A fine morning mist spread gloomily over a small clearing in the midst of a desolate garden surrounding the Beast's castle. The grass, trampled down by the paws of a giant creature, was a dull grey-green, more dead than alive. Small pinpricks filled the dry earth from the Beast's claws, and the few trees in the area were practically stripped of their bark. At the south end of the clearing, located on a small, desolate hill on the Beast's grounds, was a trellis, rusted over from years of neglect. Thorny, black vines coiled themselves up and around this trellis, rising from the ground as if trying to suffocate it. Bushes surrounded the area in a circle of various shades of green, brown, grey and even what appeared to be black in the dull light. The most striking thing about this clearing was that every single plant, from the bushes to the trellis vines and even the trees were overrun with roses of every conceivable size and color. Pitch-black roses and roses of a sapphire blue burst from the trellis vines like bruises on the metal. Gold and silver roses covered some bushes like fine decorations on a Christmas tree, while roses of more common reds, pinks, and whites blossomed from others. Roses blossomed with the beginnings of early summer fruit on the trees and some poked their heads between dead blades of grass. Although Springtime had barely run its course, the grounds abounded with roses as if it were Midsummer, creating an almost eerie contrast with the desolate state of the other flora.

A young, redheaded woman sat on a marble bench amid this pervading atmosphere of roses, sitting tiredly and dejectedly, as if she felt out of place. She wore a beautiful lilac silk gown, the bodice of which was trimmed with garnets and purple ribbons; the skirt made up of piles of tulle and satin flounces of various shades of violet. Around her neck, she wore a simple gold chain from which dangled a tiny daisy made of sapphires; the simplest adornment that she had been able to convince the castle image consultant to impose on her, still eyeing the gaudy, bejeweled chokers, heavy necklaces, overpowering rings and gleaming earrings askance after a month and a half in the Beast's castle. Her hair had been brushed more thoroughly than it had ever been in her entire life, giving it a satiny feel and a glow like the sun such as was unheard of in the small village she had come from. Dainty lavender silk slippers embroidered with bejeweled birds and flowers were fitted on her feet. From time to time, she reached around her back in an attempt to get under the back of her gown; her stays were laced much tighter than they ever were at home, thanks to Melinda, who had surprising strength for a feather duster, considering that prior to a month and a half before she had never even known an animate feather duster. Her face had been slightly made up; being unused to such things she rarely let Jacqueline apply too much artificial color to her face. After all the time she had been living in the castle, the face powder still made her sneeze. From the way she was dressed, any outsider would think that she was a princess. Draped around her shoulders, however, was a simple peasant's shawl woven of purple cloth with a pattern of golden half-moons. Beauty sighed, gazing into the grey morning skies. At least Vivienne did not take Mother's shawl from me, she thought gratefully, remembering the horrified aura that had emanated from the wardrobe at the Baker's daughter's immediate protest when she had tried to hide Joanna's shawl within her depths, where it would not be found. She had already succeeded in hiding Beauty's everyday dress, her boots, her pink stone necklace and Chip's hunting knife and jacket. Beauty had somewhat given in to her handmaidens' will in dressing her, but she was not going to surrender her mother's shawl. She needed to have some remnant of her peasant life if she was to remain in the castle forever. Lost in her thoughts, she barely heard the voice of the clock stumbling about next to her.

"Ah, Mees Bayutya, ze soonraise, eet ees gahrgeyous, no?" Ludwig babbled, thrilled that his services as escort were once more desired. "Ahnd ze rohses!"

"Yes," Beauty murmured out of politeness to her escort, however in reality her thoughts were far from the sunrise, which was really rather grey and misty as opposed to the brightly colored sunrises she'd been accustomed to at home, and the scenery, although later she would wonder why ever since she had arrived, roses had been in full bloom on every plant in the garden, even the least logical. At the moment, her mind was focused on listening for the click of the Beast's claws on the marble tiles of the first floor, or the rush of his body coursing down the hallway, ready to burst out the door at any given moment. When that moment came, Beauty wanted to be long gone. "It's very beautiful."

Ludwig, taking no notice of the flatness of Beauty's tone, continued to stumble about the yard. "You laike rohses, Mees Bayutya. Eef you laike, you cahn peek sohm for yoursealf." He chuckled, making a slight ticking noise as he did so. "Zey do, ahfter ahll, bayloong to you nohw, ahss you nohw raiseed een ze cashtla."

No. Never again. Beauty had sworn to herself shortly after she'd found herself imprisoned in the castle that she would never bring a rose into her home again, however long she may live. They had only brought pain to her. Since offering herself to the Beast, Beauty had hated the flower, seeing it as a symbol of all she had lost. Because she had told her father that she wanted a bouquet of roses as opposed to being honest with him and telling him that she wished for his trust that she could handle herself in the woods, she would never see Chip, Cinderella, Charlie, Alfred or Mary again. Because she had wanted a bouquet of roses, she could never leave this place. Unless the Beast should die before herself, Beauty would be trapped for the rest of her life under his control, and judging from the monster's strength and stamina, she doubted this was likely. Sometimes Beauty wondered if, had she told her father what she'd really wanted, things would have been different. If perhaps, he would have understood her point of view and allowed her so much as one measly hour in the woods on her own after all. Yet, she wondered, could she really have handled herself alone if he had? After a month and a half's imprisonment, Beauty had begun to doubt this. As she shook her head at Ludwig, she wondered why she had allowed the household objects to convince her to visit, of all places, the gardens this morning. Perhaps it had been to get her out from underfoot- since her arrival at the palace, almost, she had hidden in her room, terrified that the Beast might attack her, leaving only to take her meals. No matter how much her handmaidens had cajoled her into leaving the room, she would not budge unless she could be sure the beast was not around, and even then she would only leave when Catalin was with her. She supposed, from the objects' point of view, this must be fairly annoying- surely they would want some time to themselves. Ludwig especially would want her to leave her room, if only for the chance to be an escort again. However, Beauty was just too intimidated by her captor to care. She glanced over at Catalin, who was at this moment leaning against a dead tree, sharpening her claws. Catalin, feeling the peasant girl's eyes on her, turned her head.

"Why don't you just take some of the roses, Beauty? What have you got to lose now?" She stared at the bark flying off of the tree as her claws shaved it bare, what little bark remained after the Beast had been there. Just a few minutes more and my claws will be sharp as my dagger! After a few days in the Beast's castle, when Beauty had made it clear that she was hiding in her room indefinitely, the cat had taken to leaving her there and going outside by herself to practice her techniques. There was nothing that would harm Beauty in her room, and as a result of her practice, Catalin dared to hope that she was gaining enough experience to pose a greater threat to the Beast. However, she did wish that the Peasant girl would grow a spine and join her outside every once in a while. The Beast was gone for now; it was perfectly safe in the gardens. The way Beauty avoided the Beast was childish, and possibly unhealthy.

My life, Beauty thought in response. "No, thank you, Ludwig, Puss in Boots. Maybe some other time." She continued to stare at the grey sunrise, knowing that that "other time" would never come and thinking of her family and the life she left behind. She wondered how her father and stepmother had reacted when they'd seen her letter, if Charlie and Alfred still teased Mary, if Raoul had found another maiden to chase. All of a sudden, she heard the eerie click of claws on the tiles from within the castle. Shivering, she realized that the Beast must be going out on one of his hunts. "I think I'd like to go inside now, Ludwig." She murmured, shifting herself towards the clock. "I, um… believe I just heard the Beast coming."

Ludwig bowed. "Ahss you vish, Mees Bayutya." Taking Beauty's skirt in his flap, he began to gently pull her in the direction of the castle as she got up to follow. Catalin scoffed at them, grudgingly sheathing her claws. I had almost gotten my claws sharp enough to potentially do some damage.

"Beauty, you can't keep avoiding that Beast forever. Don't forget; you're trapped with him for the rest of your days. Eventually, you're going to run into him again." She rolled her eyes at Beauty as she rushed after her.

Not if I can help it, Beauty thought, hastening towards the castle door and running Ludwig ragged trying to keep up with her in the process.

"Koom, Mees Bayutya, Poosenboots. Pearhaps I cahn ayscort you to aynoother peart off ze cahstla. Zere iss ze ahrmoorya, za librairya,ze bahllroom- pearhaps I cahn interrrest you een a dahncing layssohn, Mees Bayutya!"

"No, thank you." Beauty murmured, much to Ludwig's disappointment. "I would just like to rest in my room for a while, if it doesn't offend you. Thank you, Steward," she added, curtsying as a platinum coat rack opened the door for her, locking it as the group entered. Beauty had recently learned that the royal Steward was on strict orders only to loosen the locks on the door if the party entering had express business in the castle. She wondered why, then, he had let her father in the night before the theft of the roses. He would have needed the Beast's approval to gain entry, and Beauty highly doubted that the monster had wished to invite the Baker into his castle. It made no sense to her. Yet there was nothing about this castle that didn't defy all reason. If someone had told Beauty a year before that someday, she'd be following a talking clock into a castle inhabited by a Beast, she would have said they were mad. Yet there was Ludwig, leading her past the red parlor to the stairs and jabbering on and on in his mysterious accent as Puss in Boots stalked ahead of them with her dagger unsheathed. Her fear of the Beast and confusion at the talking objects were almost enough to drive Beauty mad.

