The Nutcracker's Sweet

Everyone said once they'd spent a few minutes getting to know her that Clara was the sweetest child they'd ever met. "But, my! What a plain little piece of goods she is to behold!" the grown-ups would say when they discussed her. "Plain" was the nicest of the terms their children used for her and it only grew worse from there.

Everyone said the moment they laid eyes on the infant Perlipat that she was the most beautiful child they'd ever seen. And if she cried a great deal, what of it? As a princess and the sole heir to her kingdom's throne, she had many nurses and rockers to attend her night and day so her parents wouldn't be disturbed by her noise. The chief nurse, a venerable old lady with a wart on her chin, upset the baby Princess the most. Perlipat screamed whenever she was in the room. The old nurse was a good fairy, however, so everyone else had to put up with the dreadful sounds the Princess made in exchange for the excellent care the Nurse gave the baby. Eventually, to give the castle some peace, she began directing the infant's care from behind the scenes. So it is not surprising that when the Rat-Queen came to lay her curse, the good nurse was not there to prevent it.

Clara knew her little brother Fritz loved her, but in the presence of the neighborhood children he was not to be counted on as an ally. He valued their opinion too much. So Clara learned to fend for herself when the others started in on her. She would fly out with her small fists and feet, using any tactic to get away from her tormentors and gain the safety of her room. As a young child, she was often punished for "violence unbecoming of a young lady". And she learned the unspoken rules of combat for a solitary person against a group: strike the leader and the others will collapse, unable to think for themselves and allow an escape. Never give up hope, even when all seems lost. Something will happen that allows a victory.

Even though she endured torment almost daily from the other children of the neighborhood, Clara did not give up hope that one of them would finally want her for a true friend.

Then one day they tried a new tack. Clara was ten, and her brother, Fritz, was eight. The game started out innocently, as it almost always did. The children nearly always came to the huge Stahlbaum house because they had the best toys, due to Fritz and Clara's inventor Godpapa Drosselmeyer, and thus they were unavoidable to Clara. One of their favorite games when the wonderful toys grew too dull was to imagine what they'd do when they were "grown up". These always figured heavily in fighting huge dragons and going on quests, such as in the exciting stories their parents told them at bedtime. But that day, everything changed.

The boys were suddenly seeing themselves as bankers, doctors, and advocates, just as their wealthy fathers were. The girls were successful hostesses and housewives with a beautiful house full of children. Clara was puzzled. She still dreamed of going on adventures and finding her true love in a knight in shining armor. Where had these other, much more ordinary futures, come from?

"Clara, you are too ugly. No handsome knight would want you for his bride." It began again, and Clara prepared to make one of her quick exits.

But now a new idea. "She's so ugly, no one will want her for a bride." Giggles. Clara stood dumbfounded. Was it possible? Was she truly so ugly that no one would ever want to befriend her, let alone marry her? Tears gathered in her eyes as the implications of this sank in. Her knight in shining armor, if he ever appeared, would find her so hideous that he would take one look at her and turn his back, just as her parents' friend did. She would never marry. Covering her face, she fled from the room.

When Princess Perlipat was just a year old, the invasion of the castle began. The first few rats were innocent enough, crawling around on the stores of food in the cellar. A few cats were bought to take care of them. But soon, even twenty cats could not have finished off the rats pouring into the castle. They seemed to spring from the very walls, and the rumors began among the servants that the Queen of All the Rats had made her nest in the palace and nothing short of a miracle would make her leave now that she had chosen her abode. Things reached such a state that it became normal for the courtiers to feel rats scurry over their feet at dinner and even to see a bold one steal from their china plates.

The King and Queen were determined to be rid of the horrible pests that were threatening their peaceful lives, so they sent a proclamation out through all the land, and many of the lands beyond. If anyone could rid the castle of its plague of rats, he would be rewarded with ten sacks of gold and Perlipat's hand in marriage when she came of age. Many arrived with dozens of improbable remedies, but none were successful, and the inventors were sent home in disgrace.

At last, a strange old toymaker giving the name of Drosselmeyer appeared in the throne room with his young assistant, a dark-haired boy of perhaps four years old. He carried something in a small box under his arm. Perlipat, upon seeing the old man bow over her little cradle beside her parents' thrones, gave a lusty wail of terror. He was certainly the ugliest man many in the castle had ever seen: he was wizened and bent, with wild grey hair and a patch over one eye. The Queen motioned for the screaming Princess to be carried away as the old man and his boy bowed before the pair of thrones.

"Your Majesties," Drosselmeyer said in a strange accent, "I believe I have found the solution to the… problem…you've been experiencing."

A few years passed, and Clara turned twelve. She now rarely spoke whenever someone came to visit, fearing to draw attention to herself and bring down the final words she so feared to hear: "That one will never marry." She felt, somehow, that that would seal her fate for all time. The children of the neighborhood still came to play with Fritz, and had taken to calling her "Spinster" whenever they spoke to her. Clara was proud, and would put her nose in the air and flounce away like the young lady of twelve that she was, but inside she quailed every time the name was used. Only Fritz hung back, his expression guilty and torn.

Christmas was coming, and to celebrate the Stahlbaums were planning a huge Christmas Eve party with all of their wealthy friends, relations, and neighbors. Clara and Fritz were so excited they could hardly wait for Christmas Eve, because their Godpapa Drosselmeyer would be there.

Drosselmeyer was the local inventor and toymaker, and his specialties were wind-up toys so real that sometimes you seemed to catch them moving on their own out of the corner of your eye. The youngest children were always afraid of him, for he looked so odd and menacing with his one eye, crooked back, hooked nose and black cloak. But Clara knew that he was the gentlest of souls and would never harm anyone, let alone a child. Indeed, he seemed to have a special partiality for Clara, slipping her a sweet when the grown-ups weren't looking with a mysterious wink out of his lone eye. His gifts to her were always the most spectacular out of all the children's presents, and Clara loved him for his kindness to her. She enjoyed being the favorite child for once, and had sometimes dreamt that if she couldn't go off adventuring, Drosselmeyer might take her for his apprentice. But that dream had died long ago. Only boys became apprentices. Girls learned how to cook and clean and keep house against the day that they might someday be wed to a wealthy man. Clara dutifully helped her mother make ready for the party, wishing she were still young enough to help her father and Fritz chop down the Christmas tree for the parlor.

At last, the great day arrived. Clara and Fritz could barely keep still as they dressed in their best, listening for the chime of the doorbell that meant their guests had arrived. Clara knew that all the other children would behave in the presence of the grown-ups. After all, it was Christmas Eve, and Santa Claus did not bring presents to little children who were naughty on Christmas Eve.

