... there lived a very beautiful girl ...

It's my 9th Jixaversary! I thought it would be fitting to post a story in the same universe I debuted as an author. I am just thrilled to be a part of this community and able to celebrate with you all this year. I'm especially grateful for how welcoming everyone is here, and that I was able to jump right back into the fray even after my long hiatus. It's good to know I can always come 'home' to Jix. :)

Thank you so much, both Susan and Jo, for editing this tale for me. I really appreciate your help, escpecially with those pesky commas and all your other suggestions.

Another thanks to Bonnie for sharing her knowledge about horses. It helped tighten up one of the little details of this story.

This story is based on "Beauty and the Beast" by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. If you're familiar with the Disney version of the fairy tale, this is not that tale. This is the story I grew up with; I had never even seen the Disney version until fairly recently. Wikipedia has a pretty good description of the fairy tale as I am familiar with it.

While all my stories in this universe can be read as 'stand-alone' stories, they do all intertwine. If you want my back-story on the beast, be sure to read ... there lived a not-so-wealthy prince ....

Once upon a time, there lived a very beautiful girl, often talked of as the most beautiful girl in all the land. Diana was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and the middle child of five. The merchant lived with his two sons and his three daughters, but his wife had died long before. Edward, for that was the merchant's name, was a large man who enjoyed life, enjoyed food even more, but it was his five children who most filled his life with joy.

One day, when he was out on his ship sailing back to his land with a rich load of cargo, a great storm came up, destroying everything. It destroyed not only his ship, but he lost two other vessels he owned that had sailed with him from foreign, exotic lands.

Indeed, the merchant was lucky to escape with his life, for even some of his crew perished in the storm. The merchant was desolate. He hesitated to tell his sons and daughters of this great misfortune. He gathered what he could salvage from the wreckage and distributed it among the surviving crew, telling them to go and sell the goods, for he could not hope to make enough gold to pay them for this journey.

Empty-handed and penniless, he returned home to his five children. Not knowing when he would be able to rebuild his fleet, he dismissed all his servants. He then gathered his children, his older two twin daughters, his middle child, the very beautiful Diana, and his two twin sons, Lawrence and Terrence, who were younger still.

"We will likely need to sell this large estate and move to a more modest home in the countryside. It will be a very different life," Edward explained. "We shall have to work the fields and live off the land."

Lawrence came to his father's side. "Pray tell, Father. Do you not think you can rebuild your business?"

"Alas, no, my son." Edward looked sad, indeed. "Without the ships, I cannot hope to gather the rich materials and precious metals to afford such a lavish lifestyle."

"'Tis nary a problem, dear Father," Terrence said, approaching his father's other side. Lawrence and Terrence looked identical, both having dark brown hair and brilliant blue eyes. "I will help work the land, and we will make a decent living all the same."

"Please don't worry, Father." Diana spoke up. She was a few years older than the young twin boys. She had locks black as a raven and eyes the color of violets, but she was scarcely aware of her own beauty. "It will be a wonderful new life for us. I will enjoy living in the country; it will be as if we were on holiday all year long."

Rosalinda, one of Diana's sisters, frowned at her. "How stupid you are, even with all those books you love reading so much! How will I ever find a husband out in the country?"

"Do you think I care to wed a farmer?" the other, Marietta, asked, her emerald eyes sparking with anger. "I could not bear it."

Diana's two older twin sisters were beautiful but proud. Their chestnut brown locks descended in gentle waves down the length of their backs, and they both had stunning emerald green eyes. They already considered themselves too good to be wed with the rich noblemen who had asked for their hands, and now their prospects for marriage grew dim indeed.

"Martin used to work on farms and was planning to start a farm of his own." Terrence tossed aside his twin sisters' worries with a wave of his hand. "I'm sure we can handle the work, Father. It really will be okay."

Diana sighed. She remembered the blond-haired traveler fondly, for he'd been a good friend to her. "I only hope he managed to find that Honey girl he spoke of constantly. It would be lovely to hear if she has become his wife. He has a pure soul and deserves much happiness."

"Hmph." Marietta let out a snorting sound, unbecoming of a maiden of her stature. "Martin was a commoner, and if he wanted to wed some poor beekeeper's daughter, then they deserve each other."

"You're just jealous because you found him to be so handsome," Rosalinda retorted.

"Girls, now is not the time to argue over lost beaus. Let us prepare to move. I will find us a place to live in the country." Edward rose from his chair and dismissed the children to their rooms, his heart heavy with sadness.

The next morning, Edward journeyed to the countryside to find a suitable dwelling for his family. The five children stayed behind. Lawrence, Terrence, and Diana sorted through their belongings, setting aside those items that could be sold and those they should keep with them. Diana wished she could bring all her books but knew they would be heavy to carry and that they weren't really necessary. She moved them to the pile of items to be sold with a small sigh. Her two older sisters sulked and complained. They did not agree that their jewels and fine clothing should be sold. They did not want to part with any of their belongings.

In five days' time, Edward returned. The children—well, all but Marietta and Rosalinda—had done a fine job vending their belongings, and they had a sizeable sum of gold to start their new life. They had even procured a buyer for the fine estate, and the deal was sealed that very night.

The next morning, the six of them journeyed to the small village of Sleepy Hollow and started their new life as farmers. Terrence and Lawrence found a friend in a nearby neighbor, a young lad around their age by the name of Robert, and even Edward befriended Robert's father, Peter. Peter was the local banker and had a small farm of his own.

While Marietta and Rosalinda refused to help with any of the chores, Diana's brothers were often outside working the land, and Robert often came over to offer his hand as well. Diana was glad for this, as she felt she should help with the farming but was also the only one who did any housework. Marietta complained that if she had to wash dishes, her hands would become red and rough; Rosalinda fretted that if she had to launder their clothes, her hands would become wrinkled and her skin would dry.

