A fairytale by Robin Wood
I’m one of 12 princesses, each more beautiful than the last.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Except that “more beautiful” is a relative term. It would be just as true to say that I’m one of 12, each plainer than the next.
My youngest sister, Eleanor, is lovely, with golden curls, dimples, and bright blue eyes. In fact, the youngest four are all really quite stunning, in their separate ways. The three before that are fairly pretty as well. Megan, Princess number five, is just ordinary looking; nothing special, but nothing untoward. Juniper, number four in line, has an unfortunate squint (she will not wear her spectacles) and unruly hair. Grace, the third oldest, is sadly knock-kneed, but happily her dresses hide it. She also freckles and somehow manages to look rumpled most of the time.
Jasmine is the oldest. You’d expect her to be the plainest of all, and I suppose if your idea of beauty is based entirely on softness and femininity you’d think you were right. She looks exactly like our father the king, but without the beard. She inherited his regal, beaked nose, his height, and his breadth across the shoulders, as well as his straight dark hair and piercing blue eyes. Like him, she’s slender and athletic, and inclined to stride about bellowing. She’s also going to inherit his crown, so really, her looks aren’t terribly important. She has plenty of suitors.
I’m Gayla. Second oldest. And I’m a mess. I’m as tall as Jasmine, but also what our mother the queen describes as “heavy set.” She means fat. On someone shorter, as I’ve had explained to me many, many times, it might be considered plump or cuddly. On me, because of my height, it just looks formidable, and unladylike. I’m not at all athletic, so our father has explained to me that there’s no reason for me to be so tall. I’d love to be shorter, but somehow it’s been years since I’ve managed it.
I also have wiry mud-brown hair that knots itself into tangles and escapes from all attempts to control it. My eyes aren’t any particular color, and they’re weak, necessitating the use of spectacles (which I wear.) I have freckles. And a wart next to my nose. And I’m clumsy.
There are 12 of us because our father the king really, really wanted a son and heir. But that didn’t happen, and by the time my mother the queen had had 12 daughters in 14 years, my father realized what story he was stuck in. Privately, I think he’d also grown so fond of Jasmine he wanted her to have the throne, not some hypothetical son of unknown character.
I’d figured out that we were going to be 12 Princesses by the time I was 10. I’d also realized that I was going to be the one that never married. At the time, I was delighted, because I had very little use for boys; I found them loud, stupid, obnoxious, mostly sticky, and with a tendency to laugh at things that weren’t funny.
So I decided I’d grow up to be Court Magician instead, and help our kingdom that way.
That would have worked out better if I’d had some magical aptitude. I was great with potions, but not so hot with the magic itself.
When I was 11, I decided that I’d become a great scholar and historian. My vast pool of knowledge and incisive decision making would save our kingdom in its darkest hour.
But history bored me to tears, and although I loved books, and would read for hours at a time, the books I loved were fiction; especially fantasy stories about places with no magic, and no monarchy. Which weren’t exactly prime material to learn anything that would be useful in the real world.
At 12, it was my ambition to excel at strategy and tactics. I would be a great general, renowned throughout the continent, and opposing armies would quail when they heard my name. I blame that on General Wain, who my father the king employed that year to teach us older girls about the Art of War. I thought he was devastatingly handsome, and cut a dashing figure in his bright uniform, glittering with gold embroidery and so many medals they could have doubled as armor.
It certainly wasn’t because I like war. On the contrary, when I see someone in pain it hurts me, too, and I do whatever I can to ease it and make them feel better. I can’t even kill a bug. There’s not a chance that I could order troops into combat.
I was 13 when Eleanor was born, and my mother the queen said “enough.” In my mind, that pretty much sealed my fate.
In a world like ours, where Destiny and Magic are the most powerful of the Natural Forces, I figured that meant I was just a placeholder. It was clear that Eleanor was going to have some kind of adventure and wind up marrying a hero, and the rest of us would be the 11 Princess who weren’t the youngest.
So we grew up.
We learned all the things that young princess are taught, including Statecraft, and how to rule a kingdom. Even Eleanor had to learn that, because her Hero might also be a Prince. As both our parents, the king and queen, were fond of telling us, it’s immense help to a king to have a queen who is well versed in all aspects of statecraft, including trade and taxes. I’m afraid I didn’t pay much attention, though, because I knew I’d never need it. Jasmine excelled in it, because she was going to have to rule after our father the king, which delighted him.
