by Sarah Rees Brennan
Ethel wore an extremely large pince-nez kept attached by a chain wrapped round her horn. The first thing she ever said to Alicia was: “Tell me, my dear, have you ever let a prince try to fit his glass slipper on you?”
“Well,” Alicia said. “Well, no.”
“Glad to hear it. They’re all foot fetishists, you know. To a prince.”
Faced with compulsory unicorn chaperones and a dozen perfect princesses, Alicia should have just given up and gone home then. It would have been better than this, waiting on the cold side of the Dowager Duchess Whyte’s desk to hear she had failed out of the Princess Academy and would never be qualified to be a queen.
Ethel nosed Alicia’s shoulder in a kindly way and Alicia was reassured enough to risk a quick glance across the desk.
The Dowager Duchess Whyte had skin as white as snow, hair as black as ebony and a nose as red as blood, probably because of the secret drinking. She had been a famous princess in her day, but none of the stories mentioned that she had enormous cold eyes, as bulging and unfriendly as a salmon’s.
They were currently fixed on Alicia.
“Princess Alicia,” she said. “Your test scores are — most unusual.”
“I tried,” Alicia said hopelessly.
The duchess spread Alicia’s report out on the desk, flattening it with fat snow-white hands. Ethel tried rather unsubtly to peer at it.
“The slumber test is a great tradition of our Academy,” the duchess observed. “My personal friend Aurora of course holds the all-time record. I myself slept for a most refreshing year. I see that you lasted ten minutes, and were discovered creeping down the stairs.”
“I had insomnia,” Alicia muttered. “I was just going to get some hot milk. And perhaps a biscuit.”
Duchess Whyte feigned deafness. “As for the title test — your class now boasts Flaminia of the Golden Hair, Elena of the Ebony Tresses, Brianna of the Fiery Locks, and Alicia of theÉ Hair That Is Slightly Blondish In Summertime.”
“Well,” Alicia said under her breath. “It is.”
“Even the dancing lessons, my dear! Most princesses either move like a dream floating on a cloud — ”
“How exactly does one move-”
“Like a dream floating on a cloud,” the duchess repeated severely. “Or, of course, they are enchantingly clumsy, causing numerous humorous scenes but never stepping on the prince’s feet, and eventually winning his heart with her unspoiled naturalness. You, my dear Alicia, dance perfectly adequately. I don’t think that’s showing the right spirit at all.”
At this point Alicia felt moved to make a protest.
“Brianna refused to dance at all. She threw her ball dress out the window and went riding and said we were oppressed by the tyranny of an unjust patriarchal system. Why isn’t she in trouble?”
The Dowager Duchess folded her hands, and regarded Alicia with a kind of pitying hopelessness. Alicia folded her hands too in a desperate defensive action and waited for the Duchess to pronounce her sentence.
Alicia was an only child. She was not looking forward to going home and telling her parents that it was goodbye monarchy.
“She’s a good girl,” Ethel said suddenly. “And I don’t mean that she has me shod in silver and goes around tending the baby animals, either. She’s not the God-help-us type who breaks out into song at the fall of a flower. She’s a nice child. Every day we have tea and a bit of a chat.”
Ethel paused and narrowed her glorious, unearthly golden eyes behind her pince-nez.
“And she doesn’t get up to all sorts thinking everything will be fine if she’s out of there at the stroke of twelve. Remember Chalcedony of the Sky Blue Orbs? She left her slipper on the stair all right, and her bra on the bed, and her pantalettes on the lampshade.”
“Ahem,” said the Duchess. “Yes, I have received your glowing report, Ethel, and I have to say that I am perfectly aware Alicia does not belong in the, ah, Rapunzel category.”
Ethel sniffed. “They tried to hush it up, but she had twins in her arms before she had a ring on her finger. The word was her suitors used to meet in the middle of climbing up and down her hair. Brazen hussy!”
