I. The Invitation
I am beautiful.
I am tall and willowy, with the almond eyes of my people set like topazes in my flawless, heart shaped face. My skin is smooth and creamy with the faintest flush of peaches along my cheeks. My hair is the color of autumn leaves. My lips curve like Cupid’s bow and my hips hold promises when I walk. I have a lilting laugh like birdsong and the grace of a swan is in my every movement.
I am exquisite, entrancing, and desirable beyond all measure.
Apparently, Louis Charmant had peasant tastes.
I had known Louis all of his life, of course. I knew his father, and his father’s father before him. I had dallied with the Charmant line for nigh upon two hundred years. Not with them alone, naturally, but I always returned to House Charmant. The men grew more handsome with each passing generation; the girls grew more nubile and more willing. Over the years, I’d deflowered a veritable bouquet of Charmants. It is not as though I had not done well by them. As I said, I am beautiful, and I am certainly skilled in the arts of pleasure. Albert Charmant was so pleasing to me that I helped to set him upon the throne. I became something of a family tradition.
When Louis was fifteen, I began to look once again toward House Charmant. I had been away for some time but I fully expected that the boy would be at least as handsome as his papa had been at his age. I was not disappointed.
I made my first visit to Louis at night as he slept. Standing over his bed, I snapped up a soft glowing light so I could take a better look at him.
He was delicious: smooth, clear bronzed skin, honey golden hair, high cheekbones and an aristocratic nose. He had a deeply dimpled chin and the downy fuzz of his first beard. His eyes, should he open them, would be the startling sea blue common to his line. I remembered when I first saw those eyes looking up at me out of Albert’s face. I gazed down at Louis’ broad shoulders, his smooth chest, and the sculpted muscles of his lean arms, and immediately set about planning how I would seduce him.
Each Charmant had been unique. Though many had expected some dalliance with me, prepared, perhaps, by their own family tales about my charms, none had known when or how it would occur. I found that the anticipation, the mystery, added such spice to the proceedings. Louis’ uncle Philippe, for example, fancied himself quite the knight errant; I allowed him to rescue me from a small but rather fierce dragon. Gaston was a bit of a brute: with him, I merely played the helpless shrinking violet and he took me most forcefully. Cousin Angelique was prone to melancholia and fits of dark fancy; I appeared in her chambers one midnight, cloaked in darkness, and fulfilled her desires for drama and imagined peril.
I watched Louis from the shadows for several days. He was far more tantalizing awake than asleep. His every movement taunted me with thoughts of pleasure yet to come. He spent time dicing in taverns, and time at the dogfights and bearbaiting pit. He went riding in the woods, and sometimes brought back game. He was never without a little knot of courtiers and hangers-on, sons of the various noblemen in residence at the palace.
I noticed, too, that Louis was not a kind man. He spoke sharply to the servants for no reason and was arrogant with servants and nobles alike. He was aware of both his physical perfection and his station in life, and took full advantage. He and his young followers stole fruit from merchants, teased old peasant women, played pranks on elderly courtiers, and threw stones at cats.
That did not distract me in the least, you understand. I have been known to be spiteful on occasion myself. Besides, he was such an attractive man.
I decided to begin by teasing Louis somewhat. For several nights, I appeared in his chambers, careful never to wake him. I allowed him to inhale my perfume; a scent created for me by a very adept sorceress and guaranteed to inspire him to dark and erotic dreams. I caressed him lightly in his sleep: his cheeks, his chest, his strong thighs, but never anything more intimate. No, that I left strictly alone.
I wanted him tantalized, tortured, desperate for relief. Indeed, it began to work upon him almost immediately. I watched, hidden, as he began to complain to his fellows of restless nights and odd dreams. He spent more and more time riding and less time in the taverns. I played with him as a cat would play with its prey.
At last, I determined that he was sufficiently eager. He was to go riding with his cronies in the cool of the afternoon. He obviously enjoyed these rides and always returned in a good humor. I decided to make this particular outing a ride he would always remember fondly.
Louis and his hangers-on left after the noon meal. It would be easy enough to pick up their trail horses think very simple but very loud thoughts. Then I would announce myself, and before his companions select him as the latest beneficiary of my many charms.