In the past few weeks however, Beauty had also grown to accept the hospitable treatment of the household objects, and indeed to become accustomed to it. She now considered it commonplace for a poker to leap into a door handle as she walked in, opening the door for her so that she never had to stop on her way around the castle. While the torches in their sconces still sometimes alarmed her when they lit themselves upon her entrance to whatever hall, staircase or room they were in, Beauty had grown to appreciate and to expect their accommodating ways. It had become part of Beauty's routine every morning, as soon as she woke up, to listen to the input of her armoire on which gown she should wear that day and that of her hairbrush regarding accessories. She would then go down to the kitchen, having by this time become nearly used to having to dodge a drunken suit of armor or two on her way, knowing especially to beware those armed with battleaxes as, just her luck, they had often drunk the most wine. Practice had taught her how to drain these same suits of armor to get her wine, which they were surprisingly willing to allow, although Beauty was still unused to the wine's strong taste. Although it still seemed alien to her that a stove would cook her food for her, George had been very attentive to her tastes in food and had even been willing to make her her favorite peasant dishes that she had enjoyed at home, trying to accept the fact that the rich food he was accustomed to cooking sometimes didn't agree with Beauty's stomach. And along with George, she was rarely at a lack for company in the kitchen- there was always a plate, or a towel, or a cooking utensil to talk to, although Beauty was shocked that her talking silverware did not appear to be hurt when she took a bite of food. While she was still hurt by the relentless disapproval of the people in the tapestry, she had at least accepted that it would show every time she walked down the corridor to her room. It was very convenient to have her candles put themselves out whenever she wanted to sleep, once she'd gotten used to it; and she thanked Vivienne for the slippers that appeared beside her bed every morning so her feet didn't get cold when they touched the floor. She had gotten used to being able to ask the clock what time it was, and she supposed it wasn't every castle that had a steward who could open the door and take your cloak at the same time- Chandler's steward certainly couldn't, from what she'd been told. Aside from the Beast, and the horrible pain of separation from her family, Beauty sometimes thought she ought to try to consider herself lucky- there were many ways in which this prison could be worse.

Still, even more maddening than the strangeness of life in the castle was the amount of mystery the place had to offer. While as far as rooms went Beauty had only visited the kitchen, the red parlor and her own bedchamber, she had sometimes suffered Ludwig to lead her down some of the castle's aisles after being assured that the Beast would be gone for the entire day in question. Every floor she had seen of the many the castle had to offer seemed more ornate than the last, and all were different. Every floor was tiled with a different precious item: one was as silver as that of her room, another glistened with shining bronze, another was made of pearl surrounded by a blue-silk hung wall which made Beauty feel as if she were underwater; Beauty had even seen one floor consisting of a mosaic of rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. On some floors, Beauty had found other walls covered in tapestries, the inhabitants of which did not seem any happier with her presence than the stitched figures decorating the hall on her floor. However, wandering other aisles with Ludwig, the girl had seen quite a few curious sights. On one floor, she'd passed pedestals mysteriously robbed of their busts; she'd glanced into rooms and seen tables, but no chairs; some of the bright walls were covered in dust, large cleaner spaces indicated that a painting used to be in the spot. What had caused these sparse furnishings? Beauty had also frequently overheard the servants talking about someone by the name of Serafina. From hearsay, she had discovered that Serafina was the woman who had once resided in this castle; whose bedchamber, in fact, was the one Beauty now slept in. She had also learned that she had been married to a man named Salazar and had most likely been of royal blood. From the atmosphere in the room and the items it contained, Beauty had been able to deduce that she had been very fond of the color purple, and that she had had very expensive, flamboyant taste in accessories. Rifling through the jewelry box she had seen bangle bracelets made entirely of diamond, sapphires the size of robins' eggs, there had even been a necklace with a ruby the size of Beauty's fist. It stood to reason therefore that she had also been very vain, an idea supported by the number of mirrors she had seen while racing down the halls to her room. However, this was all that was known to her. Beauty had a great many questions, but the vast majority remained unanswered. For instance, where had Serafina gone? Had the Beast had something to do with her disappearance? Perhaps he had killed her and Salazar in order to take over their castle. However, how would one explain the missing furnishings and statues, and the empty spaces where pictures were? It did not add up. Serafina must be somehow connected with all this, Beauty figured, but how? It certainly could be that she had simply packed up and decided to move away, however that seemed unlikely, considering the furnished state of the castle and its strange inhabitants. It was evident from the insulting things the objects sometimes said about her that Serafina was unkind- had she maltreated them? What could the servants have suffered at her hands? Beauty longed to know, but the objects, for some reason, had never let much information slip and did not seem to welcome questions. As the door opened on the flight of stairs, Beauty recalled a recent time when she'd found an opportunity to ask about Serafina and had failed to gain answers.

Beauty's opportunity to ask about Serafina had surfaced that morning, when her "handmaidens" helped her dress. Holding onto her bedpost dressed in a loose-fitting lavender silk kirtle and chemise, Beauty had sucked in her stomach and grimaced in pain as Melinda, perched on a gilded stool behind her, held the white ribbon laces of her corset, prepared to pull. The corset, made of pink silk and studded with tiny gemstones, contained real whalebone and as a result was so painful that Beauty had more than once speculated that it might make an effective torture device. This was only amplified by the uncanny amount of strength Melinda's feathers hid. Beauty's mind had wandered to thoughts of home, where her stepmother had often assisted her with her corset. Cinderella, however, had been gentle, and her stays had never been laced as tightly as they were here. The girl often wondered if her handmaidens still could not tell that she was a peasant, and therefore did not need to appear so perfectly thin. All of a sudden, Melinda gave a sharp yank which nearly forced the all of the air out of her lungs. As Beauty's face twisted, and as she tried to ignore the pain, she'd heard the word "Serafina" whispered in the background. Hoping to catch some information about her bedchamber's former tenant, she listened, while trying to maintain a front of disinterest.

"I have all of these beautiful gowns waiting to be worn, and Miss Beauty hardly looks at them!" Vivienne had softly moaned to Jacqueline, thinking that her charge couldn't hear. Beauty, however, could make out every word. "I simply don't understand. Any other girl would jump at the opportunity to don such elegant silks and satins, such soft cashmeres, such luxurious furs as I have. Serafina, as I recall, rejected the lot feeling that they were not ornate enough! Miss Beauty feels that they are too good for someone like her to wear. The gowns all BELONG to her now, why can she not see that?"

"I know," Jacqueline whispered back. "It is the same thing with these beautiful jewels which, as you recall, were rejected by Serafina as well, being considered common." Beauty had been shocked by this. The necklace with the ruby that was as big as my fist…if I were to sell that ruby alone, I could buy food for my family for five years, along with baking supplies and a new thatched roof and still have a small fortune left over! Who is this Serafina that she could reject something so valuable? If the magical harp and the golden-egg-laying hen that Jack told me he stole from the Land of the Giants before I was born were offered to her, would she reject them? "The way that Miss Beauty rejects these jewels, I wonder if she must be afraid she would burn to death if she were to touch them!"

"And my capes!" Vivienne moaned. "My shawls and mufflers and suchlike! Serafina would demand almost on pain of death to be wrapped in furs like these. Miss Beauty ignores them, insisting on going outdoors in that rag she arrived in!"

"Now Vivienne, that 'rag' you're referring to appears to hold some sentimental value to our guest. We must respect that." Beauty had smiled gratefully at this. Although no one except for Puss in Boots knew that the shawl had belonged to her mother, or had even been told about Joanna just yet, it was nice to know that the fact that she needed this shawl was respected. "However," Melinda had continued, "I have noticed the difference myself. Just yesterday, I laced Miss Beauty's stays a bit too tightly, wondering what her reaction would be. Serafina would have thrown a fit and possibly even had me sent to the dungeon for trying to suffocate her. I doubt if Miss Beauty even noticed!" Melinda added, grasping another set of strings between her feathers and pulling. Beauty gasped and winced at the sharp pain. So that was why her back had ached a bit more than it usually did yesterday, and why she had felt shorter of breath. Grimacing, she had mentally resolved to keep a better eye on Melinda while her stays were being laced, and to cry out in pain if she attempted this again. The feather duster went on. "I don't think that these differences are any sort of problem, you know. Serafina was horrible, yes, but she's gone now. At least Miss Beauty is kind and thoughtful, and from what I've seen would never hurt us. What should it matter to us if she rejects some of these clothes? Serafina would-"

"Who's Serafina?" Beauty had interrupted.

At this, Beauty could have sworn that she'd seen Vivienne go pale. Jacqueline had suddenly started to vibrate on the vanity table, her metal making an irritating buzz against the painted wood. A faint murmuring arose from the room as Beauty watched, wondering if she was going to receive any response at all to her question. Finally, it was Melinda who broke the silence.

"Umm… Now why would such a lovely young maiden as yourself want to know about Serafina?"

Beauty sighed at Melinda's condescending answer. I am not a child! Pasting a nonchalant smile onto her face, she tried again. "Well, I've simply noticed that she seems to carry a great importance in your lives. You and the others are forever mentioning her; I can hardly walk down the corridor without hearing Serafina's name mentioned, or that of someone named 'Salazar.' The painting in the red parlor- that's of them, isn't it? Who were they, Melinda?" She smiled menacingly at her handmaidens. "I know you're hiding this from me."

"We are hiding NOTHING, Miss Beauty," Melinda had scolded, taking up yet another set of laces. "Vivienne? Jacqueline? Am I right," she'd added, seeming to glance at the hairbrush and armoire.

"Oh, yes. Quite right."

"You needn't know any more about Serafina, Miss Beauty."

"Oh, but I am so curious!" Beauty had begged. "The way you speak of her all the time and you compare me to her makes me feel that she holds great influence over you even today although she doesn't reside here any longer. Perhaps she is bothering you and telling me about her might help! Please tell me more, I want to know who Serafina is."

"Serafina is of no importance, Miss Beauty. Believe me, you do not want to know about her. She is gone now, that's all that matters. Now suck in!" Before Beauty could make any response, Melinda pulled fast and hard on the laces in her feathers. Gasping in pain, Beauty had resolved that someday, she would find out exactly who this "Serafina" was, why she had left the palace and most importantly why none of the servants wished to speak of her. If she was to stay in this palace for the rest of her days, she reasoned, at the very least she ought to know its entire history. Remembering this, Beauty decided that perhaps today, she would make another try at uncovering the story of Serafina.

