said, confused.

Hope sighed and shook her head, catching glints of sunlight on her jeweled hairpins. "Grace, don't lie; it's demeaning. It's a beautiful day -- why don't you go back to the gardens and spend some time with your flowers?" The lord agreed, even though his eyes lingered on Grace.

Grace left her sister alone with the dark-eyed man, but she was frowning. She had understood the joke. But Hope was right, too, because usually Grace didn't understand. Something didn't make sense.

Grace fetched a pair of clippers from the head gardener and went to trim dead blossoms from the rosebushes. She wanted to do something that wouldn't make her think. Her mind felt like it was covered in peeling scabs and she couldn't reach to scratch them.

---------------

After three days of confusion, Grace admitted what had happened: the faery godmother's curse must have broken, because she wasn't stupid anymore. She still wasn't as clever as Hope -- she was sure that was impossible, since cleverness was Hope's faery blessing -- but she was perfectly capable of understanding things that had flown right over her head not a week ago.

There were three questions she wanted answered. First, why did the magic change? Second, who made it change? Most importantly, would the change last?

She didn't say anything to Hope or her mother, but on the evening of the third day, Grace knocked on the door of her father's solar after supper. "Come in," her father said. He looked up from his desk, where he was reading a petition from one of his vassal lords, and seemed surprised to see her.

Grace explained what had happened. When she finished, her father didn't accuse her of lying, the way Hope would have, or check her for a fever the way her mother might have, but he seemed doubtful. "Test me," she told him. "It's true."

"Hmm," he said. "What are the implications of your marriage to Prince Richard of Sahill?"

"First, it confirms that Hope is your heir and I'm not," Grace said, "since the terms of the betrothal say that Ricky won't press a claim to the throne of Tarna unless Hope and all of her children are dead. Second, it throws our support behind Sahill instead of Daglaine in their fight over Sahill's southern border. Probably you won't send knights or soldiers to Sahill, but you'll support them with money and grain, since our land is richer than Ricky's. I remember he told me that. Third, it makes an unspoken threat to the duchies of Nevais, since they won't be able to play Tarna against Sahill anymore." She paused, trying to read her father's expression through his thick beard. "That's all I can think of now, but I haven't studied politics, not like Hope."

"Hmm," her father said again, and he ran his hand over his beard as he thought. "I must admit, the curse seems to be broken; most of my councilors couldn't sum up the situation better than that. In fact, you sounded almost like Hope when she talked with me about your marriage. This is extremely puzzling. Faery magic is supposed to be unbreakable, and I cannot think what could have changed that in your case, and your case only. Unless, perhaps, this is only the first to fail and soon all faery gifts will fade."

Grace twisted her hands and wished she had a piece of embroidery to keep her fingers busy. "I almost wish I were still stupid," she said. "I hated it -- I didn't realize how much I hated it until I could think properly -- but at least I knew where I stood."

"At the moment, you still stand there," her father said. He stood from behind his desk and walked over to rest his hand on Grace's shoulder. "You will marry the prince of Sahill next spring and leave Tarna, perhaps forever. But it seems he'll gain a more equal partner than he anticipated, and Tarna will lose more than we understood we would lose." He brushed a lock of hair away from his daughter's face and walked back to his desk. "Good night, Grace. I'll tell your mother and sister tomorrow."

"Thank you, father," Grace whispered, and she slipped from the room.

---------------

The queen of Tarna had no idea what to make of her elder daughter's sudden intelligence, after so many years of regarding her as a burden, an invalid, and a sign of her very public failure. She avoided Grace.

Hope was equally taken aback, but she began to follow her sister as Grace tried to learn eighteen years' worth of lessons in courtly behavior, politics, economics, history, riding, music, magic, and everything else a future queen should know. She watched Grace with an unreadable expression -- it had pieces of disbelief, jealousy, anger, and fear, which didn't all make sense, as well as flashes of joy and relief, which made even less sense.