The bell rang. Clara and Fritz pounded down the grand staircase as shouts of "Merry Christmas!" began to sound through the halls. The children gathered around the tree to admire the decorations and speculate on the contents of the presents beneath. Clara began to enjoy herself, laughing and chattering with the others. Even the adults noticed the change in her.

"Your little Clara is a pretty one after all, when she smiles like that," one matron remarked to Clara's mother out of Clara's hearing, "With a sparkle such as that in her eye, you might find a suitable husband for her after all." Clara's mother smiled.

Suddenly a silence descended, moving through the groups of chattering adults like an icy chill from the doorway. Everyone turned to find the cause, and there stood Drosselmeyer, shaking snow from his black cloak as he did every year. The adults immediately turned back to their conversations, pretending not to have been caught staring. A few of the children hung back behind their mothers' skirts, but most of them surged forward with cries of gladness to surround the old man, asking him what had taken him so long to arrive with their presents. Drosselmeyer grinned his mysterious grin and beckoned to the hired helpers behind him, who lugged two huge, human-sized boxes. These were placed in front of the tree, and all the children gathered round to watch. Even the adults were intrigued, though they each made poor attempts to mask it.

Drosselmeyer waved for silence. Dramatically, he threw open the boxes to reveal two beautifully costumed dancers. Everyone seemed to draw a collective breath of astonishment when the old man turned the dancers around to reveal the metal wind-up mechanisms sticking out of their backs. They looked so real! With a flourish, Drosselmeyer wound his creations and brought them to life. The two performed a beautiful, if a bit stiff, dance together that had both grown-ups and children alike spellbound by their magic. Everyone, guests and hosts, joined in the applause when the dance was over. Then they all returned to what they had been doing before Drosselmeyer's dramatic entrance.

Except Clara. She wove carefully through the crowd until she located her beloved godfather and kissed his cheek gently. "Godpapa, that was wonderful! Those dancers were so real they look as if they can speak!" she exclaimed.

"So you enjoyed my masterpieces, my beautiful Clara," the gruff old man said fondly, ruffling her curls affectionately as he always did.

"Oh, Godpapa, you know I'm not beautiful," Clara murmured, embarrassed.

"Come, child. Don't contradict your Godpapa. I may be old, but I don't believe this ancient winker," he indicated his good eye, "is as short-sighted as that. You are growing into a lovely young lady indeed."

Clara flushed and looked down, wishing what he said was true. She knew, truly enough however, that her godfather didn't believe in compliments and flattery unless they were earned.

"I can see you don't believe me. Listen well, child," Drosselmeyer bent down to whisper into Clara's ear. "I have seen my share of beauties come and go. You will rival them all someday, just you wait. And when your outward looks have faded, you will still carry that beautiful heart of yours forever. Remember that, my dear."

"I will, Godpapa," Clara whispered. She smoothed her skirts with trembling hands.

Drosselmeyer smiled at her, and her alone. "Enough. I've said my piece. And now, I have a special gift for you. You must promise to guard him well, for this gift is much more than he seems. Say hello to the Nutcracker Prince." And from behind his back he brought a wrapped gift.

"What is this miraculous solution?" the Queen asked skeptically.

"It's just a theory, Your Majesty," Drosselmeyer said in his strange accent. "All I require is an empty storeroom in which to place my…invention, overnight. If my theory holds true, then you will be rid of your problem forever."

"We've tried everything else, my dear," the King said to the Queen. "What do we have to lose but to place our trust in this good toymaker?"

"Nothing at all," the Queen replied, though she privately wondered what theory it was that the old man wished to test.
"Thank you, Your Majesties," Drosselmeyer said, bowing gracefully despite his crooked back. "Then will it please you to have someone direct my nephew here," he indicated the boy beside him, "to the storeroom so that he can be relieved of his burden?"

The King waved to one of the servants standing around the edge of the room. The man bowed and gestured to the old man and young boy. When they were out of the room, the Queen turned to look at the King, raising her brows. The King merely shrugged in reply.

Late that night, the entire palace was awakened by a loud cracking noise coming from an empty storeroom in the bowels of the castle, which was followed almost instantly by a loud wailing cry. The King and Queen both sprang from their beds. As they left their royal suite they met Drosselmeyer, carrying something with both hands.

"It is done, Your Majesties," he breathed excitedly, "Behold!" He held out the wooden device that he carried.

The Queen gave a shriek very much like one of Princess Perlipat's and leaped backwards. What confronted them was a complex device like a giant rat trap, but where the cheese should have been placed it was smothered with honey. Caught in the trap was an enormous rat's foreleg, covered in rapidly drying blood. In size, the leg rivaled that of a dog's.

"What is the meaning of this, toymaker?" demanded the King as he supported his wife, who was near to fainting.

"This is the arm of the Queen of All the Rats herself, Your Majesty," Drosselmeyer explained excitedly. "She was living in your castle. Acting on that assumption and the widely-known belief that all royalty is attracted to honey, I created a trap large enough to kill the vile Queen herself. She is, at this moment, mortally wounded. When she dies, all the rats will leave your palace and your problem will be solved at last."

"Praise be!" exclaimed the King. "Now take that vile thing away and bury it!"

Clara carefully unwrapped the shining red tinfoil. Inside a doll box was a carved man made of wood, dressed in a red soldier's uniform complete with gold braid. But where a soldier in such an outfit should have a smooth, handsome smile, this little man had wild, bugged eyes; a hooked nose like Drosselmeyer's; and a huge, gaping mouth of square ivory teeth.

Clara was enthralled. "He's wonderful," she murmured, stroking the painted red spots on his wooden cheeks.

"Watch." Her godfather slid a chestnut out of his pocket and placed it between the Nutcracker's teeth. Then he pulled down on a little lever on the man's tailcoat, and the nut cracked neatly in half. He popped the nut into his own mouth with a wink at Clara, and walked away. Clara barely noticed, so absorbed was she in examining her new gift and stroking his fine wooden face. She wandered over to a couch and sat down, the Nutcracker Prince in her arms.

The other children made their way over, curious. "Clara, who gave you that ugly thing?" asked one.

"Godpapa Drosselmeyer gave him to me," Clara said, tightening her hold on her Nutcracker. She thought he was beautiful. Why did the others look at him in such disgust?

"Why did he give you your own present? It's not fair!" another whined. He made as though to take the Nutcracker, but Clara pulled her precious gift out of reach.