It still bloomed. A month and a half after she had died and it still bloomed. That was the one thought on Chip the Baker's mind as he sat at the kitchen table in his shop in the lonely evening, staring at the large, nodding rose, still blooming in the window. Beauty's rose. As he gazed, the Baker could not help but think it slightly unfair that the rose still blossomed whereas his daughter never would again. The rose had served its purpose well- every time Chip looked at it, he remembered Beauty's death. However, it was almost unnecessary- he had started to find memories of Beauty almost everywhere he looked. Some nights he would look into Mary's room while she was asleep, the room that Beauty had once shared, only to see his remaining daughter asleep in a bed that looked much too empty without her sister. He would walk outside and see the woods and think that while the woods had given him his favorite child, they had also taken away almost everything he ever loved. Chip had been rummaging through his storage closet the other day and had come across a tiny, white toy sheep. This sheep had been Beauty's favorite toy when she was an infant, and finding it just brought her father even more sorrow at what he'd lost. Although Chip had always shied away from most aspects of parenting in the beginning and Beauty had always cried when he held her, there had always been one way he could make his daughter stop crying and that was by waving the little sheep in front of her. Beauty used to chew on the sheep's head every time it was brought close enough to her face; her mother, when she wasn't too tired, had laughed at this. New tears sprang to Chip's eyes thinking of his first wife. If Joanna were alive, she probably would have mourned their daughter even more deeply than him; although Beauty had often worn her mother out with her incessant cries, the Baker's Wife had been devoted to her child and would have done anything for her. She already had done the impossible to bring her into the world; Chip realized at that moment that it had now been exactly twenty years since the Witch had lifted the spell keeping them childless. Twenty years ago that night, Beauty had been conceived. As much as he loved Cinderella and his three remaining children, Chip could not shake the feeling that he and Joanna should at that moment be safe at home with their beautiful prize. Just the few of them. It hurt the Baker to think that had the giantess never come, this would be exactly what was happening. As much as Joanna had loved Beauty as a baby, she would love her even more now- Beauty had taken after her not just in looks, but in personality; Joanna would have totally empathized with her daughter's adventurous spirit. Chip's thoughts were interrupted by a sharp knock on the door and a slam as it hit the wall.

"We have no bread," Chip moaned, half expecting to hear the Witch's voice reply "of course you have no bread." It would hardly surprise him now should the Witch who had ruined his life once by cursing his family with barrenness suddenly reappear after twenty years to increase his misery, if it were possible after the death of Beauty. However, when he looked up and saw exactly who had entered his shop, he nearly fell off of his chair in surprise. Black leather hunting boots tromped over Chip's threshold as Raoul lumbered into the room, a dead deer slung over his shoulder and ale on his breath.

"I wasn't in the market for any bread," Raoul boomed jovially, pulling out a chair and taking a seat beside the addled Baker. "Evening, Chip!"

"Good evening, Raoul," Chip grumbled, annoyed that the man would be so rude as to barge into his home uninvited at this time of night. "What brings you here?"

"Simple business, nothing more." Before Chip could ask Raoul what he meant, the young man removed a flask from his vest and threw back his head, gulping the ale. With a mighty belch, he turned back to Chip. "It's a shame, my poor Beauty. Cut from this world so young, so innocent, so… beautiful. Such a treasure, a rose lost forever to the jaws of a Beast." He sighed, and clapped Chip on the back as the Baker winced. "Of course, my grief over my lost love can mean nothing compared to yours, being her father."

"Why have you come here? What is it you want?" Chip asked, suspicious. He did not trust Raoul. While Beauty had been alive, the Baker had seen how his favorite daughter had been treated by this brute. He had known that Raoul had always made sure to stop by the bakery when he knew Beauty would be on the premises, in order to make an attempt to woo her. Beauty's disinterest had been obvious, yet Raoul had still relentlessly pursued her, obviously feeling that it was only a matter of time before the girl changed her mind. Chip had never liked the local young men poking about his shop trying to woo Beauty; a typical father, he had always thought that Beauty, even at nineteen, was too young for such advances. Less still had he approved of Raoul's persistence when it was apparent that he was bothering his daughter. Joanna's daughter. Ever since Beauty's death, Raoul had been a less frequent customer due to the loss of his intended. What could he want here now?

"Answers, Chip. Just a few simple answers." He jammed the cork back into the mouth of his flask, smirking. For Raoul was certain that he smelled a rat. When he had first been given the news of Beauty's demise, he had believed what he'd heard. Her family's grief had been too obvious to be denied, aside from which, Beauty had disappeared without a trace. On the surface, the details appeared unquestionable. However, the hunter noticed, quite a few things did not add up here. The idea that Beauty had supposedly been in the woods alone at all had provided his first clue that something was amiss. The entire village knew of Chip the Baker's grief for his late first wife, Joanna. Many villagers did not believe the story that the Witch Giovanna had given Beauty life by lifting a curse on the Baker's house, thinking instead that the midwife had just finally created a fertility potion strong enough to solve whatever the problem was with Joanna's womb; but the giant footprints covering most areas of the woods and, even after the subsequent repairs, some of the village made the story of the giantess attack undeniable. The whole town knew the Baker rarely let Beauty or any of his other children out of his sight because he was afraid a giant would invade and crush them too. It was possible that Beauty could have got up in the night and tried to run off, however this was not probable- knowing Chip, she would probably be caught before she reached the door. The fact that there had been no body at the funeral had also given him to believe that something was not right. There was no creature on Earth that could eat a person in one sitting without leaving some sort of trace. Certainly, Beauty could have been attacked by wolves, but Raoul did not see that as very likely- if that had happened, there would be something left of her: some bones, a few locks of hair, perhaps her shawl, dangling from the creature's mouth. The majority of her body would have been consumed, but the Baker would have had something that was part of his daughter to bury, instead of a bouquet of roses. A bouquet of roses, in fact, that could have come from anywhere- the idea of a Beast in a castle was preposterous! Wild beasts did not live in human dwellings and Raoul had traveled almost all over the woods on his hunting expeditions- surely if there were an abandoned castle somewhere he would have seen it! All this led Raoul to one conclusion: Beauty was not dead. Oh, no- Beauty was very much alive, and in all likelihood she was playing a very intricate game of hard-to-get. Raoul had seen the way Beauty had avoided him when he tried to woo her, and her reaction to his proposal. He had never known a woman not to be utterly smitten by him; Raoul figured that Beauty had shared his feelings but had hidden them, trying to see how far he would go to prove his love. So she had faked her own death and fled, convincing her family to come up with some sort of story to cover her tracks. She was probably staying with Jack and Red Ridinghood, not emerging until Raoul somehow romantically proved his love in some stupid girlish fancy. Or maybe she was staying with relatives- her mother Joanna had had seven younger siblings, and her father had distant family somewhere. All Raoul would need to do would be to find out where she was, and Beauty was as good as his. Of course, he would punish his new wife for her deception, but he would soon forgive her. Beauty would learn to be a proper wife, she'd keep away from the woods and they would live happily thereafter.

"What kind of answers?"

"This Beast that killed our poor Beauty," Raoul began, "you said at her funeral that he lived in a castle, was that it?"

"Yes, a castle." Chip responded, confused.

"Yes. It was a Beast in a castle that cut Beauty in her prime." He laughed darkly. "But where?"

"Excuse me?" Chip could not believe what he was hearing. He couldn't have heard right. Why would Raoul want to know where the Beast was? The Baker supposed he wanted to try to defeat it, or something similarly foolish. Had the man no sense at all? There was not a man alive who could defeat that Beast, Chip was certain. Any attempt to would lead to certain death.

"Where was the monster's little… hideaway?" Raoul flipped his flask from side to side on the table nonchalantly. "I've decided to do away with the creature. It's what it deserves, devouring such a beautiful girl like that over such a stupid thing as a bouquet of roses. I regret what I said at the funeral, Chip. The error wasn't Beauty's. It was the monster's. And while Beauty should have come to me to kill the Beast instead of going off on her own, she only did what any loving daughter would do- throw herself into danger to save her father's life. I'm doing what I should have done in the first place."

"Are you mad?"

"Do you remember where you found this castle, Chip?" Raoul asked, slamming his flask on the table and leaning into the Baker's face. Chip coughed as he inhaled the disgusting scent of Raoul's ale. The late Beauty's suitor, however, watched as the Baker fumbled for an answer, taking a cruel pride in his cleverness. This had been the perfect question to use to crack the Baker. Pretty soon, old Chip would admit that he could not give a location, having fabricated the entire story. It would be then that Raoul would descend upon him and demand to be taken to Beauty's whereabouts. Beauty would realize that playing hard-to-get was foolish, and would agree to become his wife. However, much to his aggravation, Chip did not crack.

"I don't remember," Chip lied. When Raoul glared in response, he shouted, "It was a dark and stormy night! I was unable to see the path itself, never mind where I was. And what should it matter now, anyway? The damage has been done-Beauty's dead now, and nothing is ever going to bring her back. Do you really think that killing the Beast will make any difference?"

"No… it will not," Raoul replied, angry but calm. Perhaps it would be a better tactic to use sympathy to crack Chip. He could make it sound as if he was doing the Baker a favor as opposed to trying to drag the secret of Beauty's whereabouts out of him. "Still, wouldn't it ease the blow, just a bit, to have a bit of revenge? For instance, to see the monster's head hanging on your wall?" That would do it. Chip had practically gone mad with grief after Joanna. If her only child were really dead, Chip would want to see to it that the Beast was slaughtered. However, since she was not, this would certainly drag the truth out. "The head is yours, if you'll just tell me where to find it."

