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The Ghastly Tale of Princess Lamia

Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British FantasyAnalog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars' League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk.

"No," the princess scowls.
"How about this one?" I flash her the picture that accompanies the story: a classic damsel, pale-faced and floaty-dressed, chained to rocks, twisting away from a dragon's flames as a Prince in shining armor--
"Definitely no." Her little arms crossed and defiant.
I thumb dog-eared pages, hoping for a legend or a fairytale I've overlooked, one that might meet this young princess's very particular pleasure, knowing we've been through them all. I'm beginning to worry what incurring the wrath of a seven-year-old heir to the throne looks like. Or indeed, feels like.
It shouldn't be this hard. An hour, tops, the court vizier assured me. Read a bedtime story, send the little madame to sleep while her father makes peace with King Ulfred, and earn more coin than a storyteller like me sees in a year.
But Princess Lamia hates the tales I know by heart. Hates those from the book my mother gave me the day I left home. She hates fairies, and talking woodland creatures, and heroes brave and true. She even hates unicorns, despite the blessing of them embroidered on the sheets she is tucked beneath. Is she beginning to hate me, the way her eyes flash, the clench of her jaw, her lips set thin?
Oh god. Any moment now she'll start screaming. It'll be loud, and piercing, and there will be absolutely nothing I can do to stop it. The king will be dragged from the delicate negotiations to perform his nightly duty, and I'll have two royal personages absolutely furious with me.
"Well," I say, desperate. "What about the tale of Princess Lamia?"
"Go on." Her eyes are tight with suspicion.
I shrug. "I can't."
She sits up straighter, angrier, not used to being denied. "Why not?"
"Because it's your tale. Because you have to tell it to me."
She quiets down real quick. "I can't tell stories."
"That's why I'm here," I smile, encouragingly. "To help. Look."
I open my mother's book at the back. Binders use bundles of paper, gatherings, and if a book doesn't fill them all, then the last pages are left blank. I've tried to write my own stories there once or twice, so I show her the scrawl of my spidery handwriting, before turning to an unmarked sheet and taking my pen in hand. "There's plenty of room."
It takes some coaxing before she gets going. Before she stops glaring at me. Before she realizes that I'm true to my word, and I'll write down whatever she says. That in her story anything at all can happen. Whenever she slows, I prompt her, reminding her of something she's previously mentioned but forgotten or discarded, as a way out of the plot holes she digs. When she asks a question I answer, as best I can. Mostly I sit quietly, writing.
Eventually, her eyes close and the words drift away, replaced by the soft purr of sleeping breath. Fifteen minutes later, there's gold in my pocket and a tankard in my hand. And it's only when I've drained half of it in giddy relief that I realize I'm in the wrong tavern.
It's full of King Ulfred's men. Hard men. Intimidating men. Men who have come a long way, merely to remind everyone what will happen if the peace negotiations don't go well: don't go in their favor. I'm almost out the door before a bald-headed ruffian tugs me back.
"Leaving so soon, storyteller?"
I gulp, and nod.
He grins through a ruination of teeth; waves at his thuggish mates. "Not before telling us a story?"
It isn't a request. And unless I impress, I'm likely to leave with nothing but bruises and broken bones and empty pockets. I fumble the book from my satchel, turn quickly to the freshly inked rear. No fairy godmothers or noble knights for this lot. Vile treachery, buckets of blood, and excruciating poison: the gory dreams of a child who will one day be queen.
A tale to make even the most ruthless of soldiers blanch, and eager to sue for peace. No ending, yet. But perhaps they'll provide me with one?
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 5th, 2022

Author Comments

Writing stories is the easiest thing in the world. Anyone can do it, with just a piece of paper, a pen or pencil, and a little time. The trick is writing a story that other people want to read. As a volunteer mentor for creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, I'm getting used to coaxing stories from reluctant tellers, and yes, I hear a lot of ghastly tales! But never, so far, from a future Queen....

- Liam Hogan
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