Diana would just smile; she never once thought to complain. She could often spend the time daydreaming about many of the stories she had read in the past, even making up some of her own. She also wanted to assure her father that they could very much manage without the servants to which they were accustomed.

While she often missed having books to read, the look of pride in her father's eyes was enough reward for the hard work she and her brothers endured.

One day, Peter came to visit, and he and Edward had a long and hushed conversation. When Peter left, Edward called Diana and her siblings to his side. He smiled widely and seemed truly excited by whatever news it was that Peter had brought.

"Peter has informed me that two of my lost ships have washed ashore. I am going to leave at once to see what can be salvaged from the wreckage." Edward smiled at his children. "I dare hope there is enough there that I can pay my debts. Perhaps we can even hire a servant or two to help with the work here."

"Do you think there might be enough that we could move back to the city?" Rosalinda asked. "I detest this little village and this farm life."

Edward frowned. "I dare not get my hopes that high, but from the reports Peter heard, the ships are fairly intact."

"At the least," Marietta asked, kneeling by his side, "could you bring us back some new fine silk dresses?"

"And shoes?" Rosalinda added. "Fine shoes with heels and silver buckles?"

Edward smiled at his two daughters. "If I can afford such goods, I will surely bring you back the finest dresses and shoes I can find."

"Could you bring us a new harrow?" Terrence asked.

"Or a flail?" Lawrence added eagerly.

Edward nodded. "Certainly. I shall return with all the finest farming equipment I can afford." He turned then to Diana, who had not asked for anything as yet. "What can I bring for you, dear Diana?"

"Verily, there is nothing I need." Diana was merely saddened to see her father go.

"You must have something you would like me to bring you. What shall it be?" Edward smiled kindly at his young daughter.

"Oh, what could Diana possibly want?" Rosalinda laughed.

"She's so happy here!" Marietta added, her voice filled with sarcasm.

Diana saw her father frown. To put an end to the teasing, she thought of one thing she would like. "There is something I would love to have," she said timidly. "Could you please bring me back a rose? We never see any here."

"What a stupid present that is!" Rosalinda shook her head with scorn.

"I'll bring you back the very best rose, Diana, my dear." Edward then kissed them all goodbye, for he planned to set out on his journey immediately.

Alas, when Edward arrived at the port, he sadly surveyed what was left of the two recovered vessels. It was barely enough to pay off the bill collectors, and he would have to return home empty-handed after all. There was nothing to be joyful about; the trip had been a failure.

He started on his return, not paying attention to the waning sunlight, as his heart was sad. He had to travel through the forests of Brook Land in order to return to Sleepy Hollow. But as he was traveling, a storm came up. The clouds twisted and growled out a terrible thunder and the rain started to fall. The rain turned to ice, and Edward shivered, unprepared for the hail storm.

Cold, tired, and hungry, he came upon a brightly lit palace in Brook Land. The gates leading to the doors were open and smoke poured invitingly from every chimney.

"Perhaps," thought Edward, "the owner of this fine palace wouldn't mind allowing a tired, lost, traveler a bit of warmth by his fire."

Edward approached the doors, but before he could lift the large knocker, the doors opened of their own accord. He entered the grand hall and immediately spotted a warm fire glowing in the fireplace. To his surprise, he saw a table near the fire. The place setting was for only one, the bowl was steaming, and the bread smelled as if it had just come from the oven. When he approached, he saw a delicious looking leg of fowl next to the steaming soup.

"Hello?" he called out. "Is there anybody here?"

He waited for a response but none came. He tried again. After a minute, he sat down in the comfortable looking chair. "I don't suppose I should help myself, but surely the master of this place has more." He took a piece of the bread. When still no one came to his calls, he started in on the soup, rationalizing that it would just get cold. Soon, he had finished the whole meal.

He returned to the door and saw that his horse was no longer there. He braved the hail still falling and found his horse in a comfortable stable grazing on sweet hay. Edward smiled and, with another look at the sky, decided to return to the palace. Inside, he lay by the warm fire and drifted to sleep.

When he awoke in the morning, he found himself not on the fur rug in front of the fire, but in a bed with fine silk linens on a plush mattress. He looked around the room, and, certainly, it was a room befitting royalty. Sunlight poured through the windows, lighting the fine rug at his feet and a table near his bed. The bed held a tray laid out with sweet rolls, hot porridge, milk, tea, and honey. The master of this house is surely a generous man.

After finishing his breakfast, he dressed hurriedly, eager to find the owner, or at least a servant, of this palace and to thank him for his hospitality. Alas, he could find no one. Edward was truly puzzled. Surely, there must be servants to manage a place of this size. Growing nervous, he passed through the gardens. Nightingales sang beautiful songs, and bushes of all sorts of flowers bloomed and filled the garden with sweet scents. He came upon some rose bushes: yellow, pink, white, and red. He remembered Diana's wish for a single rose. He was about to pick one of the pure white roses when the scent of another rose reached his nose.

Turning, he saw the most magnificent red rose. It was beautiful, perfect, and the perfume from it was of the sweetest and purest scent. Without thinking, he quickly plucked the rose from the bush.

Suddenly, a roar shook through the entire garden. It was a horrendous sound; a scream of pain and anger. Stricken with fear, Edward fell to his knees and covered his head with his arms. When the roaring finally ended, Edward looked up into the face of a most hideous beast. Its long brown fur was matted, and it stood stoop-shoulder, taller than any man, though its arms dangled past its knees. Its face was twisted in pain, its fangs dripped with saliva, but its eyes, a vibrant yellow, looked haunted. Never had Edward feared for his life more, not even in the worst of the storms he had braved on the seas.