“The trouble is that we cannot seem to put Alicia into any category, and the time has come to move our princesses on to further education. They are sixteen, after all, and the time has come for them to find their princes! They are being imprisoned in towers and handed over to dragons and chained up as harem slaves and everything that is proper, but I see no other option than to send Alicia –”
Alicia wished very hard for an interruption, but she knew it was no good. She’d tried rubbing a few lamps to get wishes but she’d never produced a genie. She had got a lovely shine on the lamps, though.
She was considerably surprised when Brianna broke the door down with her steel-capped boots.
The Duchess seemed surprised, too.
“My dear Brianna,” she said. “The door was not locked.”
“Disgusting upholder of a vile and outmoded belief system!” Brianna said. “I forbid you to cast Alicia to the wolves! She is my only companion in adversity.”
Brianna had come to the decision that she and Alicia were twin souls during their first weaving class. Alicia kept pricking her finger, which was fine, but she’d upset her teacher by not feeling sleepy in the least, asking for a bandage and having another go.
Brianna had set her weaving on fire.
“I challenge you to a duel!”
“I think not,” said the Duchess. “Was there anything else you wanted to talk to me about, dear?”
“Well, yes,” Brianna admitted. “I entirely refuse to be sent on to your wishy-washy further education! I am going to dress up as a boy and go on a dangerous quest!”
The Duchess, Alicia and Ethel all took a moment to look at Brianna. She was already wearing boy’s clothing in order to defy the patriarchy and her generous bust was straining the buttons of her leather jerkin to bursting point.
“My dear girl,” said Ethel, speaking for them all. “How are you going to manage that? You look like an hourglass in bondage gear.”
“Be damned to your hide-bound traditions!” said Brianna. “Alicia, why are you still wearing the skirts the menfolk and their treacherous allies use to shackle and imprison our sex?”
“Well,” Alicia said apologetically. “I kind of think they’re pretty.”
Brianna stared at her and then, as was Brianna’s way, entirely ignored something that was not in keeping with her world view.
“I demand the right to prove that women are just as valiant as knights, and have exactly the same upper body strength. I will bring justice and gender equality to the land, and I will stop that horrible Fernando from the Princes’ Academy from making mock of me!”
The Duchess looked charmed.
“Manly, is he, this Fernando?” she asked with elaborate indifference. “Cleft chin, rugged good looks, that sort of thing?”
“I suppose,” Brianna sniffed. “Vile beast.”
“Hopelessly misogynistic yet drawn to you by your spunky redheaded charms and forthright manner?”
Brianna tossed her magnificent curls and sniffed again. “Maybe.”
“You’d better take him on your quest to show him how valiant and strong a woman can be,” the Duchess proposed.
“That’s not all she’ll be showing him,” Ethel remarked, sotto voce.
“Well,” Brianna said. “That would teach him a lesson, wouldn’t it?”
“It certainly would, my dear, most certainly,” the Duchess assured her.
“What would my quest be for?” Brianna pursued, looking unusually thoughtful.
“Oh, well,” said the Duchess.
“Not the king’s crown jewels,” Ethel advised quietly. “Remember the last time we sent a spirited gel to get those. Dreadful misunderstanding.”
“It is vital that you get a doodad — thingy — oh, let me see, the Miraculous Amulet of the Mysterious Maze,” the Duchess said. “The amulet has healing powers which can be used to save Queen Ella of the Cinders’ life and win the eternal gratitude of her people. Now run along, dear, do.”
Alicia sagged in her chair and Brianna’s stormy eyes travelled back to her. Alicia saw them soften. Brianna had a kind heart. Once or twice Alicia had caught her nursing wounded forest animals, though she always looked rather shifty about it.
“I see your plot,” Brianna said suddenly. “You plan to make me abandon my comrade-in-arms in the battle of the sexes!” She flung an arm dramatically around Alicia, and crushed her to her ample bosom. “Well, I will never leave my darling Alicia. Where she goes, I will go, and her people will be my people-”
“Mmph,” said Alicia, fighting for air.
