art by Seth Alan Bareiss
Three Kisses: A Royal Breakfast
by Henry Szabranski
Thorns tore at his fingers, arms and face, but there was no turning back. Even the grisly sight of his predecessors hanging impaled and decomposing on the tangled branches overhead failed to slow him down. He was a Prince, by God, and not to be denied.
He hacked a path through the briar hedge, wielding his trusty blade like some manic gardener clearing brambles, though these thorned bushes were thicker and tougher than anything in his father's vast estates. Every now and then tantalizing views of the distant castle could be glimpsed through the thorny barrier: high, fluted towers; creeper-infested ramparts and turrets, their previous majesty faded but undeniable. If the stories were true, over a century had passed since the curse entombing the castle and its inhabitants had been cast.
"Beware the spurned fairy's curse," Father's grand vizier had advised him before he set out. "They say true love's kiss will awaken the castle's sleepers... but some things are best left to slumber." The Prince had scoffed. What did the old fool know, anyway? When Father died and he became King, his first act would be to purge the court of such useless advisors and hangers-on. Most all of them had looked down at him throughout his life; the incident with the dwarves had only served to confirm their low opinion of him. Wait till he returned from this adventure, though. He would show them once and for all how worthy a prince he was.
A branch whipped back, and he dodged aside to avoid dagger-shaped thorns gouging his eyes. His attention could not slip, not even for a moment. He hacked left and right, up and down, his fingers becoming numb around the sword, his steel in constant danger of slipping--but the fury in his gut burned fierce. He had sworn to wake the cursed Princess, and by God that's what he would do.
He lost track of whether it was day or night, of how long he had been hacking at the briar, becoming a simple machine focused on one task alone: tunneling through the hedge. It was his enemy, and he would not let it defeat him. Dark life scurried amongst the razor-tipped branches: rats the size of wolves; tusked boars with needle-covered hides; legions of screeching bats; and clouds of buzzing, biting insects--the Prince paid them no heed. They were all grist for his milling arm and its increasingly notched edge of royal steel.
Until at last he was through. The last tangled branches parted before his blade and he stumbled into a leaf-strewn courtyard beside the enchanted castle's wide-open gates.
The tales, it seemed, were true. Here stood a pair of burly guards on either side of the portcullis, their armor dangling and rusted through but their flesh untouched by the passage of time; it truly looked as though they were only asleep. The Prince prodded and shouted at them, but all he succeeded in doing was tumbling them over so that they crashed to the ground, further splintering their armor and weapons. Cocooned inside, they slept on.
He wandered through to the castle, past the denizens halted by the fairy's curse wherever they had stood: hunting hounds curled in perpetual sleep, a washerwoman sprawled alongside the moldy and windswept remnants of her laundry basket, a page grasping the rotted hilt of his wooden play sword.
Deeper the Prince went and higher he climbed, past moth-eaten tapestries and dusty halls, collapsed knights around a collapsed table; past a fallen spindle, to the topmost bedchamber. And there she lay, fallen on the silken cushions by the window.
It had to be her: the room seemed to tremble with magic potential, even a non-practitioner of the dark arts like the Prince could sense it. As in the tales, the sleeping Princess was beautiful, truly breathtaking; more beautiful even than that strumpet he had woken from the crystal casket, the one who had wept and spurned him after she had learned how he had cut down her so-called beloved dwarves. No. This was a true Princess. It was obvious from the cut of her magnificent, if now half-rotted clothes--it was even likely that she was some distant relation of his, multiply-removed. True royal blood. And bound to be his betrothed, if he lifted the curse at last and woke her from her century-long sleep.
He leaned down and kissed her. Her lips were cold and delicious.
A low moan of pleasure escaped the sleeping beauty. It seemed to resonate throughout the castle, sending vibrations deep into its foundations. Dust drifted from the ceiling. Something changed in that moment; the spell lifted, the Prince was sure. He stepped back, suddenly dizzy and breathless.
Sure enough, the Princess stirred. Her eyes flicked open and stared into his. She smiled. Her teeth, he noticed, were dazzling, perfect white.