"How dare you steal one of my roses?" the beast growled.

"Pl … please, master. H … had I known that this r … rose was so pr … precious to you, I would never, never, have taken it." Edward managed to stutter out a plea to the beast.

The beast was not at all appeased. "And why did you take it at all?" The beast roared again. "I gave you food and I gave you shelter. I took care of your horse. But you repay this by stealing from me."

Hoping the beast would take pity on him, Edward told his story, ending with Diana's request for a single rose.

The beast had no compassion for him. "Your story is a sad one, but still, there is no excuse to take my best rose when one of the others would have done just as well in its place. Prepare to die for your thievery."

"Please, master. My children will be orphaned. It will break their hearts." Edward begged for his life.

"Very well." The beast finally relented. "If your daughter, who requested this rose, loves you enough to take your place, I will take her instead. If she refuses, you must return to me to take your punishment."

Edward thought of his beautiful children and the fair Diana. "I would never allow my daughter to take my place. Kill me now, if you must."

"No. It must be your daughter's choice. Return to her now. If she will not come, at least take this opportunity to say good-bye to your family." The beast snarled. "But if she does not come and you do not return, I will find you and I will kill all your family."

With that, the beast lumbered off into the garden and disappeared behind a grove of trees.

"I will return in three days' time," Edward called out to the retreating animal.

He then scrambled to his knees and found his way to the palace entrance. There, he was surprised to find his horse, Thunderer, apparently well fed and groomed, and a chest was strapped to its saddle. Edward opened the chest and saw it was full of silver coins. A second horse stood with his own, a golden palomino whose main and tail were as white as snow. The palomino was larger than his own steed, standing almost seventeen hands high. It looked to be a very fine Saddlebred.

Edward dared not take the chest of silver and untied it from the saddle, placing it on the ground. He tried to shoo away the beautiful horse as well, but the palomino followed him and his steed.

"I'm not stealing him. I swear it!" Edward called out to the beast.

In answer, he heard a sound much like laughter. "Fleep fleeoweep." And then, after a moment of silence, an eerie cry followed. "Suka suka suka … agoouummm."

When Edward returned home, his children rushed to greet him. Diana hugged him tightly, while Lawrence and Terrence admired the beautiful horse he had brought with him.

"Where are our dresses?" Marietta demanded.

"And our shoes?" Rosalinda added.

"Alas, dear children, there was nothing to salvage on the ships save what went to the bill collectors." Edward frowned, dreading to tell of his adventure in the beast's palace. But he knew he had to, or surely the beast would find and kill them all.

"I had to find lodging the night of the hail storm—" Edward began.

"Hail storm? What hail?" Terrence asked curiously.

"Perhaps it did not come through here," Edward explained. "Nonetheless, there was a terrible storm as I journeyed here, and I took refuge in an inviting palace. The master did not show himself but left me a fine meal and a warm bed. He took care of Thunderer, my fine stallion, and he took care of me."

Edward sniffed, not wanting to continue.

"What is it, Father?" Lawrence asked. "What happened then?"

"As I was searching the palace this morning, trying to find the master so that I might thank him for his hospitality, I happened across the most beautiful rose I ever did see." He smiled haltingly at Diana. "I remembered your request, and without a thought, I plucked that perfection from the bush."

"So you got her her rose, but you didn't get us our clothing?" Marietta sniffed indignantly.

"I wish I hadn't." Edward's blue eyes filled with sadness.

"Why, what happened, dearest Father?" Diana stood by his side and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Certainly it can't be that horrible."

"But it is." Edward sniffed back another tear. "For the owner of the palace apparently valued that rose bush above all others. He roared at me—"

"Roared?" Lawrence raised an eyebrow. "Certainly he yelled, but 'roared'?"

"Yes, he roared. A loud horrible roar. The owner of the palace was a beast. A terrible beast." Edward turned white as he recalled the anger of the beast and the promise he had made. "I have come only to say goodbye to you all, for I must return to the palace to take my punishment for stealing from him."

"No!" Diana stood. "It was my idea to ask for a rose; surely, I can go in your place?"

Edward had not wanted to tell Diana that the beast had actually requested just that. He remembered the beast's words. "It must be your daughter's choice."

"Please, Diana. I am an old man, and my life is closer to an end than yours. Allow me to say my goodbyes and leave." Edward held his daughter's hand. "You don't need to go to that awful creature."

"Hah!" Rosalinda exclaimed. "See what your selfishness has caused?" she spat at Diana.

"Because of you, our father will surely meet his end. How could you?!" Marietta sputtered.

Then her two sisters pushed her away from her father and hugged him tightly.

"Just let her go," Marietta told him.

"It's her fault," Rosalinda added.

"No." Terrence was furious. "How dare the two of you blame Diana for the beast's actions? Lawrence and I will both go, and we will destroy this beast."

"No, my sons, you will not. I will return to him, and you children will continue your lives here." Edward hung his head dejectedly.

Meanwhile, no one had noticed that Diana had already left the house. She mounted the sunny palomino and was on her way back to the beast's home.

She journeyed the rest of the day, the palomino being swift and sure of its route. It was only dusk when she came across the palace. The gates were opened, and the courtyard leading to the door was decorated with the petals of what had likely been the most beautiful roses from the beast's garden. Diana shed a tear, sad that her selfishness had caused this trouble and sad that the beast himself had apparently torn apart his rose bushes in anger. This is what she thought as she stepped over the beautiful flowers. Their perfume filled the air, but instead of bringing joy to her, it only made her cry more.

When the palomino reached the door, it knelt down, making it easier for Diana to dismount. Diana hugged the horse around its neck and kissed its nose. "Thank you, Sunny."

