by Shweta Narayan
There once lived a king whose only daughter was a fairy tale. The king had three strong handsome sons and he found them well enough, but not entirely satisfactory. They fought, and yelled, and tore their clothes, as he was sure he never had; they never seemed to exist but in imperfection. Here a smudge on one’s nose; there a purpling black eye, and all through the palace, a wearying unceasing noise of energetic boy.
“If only we had a daughter,” the king said to his queen one day, with the smile that had heated her blood after the first gruelling pregnancy was over, warmed it to a sense of Oh why not after the second, and now after the third sent entirely the wrong shivers down her spine. “She would never trouble you with all this yowling and yelling and lace soaked right through with mud. No, she would sit prettily at your feet in a dress of whitest silk, and let you brush her golden hair, with a smile in her sky-blue eyes as she told you in the prettiest little lisp about her lessons.”
The queen, who was fond of yowling and yelling and gap-toothed grins from dirty faces, and moreover remembered being expected to sit still and be angelic while her hair was pulled and tweaked and tortured into place, smiled and kissed him and murmured something vague. But from that moment, the King seemed never able to find her without a wretched maiden aunt or two ensconced in the room, and the old women grew distressingly deaf and bawdy when he tried to let them know they were not welcome.
So the years passed, and mud pies were set aside for swordfights, and bites from pestering the dogs replaced with broken arms from sneaking out the window away from tutors, and the king spoke plaintively, lovingly, of the daughter he would have had. In his mind she grew, as quickly his boys did — though without any of the mud and broken glass — into a lithe and lovely young woman. He would tell the court of her blond hair, rippling like beaten gold down to her ankles, and when the ladies winced he took it for jealousy. She had a mouth like a rosebud, he said, and the most beautiful sea-green eyes. More wistfully he would sometimes add, “Like her mother.”
He decided one day that his daughter had come of age, and ordered a celebration greater than any his sons had been given. And in the drunken warmth of that celebration he confided to the whole gathering that his daughter, though lovely, felt often unnoticed and alone; and he offered her hand in marriage to the worthiest prince present.
The king of the land to the south, who was an old friend of his, said gently, “You realize she doesn’t actually exist.”
But it could not have been said gently enough, and perhaps should not have been said at all; the ensuing argument grew ever louder and more bitter, till, the next day, both kingdoms woke to find themselves at war.
It was a desultory war, little more than a synchronized march through sticky mud, with both armies doing their best not to be there for skirmishes. Only the king’s eldest son really gave it all his heart, and that because he liked military strategy.
In fact, the armies were so busy avoiding each other that one morning a lone minstrel walked calmly over the border and camped unnoticed till the first stars were speckling the sunset sky, when a general tripped over him. He came fleeing the southern kingdom, he told them while he packed away his picnic, with only a broken lute to his name and a grand and terrible tale to tell. And that was all it took for the court to welcome him.
At first they did so with a sort of smug wariness; but the minstrel was a slender youth with wide artless eyes, dressed all in muddy green; and his fine fair hair, hacked unevenly short, floated about his head to make him look like nothing more worrisome than an overgrown dandelion. The court thawed as fast as summer snowfall, and very soon the king granted him audience.
“Your terrible tale,” said the eldest prince. “Is it of the enemy’s troop movements?” He had this at least in common with his father: they both could say ’enemy’ without the slightest twitch of a smile.
“It is not,” said the minstrel. “It is a tale of a lovely princess caught out of reality, though not out of love.”
The prince sighed. “Then,” he said, “My father will indeed want to hear it.”
The minstrel smiled, and approached the king to bow. “Once upon a time,” he began then, as storytellers are meant to, “there was a King whose only daughter was a fairy tale.”
“This king’s precious daughter,” continued the minstrel, “this child of dreams and wishful memory, was under a dread curse which let her live only in the shape of things that barely were. Dust motes dancing in the sun, the tug of memory in other people’s smiles, the knowledge of what was not, ever, there…”
The king leaned forward, excitement brightening his eyes, while around him the court tried to hide its grimaces. The eldest prince groaned aloud; the middle looked at their mother and rolled his eyes. The youngest smiled, just a little, but only the storyteller noticed — for why would anyone look at the youngest and most ordinary prince?
The minstrel’s rolling sentences ended; he paused, with a slight, regretful smile. “And there the story ends unfinished,” he said, “for this princess of the fantastic cannot attain glorious reality until her true tale is told.”
“Ah,” said the king. He sat back. The court started to sigh relief — but then he stood, suddenly, and announced, “Our heir shall be the son who finds this true tale, and brings his beloved little sister to life.”
The king’s pronouncement threw the court into such an uproar that it was a day before they calmed down enough for the princes to say anything at all. But on the evening after the minstrel came to the court, the eldest prince stepped forward with an uncomfortable cough. “I will tell you the story of the sister I love, father,” he said. “May it be true.”
“There once was a princess of this land,” he continued, “fast and brave as any boy. She never was scared to climb trees or sneak out of windows with her older brothers, and she never cried at a skinned knee.” He paused, beaming, his eyes on something altogether wonderful. “And honest, and honorable. Why, when the land went to war over an insult to her name, she was not a shrinking princess in a tower. No, she disguised herself as a soldier boy and climbed out of a window and down a tree and ran away to join the army and defend her own honor. There could be no better sister in the world.”
The king snorted. The prince glanced over to see his father’s lip curled in disgust, and flushed as though he had been painted in beetroot juice. “I’m sorry, father,” he said. “It seems my story isn’t true.”
“Thank every god for that,” said the king.
