I was a bit worried about the pumpkin coach.
We barreled over the icy road at a terrific pace. I hoped it wouldn’t lapse back into a pumpkin and dump me into the ditch. Fancy dress and glass slippers and all.
Worrying about the coach distracted me nicely, until we pulled up on the gravel drive. The blank-faced footman helped me step down and I got my first look at it. The royal palace. I almost turned around and got back in. I couldn’t go up that grand marble staircase, all alone, and talk to all those fine ladies and gentlemen. They’d see in a second that I wasn’t one of them.
I looked up at the driver, so recently a mouse. He might drive me home if I wanted. But this was my one chance. Just one taste of life out from under Step-mother’s thumb. Tonight, probably no one would hit me. I didn’t have to clean anything. Just look at beautiful people in beautiful clothes. A memory to hang onto, in the future.
Chin lifted, I walked carefully up the stairs.
The ballroom was terrifying. Music, shrieks of laughter, swirling colorful dresses on the dance floor. A grandfather clock chimed across the room. Too hot, too loud, too crowded, too many strangers. Too much. I found a corner and leaned on the wall. Typical. Even when a magic Godmother tries to give me one perfect evening, I couldn’t be happy. What was wrong with me? Maybe I’d sneak downstairs and go home after all. I turned for the door, and crashed into someone.
It was a girl who could have been my age - sixteen. She was gorgeous. Perfect dark hair, perfect red velvet dress, perfect golden skin. And I’d almost knocked her over.
“I am so sorry,” I said, hopelessly. Nothing I said was going to make this any less humiliating.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Nothing is going to make this night any worse.”
Her face was set, like when you’re trying not to show how unhappy you are. It was a face I was familiar with.
“What’s the matter?” I said, automatically, as if I could help.
“You know. Everyone looking at me. I’m here, but I’m not really part of things.”
Someone like her could feel that way? “I do know. I’m not part of things either.”
“Really?” She smiled with half her mouth, which was unbelievably cute. “Since we’re both stuck here anyway, do you want to dance?”
I did, but… “With you?” I looked at the dance floor, which seemed to be full of men dancing with women.
“Everyone already knows about my preferences.” She shrugged. “Though it might damage your chances of a brilliant marriage, if you’re hoping to catch a rich husband later.”
I snorted at the idea of a rich suitor coming to court me, and finding me wearing rags, scrubbing Step-mother’s floors. “Uh, no. I’m not worried about that.”
She pulled me onto the dance floor, one strong hand on my waist, the other one holding my hand gently. After a few steps, she giggled. “Did you have a really terrible dancing-master? Or is something else wrong?”
I bit my lip, and confessed. “I never had dancing lessons. I’m not, I don’t belong here. I’m just here for one night. This dress was a gift.” I avoided her gaze. “I’m not noble.”
“How thrilling. A party-crasher.”
I wasn’t sure if she was mocking me, but she didn’t let go of me, so I kept trying to follow her lead. The dance step wasn’t too hard. I thought I was getting the hang of it.
She said, “I assumed you knew who I was. All the regular crowd knows. Maybe I should tell you.”
I supposed introductions were in order. “My name’s Ella.”
“Mine’s Bethany but that’s not what I meant.” She twirled me, which made my pale blue skirt flare out prettily. I stumbled coming back and ruined the effect though. She had to catch me in her arms. “Let’s just say that I’m only here for one night, too. I don’t belong here. Not anymore.”
Whatever it was that Bethany had to go back to tomorrow, it probably wasn’t a life of scrubbing floors and having hairbrushes thrown at her head. But maybe she didn’t want to explain. I didn’t really want to talk about Step-mother either. “We can just dance.”
She smiled, and we danced.
I got pretty good at the step, but then it changed to something faster, and Bethany, giggling at my attempt, took me over to the punch table.
We got into a rhythm of dancing the slower, simpler tunes, and sitting out the more complicated dances. They gave us a chance to talk.
She told me about her childhood while I sipped cautiously at the punch. She liked riding horses, and reading books. She had once had a geography tutor that bored her to tears.
I didn’t tell her about my life. What was there to tell? My father taught me to read before he died, but Step-mother didn’t keep books in the house. I’d never ridden a horse. I never went anywhere except the market, when Step-mother wanted help carrying things. I’d never heard of most of the places her geography tutor talked about.
Why was she so unhappy, with a life like hers?
Finally I asked her. “Then what happened?”
She stopped in the middle of an imitation of the geography teacher. “What?”
“Something happened. You have a worse problem than a boring teacher, now.”
She set her cup down. “Yes. All right. It was nice to forget for a while. But tonight is part of the curse too. One night per year I get to be myself, to remember what I lost.”
“Curse?” I might not have believed a curse could be real, before tonight, when a woman I just met had magicked up a dress, shoes, coach, and horses for me.
She held my gaze steadily. Facing her fate. “My father arranged a marriage for me. Some older man. I said I wouldn’t. They can’t force you, you know. You have to say ‘I do’ or it’s not legal. I said I was never getting married. I don’t like men that way. And he got a witch in to curse me.”
Her voice rang with betrayal. She’d trusted him, until then.
“The curse made me into a monster. Ugly. Scary.”
How cruel. I wondered nervously what her monster-self looked like. “And you get one night a year to be your real self.”
“On my birthday. I’m seventeen today. Happy birthday to me.” She stared into her punch cup.
How could a father do that to his daughter? “The music’s turned slow again,” I said. “Do you think I could manage this one?”
I could. She pulled me a bit closer, until my head rested on her shoulder. She smelled faintly like roses and musk.
How lucky that I ran into her. I almost went home. I almost missed this. I turned my head to say so. Her lips were right there. Instead of speaking, I leaned just a fraction, into my first kiss, soft and warm and electric.
The grandfather clock chimed, piercing through the gentle music. I jerked my head back. Be sure to leave before midnight, the old woman had told me. The magic would wear off. I’d be standing here in my ragged old clothes. Was it chiming eleven or twelve? I’d forgotten to keep track of time.
I couldn’t wait around and find out. “I’m sorry,” I said to Bethany. “So sorry, it was wonderful.” I pulled away from her and ran.