Hope had always considered Grace an embarrassment -- Grace could see that now -- but she'd tried to help, even if she hadn't been skilled at kindness. She'd tried to explain people to Grace, or watched while their mother painstakingly taught Grace embroidery and simple etiquette, but she'd always stormed off when Grace didn't learn quickly enough to suit her. Maybe the relief came from having a more normal sister... but Grace was still woefully ignorant, and even without her faery curse she wasn't quick enough to challenge Hope in their lessons. Hope made that abundantly clear.

Even though everything had changed, Grace still didn't understand Hope. That was almost a relief, especially since everyone outside the family had completely changed the ways they treated her.

Grace knew about the impatient, sharp-tongued servants who didn't want to deal with a stupid princess. Suddenly, they were gracious. She knew about the kinder servants, who slowed themselves and waited for her to understand. Some began to avoid her, and others fumbled in her presence, slow to change their habits. She knew about the court lords and visiting lords, who ignored her unless they found her alone and looked at her with dark eyes. They began to court her at supper and to treat her the way they treated Hope. She knew about the court ladies and the visiting lords' wives, who scorned or pitied her, and gossiped over her head at embroidery circles. Now the younger ones wanted to be her friends, and the older ones discussed her engagement to Ricky, wondering if she had better prospects than a tiny kingdom like Sahill.

They treated her like they treated Hope.

After several days, though, Grace realized that wasn't quite true. People fawned over Hope -- she was a princess, the heir of Tarna, and clever in conversation -- but they fawned over Grace just a bit more, because she was the elder sister. If her faery curse stayed broken, if she dissolved her engagement with Ricky, she might become their father's heir instead of Hope. She might rule Tarna.

Now Hope's jealousy and fear made more sense.

Did she want to take Hope's place? Grace turned the question over as she knelt in the gardens and trimmed dead blossoms from the bushes. She didn't like the hunger in people's eyes when they looked at her now -- it reminded her of the dark-eyed men who only wanted her body -- but it was good to watch people straighten when she spoke to them, to see respect in their eyes instead of pity, scorn, and disgust. This was how things should have been from the beginning. She was firstborn. This should have been her place all along.

And yet...

She remembered the way Ricky's smile flashed like sunlight in his mismatched eyes. She remembered how gentle his hands were on soft petals and fragile roots. She remembered his patience when he talked and when he listened. She remembered how he asked her to marry him -- gardeners were paid to like gardens, he'd said, but she liked them for themselves -- and he'd kissed her, once, without asking for more the way other men had.

She thought, now, that maybe gardens weren't the only things he wanted people to like for themselves. She'd seen past his ugliness. She wondered if he'd seen past her curse.

"I won't take your place," she told Hope the next morning, "so you don't need to worry. I'm leaving for Sahill in the spring and everyone will forget me again."

Hope clenched her hands until her fingers were white and bloodless, but her lips were fixed in a smile. "You could never take my place," she said. "I'm not worried, so stop trying to comfort me."

"But--" Grace began, feeling off balance, as if her mind were still muffled and Hope were talking rings around her.

"What good are you anyway?" Hope interrupted. "Your blessing broke, and anyone with sense would avoid you because of that. And you're pretty -- what use is that? You don't know how to use it -- you don't even care -- you just grub in the dirt, and let your feelings parade across your face, and--" Hope's teeth snapped shut, cutting off her words, and she whirled around.

"You're not worthy of my place," she said after a moment. Then she walked away, lightly, and called out to a lady across the room. Her voice was full of smiles and laughter.

False smiles, false laughter, stiff and forced. Grace knew that much -- she knew how to read tension in the angle of Hope's shoulders and the set of her mouth-- but she didn't know what was wrong or how to fix it. She'd missed something important and she had no idea what it was.

She spent the day in the gardens, cleaning algae from the fountains and ornamental ponds, until her arms were streaked with green and her dress was limp with sweat and dirty water. It wasn't fit work for a princess, the chief gardener told her, but Grace stared at him until he sketched a bow and relented. She wanted to exhaust herself, to make herself stop thinking. It didn't work particularly well.

She returned to her rooms in late afternoon, tired and frustrated, to wash and dress for supper. As she walked through the castle, men stared at her, some more openly than others, and her frustration grew. What were they looking at? Surely she wasn't dirty enough to shock them, not men accustomed to the dirt, sweat, and blood of hunting and war.