None of us could actually get engaged until Eleanor had had whatever-it-was, of course. But as the years went on it seemed that the palace was always full of various princes, courting one or another of us, or just hanging around. There’s no lack of small kingdoms like ours, which means lots of alliances and treaties. There’s nothing like a marriage to cement peaceful relations between kingdoms. I never doubted that Megan and even Juniper would wind up marrying some prince or other.
Grace has a lovely singing voice, so I assumed some blind harper would probably snap her up.
Which left me as the only one with no prospects at all.
By the time that Eleanor was 16, and it was reasonable to think that her adventure would happen soon, I was 29. Jasmine had taken over a lot of the State duties for our father, and I was helping with judgements and so on, but I still hadn’t figured out what I was going to do with myself once Eleanor was settled. Most of the younger ones had “understandings” with various princes by then.
I liked all the princes, which was good since a lot of them might wind up being my brothers-in-law, but I mostly sat back and watched rather than joining in. I mean, really, who would want to dance with me? If I stumbled, and I probably would, I might lurch against him and crush him like a bug! They asked, but I knew they were just being polite, so I always refused.
Instead, I concentrated on being happy for the younger ones, and tried not to think of myself too often.
Then it happened, right on schedule.
My parents noticed that Eleanor, who had always had a complexion like a blush rose, was getting paler and paler. She stopped eating, and started mostly playing with her food. She was tired and listless all day, and sometimes her bed looked as if she hadn’t been in it all night.
My father the king knew exactly what to do. He’d been preparing for this for years, after all. As soon as he realized that this was finally it, he sent one of his councilors to check on her in the dead of night. Sure enough, she was missing; but the door guard swore that she hadn’t left the room, and she wouldn’t say where she’d gone, or why.
He sent out a proclamation that very morning, announcing that he would give the hand of a princess in marriage to anyone who could solve the mystery.
All the princes who had been hanging around lined up. A fair number of young, unmarried men who weren’t royalty did, as well. (So did a few who were not young, but after a hurried consultation with my mother the queen, they were disqualified. The proclamation was amended to read “young men (under 35 years of age.)”
I expected Eleanor to perk up. After all, she’d been waiting her whole life for this. But I caught her peeking between the curtains at the line of men signing up for their chance, with tears in her eyes.
“Eleanor?” I said, as softly as I could. “Come to your Gayla,” and I held out my arms. She came, and leaned against me, crying her eyes out. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She burrowed into my shoulder, and then mumbled, almost too softly to hear, “I hate Destiny. Hate it, hate it, hate it.”
I sat down on the bench next to the window, and took her onto my lap. Great girl that she was, I was still much bigger, and had no problem at all cuddling her as if she was still six, with a banged up knee. “Don’t you want to have your Adventure?”
She sat up, and glared at me. “No! It’s stupid! Just because I’m youngest, I’m going to have to marry one of them.” she spat it out like a curse. This girl, who’d spent her childhood dancing around, singing and teasing the rest of us about her Adventure, no longer wanted any part of it! I have to admit, I was stunned.
She collapsed against me again. “Oh Gayla! I wish I was you, not me!”
She nodded, sobbing. “You’ll never be forced to marry someone you don’t like, while your True Love is out there.”
Oh. “Eleanor,” I said, as softly as I could, “Have you met someone you want to marry?”
She nodded. I handed her my handkerchief. She blew her nose.
“Are you sure that he’s not out there in line, in disguise?” After all, that’s what I would have done, if it had been me in love with a princess. This was the chance for anyone to win her hand, and our parents the king and queen wouldn’t be able to object, no matter what.
“He can’t be.” She sniffled.
“Why not?” I asked. “Oh Eleanor… he’s not a vampire or something, is he?”
She smiled sadly, and shook her head.
“Is he under an enchantment?”
She sat up and looked at me, as serious as I’ve ever seen her. “Can I really, really trust you?”
That hurt, but I tried to hide it. “Oh dear heart! Of course you can!”
She held up her little finger. “Pinky swear?”
I hooked it with mine, without a moment’s hesitation. “Pinky swear!”
She looked up and down the hallway. When you have 11 sisters, you learn to be cautious.