I didn’t turn around, busy dodging other couples on the dance floor. I had to get out of there before my dress disappeared.
Outside the ballroom, I ran down the hall to the door, and darted down the long marble stairs. I coughed at the shock of the cold outdoor air, after the overheated ballroom. My pumpkin carriage was still there. Maybe it was only eleven. Did I have time to go back and apologize to Bethany? I could at least say goodbye. The thought of turning around made me stumble and fall on the last couple of stairs. When I got up, the coach was gone. Confused mice ran around my step-mother’s pumpkin. I looked down at my ragged tunic and bare legs.
Bethany was at the top of the stairs. I didn’t want her to see me like this. I took a step, limping. I still had one of the glass slippers on. I took it off, and ran, barefoot.
The next morning I woke to Step-mother banging on my door.
“Why aren’t you up, lazy girl? Now I have to make the fire and put the kettle on myself! You aren’t worth the cost of feeding you.”
I sat up, and the first thing I saw was the glass slipper.
So, it hadn’t been a dream.
It had been a long walk home, but at least I got a couple of hours sleep. And I had a perfect evening to remember, just as I’d wanted.
I tucked the glass slipper under my thin mattress for safekeeping, and hurried out to make breakfast.
Step-mother’s short temper made it a difficult day. She never liked it when she woke up before me. Too bad magic couldn’t change her into someone nicer, I thought, scrubbing pots. But then, it would probably wear off at midnight anyway, wouldn’t it?
A knock sounded on the door, and Step-mother went to answer. She didn’t like people to see me. I kept my focus on what I was doing. I’d been hit enough for one day.
“Good morning,” a woman’s voice said, at the door. “I’m looking for someone. A girl who attended the royal ball last night, wearing an unusual pair of shoes, like this.”
Oh crap. She must have the other glass slipper. I kept my head down.
“No one from my house went to the ball,” Step-mother said.
“Are you sure?” the voice persisted. “It’s very important that I find this girl, and I have reason to believe that the shoe matching this one is in this house.”
How could she know? Go away, I wished silently. I could only imagine what Step-mother would do if she knew I snuck out of the house and went to a ball.
“It’s quite impossible,” Step-mother said.
“All right,” the voice said. “If you learn anything about this girl, please ask her to contact me. I think she might be able to save my ward Bethany from a curse.”
I dropped the pot I was washing. Could Bethany’s curse be broken? That was worth a beating, wasn’t it? I darted out of the kitchen to the front door. “It’s mine,” I blurted, before I could think it over and lose my courage. “It’s my shoe.”
Step-mother scowled. “You little liar! Where could you have got shoes like this? Go back to the kitchen.” She turned to the woman in the doorway. “I apologize for my worthless-”
But the visitor was looking at me. “Is it yours?”
“I can prove it.” For Bethany, I told myself. I ran to my little room, and came back with the other shoe. “I was at the ball. I wore the shoes. I don’t know how to break a curse though.”
“May I come in and explain?” The lady looked at my seething step-mother.
“Of course.” She barely got the words out through clenched teeth.
Step-mother ushered the visitor into the parlor where they sat on the good chairs. I sat on one too, ignoring Step-mother’s glower. I was already in for a beating. Might as well try out one of the fancy chairs for once.
“I’d like to know what you thought you were doing,” Step-mother began. “Sneaking out of the house? And where did you get these shoes? Did you steal them? You useless-”
“Please.” The visitor cut off Step-mother’s rant fearlessly. “This is important.”
The visitor was dressed as a servant, but not in rags like me. She had a nice black dress, a warm wrap, and a white cap on her head.
“My ward Bethany brought the other shoe home from the royal ball last night.” She set the two shoes together on the coffee table. “I’m so glad I found you… what’s your name?”
“Ella, I’m Lucy. I think you might be able to break Bethany’s curse.”
“Ridiculous! She’s good for nothing,” Step-mother began, but the visitor cut her off again. I was impressed.
“The curse will be lifted when someone lives as a spouse with Bethany for a year and a day, regardless of her… current form.”
I wondered again what monster-Bethany looked like. It must be pretty awful, the way Lucy was dancing around it.
“What does this have to do with my worthless, rebellious daughter?” Step-mother demanded. “You need a boy to marry your ward.”
Lucy kept her attention on me. “Bethany doesn’t want a boy. If anyone’s going to break her curse, it’s going to be a girl.”
My face felt hot. Yeah, Bethany had been pretty clear on that point. Step-mother’s jaw dropped, and she spluttered, scandalized.
“Unfortunately, Bethany has forbidden me to bring anyone, boy or girl, back to live with her.”
“Why?” I blurted. That was just stupid. “She’ll never have a chance of breaking the curse that way!”
“Exactly my thought.” Lucy looked approving, like my father had when I’d said something clever. “I hoped you might be willing to come with me and persuade her. You’d have to agree to live there. At least try to stay for a year and a day, to see if you and Bethany can come to care for one another as spouses, to have a chance at breaking the curse.”
Of course I couldn’t be the one to break Bethany’s curse. Love her, sure, I might do that. But be loved by her? Bethany could never love me that way.
But maybe if I talked her into giving me a chance, she’d be open to giving someone else a chance next, and eventually she’d find the right person.
Besides, if I lived with her for a year and a day, I wouldn’t be living with Step-mother.
“Of course I will!” I stood up. “Can we go now?”
Lucy blinked. “Would you like to pack your things, dear?”
“Now wait just a minute!” Step-mother snapped.
I didn’t have much in the way of belongings, and nothing that mattered more than escaping Step-mother as soon as possible. “No.”
“I absolutely forbid it.” Step-mother raised her voice, since we weren’t listening.
“Why?” Lucy turned on her, one eyebrow raised. “All you say about her is that she is useless, worthless, rebellious. I’m offering to take her off your hands. For a year, and maybe longer.”
Step-mother gaped, silenced. I guess she didn’t want to admit that she liked having someone around to do all the heavy cleaning.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” she finally said. “Don’t come crawling back after your unnatural love affair fails. If you do I’ll make you sorry.” She swanned out of the room, nose in the air.