I arrayed myself most magnificently in a dress of the Grecian style, but of the thinnest, lightest, richest amber colored silk, belted with fine cords of wine and golden silk twisted together. Gold sandals peeped from beneath my airy swirling skirts and I bound back my curls with a single strand of the finest gold chain beaded with topaz and blood red garnets. I wore no other jewels, but left my slender arms and throat temptingly bare. I was a prize for any king or emperor. Louis, I mused, would be awestruck.
When I located the horses, I was confused to find them tied outside of a small lodge in the woods. Half a dozen horses, including the Prince’s mount, were tended by a single squire. I could hear raucous laughter, shouts, and to my surprise, the voices of women.
“Bring your Master to me,” I commanded the wide-eyed squire, who stared at me in wonder. He swallowed, and shook his head.
“I…I cannot, Lady. His Highness does not wish to be disturbed.”
I fixed my eyes on his and let a bit of my glamour steal over him. He began to tremble as I stared into his eyes.
“Bring your Master to me.”
“Lady, I may not disturb him.” The boy stood straight and tall, though he clearly wished to obey my command. I understood. His fear of Louis was too great to be overcome by my magic.
“Very well, then,” I said. “I shall go in to see the Prince myself. Step aside.” My glamoury was sufficient to awe the boy and force him to step away, allowing me to pass. I floated past him to the little lodge and pushed the door with my mind. It flew open with a crash and I lifted my skirts and stepped over the threshold into a dim and musty room. Loud voices immediately protested my abrupt entrance with shouts and insults.
“I said no disturbances, Jean. You’re in for a flogging, you little fool.” Then Louis looked up and realized the nature of the intrusion.
The room contained a table, a fireplace, a bench, and several low couches. Scattered about the room in various states of undress and in the middle of varying acts of pleasure were a few of Louis’ pack of courtiers, and a number of miscellaneous wenches of indeterminate class and breeding. One moaning pair of courtiers shared a single wench. Louis himself had a plump trollope on his lap, her yellow hair mussed, her bodice open, and her enormous breasts bare. He had one arm around her fondling a breast, and in his other hand, he held a mug of ale. The place stank of beer, sweat, and lust.
I looked at Louis. He glared at me, seemingly unfazed, and continued to stroke the wench’s breast.
“And who, pray tell, might you be?”
“Louis. My dear. I am disappointed to find you in such a condition. Drunk, and with a common strumpet. I anticipated better.” At that, the overblown blonde stood and made as though to step towards me. I froze her with a look and a small spell.
“Louis, come now. Surely, you know who I am. I am your destiny. This common play is degrading, Prince. Come and take pleasures with one who can offer you the beauty and art that a Prince deserves.”
He looked me up and down through slitted eyes. Then he laughed.
“Oh, I know who you are. You’re the family pet.” I froze, paralyzed by his insolence. “Really, I’d think you’d be a wrinkled crone by now. You’re not bad for a relic. Bit of a scrawny chicken, though. Skin and bones, you are. I like my women to look like women.” At that, he grabbed his blonde by the hand, pulled her back onto his lap, and covered her mouth with his in a wet moaning kiss.
When he finished, the trull looked up at me and giggled. Louis looked me in the eye and grinned.
“Run along now, Granny. I won’t be needing your services. Oh, unless one of the lads wants a turn?” His retainers and the other girls roared with laughter.
I do not know what stopped me from blasting all of them to ashes at that very moment. Shock, perhaps. For a moment, I stood there, frozen and incredulous. After a long horrible eternity, I recovered myself enough to fling my arms skyward and disappear in a puff of flame and smoke, Louis Charmant’s malicious giggle echoing in my ears.
Retreat is not in my nature. In chambers far away from the palace, I plotted revenge for the atrocious and scandalous insult given me by the vicious Princeling. I toyed with ideas both cruel and bloody, and considered tortures not used in a hundred years or more. Louis might have awoken as a toad or a jackass. My love affair with the Charmants was at an end. As surely as I helped the house rise, I would help it fall.
I had not long to wait for my opportunity.
