Questing for Princesses
by Amanda C. Davis
Prince Harold swore off marriage at the age of six, when his older brother Yancey came riding home with a new bride and a waterfall of half-healed scars along his right side that he called “the unexpected bonus for winning a princess from a fire-breathing dragon.”
Harold eyed the puckered skin on Yancey’s neck and cheek. “Does it hurt?”
“Sure,” said Yancey, tugging Harold’s earlobe until he flinched. “But finding the right princess is hard stuff. You have to take the risk if you want the reward. Anyway, just wait ’til you meet Celiura. She’s amazing. Totally worth it. She’s going to be your new sister, you know.”
Harold carried the ring at the royal wedding. Immediately afterward he ran back to the chapel, where he threw himself on his knees and prayed that he wouldn’t mind not getting married if it meant he never ever ever had to fight a fire-breathing dragon.
“Not everyone has to fight a dragon,” said a girl’s voice from nearby.
He turned. Behind him was a ward of the chapel, little older than he, sweeping up rose petals and dove-feathers and confetti left over from the wedding. Or at least, she had been sweeping; now she seemed content to watch the prince and thread an unbroken feather into her hair.
“Are you sure?” said Harold.
She nodded solemnly. “Sometimes it’s a giant.”
“A giant,” Harold wheezed. He imagined toy soldiers rent limb from limb, then himself in the same sad state. He ran back out to the feast in the courtyard, hid under the table, and was only lured out again by the promise of wedding cake.
Not long after came the start of school, where Harold’s decision was reinforced by bloodcurdling tales from his schoolmates about the trials their brothers and cousins and fathers had undergone in bringing their princesses home. Griffins! Sea monsters! Poisons and pirates and demons and witches who rode cauldrons and walking houses! He told Yancey’s story, of course, but while the boys were duly impressed, it made Harold’s stomach turn to think of all those dangerous deeds, all those wounded princes.
On the night of his sixteenth birthday, his party (the official one, in the banquet hall, not the unmonitored afterparty with his six best schoolmates later that night in a forgotten tower) was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was a bedraggled beggar-woman, shrouded in her squalor, who entreated him for a night of shelter, though all she had to offer was a single rose. Harold shrugged and agreed, and had her led to the kitchen for a warm meal and lodgings. The woman looked surprised. He stuck the rose into the bouquet at the head table and forgot about it.
When the castle awoke the next morning, the woman was gone. In her place was a caged dove cooing merrily under a lance of sunlight. Harold (bleary-eyed, feeling, in the afterparty’s aftereffects, both like a full man and a very foolish boy) took the cage to his room and let the dove fly out the window. He’d never felt quite right about caged birds. He gave the empty cage to the chapel girl, Bess, to hang herbs in.
“Shouldn’t you be getting the presents?” said Bess, as she fixed the cage to the ceiling of her cloister. “Being your birthday and all.”
“I got responsibility for half the kingdom,” said Harold. “I don’t need another cage.”
It made a good joke, because they both knew how much he’d looked forward to serving his kingdom.
For Harold’s seventeenth birthday, after a year of successful co-rule, his father threw a ball and invited every eligible maiden in the kingdom to attend. Though Harold found his father’s definitions of “every” and “eligible” suspect, he danced the night and even managed to enjoy himself, though his most frequent dance partner vanished even before the midnight toast. He spent the second half of the night in the library, reminiscing with his schoolmates. The girl did not return.
“You let her go?” said Yancey the next morning, over a late breakfast. “You danced all night! She outshone everyone–almost everyone–” he corrected hastily, glancing at Celiura. His wife returned him an amused smile. “You didn’t even get her name?”
“I got her name,” said Harold. “I think it was an alias. She dropped her shoe on the way out.” He gestured at the lost-and-found box, a clutter of fans and tiaras and jackets and medals and more than one matchless shoe. “One of those. A fancy one.”
“She left a shoe?” said Yancey. “Harold–that means she wants you to find her. She’s probably a princess in disguise!”
“I told you a thousand times,” said Harold. “I’m not interested in getting married. Especially not if it means chasing all over the kingdom for an anonymous woman with one shoe. We’ve got alms to distribute today, don’t we? I’m not letting people go hungry just to run after a girl who leaves me with a false name and half a pair of shoes.”
The mystery woman turned up again, on her own, three months later, at a ball in a neighboring kingdom. She danced all night with the young Prince Dourff and gave Harold nothing but a sweet, sympathetic smile before leaving her slipper on the stairs and speeding into the night.
“Enchanting!” said Dourff. “I must know who she is. Let the search begin at once. Harold, are you coming?”
“Go ahead,” said Harold. “I’ve got to visit an irrigation site this week. Very exciting stuff.”
“Suit yourself,” said Dourff. His eyes shone. “I don’t even know her real name. Isn’t it perfect?”
Perfect, thought Harold, for Dourff the dedicated hunter, but a maniacal way to arrange a marriage.
