The following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Terrible Princess: A Celebration of the Fantasy Genre. Please enjoy.
Princess Kate stood in her lavishly appointed dressing room, examining her reflection in a large gilded mirror. She was wearing a new pink dress that had puffy sleeves and a large circular skirt. The whole thing was festooned with ruffles. Her golden hair had been put up into two perfect spirals, one on each side of her head. A small necklace with precious blue stones brought out the color of her large eyes. It was said that her face was the original inspiration for porcelain dolls, complete with naturally rosy cheeks. The rumors were true: she was the most adorable six-year-old princess in history.
She frowned, picked up a nearby shoe and hurled it at the mirror, shattering it. She smiled down at her many distorted reflections, then began to leave when a shrill voice cried out from behind her.
“Oh no, young majesty! Not again!”
The maid clasped her hands over her mouth a little too late. Kate stopped abruptly, her fists clenched. The maid tried not to move a muscle, but soon realized to her horror that she had begun babbling at the irritated princess.
“…spoke out of turn, and am so very sorry! Please excuse my outburst! It was a WRETCHED mirror! A VERY wretched mirror indeed! No better than the last twelve… No better at all!”
She clamped her teeth together and stared intensely at the child’s back, watching with fading hope for any sign of leniency. The princess’s fists relaxed ever so slightly. Encouraged, the maid continued.
“I… I’ll just… clear it away… then…”
Seconds crawled by. Finally, the princess walked away.
The maid released a long exhale, thanked several of the gods under her breath with a newfound piety, then busied herself with a dustpan and brush. Being dismissed from the castle was the least of her worries; servants of young Princess Kate were replaced far more often than mirrors. Moreover, they seemed to vanish without a trace. Thoughts of various horrible fates tormented her as she worked, and before she had finished she had resolved to flee secretly in the night and hide in the countryside with a new identity.
Kate was smiling. She didn’t like groveling as a rule, but she relished at being able to evoke such fear in a servant, even while dressed in this demeaning way. Her uncomfortable shoes clacked on the huge stones of the balcony and were quieted on the lush purple carpet of her playroom.
She approached a table and chair set made of the finest wood. It had been an heirloom passed down to the royal children, until it had come to Kate. Upon possession, she had carved the word “PEZENT P E a S A N T” into the back of three of the chairs, and “KWIEN Q U e E N” into the fourth, making corrections as her spelling improved. She sat in her chair and gently picked up a love-worn doll from the table. Its blonde hair had been cut short, leaving only tufts on a mostly bald scalp. Kate had dyed its white dress black using one of her former tutors’ inkwells. It was perfect.
“You’re so lucky, Narcissa,” she said to the doll. “You don’t have to go to these boring feasts or deal with any of the stupid guests. They only come here to kiss my father’s donkey anywa-.”
“Kiss yer father’s WHAT?!” thundered a voice. A massive man with a deeply scarred face and greying hair was standing at the door. Kate turned and looked up at the only remaining person willing to be her tutor, the king’s old war companion and Lord General of the royal armies.
“Oh, hi Ruger…”
Ruger nodded. “What’s all this about a donkey?”
Kate rolled her eyes.
“Nanny heard me say ‘ass’ once and made me sit in the corner for 10 whole minutes as punishment so-”
He exploded into laughter.
She glared at him. “It’s not funny, Ruger!”
“Oh yes it is!” he said, wiping away a tear, still chuckling. “You should mind yer Nanny, but don’t you lose any of that pluck! The gods know you got more than yer share, and the kingdom might need it someday!” He sat down heavily on one of the delicate chairs. It creaked its displeasure.
She cracked a smile at his praise. “What did you want Ruger?”
“I came to talk about yer lessons.”
“Fine with me, I love Battle Strategums and Sword Play!” she said brightly.
His expression sobered. “That’s the thing, Kate… the King doesn’t want me encouragin’ you in so-called masculine pursuits anymore.”
Kate was stunned for a second, then bellowed, “What?! WHY?!”
“He said he wants you to learn to be a… a lady.” He said the word with disgust.
She looked as if she had bitten into a lemon, then rallied, “What about Bergren? Is he training to be a lady?!”
“Probably.” Ruger shrugged. “He’ll be needin’ all those fancy manners when he’s king.”
“But because he’s a boy, he still gets battle training!” she accused.
“ ‘fraid so.”
“IT’S NOT FAIR!” She slammed her hands on the table causing her corkscrew curls hit her in the face. She screached in rage.