Grace had no mirror. It didn't occur to her, until she overheard Hope's sly comment about water nymphs tempting men in the gardens, that her dress had clung to her body and put it on display. She set down her spoon and excused herself from the table, claiming a sudden headache.

In the privacy of her room, she poured water into a bowl and studied her face. She was pretty -- beautiful, even. She knew that. She'd always known that, but she'd also known that it didn't matter, that beauty was worthless, that it didn't make up for her stupidity. Hope had told her that a thousand times, until it was the great truth of Grace's life.

For the first time, Grace wondered if Hope believed her own words.

---------------------------------------------

Ricky:

Ricky rode into Tarna at the start of harvest, tired, dusty, slightly battered from a scuffle with bandits in Nevais, and alight with anticipation and the need to see Grace. He passed near a minor castle on the border and found himself delayed for several days while the local lord sent messengers to Sahill to confirm his identity. Then he was allowed into Tarna, with two lightly armed escorts sent to watch him and his guards.

"You're the prince of Sahill, then?" one of them asked as they rode over the castle drawbridge. "The one who's to marry Princess Grace?"

"Yes," Ricky said.

The escort looked him up and down, skeptically. "No offense meant, your highness, but the princess could do a lot better than you."

Ricky shrugged, letting himself roll with the motion as it tugged his misaligned shoulders out of balance. "There's no denying my appearance, but my father's subjects have been telling me the opposite since spring. As I see it, Grace and I each have our problems; we suit each other."

"Then you haven't heard?" the second escort asked, sounding startled.

Ricky and his squire exchanged a puzzled glance. "We've been traveling to the Dawnfinger Mountains and back," Ricky said. "Heard what?"

"Princess Grace -- her faery curse is broken!"

"Since high summer," the first escort added. "Some of the lords want the king to declare her the heir instead of Princess Hope, and break her engagement to you. Others want to renegotiate the marriage treaty, and a third group wants to cast her out since nobody knows if she might make other magic fail."

"Oh." Ricky felt his heart sink into his gut and roil around. Grace's miscast blessing was broken? The only way that could happen was if he -- or possibly Hope -- wished on his heart's desire to share his faery blessing with her. He was certain Hope hadn't made a wish like that; he wasn't sure she saw Grace as a person, let alone someone to help, or who could help her.

This was his fault. He'd turned Grace's life upside down without asking, and she had no idea what was happening to her.

On the other hand, all he'd done was broken a curse. Perhaps she wouldn't mind too much?

Ricky gathered his courage and began to rehearse explanations, hoping that Grace would understand the situation and anchor the magic before they lost their chance forever.

---------------

They reached the royal city two days later -- the Tarnish escorts had firm ideas about the proper pace of their journey, and had refused to speed up to humor a foreign prince -- and Ricky found himself further delayed by welcoming ceremonies and a lavish formal supper. He was seated at the king's left hand, which was flattering, but which also kept him just far enough from Grace that he couldn't speak privately to her.

He settled for studying her.

Grace talked more than he remembered from his previous visit, but she still didn't smile much in public. She didn't draw into herself when men paid her compliments, but she still didn't seem to welcome them. Her eyes didn't crinkle as she tried to puzzle her way through conversations; instead, they narrowed as she held a polite argument with a young lord from Nevais. Her dress covered every inch of skin, from her neck to her wrists to her ankles, and her hair was tied back in a severe knot, as if she were trying to minimize her beauty, yet she shone almost more than he remembered. Her new confidence made up the difference.

Ricky kept one ear tuned to the king's voice and absently evaded questions about his journey and the purpose of his visit. Inwardly he drummed his fingers, tapped his heels, and gritted his teeth until the endless meal was finished and Grace rose from her chair.

Ricky hopped to his feet and swept an elaborate bow. "Princess Grace, may I have the pleasure of escorting you this evening?"