"Does it do anything, Clara?" asked Fritz, trying to pacify the others' jealousy.

"Yes," Clara whispered, glad of the distraction. "Go get a chestnut from the buffet table, and I'll show you." One of the younger girls ran off, returning with several chestnuts. Clara put one in the Nutcracker's mouth, as Drosselmeyer had done, and pulled on the lever to crack the nut. An appreciative murmur ran through the crowd of children.

"Let me try, Clara," offered Fritz. Seeing the hesitation in her eyes, he added, "I'll be careful with him."

Clara had been planning to refuse, but her brother had called the Nutcracker Prince a 'him', just as Drosselmeyer had. Reluctantly, she handed Fritz her treasure and the remaining nuts. The first cracked just fine, but a dispute arose over who should eat it. In the ensuing struggle, Clara saw the Nutcracker slip from Frtiz's grasp and fall to the floor. At the sharp crack of wood on wood, a sudden silence descended among the children. Then, abruptly, they all scattered, as if trying to escape blame for the accident. Clara saw Fritz's apologetic face a second before he, too vanished among the grown-ups.

Brokenhearted, Clara knelt on the floor and gathered up the Nutcracker Prince, holding him as if he were a feather. His mouth, on its hinge, was askew. He would never crack nuts again unless he could somehow be repaired. Helpless tears leaked out of her eyes and she stroked his face again and again, wishing she had never handed him over to Fritz. She knew her brother had meant well, but that didn't stop her from being angry at him for being so careless.

"My poor, beautiful Nutcracker," she murmured to the wooden figure. Looking at him with his mouth all bent out of shape, she supposed he was ugly to anyone else, but to her he was still wonderful. A few tears dripped from her cheeks onto the Nutcracker Prince's face. Instead of sliding down his polished wood as they should have, they soaked in and vanished. Clara furrowed her brow, but suddenly her godfather was standing over her. His twisted face was full of understanding. From the pocket where the first nut had appeared he drew a length of black silk ribbon, which he gently tied around the Nutcracker's head to hold his broken jaw in place. Then he handed the little wooden man back to Clara and quietly disappeared back into the crowd.

By the next morning, every single rat in the castle was gone. Everyone joined in the rejoicing, especially the King and Queen. They declared that a feast would be held that night in the royal banquet hall, and all who lived in the castle, high or low, would be invited to attend. Drosselmeyer would be presented with his ten bags of gold once the feasting was over and the betrothal ceremony would take place the following morning. The Queen was most displeased about this, but there was nothing either she or the king could do. They had promised Perlipat's hand in marriage to whoever could rid the castle of the rats, and thus it fell that when she was of age she would marry Drosselmeyer. The Queen privately had high hopes that the old toymaker would die before Perlipat was old enough to wed.

The feast that night was late and loud. Everyone was positively bursting with delight that the rat plague was gone at last. At the high point of the evening, the King and Queen presented Drosselmeyer with his gold.

"I have one last request, Your Majesties," Drosselmeyer said after accepting the gold with a smile.

"Anything," the King promised jovially. The Queen winced but held her tongue.

"I know that your beautiful wife is hoping that I will pass on before the time comes for me to wed the Princess," Drosselmeyer began. All eyes flicked to the Queen, who flushed slightly but kept her head high. The old toymaker smiled at her. "Fear not, Your Majesty. I would not dream of taking your precious daughter from you. My request is that Perlipat be betrothed to my young nephew in my stead."

"Granted," cried the King as the Queen smiled with evident relief, "They will wed when Perlipat comes of age at sixteen."

"I wouldn't count on that, Your Majesty," came a rasping voice from the doorway. There was a collective gasp as all the court turned and saw what was standing before them.

A huge rat stood there on its hind paws, a rat the size of a large dog with sharp yellow incisors larger than a man's finger and a small gold crown on her head. This was horrible enough, but what made her all the more terrible to behold was the single foreleg she held in front of her. The other was a stump that slowly oozed blood.

Clara's evening was ruined. She barely spoke for the remainder of the party, and only when someone asked her a direct question. Fritz returned and asked to hold the Nutcracker while she got some dinner from the buffet, by way of apologizing for what had happened earlier, but Clara refused. Fritz slipped away, returning later with a small plate of the foods he knew Clara liked best. She tried to smile at him, and nibbled on the treats to make him feel better, but her mind was still on the Nutcracker in her lap. At last, Fritz left again to play with the other children. No one else in the great throng of adults noticed her silent grief except Drosselmeyer, who came twice to sit with her. He didn't speak or ask her to explain. He just held her as gently as she held the Nutcracker. The second time after he pulled away Clara found a piece of wrapped chocolate on her lap. Traced onto the silver paper was a single word. Hope.

The evening wound down, and all too soon the last guest was walking out the door with a final cry of "Merry Christmas!" By then, Clara was nearly asleep on her couch, curled around the Nutcracker. Their mother hustled Fritz off to bed, reminding him that it was Christmas Eve, then returned downstairs to wrap a warm blanket around her daughter and to prop a pillow behind her head. Clara barely remembered her mother vanishing up the stairs and the last light going dim. All the light that remained in the room was faint moonlight coming in through the big back windows. The last thing Clara saw before slipping into welcome sleep was a single star winking at her in the dark night sky.

"So, Your Majesties, you thought to destroy me using this simpleminded fool's trap," the Queen of All the Rats snarled, striding forward on her hind legs. The King and Queen were completely dumbfounded, as was Drosselmeyer standing by them. The Rat-Queen continued to stride forward, her tiny red eyes glowing red with madness. "The loss of my leg shall cost you dearly, Majesties" she hissed, "A curse is upon your daughter, Princess Perlipat."

"No!" cried the Queen, finding her voice at last.

The Queen's distress only made the mad Rat-Queen more satisfied. "Oh, yes, Your Majesty, it is too late to halt what I have set in motion. No one will want to marry your precious princess now. I have seen to it!" Then, moving with surprising speed despite her size and handicap, she shot for the door and vanished into the hallway. At that moment, there was a terrified shriek from the little Princess's nursery in the opposite direction. Drosselmeyer started for the nursery at a run, as did the Queen and the old chief Nurse. The King sent his soldiers after the Rat-Queen, but the huge animal was nowhere to be found.

By the next morning, the damage was apparent. The under-nurse attending the Princess had been appointed to stay beside her all night should the little girl awaken, but the woman had fallen asleep at her post. Just as she had awoken, she saw a huge rat halfway into Perlipat's cradle. After she had chased it away, she went back to comfort the wailing Princess. Her shriek at what she had seen in the child's cradle was what had ended the stupor at the banquet.

