Continued from Part One…
“Do you never fear?” she had asked him once, drawing her fingers up and down his arm.
She makes a vague gesture to the left, to the world outside the castle. “That.”
When he had only raised an eyebrow, she tried to stumble on. “Assassins – riots – revolts – betrayal.”
“You worry too much.” He traced a finger down her cheek. “Those are tales from former days. We are more civilized now.”
“I have a few tasks for you,” the prince says, coming up to the huntsmen the next morning.
Not tasks, she thinks, but tests. She watches his eyes.
Still no recognition, though he can now see twelve of her. Twelve pairs of her eyes watch him.
And yet he is testing her. Them.
When he had left, that, too, had been a test, or so she had thought. A test of whether or not the heavy ring on her finger would bind her to him; whether or not she would remember the taste of his lips and wait for him.
Whether he would wait for her.
She had been trained never to fail a test. It was part of being a princess; part of being a queen.
The first test is laughably easy: they must walk firmly over peas, the way a man would. The huntsmen shake their heads.
“Do real men ever walk over peas?”
“It doesn’t matter,” says another one impatiently. “Just step firmly.”
She has to take control, has to remember, somehow, that she is still their leader, she is still their princess, that she will be the final test, even if her face is as muddy as theirs, even if she now thinks of herself as one of them.
“Like this,” she says, stepping forward firmly.
She had walked that way once as a princess, trained by actors, her governesses, her father. You must show your strength, her father had told her. When they see you, they must believe you can command.
She had commanded servants, her horses, her dogs, her court. Only the prince, and the death that had taken her father, had failed to believe her.
The second test is even easier: to walk past rows of spinning wheels without showing any interest in them. She hardly needs to warn the others; they recognize the trap as soon as she does. Nor, as it turns out, it is difficult for them to feign disinterest: only two claim to have any knowledge of spinning at all, stating that they have always bought woven cloth and thread.
“The only person I ever saw at a spinning wheel was my father,” giggles one.
She turns on the girl – no, the huntsman – staring into the face so exactly like her own. “Your father was a king. Never forget that. Never forget that.”
The other huntsmen freeze in place.
The huntsman – her mirror, her image – bows. “Yes, majesty,” she whispers.
As she stalks off, she hears a murmur: “Everyone forgets.”
She had told herself to forget when his letter had arrived, when she had read it in front of a court that had gone deathly silent at the look on her face; told herself to forget when she had kneeled beside her father’s deathbed, hearing his last breath. She had told herself, and told herself, but her lips still burned, until she called the engineers and the magickers.
The third test is trickier. Indeed, she does not even recognize it as a test at first. All he does is summon one of the huntsmen. Only one.
The huntsmen glance at each other and quickly nod to the one standing closest to the door – if the prince only needs one of them, the closest will be good enough. It is not until the huntsman leaves, stepping silently on the marble floors, that she realizes the danger. Realizes that this, too, is a test.
Her fists clench. She knows him, she knows him, knows how easily his voice once convinced her to do anything. And the huntsman who has just left is, after all, her – her in every way that matters. She glances at the other huntsmen. Most are busy with their work, bending over tools and cleaning them, but a few, like her, are watching the door.
“Come,” she says suddenly, and without an argument, the huntsmen follow.
They had laughed at her. At her, the princess who had thought she had found true love. The princess who had thought happily ever after could be found with a kiss. The princess who had forgotten how many fairy tales spoke of false brides.
It’s easy enough to follow the huntsman and the prince; they are hunters now, after all, and although the prince has become a skilled hunter, he has never learned to conceal his tracks. The huntsman, perhaps expecting something, has left even clearer signs of a trail. They move silently, carefully, following the huntsman and the prince into the woods.
The day grows darker as they walk, sliding into evening shadow, but they can still hear the murmurs of the prince and the huntsmen between the crackle of the leaves and winds. They can hear when the two stop, in a small clearing, grey in the darkening twilight, and see his sword emerge in the light of the rising moon.
With sharp nods to one another, they surround the clearing, drawing out their own swords and knives, watching as the prince places his sword beneath the huntsman’s cheek.
The huntsmen take a silent step forward.
“When I came to your court, when you bound me to your soul, were you, even then, a man?”
Her heart is pounding, pounding; her chest has tightened. These woods do not have enough air. She has to breathe. To breathe. Not think about his lies, not think about how, even now, he frames his words in the language of fairy tales. She and the other huntsmen take another step forward.
The huntsman at the center never even flinches. With a swift movement, she places her hand on the top of his sword, and pushes the blade down her chest, letting it cut the laces binding her tight leather jerkin, and the tight bindings beneath. Blood spreads across her fingers as her breasts spill out into the darkness.
“I don’t think I would have called myself a man,” the huntsman says. “But then again, I never bound you to my soul.”
At that, the others step out, pointing their swords at the prince.
His eyes never leave the huntsman’s face. “Ah, but you did, my love, you did. Did I not tell you that you would believe in fairy tales?”
“You didn’t tell me,” the huntsman says. “You told one of them.”
At that, finally, the prince turns, circling to see every identical face, every identical sword pointed at his throat.
“You have three days,” she tells him, and is proud. Her voice does not waver.
“Three days to find the true princess.” Another voice takes up the refrain.
“Or,” she says, in a tone both casual and deadly, “you will find yourself believing in another sort of tale.”
When the message had arrived, she had stopped believing in any stories at all.