Grace raised her eyebrows, but nodded. Ricky hurried around the high table and offered his hand. He knew they made an odd picture -- the tall, elegant woman and the short, hunchbacked, splay-legged man -- but he didn't care. He just wanted to walk in Grace's garden so he could explain what he'd done.

"How are the gardens?" he asked as they exited the great hall, her hand tucked loosely over his forearm.

"Blossoming," Grace said. "Some of the roses are dying -- a fungus got at their roots over the winter -- but the other ornamentals are flourishing. The kitchen gardens are doing well, despite the usual problems with caterpillars and other insects, and the vineyards promise a good year." She looked sideways and down to meet his eyes. "Ricky, why are you here? I didn't expect you until next spring."

Ricky cleared his throat. "Yes, well, I didn't expect to be here myself, not when I left. However..." He hummed, all his tentative speeches flying from his mind now that he had to deliver them to the woman whose life he'd turned upside-down. "Um."

"This sounds like it might be complicated," Grace said dryly. "Wait a moment. We'll go to the fountain, and no one will be able to overhear."

She led him through the cool, twilit gardens until they reached the fountain where they'd first talked. Grace sat on the marble rim and looked expectantly at Ricky. He clasped his hands behind his back and looked at his toes.

"I accidentally broke your curse," he said. He held up a hand. "Don't say anything -- let me finish. You see, I wanted to help you, and I looked for diseases that might cause stupidity, and then I heard the story of your faery blessing, and Hope's. They tell the story of the two princesses of Tarna, each of whom has what the other wants -- did you know that? Um. Anyway, it occurred to me that my faery blessing is remarkably similar to Hope's, so you and I were in the same position that you and she were. Then it occurred to me that it might be possible to share faery blessings."

The words were tumbling out like a waterfall now, and Ricky had no hope of stopping them, not even as Grace's eyes narrowed. "I went to the Dawnfinger Mountains and visited the faery godmother -- her name is Iris, did you know? -- and she said it should be possible to share faery blessings, if we wished on our hearts' desires. So I could give you intelligence--"

"And I could give you stupidity?" Grace broke in. "Never!"

"No, no, not stupidity!" Ricky babbled. "You see, your curse is phrased like this: 'She'll be as stupid as she is beautiful.' That linked your beauty to the faery magic, so you can share it instead." He ground to a halt, suddenly embarrassed. "Um. It's not that I mind my appearance -- I'm used to it -- but Iris says that the magic has to balance. If only one person shares his or her blessing, it only lasts a year; the gift has to be returned to be permanent. And you can't try a second time with the same person."

He looked back down at his toes. "I meant to tell you first, but I seem to have wished on my heart's desire by accident. So now either you share your gift with me, before midsummer next year, or you persuade Hope to share her intelligence with you in return for beauty. I understand if you'd rather share with her. But I think you'd have to wait until next year anyway, to make sure her blessing doesn't get tangled with mine."

Grace was silent for a long, sickening minute. Then she brushed a stray twig into the fountain and spoke to the ripples in the water. "Thank you for telling me. I'll have to think before I give you an answer."

Ricky's heart sank through the soles of his feet and puddled on the ground. But he nodded; it was no more than he deserved, he supposed, for the whirlwind upset he must have caused in Grace's life. "Shall I escort you to your room?" he asked, starting to offer his hand.

"No," said Grace. She stood and took a half step toward the castle. "I'll have a servant escort you to yours."

Ricky sat on the fountain's rim, despondent.

---------------------------------------------

Grace:

She sent a footman to deal with Ricky, and then borrowed a free-standing full length mirror from one of the court ladies. The woman offered to call a servant to carry it for her, but Grace waved off the help and lugged the heavy glass and wood contraption down three corridors and up a wide staircase to her room.

She set the mirror against the wall and looked at herself.

Beauty. What earthly good was beauty? What good had it ever done her? Beauty had brought a curse on her and never paid any compensation.

If Hope wanted Grace's beauty, she could have it.

Grace threw her dressing gown over the mirror and turned it to face the wall. Then she opened her window and walked onto the balcony, to look over the gardens and her fountain. Ricky had wished on his heart's desire to share his faery blessing with her. Now she had the rest of a year -- just over ten months -- to return the gift, convince Hope to share faery magic instead, or let everything go back to the way it used to be, when she was stupid.