The Duchess, from what Alicia could see with Brianna’s bosom obstructing her view and all the blood rushing to her head, rolled up Alicia’s report and looked greatly relieved.
“That’s a load off my mind,” she announced. “We had not the faintest idea to do with Alicia. She might as well go along with you.”
“Oh,” said Brianna, deflating a little to Alicia’s great relief. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to put her in a tower? I could rescue her and carry her away, it wouldn’t take a moment –”
“If it’s all the same to you, my dear, I have a great deal of paperwork to get through.”
“Well – I’ll go practise the sword then,” Brianna said. “Don’t think you can stop me.”
“No, dear.” The Duchess gazed fondly at Brianna’s retreating, leather-clad back. “Uniquely rebellious redhead,” she murmured. “We have one every year.”
She turned to Alicia. “Well, child, that’s settled. You’re going on a quest. Do pack a sensible lunch.”
Before they could start on the quest Alicia needed a male escort. Naturally Prince Fernando was going to be Brianna’s, but an escort for every princess was traditional in case he had to lay down his life for her honour or go out in the rain to hire a taxi carriage.
Alicia actually had one to hand. It was just that Miles, as a gentleman escort and knight protector, was more or less the equivalent of old Dolly the carthorse as a milk-white steed. A retinue had been required for Alicia when she came to the academy. Other princesses had come with page-boys and ladies-in-waiting, but Alicia came from rather a small country. They’d sent their accountant.
Miles was a nice man and had always been sweet to her, but he was a bit of an embarrassment to have around the place. The unfortunate thing was that he looked like a frog.
Princesses were used to people who looked like frogs because they were enchanted princes. Princesses were not used to people who looked like frogs because they had round, imploring frog eyes, muddy hair slicked flat against their skull and a humble, pre-squashed air about them.
The other princesses laughed silvery bell-like laughs at him or attempted to make friends with him, thinking he was the equivalent of a boot boy who would become their devoted slave because of their graciousness. Miles got very red and avoided them all and Alicia was sorry for him, but an unattractive anti-social escort was not exactly what she’d had in mind.
There was a portrait gallery of princes in one of the Academy rooms, showing princesses their destiny. Princes, of course, came in two forms: Manly Princes and Sensitive Princes.
Alicia rather fancied the picture of Prince Cedric of Cinders, one of the Sensitive Princes who was less golden-haired and meltingly handsome than the others and who did not have an overly devoted squire in the picture with him. She thought he had a nice smile.
Failing Prince Cedric, Miles would have to do. Alicia saddled up Dolly the carthorse for him to ride since Miles was more used to desks than horses.
Their quest had been underway for two hours when both Dolly and Miles began to wheeze.
Brianna stopped her unicorn Rowena in her tracks and gave Miles a scathing look. Miles did not look overly upset: he was aware Brianna gave scathing looks to anything male in her vicinity.
“And this is a specimen of the sex you claim as superior!”
Prince Fernando looked loftily down on them from his enormous black stallion. Fernando bore a striking resemblance to his great black steed: they both had a swishy black mane, strong rippling shoulders and wide, flaring nostrils. The stallion admittedly did not have Fernando’s splendid chin.
Fernando and the stallion looked at Miles as if they rather suspected he was a gelding. Then they transferred their gaze to Brianna.
“Your free speaking annoys me almost as much as it inflames me. Shut up and be mine, beautiful female!”
Brianna climbed off her unicorn and drew her sword. Fernando climbed off his stallion as well, and soon they were locked in body-to-body combat. Doubtless as a result of the excitement of the moment, Brianna had dropped her sword.
“Your principles disgust me,” Brianna murmured, entwined with Fernando’s manly form. “No matter how muscular your thighs, I will never be yours!”
She proved this by sealing her mouth against Fernando’s in a passionate yet distinctly defiant kiss. They toppled into some conveniently-placed ferns.
“Rowena,” Ethel said in a dark voice. “Aren’t you going to do something about that?”
Rowena looked up from the ferns, which she was chewing thoughtfully. “Have fun, kids!” she called. “Stay safe!”