For the next three days, the prince hunts them, one by one, drawing each one aside for a conversation, a touch, even a kiss. She sees the huntsmen return with marks on their hands and necks; tells herself not to think about that, not to imagine how the marks appeared upon their skin. Sometimes he calls one of the huntsmen a second time, or even a third. Once she follows, hiding behind a wall as he whispers to the huntsman, to her, placing his mouth against her neck, and biting.
They are ordered to eat with him at every meal, in small, almost intimate gatherings, and the larger, formal dinners. They sit together, watching him, watching one another, watching her.
No one, it seems, has told the false bride. No, the true bride. She has to remember that; they all have to remember that. He and this princess are married. Married. At his father’s orders, he hastily hisses at one of the girls, who whispers to another, and so on down the table. Easily dissolved. They, meanwhile, continue to appear at the table in their forest garb, twelve identical huntsman, young and grim. The false bride – the princess – smiles and urges them to eat more bread, more meat, to gather their strength, pointing to plates of delicate pastries and luscious fruit. She talks delightfully of the lion, who has, it seems, already purred about future children.
He never calls for her. It is nothing, she thinks; three of the other huntsmen have no marks on their skin. Unless he has found the old book of tales hidden beneath her pillows. But then, how would he know which of them sleeps upon that bed?
She is not sure how much of this she can take. She is grateful beyond measure when the third day arrives.
“You will see,” he had told her, as he put the heavy ring on her finger. “When you come to my land, and meet our lion, who will tell you of how he told me to find you, told me that you were the fairest princess in all the lands, who would capture my heart and bind my soul. Of how he swore that this and this alone could bring an endless peace between our lands, that if I failed to win your heart, famine and war would fall upon my kingdom, and I would wish for the days of dragons and ogres. You will see. You will see.”
“What will you do, after this is done?” she asks them that evening, after the candles have been blown out.
She knows part of the answer. If she lives – if they all live, and are not hanged or beheaded for this spectacle – she will pay them each a bag of gold, will offer them positions in her palace, or the ability to leave, if they wish. If they live, and she does not – well. She has studied enough history to make a guess about that. If she lives, and they do not –
She will not think about that.
Slowly, the answers fill the semi-darkness. Travel. Marry. Sing. Hunt. Farm. Hire engineers and build steamships.
Study magick. Create fine dolls. Sail the seas.
Become a princess. Or a queen.
Not an unreasonable plan, she thinks. After all, her face had been enough for a prince – once – and now, these other girls wear it.
In the tales he had told her, the princesses heal, the princes regain their eyes, the wicked suffer and the kingdom thrives. In the tales he had told her, everything good shines with beauty, and everything evil with horror. Even tricks are easy to tell, and every hero finishes the quest.
None of them considered traveling, or singing, or hunting, or building vast factories filled with engineers and magickers.
None of them faced war.
The prince studies them, the twelve calm faces watching him beneath rich cloaks of green and brown. “Remove your hoods,” he says. They glance at each other, before one of them nods, pulling back her hood, exposing her neck to the moonlight.
Slowly, the others follow, letting the prince see their skin.
He breathes, and takes three long steps, to kneel before the huntsman with three bruises on her neck.
“My true bride,” he whispers, seizing her hand. “A charming prince. A lovely princess. And a happily ever after.”
She tries to breathe. “Not I, your Highness. Not I.”
The prince steps back, his hand falling to his side.
And she steps forward, with a sigh that makes him turn towards her.
She pulls off her hat, to allow her hair to hang loosely, as it had once in her gardens, where he had kissed him. She pulls off her gloves, to show the large pink topaz, surrounded by fine sapphires, glowing on her hand, pulls the ring off her finger to show how long it is has been there, long enough to mark her skin.
And then she reaches into the bag hanging from her shoulders, pulling out the book – the old book of fairy tales he claimed was a gift from his grandmother, the book with a picture of a great lion on the back.
At that he shuts his eyes.
“You have found me, my love, my true bride,” he says, opening his eyes again. He steps forward, to seize the book from her hands. “And now, we shall never be parted.”
Around them, the huntsmen stir.
“But you did not find the true bride.” She feels her lips stretch into a smile. “And what happens when the prince fails?”
His eyes close.
“Leave us,” she tells the others, and they do, stepping silently, softly, as their training as taught them, leaving her with her blade against his throat.
When they met, she had not known how to use a sword. It was not part of the training of a princess, or even a queen. She had known something of magick, something of engineering, enough to know that it could entertain, and keep the darkness away for an evening.
She had not known so much else.
“Are you going to kill me?”
She makes another slow circle around him, the sharp tip never leaving his throat, letting him know that she could, she could. She so easily could.
His hands start to shake.
“But I will destroy your fairy tale.”
His shoulders sag. “My new bride.” He swallows. “That will mean war. Not from me – but her father –”
She runs her blade along his neck.
Three days later, they ride out: twelve huntsmen in green and brown, with golden chains about their necks – gifts from a false bride, a princess, who allowed them to leave, under the eyes of her father’s guardsmen.
And bouncing behind them, in a wagon lined with velvet and trimmed with gold, a great lion of clockwork and steel that purrs and roars with their lightest touch. “Huntsmen!” it booms, as they ride, and laughter fills the forested road. Not from her; never from her. She will need him all too soon, she thinks, as her hands clutch the sword at her side.
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