The Princess's beautiful baby face was completely transformed. Her eyes bulged outward like a toad's, her nose was hideously arched, and her wide, lipless mouth framed a set of enormous, square teeth that were incredibly strong.

"Can you reverse the damage that has been done?" the Queen begged the Princess's fairy-nurse.

The old woman shook her head. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty. Had I been there, I might have been able to prevent it. But there's nothing I can do now."

"Then why weren't you there on watch, instead of that lazy fool who was there last night?" wailed the Queen, sinking down into a chair with her head in her hands. A shudder ran through her just to look at her child, who had once been so perfect to behold.

"The babe took a dislike to me," the nurse murmured sorrowfully, "She screamed so when she saw me that that I went into her room as infrequently as possible so as the spare the castle the noise. I'm sorry, Your Majesty."

"Get out," the Queen whispered in despair. The old nurse bowed and went to pack her things.

Clara sat up suddenly. It was hours later and bright white moonlight was streaming across the floor, lighting either side of the Christmas tree. The big grandfather clock with the owl on top that stood at the foot of the stairs read five minutes before midnight. Clara looked around. What had wakened her? The house was absolutely still, but Clara thought her eyes detected slight movements from the darkest places of the room. She began to tremble, and clutched the broken Nutcracker to her chest, though whether to protect him or to ask for his protection she couldn't have said. Her eyes darted back and forth across the floor. Again that flicker of movement, just at the corner of her eye.

Placing the Nutcracker gently on the couch, Clara stood up and began slowly walking around the room, scanning the dark corners. There. That flicker again, much more pronounced. Something was definitely hiding in the shadows. Wiping her sweating palms on her skirt, Clara began backing towards the couch again, meaning to grab her Nutcracker and dash upstairs.

Suddenly the grandfather clock began to chime midnight behind her. Bong… bong…bong… Clara jumped, startled, and spun around. Her eyes were suddenly caught by the gilded owl that adorned the top over the clock's face. Whoever had designed the clock had chosen to make the huge carved bird winking its left eye. She had always liked that owl because it reminded her of her godfather: permanently winking one eye. But this time the resemblance was more than just the single eye.

"Godpapa?" Clara gasped; staring at the figure perched atop the clock. "What are you doing up there?"

The old man looked at her from his lofty position. "I'm sorry, Clara," he whispered, leaning down slightly so that she could hear him, "but you're on your own tonight. Don't worry, you'll have help, but you must find your own way from here on. I tried to think of everything for you."

"What are you talking about?" asked Clara, wondering what made her kindly godfather suddenly look so desperate.

"You're our last hope, Clara," Drosselmeyer whispered sadly, and abruptly there was only the winking owl looking down at her from the top of the grandfather clock. Clara stared at it for a long minute, now beginning to be truly frightened. Had the apparition been real, or all part of a very lifelike dream? And if it had been real, what had her Godpapa meant by the mysterious things he'd said?

Clara had taken one step towards the couch before she noticed that the room around her looked very different than the one she was accustomed to seeing. The tree seemed very much bigger than the one her father and Fritz had brought in the day before. In fact, everything seemed much larger than normal. In fact…

Clara realized with a start that she was shrinking. To her, it felt as if the world was growing larger around her. The polished wood floor came up very fast, and suddenly she found that she was no bigger than the Nutcracker still lying stiff and silent on the couch that now stood higher than her head.

A scurrying noise came from behind her. Clara froze, too terrified to turn around. But abruptly she found she didn't need to: all around her was a mass of grey-brown bodies. Hundreds of rats, hundreds of bright, greedy eyes were fixed on her. Clara shook from head to toe. Under normal circumstances the rats wouldn't even come up to her ankle, but now, standing on their hind legs, the horrid things were taller than she.

Suddenly the grayish ranks parted, and Clara put a hand to her mouth to keep from shrieking aloud at the monstrosity that confronted her. This rat was even larger than his colleagues, more than a head taller than Clara when standing on his hind paws. But what made him all the more horrible was that he had seven heads, each one with long, yellow incisors and mad red eyes. On top of each head was a small gold crown.

"Good evening, human child." A hissing voice issued from the central mouth, and Clara pressed her hand even harder to her mouth. The rat leered at her and continued, "I have waited years for this. I can kill you now the way he killed my mother: in cold blood, with cold steel." Abruptly he drew a long, wicked-looking dagger from his sword belt at his side and lunged at Clara. She shut her eyes and waited for the impact.

There was a clash of metal, and Clara opened her eyes to gleaming blades crossed inches from her nose.

"You tell us that you have no solutions! You had solutions before!" wailed the Queen. She and the King were meeting with Drosselmeyer in their private audience chamber. "You had plans! You had theories! You, you got us into this mess. Please, bring our daughter back!" A few tears ran down the Queen's cheeks.

"Your Majesty," Drosselmeyer said in a placating tone, "Your daughter is alive, right in the next room."

"You know what I meant! Bring her back the way she was!"

"Your Majesty, I am no magician, just a humble toymaker," Drosselmeyer pleaded, "Why do you ask of me what your fairy nurse could not do?"

"Many others came to our castle, professing to have magic solutions to getting of the rats," the King told him, regarding the bent old man soberly. "You, however, solved our problem without magical aids. We want you to fix this one."

Drosselmeyer winced. "You must understand, Your Majesties. There was no magic involved, just simple logic. There is clearly magic at work here. Against a magician, I am as powerless as the next man." He swallowed hard. "I would like to be able to help your daughter regain her normal form, but there is nothing I can think of to do." The Queen collapsed with a wail.

And so the years passed. Perlipat grew up. She was kept away from anything reflective. The gilt was removed from all surfaces, and as she grew taller every mirror in the castle was moved so that she would not see her own hideous face. But that did not prevent others from seeing her. The King and Queen issued orders that no one was to wince, or show any hint that they found the Princess anything other than ordinary in appearance. The courtiers and servants grew used to seeing the ugly Princess come around corners and to steeling their expressions into pleasant smiles. The King and Queen also quietly issued a new decree: anyone who could cure the Princess of her disfigurement would be the one to marry her.

Nevertheless, Drosselmeyer and his nephew stayed on at the castle, in the hopes that the elderly man would come up with a logical solution to the Princess's problem. As the years passed, Drosselmeyer's nephew grew into a young man, pleasant and kind as well as strikingly handsome. When he was old enough, he trained with the King's guards and excelled to such an extent that he was promoted to the rank of Captain. Perhaps because of simple proximity, or perhaps because she thought he was the only one worthy of her due to his handsome face, Princess Perlipat fell in love with him. The young man, whose name was Edward, couldn't stand her.

