art by Seth Alan Bareiss
by Melissa Mead
You don't understand. I wanted the snakes and toads. Yes, it feels rather crawly and unpleasant, but it was worth it to avoid my younger sister's fate.
The tale-tellers claim that as soon as poor, pretty Bella came home spitting pearls and poppies, Mother hustled me out the door to claim the same reward. That I hadn't the sense to be polite to a stranger, and this is my curse.
Don't worry; they're only venomous when I'm angry, and they'll vanish in a week.
Yes, vanish. Bella's flowers and jewels do, too. That's the point.
I suspected something was up when the prince turned up a week after Bella received her "gift." The baker had just left. He'd been berating us for giving him a cursed ruby for our week's bread, but he forgave us and left once he saw Bella's face.
The poor girl's mouth was bloody from thorns, her teeth chipped from diamonds. All week she'd been trying not to talk, but she couldn't refuse to answer a prince.
Oh, how his eyes lit up when he saw sapphires and lilies drop from my sister's mouth! Proclaiming eternal love, he swung Bella up before him on his white horse. Bella had just enough time to cry out. I picked up the topaz that fell to the grass.
Mother was devastated, sobbing. I was in shock. The shock turned to terror when I realized that in a week all Bella's treasures would vanish. I doubted that the mysterious prince's "eternal love" would outlast that!
I snatched up Mother's best pitcher and raced to the well. A handsome woman in vivid silk robes stood beside it, watching me with fey eyes.
"Will you draw water for an old woman, Child?" she said, with a smirk on her inhuman face.