The time had come for Louis to think of a bride. A ball was to be held for Louis’ sixteenth birthday, and all of the loveliest maidens of the nobility were to attend. Princesses of neighboring kingdoms were invited, along with their doting parents; presumably Louis would look over the assembled ladies and choose a few among the herd that he would not find objectionable as a consort, and his dear papa would then make arrangements to procure one of them for the Prince.
As soon as the ball was announced, dozens of highborn daughters began a flurry of preparations. Gowns, slippers, and jewels were ordered in copious amounts. There were seamstresses in the city able to retire from labor on their earnings from that one gala alone—at least those who did not collapse from exhaustion. Amidst all this activity I waited, and watched, and crafted my retribution.
The day before the ball, I sought out the girl, the key to my plan. I had been searching for days, and at last had found the very maiden I needed to help me. I was ready to reveal myself to her.
I phased in gently, appearing in a soft glow of golden light before her where she knelt on the hard flagstones, shivering and blue with cold in her filthy rags. She looked up at me through dull, dim eyes that should have been a sparkling green. Her mouth gaped.
“Don’t be afraid, child. I’m your fairy godmother. How would you like to go to a ball?”
That evening the palace was ablaze with a thousand lights as coach after elegant coach disgorged a panoply of beautiful young girls onto the steps of the palace. Inside, Louis lounged in a chair between his royal parents and watched, languid and disinterested, as each girl was announced.
“The Honorable Eloise du Barry.”
“Princess Alouette-Louise de Villiers.”
“Lady Francesca of Mercado.”
At last, a coach more spectacular than any that had come before approached the entrance to the palace. Drawn by six white horses, with no less than four footmen in attendance, the vehicle looked as though it were made of crystal or ice. Its occupant was hazily visible through the slightly frosted walls of the gleaming carriage. Spectators gathered to watch the goings-on gasped when a scarlet clad footman opened the carriage door, placed a velvet footstool before the opening, and offered his hand to the exquisite creature inside to help her alight.
The dainty foot that stepped from the coach was shod in a slipper that might have been carved from the same glittering material as the carriage. The girl herself was astonishingly lovely. Silky hair of a blonde so pale it looked almost white cascaded over shoulders that were only a shade or two darker. Eyes of emerald sparkled and danced above high sculpted cheekbones and a slightly up-tilted nose. Pale rose lips invited kisses. High full breasts peeked from the decolletage of a cream and pale pink gown, which smoothed over a slender waist and flared again over rounded hips to fall in soft folds around smooth graceful long legs. A pale pink stone hung from a cream ribbon tied about her slender neck. Hundreds of tiny pearls encrusted the hem, girdle, and sleeves of the gown, and twined on thin pink ribbons through her lustrous ivory hair.
This vision climbed the palace stairs delicately with two of the footmen in attendance. One of her attendants went ahead of her to whisper her name to the steward; she had no invitation to present, but no one would dare deny this paragon entrance to the ball.
“The Honorable Elle-Marie”, proclaimed the steward, as the girl stepped into the arched doorway of the ballroom.
I had timed it so she would be one of the very last to arrive. As the guests began to notice her posing in the entrance, conversations began to die away. Even the musicians faltered, and the music faded, leaving the awed crowd in a hush. Magnificent. I had created a glowing, living work of art.
Moreover, Louis—everyone could see that Louis was enchanted. He ceased to lounge in his seat, and stood instead, smoothing his deep green satin jacket and straightening the lace at his collar and cuffs.
As the Prince approached the girl announced only as Elle-Marie, she gracefully sank into a deep and reverent curtsy, remaining in this position until Louis offered her his hand.
“Mademoiselle, enchanté. May I have this dance?”
She did not speak, but tilted her lovely head slightly to the right, cast a dazzling smile upon him, and gave one swift and eager nod.
And just so, Louis was entrapped.
For the rest of the evening, Louis danced every dance with Elle-Marie. He fed her sweetmeats from his fingertips. They sipped wine and became lost in each other’s eyes. Louis took her aside and stole kisses, and took other liberties. He did not seem to mind that she never spoke, and why should he? Her appearance did not suggest stimulation of the intellect.