“He lives in an underground kingdom, and the gate only opens when the moon shines on it.”
“Ah.” My father the king didn’t want to waste any more time than had already gone by. He’d been waiting too long, and he wasn’t a patient man. So all applicants had to be signed in today, the same day as the proclamation, although from the looks of that line it would take weeks for each of them to have their night.
Unless the answer was found before that, of course.
“Okay. This is what we’ll do,” I said. I had her total attention now.
“If this batch all washes out, then our father the king will have to open the competition again, and your beau can nip out while the gate is open, wait for the morning and the new proclamation, and be first in line.”
She nodded mournfully. “But what if this group doesn’t all wash out?”
“I don’t suppose that you could just go without seeing your prince for a few weeks?”
Her eyes got huge, and she clutched her heart. “I couldn’t!”
“Not even if it meant that you’d be able to marry him eventually?”
She started to cry again, and shook her head.
“Then I’ll see to it that all the ones in this group fail. A sleeping draught is easy enough to make. If they’re asleep, they can’t very well follow you when you sneak out at night.”
She gave me a tentative, watery smile. “You’d do that for me?”
“To see you happy? Of course I would.”
So that’s what we did.
For the next two weeks, I fixed a sleeping potion every night, and every night I’d give it to that night’s prince (or whoever) as he got ready to wait and watch on the couch in Eleanor’s room. Every night, it made him super alert for the first 10 minutes or so, and then he’d sleep soundly. Once he was snoring, Eleanor would creep out, see her prince, and sneak back in.
Every morning, the poor prince (or whoever) would stand before the court, and admit that he’d seen nothing; just the princess laying there. Some of them said she was there all night, and some admitted that they weren’t able to stay awake, but none knew where she went. Only a couple were dishonorable (or desperate) enough to make up stories; but they had no evidence, and broke down under cross-examination.
Eleanor still looked wan, because she still wasn’t getting any sleep to speak of, and she was still not sure that our little ploy would work as we hoped.
In the meantime, all the princes kept hanging around, as they had for years, except now they were joined by an odd assortment of other young men, from the traditional soldiers and woodcutters to the occasional clerk or farmer. We even had one artist, a tall, handsome fellow, who painted little miniatures of all my sisters and thrilled them to bits. He offered to paint mine, too, but I didn’t want one. You wouldn’t either, if you were me. He was fun to talk with, though.
I did what I could to make them all feel comfortable and welcome. My father the king was at his most jovial, since the Long Wait (as he put it) was coming to an end. My mother was a little on the frantic side, as she prepared for a dozen weddings all at once. She was convinced that the rest of us would be married within the week, once Eleanor was “taken care of.”
For those two weeks, all went well, and I was sure it would continue to do so.
Then it was the artist’s turn.
As I handed him the potion, he asked me, “What’s this for?”
None of the others had asked; they all seemed to assume that I wanted my sister married as quickly as could be, so I would be on their side, of course.
For a moment, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Then I said, “I just thought you might want something to drink.”
He reached out, and took the goblet, examining it carefully. Then he looked up, and pinned me with his gaze. “Do you bring this to all the suitors?” he asked.
I smiled. “Of course!”
He nodded. “Of course.”
I watched while he drank it, but the room was dim, and his clothes were covered with stains and blotches from all the paint. I never noticed him dribbling it down his chin, and into his smock.
He handed me back the empty goblet, and I smiled, told him to take care, and left.
My heart was lighter than usual, because the moon was waning. The next night there would be no moon, and it would be safe. More fool I.
The next morning, as usual, we all assembled in the throne room.
Eleanor looked worse than ever, because she knew that she wasn’t going to be seeing her love for a day or so. I was on edge, although I didn’t know why. My other ten sisters were getting impatient; they’d hoped to have this settled by now. The rest of the court was enjoying the show.
The trumpets sounded, the double doors were flung open, and the artist walked up to the thrones with a huge grin on his face. My heart fell to my slippers.
“Well?” my father the king bellowed. Not to be alarmed. He usually does.