The way to make everyone happy would be to wait until Ricky's gift faded, and then share blessings with Hope. That way she would be clear-minded and Hope would be beautiful -- the way Grace now realized her sister had always wanted to be. Ricky didn't need a gift of beauty. He was fine the way he was.

Grace frowned suddenly, and crossed her arms against a night breeze. She hadn't realized how much she hated being stupid until she could think properly. What if Ricky hated being ugly? Was that why he'd made the wish, even though he said he hadn't meant to?

She liked Ricky more than she liked Hope.

On the other hand... Grace's frown deepened. Why had Ricky cared enough to spend weeks traveling to the Dawnfinger Mountains, chasing an idea that was little more than a wild guess? He'd asked her to marry him; that meant he'd liked her even when she was stupid. If that was true, why had he wanted so badly to change her?

"Hope is right; people make no sense," she said to the ivy that climbed up the stones and twined around the balcony rail. "Even when I'm not stupid, I still don't understand anything."

Maybe she didn't want to understand anything. Maybe understanding would hurt.

Grace shut the window and went to bed. She slept badly.

---------------

In the morning, she realized that she couldn't choose yet. First, she had to know what Hope and Ricky wanted, and why Ricky had changed her.

Grace found herself avoiding Ricky's eyes at breakfast. He fidgeted, flushed, and left without finishing his bread.

"You ought to break off the engagement," Hope said across the table to Grace, just loud enough for Ricky to hear as he walked through the doorway. "You can do much better than such an ugly little man with such a quaint little kingdom."

Ricky steps faltered for a moment before he turned out of sight.

Hope smiled.

Grace waited five minutes to calm herself and let Hope drift to other topics. Then she rose from her seat, walked around the high table, and held out her hand to her sister. "We barely ever talk," she said, "and in less than a year, I'll leave Tarna. I'd like to know you better before we separate."

Hope raised an eyebrow, but she folded her napkin and followed Grace out of the great hall and into the gardens. Grace settled on the rim of her fountain, tucking her skirts around her ankles. Hope touched a finger to the damp stone, sniffed, and remained standing.

"What do you really want?" Hope asked.

"Your opinion," Grace said. "Hear me out, please." She explained how her fairy blessing of stupidity was apparently linked to her appearance -- to her beauty -- and how fairy blessings could be shared. "You and Ricky both have a blessing of intelligence, which counters my curse of slowness. But in order to make the magic permanent, the blessings have to be shared in both directions, which means I can make one of you beautiful. I can share with Ricky now, since he's already lent me his blessing, or I can wait until his wears off next summer, and trade with you instead."

Grace looked down at the rippling water in the fountain basin and stirred it with a finger. "I don't see why either of you would want my blessing, but I can't go back to being stupid, not now that I know what I was missing. So I need to know if you can wish on your heart's desire to share your blessing with me, or if I should trade with Ricky now."

Hope made a peculiar, strangled noise, almost as if she were choking. Grace looked up, worried, and found her sister caught halfway between laughter and a snarl.

"If I can wish on my heart's desire to be beautiful?" Hope asked. "You want to know if I can wish that? Idiot! What else do you think I've ever wanted?"

"But--" said Grace.

"Don't say anything," Hope snapped. "I can't talk to you now. You stay here in your gardens and do whatever it is you do, and I'll go think."

"When will--?"

Hope waved off the question. "You don't need my answer for nearly a year. It's your turn to wait and be frustrated -- I think learning patience will be good for you." She spun and strode back into the castle, walking too fast and hard for her usual elegance.

Grace watched Hope retreat and wondered if she'd ever known her sister.

---------------------------------------------

Hope:

She watched Prince Richard dance anxiously around her sister; watched Grace mouth meaningless pleasantries and retreat to her gardens, her brow furrowed; watched the queen fuss and worry and make plans for a wedding that might never come to pass; watched the king weigh the situation behind secretive eyes and pin her with a measuring, disappointed stare; and felt like screaming.