"It's not her looks," he admitted to Drosselmeyer, "though admittedly she could be prettier. It's the way she can't stand to be around anything less than perfect. She's turned innumerable servants out of her rooms because of "general filthiness". She's never bothered to get to know any of them; they're just faces to be ordered around. Any one of them would die for her, she doesn't care." He made a face.

Drosselmeyer, knowing Perlipat's feelings for Edward and knowing that the two should have been betrothed from the start if all had gone right, said "Perhaps she's got a good heart underneath, though…"

"She's been this way as long as I've known her," Edward interjected sharply. He stood up and left the room.

Drosselmeyer looked after him and sighed. "You know, I believe he's right," he said aloud to the air.

And so it went, until Perlipat was nearly fourteen. Edward was seventeen, and more handsome than ever. He came rushing into Drosselmeyer's rooms one day, greatly excited.

"I have the solution! The solution that's eluded us all these years!"

"Solution to the Princess's problem? My dear boy, I've thought of every possibility I can. If you have something that I do not, I'd like to hear it."

"I'll kill the Queen of All the Rats, once and for all. Then the curse on the Princess should end!"

"But you don't know where to find her," pointed out Drosselmeyer, wondering why this unerringly simple idea hadn't occurred to him before. Edward had already run out of the room.

Clara blinked at the two blades in front of her. A longer, thinner one had appeared between her and the giant Rat-King's enormous dagger, halting it just before it slashed her face. She followed the thin blade to the arm that held it, and then up to the face. She started in surprise. Standing protectively before her was the figure of her dear Nutcracker, now taller than she. His red uniform glinted in the moonlight, but instead of red paint, it was made of real velvet cloth, decorated with gold braid. His face was still an ugly mask stretched into a permanent toothy grin, but he was now made of flesh just as she was. It made him all the more glaringly hideous, but not to Clara. She knew that he'd just saved her from certain death, and she knew in her heart that she didn't feel any fear of him. She tried to smile instead, to show that she trusted him. The Nutcracker stretched his lipless mouth even wider in a mockery of a return smile, and Clara shuddered in spite of herself. Then the Nutcracker was pushing her behind him as the Rat King paused. "You!" he exclaimed. Then all seven of his heads spilt into identical evil grins. "Excellent! I shall be able to kill you both together and end this once and for all!"

"What is he talking about?" Clara whispered to the Nutcracker, but he only shook his head and gestured behind him again. The Rat-King lunged, and the fight began in earnest.

Clara did her best to stay behind her defender and it seemed to work for the first few minutes, but she felt strong paws pulling her quickly away from the Nutcracker Prince. She screamed at the feel of their sharp claws on her arms. The Nutcracker tried to disengage to get to her, but the other rats crowded close, keeping him within range of his dagger-wielding opponent. Then, without warning, the Nutcracker lifted two fingers to his mouth and blew a piercing whistle.

From the toy cabinet in the corner came Fritz's toy soldiers, Clara's dolls, every creation by Drosselmeyer. They poured out in droves and began fighting their way towards Clara and their leader. But Clara could tell there were at least two rats to every one living toy, and more toys were falling back into the safety of lifelessness as she watched. Soon only a few toy soldiers were left. They were losing.

Clara turned her eyes back to the fight between her Nutcracker Prince and the Rat-King, to find the situation there not much better. The Nutcracker was backed into a corner, and though he was parrying every thrust, he was slowing down. Clara made her decision and acted. Using one of her various techniques developed over years of practice escaping tormentors, she managed to give her two captors the slip. She ran across the room, pulling her party shoe off as she ran. Just as the rats caught up to her, she stopped, took careful aim, and flung the shoe directly at the giant Rat-King.

The blow was glancing, at best. As the pair of rats yanked her arms behind her back, Clara saw that the unexpected attack had caused the Rat-King to hesitate, for a fraction of a second. It was all the Nutcracker needed. He lunged forward.

Edward left the castle full of hopes, but it was nearly two years before he was able to find the hiding place of the Queen of All the Rats. Abruptly, he returned to the castle just days before her sixteenth birthday, bursting into Drosselmeyer's room like a man on fire and causing the old toymaker to spill his afternoon coffee.

"I finally figured it out," he whispered to Drosselmeyer as he helped clean up the spill. "The Rat-Queen's been hiding in the last place anyone would think to look for her."

"My boy, it's good to have you home," Drosselmeyer said, patting the young man on the back, "But if you're suggesting what I think you are, then it's best not to mention it inside this castle. Remember, even walls have ears."

The festivities celebrating the Princess's sixteenth birthday had already begun. Edward made his preparations in secret with Drosselmeyer, and the two planned to reveal their plan on Perlipat's birthday. In all the fuss that accompanied the celebration, no one even noticed that the old toymaker was absent, let alone that his nephew had returned. At last, all was ready.

"Are you sure about this?" asked Drosselmeyer as the two wheeled their creation towards the throne room, where everyone was gathered.

Edward was in his Captain's uniform, his sword hanging ready at his side. "I'm certain," he answered tensely. "I looked everywhere else," he added, a bit ruefully.

The pair threw open the throne room doors. "Your Majesties, Your Highness, my nephew has returned triumphant!" Drosselmeyer announced in a loud voice.

"Oh, Edward!" cried Perlipat. Her voice was always unnaturally high because she had to push it past her huge teeth. "I knew you'd come back to me!"

"I have returned indeed, Princess," Edward said with a bow, concealing his revulsion as well as he could. Perlipat's imperious manner hadn't changed a bit. He continued, "And I believe I have discovered your cure."

"My cure?" the Princess laughed, "What nonsense are you talking of?"

"Hush, my child," the Queen reprimanded gently, her eyes full of hope. Perlipat subsided and flopped disgustedly back onto her throne, looking slightly sulky.

"Behold!" cried Drosslemeyer, pulling the plain cloth off of the pair's creation. All the court leaned forward to see.

"A honeypot?" asked the King, voicing what everyone was thinking. "What mockery is this?"

"No mockery, Sire," Edward declared with a bow. "I crave your Majesties' indulgence for five minutes only. Simply leave the honeypot where it is, surrounded by all the court, and observe. If all goes well, retribution for your daughter will be served at last."

"Very well," the King agreed, though he and the Queen exchanged puzzled looks.