“That wasn’t actually what I had in mind,” Ethel said.
“Oh, Brianna’s a good girl,” Rowena said comfortably. “She knows never to let a prince get under her bustier.”
Miles went scarlet at the mention of Brianna’s bustier.
“And don’t you get any nasty thoughts in your head, my lad,” Ethel said tartly. “I can see into your mind.”
She peered at him ferociously through her pince-nez. Miles looked alarmed.
Alicia bent forward and whispered: “What is he thinking?”
“Well, when Dolly trots he mostly thinks ‘Ow, my spine,'” Ethel said approvingly. “Nice clean-minded lad. Not a handy rider, though. Also, he looks like he has clammy palms.”
He did rather, Alicia thought, and sighed and settled back on Ethel’s blue satin saddle.
“Done any exciting sums lately?”
“I don’t just do sums,” Miles told her. “There’s much more to my life than that.”
“Is there?” Alicia asked, trying to sound interested.
“Yes,” said Miles. “Sometimes I draw graphs.”
“Ah,” said Alicia.
Some time later, Brianna and Fernando emerged from the ferns.
“Now we must be wed, and you will be my obedient bride,” Fernando said.
“I believe that women should have the same sexual freedom as men, despite the lack of any efficient birth control in our land,” Brianna snapped. She had practically an entire fern plant distributed around her curls.
Ethel glared a prompt at Rowena, who swallowed a fern, smiled indulgently and said: “He treated you like a gentleman, didn’t he, my love?”
“In that he behaved in as chauvinist and medieval a way as possible, yes.”
Rowena began cheerfully on another fern. “Good enough.”
When they settled down to camp, Brianna and Fernando argued over which of them got to hunt, and after they came back with dead rabbits Brianna had more ferns in her hair. She also looked very sad about the rabbits.
“Are you all right?” whispered Alicia.
“I’m fine! I’m empowered!” Brianna snarled. “I don’t care about Mr Bunny!”
Alicia patted her on the back.
Then the subject of cookery came up. Brianna rejected it as female bondage, and Fernando looked confused. Alicia thought he might never have made the connection between hunting and food.
Alicia and Miles poked at the rabbits doubtfully.
“I’m afraid princesses are not really brought up knowledgeable about the culinary arts.”
“I have to say, the finer points of accountancy have little to do with food preparation.”
They skinned the rabbits, which were limp and horrible and made Alicia feel a little sick. When she looked over at Miles, he had gone mottled grey and green and he looked more like a frog than ever.
It felt like a race to be the first to be sick, and Miles won. He vomited into the ferns while Alicia roasted the rabbits and tried not to look into their little rabbit eyes. Miles said he was very sorry, Fernando asked if she was sure this was edible, and Alicia started to think Brianna might have a point about the uselessness of the so-called master sex.
In the night slugs crawled over them, it got very chilly, and a bewildered sheep charged into the embers of their fire. They were all somewhat grumpy as they set off again on their glorious quest.
Alicia noticed as they rode through majestic mountain peaks, sandy desert, lush valleys and icy tundras that the landscape was somewhat unusual. While journeying through the greenwood, she turned back and saw the sun glint off polar ice caps, and opened her mouth to question Ethel.
“This is questing country,” Ethel said. “Best not to ask, really. Just bear with the desert storms and ice storms and freak tornadoes, and try not to be made the emperor’s love slave.”
“Any emperor,” Ethel replied. “Never trust an emperor.”
During one of their treks through the icy mountain passes, they sheltered in a cave. Fernando put his arm around Brianna.
“Damn you, oppressor of women,” Brianna said, as they curled up together shivering. “Your hands are cold.”
Alicia was chilly enough to be quite willing to cuddle up to Miles, but Ethel cleared her throat meaningfully and when Miles leaned towards her it was to wrap one of the horse blankets around her shoulders.
“I did some calculations,” he said, blinking at her earnestly like a particularly owlish frog. “The material of the blankets is most effective at trapping heat.”