She didn't scream, of course. Hope knew her position, knew exactly how much of the king's power rested on the willing compliance of his vassals in the game of courtly manners, and had never openly sullied the dignity of her station since Grace's disastrous sixteenth birthday.

She wondered if Grace had the slightest idea of how much the family had sheltered her. They were still sheltering her -- Grace was marrying for affection, while Hope would marry for the best political alliance she and the king could manage. Unless she had a faery's own luck, she'd spend the rest of her life fighting to keep her position as reigning queen rather than let her husband push her aside and seize power for himself.

And now Grace had offered to make Hope beautiful.

Oh, she might not realize it was an offer -- it was couched as a question -- but the very act of asking Hope's opinion meant that Grace thought she was more important than Richard of Sahill. She was more important than Grace's soon-to-be-husband, more important than the man who'd figured out the solution to their mutual lacks!

The offhand kindness burned like acid.

Grace was not supposed to be in a position to do Hope favors. To accept her sister's help -- to admit that she'd been staring the answer to her heart's desire in the face all these years, blind, unknowing...

No.

Those thoughts were unworthy. Hope smoothed her skirts and stepped to her balcony door, peering down through the curtains to where Grace sat on the rim of her favorite fountain. By all rights, Grace should have been helping Hope all along. Grace should have been clear-minded as well as breathtakingly beautiful. Grace should have had two years' more experience at court than Hope. Grace should have known the answers to knotty questions, should have whispered hints and secrets to her younger sister, should have overshadowed Hope, all unknowing, with the spell of her beauty and presence.

Instead, Grace had been an absence, a wound, a wall between Hope and their parents -- more foolish pet or delicate hothouse flower than human sister. Grace had been Hope's responsibility instead of the other way around.

In a way, she still was. It was Hope's choice, after all, that could spell doom on her sister's newfound intelligence. What if she asked Grace to wait and trade blessings with her, but couldn't muster enough charity to pass on her quickness of mind? She loved Grace, but she didn't like her sister much. She wanted to be beautiful -- wanting and wishing had worn a hollow place in her heart -- but...

Did she deserve Grace's help?

Hope whirled and faced her mirror, studied her reflection like an old enemy. She wasn't ugly, not exactly, but nobody would ever call her more than plain. Her hair was mousy, thin, and lank -- braids and jeweled pins could only disguise so much. Her eyes drooped, her nose was bent and knobby, her lips too thin, her chin too long, her teeth crooked, and her ears uneven against her head. Subtle faults, nothing like Prince Richard's mismatched jester's features, but she was the ugly duckling to Grace's swan.

She wanted, so badly, to be beautiful.

Hope tore the sheet from her bed and threw it over the mirror.

---------------

The next morning, Hope exchanged a conversation of glances and tiny gestures with Grace -- it was still a jolt that Grace understood her now -- and watched Prince Richard trail her sister from the hall. She waited a judicious three minutes, long enough for them to reach that infernal fountain, and then took her leave of the king and queen.

Grace was all tension and angles, Richard's presence ruining the peace of her gardens for her; she smiled as Hope walked down the path toward them. "Ah!" she said, standing abruptly. "Ricky, I have to discuss wedding invitations with my mother. Please let Hope keep you company." She fled, obviously not giving a second's thought to the impression she made on any watchers.

Richard bowed, warily. Hope smiled. "I think, as prospective siblings-in-law, we should get to know each other... especially since we never seemed to find an opportunity to talk when we first met. I'm sure that was an unavoidable accident of timing; I'd hate to think my sister might be marrying a rude or thoughtless man."

"I apologize for any inconvenience I caused," Richard said, sounding even more wary, and also a bit bored. He didn't think much of court manners, did he? Hope couldn't blame him for his distaste -- they were tiresome and restrictive -- but she doubted he'd last long ruling a kingdom much larger than Sahill. He didn't have the edge.