I supposed I’d have to think of somewhere else to go, when Bethany realized we weren’t made for each other. I’d worry about that later. “Let’s go,” I said.
The carriage took us out into the country, much farther than the trip to the royal ball. It was a minor estate belonging to the family, Lucy explained.
We turned down its long gravel drive at last, and as we rounded the corner I got my first glimpse of the house. It was big, a mansion really. Bethany’s family must be pretty freaking rich to consider this a “minor” estate, I thought. As we got closer, I saw the grounds were overgrown. The roof sagged. The paint was peeling. Maybe they weren’t so rich. Or else they didn’t care about this house. Well, Step-mother’s house was pretty run-down too. I wouldn’t mind.
I hopped out of the carriage as soon as it stopped. Even if Bethany was mad at me for coming, I was still looking forward to seeing her. Lucy followed me, and we walked up the steps and into the big fancy foyer. It must have been gorgeous once, but it was all dusty now and covered in cobwebs. My fingers itched to clean it. Force of habit, probably.
“You’d better talk to Bethany right away,” Lucy said. “It’s her house. I can’t let you stay without her permission. Come on upstairs.”
The stairs were gloomy, even though it was sunny outside. Heavy curtains were drawn across most of the windows. Lucy led me all the way to the third floor, where it was so dark she had to light a candle to lead me to a door at the end of a long hall. She knocked.
“Just leave it,” someone snarled. Was that Bethany? I shivered. She sounded almost like an animal.
Lucy opened the door. “I brought a guest. Please try to remember some manners.”
“What? I told you. No one.”
Lucy stepped into the room anyway, bringing her candle. I forced myself to follow.
Inside one other candle burned. The room was still more dark than lighted.
“I think you remember Ella, from the ball,” Lucy said, as if it were a normal social occasion.
“Go away.” The snarl came from an armchair, in a dark corner. I couldn’t make out more than a shadowy figure.
Okay. I was here to be persuasive. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I’d better start persuading. It was Bethany, I reminded myself. She’d help me. “Lucy explained how to break the curse.”
“Ms. Lucy is a busybody.”
I gulped. It was hard talking to a faceless angry shadow. It didn’t even sound like Bethany. “You need to give someone a chance. Otherwise you’ll never be able to lift the curse.”
“Then I’ll never lift it. I’m not asking anyone to sacrifice herself for me, burying herself out here in this awful old house for a year. I’m no one’s charity case.”
I could taste the bitterness in her voice. “You didn’t ask. I’m here anyway.” She wasn’t going to let me stay, was she? I would end up begging Step-mother to take me back. Tears rose up and threatened to choke me.
“You’re here, but you haven’t seen me.” The shadow stirred, ominously. It was big. “I might hurt you, you know.”
“Hurt me?” I laughed, which was at least better than crying. “Step-mother will probably beat me to death, this time, if I have to go back to her.”
“What?” For the first time, the voice held no trace of bitterness.
“Please don’t send me away.” I had no pride left. “She hates me. I have no place else to go. Please. Just let me stay for now. I know I’m not your true love, or whatever. I’ll figure something out, when you want to move on to the next person. Please.” I clamped my mouth shut before I could beg any further.
“I didn’t know.” The voice sounded small now. “I just… I didn’t want you to see me like this.”
I wiped tears from my face. “I’ll stay away from you. You don’t have to show me.” I would have agreed to any terms at that point.
“Of course you can stay.”
The rush of relief made me dizzy. Lucy caught my elbow as I swayed. I’d forgotten she was there. “Let’s get you something to eat, dear.” She guided me toward the door.
I looked over my shoulder. “Thank you, Bethany.”
She didn’t answer right away. We were almost out the door before she called after me. “Ella.”
Had she changed her mind? “Yes?”
“Why did you run? At the ball?”
It was a long story. I tried to compress it. “My dress was magic. It disappeared at midnight. I guess…” I breathed an almost silent laugh, looking down at my ragged clothes. “I didn’t want you to see me like this.”
Bethany said nothing more, and Lucy took me downstairs.
Lucy - Ms. Lucy, Bethany had called her - took me down to the kitchen. The banked fire glowed on the hearth, and her candlelight glinted off shiny pots and pans. No cobwebs in here.
She saw me looking, and smiled. “This is my domain. She can’t stop me from keeping it clean and cheerful. She won’t have anyone in the rest of the house. Not cleaners, or repair workers. No one who but me to see her.”
“I’m sorry.” Lucy must be disappointed in me. “I’m not going to get her to fall in love with me. She isn’t even going to show me her face.”
“Oh, we’ll see.” She looked smug, if anything, as she put together sandwiches and poured hot water in the tea kettle. I hoped she wasn’t expecting too much.
The sandwiches were delicious.
Lucy gave me a bedroom on the second floor, with actual windows, and a soft bed. I didn’t see Bethany again that night.
I didn’t see her in the morning, either, when I ventured down to the kitchen. Lucy was already there. I hoped she hadn’t expected me to be up first, to stir up the fire.
“Good morning, Ms. Lucy,” I said.
She snorted. “Heard her call me that, did you? I practically raised her. Had to get her to respect me somehow. You can just call me Lucy.”
My glass slippers sat on one of the kitchen chairs. Lucy saw me looking. “I wanted to return them, dear. They’re yours, though what earthly use glass shoes will be to you, I’m not sure.”
I was glad to have them back. They reminded me of the ball, and the human Bethany.
We shared porridge and tea, and washed the dishes together when we were done.
“What did you want to do today?” She handed me a bowl to dry. “You might want to give Herself some space. No sense crowding her.”
Hadn’t I already said I’d stay away from her? “I might take a dustcloth to the entry way. If it’s all right with you. It must be beautiful all cleaned up.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s what you want? All right, I’m sure I don’t mind.”
I settled into a familiar routine of cleaning. The house surely needed it, and I was good at it. Room after room started to look inhabitable again.
One wing of the house was closed off. I wondered if there was another dark mystery behind the locked door, but when I timidly asked Lucy, she said, “The roof leaks. The whole wing’s falling into ruin, because Herself won’t allow me to call builders to fix the roof.” She snorted.
