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Beauty and the Beast_ Lost in a Book

By´╝ÜJennifer Donnelly


ONCE UPON FOREVER, in an ancient, crumbling palace, two sisters, Love and Death, played their eternal game.

Death was mistress of the palace, and any mortal who journeyed to its rusted gates never returned. Her face was as pale as a shroud; her hair as dark as midnight. She wore a black gown and a hunter’s necklace of teeth, talons, and claws. Her emerald eyes narrowed as she contemplated the chessboard before her.

“It’s your move,” said Love.

“I’m quite aware of that,” said Death.

“Ticktock,” said Love.

“Only fools rush Death,” said Death.

Sighing, Love rose from the table where she and Death were seated. Her eyes were the same deep green as her sister’s. Silvery blond hair tumbled down her back. Her dark skin was set off by a gown of white. Her only adornment was a necklace of twining willow branches. Shimmering beetles, bright butterflies, and dusky spiders clung to it, each a living jewel.

A tall mirror stood against a wall in the great hall where the sisters played, its silver frame mottled with tarnish. Love waved her hand over the glass and an image appeared. It showed a dining room—once grand, now ruined. Outside the room’s mullioned windows, snow fell. Inside, a tormented creature—half man, half animal—paced. Back and forth he went, casting longing glances at the door. His eyes were fierce, but in their depths, haunted.

Death glanced up. “How is your beast these days?” she asked archly. “Still smashing furniture? Dinner plates? The windows?”

“I’m hopeful for him,” Love replied, touching the glass. “For the first time.”

“I don’t know why,” said Death. “Once a beast, always a beast.”

“You always look for the worst in everyone,” said Love reproachfully.

“And I always find it,” Death said, her gaze directed at the chessboard again. She frowned, drumming her crimson-tipped fingers on the table. Then, with a sly glance at her sister’s back, she made her move.

“Poor little pawn. Such a pity,” she drawled, nudging her knight across the board.

The china chess pieces were painted to resemble courtiers at a masquerade. The knight’s face was hidden by an iron helmet. The pawn was costumed as a harlequin. Though fashioned of porcelain, they lived and breathed.

The knight advanced. The pawn raised her hands, begging for her life, but the knight, unmoved by her pleas, swung his sword and lopped off her head. China shards flew everywhere. The pretty head rolled across the board, its eyes still blinking.

Love turned around, startled by the sound of shattering porcelain. Her eyes flashed with anger as she viewed the board. “You cheated, Sister!” she exclaimed. “That knight was nowhere near my pawn!”

Death pressed a jeweled hand to her chest. “I certainly did not,” she lied.

Love gave her a withering look. “It’s my own fault,” she said, sitting down again. “I should know better than to take my eyes off you, even for a second. You hate to lose.”

Death leaned back in her chair, twining her fingers in her necklace, trying not to smirk. As she waited for her sister to make a move, her eyes traveled around the room. Antlers hung above the stone mantel. The heads of boars and wolves adorned the walls, firelight dancing in their glass eyes.

A sudden movement in the mirror caught Death’s attention. The glass now showed a magnificent library, and in it—a young woman. She was wearing the plain blue dress of a village girl. Her thick dark tresses were tied up with a ribbon, and her warm brown eyes sparkled with humor and intelligence.

Death’s gaze sharpened at the appearance of the girl, like a lion’s at the sight of a gazelle. “Belle,” she whispered. “So beautiful, just like your name.”

Love glanced at the mirror. “You know the girl?” she asked.

“I’ve known her for quite some time. She was a babe in her mother’s arms when we met.”

As Death watched, Belle pulled a book off a shelf, then held it up, smiling. The Beast squinted at it, trying to read the title. Belle opened the book and read the first page. Her head bent, she didn’t see the sadness in the Beast’s eyes turn to happiness.

Love, her fingers poised over the chessboard now, said, “That girl will be the one, mark my words. She’s brave, stubborn—even more stubborn than the Beast is—and she has a heart of gold.”

“Mmm, but it’s not the girl’s heart that’s in question, is it?” Death mused.

Love, her brow furrowed in concentration, barely heard her sister. Nor did she notice as a horned beetle flew off her necklace and landed atop the mirror.