The prince stared at him in bemusement for a moment, but his good nature won. “Ah well,” he said. “It would have been nice to have such a sister, but as to being heir — I’d rather be a general anyway.” And off he went, the very next day, to ride in gleaming gold-inlaid armor at the head of the army.
The evening after the eldest prince rode off, his next brother stepped up to speak. “I will tell you the story of the daughter you love, father,” he said with a thin smile. “May it bring you joy.”
The king smiled.
His middle son said, “There once was a princess, in this land, who was gentler and prettier and cleaner than any boy could ever be. Or any girl, at that, save this princess.” He glanced at his mother. “She did nothing all day, save sit with perfect posture while she was dressed and groomed and petted, and say pretty things to indulgent adults, for nobody who walked around in the world could stay as clean as she was.”
The prince raised eyebrows at his father, then. “Of course, this meant she wasn’t in the world, and none of the other children ever saw her. Over time, they came to wonder whether she was in fact merely a tale. And–”
“Would you have my tale ended before we know if it is true, father?”
The king drew breath; but he knew, as they all knew, that the tale was not true, and he let it out in a sigh.
“Ah, well,” said the prince, with a wry smile for his mother, “as to being heir, I would rather be anything at all than have a sister like that.”
The third prince (who was, as third princes always are, a hero of this tale) heard every story with a small, barely noticed smile. And when it came to be his turn to speak, he said, “Father, I shall tell you the true story. The story of my fairy tale sister. Or rather–” and here he turned to smile full-on at the minstrel– “I shall continue it, for the storyteller told us its beginning, correctly as storytellers do.”
The king looked less than pleased, but his youngest son smiled and continued, with a flourish. “She was conceived in her father’s mind, and born quietly, tentatively, into the land of what-if. Nourished by wistful adjectives white as milk, she grew from a sturdy baby to a girl graceful enough to slip through the smallest pause. But she was cursed, as is everyone and everything in the land of what-if, to live always apart from the rest of us.
“Her fragmented, lonely existence continued, in phrases half-believed and seldom spoken, until the third son of a neighbouring king heard the tales and fell in love. The princess’ coming of age celebration was a happy dream for him, his tongue bubbling over with joyous words he hoped soon to speak — until his father made an unfortunate comment and their lands ended up at war. Torn with grief, this prince hacked his fair hair short, dressed up as a minstrel, and left his land to come north and save his love. And in the land he had visited so often, nobody knew him but his old playmate.”
The king stared now at the minstrel, who was hanging on the prince’s every word, eyes lit with wistful love. The prince continued, “As these two dear friends had come to understand, a fairy tale princess lives in words; tales are her home, her food, the air she breathes. We have let her tales fall into shadows, withering away in an ever-thickening blanket of dust. It is past time to free my sister, father, and give her rich tales befitting a princess.”
“And you will tell me that is all she can be?” his father demanded. “You give up on her, like your worthless brothers, like –” But the words caught in his throat, because the face turned to him held such desolation that it might turn back the spring.
“How could you deny her?” his son asked in a shaking voice. “Just because she is not precisely what you wanted her to be? I thought you loved her more than that.”
The queen murmured, “Children never are quite what we expect, are they?”
“Well,” said the king, “I mean to say–” He turned on the minstrel. “You. What are your intentions?”
The minstrel bowed, deep and graceful and perhaps a trifle apologetic. “I would court your lovely daughter, majesty,” he said earnestly. “I would weave her tales and magic and cloaks of interlocking adjectives, violet as her effervescent eyes. And though it may be hard for a mortal man to love a tale, I shall not give up, no matter how long it takes to win her esteem.”
The king sighed. “Oh, very well.”
“But her answer must be her own, and not put into her mouth in a tale. I would not win her unfairly.”
“And I suppose,” said the king, “that I shall have to stop fighting your father.”
Within days a dozen new tales about the pair were flying around the palace and spreading across the land. The king, greeted each day by tales that he had not made up, came to delight in the daughter who was not quite what he had expected. He found himself more charmed by her surprises than dismayed.
The two youngest princes were almost never apart, and every morning the one who asked the other, “Has my sister told you yes?”
And the other would say, “Alas; but she gazed on me with her eyes silver as moonlight on the lake, and smiled when I offered her a sonnet. So I yet have hope.” Or he might say, “Alas; I think she may have said yes this time, but an ogre snatched her up at just that moment, and I saw only the sunlight reflected in her tawny eyes. I must away to find her.”
And his friend might say, “Shall I come with you?” and they would smile.
The middle prince had little interest in these tales, but he traveled south to broker peace. And he did such a splendid job of this that he was sent immediately off on another diplomatic mission, and then another. His mother read parts of his long, droll letters out loud to her husband; but other parts she fell silent over, with a dimple and a hand over her mouth.
The eldest prince grumbled about his war being over and his sister getting to have all the fun now, then took off to have his own adventures. He returned a year and a day later with grand tales and a tomboy bride, and settled happily to training soldiers even younger than himself. In the muddle, the king never had named an heir, and when the eldest and his bride started filling the palace with noisy grandchildren, the topic was quietly dropped.
And so all was well, in some ways. But as the king had commanded, no tale of his daughter ever revealed her answer; every time her swain went down on bent knee, a spurned fairy or a wicked wizard or a spindle would swoop in to disturb the moment. But he never gave up, and nor did the king’s third son.
And so they all muddled along well enough until they died — except for the princess, who lived, as fairy tales must, happily ever after.
Shweta Narayan‘s stories have recently appeared in publications such as Realms of Fantasy and the anthologies Clockwork Phoenix 3 and The Beastly Bride, and her poetry in Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, and Stone Telling. She attended Clarion 2007, for which she received the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship.