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The Princess and Her Tale

Mari Ness is the author of Through Immortal Shadows Singing, forthcoming from Papaveria Press. You can find links to more of her fiction and poetry at her official blog, marikness.wordpress.com, or find out what she's up to by following her on Twitter @mari_ness.

Find her other fiction for Daily Science Fiction by using the search box on the website.

He still believes I will turn into my mother.
Understand this: everything you have been told about my beauty is a lie. I am beautiful only as a princess is beautiful, glittering in silk and gems in the smoky candlelight. In the day, stripped of jewels and silks, I am as any other, not ugly, but not beautiful either, a woman you would not remember if you saw her a second time.
My mother was the same.
Portraits flattered her, I am told, but even with those, I can see: strip away the jewels and the gems, and she was no more beautiful than any other woman of the court, and less than many of them.
My father does not listen, does not see.
She was the most beautiful woman in the world, he tells me, his hand caressing my neck. Until me.
I will have you, or you will die, he whispers, and I feel his lips against my neck.
"It will not happen," the minister of justice assures me, running thin hands across a giant book of laws.
"I know," I tell him, blinking back tears, staring out a window. This is a lie: I do not know.
"Understand this," says the minister of war, coughing a little. "He will be removed, that is certain. It is simply that it must be done with care--"
I know this, too.
If I were not a girl, a woman, it would be simpler. But I am, and the ministers are not secure enough to place me on the throne. No, it must be a man, and I, if possible, married to him, for legitimacy. The problem is: which man? The neighboring kingdoms have many princes, but the ministers do not trust foreign princes, save the ones who come in fairy tales. I have many cousins, but some have their own kingdoms, or hopes of kingdoms; some are too young, some too old, some too cruel.
Meanwhile, the country is within the hands of its ministers, who take care of it well enough. Or so I assume; as a princess, a daughter of the royal household, I am not allowed to see much. But we are not at war, and I have heard of no rebellions, or plagues, or famines. So I assume it is well enough.
I do not assume it will stay the same.
"There is another possibility," says the minister of agriculture, an excessively skinny and fastidious man who looks as if he has never entered a field, or eaten much of its products. He terrifies me, although I have never said so. He waits for our, "What?" When none of us respond, he continues, a certain nervousness in his voice.
The donkey skin is brought to me three days later. My father has been told it is my earnest desire. The owner has been told that the court feared the donkey was under an enchantment. The ministers are very good at spreading lies, if they wish.
An old woman helps the Minister of War drape the donkey skin over my head and legs. The Minister of Justice shakes his head. "I only hope it will be enough."
"He will not recognize me," I say, with a little hard laugh. "He believes I am beautiful."
The woman in the mirror is not beautiful.
Stripped of gems and jewels, covered in the skin of a donkey, hands muddied with ink and dust, she looks faintly ridiculous, as if not entirely prepared for a masquerade ball. She is not a princess, this woman. She is me.
I think of the prince who might be able to save this kingdom, if all goes well.
I think of the previous owner of the donkey skin.
I will not think of my mother. Or my father.
We sneak away in the darkness, a maid and I.
I do not know her. She was the excellent suggestion of the Minister of Trade. I would not want to travel alone, and she looks clever and strong. And honest: she does not bother me with lies about my beauty or the ease of a journey.
We have four kingdoms to choose from, four kingdoms with young princes who might be able to look beneath the donkey skin, who never knew my mother, who will not expect me to become her.
I do not know which kingdom I should try.
"Throw dust in the wind, and follow that," says the maid, and I do. It seems--but perhaps this is my imagination--to float in the air a moment, unwilling to sink back into the earth. But after that moment, it glimmers in the moonlight and shifts west in the wind.
And so that is the road we travel, the maid and I.
The first woman we meet on the road is an old crone.
"Because you cannot speak with the sun, I am supposed to give you this," she says, and closes my hand around a nut of gold.
"I was not trying to speak to the sun," I tell her.
"No one ever does," she tells me. "But that is what happens in these tales."
The second woman we meet on the road is a young maiden.
"Because you cannot speak with the moon, I am supposed to give you this," she says, and closes my hand around a nut of silver.
"I was not trying to speak with the moon," I tell her.
"Nevertheless," she says, and skips off, leaving herbs and leaves in her wake.
"Have you ever noticed," says my maid, "how no one ever gives these gifts to the maid?"