“Thank you, Miles,” Alicia said in an unconvinced tone. She wrapped the blanket around herself and cuddled up to Ethel.
Given the somewhat confusing nature of the landscape, it was rather a shock when they finally stumbled on the Mysterious Maze. They heard a beggar woman’s ominous warning, turned left at the white cliffs and narrowly avoided a bear trap. It was a very standard morning, all in all, and that explained why Brianna and Fernando had thought it was a good time to roll off into the ferns.
Ethel thought it was a good time to give Rowena a look of despair. “Her doom will be on your head!”
“Girls will be girls,” said Rowena.
They trotted further along the road to give Brianna and Fernando some privacy, and as the sounds of vigorous rustling faded away they trotted around a turn in the road, and came upon a maze made of briar roses.
“It’s always briar roses,” Ethel said.
Alicia slid off the unicorn and stepped forward, and one of the roses unfurled to shoot tiny darts at her.
Ethel coughed. “I’m not saying that there haven’t been a few modifications made over the years.”
They all stood and stared disconsolately at the wall of briar roses, prickling and shifting like the sea. Alicia thought of her test scores, and polar ice caps standing behind a greenwood.
“I have had enough! Hasn’t anybody noticed that none of this makes any sense? ”
“Numbers do,” Miles said. “That’s why I like them so much.”
Alicia turned and grabbed Miles by his cravat. He made a small terrified sound, like a frog being stepped on. “I have some numbers for you,” she said. “My parents have one child! And I need to graduate from the Academy so the country can have its one queen! And none of the rules make any sense, and nothing about this journey or the academy makes any sense, but none of that matters because there’s one princess here and one male escort and I’m going into that maze and getting that amulet right now!”
She dropped Miles and stepped back, breathing heavily.
“Are you going to argue with me?”
“No,” Miles said. “I’m a little scared of you just now. Also, I did swear to serve my royal family, though I sort of had graphs in mind. Perhaps some pie charts –”
“Come on, then!” Leading Ethel, Alicia strode into the maze.
“Accounts, obviously,” continued Miles, following her. “I introduced a filing system for the treasury, it’s going quite–”
The crackle of moving twigs rose all around them, the green walls closing in so when Alicia looked back, she could not see the way they had come. Rowena and the horses were lost from sight. She drew closer to Ethel.
“Miles?” she asked in a small voice.
“Yes?” said Miles.
“Tell me more about this filing system. It soothes me.”
Miles seemed extremely surprised to hear it. Alicia was a little surprised herself, but the treasury of her country was important, and even more important than that was her conviction that nothing truly terrible could happen to them while Miles was wittering on about filing systems.
After a while, voice becoming firmer as he went on, he started talking about investments.
“I know about stocks,” Alicia said, heartened by a familiar word. “We put the villagers in them when they become impertinent. Have you figured out a way to make them turn a profit? That’s amazing! Are we going to rent them out?”
“No, I don’t think you quite understand,” said Miles, and paused. “Actually, that might not be a bad –”
At that point the old woman in a tattered cloak stumbled from the middle of the maze. Ethel reared and almost dislodged her pince-nez.
“Don’t you dare go near her, child! Tell me your tale times tables!”
“Old women at the start of the adventure are secret fairies,” Alicia said obediently. “Old women during the journey are fortune tellers. Old women at the end of the journey are evil enchantr — Miles, look out!”
Miles, who obviously had no sense of narrative direction, was patting his pockets for spare change.
“Another fortune-telling beggar woman. The economy of this land must be shocking. I think the princess can spare exactly–”
“Miles!” Alicia screamed.
Miles turned around. He was looking at Alicia when the cloaked enchantress reached out her hand and touched him on his shoulder.
At first, he simply looked surprised, his eyes very wide and even more round than usual. Then his slicked hair seemed to melt into his skull, turning it all brown and mixing that with green, and his skin turned slick as if his hair gel was streaming down to cover his whole body. His whole body was getting much smaller, too, and for a dreadful moment he looked like a hunched slimy child.