If Chip had been disgusted by Raoul before, it meant nothing to the way he felt now. It was horrible enough that he'd lost his secret favorite to the Beast, and he had reminder enough of the part he'd played in it from the seemingly immortal rose, staring down from his mantle like the ghost of Beauty or Joanna. He did not need or want to look at the head of that Beast every morning. It would be inhuman to think that he would want to look at the thing every day for the rest of his life. To look up at those teeth and imagine them biting through Beauty's bones; those horns piercing Beauty's heart; those cold, dead eyes glaring daggers at Beauty's terrified face as she screamed her last. That would be too painful. No, the rose was reminder enough of his guilt. Besides, the Beast had killed Beauty, and doubtless many others; it would kill her suitor as well. Chip may not have liked Raoul, but the Baker was still a good man. He had always remembered when in a moment of madness he had agreed with the Witch that Jack be sacrificed to the giantess after Joanna was found dead, and had always regretted this. He'd sworn that he'd never knowingly try to send someone to their death again, and he intended to keep that promise, although he despised Raoul. "That would only make things worse! Now, I've told you before, I don't remember!" He snapped, and, with sudden adrenaline, drew Raoul up from his chair. "Now get out of my cottage, it's late! Just go!"

The glare on Raoul's face was deadly. "Very well, Chip." He sneered as he allowed himself to be nudged out the door, jamming his flask into his coat pocket and inwardly cursing the Baker. His plan had failed. As he stumbled out the door, he resolved that this wasn't the end of his search. Beauty had won the support of her family in her girlish endeavors, but there must be someone in the village who would reveal her whereabouts. Raoul would search the village until he found them. "I will not stop looking, even if you will not tell me." He called as he stalked down the road. "I will keep searching until I find that castle!"

And search he did. In the coming weeks, Raoul would search the village for Beauty, but to no avail; his expedition would be fruitless, except for nearly convincing the entire town that he was a lunatic. Letters sent to every known relative of the Baker's produced no results except for a repetition of the news of Beauty's death, and in one case, an expression of surprise that the Baker was even still living, let alone had a marriageable daughter. Eventually, Raoul had to face up to the inevitable fact that Beauty wasn't playing hard-to-get. The Baker was telling the truth. She was gone. After this, Raoul stopped frequenting Chip's shop, much to the Baker's relief. But even the seeming disappearance of his daughter's annoying, unwanted suitor did little to help the Baker's ailing spirits, and the rose still did not die.

As the morning sun shone brightly through the windows of the Royal Palace, a young maiden tripped around the marble floors of the Great Hall, trying to regain her balance on still-unsteady new legs. The maiden's hair, still as green as seafoam after a month under the care of Prince Chandler's servants had been washed and brushed until it shone with a satiny gloss matching that of the gowns she'd inherited from the departed Princess Elise. Instead of the two pink starfish she had arrived with, the girl now wore the upper half of her hair in a loose bun which trailed another stream of green hair down her back; this was held in place by a circle of ruby hairpins. Around her neck was a tiny pink shell attached to a blue ribbon. She wore a beautiful gown of the finest red silk in the kingdom and kidskin slippers of the same shade in order to mask the blood that still flowed from her legs and feet at all hours of the day. Every morning the handmaiden dispatched to Brina would try to convince her to wear a dress of a different color for a change, offering her frocks of every shade of yellow, blue, purple, white- various shades of green had even been suggested to complement her hair. However, Brina had always silently insisted on red. She did this not out of fondness for the color, although she had grown to like its shade, but for the benefit of the Prince who had brought her home. She had grown to love her handsome human more each day as she had gotten better and better acquainted with him. Her heart melted at his kindness- Brina was pleased to note that when called upon to settle peasant disputes, Chandler would always be sure to find a solution that was fair to both sides. He took very good care of his stepmother, Snow White, whom Brina would sometimes accompany on the rare occasions when Chandler could not be with his silent maiden; and he was caring and loyal to all he was close to. She loved the fact that he was not wholly wrapped up in the fact that he was royalty, unlike his father and uncle- Chandler was always telling Brina stories about his other uncle, who was a Baker in the village, whatever a baker was, and his cousins whom he promised to take Brina to meet someday when her legs had further healed. Chandler was witty, brave and polite and never had the mermaid seen him harm anyone intentionally. Brina did not wish to worry such a wonderful, perfect man by letting him see that blood still flowed from her legs and probably would never stop. Similarly, she fought to keep a smile pasted on her face, despite the agonizing pain that relentlessly crept up her legs with every step she took. The pain meant that her life was now his, and she would never let it upset him. Still, however, she sometimes worried about the Witch's payment. Brina had considered simply writing down her entire story on a slip of paper and giving it to the Prince to read; she had been able to tell him her name that way. However, events soon convinced her otherwise: nearly every time she and her Prince were together he would speak to her about the maiden who had saved him and every time he would always rave about her beautiful voice, the only part of the girl that he could recognize. It soon became clear to Brina that although she could write her story, it would be of no use. She wouldn't be able to give him any proof. For the time being, however, she had decided to put such worries aside- thus far, no voice similar to hers had been discovered; if all went well, her Prince would fall in love with her despite her muteness.

Chasing after his silent damsel, Prince Chandler laughed as she kept tripping over her feet. The two of them had decided to have a race down the halls of the palace while the Prince was not needed for any royal duties, and Brina continually insisted on running as fast as she could, although it was obvious that her legs had not thoroughly healed yet. Although she obviously tried to hide it, Chandler sometimes noticed that blood still ran down her legs if she stood or moved for too long. He had asked the Royal Physician about it, and had received no answer- the doctor had never seen any illness or injury like this in his life. Although Brina's walking had improved considerably since he'd found her, her legs had still not healed properly, and the Prince had no idea what he could do to remedy that. The green tone of Brina's hair also remained, no matter how many times it was washed, and she still looked at everything she saw as if it were completely new to her. Once, he had come back from resolving a peasant dispute and had found her repeatedly opening and closing the curtains over one of the windows, a wide smile spreading over her face as if in fascination. That had annoyed the Steward, but Chandler had found it very endearing. Also remaining was Brina's inability to talk, and Chandler had begun to suspect that this was a disability she had been born with as opposed to the result of head trauma. He could see that because of these disabilities, his entire household with the exception of his stepmother looked down on Brina. Many considered her insane, some were worried she might be dangerous, others considered her an embarrassment, and all wanted her thrown out. Chandler hated this; he wished they would try to get to know Brina before they judged her. She didn't seem to be crazy, just confused, and she certainly couldn't help that. Chandler had searched the kingdom far and wide, but nothing had been found about Brina's family, nobody among this kingdom or any neighboring realm was looking for a mute girl with long green hair. He planned to send a fleet of ships out to broaden the search, but found himself dreading it. The Prince had begun to suspect that Brina had no family, and a part of him hoped that nobody ever came to claim her. Although he realized that Brina was not a pet to be kept for himself, he had never been so happy as when he had been in charge of this strange, silent girl. He had grown to love her as one loves a sweet child or a beloved little sister; he sometimes called her his "mute foundling and she had become his whole life. He could not imagine life without her. Smiling, he chased after her, finally catching her and wrapping his arms around her shoulders.

Around the Prince and the silent maiden, a host of castle servants cleaned the Great Hall, staring at the two of them and wondering what on Earth had possessed Chandler to take a mistress like this one. The Royal Steward stood next to the railing of the hall's great staircase, overseeing the servants in their work. Sometimes his eye would dart over to Brina and he would sigh, wondering why Chandler had not yet realized that the palace was no place for peasants like this. Brina's chambermaid stalked downstairs carrying a pile of bloodied red dresses and stockings to be washed and wondering how much longer it would take for Brina's legs to heal so the washmaids would no longer spend all hours trying to wrestle dried blood from red silk, and why she still would not speak, no matter how she was cajoled to. A manservant scrubbed the floors, looking up every so often to gander at Brina's svelte figure, feeling that in that respect, the Prince had found himself a satisfactory mistress, but why one so strange? Another manservant lit the torches lining the walls, noticing a spot of blood on Brina's skirt and wondering why the Prince did not seem to care. Two young maids dusted the banister, every now and then jealously eyeing Brina's dresses and shoes and wondering if, perhaps, the Prince would pay any attention to them if they were to suddenly lose all powers of speech. All of their minds were focused on a single thought: how could Prince Chandler be so blind? This "Brina," if she wasn't some sort of demon, was a lunatic, and dangerous. Even if that were not the case, she was obviously sick in many ways, what with the strange bleeding from her legs and the green hair- chances were she was carrying some sort of plague! What if this "Brina" managed to get the entire kingdom infected? Or perhaps she was a spy from an enemy kingdom. That idea seemed very plausible to the servants- a mute girl would be invaluable in missions of espionage because she wouldn't be able to reveal the enemy's plans. Perhaps she wasn't even really mute, being instead a very good actress. The girl's green hair gave them yet another possibility for her business in the kingdom- perhaps Brina was a witch! A Witch had raised Chandler's mother, Rapunzel; and it had been said that she'd considered Prince Victor a thief for rescuing her from the tower. That Witch had regained her youth through the intervention of Chandler's Uncle, a village Baker- it wasn't entirely impossible that that Witch had given birth to another daughter and that she had been sent for revenge on the royal family. Whatever Brina was hiding, there must be something under that innocent mask of hers, and the staff wished that Chandler would remove it before they found out what it was. What could have even possessed him to bring her home in the first place?

"Now what can he want with a woman like her?" The Steward sang to the chambermaid dispatched to Brina's care, smacking his hand to his forehead.

"Green-haired and silent as the grave." The Chambermaid agreed, staring at the couple as Chandler laughed and Brina smiled that bewitching smile of hers. That smile too unnaturally large to be quite human. Could the Prince not see that something was wrong?

"He could have the world, but takes this 'Brina?'" The Torch-Lighter added, nearly burning himself in his confusion. He had thought Prince Victor was mad for marrying Rapunzel, twins or no twins, when the blonde woman had begun to lose her wits; but Brina was another thing altogether.

"Can our kingdom be saved?" A maid wondered as she was shooed back to her work by the Steward.

"Look how she holds him and touches and attends him!" The other maid fumed jealously as she watched Brina run her hands up and down Chandler's back.

"It's my belief the Prince is not well…" The manservant mopping the floors burst in, glancing over at the shapely legs of the maids dusting the banister and earning himself a glare from Brina's chambermaid as they all turned to watch Brina fumbling in the pocket hidden through a slit in her skirt for something.