I eye her warily. I know that tale, the one where the maid tricks the princess, and takes her place as the false bride. I have heard that in the real tales, the maid kills the princess, and takes her place as the true bride. The princess becomes nothing more than a ghost, singing through a bone harp. I am certain, watching her, that she knows this tale as well. She gives me a twisted smile. "I have no desire to be a bride."
And so we walk on, my maid and I, with the gold and silver nuts clutched in my fists.
The third woman we meet is a musician of uncertain age, with a lyre strung across her shoulders.
"Because you cannot speak with the stars, I am supposed to give you this," she says, and closes my hand around a nut of purest darkness, a nut that is cold in my hands.
"I was not trying to speak with the stars," I say.
"I know," she tells me. She looks in my face for a time. I do not know what she is looking for, so I stand still, the maid by my side also silent.
"In case you change your mind," says the musician, reaching into a bag by her side.
She hands me a wooden flute, seemingly plain but--as I look at it--beautifully worked. I have never learned how to play the flute. Princesses play the harp, so sadly and sweetly, and sing in thin golden voices. I am about to tell her this, and realize that she is a musician, and already knows.
"And for you," the musician says, drawing out a small white bag and handing that and a second flute over to the maid. "Not much, I'm afraid, and probably not what you need, but you might be able to use it when your part of this story is done."
"My part of the story will be the same, I'm afraid," the maid says. "A servant's tale."
"Perhaps," said the musician. "It is hard for a servant to make her own tale. But it might be done."
"And I?" I interrupt.
The musician looks back at me. "You know your own tale," she says. "And how this will end."
And I do.
We sleep beside the road that night, covered by the donkey skin.
"I think I should stop calling you, 'the maid,'" I murmur, as we drift off beneath the clouds and stars. "What is your name?"
"Anthea," she tells me.
"Anthea," I repeat, and to myself, I think, friend. I have never had a friend before--that is not a prospect for princesses who must grow up to be like their mothers.
We pause at the gates of the castle, faces and hands covered in mud.
"Don't leave me," I say.
"Your Highness," she whispers. "A servant cannot have a servant. You will be known."
This is true. And yet -
"We could be two servant girls, arriving together," I suggest.
Anthea shakes her head. "No," she whispers. "If we are, if we try, someone will guess. In this part of the tale, your father still seeks your death."
I can feel the truth of this, in the heaviness of the donkey skin against my shoulders.
"One more gift," she tells me.
What she places in my hand is ordinary enough: thread. Two small needles. I look at her.
"If you get a chance to cut the skin," she says, "you might be able to do something with it."
I look down at the rough donkey skin concealing my legs.
"A little jacket, perhaps," she says. She leans in and brushes her lips against my cheek. "It will not be so bad, you see. But my part in your tale is done."
Anthea is right about one thing. It is not too bad, being a servant. It is painful, and I have never been so tired in my life, and I am abysmal at nearly every task I am given, causing the undercook to rain blows upon my shoulders. But the donkey skin absorbs some of the blows, and I am alive.
It is not too bad, until staggering beneath a heavy sack of potatoes, I see him. The prince.
This is solely because of the tale: given what I am, the lowest person in the castle, grateful for a few slices of old bread and a place to sleep near the fire, I should not be able to see the prince at all. But the nuts of gold and silver and darkness still rest against my skin, and I am still, beneath the donkey skin, a princess.
Strip him of his jewels and gold, and he would be, I think, like any other. But he is not so stripped, standing golden in the sunlight.
I still have the three rings I took from my jewel chest, rings I meant to sell for gold. I take one and drop it into the soup. I do not need to know how it will reach the prince. I know.
That night, the palace has a supper and a dance.
As if in a dream, I head to a small fountain in the corner of the palace garden. I strip off the donkey skin and stand beneath its water, letting the coldness flow over me. I shut my eyes; I had forgotten had marvelous, how wonderful it is to be clean.
It is almost with reluctance that I step out of the water and crack the golden nut.
The dress inside is glorious, the most marvelous work that even I, who have seen many such wonders, have ever seen. Oddly, I am able to step into it and tighten its stays without the assistance I am accustomed to with dresses like this. As I do, my hair twists in the wind, dries, and settles into a smooth mass of gleaming curls. I place the two remaining rings on my hands, and a glittering tiara from the golden nut in my hair. I place the donkey skin in the nut, knowing that although it cannot fit, it will, and does.
I glow with sunlight and gold as I step through the gardens on the way to the ballroom.
No one questions me as I enter the palace and sweep through its grand passageways to its reception hall and the twin ballrooms on either side. No one asks me to dance, either, but I am dancing all the same, with one lord or another until I find myself in the arms of the prince.
We whirl about the floor until it is time for supper, and then we eat together, from the same golden plate.
As we eat and talk, I see a girl in a dress of forest green, malachites scattered among her hair and along her neck. Not the emeralds the more wealthy women are wearing, but they suit her and the dress. Her eyes are open, hurt, bewildered. She has danced with him, I think; she has spoken with the prince.
She is not a princess. She can be, or not be, her mother.
The prince brushes his lips against my cheek. The palace hushes. I rise and run back to the fountain, knowing they will not be able to follow me.
The next morning, everything seems heavier: the water, the pots, the potatoes, the donkey skin scratching upon my back. I listen to the servants discussing the mysterious ring found in the soup; the mysterious golden woman at the dance. They are worried, it seems, that this will be a repeat of an earlier tale, where women sliced their feet to push them into a forgotten shoe. Naturally, it was the servants who had to clean up the blood, and equally naturally, it was the sort of blood that never really comes out of the floor.
But this tale, they say hopefully, contains a ring and a dress from the sun. Perhaps it will not have as much blood.
I will have you, or you will die.
The prince will have another ball in a week. I feel the other two nuts rubbing against my skin.
The week passes in work and scrubbing. I see the prince, in the halls and the gardens. Always at a distance, never where we can touch. Never where he would see me beneath the donkey skin. Twice, I see him with the girl, the one who watched him so closely at the ball. I see the way he looks at her, the comfort that has grown up between them.
I will have you, or you will die.
I cannot help them. She is not a princess. She is only a girl in love.
I drop another ring into the prince's soup.
When the ball begins, I am out in the fountain again, splashing in the water, rejoicing as the dirt lifts from my skin. I open the silver nut, and step into the dress inside, a miracle of white and silver that glimmers like the moon. Moonstones and diamonds shimmer in my hair, and I whirl and dance as I place the donkey skin in the nut and make my way to the ball.
This night, I dance only with the prince. We whisper and laugh, although of what I am not sure. When his hand touches mine I stroke his in return. He does not want to let go. I do not want to let go. I do not want this dance to ever end.
The girl watches us from the corner, this time in a dress of dark blue, with lapis lazuli in her hair and on her neck. If she dances with another man, I do not see it.
The prince takes me into supper, a feast of delicacies (I shudder at the thought of the cleaning and preparation these fine foods needed, especially since so many of them will not be eaten.) We dine off a silver plate that reflects the candles with a soft blaze. He is touching more of me tonight, and I more of him, even as our talk remains of other things.
The prince mentions my father's name, casually, as a prince speaks of a rival king. I drop my fork.
"He and I are not at war yet," the prince says, with a twisted smile.
I will have you, or you will die.
He is wearing the rings I dropped into the soup, one on each hand. I touch each ring, rise from the table, and flee. As I do, I see the girl watching me, her eyes filled with tears. I must reach the fountain, I think, and plunge into the water.
A marriage between us will save my kingdom from war.
The kingdom that was willing to let me wed my father, that was willing to have me slink through the darkness under a donkey skin.
I will have you, or you will die.
The water of the fountain is very cold.
I know how this tale is supposed to end. I know that I should shake out that final nut, with its dress of stars, and enter the hall, hair gleaming, and kneel by the foot of the prince, who, dazzled, will kiss me. We will invite my father to the wedding, and dance as the other girl watches from the corner, trying not to weep. (She is not, after all, a part of this tale, not really, and she will not be able to say a word.) Our kingdoms will be joined, and the ministers, who sent me to search for a prince, will rejoice.
We will have a daughter, a princess, glorious and beautiful in gems, who will kneel before her father's adoring gaze. When she dances, he will be reminded of me, in my youth. Of her mother.
We will be happy, happy, as they say, ever after.
I know how this tale is supposed to end.
I send the three dresses to Anthea. I do not know what she will do with them, but perhaps, I think, it will be enough to remind her that she does not need to stay in a tale that is not hers. I send the last ring, a fragile concoction of emeralds and sapphires, to the girl who loves the prince, with a note asking her to give it to her daughter, if she has one.
I place the donkey skin around my shoulders, now changed: pounded and scraped into something almost leather, trimmed and sewn into a neat jacket, lined with soft fur. Another oddity, no more. I place the flute, the gift of the musician, against my mouth. I am not my mother, I think, and stride out into the sun.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 10th, 2013
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