That seemed a shame, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I focused on the parts of the house I could improve. I beat the dust out of curtains and opened them, letting sunlight in. It was a pleasant house, really. It was too bad it was so neglected.
Lucy found some clothes in the attic and occupied herself tailoring them to my size. Soon I had simple dresses, tunics, and trousers that fit, and weren’t ragged. She even found me an old pair of boy’s shoes. “So you don’t have to wear the glass ones,” she teased. I’d been walking around barefoot, but it was nice to have shoes.
The two of us shared meals in the kitchen. Lucy brought Bethany’s up to her on a tray. I didn’t see her.
After a week or so, Lucy gave me a serious look across the lunch table. “Ella, I’m staging an intervention.”
“What?” I stopped in the middle of reaching for the mustard. I’d done something wrong. I’d screwed this up already. Here I’d found a place to live where no one hit me, or even yelled at me, and now I’d be thrown out.
“Sorry, dear, don’t look so terrified.” Lucy passed me the mustard pot. “I was just wondering if you’d like to do something other than clean.”
“I was just trying to be useful.” Was she still hoping that I’d somehow make Bethany fall in love with me? I didn’t see any way I could.
“I know there isn’t a lot to do out here. We do have a good library. Have you seen it?”
The word was unfamiliar to me. “No…”
After lunch I learned what a library was: a whole room full of books. From then on, I spent the mornings cleaning, and the afternoons reading. I didn’t see anyone but Lucy, who was always quietly pleasant to me. I didn’t have to be afraid of anyone. I had free time, decent clothes, tasty food, and a warm bed.
It was bliss.
The only thing I wished for was Bethany. As I washed walls and beat rugs, I thought about her, upstairs alone in that dark room. Would she really hurt me? Maybe in beast form she didn’t always know what she was doing. That growly voice had been pretty scary.
I missed the Bethany from the ball, who smiled with half her mouth, and taught me dance steps.
The night I saw Bethany again was the first evening that really felt like spring.
When I went to bed that evening, I flung my bedroom shutters open to let the breeze into my room, scented with warm earth and growing things. It wasn’t enough. I wanted to be outside.
The half moon was light enough that I didn’t think I’d stumble and hurt myself. I went downstairs. let myself out through the kitchen door, and walked around the rose garden. So overgrown. Maybe Lucy could tell me how to care for it. When I was done with the house, I could start trying to get the garden in shape.
The tall weeds rustled, and I froze. Something was in there. Something big. I backed up a few steps. Then a dark shape landed on the path in front of me with a thud. I let out a yelp. The shape straightened from its crouch, and said, “What are you doing out here?”
It was Bethany’s growl. Was she angry? Or did she always sound that way? “Just taking a walk.” I peered at her, but her form was just a silhouette in the moonlight. No way to judge her mood.
“Don’t look at me,” she barked. I jumped back, and jerked my eyes to the ground. Definitely angry.
“Stay inside after dark,” she rumbled, “or you might regret it.”
I bolted for the kitchen door. When Step-mother used a tone like that, it was time to get out of her way. And she was just a woman, not a beast.
I slammed the kitchen door behind me and leaned against it, heart pounding. Maybe living here wasn’t that different from living with Step-mother after all.
The books were amazing though. As the weeks passed, I got better at reading, until I could read most of the books in the library. I read histories, which Lucy said were true stories, and some tales that were clearly made up, and some stories that I wasn’t sure about.
One of them I brought down to ask Lucy about over dinner.
“It starts out like it might be a true story, but then it says he travels to the other side of the world, and sees an animal with feet like trees stumps, and a nose like a snake. Is that a real animal, or is this a made up story?”
I passed the book to Lucy, who peered at the cover through her spectacles. “I don’t know this book,” she said. “Must be one that Bethany’s tutor left here. She’d probably know about it. Why don’t you ask her?”
“I promised to stay away from her.” I looked down at my plate. “She doesn’t want me to see her beast form.” And I didn’t want to face her temper if I disobeyed.
“She used to like talking about books,” Lucy reminisced. “All the time at dinner, it was I-read-this, I-learned-that.”
Now Bethany didn’t have anyone to talk to, except Lucy when she brought the trays. Could she even still read? I wondered if she had hands, or paws, or claws, that couldn’t turn pages.
“Maybe I could talk to her if she stayed in the shadow,” I said. “I wouldn’t have to see her. I could even read to her.”
“That’s a wonderful idea.” Lucy smiled gently. “Would you like dessert?”
After apple pie, I took the book upstairs and stood in front of Bethany’s door. Was this a good idea, or was I about to get kicked out of this lovely home?
Bethany was in there, alone, and maybe couldn’t even read books. I set my jaw, and knocked on her door, before I could reconsider.
“Come in, Lucy,” said the growl.
I opened the door partway. “Um, it’s me. Ella. I was wondering if I could talk to you? You can stay in the dark. I won’t look.”
After a moment, the beast - Bethany - said, “All right.”
I edged into the room, and left the door open. It was shadowy, with only one candle burning. Bethany’s big silhouette was in the armchair again. I couldn’t see details. The room smelled like candlewick, as if several other candles had just been snuffed. Maybe she didn’t sit in the dark all the time.
“I suppose you want to leave,” Bethany growled.
I jumped at the harsh tone. “What?”
“You’ve been here for months. You must be sick of this dreary, isolated place. Not to mention the monster living upstairs. You can’t want to stay a whole year.”
“Are you kidding?” Was that all? I plopped down on a plush sofa, near the one candle. “I love it here. It’s so peaceful. Lucy showed me the library. She’s really nice.”
“And it might not be as dreary as you think, if you haven’t seen the downstairs for a while. I’ve been busy.”
“You…changed things?” She didn’t sound so scary now. Just uncertain.
“I just cleaned,” I assured her. “And opened the curtains. It makes a big difference.” I picked up the book. “I was wondering if you had read this book. It’s called Travels in the Far East.”
“By Bartrand, yes, I know it. I loved his descriptions of the animals and plants. It was like being there.”
“So it’s real? Even the animal with the snake for a nose?”
“So my tutor claimed!”
