they call her maid maleen
for the first few trembling years of her life, she is a princess. she is the daughter to the king, born of his beloved wife and of her visage. her dark eyes have the appearance of a smoky quarts and her mother carefully twists her mass of black hair into a hundred small braids down her back. she is a beautiful, quiet child, and for a while all is well. they call her princess maleen.
then her mother dies. it seems as if the king is determined to bury his love for his daughter along with his queen. he moves her to a different wing of the castle, and refuses to see her. her tutors are let go, and the nobles’ children are no longer allowed to play with her. only the maids look after her now.
the king remarries. the new queen gives birth to a son, and maleen is forgotten completely, banished from a home she still resides in and a life she can now only watch unfold.
the maids take care of her, braid her hair and kiss the blisters on her fingers, teach her to scrub at porcelain and polish silver, to clean a fireplace and mop polished marble floors.
they call her maid maleen.
the king has a son by his new wife, and then a daughter. they are pale and fair-haired like their mother, with only their dark eyes to show they are the king’s children. but they inherit none of their parents’ beauty, have faces that don’t look quite right and bodies that get stuck between gangly and chubby and never settle into one or the other. princess gisella and prince jan are privately regarded as unfortunate products of a lovely union.
maid maleen spends long hours working, and has neither the time nor funds for creams to soften her skin or oils to care for her hair, has never used face powder or lip color.
maid maleen is twenty three years old, and the most beautiful woman in the kingdom.
her braids are wrapped carefully atop her head, but when she lets them loose they hang past her hips. her dark skin is made even darker thanks to long hours working in the palace garden, and her eyes have never lost that same curious light. she walks straight and strong, years of hard labor giving her muscles and definition to her body that she never would have had as a princess. boys and girls give her long, considering looks and flirtatious smiles, and nobles have to double-take when she passes them by.
no one speaks of it anymore. but maid maleen looks ever more like her beautiful late mother, has the same eyes as her father, and dressing in ill-fitting cast offs and running her ragged can’t hide the truth.
maid maleen is the king’s daughter.
she has accepted her life as a maid in the palace she was one day set to inherit, and tries to see it as a gift. she sleeps with who she likes, may marry whichever of the charming boys from the city who’s smile she likes best. in the maids who raised her she has more mothers than she has fingers, and perhaps she longs for the days when she was a small princess, when she was the apple of her parents’ eye, when the whole of their nation was to be hers to inherit.
but then the blacksmith’s daughter lets her hands linger a little too long on her wrists, and maleen knows that she won’t be sleeping alone tonight. there are some things that worth more to her than a throne she was born to. she doesn’t miss the little girl she used to be.
tensions have always run high between their kingdom and the neighboring one – too many squabbles over borders, over trade agreements, over patrols, over anything and everything the kings can find a reason to be upset about, it seems like. so when prince wolfgang is sent over, the whole palace is abuzz. the prince seems determined to inherit a peaceful land, and is coming over to talk with the king to do it.
maleen does not care for princes. nor for nobles of any rank, in fact. she remembers how they turned on her, she sees the small acts of pettiness and cruelty they thoughtlessly inflict on their servants, and she wants nothing to do with it. commoners may not be as educated as nobles, may not have as many objects to call their own, but maleen finds she prefers their company to that of lords. she’s uninterested in this prince, which is perhaps why she’s the one that gets sent to his rooms. her moms can trust that she at least won’t fawn over him.
“sir wolfgang,” she murmurs, pushing open his door and giving a low curtsy, keeping her eyes trained on his mud covered boots. “is there anything you require?”
silence. she can only stay bent in a curtsey so long before she loses patience. she’s almost given up on him, is about to cut her losses and call it a night when he says, hesitant, “queen sabine?”
her mother’s name is punch to her gut, and her head snaps up at the sound of it, the rolling fire of her temper bubbling just below her skin. “i am maid maleen,” she snaps, then tacks on “your highness,” after a moment’s consideration.
his cloak is half unbuttoned as he stares at her with a slack mouth. she supposes he would not look unhandsome if he were not currently doing his best to imitate a frog. he appears to be only a handful of years older than she is, and if she were not furious she would be impressed that he remembers her mother well enough to see sabine in her.