"And she has him in a spell…"

As Chandler stared at Brina, wondering what the silent girl could be up to, she finally drew something out of her pocket. A thin cord of wire hung from her hand, attached to what looked like a shell from the ocean. A closer look told Chandler that this was one of the starfish that had been attached to Brina's hair when she'd found him. Blushing, she offered it to him. It's a charm, her eyes seemed to say. For good luck on your next voyage. During her time at the castle, Brina had heard the servants talking, and through eavesdropping had found out that Chandler went sailing for adventure quite frequently, and might take off on another expedition sometime in the next year. Brina knew that if anything should happen to him this time, he was as good as lost, for she would not be able to return to the ocean. It was known to the merpeople however, that to carry a starfish brings good luck. Knowing this, she'd borrowed some wire from a castle servant and strung one of her starfish on it. Chandler, from his experience at sea, knew what the charm meant and took it from Brina, kissing her head in response.

"You are my charm. I've no idea how I've lived without you, my mute little Brina."

Brina's eyes smiled. I will never leave you, Chandler. The servants groaned as the two of them looked into each other's eyes, smiling shyly at one another.

"Now what do you make of a stranger like her?" The manservant scrubbing the floors glanced up at the chambermaid, looking almost up her skirts as he wondered and grinning at what he saw.

"Putting on airs, without a doubt!" The chambermaid replied, smacking him upside the head

"When he's found that voice and does not need her-" The Steward interrupted.

"How soon he'll throw her out!" They all nodded in agreement, returning to the task at hand. The voice would do it. The voice would save them all. Once Chandler found the voice of that strange woman who had rescued him, he would rid the castle of Brina and everything would go back to the way it should be. The voice, while most likely nonexistent, carried the answer to all their prayers of Brina leaving. As Brina raced off down the hall again, Chandler dashing after her, they were suddenly interrupted by a loud, authoritative call.


Grasping Brina, Chandler turned around. The smile on his face disappeared when he saw exactly who had addressed him. Standing in front of him, in a royal blue suit decorated all over with golden medallions and wearing a look of bitterest disdain, was his Uncle, Prince Robert, the former husband of Cinderella and the heir to the kingdom's throne. His chestnut hair shone in the light of the torches and a disapproving glimmer emanated from his grey eyes as he glowered at the couple. Brina shrunk and backed away, afraid of him as she had been since she was brought to the castle. Chandler, meanwhile grudgingly bowed.


"Chandler, I ask that you follow me into the next room. I have some important matters to discuss."

Chandler inwardly groaned. No doubt he was going to be forced to listen to another lecture on how it was time he found a woman suitable for marriage from a man who had broken the hearts of thousands of innocent women. If not that, then his Uncle was probably passing a new, probably hypocritical law for which he sought a second opinion on the wording of and could not find his brother. Or perhaps he had tried to solve a peasant dispute and had failed to satisfy one or both parties, leaving the injured to demand Chandler's assistance. He turned to Brina. "I will return soon," he whispered as she smiled back. His mind remaining with the silent maiden, he followed his Uncle into the next room; a throne room used to resolve the disputes of peasants, but which was empty this morning. Uncle and Nephew faced each other solemnly.

"You wished to speak with me, Uncle?"

Prince Robert's face was firm, his glare scornful. "Chandler, as your uncle and future sovereign, I feel it best to tell you that you must rid our castle of your Brina, and quickly."

"No. I will not." Chandler simply replied. "I have no wish to contradict my future sovereign, much less my family, but this is unjust. You know as well as I do she's done nothing wrong."

"She is a disgrace to our family!" Prince Robert snapped. "Chandler, you do not understand now, but someday you may rule this kingdom, and when that day comes you will need to understand that it is the duty of a royal to maintain a certain image. We are above the commoners, and must appear so. You were raised to be charming, Chandler, not sincere. We'll say no more about it. You must throw her out."

"I am sorry; Uncle, but I will not throw her out. I cannot: I swore I would care for her until her legs heal or until her family is found, and I will not break that promise." Chandler was annoyed at his Uncle's hypocrisy, and, he realized, at the fact that he dared insult Brina. "Besides, there have been women residing in this castle that were not princesses- my own mother was born the daughter of a baker! The Witch was not her real mother. And," he added, unable to stop the devilish smile that was beginning to appear on his face, "Aunt Cinderella was a dishmaid when you fell in love with her."

"Cinderella" Prince Robert cut in, "was born of a high pedigree; her father was a very rich man. And as for your mother, well, your father was taken in by the rich state of her tower. He had no way of knowing the true state of affairs. Your Brina has neither, and we have no way of knowing where she came from, who her family is. She could be a beggar, or a vagrant; she may even be a convict. If word gets out that there is a vagrant living under our roof, we will never again command the same respect. Your boyish infatuation with her has gone too far!" He fumed "How long do you think you'll be playing this game?" He sang.

"This is no game!" Chandler replied indignantly.

"Surely you can't believe it's real."

"Brina is my friend! With all due respect, Uncle, I am a man now, and as such am free to associate with whom I choose. "

"You are not the first to want a peasant." As Prince Robert mentioned this, he found himself transported in his mind back to the night when the giantess attacked, nineteen years ago. Back to Joanna. Now she had been a peasant worth wanting. He had seen her before, of course, at his wedding to Cinderella; however at that time he had been too blinded by lust for his new bride to take any notice of the pregnant Baker's Wife dancing with her husband and a group of other townspeople. Similarly, he had, so Cinderella had told him, helped allow for the fetus's conception by forcing the Steward to give the couple the slipper, but then Joanna had only been some random peasant woman in his eyes. However, all of that changed the night the giantess attacked. When he saw her in the woods, apparently looking for something, he had been immediately smitten by her attractive figure and her rustic beauty. Her bravery had been what had really attracted Prince Robert; never in all his life had he seen a woman who would go off into the woods alone in search of a giant, and this without her husband's permission! When he'd heard that, the Prince had known that he must have her, and to Hell with Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. He must have one night with Joanna, and that one was as good as any, with the chance that any moment, the giant could arrive on the scene and crush them both. Oh, it hadn't been easy convincing her to go along with it, at first. Joanna had played the dutiful housewife, telling him that his advances were not rightand reminding him that he had a princess and she a Baker. That baby daughter she'd given birth to, "Grace" or "Chastity" or whatever his brother had said she'd called it had likely also been on her mind at the time. However, Robert had been raised to be charming, and the Baker's Wife soon fell victim to his princely wiles despite herself. Thoughts of husband and child had been scattered to the wind as Joanna allowed herself to be carried deep into the woods for a "moment" that would prove to be bittersweet, lovely, and sad at once. "I, too, know their…appeal." He could still feel her, warm in his embrace, her kisses returning his, the smell of flour and cinnamon that hung about her like perfume as he breathed it in. Although she had been nothing but the wife of a Baker, never had a woman given him so much to remember. Joanna was the only one of his mistresses he had ever kept a promise to: nearly twenty years had passed since the giantess attack, and he had never forgotten how brave Joanna had been to be alone in the woods, nor how alive she'd made him feel. Since then, multiple women with status and wealth that dwarfed Joanna's: ladies of court, duchesses, countesses, marquises, princesses all had shared his bed. He had sampled their forbidden fruit and given them nights to be remembered, and had probably fathered quite a few illegitimate children in the process. Yet none of these women had excited him or impressed him as much as this fiery peasant had. He had not heard of her since the giantess attack; he sometimes wondered if she was still alive , perhaps he could find her in the woods again… Prince Robert mentally shook himself, annoyed at his sudden weakness. He had wanted a peasant, yes, and he had gotten her. But he would certainly never bring Joanna into the palace where people could see her. As a Prince, he was raised to be charming, not sincere. He did not drag out his fling with Joanna as Chandler appeared to be doing with this "Brina", nor did he bring it into the castle, thereby embarrassing his own name and that of the royal family. If Chandler didn't wake up to what he was doing, Robert's entire reputation as a ruler would be at stake. The fact that a mute vagrant with green hair had been allowed in the palace was enough to cause their prestige to decline to a new low. "But you're a royal son! You'll do what must be done no matter what you feel."

With that, Prince Robert turned on his heel and left the room. Chandler glared after his disappearing back and walked out the door himself, only to find Brina leaning against the gilded door jamb, her eyes swollen in sadness. Chandler sighed. She'd heard. Inwardly cursing his uncle, Chandler took Brina in his arms. "Don't listen to a word he says," he whispered, holding her close. "He is probably the biggest hypocrite in the kingdom- I pity our subjects when he inherits the throne! I promise, I'm not going to throw you out, no matter what happens. You are staying right here until you recover and nothing is going to change that. I give you my word as a Prince; your station is safe for as long as you need to be here." Brina smiled; Chandler was rendered momentarily breathless. Her smile was so beautiful. How anyone could possibly dislike her he did not know- that smile bespoke nothing but kindness and the desire to be accepted and loved. He did not know why, but that smile attracted him more than anything he had ever seen. "Tell you what," he suggested, "You haven't seen the armory yet, have you? How would you like it if I were to show it to you?" Chandler already knew that Brina would like this; she was always so excited to visit new parts of the castle. As he expected, she nodded enthusiastically. Her sadness melting away in excitement, Brina danced off in the direction of the doors as Chandler followed, laughing to himself at her exuberance. As they dashed to the armory, the servants' eyes followed them again.

"I know what he sees in a stranger like her." The torch lighter announced.

"Probably makes him rise like yeast." Continued the manservant scrubbing the floors as he made a lewd gesture at one of the maids.

"Well the girl may think she's very clever…" The two maids speculated, having stopped dusting the banister to listen.

"The Prince may keep her here forever…" The Steward and the Chambermaid added, nodding at them, implying that while they agreed, the maids were to focus on the task at hand.