I jumped. I’d never heard the growly voice laugh before. It was a nice laugh though, once I got used to it.
“Can you,” I gulped. Was this question going to make her mad? “Can you still read? I mean turn the pages,” I hurried to add. I didn’t want her to think I considered her too stupid to read, in her beast form.
“It is awkward,” she confessed. “I’ve ripped a lot of pages. I don’t try anymore.”
“I could read to you.” I looked down at the book. “If you like.”
After that, I came up to read to Bethany every day after lunch. The shadowed room started to feel cozy, intimate, rather than creepy. When we finished reading the eastern travels book, she suggested another.
One mid-summer afternoon, I went up to Bethany as usual. Her room with its closed shutters was absolutely stifling.
I still hadn’t seen her face in all these months, and we were practically friends now. At least, we’d been talking about books every day, and she hadn’t killed and eaten me yet. I worked up my nerve. “Can we open the shutters? It’s beautiful out today.”
I jumped. The word came out with an underlying growl, serious and angry. I hadn’t heard that sound since that night in the rose garden. Nothing blocked my path to the door, if I needed to make a quick escape. “I just-”
“I said no!”
I edged toward the door. Bethany growled, “Go away!” and I ran.
I didn’t stop running until I was all the way downstairs, in Lucy’s bright, warm kitchen.
By the time Lucy came in to make dinner, I had recovered. Or so I thought. I got up to help her chop vegetables, and she gave me one look before asking, “What happened?”
“I provoked her.” I kept my gaze down, on the chopping block. “I knew she didn’t want to be seen. I made her mad. It was my fault.”
Lucy set down her knife and carrot, and grabbed my shoulder, hard. “Did she hurt you?”
“No! I just got a little scared. I shouldn’t have asked to open the shutters. It was my fault.”
Lucy scowled down at her hands, like maybe it was the carrot’s fault instead. “I’ll have to have a word with that girl about her temper. Again.”
I snuck a nervous glance at Lucy. I’d seen her face down Step-mother, but telling off the Bethany-Beast for her temper was a whole new level of brave. I didn’t want Lucy getting hurt on my account. “It’s fine, you don’t have to. I’ll just stay away from her. That’s what she wants.”
“Here, you finish.” Lucy piled the rest of the winter-stored root vegetables on my chopping block, took off her apron, and marched out of the kitchen.
I chopped obediently, listening hard for any growls or screams. Would I hear them from down here?
The pot was half full of haphazardly chopped vegetables when Lucy came back. “She’ll see you now.”
“Now?” I glanced at the chopping block. “But-”
Lucy took the knife out of my hand. “Now.”
I trudged upstairs. My belly was trembling inside. I really wished Lucy had let me wait until tomorrow. Or maybe never. What had she said to Bethany to get her to see me again? Maybe Bethany was expecting an apology. I could do that. I knocked on her door, forming words in my head.
I came in, but almost didn’t recognize the room. The shutters were open to the late afternoon sun. I whirled to face the armchair.
Beast-Bethany was sitting there, gripping the arm rests. I could see her furry hands, with long nails piercing the upholstery. She was wearing a man’s coat and trousers. Probably hard to find women’s clothes in such a large size. She dwarfed the armchair. I forced my gaze to her face, and jumped back before I could stop myself.
I couldn’t decide if it was more like a wolf or more like one of the oversized cats from Travels in the Far East. Big pointy teeth in a muzzle that wasn’t remotely human.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I remembered confusedly that this was the beginning of my speech. “No,” I started.
“You had to see me eventually,” she said. “I just thought I could put it off. I know you won’t stay now. Now you’ve seen my face.”
“No, I’m sorry, I promised you…” Her words sunk in at last. “Wait, you still think I’m going to leave?”
“Who would be willing to stay with this face?” She gestured to herself with a flourish, looking like an illustration from one of her books.
I felt like I’d fallen into a book. One with a really dramatic heroine. “Bethany.” I went to my usual spot on the sofa. “I told you. I love it here. I love the peace and quiet, and the books, and I love reading to you. Why were you being so scary, if you didn’t want me to leave?”
“Why would you want to stay?” Bethany growled. “Are you just after my father’s money?”
“You aren’t listening to me!” My fingers tensed on the book. “I told you, I have no place else to go. And I like living here. I like you. Except not right now, when you’re being so pig-headed!” The book was too precious. I set it down and threw a sofa pillow at her instead. “The magic should have changed you into a pig!”
Bethany gaped at me. The beast-face looked ridiculous with its fanged muzzle hanging open. Then Bethany laughed her growling-beast laugh. “No one’s spoken to me that way since I was cursed.”
“I can’t believe I was so scared of you! And you were what, testing me? I thought you might kill me. No, worse, I thought you’d throw me out and I’d have to go back to Step-mother.” I gulped down my anger. I still needed her to let me stay. “I’m sorry, I-”
“No, you’re right. I wasn’t listening. I believed my father. He said no woman would be brave enough to stay with me, after she saw my face.” Bethany’s lip curled in a snarl. “He thought the curse would force me to be with some man. Some brave warrior who could endure living with a beast for a wife, long enough to break the curse.”
Bethany’s father sounded like a real charmer. “Pf. You’re not so scary.” I waved dismissively.
“You were pretty scared earlier.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“You ran out of the room!”
“Okay, I was a little scared.” I giggled, and Bethany joined in with her growly laugh.
When we managed to stop, I said, “Thank goodness. Now I can have more light in here. I was going blind reading by just one candle.”
We read with the shutters open from then on.
One day I asked Bethany downstairs, to see how I’d fixed the place up.
“No!” she said, but I wasn’t having it.
“No one’s here except Lucy and me. We’ve already seen your horrible beast face. Quit being such a whiner,” I said, and she meekly came downstairs to compliment my work.
“It looks almost like it did when I was a little kid,” she said. “We used to come here for summer vacations.”
“Why don’t you eat dinner with us in the kitchen? It would be nice to have your company.”
Lucy watched us and smiled over her sewing.
By early fall, I’d cleaned everything that could possibly be cleaned in that big old house, and only had to run around with a dust cloth in the morning to keep things tidy. I spent some of my new free time exploring the attic and closets.
I found hideous old ladies’ hats, and foreign military uniforms, and one day, a gramophone. I set one of the disks in place and cranked the handle to test it. A tinny waltz came out of of the little horn on top.
Delighted, I carried it into a disused parlor, and dragged all the furniture into the next room.
After dinner that evening, I told Lucy and Bethany about my find. “We could have our own little ball!”
Bethany looked dubiously at her feet, which were long paws with talons.
“What, are you worried you’ll damage the carpet?” I smacked her arm. “Come dance with me.”
And she did.
I put on the glass slippers, which were ridiculous with the simple dress Lucy had cut down for me. But glass shoes are pretty ridiculous with any outfit, really. I just wanted to remember the ball.
Bethany was so awkward, so anxious not to touch me with her claws, that she could hardly move. Finally, I said, “I’ll lead. Luckily, I had an excellent dancing teacher,” which made her laugh. After that, she relaxed, and things went better. She stepped on my foot once, and her claws squealed against the glass. I made a face at the sound, but said, “See? Better than armor.”
Lucy changed the disks and cranked the gramophone for us. Bethany got into the spirit of things, and spun me away from her, so that my skirt flared out. I stumbled coming back. She caught me, instinctively, and I yelped. My hand was covered in blood. I held it away from my dress. What just happened?
“I’m so sorry.” Bethany pulled away. My blood was on her clawed hand.
Lucy bustled over. “Let’s get to the kitchen and clean that cut.”
“I was a fool to think this would work,” Bethany said. “To think I could be anyone’s spouse. I’m so sorry.”
“Bethany-” My hand was throbbing and Lucy pushed me toward the kitchen.
Bethany ran upstairs.
Lucy washed my cut and bandaged it. “Not that bad,” she said.
“It was an accident,” I told her.
“I know, dear,” Lucy said, but she cast an uneasy look at the ceiling, in the direction of Bethany’s room.
After that, Bethany made Lucy bring her meals upstairs again.
I still went up to read to her, though. Bethany was polite, and never lost her temper. I told her that I wasn’t angry about being scratched, and she just said, “Thank you.” Nothing else. She kept the conversation strictly on the topic of the book we were reading.
I didn’t feel afraid of her any more. I could have shook her out of her mood, told her to get over it. But there didn’t seem to be much point. I only had a few months left anyway, before my year and a day was up. Then even Lucy would have to admit that I wasn’t the one who could break Bethany’s curse. I’d have to leave. Maybe it was best if we weren’t as close as we used to be. Bethany would have to find someone else anyway.
Bethany’s birthday was in mid-winter, the one day she got to have her human form back. Neither Bethany nor Lucy brought it up, but as the date approached, I finally decided that I’d better say something.
I sat across from Bethany, staring down at the book cover, instead of opening it to read. I really didn’t want to have this conversation.
“What is it?” Her growl sounded almost gentle today.
“It’s almost a year.” I rubbed the book’s spine with my thumb. “Since I got here. I was thinking, maybe we should talk.”
She wasn’t helping much. I took a deep breath. “I’m not the one who can break your curse. Obviously. Next week it’s your birthday. Your one day of being in human shape. You might want me gone by then. So you can use that day to meet the next person.”
Was she being deliberately stupid or what? “You know, try someone else to see if they can break your curse.”
She growled, not the scary one, but a low rumble. “I won’t try anyone else.”
What? “Bethany, you have to. Someone can break your curse-”
“No. It’s a cruel joke. To think I could be a spouse, touch a lover, with these?” She held up her hands, with their long, curved claws. “It doesn’t matter who I bring here. I can’t be a partner, a wife, to anyone.”
Tears burned in my eyes. “Is that what the curse means? You have to be with someone?” I had always thought it meant she had to fall in love.
“Live with someone as a spouse. That means more than just being read to, doesn’t it? That means touching.”
I eyed her hands. Being with someone was already kind of scary to me, even without the risk of being clawed to pieces.
She had her one day of being human. That was an intriguing thought. Would one day be enough? I tried to get the words past my shyness. “What if you… did it… just once? On your birthday? We could-”
“No, you should go.” Bethany crossed her arms, tucking the claws out of sight. “I can’t ask you to. It would be your first time, right? And then what if it didn’t work after all?”
She was probably right that it wouldn’t work. But if she wasn’t going to try with anyone else… “We might as well try, Bethany.”
She stared at me. “I thought you were leaving. You just said you were.”
“Only because you should try someone else! Someone better! I don’t want to leave! I -” love you, I almost said. What? Was that true?
Bethany brightened. “I don’t want you to leave either! Don’t go.”
I felt warm all over, hearing her say it. “But Bethany-”
“I want to spend my birthday together.”
I wanted that too, more than anything. A guilty voice in my head still said you should leave so that she can find someone better. Someone who can break the curse. I pushed the guilt away. Bethany would have other birthdays, other chances to meet her true love. This one was for us. Didn’t we deserve it?
“That sounds wonderful,” I said.
The night before her birthday I dragged a spare bed into her room. I didn’t want to miss a single moment of her time in human form, and she wouldn’t let me share her bed, in case she scratched me in her sleep.
I hadn’t seen her bedroom before. It was very frilly.
“My mother decorated it,” she said, embarrassed. Even her nightgown had lace and frills.
I covered my giggles with my hand. “You could redecorate it.”
She shrugged. “Now they don’t speak to me, it’s all I have left of her.”
“Sorry.” I looked again, thinking of the woman who chose these frills for Bethany. “They don’t speak to you? Just because you like girls?”
“I think it’s more that she’s afraid of me.” Bethany crawled into bed.
I got into my own bed, and she blew out the candle.
“How does it work?” I asked her. “Do you transform at midnight? Does it hurt?”
She shrugged. “It always seems to happen while I’m asleep. And I always fall asleep for it, even when I’m sure I won’t be able to.”
Once my eyes adjusted, I could make out her big shape in the other bed. I didn’t want to sleep. I wanted to see the transformation. I was definitely going to stay awake.
I woke up. Oops. I felt like I’d dozed off for just a minute, but the window was already lighter, with the approach of dawn.
I sat up and peered at the shape in the bed. I was pretty sure it was smaller.
I threw the covers back and padded over to her. The dim light fell on the beautiful, human face that I remembered from the ball.
Just looking at it again was wonderful, but what I really wanted was to see her expressions, see her mouth quirk up at the corner. “Bethany,” I whispered, touching her shoulder.
Her eyelids fluttered open, and she smiled her half smile. “Ella.” She looked at her hands. “Hey, now you can share the bed.” She gave me a teasing look, and held the covers back.
I got in next to her, not quite able to tease back. She was here, Bethany from the ball.
She touched my face, human skin on skin. I caught her scent, roses and musk. My heart pounded.
“It’s so good to see you,” I told her.
“It’s so good to be seen.” She leaned toward me, raising an eyebrow, asking permission.
I lifted up to meet her for a kiss.
Later, we cuddled.
“Was that being with each other like spouses?” I said.
“I don’t know what spouses do. Does every couple do the same things?”
I supposed not. “This curse really should have been more specific.”
“Anyway, how do you know there is anything else?” Bethany tickled me. “I just taught you everything you know about sex.”
This was true. I changed tactics. “And who taught you? Do I need to be jealous of someone?”
She laughed. “I see you haven’t discovered the secret shelf in the library. Lucy sure wouldn’t have showed you.”
“Secret shelf!” I made her promise to show me.
We went to breakfast, and endured Lucy’s smug looks.
We went to the library and I learned how to open the catch that revealed the secret shelf of books about sex.
We walked in the garden in broad daylight.
We danced in the parlor, just like we had at the ball.
The day was over far too soon.
We curled up together in Bethany’s bed.
“Maybe we broke the curse,” I said. “Maybe that was enough.”
“You’ve got to go back to your own bed before we fall asleep,” Bethany said.
In the morning, Bethany was back in beast form, but we told each other that it was only to be expected.
“It’s a year and a day,” she said. “To break the curse.”
“I got here the day after your birthday. Does the curse start counting the day I arrived, or the first full day?”
“It really should have been more specific,” Bethany teased, pretending she wasn’t worried.
I stayed in her room the next night, hoping.
“It must start with the first full day,” I said in the morning.
“You got here in the evening,” she said. “That day didn’t count.”
We talked like this made perfect sense, like we weren’t horribly disappointed, horribly hopeful about the next morning.
I slept in her room again.
In the morning, I woke up first. The shape on Bethany’s bed still looked awfully big. She must be human though. It was a trick of the light. She must have been cured. It was too cruel otherwise. Today was our last chance.
Bethany sat up, and the early light glinted off her fangs. “Ella.”
It didn’t work. I had said it wouldn’t, I knew I wasn’t Bethany’s true love, but the reality was crushing. I guess I’d been hoping I was wrong.
Words seemed useless. I went over and hugged her.
“Thank you,” she said. “For my birthday. It was wonderful. You probably want to leave now.”
I didn’t want to, but I supposed I would have to. “I guess we have proof now that I’m not the one who can break your curse. I’d better go.”
“Where will you go? You aren’t going back to your horrible step-mother?” Bethany pulled back, her eyes fierce.
“No! I thought I’d get a job somewhere. Lucy can probably write me a quite truthful recommendation saying that I was her house cleaner and cook’s assistant.”
Bethany held onto me tighter. “Ella. I’ll miss you so much. I’m so sorry we failed. I understand though. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life living with a beast. I can’t blame you.”
“What? Bethany, I don’t want to leave you, whatever shape you’re in. I just want to make room. So you can find someone better. Someone who can break the curse. You deserve her. I know you’ll find her.”
“Her!” Bethany growled. “Ella, I don’t want anyone else. Whether you go or you stay. I only want you. This past year has been the best one of my life, curse or no.”
Tears spilled down my cheeks. “Bethany, you have to-”
“No, I don’t. I don’t care if the curse never breaks. I don’t want anyone else. It’s selfish to keep you here, but I don’t care. You’re so brave, so funny. You make this house better, you make me better. Please stay.”
I couldn’t bear the idea that she would stay a beast forever, for my sake. But I also couldn’t bear to say no to her.
“All right,” I said. “Yes, I’ll stay with you.”
She flung her arms around me. I hugged back. I’d have to make the most of the time we had together, and make sure I was gone before her next birthday.
Leaving would hurt her, but she’d get over me and find someone who could break the curse.
I wish I was so sure that I’d get over her.
Winter turned into spring, then into summer, and Bethany and I were closer than ever.
I ignored my nagging guilt. As long as I ran away before next winter, I was fine. I could have these months. I only had to be gone before Bethany’s birthday, so she could meet the next person. I wondered if she’d go to the same midwinter ball where we met.
Nothing was special about that morning.
I went down to breakfast as usual. Lucy brought in a bowl of cherries from the tree in the garden, and then a shriek rattled the house. We looked at each other, and bolted for the stairs.
It must be Bethany, but I’d never heard her make such a sound. What had happened to her? Her door slammed open while we were still running up the stairs, and her footsteps pounded down the hall to meet us. I rounded the corner, and skidded to a halt.
Bethany plowed into me, human body pressed to mine, human arms wrapped around me. “Look! Look! The curse is lifted! Look at me!”
She was too close for me to look, but I could certainly feel that she was human. I ran my hands down her back. “Bethany!”
She pulled back far enough to kiss me.
I almost hated to ask questions, as if this gift might be taken back. “But why?” It certainly wasn’t her birthday. It was way past a year and a day that I’d been living there.
“Why now?” Bethany kissed me again. “I don’t know!”
“Well, I do,” said Lucy, smiling from the top of the stairs. “And it’s about time you two figured it out. To break the curse you had to live together as spouses for a year and a day.”
“I moved in a year and a half ago,” I said, not getting it.
“But when did you start to treat each other as partners?” Lucy looked from my blank face to Bethany’s, and sighed. “Might it have been a year and a day ago?”
“Last summer?” Bethany looked confused, but I remembered.
“When I opened the shutters! And you snarled at me, but then I told you the magic should have made you into a pig because you were so pig-headed.”