"I accept. Grace, however, may not." Richard winced, and Hope nodded; yes, her sister hadn't forgiven him for turning her life upside-down, much though she might like the results. "According to the king my father, before making important decisions, a person should learn the desires of all the involved parties," Hope continued. Richard winced again. "Therefore, as Grace has asked me whether I'm willing and able to trade blessings with her, I thought I should speak to you. You, after all, have already made such a wish, and presumably know what it entails. And you stand to benefit as much as I do if Grace chooses to fix your appearance instead. So. Talk."

Richard's face had grown steadily more dour through Hope's speech. "I didn't know I was making a wish on my heart's desire," he said glumly. "I was happy that I'd found a way around Grace's curse, and I suppose I was so happy that I started thinking of the trade as something already done. All I did was wish her well -- I wanted her to be intelligent, and happy."

Then Richard pinned Hope with a challenging stare of his own; Hope was abruptly aware that though she was taller, he was older, male, and well-muscled despite his awkward limbs. She clasped her hands, the picture of nonchalance, and refused to blink. "I don't care about my looks -- I've had eighteen years to learn to live with them, and I get on well enough," Richard said, his mismatched eyes boring into hers. "All I care about is Grace. I've never seen you make a single effort to make her smile, or to compliment her -- you have jewels and steel where your heart should be. What makes you think you could care enough to share something as personal as a faery blessing?"

Hope reminded herself that she was a princess, the heir of Tarna, and above losing her temper over anything Richard said. Her breath hissed between her teeth, and she pressed her hands against the satin of her skirts, but she held her composure.

"I," she said icily, "am Grace's sister. Since I was old enough to talk, I've explained things when she was confused. I've kept attention away from her. I persuaded the queen to let her grub about in the gardens instead of learning to flirt and flatter men. I told the king my father to accept your marriage proposal, because you're the only chance I saw for her to have any sort of life as a person instead of an ornamental baby farm. I may not be good at smiles and sweet words, but don't you ever say I don't care about my sister!"

Hope marched back into the castle and spent the next several hours planning a military campaign to conquer Sahill. It didn't soothe her as much as she'd hoped.

---------------

Hope waited two more days before she went to see Grace in the evening. Her sister was in her small room, working at her embroidery frame. Hope couldn't make much sense of the pattern -- the leaf and flower shapes were oddly distorted, not at all like Grace's usual style -- but she liked the bright, jewel-like colors.

"Have you asked Prince Richard why he wanted to change you?" she began with no preamble.

Grace pricked her finger and pulled her hand aside so she wouldn't bleed on her work. "No," she said. "I don't want to know."

"You don't have excuses for being stupid anymore," Hope said. "I only see two reasons. First, he didn't think you were good enough, or didn't think he could stand explaining everything to you and listening to your endless repetition for the rest of his life. Second, he realized you were cursed and wanted to help you. The real answer is probably somewhere in between... but either way, do you want to marry someone who claimed to like you as you were and then changed you to suit himself?"

Grace sat very still, her needle pressed between bloodless fingers. "I don't care," she said, after a tense silence. "I feel as if I'd been blind all my life, but now I can see -- even if Ricky didn't start out with pure motives, he did find a way around the faery magic, and he did help me. That's more than you ever managed."

"True," Hope acknowledged. "Then again, he didn't grow up with you -- he hadn't had years to get used to your limitations. I suppose running up against them so suddenly might push even the best of men to hunt for loopholes."

Grace smiled, softly, and returned to her needlework, her wounded finger held firmly outside the embroidery frame. "I'm not listening to you anymore. You're trying to make me hate Ricky, and it won't work. I like him. I'm going to marry him, be queen of Sahill, and live happily ever after. Stop provoking me."

Hope hid a smile; Grace was still terribly naïve. She'd been trying to force her sister to stop waffling -- whether she accepted or rejected Richard was beside the point, so long as she made a choice. "You'll be a great queen, and I'll be sad and alone, right?" she said lightly. "Good for you."

Now Grace looked up and said, earnestly, "You don't have to be alone, Hope. You can find someone who cares about you for your heart, not just your position. If I found Ricky and he found a way around my curse, surely you can find a way to be happy." She paused, uncertainty written clearly across her face. "Do you want to exchange blessings next summer? I don't know why you want to be pretty -- I hate the ways people look at me -- but if that will help..."