From somewhere close by, she heard a mournful sound. "Suka suka suka … agoouummm."

The doors to the palace opened, and Diana entered cautiously. Inside, she saw a fire in the hearth, and a table was set for one. The table linens were of pure white, the dishes were of the finest china, the flatware of the finest silver, and the goblets of the finest crystal. Diana sat forlornly at the lone chair and shed a tear onto her empty plate. Before her was a delicate roast, a bowl of steaming soup, and freshly baked bread. A fruit-filled pie beckoned with its sweet aroma. But Diana had no desire to feast. "I will not eat until you show yourself," she called out.

A cry, sounding almost like laughter, filled the room. "Fleep fleeoweep fleeoweep."

"It's not amusing in the least." Diana stood up from the table. "I promise you, I will stay, but you must show yourself."

In a shadowed corner, she saw a movement. "You are a brave girl," the beast said simply, still hidden in the shadows. "Please; eat. You must be hungry from your journey."

"Are you merely fattening me up for your own supper?" Diana asked with indignation.

The beast stepped forward out of the shadows. "I assure you, my lady, I am not."

Diana gasped. Although her father had told her and her siblings of the beast, she had still not been prepared for the sight of the poor creature. And poor is how she thought of him. She swallowed and gestured with her hand to the other end of the table. "Surely you are hungry yourself. Will you not join me?"

The beast snarled angrily. "You would not wish to see me dine, my lady, for I am a beast, and I hunt my food and eat it live. I am an animal, after all, my lady." With that, the beast lumbered out of the room.

Diana sat again and shed a tear. What a sad existence the master of this fine palace must have! The enticing scents of the food did beckon to her, and a small rumble from her stomach convinced her she might as well partake of the fine meal rather than let it go to waste.

After she finished nibbling at the food in front of her, Diana picked up her dish and then looked around the room, unsure where to find the kitchen. She put the plate back down and started to open the many doors that lined the grand hall. Most seemed to lead to further halls, and she was sure she would get lost in the palace. "Beast!" she called out, but kindly. "Where might I find the kitchen?" Her voice echoed throughout the room.

Soon, the beast returned, rather silently for such a large monster. He growled. "And why would you need the kitchen? Is my food not good enough for the likes of you?"

"Oh, no." Diana tried her hardest not to cower in fear. "The dinner was most appetizing, I assure you. I was merely trying to clean up after myself."

The beast gave her a quizzical look, but anger still filled its eyes. "Why should a lass as lovely as you take care of the cleaning?"

"I'm rather used to it. I do all the cooking and cleaning at my ho—my former home." She bowed her head. "Please, master. I only wished to be helpful." She lifted her head and looked at the beast.

Something in his eyes had changed; he looked rather sad.

Diana smiled. "The kitchen, then? Where do I find it?" She returned to the table to pick up the used dishes, placing them neatly on the tray that had been there.

"There is no need, my lady. The dishes will be done. Let me show you instead to your chambers." The beast motioned with a hairy paw for Diana to follow him.

Leading the young beauty down a hall and up some stairs, the beast led her through the palace to a suite of rooms. The bedroom was luxurious, done up in a mixture of light and dark fabrics in shades of lavender, lilac, and violet. Silk draperies hung from the window, and as she went to peer through it, she could see that the gardens were below her. A separate room for bathing provided both luxury and privacy. She went to the wardrobe and opened the doors. Dresses of the finest fabrics, garments surely her sisters would enjoy, filled the closet. She looked down at her own simple gown. With some trepidation, she turned to the beast. "Master, might I go into town and pick up some different clothing?"

The beast roared, turning angry again. "Are these not the finest dresses you have ever seen? And still they are not good enough for you?"

"Oh, no." Diana hung her head down, fearing she had sounded rude. "They are surely without compare. But I am not used to such fine garments. I would prefer something more comfortable. If you please."

The beast calmed down. "I will arrange for different garments to be brought at once."

"Thank you, master." Diana tried to smile. "The room is beautiful. I am sure I will be most comfortable here."

"I am not your master. It is you—and you alone—who shall be the mistress in this palace. I am merely a beast." The beast hung its head low. "Forgive me for believing you were ungracious."

"There is nothing to forgive." Diana stared at the beast and raised an eyebrow defiantly. "Except your holding me here against my will."

The beast's yellow eyes flashed with anger. "It is the price you must pay for the rose."

He stared at her, and she shivered, unsure what the beast was thinking.

"Perhaps I will let you leave some day." He turned and motioned for her to follow him up another stairway.

Diana carefully climbed the spiral staircase behind him. The beast led her to a room that she was sure would become her favorite in all the palace. A comfortable chaise and a plush chair, the likes of which she had never seen, dimmed in comparison to the shelves lined with books. She exclaimed in delight and immediately started perusing the titles etched into the leather bindings, visible with the bright light of the roaring fire. "Might I be able to read these?"

The beast tilted its head and a grimace that was surely meant to be a smile spread across his visage. "You like to read?"

"Oh, yes! I've missed having so many books." Diana suddenly became sad. "Perhaps I should have asked my father to bring me a book rather than a rose."

The beast grumbled, and Diana feared she had upset it. But the words it spoke next surprised her. "If I had known the rose was for someone with as good a heart as you, perhaps I wouldn't have been so demanding." With that, the beast turned to leave.

"Good night, dear beast," Diana called after him.

Diana had been in the palace a week and was getting used to the routine of waking, dining, wandering the gardens, reading, dining again, and then retiring for the evening. If it had not been for the many books, she would surely have been bored. The beast would not allow her to do any work, and he rarely showed himself to her. She was finding the existence rather lonely.

On the ninth morning, however, Diana was awoken by the most beautiful song just outside her window. The sun was still rising on the horizon, but she felt rested. With a lightness in her step, she went to the window and opened it. Below her, the gardens stretched out. Morning glories and bower vines climbed up the palace walls to her window and were ready to open their blooms as soon as the sun grew higher. At her window, on the branch of a tree, a small red bird sang its beautiful melody.

A movement in the garden below her caught her eye. "Good morning, dear beast!" she called down.

The beast lifted its head. "Good morning, fair mistress!"

The bird continued to sing its song.

"Will you join me for breakfast?" Diana asked. She no longer feared the beast, for he had proven himself a generous host and had not once threatened to take her life.

"I told you before, my lady," the beast called up to her, "you would not wish to see me dine."

"Perchance." Diana smiled down at him. "I've been rather lonely, and even if you do not eat with me, I would enjoy your company all the same."

"As you wish." The beast bowed to her. "I shall have the table set out on the terrace, if that is all right with you, my mistress."

Diana felt uncomfortable when he called her his mistress. She was held prisoner here, not he, and yet he had been nothing but kind to her since her arrival.

She dressed quickly and went outside to join the beast for breakfast. She had never seen any servants, but she did not believe the beast could perform all the work himself. She was sure he must be using magic of some sort to take care of the palace. She sat in her chair at the table, delighted that the small red bird followed her to the terrace and began its song anew.

"What sort of bird is that, my lord?" Diana asked.

The beast eyed the bird. With what Diana could only deem as a twinkle in its yellow eyes, it answered mischievously. "Breakfast."

Diana gasped, and the bird itself stopped singing. "Surely not." She scolded the beast. "If you dare to eat such a beautiful creature, I promise you I will leave."

The beast studied her as she buttered her bread. "I was merely teasing, my lady. I do not know what kind of bird it is. I have never seen its like before."

"The song it sings is beautiful, is it not?" Diana looked over at the bird, resting on a nearby branch.

"It is. I would not do it any harm, I assure you." The beast sat patiently in the chair opposite Diana.

The bird started singing again.

"Pray tell me, fair Diana." The beast rarely addressed her by name. "If a suitor were to send you such a bird as a gift, how would you receive it?"

Diana had been about to take a sip of her tea. She paused, the cup halfway to her lips. "I am not sure, my lord. Part of me would certainly be grateful for such a rare and beautiful thing, but part of me would be sad that the bird had been taken from its home."

"Interesting." The beast sat thoughtfully, contemplating her answer.

"And you, dear beast, would you tell me something?" Diana asked her host.

"What would you like to know?" the beast asked.

Diana gazed at him in wonder. She had many questions she would like to ask, but she sensed apprehension in the beast's response. "Tell me a story, please—a tale of adventure! For surely one such as you had some grand adventures in your time."

The beast peered back at her, curiosity in its stare. "Are you not fearful that my sort of adventures might be gruesome?"

"Pshaw. I have two younger brothers, and they have a friend, another boy, our neigh—my old neighbor." Diana blinked back a tear from her violet eyes as she reminded herself she was still a sort of hostage here in the palace. "The three of them have certainly spun me a tale as gruesome as any you could."

The beast laughed, letting out a small "fleep" in the process. "You are a very intriguing lady, fair Diana."

But the beast did her bidding and regaled her with a story, mostly made up of fiction, but with a small grain of truth.

And, thusly, Diana's routine changed. Rather than spending her days alone, she would walk through the gardens with the beast and they would tell each other tales, sometimes fact, sometimes fiction, most often a mixture of the two. The two of them would laugh together at the humorous tales, her tinkling laughter mixed with his beastly fleeoweep. And, at the sorrowful tales, they would cry together, he sometimes letting out a soulful agoouummm.

Even outside the stories, Diana grew to appreciate his kindness and his mischievous sense of humor, one that reminded her oft of her brothers, Lawrence and Terrence. For the beast was rather mischievous. More than once he had switched her sugar for salt, and she had ended up with salty tea, much to his amusement.

He would also sometimes spring up at her from behind a bush, attempting to frighten her, but he made sure to make enough noise beforehand that she was never actually frightened. He would then go into a fit of roaring laughter if all she did was stand there with her hands on her hips and berate him for his impertinence.

And it was but nine nights later that the beast dared to ask her an unthinkable question. She had been enjoying her tea on the terrace while the beast told her a tale about an old man that lived in the mountains. When the tea was finished and they rose to leave, the beast knelt on the ground. "Dearest Diana, would you consent to be my wife, my queen?"

Diana had not given much thought to the beast being of royal blood, but surely, with this palace, that must be the case. But he was still a beast, an enchanted animal. "I'm sorry, dear beast, but I cannot."

The beast shed a tear and ran off into the forest.

The next morning, he was there at breakfast as cheerful as ever. And that evening, he asked her to dance with him in the grand hall. Diana marveled, for she could not be sure from where the music originated, but it was lovely music, and dance, she did. The two of them moved backward and forward, turning to face each other and then to face away, all in time to the magical tune.

And nine more nights passed, the two of them enjoying each other's company. And after dancing that ninth night, the beast once again asked her, "Dearest Diana, would you consent to be my wife, my queen?"

"Alas, dear beast, but I cannot." Diana cried a tear as she gave her response. Could he not see that he was an animal and she a woman? How could he ask her such a thing? And yet, she truly did enjoy his company.

When he did not join her for breakfast the next morning, she was doubly sad. Would it be so bad to be wed to a beast? Surely he would not treat her badly, nor would he hurt her. But it was too much to ask. The day passed slowly, for without his company, she was lonely. The red song bird returned and sang for her, but even that was not enough to lift her spirits.

On the second day, the beast still did not join her for breakfast. The song bird came and trilled, and Diana sat alone at the table. "Beast!" she called out to the gardens. She turned to face the forest. "Beast!"