Bethany laughed. “How could I forget?”
“That was the last day I was afraid of you,” I said.
“Before that you were living with a scary beast,” Lucy said. “After that you were living with someone you could talk to. Share things with.”
“That’s when the year and a day started.” Bethany smacked her forehead. Then she scowled at Lucy. “If you knew, why didn’t you tell us?”
“I wasn’t sure it was going to work, dear,” Lucy said. “But I’m very glad it did. Now come downstairs and eat before that porridge sticks to the pot.”
Bethany had builders in to fix the wing of the house that Lucy had locked off. She hired a team of groundskeepers to tame the gardens. She had a dressmaker come and make new finery for herself, and me, and Lucy.
I protested. Bethany didn’t need to spend her money on me. But she said, “It’s my father’s money. An allowance. After he cursed me, the least he can do is buy a few dresses for the person who broke the curse.”
Having the house so full of people was dizzying, after all the months where it was just the three of us. Released from the dressmaker’s grasp one day, I went to the kitchen for some peace and quiet.
Lucy was there, sitting with another white-haired lady over cups of tea.
“You were absolutely right, Vera,” Lucy was saying. “I owe you one.”
“Not at all,” the other woman said. “The arrangement has been mutually beneficial.”
Lucy saw me then, before I could decide whether to interrupt or to leave quietly. “Come in, dear. I made tea cakes.”
I sat with them. Lucy’s tea cakes were flat, soft, mildly sweet, and addictive. I took my first good look at the lady she’d called Vera, and gasped. “Godmother!”
“Hello.” She gave me a cheerful look. “All sorted out then? You must admit I was right about sending you to that ball.”
I looked from her to Lucy. “You two know each other?”
“Oh, yes.” Vera stirred her tea. “We’re old friends.”
“I do still have one question, Vera dear,” Lucy said. “What on earth were those glass shoes about?”
Vera sniffed. “You needed to be able to find her, of course. Bethany brings one shoe to you, and Ella keeps the other, and you use sympathetic mag-” She glanced at me and cleared her throat. “Ahem. You look from house to house for the person who has the matching shoe. It had to be something unique. I couldn’t send you looking for a slipper just like every other girl’s slipper.”
Lucy shrugged. “It worked, I suppose.”
When Bethany had finished transforming the house, the grounds, and our wardrobes, she bought a carriage and four horses. I thought of the mice that Godmother had charmed, and touched one of the horses. These were real, I trusted.
“Now we can go to town,” Bethany said, and so we did.
We went on market day, just for fun. We wore some of our new dresses. I felt like I was playing at being a fine lady, and kept breaking into giggles. Bethany didn’t seem to mind.
We shopped for silly things: hair ribbons, hat decorations, silk stockings that were shockingly priced.
Bethany tried on a hat piled with fake flowers, fake fruit, and even a stuffed bird. I laughed so hard that I turned around and looked for a place to sit down and recover.
Across the road, Step-mother met my gaze. I stopped laughing.
She looked older. It had only been a few years.
Bethany touched my elbow. “Are you okay?”
“That’s my step-mother.” Should I go talk to her?
“Who, that sour-faced old woman?” Bethany scowled. Sometimes I thought she’d kept some of the expressions she’d learned as the beast.
Step-mother looked from me to Bethany, jerked her nose into the air, and stalked away.
I guess we weren’t talking. I didn’t really care.
“Let’s get fruit pies for lunch,” I said to my beautiful wife.
Bethany got a letter from her mother. Someone saw us at the market, and told her parents that their daughter was un-cursed.
“She wants to see me,” Bethany said.
I couldn’t tell how she felt about it. “Do you want to go?”
“Yes. But I’m afraid my father will be horrible. Especially to you.”
Let him, I thought. I had a few choice words in mind for the man who cursed his daughter to force her into an unwanted marriage.
“Maybe I should go alone.”
“Forget it,” I said firmly. “I’m going.”
Our carriage took us to the richest part of town, where I’d never been. The elegant houses looked at each other across wide, clean streets. We stopped outside of one, got out of the carriage, and knocked on the door. I looked at Bethany, trying to think of something encouraging to say, but before we could speak, the door of the house banged open, and a lady swept Bethany into a hug.
“Oh, my dear! Thank goodness!” The lady - Bethany’s mother, must be - released her daughter to fumble in her sleeve and pull out a handkerchief. She blotted her eyes. “Come in, come in. Have a cup of tea.”
Bethany took my arm. “Mother, this is Ella.”
“Of course, so good to meet you. I’m so grateful, my dear.” She sounded genuinely warm.
A servant popped up, rather unnecessarily, to show us into a parlor. It occurred to me that someone who lived in this house probably didn’t usually open her own door. She’d been watching for us, personally.
The parlor had frilly curtains and frilly pillows. Definitely the same decorator as Bethany’s bedroom. Tea was already spread on a table. To Bethany’s mother, “a cup of tea” apparently included three kinds of dainty miniature sandwiches, and four kinds of gorgeously decorated bite-sized pastries. Someone must have spent a whole day making this tea. I’d never seen the like. I tried not to stare.
A man with graying hair stood in front of the fireplace. His hands were folded behind his back. He had a black coat and a black expression.
“Father,” said Bethany. Her voice cracked. I wanted to hold her hand for support, but would that make things worse?
“I see it’s true,” he said. “You managed to break your curse.” He didn’t sound particularly happy about it. “And this is your - friend.” He looked me up and down.
I felt hot all over. I couldn’t remember any of the things I wanted to say to him. My nails dug into my palms. I could have thrown something at his head.
“Charles, you can mind your manners or you can leave,” Bethany’s mother snapped. “It’s thanks to Ella that we have our daughter back, when I thought I’d lost her forever to your stupid, awful curse.”
She glared at her husband, who glared back, but didn’t answer.
I stole a glance at Bethany, who was smiling her half-smile. “Sit with us, Father,” she said, breaking her parents’ standoff. Astonishingly, he did. Stiffly, and without making eye contact with me, but he sat.
“Have a tart, Ella?” Bethany’s mother passed me the plate.
The tart was delicious.