During the first hour after Elle-Marie’s arrival, Louis’ infatuation with her was charming. But then the other maidens started to realize that all of their primping, powdering, and starving had been in vain. Parents of noble and royal houses began to understand that the expense of having their daughters dressed, shod, bejeweled, and imported from schools and estates hundreds of miles away for this one evening had been wasted. Their daughters were to be ignored.
Ignoring nubile young women is unkind. Ignoring the daughters of the nobility is precarious. Murmurs began. More than one fuming duke, earl, or potentate packed up a distressed wife and a tearful daughter or two and left in a huff. At least one hotheaded elder brother had to be restrained from challenging Louis to a duel after Louis, focused on Elle-Marie, nearly trod upon his sister and offered no word of apology. The evening was about to prove disastrous for the Charmants in terms of good relations with their neighbors and supporters.
This one night would not bring a kingdom down, of course, but a seed was planted. I have patience, and I planned to nurture that seed to glorious fruition.
As midnight approached, Louis, oblivious to the remaining edgy and discomfited guests, led Elle-Marie to the center of the ballroom for another dance. The other guests stepped back, unwilling to share the floor with the mooning couple. I clapped my hands with delight, for at that moment, all eyes were on the pair and it was more than I had hoped. It was the decisive moment.
The clock struck. My spells, designed to end at midnight, started to dissolve.
Outside, six white horses shrank into nothingness—or not quite nothingness, as six pale rats scurried away into the night. The coach itself began to melt, its crystalline beauty slipping away into the ether, leaving naught but a half-rotten hollow turnip in the gutter. Inside, women shrieked as Elle-Marie’s scarlet-garbed attendants, standing ready with the other servants, suddenly shifted and changed, leaving the ladies lifting their skirts and dancing about while four tiny red lizards scampered across the floor. The smoky scent of magic filled the room.
I do not believe that Louis was aware of what was happening around him as he danced with Elle-Marie, until my final spell began to fade.
As Louis watched in horror, his dancing partner began to stumble and ceased dancing. Her voluptuous body shrank, and became a bony, scrawny thing with one hideously hunched shoulder and the protruding belly of the malnourished. The cream and pink dress withered away to shapeless, filthy, and grayish rags, and the glimmering slippers became scraps clumsily tied about feet that were no longer dainty, but swollen and callused. The right foot was clubbed, and turned nearly at right angles inward. The ivory mane thinned and faded to an oat straw colored greasy mass. The green eyes dimmed and lost their luster, and the rosy lips stretched into a wide drooling grimace over a mouth free of all but three or four misshapen teeth.
Louis dropped her hand and shrank back in disgust from the scabrous beggar. At that moment, the halfwit squawked out the single phrase I had painstakingly drilled into her during the hours before the ball. Nearly too witless to survive in the world, still the creature was capable of learning and repeating a simple phrase at the appointed moment. When my spell wore off and freed her tongue, she began to shriek “Compl’ments of Melisande! Compl’ments of Melisande! Compl’ments of Melisande!”
In her excitement, she could not stop repeating the words at the top of her lungs. Louis gaped, frozen, until I stepped forward to the edge of the crowd and announced to the gathered guests “Why, look what Louis Charmant prefers as a bride!” At that, the shocked crowd started to titter, and then to chuckle, and then erupted fully into a roar of mocking laughter. Louis’ horrified parents sat helplessly on the dais while their guests pointed and sniggered at the Prince. Even the guards, who by rights should have acted to rescue the Prince from the situation, were bent over laughing. Through it all, the witless, overwrought creature that had been Elle-Marie continued to bray “Compl’ments of Melisande!”
Finally, Louis recovered enough composure to break through the boisterous guests and bolt for the door.
I left the palace that night, and I have never returned. The tale spread rapidly through the kingdoms, and Louis became a laughingstock. He drank himself into an early grave before he could take the crown. A cousin inherited, I believe. There are no more Charmants. I alone remain, and no lover since has refused me.
I am beautiful, but perilous.
Mia Nutick lives in Portland, OR with her husband and their Furry Horde. She writes dark fantasy and poetry and is working on a non-fiction memoir. Her work has been published in print and online in various obscure journals. Her book of poetry, Wicked Fairy Apologist is the first product from Spiderwise Press, the small arts press she is in the process of getting up and running.
Image: Enchantment by Maxfield Parrish.