Suddenly Hope found that she'd already made her own decision.

"No," she told her sister. "I don't need your help. I never have. Maybe if you hadn't been cursed, I would have learned to depend on you, but I can stand on my own. Make Richard handsome and call it a wedding present from me."

She turned, not wanting to show how her eyes were prickling, and hurried to the door.

"You don't have to be alone forever," Grace said before Hope could escape into the corridor. "Even if you don't need to lean on me, I'll be waiting if you ever want my help. All you have to do is ask. That's what sisters are supposed to do, and now I can hold up my end."

Hope closed her eyes for a long moment. "Thank you." She left before she lost her resolve.

Ten minutes later, she realized that Grace had, in fact, been embroidering a garden -- a garden where all the leaves were swords and the flower petals were made of jewels. Jewels and steel in place of her heart, like Richard had said, but jewels and steel worked into something alive, something that Grace loved.

Hope pulled a diamond pin from her hair and studied it, testing the sharp point against her skin. Maybe she didn't have to stand alone like a naked sword -- just because she didn't need Grace's love didn't mean she had to reject her sister's offer.

Maybe she didn't need to be beautiful. She had more than enough other blessings, if she opened her eyes to see.

---------------------------------------------

Grace:

She went to bed, caught between sorrow for Hope and joy for herself and Ricky. She dreamed that one day they met again, when they were all old and silver-haired. She and Ricky had children and grandchildren, hard-earned wisdom, and laugh wrinkles around their eyes and mouths. Hope was slim and regal, solitary despite her eventual marriage and her two sons, but she was known as the greatest monarch to rule Tarna in generations, and contentment lurked in the depths of her eyes.

It wasn't perfect happiness, but it was enough.

When she woke, Grace washed herself quickly, threw on the dress her maid laid out, and then ran through the castle to Ricky's guest suite. Talking with Hope had cleared her mind, and she had to apologize for doubting him and pushing him away. For the first time in her life, she wanted to kiss a man. Even if Ricky's eyes went dark, she wouldn't mind -- she knew he cared about more than her body.

She knocked on his door and waited for his guards or the castle servants to let her in.

Confused sounds drifted through the walls -- strained voices, and the thump of something heavy and metallic hitting a stone wall. Grace knocked again and set her hand on the latch, ready to hurry in and make certain nothing had happened to Ricky.

Then a stranger opened the door. "Grace!" he said. "Did you make a wish last night?"

He acted as though he knew her, but she had never seen this man in her life. He was exactly her height, and wearing a too-large guard's uniform that sagged on his shoulders and around his waist. His face was pleasant, his body straight and well-formed, and his hands long and elegant.

"Who--" Grace began.

Then she stopped and looked more closely. His eyes -- a little wild, a little sad -- were mismatched. The right was brown, but the left was a brilliant green.

"Ricky?"

He smiled, tension bleeding from his strangely untwisted shoulders. "Yes. I woke up like this and scared ten years off my squire when he saw me. Did you make a wish? No, that's a silly question -- you must have made a wish -- there's no other explanation." Then he waved his hand in a sharp motion, as if reining in his mouth. "Please excuse me; I'm not unhappy, you know, but it's disconcerting not to recognize myself in the mirror. Um. Does this mean...?"

Grace smiled. "Yes. I talked to Hope last night, and we reached an understanding. I like you -- love you, I suppose -- and I want to spend the rest of my life getting to know you better. I don't care why you started looking for a loophole in my curse, because I'm sure the magic wouldn't have worked unless you cared about me. I still want to marry you, and I promise to do my best to be a worthy queen of Sahill."

Ricky flushed and ran a hand through his newly obedient hair. "Um. About that. Don't worry so much about being a worthy queen -- that's not why I asked you to marry me. Sahill doesn't need all that much management in any case... but the castle gardens definitely need someone to care for them."

"Then I'll have to show you how to garden," Grace said, and linked her hand with his. "Right now, I think we should fetch a tailor and get you some new clothes."

"Oh, thank you," Ricky said, and kissed her.

And they lived happily ever after.

---------------------------------------------

The End