It was a bit of a relief when he finally became a frog, sitting on his tweed jerkin and looking woebegone.
The enchantress gave a mad cackle and ran away into the maze.
“They’re always doing that,” Ethel remarked philosophically. “They run in and enchant the nearest male, and they’re never heard from again. Just one of those things, I suppose.”
“Just one of those things?” Alicia demanded frantically. “Miles is a frog! We’re trapped in the middle of a maze with no idea where to go and mad enchantresses running about the place, and Miles is a frog!”
She knelt down on the grass and looked into the eyes of Miles the frog. Miles gave a piteous croak that sounded a bit like ‘statistics.’ Alicia wanted to cry.
“Now, now, dear,” Ethel said. “This isn’t the end of the world. For which let us be thankful, since that’s always a bit tricky. It’s quite simple, really. A princess. A frog. It is destiny.”
There was a long, awful silence.
“Oh no,” said Alicia.
“Come now, at least it’s not a prince and a girl in a glass coffin! Nasty business, that was. I heard every year on their anniversary he gets her to lie very still –”
“I don’t know,” Alicia said. “At least she wasn’t conscious.”
The frog looked very slimy indeed. But this was Miles, who gave her horse blankets and investment tips, and it was all her fault they were in this mess. She should have waited for Brianna: she should have left this quest to a real princess.
She closed her eyes, leaned forward and gave Miles a quick peck on his mottled, slimy back.
Then she choked and spat into the grass.
“Sorry, Miles,” she said. “No offence.”
The frog looked embarrassed and taken aback, insofar as a frog could. He also still looked very much like a frog.
“Come on, Miles,” Alicia coaxed. “Any time now.”
Miles remained a frog.
“It seems to be a rather strong spell,” Ethel noted. “Well, there’s only one thing to be done.”
Alicia wondered frantically whether Ethel could dig a makeshift frog pond with her horn.
She almost didn’t register the words when Ethel said calmly: “Of course, the only option is marriage.”
“Right!” said Alicia. “Wait. What?”
“Traditionally, marriage to a princess cures most things,” Ethel observed. “It’s something of a folk remedy. I’d recommend trying it.”
“Trying it,” Alicia repeated. “You’d recommend that I give being married to a frog a go? It’s not an experiment. Marriage is for life!”
“Nonsense, marriages can be annulled if there’s no consummation. And there won’t be any consummation on my watch.”
Ethel looked mildly ferocious. Alicia stared down at the sad, slimy shape of Miles.
“I don’t think you really have to worry,” she told Ethel faintly. “Anyway, I — we can’t get married, who would marry us?”
“I would, my dear,” Ethel said. “I am a priestess of a mysterious druidic circle.”
“It was one of those long winters,” Ethel explained apologetically. “I had to keep myself entertained somehow.”
Alicia looked desperately down at her frog accountant and then up at Ethel’s eyes, glowing behind her pince-nez. They could get an annulment. This was all her fault and as a princess she should take responsibility.
“All right,” she whispered.
Thankfully, Ethel’s druidic ceremony was quite short. She pawed the earth nervously with one pearlescent hoof, cleared her throat, and said:
“I dedicate the sanctity of the marriage to the blessed powers of the sun, the rain, and other such hippie doodads. Do you, Princess Alicia of the Hair That Is Slightly Blondish In Summertime, take this frog to be your lawful wedded husband?”
“I do,” Alicia said wretchedly.
“And do you, frog accountant Miles, take this princess to be your lawful wedded wife?”
“Ribbit,” Miles said, even more wretchedly.
“You may kiss the frog,” Ethel declared.
“Again?” Alicia said. “Oh good.”
She stooped again, and pressed another kiss onto Miles’ clammy hide. This time as she was spitting frog taste out onto the grass, she heard Ethel say: “Keep your eyes averted, child. They’re always indecent after they change from animal form.”
“Right,” Alicia said, keeping her eyes on the ground. If Ethel thought that a princess’s conduct was indiscreet, she usually gave them a warning nudge, and a warning nudge from a unicorn’s horn was no joke.