The artist gave a sweeping and courtly bow. “Your Majesty, I have solved the riddle!” And he proceeded to lay out the whole thing. How as soon as the moon rose, my sister got out of bed, and tapped on the wall, opening a secret door. How she crept out, and he followed. All about the meeting with a prince dressed in white velvet, moonstones, and pearls. How they whispered vows of undying love, and spoke of the gate being closed except when the moon shone on it. He even had a tiny piece of the prince’s cloak, which had gotten caught on a bush, and tore off as he rushed to get back inside before the gate closed at moon-set.
As he spoke, poor little Eleanor got paler and paler. When he held up the scrap of white velvet, with tiny moonstones sewn to it, she was as white as it was.
Everyone in the court could tell that the story was true. There was no sense in denying any of it.
My father the king sighed, took her hand, and held it out to the artist.
“You have solved the mystery, and her hand is yours,” he said. I don’t think he was happy. He did love her, the most beautiful of his daughters, and she was obviously heart broken.
“Sire,” the artist said, “Your proclamation stated that I could have the hand of any of the princesses.”
My father the king blinked, and said, “You don’t want Princess Eleanor?”
He shook his head. “No sire. I have no wish to break a maiden’s heart.”
Eleanor smiled like the sun coming out. “Oh thank you!” she cried. I don’t think anyone has ever been so delighted to be rejected, before or since.
My father the king let go of her hand, and she quickly withdrew it. “I don’t understand! Would you rather have another of my daughters?”
He nodded solemnly. “Yes, sire, I would.”
“Well, which one?”
There was a rustle among my sisters. He was just an artist, although he was very handsome. I could tell that some were hoping it was them, and some were hoping he’d choose someone else, because of their “understandings.” Jasmine’s jaw muscles bunched, and I knew she was thinking that he was going to claim her, and through her, the throne.
But he smiled, and looked right at me. “Princess Gayla,” he said.
I sat there, stunned, while the room erupted in cheers.
Jasmine and Grace, sitting on either side of me, nudged me. I got to my feet, and stumbled over to my father. He took my hand, smiling as if it would crack his face, and put it in the hand of the artist. He’d scrubbed his hands well. There was only a hint of paint left, around his cuticles.
“Why me?” I asked, under the noise of the crowd.
He smiled fondly at me. “Because you’re the kindest.”
“But I’m so ugly!”
His eyebrows shot to the top of his forehead, and he stared at me. “Why would you say that? You’re lovely!”
I just stared back, thinking that perhaps he needed spectacles too.
He smiled. He has a wonderful smile. “You’ll make a striking queen, as well as a kind one.”
I smiled ruefully back at him. “Oh dear. I’m afraid that it doesn’t work that way. You have me, but not the title.”
“Oh, right! I was forgetting.” He grinned, and winked at me.
“Your Majesty!” he had to bellow almost as loudly as my father the king to be heard. But the crowd quieted as soon as he had.
“I have a confession to make.” He let go of my hand, and ripped off his old paint-stained smock.
You can guess what happened next.
Sure enough, under it he was wearing a doublet made of cloth of gold, with emeralds sewn in an intricate pattern all over it. “Art is only a hobby of mine. I’m really Prince Giles, heir to the kingdom of Luxinstan.”
I thought the cheering had been loud before. The court pretty much exploded at that. I mean really, hats were tossed, the trumpeters each started to play a different fanfare for no particular reason, children were shouting and jumping up and down. It was just bedlam. After all, Luxinstan is the largest, richest kingdom around here, and my father had been trying to set up an alliance with them for ages. Being allied through marriage pretty much meant that there would be peace in this corner of the world for the foreseeable future.
So my mother was right. She did have to arrange a duodecuple wedding, (which was probably less work than 12 separate ones, but still.) Eleanor married her Prince, and was glowing so brightly she was practically luminous. They got married here, and also in his kingdom, because, as she said, anything worth doing was worth doing more than once. Jasmine married the prince she’d picked out to be her king nearly a decade before, and all the others married the princes they had understandings with. Even Grace married a prince, not a blind harper after all.
It turns out that looks aren’t everything, although Giles still insists that I’m not lacking in that department.
But I do wish I’d paid a bit more attention during Statecraft lessons. Life is a weird, unexpected journey. You never know what you’re going to need.
So, that’s the new story promised every-other-Saturday. I’m sorry there’s no picture for this one. I’ve been pretty sick, and didn’t manage to make one. 🙁
I hope you like the story! If you want to keep ’em coming, please consider joining my Patreon. Thanks!