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art by Richard Gagnon

Said the Princess

Dani Atkinson's Japanese ESL students sometimes look at her like they think English is an elaborate joke she's playing on them. Every time she has to explain things like silent letters, she starts to wonder if they're right. Reading and writing copiously in her spare time helps remind her that no, no, this is totally a real thing. She also draws under the deviantart handle Dejadrew, and annotates the poetry of a famous time-traveling mad scientist at madpoetist.livejournal.com . This is her first published prose story.
Once upon a time in a far off land, in a tiny room, in a tall tower, at the centre of a vast and impenetrable maze, the princess Adrienna cocked her head and frowned.
"Who said that?" said the princess.
She looked around the tower room, but saw no one.
"This isn't funny. Who's there?" said the princess.
She crouched by the bed. Underneath it she found the chamber pot and a nervous brown spider. The princess shuddered. Straightening up quickly and dusting off her rosy skirts, she paced the circumference of the room, searching every inch. There were not many inches to search, as after all it was a prison, and not elaborately furnished or overburdened with good hiding places.
"Where is that coming from? Who are you?" said the princess, stopping by the barred window.
"No, really, who are you? And quit saying 'said the princess' after everything I say!" said the prin.... Oh.
"Yes, 'Oh'"
The princess... probably wasn't supposed to hear that.
"Why wouldn't I be able to hear you?" said the pri...
"Stop that."
Sorry. Ah, it just seemed like the princess... shouldn't have been able to. Hear that. Somehow. It seemed quite against the rules.
The princess flicked her yellow hair back over her shoulder and scowled uncertainly at the stone ceiling, lacking any better direction in which to look.
"What rules? Yours?"
... I... I? Was I an I? The word did not seem to fit. The... voice... did not know whose rules they were. It was simply the way things were expected to be.
"Is it another rule that you always have to talk in the past tense?"
...Yes. Yes, the voice believed it was.
The princess slumped down the wall until she was sitting on the cold stones. She rested her forehead in her hands. "And I suppose it's another rule that you have to describe everything I do, as I do it?" she muttered through a curtain of yellow ringlets.
Sorry.
"Stop saying sorry! Stop saying anything! It's really getting on my nerves!"
The princess pinched the bridge of her nose as if she had a headache. She closed her eyes and stayed absolutely still for a moment. Then another. For a long while the princess did nothing but breathe. Then she tried holding her breath for a while, which just seemed silly and possibly unhealthy. Her breath whooshed out of her in a gush, disturbing the spider, which had gone exploring beyond the world of the bed and was now crawling on her knee.
"What? AAAGH!"
The princess leapt up and batted furiously at the terrified spider until it tumbled off her skirts to the floor. She glared once more at the ceiling, then sighed.
"Oh, never mind. I suppose you can't help it. I can't imagine choosing to follow a shut-in around remarking on everything she does."
The voice agreed. The voice couldn't really imagine choosing anything else either, mind. It seemed to be out of the voice's hands.
"You have hands?"
Figure of speech.
The princess leaned against the iron window bars and looked out over the vast maze of topiary and stone. "I'm crazy, aren't I? I've been trapped here so long that I've gone insane."
The princess did not seem insane. Only tired, perhaps, and frustrated.
"Said the disembodied voice."
The princess had only been here a month. Surely that was not enough time in which to go insane.
The princess's eyes narrowed and darted about suspiciously. "How do you know how long I've been here? Have you been watching me this whole time?"
No... No, the voice did not think so. It was... confused... it was not sure how long it had been here, or where it had been before it came here. It did not think it had been watching long, however. The voice knew what had passed before because, well, it... just did, somehow.
"Really? What else do you know?"
The Princess Adrienna had been born in the kingdom of Ith on a wet and gloomy fall morning. The midwife had been willing to swear on her last tooth that the princess was the single ugliest baby she had ever...
"Stop, stop! I was sick of that story when I was six!"
The princess did ask.
"I did. Okay, you can go back quite a ways. At least when it comes to me. Do you know about anyone else?"
The princess's father was King Gervail. The princess's mother was Queen Luvette. The princess's sweetheart was Lord Albron. The princess's fencing master was named Hoopo. The princess's favorite horse was named Fledge. The...
"I'm starting to get the picture. What about the witch who brought the princess... er, me here?"
The Vile Sorceress Villaine was...
"Villaine? That's her name? Really?"
The Vile Sorceress Villaine was once a renowned beauty, beloved of a handsome young lordling. Though she was lovely, she was hot tempered, and fascinated by the dark arts. The combination meant she was frequently turning people who annoyed her into interesting things. It made her lover nervous, and finally he tried to break things off as gently as possible.
"What did she turn him into?"
A bottle of brandy. She kept him aging in the cellar for a hundred years. He was delicious when he was finally served.
The princess winced in sympathy.
Since then, Villaine had rather gone off romance. She was violently jealous of happy couples. When she saw the princess and her sweetheart walking arm in arm near the edge of the forest, she became enraged.
The princess froze. "The princess and... me and Albron. I thought I'd done something, that she was angry at me for some reason. Has she taken Albron too?"
Villaine stole the princess from the palace grounds later that evening, riding astride a winged broomstick.
"I already know what happened to me! Why does a broomstick need wings anyway? I thought witch's brooms could fly without them!"
Villaine had always been of the opinion that there is nothing that could not be improved with the addition of bat wings.
"Does that include sweet, stupid, redheaded young noblemen? What happened to Albron?"
Villaine stole the princess away to a tall tower in the centre of a vast maze, to await rescue by any who would dare.
"Does that mean she expects Albron to rescue me?"
The maze, in addition to being fiendishly difficult with its myriad twists and dead ends, was packed near to brimming with fearsome beasts and insidious traps.
"Oh, god..."
The only way to reach the center without passing through the maze was to fly over it, as Villaine did on her broomstick every few days bearing food for the prisoner.
"Albron can't fight fearsome beasts! He's nearsighted as a mole! He has to press those cursed courtly romances he likes so much right against his eyeballs!"
Even if one reached the tower, there was no door or stairs, and the bars over the window were enchanted and unbreakable. They could only be bent aside by whispering to them the magic words, Part, Part, by my Broken Heart, a secret known only to the witch. Thus the princess languished in captivity, out of reach of all who loved her.
"He's probably at the bottom of one of those insidious traps right now! He... Wait, what did you just say?"
Thus the princess languished?...
"No, I got the languishing, the other bit... hang on."
The princess walked to the window. Touching an iron bar, she whispered uncertainly, "Part, Part, by my Broken Heart."
The bars kinked, twisted, and with a hideous groan writhed outwards to create an opening large enough to crawl through.
"Yes, yes, YES!" The princess leapt up and down in delight. She stuck her head out the window, and her smile faltered. It was a very long way down.
"It certainly is..."
The princess stared a moment, then stepped backwards into the safety of the little room. Then she bent down and gripped the hem of her dress in both hands. Pulling as hard as she could, she finally managed to rip a long tear in the skirt, clean to the waist.
...Had anyone been observing her, they may well have wondered what she was doing.
"You can't just ask?" Riiiiiiiiiiiip.
It did not seem so, no.
"These rules of yours are rather a nuisance." Riiiiiiiiiiiip.
They were indeed.
"I am tearing my skirt and petticoats into strips." Riiiiiiiiiiiip.
The princess was tearing her skirt and petticoat into strips, as anyone could plainly see. The reasoning behind it was rather less obvious, unless it was to show off her admittedly very nice legs.
" I am tearing my skirt and petticoats into strips because the bed sheets alone will not be nearly long enough to get me to the ground. As it is, I'm guessing that once I braid them together it won't get me more than halfway down. But there's ivy nearer the base, I should be able to get a grip on that. And once I get to that point I won't want long skirts tripping me up anyway."
The princess may have been correct in her earlier assessment. She was not merely tired or frustrated but in truth completely insane.
"You said it yourself, there's no door or stairs. And I have to get out. It's been a month. If I know Albron he set out on a quest looking for me the very first day. He's brave and wonderful and I love him to bits, and bits may be all that's left of him unless I find him before some bat-winged monster does!"
The foolhardy princess finished knotting together her frail makeshift rope and dangled it out the very, very, very, very high window, where it ended well short of the ground. She tied the other end to the bars, without even bothering to see how secure it was. The princess stopped her ridiculously dangerous work long enough to glare at the ceiling.
"Look, unless you plan on stopping me, I'm doing this, so you might as well be supportive." She gripped the rope and paused. "Could you stop me? If, say, you said something different, that I didn't go, would that change what was really happening?"
The voice... would... like... to have said, that the princess at that moment reconsidered her plans, and returned to the at least temporary safety of the tower. That she sat down and thought things over carefully for a time, and came up with a much better plan that did not involve long drops out of windows. And that she lived happily ever after.
The voice would have really, really liked to have said that.
"Good to know," said the princess, and climbed out the window.
She lowered herself slowly, carefully down the rope. The knots that connected the various sections made good handholds, as long as the rope held together. She planted her feet on the wall and walked herself down.
She was nearly at the end of the rope when a sudden gust of wind blew her off the wall. She slid down the rope, hands burning, down to the final knot, where she gripped for dear life as the wind buffeted her to and fro. It slammed her against the wall hard, once, twice, knocking her half senseless. But she couldn't pass out. The princess was too tough and too stubborn for that. She needed to get it together and grab the wall. She could do it. She needed to grab the wall. She needed to GRAB THE WALL RIGHT NOW.
The princess reached out with one hand and grabbed at a patch of ivy on the wall. It tore and came away from the stones a little but held. Closing her eyes, she let go of the end of the rope and scrambled to find grips for her other hand and feet, not trusting the patch to hold her entire weight a second longer than it had to. The rope whipped away and she hugged the wall with her entire body like a large pink spider.
"Don't mention spiders," she murmured.
Feeling with her left foot, the princess found what she thought was a likely foothold and leaned into it, but it instantly began to crumble and she scrambled back to her original position. Trying again, she stepped into another foothold. This time it held. She began again with her right foot...
"Look, I know you can't help following along, but could you find a way to do so that isn't so distracting? Please?"
And the princess took another step.
And the princess took another step.
And the princess took another step.
And the princess took another step.
And the princess took another step.
And the princess took another step.
And the princess took another step.
And the princess set her foot on solid ground and let go of the wall, crumpling into a relieved heap.
"Thank you," she whispered.
The princess was very welcome.
"Call me Adrienna. I owe you one."
After several long breaths, the pr... Adrienna pulled herself to her feet and glanced around. The ground was mossy and damp, the base of the tower partially ringed by a crescent-shaped pool. Adrienna waded into the water and dipped her sore, rope-burned hands, hissing through her teeth.
Her toe bumped against something hard in the mud. Reaching down, she pulled out a short sword. It looked old, but was only slightly rusted, and the edge was still gleaming.
"It's still sharp. How is that possible?"
The sword was enchanted.
"Was it left by some would-be hero?"
In a way. It was what was left of some would-be hero. Villaine transformed a young maiden into the pommel, and her knight into the point, so that they would be eternally together, but ever separated.
"That's... vicious."
So was Villaine.
"Um... do you think they'd, ah, mind?"
If Adrienna planned to fight her way clear of Villaine's maze, it would upset the old hag considerably. They would be all for it.
"Right. Well, let's go, folks." Adrienna wiped the sword clean of mud and damp on her bloomers. She looked a proper sight, on her way to fight monsters clad only in her undergarments and the tattered remains of a pink bodice.
"Watch it."
However the look of fierce determination on her noble face would have quickly silenced anyone around who might have been inclined to laugh. Of which there wasn't. Anyone. At all.
"Nicely put."
She started to head towards a gap in the hedges to the south. If only she knew that that way would lead directly to a dead end and the lair of a vicious velocibeast. She pulled up short and glanced around. Something told her she should head for the stone archway to the east....
"Thanks."
...And that she should prepare herself for giant spiders.
"I take it back."
With bat wings.
"I hate you."
Several hours later, Adrienna pulled her sword out of the second frog-griffin and flung herself at the third. She slashed at the webbing of the creature's green spotted bat-wings, wounding it. The creature reared back with a devastating RIBBIT.
"What do you mean by 'several hours later?'" Adrienna pivoted aside, dodging the creature's powerful and deadly tongue as it zipped past. "We've been, ah, fighting, oof, these things for ages," she hacked at the tongue, severing it. The creature let out a croak of agony. "You've been here all along, giving directions and tips about monster weak spots..." she ducked as the wounded creature lashed out one final time before retreating into the topiary, pawing at its giant mouth. Adrienna paused a moment, sword ready, until its faint ribbits of pain faded from hearing.