“maleen,” he repeats, and for a moment she wonders if he will recognize her as well, but he only says, “my apologies. if you would help me with my cloak, i would be much obliged.”
she’s instantly suspicious. she’s met nice nobles before, ones that were considerate and remembered her name and thanked her when she brought them wine. but she’s never met a nice prince before – they’re always of the worst sort. “yes, your highness,” she says, and the cloak is soaked through and clinging, it’s no wonder he’s struggling with it. once she’s gotten it off she hangs it to dry, then goes back to him. she slaps away his numb, struggling fingers and undoes the rest of the buckles and loops of his overly complicated clothing. she’s gotten down him down to an undershirt and pants when his hands grab hers. she blinks and looks up. he has freckles dusting across his nose.
“this is inappropriate,” he says, but honestly she’s stripped a lot of nobles, it wasn’t weird until he took her hands and looked at her like no one’s ever looked at her before.
“yes, your highness,” she agrees, and takes a step back. she places his clothes in front of a fire, curtsies, and leaves. she can feel the weight of his gaze on her all the way back to her room.
wolfgang continues his diplomatic agenda, having long meetings with the royal family. after, maleen goes and tends to him, setting out his food and taking care of his clothes, straightening up any mess that he’s made. at first he’s quiet, and he just watches her, but he quickly discovers that maleen has opinions and thoughts and isn’t afraid to share them. soon they’re debating the finer points of trade routes and arguing the effectiveness of a sliding tax scale, and maleen comes to cherish the evenings she spends with the prince, likes the way he speaks to her and looks at her, likes the shape of his smile.
weeks in she enters his room, dinner steaming in her hands and eager to continue their conversation about state funded orphanages versus a state funded foster system. he’s pacing and tense, shoulder stiff. “wolfgang,” she sets down the food and wipes her hands on her apron, “is something wrong?”
“is it true?” he asks, and he’s not looking at her. he’s always looked at her before.
“is what true?” she flinches away from his coldness, is already preparing to retreat and hide and beg someone else to watch over him.
he turns to her, and she’s baffled by the mixture of hope and anger on his face. “are you the king’s daughter? are you princess maleen?”
she takes a step back, “i am maid maleen.”
“please,” he follows her as she steps away from him, and her back hits the wall. he stops when he’s almost close enough to touch. “my father sent me here with the goal to seal our new treaty with a marriage. he expects me to marry princess gisella. but if you are the daughter of the king – then he will allow me to marry you instead!”
“who says i want to marry you?” she retorts, but he gets on bended knee and she freezes.
he holds a hand for her own, and against every bit of logic, she gives it to him. “maleen, i’ve never felt this way about anyone. i was willing enough to enter a loveless marriage before i knew what true love is, but now i do, and i can’t go back. marry me.”
she wants to. she thinks she loves him. she hadn’t been planning to fall in love with anyone. “i am the king’s daughter,” she tells him, “but i am no princess. i haven’t been a princess in a long time.”
he brings her hand to his mouth so he can kiss each one of her knuckles, “then we’ll have to change that.”
wolfgang goes to the king to make his case, to return maleen to her birthright and allow her to marry him.
it goes even worse than maleen had feared.
her father is furious. he’s so angry at the audacity of this request that prince wolfgang is thrown from the kingdom. so incensed is he, that guards drag maleen from her bed in the middle of the night and throw her into a tower. the door closes shut behind them, and she bangs on it and screams but no one comes for her.
there are no windows, and only one door with a sliding metal grate in the bottom. she’s high in the tower, she thinks, from the number of steps she’d been forced to climb, but she stands on a dirt floor. the room contains only the bare minimum needed for survival, and nothing more.
once a week food is slid through the slot in the door. she has to be careful, because if she eats it too fast they will not provide more, she will just starve. days turn to weeks turn to months, and she despairs of ever being let out of this tower. months turn to years, and she gives up hope entirely of leaving this tower. she considers refusing to eat, killing herself slowly through starvation, because death is preferable to life locked in this tower.
one night there’s a scuffle, and shouting, and for the first time since she was shoved inside the door opens. there’s a guard standing there, and princess gisella tentatively steps inside. “maid ma – i mean, maleen?”
maleen stares. this is the first time she’s seen another person in years, and suddenly for all the screaming she’d done she can’t find her voice. gisella takes another cautious step forward, “maleen, please – we don’t have much time.” she holds out her hand, “come with me.”
gisella is sixteen now. although she’ll never be a great beauty, she’s grown into many of the features that she was once mocked for. “where?” she asks, but takes gisella’s hand and lets her lead them down the twisting staircase. anyplace is better than the tower.