Ruger leaned in and spoke quietly. “Listen… I think it’s rubbish too! Some of the best warriors I’ve known were women, and I’m sure you’d be one of ’em someday. And let’s face it, yer brother seems more fit to be a cleric than a king, but…” He sighed and rubbed his face before continuing. “Yer father’s a good man… saved my sorry hide in battle more than once…. but this court life… it’s changed him. He’s more worried with keepin’ up appearances than with sense. But he is the king so-”
“-So you’re going to TRY turning me into a lady,” she said threateningly.
He bristled at the thought. “’Course not! We can keep up yer battle trainin’ in secret. BUT, Nanny will start teachin’ you courtliness tomorrow…” He waved a hand vaguely, “…how to eat with ten different forks and such.”
Kate scowled at first, then considered this. “Can’t you stab people with forks?”
Ruger smiled broadly. “Atta girl! Always lookin’ on the bright side!” He began to stand, then hesitated. “One more thing… it’s probably nothin’ but… well… just keep your wits about you at this feast, alright? If you see or hear any trouble, you come to me.”
“It’s just the royals from Rosamonde coming tonight, as usual. They smell like old powder and linament. What trouble could those porridge-pots be?” Kate said dismissively.
“It’s just a feelin’!” Ruger said defensively, “There might be danger, there might not! So try not to fall asleep at this one!”
“No promises,” Kate said with a smile. Surely Ruger was just trying to cheer her up with some imagined intrigue.
“I mean it! Stay alert!” he said sternly before leaving the room.
Kate was stunned. She had barely begun contemplating how tonight could possibly be dangerous, let alone interesting, when she heard a knock at the door. “WHO IS IT?!” she snapped.
A plump woman with gentle eyes and a cheery face entered. “Now now, my little Kaytidid! That’s no way for a princess to speak, is it?”
Kate’s eyes dulled.
“No, Nanny,” she droned.
“No indeed! Especially not such a lovely princess as we have here, hmm?” Nanny removed a bejewled, silver tiara from a velvet pouch and began securing it on Kate’s head.
“Now I don’t want you fussing with this again. Remember what you did last time? Placing it in the hearth-fire indeed…”
Kate winced, “I wouldn’t try to smelt silver into a dagger anymore! Smithy says that steel is much-”
“Very naughty! Took me ages to get the soot off…”
Kate gave up and crossed her arms petulantly.
“There,” Nanny took a step back and looked at the sour faced girl, her eyes becoming teary. “Ohhh… you look like a little angel!”
Ruger’s warning popped back into Kate’s mind. She decided to see what she could ferret out of Nanny.
“Nanny? Have the Rosamondes arrived yet?” she asked sweetly.
Nanny paled. “Oh… Errm… I’m not sure dear.”
Kate smiled viciously at the poor liar. “Is there anything different or special about the feast tonight?”
Nanny looked panicked. “W… Why do you ask, my dear?”
Kate went in for the kill. “Just a… bad feeling.”
Nanny’s eyes bulged. She had the unique and long-held believed that soothsayers weren’t the only ones who could read minds and predict the future. She was adamant that cows’ udders, speckled eggs, rudely shaped clouds, hairless cats, eunuchs, and little girls could too. Especially little girls. She had to think fast.
“Oh sweetie… they’d never tell ol’ Nanny anything important… Anything that’s a surprize to you would be a surprize to me, I shouldn’t wonder!” Nanny was looking away and ringing her hands.
Before Kate could open her mouth, Nanny quickly added, “But I did overhear one thing that you might find interesting…”
Kate’s eyes widened.
“Now don’t you go telling anyone I told you… and it isn’t certain, mind! But I heard…”
Kate held her breath in anticipation.
“…they’ll be serving apple dumplings tonight! Your favorite!”
Kate slumped back into the chair.
“Now, promise your Nanny you won’t tell a soul!”
“I promise, Nanny,” she said dully.
“That’s a good girl! Right, I’ll be off then. Lots to do!” Nanny gave the princess one last approving look then headed for the door. Kate realized Nanny was muttering to herself and strained to listen. “…at least the Rosamondes were civilized… …new brutes broke three windows… …wrecked the privy… strange stains on the rug… blasted savages…”
“Savages?!” Kate blurted.
“What?!” Nanny yelped. “Oh no, I… said… erm… SAUSAGES! That’s right! We’re out of sausages!” She focused all her power on thinking about sausages, just in case. “Don’t mind your old Nanny talking to herself, my little Katydid! I’ll be back to tuck you in tonight.” Nanny looked relieved as she rushed out of the room.
Savages AND apple dumplings? Ruger was right, something strange was happening. Kate was flooded with excitement. She rushed to her dresser and removed a small steel dagger from the false panel in the back. She strapped it to her leg with strips of leather.
“Well Narcissa,” she said to her doll while straightening her dress, “maybe this feast isn’t going to be so boring afterall!”