the princess stayed in the tower and read books about better girls, where their hands learned how to hold swords, where they rode in on horses. i gave her books as often as i could. she devoured them.
her princes saw her and pretended to be scared off by dragons. got too lost in the thicket. didn’t want to handle it.
“tell me what it’s like, out there,” she whispers to me for the millionth time. i take her from The Throne into her bed, tucking her in and making sure her feet are covered.
“boring without you” i say as always, “but i did bring back a great story.”
i tell her about how the stars change beyond the equator. how there are places it looks like there are twin suns. how the desert crawls into you but so does snow. i talk about the taste of fruit and promise to bring her back some. she falls asleep while i murmur about rivers, and then in the morning i bring her from bed to Throne, even though she can do it on her own. sometimes she likes help, is all, and i’m happy to give it.
she doesn’t want help getting dressed. the men come for me, blindfold masters i have almost befriended. the path we take away from her is always different, carefully manufactured so i don’t know exactly where she’s located. after all, a lady might get ideas about things.
they let me go in the queen’s room. i report findings, ask for fruit in the next week’s supplies, am told not to spoil the princess, that she must be kind and waifish and wanting when the prince comes. i spend an hour suggesting that fruit might turn the blood sweeter and am allowed six oranges.
in the next week, she marvels over them. turns them in her calloused hands. smells them. holds them until she can’t control her curiosity, devours them. i bring her books about rivers. i bring her books about deserts.
“when is our birthday?” she asks me tonight. i’m knitting her a scarf for it.
“soon,” i tell her, “i’ll come by.”
she rolls onto one side, looks up at me in the dimming light. “I’m glad they chose you to be mine,” she says, and i drop a stitch. my heart sings against the inside of my wrists. i blow out a candle so she can’t see the blush and i can’t see her lips. i know what she means, i say. i know what she means.
it’s twenty-three for both of us. i bring her a cake we both eat, her on her throne and me on the floor. i am in the middle of laughing when she falls silent in the still night. “nobody else ever comes for me,” she whispers. i say nothing.
we have more cake, we go to sleep. i don’t know if she knows i’m awake, but i hear her crying.
the men come, the men take me. the one that smells like cedar always laughs at my jokes. the queen half-hates me because i remind her of “that nasty thing” they forced on their daughter.
“the left wheel needs oil,” i mention, “she’s having trouble turning again.”
the queen’s nose goes up. she never reacts when i mention her daughter’s wheelchair by name - doesn’t find it funny we call it a throne, thinks it’s well enough to leave alone.
“well, she’ll have a prince in this next month coming for her,” says the queen, “i’ve arranged it all,” says the queen, “he’s … had the situation explained to him first this time. i thought it would be best,” says the queen. “we’re paying him…. quite a lot for his effort,” says the queen.
situation. she means that her daughter can’t walk very far. she means the situation of towers. i excuse myself. i find my girl books about turning down marriage. i’m not sure why. it’s all she’s ever wanted.
they blindfold me and take me. cedar laughs at my jokes. the sawdust one is here this time, even he chuckles at a few. we ride horses through places i’ll never see clearly.
“so according to the queen this is the last time i’m needed, huh?” i ask them as they walk me blindly up too many stairs for my girl to make it down, “i’m sorry i never made your acquaintance.”
cedar laughs. he takes off my blindfold and for a second, lets me see his face. “it’s been an honor,” he says, shaking my hand, “you’ve been a perfect lady.”
i spend the day with my princess pretending i am not peeling apart from my bones. i just want her to be happy. to get to come home.
it’s late. “do you think in a past life i was a mermaid?” she asks.
“almost definitely,” i tell her.
it’s quiet for a while after. “what if,” she whispers, “i don’t want to leave?”
i sit up and look at her from across the room.
“it’s just,” she says, “i have you here and all the books i need and nobody makes me walk too long and i don’t feel like… like i’m wrong here.”
i want to tell her she’s never been wrong. that she’s always fit into my heart like a puzzle piece. that, more importantly, the leadership i see in her glows like a fire - that, no matter her body, she’s always been kind and gentle and smart and sweet. a princess that could bring a nation to her feet and do so lovingly.
“it will be okay,” i say, “there’s more fruit to discover.”
she doesn’t say anything. i think i’ve ruined something by accident, but i don’t know what. i don’t really sleep. i don’t say anything when the men come take me.
the world outside without her is boring. no mermaids. i put my hand in a river once a day, just thinking about her.
two weeks later i am awoken by my name, and a voice i recognize perfectly. cedar stands above me in the darkness. “i know two things in this world,” he says to me, “and one of them is about love.”
this time we make the trip without blindfolds. i see the squalor they keep her in. i see the waste surrounding her castle, the terrible place she’s in. rage fuels my footsteps even when they start flagging.
the prince is already there. he has dropped her twice, cedar tells me. i am already running up the stairs even though i can barely breathe. i hear her crying through the door and i don’t need to get ready - the fire that starts in me burns so brightly.
i roar inside. turn dragon and beat back prince with girl made rage. the bruises on her body turn me into giant snake. i eat the man alive, or at least i chase him from the place, never to be seen again. later i will hear a rumor about a demon that stole the princess from him.
she cries into my arms. i take her down every single stair. i hear her murmur her thanks into my hair and then i kiss her, because i can’t handle it, because i have places to show her and she has my heart to lead.
my house isn’t much but it’s near a river. she likes putting her hands into it. i take her places when she is able, and otherwise i bring the places back. we read books together. cedar no longer works for the queen, but he’d rather live with the man of sawdust making tiny wooden figurines.
i lie in bed next to her, stroking her soft hair. “do you think i was a centaur in a past life?” she asks.
“definitely,” i tell her, and kiss her, gently. she holds my face and pulls herself closer to me.
“will i be a good queen? i mean, in this life?”
“i’m certain of it,” i reply. i can hear the truth ring in it. the bone-deep certainty.
she’s quiet for a moment. “you saved me,” she whispers, “and usually we’d end up married. but…”
i don’t know how to answer that. i feel ice down my spine suddenly.
“i’m not demanding, is all,” her voice shakes, “i’m asking this time. for you to choose me. for me to be yours, i mean. and for you to be mine. permanently.”
the next birthday we celebrate, we are both queens.