“i’m to be married in a week’s time to prince wolfgang.” maleen feels a sharp pain go through her chest. had wolfgang forgotten her? their farce of a romance was such a quick, shallow thing. she was a fool to fall for it in the first place. “i’m not going to show up. you are.”
she stares, “what?”
“wolfgang started a war over father locking you in the tower,” she explains, “but eventually it got to a point where neither could justify it, so our father and wolfgang’s decided our union would mean peace between our countries, as intended. but i don’t want to marry prince wolfgang, and he does not want to marry me.”
“i don’t understand,” she hadn’t paid much attention to the girl when they were in the palace together, and she’s regretting that now.
they finally reach the end of the tower. it’s the first time she’s breathed fresh air in years. she tries not to get distracted by it, and instead focuses on the carriage to her left, and the pure black mare laden like a pack mule on her right. “i’m leaving,” gisella says, “i don’t want to be wolfgang’s bride because i want to be klaus’s,” the guard smiles, and he must be klaus, the princess is rejecting a prince to run away with a commoner. “there’s a map and everything you need in the saddlebags. the wedding dress is waiting for you at the castle. no one will know you’re not me until wolfgang unveils you, and by then it will be too late. he will marry you, and i will be gone.”
“why are you doing this?” she asks.
gisella shrugs, “you’re my sister, and father is an idiot. i want you to be happy, and i want wolfgang to be happy, and i want to be happy too. this way we all get what we want. our brother will be waiting for you in wolfgang’s castle. he’ll help you.”
maleen is speechless. gisella grabs her in a quick hug – the only one they’ve ever shared – and then goes to the carriage with klaus trailing behind her. “i’ll see you again, princess maleen!”
she doesn’t have time for tears. she gets on the mare, and rides for the palace of the neighboring land.
she makes it just in time. she sneaks into the castle the night before the wedding, ducking around servants until she find her way to jan’s door. she knocks, tentative, wondering if this was a mistake and all one elaborate trap. but the door opens and his face slackens in relief, “finally!” he pulls her inside, and sits her down. there’s lukewarm water waiting for her so she can clean herself, and jan stands with his back to her the whole time, outlining the wedding and how it will go so she knows what to expect the next day. “father isn’t here,” he assures her, “he didn’t want to leave the kingdom, so i’m here in his stead.”
“won’t you miss your sister?” maleen finishes washing and wraps herself in a soft blanket.
“when i am king, gisella will return,” he says confidently, “she will come home and bring klaus, and you will rule here with wolfgang, and all will be well. our countries shall be great allies when it is me and wolfgang on the throne.”
he’s only a year older than gisella, just seventeen, and maleen feels oddly old next to them, feels old next to these children who know what they want and take it and don’t let anything stand in their way.
“we need to get your hair rebraided,” he says, “you should look perfect tomorrow. it’s your wedding day.”
she stares, aghast. “that will take all night!”
“i’ve brought help,” he says, and sends a servant down the hall. the servant returns with a half dozen of the maids who raised her, and who crowd forward and hug her and kiss her cheeks and say how much they’ve missed her. princess or not, bride or not, to them she will always be their little maid maleen.
it’s clear gisella picked her wedding dress with maleen in mind. it fits her for one thing, and is clinging and heavy, and it must have looked awful on gisella, but on her it’s perfect. her dress is accompanied by white silk gloves and a thick veil so that no one can see her, so that no one will know she’s not the daughter of the king they’re expecting to be there.
wolfgang is at the end of the aisle, looking like he’s going to an execution, and it takes more self control than maleen was anticipating not to go running to him. she turns to him, and he lifts her veil. he sees her and freezes, mouth sliding open. she winks at him, because they just need to keep it together until they’re married, he just has to keep his cool for a few minutes and they’ll have won it all. wolfgang closes his mouth and says nothing about how this is clearly not the bride he was supposed to marry. they turn so none of the guests can see them, and the priest gives maleen a confused look, but with a glare from wolfgang he continues on with the ceremony as if nothing is out of place.
“you may now kiss the bride,” the priest says, after what seems like an eternity.
wolfgang grabs her about the waist, dips her, and kisses her soundly on the mouth. her veil falls off and she can hear the horrified and shocked gasps of the guests, and under that jan’s laughter. when they break apart, foreheads still pressed together, she whispers, “hello, prince wolfgang.”
he kisses her again, quick and sweet, and does nothing at all to disguise the joy in his face. “hello, princess maleen.”
and they all lived happily ever after.