“Alicia, I’m terribly sorry,” Miles said. “Er. Your Highness, that is. Sorry. I –”
“Have you got your clothes on?” Alicia asked.
Miles coughed. “Yes.”
Alicia looked up. Oddly enough, Miles looked much less like a frog than he had before he’d been one: his clothes and hair were rumpled, making it clear that the brownish-green tweed was not actually pressed right into his skin and that his hair could look quite fluffy. He also looked less a frog because frogs seldom came in a deep, embarrassed pink.
Alicia gathered together the tatters of what, before her marriage to an amphibian accountant, had been her royal dignity. “It’s perfectly all right,” she said. “We can get an annulment as soon as we get the amulet and go back home. It’s no trouble at all- – for one of our most loyal subjects,” she added, with an attempt at graciousness.
For some reason, Miles went even more pink.
“Um — shall we go, then?” he asked, and offered her his arm.
The rest of the maze was uneventful, but that did not really help Alicia’s frame of mind. Even when the castle loomed before them, turreted and hung about with briars as was customary, all she could think was that she had imagined stepping over a castle threshold on her husband’s arm a hundred times.
It had never gone quite like this.
The hall inside had the standard suits of armour and the drifting golden dust of years. Miles disturbed the dust slightly with a diffident cough.
“While we were at the Princess Academy,” he said. “Well, there were very few accounts to do. So I confess I amused myself a little by reading the lessons on princesses’ adventures, and turning them into small mathematical problems.”
“Of course you did,” Alicia said.
“I think it might help with our quest,” Miles continued. “Let me show you. Open the first door in this hall, and I guarantee you that you will find something utterly unconnected with your quest but also completely harmless.”
Alicia opened the first door in the hall, and found inside Princess Flaminia of the Golden Hair, the valedictorian princess of their year at the Academy, spinning straw into gold.
“Alicia!” she said. “Alas, for I endure great travail, and deadly peril!”
Flaminia always spoke like that, and when she did Alicia always felt tongue-tied and less like a princess than ever.
“Oh? Um. Sorry to hear that.”
“A mighty king has decreed that before he will marry me, I must spin straw into gold,” Flaminia declaimed, keeping one hand on the spindle and flinging out the other in a graceful gesture of despair. “If I do not obey, he said he would cut off my fair head and put it on a spike! So, alas, I was forced to make a bargain with a loathsome goblin, who desires my firstborn child for who knows what fell purpose–”
“Tell you what,” Miles said. “We’ve opened the door. Pack your things and leave. I mean, I’m sure you don’t want to marry someone who threatens to chop your head off, do you?”
Flaminia regarded him coldly. “It’s quite standard.”
“You know, Miles could be right,” Alicia said. “I mean, I know the chopping off heads thing works out more often than you’d think, but the goblin might want to eat your baby. Maybe it would be better to just run for it. We wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“Oh, Alicia,” Flaminia sighed. “You’re so out of touch with reality. I have spinning to do. Please leave and take your froggy man with you.”
Alicia shut the door with more force than necessary. She could hear the Duchess in her head telling her that princesses did not slam doors.
“That Flaminia was always an overly dramatic child,” Ethel remarked.
“She’s mad as a brush,” Miles said. “I hope the goblin won’t eat her poor baby, though.”
“Don’t worry, child,” Ethel said. “She’ll get the goblin’s name. They always do. A little bird tells them, or they promise the goblin a night they’ll never forget and read the laundry marks on their underwear. Never fails.”
Alicia was used to the way Ethel talked by now. Miles blushed.
It occurred to Alicia, just as she was thinking how absurd Miles could be, that Miles had also been absolutely right. She stared at the door behind which Flaminia sat, beautiful, spinning, completely harmless and utterly useless to the quest.
“How did you know?”