"But I can tell you this- they'll never stand before a priest!" The entire palace staff agreed, returning to going about their business and all the while praying that Prince Chandler come to his senses, and quickly. That soon, he would realize that the mute girl was up to no good, if not a raving lunatic, and hopefully decide to get rid of her. Perhaps he would follow his Steward's original advice- as he should have a month ago- and have her taken to hospital, seeing as she appeared to have no family. However, it seemed as if only the mysterious- and nonexistent- voice of the woman who had supposedly saved his life would divert his affections from the green-haired, silent stranger. Although they all knew it to be impossible, the palace staff offered a joint prayer to the heavens that that voice would appear to Chandler and soon, if only so that they would be rid of the strange silent girl for good.

Two weeks later, night had fallen on the Beast's castle. After taking her supper in the kitchen with the household objects, Beauty hurried up the seemingly endless flight of stairs, back to the safety of her room. Preceding her was Catalin, who, dagger drawn, was ready to defend Beauty against the Beast if necessary. So far, however, Beauty's avoidance had worked largely without exception. Catalin could not help but feel slightly grateful for this. Although she had been practicing her hunting techniques for almost every waking moment since their arrival at the castle, whenever she confronted the Beast, he would always overpower her. It seemed no matter how many hours she spent practicing her fencing, no matter how many mice she caught or trees she stripped of bark her sword would never be fast enough, her pounce never quick enough and her claws never sharp enough to give the monster so much as a flesh wound, never mind the debilitating injury that would be necessary to provide Beauty greater safety and possibly allow an escape. Catalin fumed. It wasn't as if she hadn't faced great challenges before and come out on top. The last time she had gotten involved in a human's affairs, she had had to hunt a wide variety of game, lie to royalty multiple times and convince entire villages to follow suit; take archery challenges and fence with the local merchants in wagers to obtain fine clothing and accessories for the human, and outwit a monstrous, powerful ogre who had taken over a kingdom by convincing him to turn into a mouse, which she caught and ate. This Beast should be an easy target after facing down all those obstacles. Really, he's just a rat. A large, strong rat with sharp teeth and horns, yes, but nonetheless a rat. Perhaps for once in her nine lives, she should just give up. Give up, run off, and seek glory elsewhere; perhaps that was a better idea than staying here. More than once, the idea of just making her escape some night had crossed her mind. After all, she didn't belong to Beauty. There was nothing tying her to the peasant girl- if she wanted to, Catalin could just leave her flat to fend for herself. Catalin wanted her freedom back so badly she could taste it. At this point, only the thought of being eaten and having the murder of Beauty's family and debilitating injury to Beauty herself on her conscience kept Puss in Boots from trying to make a break for it.

Beauty rushed up the stairs, moving faster and faster in her desperation to get back to the safety of her room. Only a few floors more, she thought, and I'm out of danger. Only a few floors more and I'm hidden from the Beast. Before now, she'd never thought that anyone could possibly be worse than Raoul, the giantess who killed her mother, or the Witch who gave her life. Now, however, Beauty knew that she would rather face all three of them together than the Beast. What could they do to her that the creature hadn't already done? Marrying Raoul would have landed her in its own sort of prison; Beauty would probably never have children now that she was stuck in the castle, so what would it matter if the Witch decided to renew the spell on her; the giant had already robbed her of her family by stepping on Joanna, if she were to step on Beauty too, in all honesty, death would be a relief. Not to mention, the Beast was capable of much more- the Beast, if he wanted to, could seriously maim her, leaving her within an inch of her life to suffer permanent damage. It was really for the best that she avoid him, best not to tempt her fate. What convinced her even more of this was the fact that over the month, Catalin had not been able to protect her from the Beast. Not for the first time, Beauty wondered if her traveling companion had lied to her, or overestimated herself. It frightened her and angered her, but she felt helpless in the face of her new life. Beauty's thoughts were interrupted as she heard a loud clicking noise on the stairs. The Beast! Gasping, she pressed herself against the wall, not daring to breathe as the monster passed her by, rushing down the stairs at top speed. She didn't dare to breathe, hoping that he would leave her alone. She had only rarely seen him in the entire time she'd been in the castle, and every time he had appeared to threaten her. Luckily, this time, the Beast passed Beauty by without incident, allowing her to stew in her memories of the past two months as she slowly peeled herself off the wall. Noticing her, but not caring enough to attack the peasant girl, the Beast began to disappear down the staircase.

As she watched the Beast disappear, something within Beauty suddenly snapped. This was unfair. She had done no wrong against this monster; her supposed crime had been to ask her father for a bouquet of roses when he'd offered the entire family gifts of their choosing. Never had she stated that the bouquet of flowers had to be stolen from a Beast's garden; Beauty was not her grandmother, she would never attempt to take what she knew was not hers. All she had wanted was a tiny, simple gift that ordinary girls would want, knowing that her father would never grant her real desire. Really, she'd just wanted to make him happy. And what happened? She had been compelled to sever all ties with her family and give up her freedom to a Beast who terrified her so that she could hardly leave her room; she had been forced to stay in this situation on pain of severe injury and the death of her loved ones. This was not her fault, Beauty decided, and no more would she simply stand aside and take it. Something had to give. She did not know where this sudden rush of bravery had come from, but she did know that she'd had her fill of false imprisonment and was not going to stand for it any longer. Just before the Beast rounded the next bend in the stairwell, Beauty shouted out to him. "It was only a few stupid rose blossoms!"

As fast as lightening, the Beast turned, growling, to face her. "What did you just say, Wench?" His teeth dripped saliva onto the ground, ready for the kill and his horns appeared sharper than ever in the moonlight as he approached his prisoner. Beauty felt a cold shiver rush down her back as she gasped in fear. Then, as quick as it came, her fear vanished as she remembered her case. No. She was not going to stand for this treatment any longer.

"You heard me!"

"Beauty, no!" Catalin whispered, sensing danger, but was shoved aside by the Beast's tail.

"You have many other roses, more roses than I've ever seen in my life! Your grounds are covered with them! How you could be so selfish as to take a prisoner for a few blossoms-"

"He stole them from me!" The Beast roared. "So I should have just let him take them and done nothing, is that what you're saying, Wench? That you condone theft? Perhaps you'd change your tune if I were to steal from you instead!" He reached out a paw as if to slash her across the face, but Catalin was ready for him. With a furious hiss, she lunged at him, dagger drawn, ready to slice him to bits if he threatened the peasant girl. However, the Beast was faster. Whipping around before she could make the first stab, he swooped down to grasp her as the cat pounced for his back. The Beast reared back up, causing Catalin to become entangled in his horns. She began to desperately slash at them with her dagger, trying to drive the Beast away from Beauty, but the monster was not fazed and continued to loom over the human maiden.

"He didn't know they meant this much to you!" Beauty screamed. "Had he known, he would have gladly paid you anything you asked for them!"

"But he did pay, Filth!" The Beast snapped, flinging Catalin off his head and backwards down the stairs. The cat landed on her feet and raced back, but was held back by his tail again. "Have you forgotten? YOU are his payment, you disgusting, ungrateful wench, and you are lucky I let you live after his theft!"

"What reason would you have had to kill me in the first place?" At this point, Beauty's blood was on fire. I've suffered in silence for too long. I am not going to let him by so easily anymore. "As punishment for an honest mistake? Do you honestly feel that the death of an innocent person is minimal enough to compensate for a handful of flowers? This may come to you as a surprise, but daughters are not a form of currency! I'm not a material to be traded, and although I stay for my father, I don't deserve to lose my freedom in this way! This isn't just, and I'm not going to stand for it! Go on, build higher walls, change every lock, I don't care. Someday, however long it takes, you will have what you deserve, you monster! Someday, we will-" Beauty gasped as the Beast lunged onto her, claws unsheathed.

"I would be careful if I were you," the Beast snarled, pushing Beauty up against the wall. "With how I speak to my betters, Peasant Bitch. I have already been generous enough not only to spare your life, but to feed and clothe you and provide you with servants to do your bidding, as well as free run of my castle." Beauty gasped as he flicked out one of his claws and pressed it into her cheek. "It would be a shame to have to ruin that beautiful face of yours," he growled. The smell of a freshly-killed deer hung strong on his breath, making Beauty gag as she felt the blood begin to trickle down the side of her face. Shivering, she shrank back as the Beast smirked in satisfaction. Scratching her roughly on the arm, he flung her to the floor and rushed past her. As he disappeared, Catalin arched her back and uttered her most fearful hiss at him. Unperturbed, the Beast vanished into the distance. Catalin sighed, sheathing her dagger and flattening her fur to its normal smoothness. I can kill a mouse in less than five seconds. I am an accomplished swordswoman. I've mastered any number of weapons, I've faced a fully-grown dragon, and I have defeated the most monstrous and powerful ogre imaginable singlehandedly. What sort of creature is this Beast if I cannot even defend one peasant girl from him? I suppose I haven't been practicing hard enough- I shall have to intensify my training if I wish to provide any real protection to this peasant girl. If I'm never to fight in battle, I must at least be able to do this. With these thoughts in her mind, she hurried over to Beauty, offering her paw to the fallen maiden.

"Are you all right?"

Beauty, breathing heavily, accepted the paw and pulled herself to her feet. "We must get out of here."

Catalin shook her head. "Believe me, Beauty, my desire to escape is equal to yours, but I don't think it would be wise to risk anything tonight."

Beauty stared at the cat as if she were mad. "Puss in Boots, we are being kept captive for no good reason. It isn't fair that because my father made one tiny, inconsequential mistake we should have to stay trapped here for the rest of our days. The Beast has no just cause to imprison us like this, and we have no reason to stay! I have a right to return home and I want to return home. Melinda, Ludwig, and the others have all been very kind and I've wanted for nothing, but Puss in Boots, I miss my family! I want to be home with them. To think I complained of a life without adventure or excitement" Catalin nodded, gazing at her sympathetically. Personally, the cat didn't miss her own family very much; they had never gotten along well and she had been rather glad to leave them over a year ago on her quest for heroism. However, she could imagine how Beauty, who obviously loved her father very much, otherwise they wouldn't be in this predicament, must feel about being permanently separated from hers.