On the way home Harold helped a girl pluck apples from an overladen tree, but wouldn’t take her silver comb in thanks, and gave some leftover party food to a crone sitting by the lake, but politely ignored her suggestion to try the scenic route instead of the usual path. The irrigation site was a marvel; Harold arranged for influential farmers from various regions to take a look, and that harvest season was the most bountiful on record.
Three balls and a month of courtship later, Dourff married the mystery girl, and Harold sent twenty unmatched shoes (along with two very nicely embroidered pairs) as a wedding gift.
His school friends continued to disperse. Tom went to war and came back married to the daughter of an enemy general: just the thing for Tom, who preferred compromise and lasting peace. Frank the gambling fiend won his fortune seeking a monster who, it was told, would reward anyone willing to treat its beastly form with love. The unenchanted woman was as contrite as she was relieved, but Frank’s account chilled Harold’s blood.
“It’s mad,” he told Bess the chapel girl, who sometimes waited for him after confession. “All the other princes I know are going on these insane adventures, up towers and glass mountains and heaven-knows-where else, just to bring back wives! Peasants have wives! Businessmen and soldiers and junior statesmen have wives! You don’t see them wearing donkeyskin and letting their beards grow for ten miserable years.”
“Peasants and junior statesmen don’t marry princesses,” the chapel girl observed. “Generally.”
“Anyone a prince marries is a princess,” said Harold. “That’s how it works.”
“Princesses are special,” Bess insisted.
“I’ve met them,” said Harold, “and yes, they’re all lovely, and they’re all perfect for their princes, individually, but you know, a lot of girls are lovely and you don’t have to break curses to find them. You’re lovely. Someone’s going to come marry you, only they won’t have to kiss frogs and slay giants for the privilege.”
The chapel girl’s eyes glinted. “How do you know?” she teased. “Maybe I’ve sworn only to marry the man who can bring me my true name.”
She laughed, but Harold looked at her thoughtfully. “Bess isn’t your true name?”
“I’m a ward,” she said. “The chaplain made it up. Elizabeth, properly. But I like Bess.”
“Oh, well,” he said. “It’s a pretty good name.”
“I think so,” she agreed.
When the royal family next met to discuss the running of the country, Harold volunteered to oversee the ongoing census. That morning he rode out with humble kit, through dreary rains and melancholy winds, and started circling nearby hamlets, collecting names and stories.
Every town had at least one story.
He heard about a princess sleeping in a coffin of glass. He heard about a peasant who could spin straw to gold. He heard about a girl with no hands, a girl raised by wolves, a girl whose brother was trapped in the form of a deer.
“Fascinating,” he said, making notes, “but I’m looking for girls who might have had daughters they didn’t keep. Do you know anyone like that?”
Stories about those girls, he found, were almost as plentiful as stories about princesses.
After a month full of hardships on the road, interviews, and record-searching, Harold returned to the castle with the completed census rolls and a few new ideas regarding charitable initiatives for young women in trouble. After he made his report to the king, he stopped by the chapel. Bess was trimming candles; when she spotted him, her face lit up.
“And where’ve you been?” she said, climbing down to meet him. “Off gathering stories, I heard.”
He told her what he’d learned: the story about a new widow with three children who found herself with a fourth and an empty cupboard. How she’d made her way to the castle and found shelter in the chapel just in time to make sure the child, which turned out to be a girl, never spent a cold night outdoors. The woman was dead, but the children went to the neighbors and thrived. One of them remembered what her sister’s name would have been.
“Gertrude,” he told her.
Bess wiped her eyes. “I don’t like it.”
“I prefer Bess,” he agreed.
Their eyes met.
“I don’t mean to be forward,” she said, “but I have a new theory.”
He was developing theories too, he realized, theories that tumbled over and around in his head, but he wanted to hear her theories, and to give his a little more time to grow. “Go on.”
“Well–those friends of yours, with the dragons and things–are they the sort of person who likes danger and adventure?”
Harold reflected. “To a man,” he said.
“And those princesses…I don’t mean anything by it, but….”
“They do seem to like that their princes went to all that trouble,” said Harold. “They’re the kind of girl who can survive serving a dragon or living as a beast. A good match, every one.”
“Maybe,” said Bess, “it’s not so mad to find a princess by doing what you do best, with someone who appreciates it. You do the quest that brings you to the best person at the end of it. Both sides. It’s the only quest that fits.”
Harold said, “How did you come up with this theory, exactly?” although he thought he knew.
Her cheeks reddened.
“So what you’re saying,” said Harold, “is that not everyone has to fight a dragon.”
The chapel girl grinned. “I told you so.”
So Harold learned that decisions made at the age of six don’t always last. His schoolmates sent him a variety of hilarious engagement presents; Bess brought her estranged siblings and nephews and nieces and parents-in-law to live in three neat cottages beside the castle, and the king and queen and Yancey and Celiura welcomed them into the family. And Harold prayed deep thanks that he never ever ever had to fight a fire-breathing dragon…because sometimes he looked at Bess and knew that if that was the quest that led to her, heaven help him, he probably would have done it anyway.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Katherine Inskip is assistant editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories at Motherboard, Cast of Wonders, the Dunesteef and Luna Station Quarterly, and forthcoming from Abyss & Apex.