From somewhere behind her, the beast arrived. She felt his presence before he spoke, and she turned to face him.

"You called for me, my lady?"

His eyes were full of sadness, and Diana's heart broke at the sight of him. "Dear beast, I cannot be your wife, but please do not leave me alone."

"Diana, fairest, it pains my heart to be with you but to not be with you. Please do not make me sit with you when I know you can never love a beast like me." The beast turned to go.

Diana reached out and took hold of the beast's hairy arm, causing him to stop. She remembered dancing with him just two nights prior, her hands touching his paws ever so briefly. But never had he held her close, never had he held her tight. She did so now, hugging him as best she could. "Please, dear beast. I cannot be your wife, but please, I beg of you, do not leave me lonely like this either."

The beast hesitantly put one of its hairy paws around her, returning the embrace. Diana felt something wet splash on her shoulder. Her beast was crying. "Do not cry, dear beast. We have become good friends, have we not? Please, let us share a silly story and be friends again."

"Very well, my lady." But his heart did not seem in it.

The days passed, and slowly they returned to their camaraderie, once again telling stories, dancing, laughing. One evening, they were in an especially good mood. They were sitting in front of a roaring fire in the grand hall, while outside it poured down rain.

The beast told her a story of a selfish princess and her many ladies in waiting. He moved around the room as he spun his tale, imitating the annoying princess at times, and her mother at others. Diana was laughing rather uncontrollably at his impersonations of the princess as she turned down beautiful gifts from many a suitor.

When he finished his tale, he sat next to Diana. Impulsively, she reached over and kissed his furry cheek and then laid her head against him. "You are a dear, dear beast."

The beast stood up rather abruptly. He stared into her eyes intensely, and, for a moment, Diana thought his eyes looked human. They had turned a beautiful dark shade of brown like the bark of a tree.

The moment faded, and the beast's eyes returned to their yellowish tint. "I am sorry, my mistress. I dare not ask you again, for I do not want to anger you."

Diana took a deep breath, knowing what the beast meant to say. "You know I cannot. If you were only human, then maybe I could love you the way you wish."

"As I feared." The beast left the room.

Diana sat in front of the fire, loud sobs escaping from her bosom. She moved over to the rug and lay there, crying herself to sleep.

When she awoke the next morning, the beast was there, watching her. A table was set, as usual, with warm porridge, tea, and fresh fruit. The beast winked at her. "No salt. I promise." But his eyes were much sadder than Diana had ever seen.

She smiled at him. "Thank you, my beast. I feared you would not be here today."

And although he was there, the breakfast was a very silent meal. When she had finished, he addressed her simply. "Come. Walk with me, please."

Diana nodded as she stood from the table. She put her hand on his furry arm and allowed him to lead her out to the gardens.

The rain had stopped, and everything smelled fresh and clean. The beast led her silently down a path she had not yet traversed with him. At the end of the pathway was a bench at the shore of a shining blue lake. They sat together on the bench, and she trembled over what he might say. She was sure she could not handle another proposal.

"Diana, my mistress, I have kept you here these many nights as payment for a rare and beautiful rose." The beast lowered his head. "I had hoped you might love me and become my wife. I certainly love you. And it is because I love you that I cannot keep you here any longer. If you wish to leave, you are free to go. I only hope you can forgive me for keeping you so long."

Diana's eyes welled with tears. "Oh, dear beast, I wish I could love you. And were it not for how much I miss my father and my brothers and sisters, surely, I would stay. But I thank you for your hospitality, your kindness, and your friendship. If you allow me to leave, I would very much like to see my family again."

The beast shed large wet tears. "That is understandable." The beast stood and approached the edge of the water. He knelt next to it and pulled something out. Returning to her side, he handed her an artifact, a beautiful mirror set in alabaster. "Please take this mirror. It is magical, and if you should look into it and think of someone you love, it will show that person to you."

Diana looked at the mirror in his fur-covered hands but did not reach for it. "Are you sure I should take this? It seems a rare gift indeed."

"Please. I would be honored if you would take this gift from me." The beast bowed before her.

Diana reached for the mirror gingerly. When she looked into it, she saw her father. He looked sad and old, and Diana's heart ached for him. "Thank you, dear beast."

Another tear fell from the beast's eye. He held his arm out to her again, and she took it. "You will find your horse ready for you at the gate." He walked her to the front of the palace. There, the sunny palomino stood, saddled, bridled and ready for a rider. A chest of her belongings was strapped to the saddle.

"Diana?" The beast stared into Diana's eyes, and, again, Diana thought they looked dark brown and human for just a second, but no, it was her imagination. They were as yellow and beast-like as always. The beast held her gaze. "If you could find it in your heart to think kindly of me, would you please return to visit me?"

"Of course, dear beast. I promise I shall return." Diana stood on tiptoe and kissed the beast's cheek once more. "Thank you, dear beast."

She mounted the horse, and Sunny, as she had named the gelding, quickly took her on her way. She heard a suka suka suka … agoouummm in the distance and knew the beast was crying for her. It's for the best. I can never truly love him.

When she arrived at her home in the countryside, her brothers were in the field, tending to the crops. They saw her, and, as one, they dropped their equipment and ran to her. "Diana! Father! Diana's home!" She couldn't be sure from the short distance if it had been Lawrence or Terrence who had called to her father. It did not matter. Soon, all four of them were caught in a huge embrace.

"And Rosalinda and Marietta? Where are they?" Diana was eager to see her sisters as well, for she bore no malice toward them.

"They have found husbands and have moved away," her father replied, a sadness in his voice. "I have been lonely for a daughter, and now you have come back to me." He attempted to lift her trunk off the horse but found it too heavy. "I must be getting old. Boys, could you please?"

Lawrence and Terrence quickly lifted the trunk and even they had to admit it was heavy. "What all do you have in here, sister?"

Diana laughed. "It must be the books the beast gave to me."

But when they entered the house and opened the trunk, underneath the layer of books and clothing, they found it was filled with gold.

"Oh!" Diana exclaimed. "He need not have done this! How kind and generous of him!"

"We can purchase new farming equipment!" Terrence exclaimed.

"And more land from Lord Lytell!" Lawrence added.

"Now, boys, the gold belongs to your sister," Edward scolded the twins mildly. "She should decide what she wants to spend it on."

Diana was still staring in awe at the amount of coins in the chest. "But I have no need for it. Please, brothers, buy whatever you wish, as long as it's for the good of the family."

"They can do that later. We should have a feast tonight! Let me invite our neighbors, and we can celebrate together." Edward embraced Diana once more. "I have a special surprise for you, dearest daughter."

"Whatever could it be, Father?" Diana did not need any surprises. She was content enough just to be home.

But her father kept quiet as she helped prepare for a feast. Besides the four of them, her father extended an invitation to Peter, his wife, and his son, as well as another couple whose names he would not reveal.

When the couple arrived that evening, Diana recognized the young man immediately and realized that they were her father's surprise. The man had curly blond hair, and was with a woman who had long golden hair that glistened as if it was made of sunshine. The woman's stomach protruded slightly, and Diana positively squealed with excitement. She rushed first into Martin's arms and hugged him tightly. Then she turned to the lovely woman at his side who seemed rather shy and confused by her outburst. "You must be Honey. Oh, Martin had told me so much about you when I first met him. Indeed, you were all he could speak of most days. I cannot tell you how happy I am that the two of you are wed. It is absolutely magnificent!"

"And you must be Diana." Honey smiled, and her eyes lit up as she understood. "We had heard that you were being held prisoner by a beast. I understand well what it is like to be imprisoned. I am relieved you were able to return home."

Diana blushed. "Yes. I was fortunate in many ways."

"I want to hear more of this beast, if it does not pain you to speak of him." Martin's blue eyes took on a seriousness that Diana was unaccustomed to from her old friend.

Diana's own eyes filled with tears as she recalled parting from the beast. "If it pains me, it is only because my heart breaks for him. He is sad and lonely, and I fear he will never find true happiness."

"We can discuss the topic later," Honey suggested, as she spotted Martin's and Diana's younger brothers approaching. "Here comes Robert with your brothers. Did you realize Robert was Martin's sibling?"

"No. How silly of me. You two do look very much alike!" Diana grinned, a dimple forming in her cheek. "I cannot believe I did not make the connection."

"If only we could find my wayward sister and my vagabond brother, we would all be reunited." Martin winked, his blue eyes twinkling merrily.

It was nearly three months later that Diana sat with Martin and Honey, and the three of them spoke again of the beast. They were sitting on a blanket on the lawn, having just enjoyed a scrumptious lunch of chicken and potatoes and cake for dessert. They had been discussing the child that Honey was carrying, her stomach now stretched out to its limits, and their plans for the future, when Honey asked Diana if she wanted a family some day.

"Very much so, but I first have to meet the right man." Diana sighed as she realized she had already met the being she loved, but he had not been a man.

"There is a sadness in you, Diana; it grieves me." Martin looked at her with concern. "Did your captivity at the beast's palace steal away the joy from your heart?"

"Oh, Martin, no …." She paused, choking back a sob. "But yes."

Honey reached an arm out to her and touched her gently on the shoulder. "Darling, Diana. Tell us what happened."

Diana told them of the magnificence of the palace and the grounds; of how kind and generous the beast was; and that while she'd been frightened at first, as she got to know him, she realized how much she enjoyed his company. "He asked me to be his wife, and honestly, if only he had been human, I would have said yes in an instant." A tear dripped from Diana's eyes.

"I think I have seen this beast before, long ago." Martin gazed out into the forest. "I feared for my friend's welfare but was too cowardly to confront the creature."

"Whatever do you mean?" Honey reached for her husband's hand. "Tell us the story, please."

Martin turned to the two of them and nodded. "It was when I first left your house, Diana, and I was determined to return to Honey and win her heart." He smiled fondly at his wife. "I was walking through the forests of Brook Land, near where an old friend of mine once lived, and I saw the creature. I worried briefly for my friend, but I'm fairly certain he was safe in a far off land, for he had traveled to Champion Creek in hopes of wooing my cousin." Martin studied Diana thoughtfully. "When you spoke of this palace, it sounded familiar. I would not be surprised to learn that this beast has taken over young King Daniel's home."

Diana frowned and shook her head. "It cannot be the same palace." She could not imagine her beast would have done such a thing. With the riches he had, surely that could not be the case. She pushed the thought from her mind, turning her thoughts instead to Martin's friend. "And your King Daniel? Did your friend win your cousin's heart?"

"I don't know." Martin shrugged his shoulders. "I sent word to my uncle, but an attendant replied only with the words that they had both been banished from the kingdom. I can only hope they found happiness with each other and eloped."

"If they had eloped, wouldn't he have brought her back to his home?" Honey asked.

"Perhaps. Perhaps not." He sighed. "It would be good to hear from him so I would know for certain."

"I have a mirror," Diana started out hesitantly. Seeing the odd looks from her friends, she continued hastily, "It's not an ordinary mirror. It's a magic mirror, and if you think on someone you love, it will reflect that person to you." Diana stood and started toward the house. "I will fetch it, and perhaps it will show you where your friend and cousin are."

She rushed to her room and then back to her friends, interrupting a small kiss. She laughed lightly, and then even more as they both blushed. She held the mirror out to the young man. "Here. Try it." But as she herself glanced in the mirror, she saw an image of the beast, her beast. She pushed it into Martin's hand, not wanting to see more.

"I'm afraid it will only show me this lovely woman at my side." Mart gazed fondly at Honey as he spoke but took the mirror and looked into it. His expression became puzzled.

Honey looked over his shoulder to see the reflection as well. "It may only work for you, Diana. It shows us only your beast."

"He looks forlorn." Mart frowned as he handed the mirror back to the raven-haired beauty. "But clearly, you love him, if this mirror reflects his image."

Diana stood there, unsure of her feelings. "I … I suppose I do. He was …." She lowered herself back to the blanket on the ground as she stared at his image. The beast lay on the ground, tears in his eyes. He looked so sad, so weak. "He was everything I could ever want. But how do … how can I be with a beast?"

"Go to him." Honey spoke softly. "If he loves you as you love him, you will find a way to make it work."

Diana nodded, feeling the tears pool in her eyes. "You are right. I shall return to him at once."

The very next morning, Diana packed a very light bag, tied it to the palomino's saddle, and took off for the beast's palace. The horse galloped eagerly back to its master's home, and Diana made it there in just a half day's time. The palace gate did not open, but, being only a few feet tall, Sunny easily jumped it.

Diana dismounted and ran to the large entrance doors; they did not open either. She wasted no time and ran around the grounds to the garden entrance. She fumbled a bit while unlatching the gate but was soon running down the garden paths. "Beast! Beast!! It is I, Diana! I have returned as promised."

And then she found him. He was standing, tall and magnificent, and he was gazing at a rose bush that bore no blooms. She watched as he lifted his head and howled an eerie "agoouummm".

"Beast? My darling Beast." Diana's violet eyes filled with tears to see her beast so very sad.

The beast turned to face her, and its yellow eyes grew round, the pupils widening. "My dear Diana? You have come?"

Diana rushed forward and flung herself into the beast's hairy limbs.

"I thought I was just imagining … I dared not hope you would actually return." The beast picked her up as she fell toward him.

Diana smothered his furry face with kisses. "I had to return. I'm sorry I've been so selfish."

The beast placed her back down gently and knelt so she could still look into his eyes. "You have not been selfish, not in the least. It is I who should have never asked so much of you. I beg you. Please forgive me."

"I love you. And there is nothing to forgive." Diana smiled through her tears and caressed his rough cheek. His eyes turned that deep brown, and he looked so handsome to her, even through all his fur.

The beast gazed at her. "You love me? Really love me?"

"Yes. I love you." Diana grew worried. "Do you … will you still take me for your wife?"

"I love you with all my heart, all my being. I would be honored if you would consent to be my wife and my queen." The rough fur under her hand seemed to soften as he spoke.

The beast pulled her closer to him, and with his large mouth, he leaned in to kiss her. She closed her eyes, sure that he would be careful not to hurt her with his fangs, and let him kiss her. She worried that her body would involuntarily recoil, that she would instinctively reject his advance. She was not at all certain until that moment that she would be able to return the kiss, but she did. And as her soft lips touched his beastly ones, she imagined they were the lips of a young man.

As the beast held her close and the kiss lengthened, she put her hands behind his head, pulling him closer, and even his hair seemed to feel softer and shorter to her touch. She moved one hand down to his shoulder, and she was sure she felt skin, not fur, beneath her. She opened her eyes and gasped. She pulled away from him, shocked by what she saw. The beast was no more, and, in his place, stood a handsome young man with dark hair. She found herself staring into those beautiful brown eyes she had merely been able to glimpse in the past.

"Diana, have I—?" But whatever the young man was going to ask vanished on his own lips as he seemed to recognize that his voice came out not in a beastly growl, but sounding very much like an ordinary man. He looked at his hands, and then down at himself, and then his cheeks flushed with color.

Diana had the grace not to look. From the fact that his shoulders were bare, she could only imagine the rest of him was also unclothed. She turned her head to the side to allow him some modesty.

"Diana, my beautiful Diana," the man called to her. "You have released me from the curse. Thank you."

The words were simple, humble. Still, she did not turn to look at him. She wanted to speak to him but realized she could no longer address him as her beast. "In all the time I was your guest, you never told me your name."

"I could not. It was part of the curse. I could not speak of what I had been, only of my life as a beast." He sighed heavily. She felt his hand on her arm, gently caressing her as he reached down toward her hand. His fingers intertwined with hers, and he squeezed her hand tenderly. "My name is Daniel. I was once the prince of this realm, now king. Alas, all the villagers fled in terror upon my return."

"Daniel?" Diana gasped again. Could it be the same King Daniel of whom Martin had spoken?

"Does the name not please you? I will change it to whatever you command." His tone had taken on that teasing, mischievous lilt that she had heard often from the beast, but now it was so much softer, so human sounding.

"Oh, no, your name is a fine one. But might I ask … are you … could you … cover yourself, so that I might turn and face you again?" For I long to stare at your handsome face. But she did not add that last part aloud.

"I could." He paused. "But I dare not let you leave my sight, for I'm afraid you will vanish, and I will be a beast again as I wake from this dream."

He gently turned Diana back toward him and then placed two fingers under her chin, lifting her head up so she would not be able to look on his exposed body. He leaned in to kiss her again, and she had no worries this time about any instinctive recoiling from a beast's advance. She closed her eyes and returned the kiss. She knew without a doubt that life with her "beast" was going to be full of love and adventure.

Yes, there are definitely some unanswered questions here. Where did he get his riches? Where did he learn magic? Every time I ask my beast these questions, he just smiles enigmatically and says, "Ay tank de tistles be tick dis year. Yah?"

Word count: 9,905

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