"I understand, I promise you. But you heard what the Beast said when you first arrived here. If you try to escape and he catches you, he will murder your family, and you would probably sustain permanent damage." She patted her dagger. "I have trained as a swordswoman for years, Beauty, yet even I can't guarantee that I would be able to defend you if we were caught. Besides, with those injuries? I wouldn't advise it. The wolves in these woods can smell blood. Through their intuition, they can always tell when a traveler is weakened; believe me, I know. I've had more experience with the woods in the past year than you have in your whole life. If you went into the woods in your state, you'd never return home alive." Catalin gave Beauty a gentle nudge up the stairs. "Come, let's continue. You need to rest, and perhaps find someone who can tend to that scratch." Resigned, Beauty continued her journey up the stairs. She sighed.

"Perhaps you're right. But mark my words, Puss in Boots, I will escape from here someday. I cannot stay here as a false prisoner."

Puss in Boots nodded as more torches sprang to life, lighting their way up the stairs. "I understand. And I promise you, someday I will be able to defeat that Beast as I have every other enemy that's come my way. Perhaps then we shall go free. Until that time, however, I would suggest you continue to keep a low profile."

Hidden somewhere at the bottom of the staircase, the Beast listened as the soft thumps of Beauty's feet and Catalin's paws disappeared into the distance. As the Peasant Girl seemingly vanished from existence once more, as she had for almost the entire time she'd lived in the castle, the Beast wondered if perhaps, he had acted rashly. Again, he seemed to feel Beauty's pain as he wondered if maybe he should not have scratched her. Perhaps he should have heard her out and listened to her side of the story, she might have had a decent point behind her outburst. Had he been in the wrong this whole time, when he was sure that he was only acting within his rights? She was, after all, nothing more than a lowly peasant; surely she merited no concessions. Yet why did the roses mean so much to him? Every time he passed through his gardens and looked upon the blossoms, he remembered the Witch's spell and what it had done to him. For this, he hated the roses that grew on his grounds. Why had he become so protective of them, then, when Beauty's father had stolen a few blossoms? Perhaps it had been simply because they belonged to him. Although it had been his original intent to go out into the woods to make tonight's kill, the alien feeling led the Beast elsewhere. As soon as he was certain that the girl and her cat had gone, he raced up the steps faster than the torches could light his way, higher and higher, past the floor where Beauty slept until finally he reached a wooden door, black from age and ornamented all over with silver, at the very top. Opening this door, the Beast bounded into a high tower room, which was sparsely furnished and its floor blanketed with the bones of all the prey he had captured over the years. The moon, glaring through the room's one large window in its ceiling, glinted off of the chunks of sapphire in the bricks comprising its walls. Unlike most of the castle, there were no empty spaces formerly occupied by pictures or decorations; this room had gone vastly unnoticed when the castle was in its glory days. Walking into the darkest corner of the room, the Beast picked up a beautiful mirror bearing a handle of ivory entwined with golden vines and a platinum frame. A rosebud made of a ruby set between two emeralds gleamed demoniacally at the Beast, as its diamond surface glittered in the pale moonlight. The Beast had rarely used the Witch's mirror in the many years since his parents had abandoned it with him, not wanting to carry it for the reminder of how their shame began. Now, although he hated the mirror as he did the roses, he held it to his face, wincing at his horrific reflection. "SHOW ME BEAUTY," he commanded. Instantly, the mirror illuminated itself to reveal his beautiful captive. Up in her room, Beauty knelt on the floor, leaning against the ivory bed and wincing in pain as a small grey towel pressed a hot, stinging solution onto the bleeding wound on her arm. Melinda, who was dusting off the divan which Catalin had covered in shed fur, seemed to glance sympathetically at Beauty.

"You're very lucky." She whispered, jumping down and shuffling over to the girl. "Your scratches are shallow, so they will not scar. In a few days, the pain will go away and you will look as you did before. Compared to a few other incidents that have occurred here, you've emerged unscathed." She took on a strange, melancholy tone as she said this, and Beauty could not help wondering what the feather duster had been through. Perhaps her fears had been right! Maybe the Beast actually had killed Serafina!

"Has he inflicted worse injuries on others, then?"

"Oh, he's done much worse, Miss Beauty. See this scratch mark on the back of my handle?" With a loud swish the feather duster turned around to reveal a jagged, tarnished line cutting down the gold to where the feathers began. The scar cut viciously into Melinda's handle. Beauty winced.

"He did that to you?"

Melinda nodded her handle grimly, making an eerie shuffling sound against the tiles. "And this happened many years ago, when His Highness was only a young pup. Since then, the destruction he is capable of has increased greatly." Beauty looked down at the grey towel, who had left her arm to jump back into the poultice at her side, making ready to tend to her face. The towel seemed to look up at her with an expression of the utmost sadness as she gestured with her corner to a large tear going halfway up her fabric. Melinda went on. "Vivenne's back has been scratched so that there is hardly any paint left, and I'm sure you've noticed her knobs and hinges are covered in bite marks. Some of the dishes have been all but shattered in His Highness's rages. If you had ever entered some of the other rooms in this castle besides your bedchamber and the kitchen, you would have noticed some of the horrible damage done to the furniture." As Melinda spoke, she wondered why she was telling the girl these things. She had convinced the others in the Beast's employ never to let Beauty know what had occurred here before the Beast's transformation, however curious she might become. It had been agreed that the Baker's daughter could never find out about the curse; most likely she would not believe the story, and if by some chance she did, she might feel pressured to force herself to fall in love with the Beast for their sakes. From what Melinda knew of Beauty, she was a girl of pure heart, and if she was willing to sacrifice her freedom for her father's life, it stood to reason that she might make further sacrifices of that sort for the freedom of her newfound friends. Melinda was not about to let that happen. Beauty had come to the castle of her own free will, and whatever her future held should be of her will too.

Beauty nodded, wincing as the towel pressed into her face, the stinging sensation returning once more. Considering the scratched, dented state of the kitchen table alone she could imagine how decrepit some of the other furnishings-and other servants whom she had yet to meet-must look. Hearing this, Beauty felt a pang of guilt rush through her. It was terrible, what these poor objects had been through, and then for them not only to remain loyal to their captor but to go out of their way to serve him and his prisoners- it was more than should reasonably be expected of them. Although they were not people, Beauty had come to accept that they were still living things, and it made her blood boil to think that they had been abused so. They are so good, Beauty thought, and they do not deserve to be treated this way. The Beast is no more fit for these servants' care than I, a Baker's daughter. They cannot stay here, they deserve better. "How horrible! Can nothing be done?"

Sadly, Melinda shifted herself back and forth, indicating a negative response. "No. I am afraid that's simply our lot in life, Miss Beauty. There's no getting around it. It's the way things are, unfortunately."

"But that's unfair!" Beauty cried, jumping to her feet and nearly causing the towel to fall off of her face. "Nobody deserves to be abused that way, it's simply not right! There must be some way to stop this. Perhaps you could attempt to escape!"

Melinda sighed. "Miss Beauty, when you have been here as long as I have, you will accept the fact that things cannot change. Trying to escape would be pointless. Given our form, we would more than likely find ourselves up for sale at a merchant's stand, separated forever and probably trading one abusive master for another in the end. Besides," she added, stiffening herself, "none of us will ever leave our Sovereign. As long as he may need us, we are bound to remain here and serve him. If we should suffer some damage in the process well then, so be it, I suppose."Sighing, Melinda resumed her usual commanding tone. "That will be enough, Colleen. Now please return to the kitchen, there is much work to be done." Nodding, the towel slid down Beauty's arm and inched her way over the silver tiles of the floor as the girl watched, resolving to find some thread and stitch her back together the next day. Shaking herself, Melinda grasped a linen bandage that had been lying next to the poultice between her feathers. Shuffling onto Beauty's lap, she began to tie the fabric tightly around her arm as the girl winced again. "Worry not about us, Miss Beauty, but about yourself. Continue to stay out of His Highness's path and attempt under all circumstances not to anger him and with luck you will not be harmed again."

The alien feeling bubbled even harder in the Beast's stomach, making him feel strangely nauseous. With a sigh, he turned the mirror over gently, not wanting to see any more. Not knowing quite why, the Beast found himself wondering if perhaps he had gone a bit too far in physically harming the peasant girl. He felt the pain of the scratch on Beauty's arm in his own as he wondered if maybe he could have found an alternative means of expressing his point of view without using his claws. Also, seeing and hearing of the state of his servants had cut through his tough exterior to his heart as he wondered how he had not noticed that he was abusing his own entourage so horribly. Looking back through his memories, he tried to discern when he had first decided that it was his right to treat his servants so. Perhaps it had been the time when he was about three years old and witnessed Serafina slapping Jacqueline for accidentally bringing her the wrong necklace. Or perhaps it had occurred when he had been walking through the palace a few months later and had seen Salazar kicking a manservant who had been scrubbing the floors so that his head fell into his bucket because the man did not scrub fast enough. His parents had always told him that his servants were beneath him, and therefore his word was law. That he and his family, as royals, were to be obeyed and feared, and that any insult or failure to comply with their demands was just cause for punishment, the sort of which was naturally up to their jurisdiction. The peasant girl, of course, would fall into the same category. Yet somewhere deep inside himself, the Beast wondered if perhaps he had been unjust. Perhaps Beauty had had a point in what she told him- he had, after all, taken her from her family for a theft that on reflection had not even been hers. And he had, as she'd said, many roses remaining in the garden. Perhaps it was slightly plausible that he could have expressed his point of view without using his claws. Growling, he quickly shrugged this off. The peasant girl was beneath him, and he had already shown her more than enough mercy already. He had not only spared her life, but he'd provided her with food and clothing and had even given her his mother's bedchamber as her lodgings! The just thing to do would have been to kill her the moment she'd arrived at his door, as he had implied to her father. Yes, Beauty had deserved all of the pain he'd caused her, exactly as his servants deserved every scratch or dent given to them. Snarling and speculating as to why he had suddenly begun to feel these strange twinges of guilt ever since Beauty came into his life, he dashed down the stairs and out into the night, not to return until the sun rose once more.