True to Edward's prediction, within five minutes the throne room door swung open a second time and the Queen of All the Rats entered. Her severed leg had healed into a swollen stump, but her eyes were still mad and red. She seemed unable to take her eyes from the honeypot, and she strode forward as if in a trance. Drosselmeyer nodded in satisfaction. Edward had been right. The Rat-Queen had indeed chosen to hide in the one place no one would think to look for her: the very castle where all the trouble had started.

Edward calmly stepped forward, his sword drawn. Just as the Rat-Queen reached the honeypot, he lifted it high and brought it down with all his might. There was a blinding flash of white light as the blade struck home.

The Rat-King sank slowly to the ground, his seven heads sliding down in one direction while his body fell to another. Everything in the room seemed to freeze, staring at the slain form. Then, abruptly, the rats that filled the room dropped to all fours and scurried away, scrambling over each other in their haste to escape. As they did, all the toys, even the ones who had been overwhelmed by the rats, stood up and bowed to Clara before climbing back into the toy cabinet. Clara ran forward to catch the Nutcracker Prince, who was slumping down in a faint in the corner.

As she reached him, the world seemed to grow blurry around her. Clara only had eyes for the fallen Nutcracker, but a small part of her realized that the room was changing shape again. By the time she was kneeling beside him, everything had returned to its accustomed size and the room was familiar once again, but for the tiny body of a dead rat lying before the human-sized Nutcracker. As she turned him over, she started in surprise.

It was no longer the Nutcracker's forced smile and bulging eyes that looked back at her. In their place was the most handsome young man she had ever seen, perhaps nineteen or twenty. His dark hair spilled over his forehead from under his soldier's hat, and his face was deathly pale in the moonlight. Clara put her head to his chest, and was relieved to find his heartbeat was strong and steady. Using muscles she didn't know she had, she somehow got him onto the couch where she had fallen asleep and pulled the blanket gently around him.

Kneeling beside the couch, Clara wondered who this young man was and how he had come to be transformed into the Nutcracker. And how had Godpapa Drosselmeyer gotten hold of him? Had he known all along the Nutcracker was really a man? She glanced behind her at the winking owl on the grandfather clock, half-expecting to see her godfather peering down at her, but all she saw was the clock's face in the moonlight reading twelve-thirty. When she looked back, the Nutcracker's eyes were open.

He blinked once. Twice, and then seemed to focus on her concerned expression. A hand came up from under the blanket to touch his face. When he met with a smooth cheek and straight nose, he seemed to stiffen for a moment as he registered what he was feeling. Then he tried to sit up.

Clara pushed him back down. "Lie still. Are you hurt anywhere?" she asked, using an oft-repeated line from her mother.

"I don't think so," the young man said. Then he smiled. "Thank you, Clara."

Clara flushed. "I should be thanking you. You saved me from being impaled by that…that monster. What was he, anyway? Why did he want to kill me? And who are you?"

The young man sat up slowly, wincing a bit. "That…was the King of All the Rats. He wanted to kill you because you've started to break the spell he and his vile mother placed on me. I've been imprisoned in that Nutcracker's shape for…years." He winced again and swung his legs around so that he was sitting upright on the couch. "As for who I am, unfortunately I can't tell you everything you want to know." He patted the couch beside him.

Clara took to offered seat. "Why not?"

"The spell isn't completely broken yet. I can't regain my own name and form permanently until it is."

"You mean, you'll go back to being a Nutcracker doll unless the spell is broken? Unless…I break the spell?" Clara considered. "Tell me what needs to be done for you. I'll do it, I promise."

He smiled at her, a little sadly. "It's not that easy, Clara. The maiden who breaks the spell must discover how to do so herself. No one may give her any instruction, or I'm doomed to stay a Nutcracker forever."

Clara shuddered. "Forgive me for asking, then. But….please, can you tell me how it was that you came to life tonight in time to save me?"

"I don't really know. The spell began to break when you saw me as a hideous, lifeless doll and you didn't scorn me. And tonight…you needed me. That's all I can remember."

"Just before the rats came, I saw my Godpapa Drosselmeyer atop the grandfather clock over there," Clara remembered, "He said such strange things…he told me I was your last hope…yours and his, I suppose. And that I was on my own, but I would have help just the same. I assume he meant the toys. They were all the ones he made for Fritz and me, over the years."

"Yes…" the young man said softly, almost to himself. Then a tinkling noise sounded from the window. He smiled and leaped to his feet, pulling Clara after him. "Come. There's someone that I want you to meet."

The minute the court could see again after the blinding flash that accompanied the Rat-Queen's death, all eyes were drawn to the Princess. There was a collective gasp as she stood from her throne. Though still clearly Perlipat, dressed in her birthday splendor, the Princess was now the loveliest young woman anyone had ever seen. Her golden curls tumbled down to frame two clear blue eyes, a short, straight nose, and a rosebud mouth. But Perlipat didn't seem to notice her transformation. She ran to Edward, who was slumped over in a faint, facedown before the honeypot. The Rat-Queen's body had vanished completely.

But as she reached him and Edward began to stir, the Princess suddenly leaped back with a shriek. For where the handsome young man's face had been was the exact replica of Perlipat's former ugliness, down to the gaping eyes and enormous, frozen smile.

As Edward sat up and felt his face in growing horror, all the court could see the switch that had been made. Drosselmeyer knelt beside his nephew, tears in his eyes.

"My boy…the curse has been transferred to you," he murmured to the distraught young man. "Would that it had been me instead, for I deserve it most of all! I brought this upon both of us, in my foolish dreams of riches! Forgive me!"

"I…do forgive you, Uncle," Edward managed to gasp out between his teeth, "But how is it that the curse is not ended now that the Queen of All the Rats lies dead?"

"I can answer that!" a rasping voice cried from the doorway. All eyes turned to find yet another rat standing there. Though only slightly larger than an ordinary rat, he was a monstrous creature with seven heads, and each one leered in an exact copy of the dead Rat-Queen's triumphant glare. The creature stepped into the room and took the crown from the Rat-Queen's head, placing on the central, speaking head. Then it turned its sneer on Edward, Drosselmeyer, and Perlipat. "Though you have ended the curse on the Princess Perlipat by slaying my mother, the line of the Rats is not ended! As the King of All the Rats, I have moved the curse to my mother's slayer, and I add another: he shall become nothing but a hideous wooden doll until a maiden who has just come of age recognizes him for what he is and promises to marry him."

Perlipat, who had only heard the last of this, burst out "Marry that hideous creature? I'd as soon marry you, you filthy rat!"

The rat turned triumphant eyes to the Princess. "And so it shall be, my dear. Since you have refused your handsome champion, here, you shall become my bride instead! Is there anyone who disputes my claim?" He looked around the room, but even the Queen seemed frozen with horror. As the rat stepped forward, there was another flash of light. Where Edward had been, there was only a little wooden doll dressed in a red Captain's uniform, his hideous smile stretched across his face from ear to ear.

Drosselmeyer bent to pick up his nephew, his face twisted with grief. The rat turned back from his place beside the weeping Perlipat. "Your dear nephew is now nothing but a Nutcracker doll. How fitting, that he should bear the punishment for my mother's disfigurement as well. And hear this: if I find any maiden attempting to break my curse on your dear boy, I'll hunt her down and kill her!"

At this, Drosselmeyer would have seized a sword and killed the rat himself, but the King of All the Rats only laughed. "That won't work a second time, Master Toymaker. My death would only weaken the curse, not destroy it. Besides, I now control this castle and everyone in it!" He clapped his paws together, and two guards, as if in a trance, took hold of Drosselmeyer's arms and marched him outside into the snow, oblivious to the old man's cries and struggles.

The Nutcracker Prince led Clara from the parlor, down the steps, and out into the street in front of the Stahlbaum's house. But now it was no longer a lamp-lit street, it was a dark pine forest filling up with snow. Standing beneath the trees was a golden sleigh drawn by two milk-white reindeer, their harness-bells tinkling gently as they tossed their heads.

Clara stopped and stared. "But where did all this come from?" She looked back up the steps, but her warm house was no longer there, only tall, silent pine trees blocking the way out of the forest.

"Tonight is a night for good magic, Clara," the Nutcracker explained, leading her towards the sleigh. "All things of this Earth are awakening to greet the Christ child at the dawn, and we are able to witness their celebrations. Even the snow dances for joy on this happy night. Come. We have but a few hours for you to meet everyone!"

"Whom are we meeting?" asked Clara, laughing as she climbed into the sleigh and the reindeer began to run into the woods.

"You'll see. They're very good friends of mine that I met when I was on a journey, a long time ago." And that was all he would say on the subject, though Clara pestered and teased him the rest of the way.

They left the woods and passed into snowy fields, until at last a small village could be seen on the horizon. "Is that it?" asked Clara, and the Nutcracker Prince nodded. They drew to a halt in the village square, but it was only as the Nutcracker was helping her from the sleigh did Clara realize what made this village different from every other.

"Why, the houses are made of candy!" she exclaimed with delight.

He laughed at her astonishment. "This is the Land of the Sweets, and tonight we will view their dances as they welcome the Christ child."

A tall, elegant woman came striding out from between two of the houses. She was dressed all in an elegant mauve gown that Clara at first took to be covered in sequins until the lady came closer and she saw that they were truly sparkling sugar plums.

The lady embraced Clara's companion. "It is good to see you again, my friend. It's been quite some time since we've had the pleasure of your company!" The Nutcracker opened his mouth, but the lady held up her hand. "You don't have to explain anything. I know all that has passed since last we spoke. But I do have a request of you."

"Certainly. I owe you and your folk a great debt for setting me on the proper path last time I visited," the Nutcracker said.

The lady's eyes sparkled, and she winked at Clara. "To open our festivities, I would request that you tell us the story of your epic battle with the King of All the Rats."

Clara laughed, startled, and was even more surprised when the Nutcracker joined her. With an elaborate bow from the waist, he said, "I will grant your request, but I have been remiss in my duties. May I present to you Miss Clara Stahlbaum?" He took Clara's hand. "Clara, may I present the Sugar Plum Fairy, ruler of the Land of the Sweets?"

Clara performed her best curtsy, and the Fairy smiled at her. Then she clapped her hands together. "Let the festivities begin!" she called. From every corner of the village came people; talking, laughing, calling Christmas greetings to one another. They ringed the square, dressed in sparkling sweets just like the Sugar Plum Fairy. It was an extraordinary sight to behold.

Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy stood side-by-side as the Nutcracker Prince took center stage in the square and retold the story of his rescue of Clara, complete with actions, gestures, and different voices on the characters. Clara was enthralled with his ability to completely draw everyone into the story, though she flushed when he praised her great bravery in facing the King of All the Rats. When he was finished, the whole village sent up a cheer and lifted Clara and the Nutcracker onto their shoulders, placing them onto two hastily constructed thrones to watch the rest of the festivities.

The dances that followed were wonderful. All kinds of sweets paraded before them: chocolate, peppermint, gingerbread, and dozens more. Clara lost count. At last, nearer to dawn, the Sugar Plum Fairy herself performed a spectacular, graceful dance with a formidable-looking man Clara assumed to be her husband. When all the dances were finished, everyone began milling around with cups of hot cocoa, wishing each other Merry Christmas. The Sugar Plum Fairy's dance partner struck up a conversation with the Nutcracker, while the lady herself came to Clara.

"My dear, your presence is most welcome here. Would you mind explaining to me how you and our friend met?"

Clara told how her Godpapa Drosselmeyer had given her the Nutcracker as a Christmas gift, and of all the strange things he'd said to her before the Nutcracker had come to life. When she finished, she said, "You said you knew what had happened since the last time you'd met. Do you…do you know how he became a Nutcracker doll in the first place?"

The Sugar Plum Fairy smiled at her, as if she were a proud mother. "Yes, child, I do know."

"Can you tell me? That won't prevent me from breaking the spell?"

"No, my dear. I am permitted to tell you his story, but I may not tell you the conditions of the spell when I come to the end. You must understand that everything I tell you now is for a reason, and I beg you not to interrupt. Time is short." She closed her eyes for a moment, as if to recall every detail, and then began. "Everyone said the moment they laid eyes on the infant Perlipat that she was the most beautiful child they'd ever seen…"

Clara was quiet on the way home, thinking about what the Sugar Plum Fairy had told her. Somewhere in the narrative was the key to permanently freeing the young man beside her from his curse, but she could not figure out what it was.

They arrived at the Stahlbaum's house, materializing out of the pre-dawn mist of the forest. Clara paused on the steps. "Will I see you again?"

"I'll be waiting beside you when you wake up. I'll always be there for you, Clara. I'm counting on you." He smiled, and tweaked her nose playfully. "If you were a little older, I'd give you a goodnight kiss, but that'll have to wait a few years." He winked, making Clara blush, and opened the front door for her.