She sighed and sat down on the corpse of one of the other two frog-griffins. "Thank you for the tip about the tongues, by the way."
It was nothing.
"So, why 'several hours later?' It just seems like an odd thing to say, is all."
It... had seemed necessary. At that point in the narrative.
Adrienna shrugged. "Well, I suppose I lost all sense of what counts as truly weird around the time that the bat-winged man-poodles attacked."
It was surprising that it had taken her that long, considering the sort of day she'd been having.
"Touché, Sir Voice-in-my-Head." Adrienna stood and stretched. "Should I go after that last froggy thing? It was only wounded, it might come back."
The Princess Adrienna was standing in a small clearing two right turns and a five-minute walk away from the entrance. Villaine's creatures were of the maze and would not leave it. Though the frog-griffin might regroup and try to avenge its injury, it was unlikely that it could do so before Adrienna escaped.
"Really? We're nearly there? Finally! But..." the Princess frowned and twisted her hair, "Albron. We haven't seen any sign of him. I've climbed on top of every hero-turned-to-stone that we came across trying to get a better view over the walls and hedges. I was calling for him before that started attracting piranha-hornets." She clenched her fists. "Where could he be?"
She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. She loved Albron deeply, and was sick with concern over his safety. But perhaps the best she could do for him now was to leave this garden of horrors and return safely home. There, she could draw upon her father's army, and return with a search party of knights and court wizards. Or perhaps calmer heads had prevailed, and he had never been allowed to leave on this foolhardy quest in the first place. Perhaps he was at home now, waiting and worrying for her sake even as she worried for his.
Adrienna gave a watery smile. "Somehow I doubt I'm that lucky. But you're right, thanks." She took the right turn and headed towards the exit. "It's really strange that you can't seem to tell me where he is. I mean, you seem to know everything else about me. The location of my betrothed is a heck of a blind spot."
It was indeed both strange and extremely unsettling.
Adrienna gave a sympathetic glance to the sky, which had taken the place of the ceiling in these conversations. "When I get back, I'll tell my father's chief wizard about you. Maybe she can figure out why you are the way you are."
Or cure Princess Adrienna of her insanity.
"If she tries, I won't let her. Even if you are a figment of my imagination, which I doubt, you're still a friend."
That was... very touching, and... Adrienna! Adrienna needed to know that she absolutely should not turn that second corner! She needed to stop!
"Wha..." stumbling as she tried too late to bring herself up short, the princess rounded the corner and found herself face to face with the Vile Sorceress Villaine.
Villaine stood with her back to the maze entrance, blocking the path to the outside world. Her bat-winged cloak rustled ominously in a breeze that seemed to follow the sorceress specifically for that purpose. An eyebrow crooked in a face stretched like hide drying on a rack. Villaine smiled, and her teeth were very white.
"Leaving so soon, my dear?" the evil sorceress asked.
Adrienna slowly raised her sword in front of her. "A little more warning would have been nice," she hissed.
The witch smiled more broadly, baring even more white teeth, more than a human mouth should have been able to hold.
"Don't be too hard on him, Princess. He is a limited omniscient third-person narrator, after all," Villaine said, stroking something under her cloak. "Though perhaps I should have made the limits more... stringent."
Adrienna lifted an eyebrow, but did not lower her sword. "You know about him?"
Villaine laughed. It sounded like crows descending on a corpse. "Of course. I made him," said Villaine.
"Made him?" Adrienna asked.
Made him?
Villaine sighed. "It seemed so elegant. You were both to go insane, you see. You driven mad by his endless redundant prattle. He driven mad by his inability to touch you, help you. He, who so loved stories, now forced to tell your story, but never be a part of it."
Adrienna stared, then her eyes widened. "Oh no," she whispered. "No no no no." Adrienna's eyes were drawn, slowly, almost unwillingly, away from the witch and up towards the sky. "Albron?" she whispered.
Albron. Could it be? Could the voice have been that of her lover all along?
The witch smirked and pulled what she had been holding out from under her cloak. It was a small, square book, bound in red leather. Printed in embossed gold leaf on the cover was the title, Said the Princess. The witch opened the book to the last page. Words were printing themselves out on the paper, adding themselves to the last line.
The princess could just barely read the words from where she stood. "The princess could just barely read the words from where she stood," said the book said the book said the book said the book said the book said the book said the book said the book said the book....
"Albron! Snap out of it!"
Whoa. That was... dizzying.
Villaine sighed again and flipped through the book's pages. "You were supposed to be helpless. He was supposed to be doubly so. I never expected you to be able to make use of his predicament in this way."
Adrienna shrugged. "Well, Albron always said that knowledge is power."
Villaine closed the book with a snap. "Knowledge is good," she said. Villaine held the book up in one hand, and brought the other hand just beneath it. She clicked the fingers of her free hand together, and tiny flames leapt from the tips. "Fire is better."
Villaine brought her burning fingers closer to the book, and the flames licked at the cover. The edges of the pages began to blacken and smo--... Ow. Ow. OW OW OW OW OW OW OW....
"Stop it! Stop hurting him!" cried Adrienna OW OW OW.
"As you wish," replied the EVIL OLD HAG OW OW OW AH... ah...
Ah... The... the witch pulled the flame away from the fragile tome. The pages stopped smoking, though the edges were still singed where the fire had touched them.
"Albron! Honey, are you okay?"
Albron was in better shape than Villaine would be if he ever got his hands on that sadistic harpy.
Villaine wagged a finger at the book. "Now there's no need for name-calling, young man," she chided. "besides which, you don't have hands, so I'd reconsider the wisdom of making threats in your position."
If the little red book were a thesaurus instead of a storybook, it would have been filled entirely with synonyms and alternate phrasings for the words, "Go to Hell."
"Albron, don't antagonize her!"
Villaine waved the book at Adrienna. "Now, are you going to be a good girl, or am I going to have to do some rather ruthless editing?"
Adrienna scowled "What do you want, Villaine?"
The sorceress smirked. "I want you to go back to your tower. I want you to grow old there, listening to his voice in your head, until you forget his voice was ever anywhere else. I want this"--she gestured to the book--"to end with the words, 'then she died alone and forgotten.'"
Adrienna stood a long moment. She sagged.
She could not possibly be thinking of giving in.
"Albron...."
She had come so far, and freedom was within her grasp!
"You are in Villaine's grasp."
Surely Princess Adrienna was not planning to throw her life away for a book!
"Well, it's a really good book!"
Adrienna didn't even like books!
"I love this one!"
It was badly written! Stories were not supposed to end this way!
Adrienna looked as if she were about to cry. She started to lower her sword when... s... su.... suddenly....
Suddenly....
Suddenly King Gervail's cavalry appeared and they stormed through the entrance to the maze in a clash of spears and hoof beats like thunder, and sunlight flashed off their armor like lightning, and the storm descended on Villaine with a blizzard of blows, and the court wizards flanked them and made a series of arcane gestures of stunning complexity, and Villaine was turned into a small purple splotch. THE END.
Villaine started and turned her head, gaping wildly at the empty entrance.
Adrienna, seeing an opening, raised her sword and lunged. Realizing there was no cavalry there, Villaine turned back to the princess, but Adrienna went straight for the book, knocking it out of her hand and into the hedge. Adrienna tried to seize the book containing her fiancé, but Villaine got between them. Villaine's eyes and hands glowed. Adrienna dodged the fireball that shot from Villaine's fingers, but only barely.
Adrienna! Addy! The voice was sorry! It tried to do what Adrienna said before, about saying something different and changing the story, and it was so hard, but it didn't work, and now it was an unreliable narrator and speaking in run-on sentences and what were they going to do?!
Adrienna ducked another fireball. "Albron, it was a good try...."
But now Adrienna couldn't trust anything the voice said!
Adrienna jumped sideways and rolled to avoid a shower of sparks. "Her highness really doesn't have time to talk you through your little identity crisis right now," Villaine snarled.
Suddenly, large rocks fell from an undetermined location!
Villaine ignored the voice's ineffectual babbling and continued stalking Adrienna.
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck Villaine down!
Suddenly, a crowd of rabid lawyers appeared demanding compensation on behalf of all the people Villaine had ever turned into toadstools!
Suddenly, a crowd of angry librarians appeared to chastise her to death for her careless and irreverent treatment of literary works!
Suddenly, a maimed and furious bat-winged frog-griffin accompanied by one other member of its pack hopped towards them from somewhere in the depths of the maze!
Adrienna's eyes widened.
"Oh, please. As if I'm going to fall for that twi--" said Villaine, shortly before she was knocked to the ground by the angry frog-griffins.
The tongueless frog-griffin Adrienna had injured hopped towards her, eyes crazed. Adrienna positioned herself so that the stumbling sorceress was between her and the beast. The frog-griffin hopped right on top of Villaine, senseless of any existing loyalties in its mad quest to reach the one who'd hurt it.
Gasping for air, the sorceress stretched one glowing hand from under the slimy bulk of her own creature. She reached out, and Adrienna saw to her horror that she was aiming for the book, where it hung caught in the brambles of the hedge.
"NO!" Adrienna screamed, and, weaving around the whipping tongue of the other creature, she brought her sword down with all her considerable strength on Villaine's hand.
The sword sliced through the hand as if it were naught but air, severing it at the wrist. The hand burned away to ash, while the stump now glowed and smoldered. Villaine, crushed by the weight of her own monster, was unable to draw breath even to scream as the trapped spell retreated back up her arm. There was a sickening puff of smoke. Then all sign of struggle ceased.
The bat-winged frog-griffins froze, and looked startled, one with his tongue dangling halfway out of his mouth. Then, slowly, the creatures began to fade away, going transparent before disappearing altogether. Adrienna looked at her sword. It was shrinking away to nothing, pommel and tip growing ever closer until it blinked out of existence with a soft sigh. Two soft sighs, one could almost imagine.
A look of wild hope came into Adrienna's eyes, but as quickly faded.
"You're still narrating."
Adrienna turned to the hedge. There, sure enough, was the little book, unchanged. She plucked it from the brambles and cradled it gently. Her fingers traced the letters on the cover.
"Oh, come on! How is that fair?"
It was not fair, at all.
"All her other enchantments were broken, her creatures, the sword. Why are you still a book?"
The voice was stumped, and more than a little miffed, if truth were told. Perhaps it was because this spell was cast more recently, and thus harder to break.
"I don't suppose you have an index, or an appendix?"
Hey! That tickled!
"No, there's nothing written here that you haven't already said out loud."
...And they all lived happily ever after?
"Nice try."
Well, the voice was out of ideas. This was a thoroughly unsatisfactory narrative. When Lord Albron had been human, this would probably have been the sort of depressing modern yarn he would have tossed back on the shelf in disgust and never read again. Not only was he a book now, he wasn't even a good book.
"Hey, don't be so down on yourself. You're interesting! Lots of magic and sword fights and things! And you're... printed on very high quality stock!"
But it was all wrong! This sort of story was supposed to end on a rousing high note, with a wedding or a parade or at least a kiss.
Adrienna froze, staring at the words on the page. "This sort of story..." she breathed. "Could it really be that simple?"
Hardly daring to breathe, she held the book up to her face, as if she were nearsighted. Closing her eyes, she brought the last page to her lips--
"Wha... Adrienna? Oof!"
"Albron! Thank goodness! Thank goodness it worked! Thank goodness you always read those blasted stories out loud to me and I'll never complain again!"
"Addy, honey, I can't breathe...."
"Sorry. No, not sorry, you deserve it. The hug and the hurt. Dummy."
"Love you too. But seriously, I have ribs again, and they're cracking...."
"And they all lived happily ever after."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 14th, 2012


For a while this story wasn't sure if it wanted to be a play, or a comic, or a picture book, or, who knows, a very odd interpretive dance routine. Doing it as a play would have made it much easier to be clear about who was speaking. Doing it with pictures would have let me do some very fun things with the interplay of text and image. (I had an idea for a scene where Adrienna climbed out of the tower using Albron's wall of text as a ladder!) I may play with adapting this story into other mediums some day for the heck of it, but I'm quite pleased with the form it finally took. Prose fiction is kinda the third person narrator's native habitat.

- Dani Atkinson

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