A few hours later, midnight had arrived at the Beast's castle. Somewhere in the palace's depths, Catalin was practicing her fencing as the suits of armor drank themselves into their nightly stupor. As Beauty lay awake in bed, she could hear the whispers of the talking objects filling the room. Every so often, the door would creak open and an irritating plinking, clunking, scraping or rubbing noise would fill the room, telling Beauty that a new group of objects had entered. Trying to fall asleep, she listened to the dialogue rotating between the castle servants.

"Pahr Mees Bayutya!" A voice that could only be recognized as Ludwig's gasped. "Ees shay ahll raight?"

Melinda's voice sighed. "She will be. Thank goodness it was only a scratch on her arm and face this time."

"I know," Beauty could hear Jacqueline fuming. "His Highness is capable of much worse than that. I've been thrown right into a wall more than once, I'll tell you that much. If she crosses him again, Miss Beauty might not be so lucky. His Highness really must learn to control his temper around a lady such as Miss Beauty."

"It's true." Melinda's voice responded, as a light shuffling arose which sounded as if the duster were nodding her handle in agreement. "It really isn't fair that she had to suffer such treatment at the hands of His Highness. She's done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, poor Miss Beauty is nothing more than a Baker's daughter. Many of us servants were born into a higher station than she was. As horrible as it is to say something like this of such a kind person, given her status quo Miss Beauty should consider herself lucky." Various exclamations of protest arose at this, which Melinda quickly interrupted. "I am not trying to insinuate that this is right, I'm only saying that this is the way his Highness normally behaves, and he is being quite merciful in sparing her life and giving her fine lodgings. Salazar and Serafina would have thrown her in the dungeon for talk such as this, if she had even received treatment a fraction as merciful as this at all!" Serafina! Beauty stiffened herself and attempted to slow her breathing, punctuating this with a light snore every so often. Perhaps, seeing as they think I'm asleep, they might let slip a bit more information.

Unfortunately for Beauty, the only response came from the deep voice of the Royal Steward. "Quite right, Melinda. If it had been Serafina the roses were stolen from, no doubt Miss Beauty and her entire family would have been chained to the dungeon wall watching her father's torture and execution long ago!"

"Still," Vivienne's voice chimed in, "It is wrong that Miss Beauty must suffer through this. She hasn't done a thing to deserve it-"

"Neither have we!" Jacqueline cut in.

"-But Miss Beauty… she is of a much more delicate state than we are. She can feel pain much more intensely than ourselves, and is more easily injured. His Highness must be more careful with her, she came here of her own free will and therefore…"

Beauty never heard the rest of the sentence before sleep claimed her. The whispers of the talking objects faded into nothingness as Beauty once again found herself floating on the misty fog of the previous nights. Once more the Prince revealed himself, shining in his golden suit, through the haze. He smiled at Beauty, his white teeth gleaming in the moonlight. "Marry me, Beauty." He stated, his adoration gleaming in his diamond eyes. "Marry me."

Beauty jumped, startled, and slapped her palm to her forehead in annoyance. "Must you always appear so suddenly? It is very unnerving."

"My apologies, Fair Lady. I assure you, that was the last thing I intended." He bowed deeply. "However, you still have neglected to answer my question. Will you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?"

Beauty glared at the Prince who had appeared to her in her dreams nearly every night since she first became the Beast's prisoner. Why can he not see that I am uninterested in his hand in marriage? She wondered not for the first time as the Prince held out his hand, expecting an answer. He is a Prince, I am a Baker's daughter, I know nothing about him, after all of this time I still don't even know his name! It would never work between us. Besides, she mused, wincing at a sudden pain in her scratched arm, I am in no mood for a proposal at the moment anyway. "I am sorry; Sir, but I cannot accept your proposal. Please forgive my bluntness, but I cannot marry a man I do not know," she snapped. The Prince stepped forward as if to ask her again and Beauty held out her hand to stop him. "Please, not another word. I don't even know your name, let alone your age, your home, your personality, who or what you are-"

"But cannot true fate and destiny transcend such things, Beauty? Is it really necessary that you know such things about me? I love you, Beauty, and that's all either of us need know. I loved you even as I saw you, nothing else matters. Marry me, Beauty!"

"-Besides which, do you have any idea what I've been through these past two months?"Before the Prince could make any response, Beauty cut him off. "For the past two months, I have been held prisoner by a horrible, monstrous beast. I've done nothing to this monster, but because my father accidentally stole some of his roses as a gift for me, I am forced to live on his grounds forever and can never see my family again. The beast is violent and quick-tempered; just tonight I have been assaulted by him!" she added, gesturing to the bandage on her arm. "I am fortunate enough to have a traveling companion who possesses a vast experience with wild beasts and even she is no match for my captor! As for myself, I am defenseless. Can you imagine, for a moment, how that must feel?" Tears began to fill Beauty's eyes as she went on. "Every day I feel so… so trapped. I cannot even leave my bedroom without assurance that he is nowhere near me for fear that he will act on what he originally implied to my father and… take my life. I cannot run from him, because he has warned me that if I so much as attempt it, he will kill my family and… injure me. I'm so helpless,,, so terrified…"

Beauty could not speak any longer, reliving the past two months had felt too horrible. She burst into tears, remembering once more that she was never to see her family again and feeling the pain of her own helplessness. For a moment, the Prince stared at her in what appeared to be sympathy. Could it be that he understood her plight? A moment later, however, he spoke and the words he said provided the shock of Beauty's life.

"He is really not quite so horrible, once you get to know him."

Beauty's tears stopped flowing in her shock. Had she heard right? Had this Prince had the gall to actually DEFEND that monster? After all she had been through and all the fear she faced, the Prince implied that the Beast was not at fault. Was he mad? Had she even heard him right? She could not have, it was simply too ridiculous.


"Perhaps, if you tried to understand him, you would find that he is simply lost. He may only need someone to show him the proper way into the light."

Anger boiled up in Beauty listening to this. Has he not heard a thing I've said, she thought bitterly. "Understand him? Get to know him? I do not want anything to do with him! Have you not been listening?"

"Perhaps, Fair Beauty, it is you who must listen. Witches can be right, Beauty. Giants can be good. You must learn to forgive and to look deeper below his surface, for true beauty is found within."

"How can I forgive him? How could anyone ever forgive what he has done to me?"

"You must try, Beauty, for all of our sakes!"

"Your suggestion makes no sense! Why do you defend him? Why do you continue to come to me? Why do you-"

"Marry me!"

"No, I cannot!" Beauty's head was reeling. What was happening? What sort of spirit was this Prince? "How you can act as if I am to blame –"

"Do not be so quick to judge, Beauty. You may find that things are not what they appear." With that, he vanished into the fog, smiling demoniacally.

"Wait, where are you going? Come back here!" Beauty called, rushing into the fog as her eyes fluttered open. "Aaargh!" She screamed as her bedchamber came flooding back into focus. Infuriated, she slammed her hand into her pillow. Why did that Prince continually disappear in the middle of her dreams? Why did he persist in proposing to her? More importantly, what had he meant when he'd said that the Beast was not so horrible once one got to know him? How had the Prince known this? It did not make sense to Beauty. The Beast had treated not only her, but Puss in Boots and his own servants as well with the utmost cruelty. What more was there to his personality? Surely nothing. Closing her eyes, Beauty tried to force herself back into unconsciousness, but try as she might, she could not keep herself from trying to fathom the ridiculousness of the Prince's words. Against her will, their encounter played itself out in her mind over and over as she tossed and turned until the candles in the chandelier lit themselves to announce the morning.

Author's note: OK, maybe I should stop making update promises I can't keep. My new year's resolution was to finish this fic, but at the rate I'm going… Well it seems like every time I promise an update at some point, something gets in my way, be it writer's block, "editing fever," confusion over how to place out certain parts, or my own busy life. This chapter, which was the hardest I've ever written so far, owes its lateness to all four. And from here on to a certain point, it's just gonna get tougher. I wonder how long it took Sondhiem and Lapine to write the original Into the Woods (I also wonder sometimes how they'd feel about the fact that I made the Baker's kid a girl for this sequel…but Beauty and the Beast made a lot of sense to me as a continuation, and to do that, it HAD to be done. Plus, the way the guys behave in this musical… yeah, we get one more male character in here, I fear for the future of the woods.)? I should just stop making promises. I am NOT on hiatus, though, this fic is still full-force.(Here's how full-force: I have written notes in "Ludwigese." No really, I will actually write the word "beauty" on a notepad as "bayutya.") Just bear with me, OK? I'll make it worth your while with this thing. And when I DO get writer's block, I work on some of the later chapters so that when the time comes, I can put them up really really fast. AAAAND… now for the notes! Firstly- I know I promised a Ludwig-to-English dictionary, but I've been told he's understandable without the dictionary. If you want it back, though, let me know. Secondly, the song is "Pray Reprise" from Once on this Island. Yes! I did finally use a song besides "Forever Yours!" Thirdly, I mentioned that the Baker has distant relatives (some of whom have pretty much ditched him) This will be fully explained in that four-part series I mentioned in another author's note series, provided I actually get around to it. Fourthly, don't think you've seen the last of Raoul- he'll be back, and he'll be back with a vengeance. He's just not important for awhile. Fifthly, I mentioned that Joanna has seven younger siblings twice now. Just in case anybody asks, they were not, I repeat NOT, Snow White's roomies. I'll get to my take on her past in another fic. Oh, and finally, for Brina's hairstyle, think Belle's in the title number of "Beauty and the Beast," except much longer and green.

What happens when Beauty snaps at the Beast once more and this time, Catalin is not around? Find out in the next chapter, along with other vignettes.

Reviews are awesome! Flames will be used to make magic baked beans.