Drosselmeyer wandered hither and yon, carrying the frozen image of his nephew, searching for the right maiden to break the spell. All took one look at the Nutcracker in his arms and cringed. At length, and in despair, he returned to his home country and took up residence above a small shop. He resumed his humble toymaking business, delighting the neighborhood children with his clever wind-up toys. When a young couple moved into the largest house asked him to be godfather to their children, he couldn't refuse. He loved having children running in and out of his shop, and the thought of having more youngsters who saw him as a second father was comforting. The figure of his nephew stayed on a high shelf, watching him as the years passed.

The moment he saw his goddaughter he knew like a bolt of lightning that there was a special connection, so like that he had once felt when he first laid eyes on Edward. And she never seemed frightened of him. Her brother Fritz shrank from his formidable personage for the first few years, just as every child did but for Clara. More years passed, and Clara grew into one of the sweetest, most gentle-natured girls he had ever met. She was plain to behold, but Drosselmeyer knew the signs: she would blossom into a beautiful young woman. He did his best to defray the other children tormenting her, and he let Clara know whenever he saw her that he thought she was beautiful.

And he waited.

Clara sat up suddenly. She was on the parlor couch, in her rumpled party clothes with a warm blanket covering her. She looked beside her, and there was the Nutcracker Prince, the black ribbon still tied around his head to keep his broken jaw in place. Clara looked around the room, ending with the one-eyed owl gracing the clock. Had the night before all been just a dream?

Fritz came rushing downstairs, yelling with delight at the presents piled under the tree. Clara rose to join her family, smiling happily as she unwrapped her gifts. The Nutcracker stayed beside her throughout, his wide grin a little lopsided. When Drosselmeyer turned up a few hours later for breakfast, he gave her a wink, but that was all. Had she truly just imagined what had happened the previous night? Clara began to despair, but she dared not voice her concerns to her Godpapa. She couldn't bear to have him say it had merely been a dream.

As the years passed, Clara could never quite convince herself that her extraordinary adventure that Christmas had been nothing more than a dream. Sometimes she put a hand to her nose, as though she could still feel the Nutcracker's teasing pull on it that special night.

A few days before Christmas the year she turned sixteen, Clara received an offer of marriage. As Drosselmeyer had predicted, she had grown into a beautiful young woman and there were many wealthy men interested in her now. She promised her suitor to think about it, but returned home strangely let down. She had expected so much of her life. Was this what she was going to be trapped with the rest of her days, just a simple housewife to a rich man?

She often carried the Nutcracker with her, tucked comfortably under her arm as she went on her outings. The rest of the time he stayed on a shelf, watching her calmly. Patiently. That Christmas Eve, Clara took him down from his place and held him to her chest, tears leaking from her eyes.

"I wish I could know for certain that it wasn't a dream," she whispered to him, "The Sugar Plum Fairy told me the whole story, about Princess Perlipat and the Rat-Queen and the curse. But she didn't tell me how to break it. How I wish I knew. But there is one thing I know about you: if I had been Perlipat, I'd never have refused to marry you. If she'd had any eyes at all, she'd have seen your kind heart, how much you love to laugh, what a wonderful storyteller you are. I'd marry someone like that in a heartbeat. You have my word, if it wasn't all a dream, I would marry you." She sighed, replaced the wooden man on his shelf, and went to bed.

The next morning the Nutcracker was gone from his accustomed place. He'd somehow tipped from the high shelf and broken into a hundred slivers of red, gold, and tan on Clara's floor. Clara meticulously gathered the all pieces, hardly able to control her tears enough to find every last one. She'd failed. Even Drosselmeyer, for all his brilliance, could never put the little figure back together. Clara felt sick every time she looked at the growing pile of wood shavings. What had she done? Had she ruined everything?

Clara barely noticed her Christmas gifts, and she refused to smile even though her family asked repeatedly what was the matter. Her mind was far away, on the pieces of the Nutcracker piled on her bed. What was she going to say to her godfather when he came?

Drosselmeyer arrived for his traditional Christmas breakfast with them. Clara was gazing off into space, thinking of the Nutcracker's terrible fate, when she was startled out of her reverie by Drosselmeyer ushering a stranger into the room. Her parents stood to greet their guest, and for a moment he was hidden behind them. Clara stood as well, and when at last the handsome, dark-haired young man was free to face her she froze, completely dumbfounded.

It was the Nutcracker Prince himself, alive and well! She knew him immediately, for he looked exactly the same as he had when they'd first met.

He bowed over her hand and kissed it gallantly. "My nephew, Edward," Drosselmeyer was saying, "Just returned from a stint in the army. He's a Captain, my dear. Edward, this is my goddaughter, Clara."

Clara had to stop herself from saying "We've met." Instead, through a dazzle of happiness, she murmured, "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Captain."

"And I'm very pleased to meet you as well, Miss Stahlbaum," he answered. Out of her parents' line of sight he gave her the wink she remembered so well. She could hardly eat; she was so eager to see the two men in private and ask them what it was that had finally broken the spell.

She had to wait several days before she could slip out of the house on an errand and make her way to Drosselmeyer's shop. The two men were standing side-by-side at the counter when she entered. It was odd to see Edward out of his Captain's uniform and dressed instead in an ordinary shopkeeper's clothes.

"Good day, Miss Stahlbaum," Drosselmeyer said with a twinkle in his eye, "And how may we help you today?"

"Good day, Godpapa. Good day, Edward. That is your real name, isn't it? You have it back at last."

The young man bowed. "All thanks to you, Clara. I owe you more than I can repay."

"I knew it wasn't a dream," Clara said happily, "But how did the curse break? What did I do that I didn't do four years ago?"

Drosselmeyer looked at her solemnly out of his one eye. "You were of age, for one thing. If you'd done it when you were twelve it wouldn't have worked."

"Done what?"

"Agreed to marry the Nutcracker, despite his ugliness," put in Edward, looking as solemn as his uncle.

"But…" Clara paused, and remembered what she'd said the night before. Her heart started to pound wildly, and she looked up to find Edward smiling at her, and only at her.

"You will marry me, won't you Clara? For I love you more than anything on this earth."

"Oh, yes," Clara murmured as the young man strode around the counter to take her in his arms. The kiss they shared was everything they had both been waiting for, all their lives.

"Now, enough of that," Drosselmeyer growled at the pair of them. "You'll make an old man jealous, you will." The three shared the first of many laughs to come and started towards the Stahlbaum house to break the happy news to Clara's parents and Fritz.