Miles looked pleased with himself, and blushed more than ever. “It’s quite simple, really. “There can only be so many isolated castles covered over with briars in one country. Conservation of space dictates that they be used for other princesses’ adventures as well. And of course, quest convention indicates that there are always three choices on offer. So, given the space restrictions and the structure of a quest, I imagine that the first of every three doors we see will contain someone harmless but useless, the second will show a danger which will prove almost deadly and perhaps turn us to stone, and the third will give us some clue towards the quest.”
“I think we can skip the almost deadly door.”
“I really would prefer it, if you don’t mind,” Miles said. “I am sworn to protect you, but I’m absolute rubbish with a sword.” He coughed again, this time a touch less diffidently. “Also — given the rules of quests, considered mathematically, I think we could also skip the clues. I feel that if we just go to the third room on the third floor we’ll find our quest object.”
When Miles talked about maths he stopped looking all hunched and slightly squashed, and actually had an air of authority. That was the only thing which explained why Ethel and Alicia followed him up the winding stairs.
The third floor looked exactly like the second floor. Miles strode across the large flagstones and the gently drifting dust, and opened the door for Alicia.
Inside, lying on a silken cushion under glass, was the Miraculous Amulet.
It was sort of unimpressive. It was a lump of metal decorated with little fiddly bits, like pieces of mica stuck on a stone.
“That’s why they call it an amulet,” Ethel remarked after a long moment. “Nobody knows what an amulet looks like. The Miraculous Goblet, now, it has to look like a goblet, but an amulet can be any old thing. What a gyp, eh? Grab it and let’s get out of here.”
Alicia was looking at Miles with a certain amount of awe.
“How did you know? Do you have gypsy blood in you?”
“Of course not,” Miles said, appalled. “I knew because it was a mathematical certainty.”
He gestured politely towards the amulet, in the same way as he opened doors for her. Alicia stepped tentatively forward, expecting terrible repercussions at any moment, opened the glass case and took out the amulet. She tucked it in the bosom of her dress, and Miles went pink again.
“I don’t know,” Alicia began. “Isn’t it all a bit too–”
“If you say ‘easy,’ child, you know at least one of our gallant party has to die before we leave the castle!” Ethel warned.
“Right,” Alicia said. “Sorry.”
“It was easy because we cheated,” Ethel went on comfortably. “Good idea. Fine lad. I can’t be having with an epic quest these days, I’m no spring chicken.”
Alicia still felt vaguely uneasy as they went out of the maze. When they met up with Brianna and Fernando, who by this time were looking rather plaintive and missing their tea, Alicia felt tempted to embroider on the story.
Ethel had very strict ideas about princesses telling fibs, though, so she recited the real story.
“Married to Miles!” Brianna exclaimed. “Marriage is a brutal harness for women manufactured by the patriarchy! And it’s Miles, so that’s even worse.”
“And it doesn’t sound like much of an adventure,” Brianna went on, sniffing. “It’s mostly maths. Maths doesn’t have much to do with adventures. That’s why I don’t like maths.”
“That’s why I don’t like adventures,” Miles said, glaring.
Brianna put her hand on her sword hilt. “I challenge you to a duel!”
“I wish you’d try to be more sensible,” said Miles.
“I bet you can’t even fight!”
“I bet you can’t either, in that corset,” said Miles, and blushed. “I beg your pardon, Alicia.”
Brianna and Miles stood and glowered at each other.
After a moment, Brianna started to look confused. “All this verbal sparring,” she said. “Does the fact that we cannot agree on anything mean we are irresistibly attracted to each other?”
Miles looked ill.
“That is my husband you’re talking to,” Alicia reminded them. “Um, temporarily.”
At this point, Rowena looked up from chewing at a crop of bluebells. “Well done, girl,” she said. “Married, with the quest object. That means you’ve completed your last assignment.”
Alicia’s heart stuttered nervously in her chest.
Ethel nuzzled her arm and said gently: “That means you’re qualified to be Queen, one day.”
There was a small awed pause.
Then Brianna said: “And what about me? What about my quest?”
“Take the amulet and go save the life of Queen Ella of the Cinders, of course,” