“make the princess speak and you will have the crown of kings.”
my knees hurt, as usual, from scrubbing. technically i’m too high of Maid Station to help out with these things, but i like seeing what happens when you clean. the development of things. how a lot of effort can make something. i like learning and trying and working hard to get towards something.
and i’ve seen them, from the back of pillars, from behind cracked doors, from beside her (on the best days) the way they talk to her. oh beautiful won’t you just look at me. oh darling. if you speak i’ll be your prince. if you speak i’ll be your king.
the princess, i know, finds the lines of suitors boring. it’s in the way her hands are always moving. she hides yawns, leaves early, we make her apologies. once, a man comes and tries to startle her into screaming. she rolls her eyes and looks directly at me. i have to hide my smile behind my sleeve. he is taken away while still screaming.
by accident, i find her once, crying. when we imagine princesses, they always cry daintily. hers is hoarse, angry, and something in it breaks me. in my station i should apologize and bow and leave. instead i am frozen, watching her shoulders heaving.
she looks up and spots me, her cheeks ruddy. i know i should go but instead i make a big show. i act as one of her princes. i make grand gestures and speak in deep voices. i frantically offer her handkerchiefs and trip over my own two feet. a smile crawls up over her, slowly. i dab my sweat away and offer her the used rag. i feign a fluster, turn a terrible cartwheel, make shadow puppets. the sound of her laugh, raw and rusty, sends shivers through me.
for a while, i do not see her after this. but then i am called to her chambers. she is crying again. i offer silly gifts, pebbles and dusting rags and a candlestick from her own kitchen, pretend to steal it, use it as a hat, rock it as a babe. she laughs more easily this time, gladly, and when she laughs i am taken by more important maids, thereby officially Excused.
it goes like this for months. the winter comes. i rarely see her. i spend my week thinking about ways to please her. i knick interesting cookies, show her shiny buttons, learn to cartwheel in a full skirt, and then promptly how to make it look foolish again. i learn how to juggle hot bread and dance as a man would, i learn how to balance on a ball and how to fall down without hurting myself, how to fake a fight with my own body, which colors she likes and which don’t please her.
i show up on a cold eve with a knotted line of scarves hidden down my sleeve, worried and breathless, wondering why she’s been crying. the door opens and she is sitting there, happy. at first i’m confused, but she waves me in. next to her is her small dessert, in two containers. i’m not sure how to respond, so i fake a fall to hear her laugh, and then sit at her feet. she gives me ice cream - so rare a treat. i know what went into making it - the hours of shaking. it’s smooth and tasty. i don’t feign my reaction, but she laughs anyway, kindly.
it goes like this. i see her more frequently. she likes giving me new things, watching me discover i hate kiwi and love oranges and would die if it made her laugh breathlessly. i’ve made her keel over with cackling and she’s put a fire in me. sometimes we just sit there, quietly, enjoying each other’s company.
it’s in her hands, always moving. little things i thought were just her, fidgeting. here’s how she says she’s thirsty, this is what her hands do when she needs a second to think, here’s how she shows she’s happy. this is how i learn to speak back to her. around her i spend much of my time smiling. i feel every visit is a gift. a new part to unravel. i find out she doesn’t respond to spoken things, that she needs to be looking in order to know you were speaking. sometimes she has me talk and she holds her hands to the base of my throat, her eyes wide and wondering. sometimes she just looks at me and i forget that i’m her jester in chief. i get caught up in her eyes, in how expressive they are when she’s happy, in how when she’s sad i feel like i’m drowning.
i never see the king or queen, but i know when she’s had a visit with them, because she never comes back happy. two winters i have known her, two winters and now we dine frequently. i am often called to stand beside her, to whisper translations of her desires into the ears of someone more important than i, someone who gets to be the voice of royalty. i can’t decide if i’m her friend or her plaything, but i don’t know i care much of the distinction. every moment i’m near her is a moment free of friction. i take stock of suitors and curtsy to them in daylight only to mock them in the candle’s eye later.
she asks me one night to stay. it has been a bad day. it’s completely not okay. i cannot say no but i cannot, by my station, stay. but she begs with her eyes and her hands and i know i’ll take the punishment.
we lie beside each other. i make sure to turn to her when i speak. in the dark she can’t see me, so i move my hands in the way i’m learning. she asks if i am ever lonely. i cannot tell her that i am always lonely without her beside me, so instead i say i think all people are very lonely and just are pretending. she laughs a little at that and says she thinks her parents are the two most lonely people that ever met. her mother was like her; broke a fairy curse and talked, just once, although nobody knows what she said. well, excepting her father, who was the only one around, and who won her hand in marriage.
from her mother she learned the art of hands, of speaking without words - from her father she learned that who she was included a curse. that she just wanted someone who would make her open like a rose - someone who could fix her. how she stared out into the royal garden and wished on flowers to be what her kingdom needs.
she fell asleep pressed against me. i couldn’t breathe. i was still awake in the morning.
the punishment never came. we spent nights like this. the handmaidens had grown to know me. whenever their princess was stubborn, i worked magic and made her lovely.
it was a terrible thing. i did too good a job, i think. the princess glowed too much or shone too brightly - or at least, i saw it that way, so who knows what the truth is. every day it felt like we were being rushed with princes.
her father’s temper at hosting failed. it was the day before her twenty-first birthday and first time i’d ever seen him. he stormed in at the end of the session. “just speak!” he said, “it’s not that hard! do for others what your mother did!”
“tomorrow is your last day of this,” he warned her, “either you pick a prince or i pick for you. i’m done with it.”
he stormed off. she was left shellshocked and trembling. that night she didn’t ask me to come, but i waited outside, just in case she changed her mind. i understood why she needed space. either she’d speak and be married tomorrow or she’d be married shortly. i heard her crying and it took everything in my power not to rush in and hold her, cradle her gently. but i cannot come into a room of a royal person without being invited. i stayed there, tears in my own eyes, thinking of treason.
the next day was a huge festival. what had been a birthday celebration was turned into a day about princes. i watched her shake her head. i tried to cheer her up. i tried everything. i frequently came inches from causing public humiliation, toed the line of mocking and failing to acknowledge my station. she wouldn’t smile. not once. not even for anything.
the day was long. the bonfire wore down. i watched her crumple into herself. i was out of ideas. i knelt at her feet. her eyes barely looked at me. just wait, i said to her with my hands, i’ll be right back. i took off running.
the price of stealing is losing my hands. these things that i spoke to her with. these things that mattered so much to me, that helped with my comedy and cleaning.
i didn’t think of them. i bloodied my fingers when i ripped the royal roses from their stems. and then i ran, as fast as i could, back to her feet. i picked them to show you, i said, as she gasped, looking at my treason, they’re beautiful and nobody told them to open to reveal their secrets to the bees. they are unbroken. as you are. as you always will be.
she fell off her throne and for a second i was beyond speaking, worried something had happened, or she’d fainted, or i’d said the wrong thing. but then she was on her knees, her arms around me, and i heard it. i heard the soft croak of her speaking. just one word, and it sent shivers down me. my name, in her voice, awkward and unwieldy, but full of love and passion, burning fire through me.
i felt a hand on my shoulder. i was pulled away from her. they already had me in handcuffs while i struggled to get back to her, to tell her i loved her, to beg her to run off with me or maybe just hold me around her, maybe just have her for a moment, because i couldn’t live without her for a moment longer.
they put me in the cells. i rotted in there, for a while or for no time at all, i’m not sure. the thorns scarred my palms. i watched the scabs build up and flake off. every time someone came down, i flinched, wondering if i would be the next to be taken and chopped into bits.
but one day the light was different. not the smoky torch of the jailer, instead a bright light in a lantern. at first when i saw her, my breath caught in my throat, mistaking her for my princess.
but she was my queen. at first we stood in silence. and slowly, i moved my hands to speak. is she married? is what came out, even though i should be more worried about me myself and me.
she is not. she bit her father on the arm when he tried to make her. then she fought him. and then ran away. it took us a bit to find her, i’m afraid. she threatened her own life and the life of everyone in this place. the queen was smiling. i was told there was a young woman who could make the princess speak, whom she would die to save, who brought roses to her feet. someone in a cell, rotting. are you her?
the memory of her voice rang through me. i’m she.
yes, her hands said, for even now, aren’t you speaking to the silent Queen?
she opened the door. come, she said, let’s get you cleaned up for the ceremony.
the crown of kings. when she wraps her arms around my neck and laughs next to me, i am royalty. when she smiles or makes a joke or asks to see my cartwheel again, i’m lost in her. i kiss her whenever i can, which is often. we have roses in a vase at the base of our bed, and for all of the kingdom, i’d give my hands if it would keep her laughing.
the next time she spoke was just once, at our wedding, where she said the two words i do to bind us for eternity. she had learned from me, from holding her hands over my voicebox, the way i learned from her how to use hands to speak. sometimes at night she says my name, just because she likes what it does to me.
i’m more blessed than a king. every day i spend with her is a day i spend happily.