At first, the twelve do not look much alike.
That soon changes.
The engineers do some of this: dig beneath the skin and change the bone structure, adding a touch of bone to that cheek, removing a sliver of bone from that chin. The skulls, too, must be carefully shaped, the girls kept in painless sedation, their breathing monitored, as their arms and legs and faces are all sculpted to identical perfection.
But the engineers can only do so much. It takes a magicker to convert twelve pairs of eyes to the same odd shade of green, and that, too, must be monitored: magic does odd things to bone, especially healing bone. More than one girl ends up back under the knife after the magicker changes her eyes: really, the eyes should have been changed first, but they do not have much time, and the bone work, and the healing, takes so much of that that the eyes must be adjusted when they can, as they can. The hair is simpler: dye could do, but magic is more permanent, and so the new color is sung or painted into the hair.
And then the flesh over the bones. Every mole, every freckle, must match. That requires more magic, more painting, more singing. She tells herself not to clench her fists. She has time. She has plenty of time. Even if the foot of the tenth girl is still wrong, even if the freckles will not stay on the skin of the third. It will happen. It will happen.
Already she is having problems telling them apart.
It will terrify him, when he sees.
If he sees.
She’d felt her face burning. “And what if you turn into a pumpkin?”
His lips touched hers, oh so briefly. “Never,” he whispered. “This is the happy ending.”
Food, too, is carefully monitored. They are all the same weight now, but she knows, from her own life, how easy it to gain or lose a few pounds here and there, and so she watches their diet carefully. They will exercise with her, train with her, sleep with her, and eat with her. No one will be able to detect a single flaw.
She finds herself forgetting their names – not that these names were important anyway – and instead calls them by numbers: One, Two, Three, Four. She gets those wrong, too, but it hardly matters. She imitates their voices and tells them to imitate hers. She joins them in their training, raising swords with them, pulling bowstrings with them, watching with them as they look for boar and deer and rabbit and bird, until she almost thinks of herself as one of them.
“This will all be worth it,” she tells them. “For you as well as me.”
“Yes,” they respond together, in soft voices that she must – she must – get them to deepen.
“I swear it,” she tells them.
And then it is time to teach the eleven girls – and herself – how to be men.
She was not in a fairy tale. She had never been in a fairy tale.
He will think her transformed. He will think them all –
“Highness. More like this.”
She freezes. “How do you know who I am?”
Eleven identical faces shift to look at her.
“Forgive me, Highness. The others are less angry.”
He is a small man, with his face wrinkled from years of pouring over law books and official papers, years of speaking into first her father’s ears, and then hers. He has always advised caution, prudence, restraint. Under his counsel, the kingdom has prospered: it is why the marriage had been proposed at all. The kingdom her father had inherited would never have earned such a prince.
The kingdom her father had inherited could not have hired such engineers.
“Your efforts need not be wasted,” he tells her. “Keep the girls by all means. Use them as bodyguards, as decoys. Shock the court when they step into it as men, and then later as girls. I can see the use. But this –”
“It’s not just my honor at stake,” she reminds him. “This was an insult to the entire kingdom.”
“Which could be answered in many ways.”
She takes a deep breath. “No.”
“More honorable ways. Less excessive ways.”
Despite his years at court, he is a good man. A loyal man. He means well, she knows.
“My ancestors made women dance in shoes made of red hot iron or glass, forced men to climb slick glass mountains, often falling to their deaths, sent women to sleep for a thousand years, tricked men into believing cats could speak. How is this different?”
It is his turn to take a breath. “It’s more dangerous.”
“Than iron shoes?”
“What do you think he will do?”
“He will believe that he is in a fairy tale.”
The other girls are much better at this than she is. Now it is her turn to imitate them. She watches each one, trying to move as they do, trying to pretend that she is an ordinary man, not a princess. By the time they reach his castle, she thinks, she will be just like them. Even they will not always know that she is their leader, that she is the one that has transformed them into this.
She almost has it, she thinks. Already the girls – no, the huntsmen – look uncertain when they stop for rests or for the night, as if they do not know who their leader is. They all have their own bags of royal coin, so that any of them can step forward and offer to pay. At night, she still calls them by numbers, but she never bothers to find out if she is using the right number.
Each night, she pulls out the old book of tales, its pages filled with princes and princesses, dragons and swans, pain and joy, tales where true love wins out, and ever after follows each kiss, staring at the covers. She will burn it, she tells herself, when this is done, burn it and let its ashes drift on the wind.
“We have engineers and magickers of our own,” she had said, almost offended.
He had laughed, and placed a kiss on the top of her head. “Nothing to ours, I assure you.” His eyes glowed. “When you see the lion, you will believe in fairy tales.”
They nod. She tells herself that she sees determination in their faces.
Then again, she had once been only a part of someone else’s story, not her own.
No, not a lion – not a living lion, at least: a statue, gleaming with gold, but a statue. Nothing more than that.
Her heart is pounding. He will know, she tells herself. Surely he will know. Even in their male garb, he will know her face. Their faces. Twelve faces, identical to hers. She must breathe. She must breathe. This must be a test.
The other huntsmen stand silently around her. If their breathing troubles them, she doesn’t hear.
And they wait.
An eternity later, he arrives, the new princess on his arm. His eyes move from face to face, with nothing there but mild curiosity.
The princess – his princess now, as she is not, claps her hands gently. “Oh, do hire them,” she coos. “Twelve huntsman like this? It will be the talk of twelve kingdoms, at least.”
He laughs and drops a kiss on her head. “As you command, my bride. That is, if my lion agrees.”
The other huntsmen exchange quick glances. Her eyes remain on him as he saunters to the statue, placing a hand upon its head. As he touches it, she can hear the grinding sound of gears.
And then the metal jaw drops, and the lion roars.
That is all she hears at least – a roar – but the prince, it seems, hears something else. An answer, or a command. He turns to them, laughter in his voice. “My bride is to be indulged, I see. Take yourselves to the kennels, and begin.”
The twelve huntsmen bow. It conceals the shaking in her chest.
Indeed, she is so tired that on one trip to the palace, following three others to speak with the steward in the great hall, she finds herself stumbling in fatigue – and falling on the lion.
She gives them a tiny nod; they nod back.
But it is too late. Others have heard, and come rushing forward, to see what has caused the lion’s roar. They look at the lion, still shaking back and forth from its roar, and the huntsman. And at the prince and princess, now coming to the entrance. They walk with their usual dignity, in only a slight rush, but she can see the eagerness in his face.
“The lion. Who touched it?”
Trembling fingers point towards the huntsmen.
The prince looks at them, then walks up to the lion, placing one finger on its steel head. “Lion,” he says, clearly.
“Women!” roars the lion.
The princess giggles.
The prince does not. He gives the huntsmen a long look. A considered look.
And then his eyes light up, and a smile breaks across his face.
She is not going to shake. She is not.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, and many other publications. She can be followed on Twitter at mari_ness
Illustration by Akira Lee. Akira is a Universiti Malaya student by day, geek and manga enthusiast by night. Drawing and writing by the moonlight. Accepting commissions at motesandshadows AT gmail.com