Dani crossed over the golden bridge and approached the princess. Her face was calm now, and Dani felt at ease. She had been frightened of the princess’ frowning visage, but now that her expression was calm, Dani could see that she was beautiful like a precious Victorian doll. She looked as she had when Dani had first encountered her.
The princess smiled, delighted to see that her precious pearl necklace had come back to her. She was even more beautiful when she smiled. “Hand them to me,” she ordered. Dani felt so calm looking at the pretty face that she complied without hesitation. The princess put the necklace on and looked at her reflection in the brook. “They look so much better on me than you,” she said.
Dani didn’t say anything. For a moment, the princess looked at her as if observing an interesting insect under a microscope. “You think you are a real beauty, don’t you?” asked the princess.
“I suppose you can say that.”
“But look at you! You’re so plain, almost raggedy. I’ve seen farm girls more beautiful than you!”
Dani didn’t say anything.
“Your box is filled to the brim with jewels of all kinds, sizes, and shapes,” said the princess. “You think that donning them makes you a beauty. You use them to distract others from how plain you are.” The princess approached Dani and looked straight into her eyes, and though she was small and delicate, she managed to look quite imposing. “If you had done what was right, and willingly returned the pearls upon learning that they belonged to me,” she said sharply, “then you could have gone on being plain. You might have even become beautiful along the way. But now, you are ugly. You’ve shown that you are a vain, selfish, dishonest woman whose own petty desires come before all else. You are willing to steal a precious heirloom from a princess in order to further your desire to pass as beautiful. But your ways have shown that you are ugly, even hideous.”
“You said yourself that I’m plain,” Dani snapped, “so what difference does it make that I’m selfish and ugly and whatever else? If I can’t be beautiful, I might as well be ugly!” Mouthing off was the only way she could suppress the guilt and shame of having her wrongdoing, her insecurities, and her most unattractive flaws thrown in her face all at once.
“I pity you,” said the princess, “because you don’t know what beauty really is. If you were to take away my gowns, my crowns, my diamonds and my pearls, my gold, silver, and jewels, and all of my silks and brocades, I would still be beautiful. I could have nothing and still be beautiful, while you are plain and ugly even with the finest pearls, because you don’t understand that real beauty comes from your character. For that, I pity you.”
“I didn’t come here to listen to an after-school special!” Dani snapped. “You have your lousy pearls and you’ve told me how ugly I am, so I’ll be taking my leave. Now tell me how to get home.”
“I can see that you’ve learned nothing,” said the princess, shaking her head in exasperation, “and that you are hard-hearted to the point of stupidity. But still, I am willing to help you, even though I shouldn’t waste any time on the likes of you.”
“I don’t need any ‘help’ from you!” said Dani. “And I’m going to be pissed if I miss work tomorrow because of you!”
But instead of chiding Dani any further or commenting on her rudeness, the princess smiled and took both of her hands. Dani’s first instinct was to pull back, but something in the gentle gesture and the doll-like face would not allow her to. She felt calm all over, too calm to run away or strike out or even mouth off again. The princess looked at her with the kind of gentle expression that an older sister might use for her younger sibling. “Tell me your name,” she said. Since there was no anger or malice in her voice, Dani answered: “Dannica Halliwell.”
“Dannica Halliwell, I can see your beauty clearly when you aren’t being as disagreeable as you were,” said the princess. “You have pretty eyes, hair like spun gold, and your lips form a nearly perfect rosebud shape.”
“I thought you said I was plain.”
“You are rather plain,” said the princess, “but I can see your beautiful qualities when you choose to be calm and pleasant as you are now. I see your potential, and you may be plain, but you are no longer ugly.”
“Well, it’s hard to be pleasant when you’re so plain, or ugly,” said Dani.
“Even if it makes you more beautiful and you know it?” asked the princess.
“I wouldn’t know it,” said Dani, “because nobody would see it that way.”
“I see it that way!” said the princess.
“I mean, nobody where I’m from would see it that way,” replied Dani.
“That’s a pity,” said the princess with a sigh. “Anybody could turn ugly in a world where the most beautiful qualities are not valued. I can see why you feel as though you need jewels and adornments to be beautiful, but it is still no excuse for trying to steal my pearls. But even with your thievery, I know you are not really the scoundrel you’ve made yourself out to be. And in addition to helping you realize how wrong you were, I’d like to help you realize what beauty really is. Let me take you under my wing.”
Dani was taken aback. “What in the world do you mean?”
“I mean,” said the princess, “that I will let you stay with me and be my companion. You will have my old dresses and robes, but you will have no other luxuries. But I will be so kind to you and make you feel so beautiful and worthy that you will find luxuries to be quite unnecessary.”
“You’re going to take me away from my home?” cried Dani.
“I am making an offer,” said the princess. “If you want to take it, you may. If not, I’ll send you back home to your sad and ugly world. But if you do decide to stay with me, you will find that you have no more need for pearls.” With that, she let go of Dani’s hands and walked towards the castle.
Dani looked around at the magnificent castle, the pristine brook, the splendid courtyard and the colorful garden beside it. She watched the princess’ golden ringlets bounce at her shoulders, her long velvet gown—a world away from Dani’s little pink velour dress—trailing behind her as she walked. Her kind and gentle smile was still fresh in Dani’s mind. When she wasn’t angry, the princess was so lovely and sweet, and she was ready to forgive Dani. What would an old ragtag assortment of jewelry matter if Dani could live as the companion of a fairy princess? What would her apathetic bar friends and her co-workers at the stuffy old office think if they could see her by the side of a princess straight out of a fairy tale? Then again, Dani was quite all right with not seeing them for a long, long time.
So Dani followed after the princess, and it didn’t take too long for her to discover that she never had a need for pearls, rubies, sapphires, or anything else of the sort. But everyone who saw her by the princess’ side would marvel at just how beautiful she was, even lovelier than the princess’ spectacular pearl necklace.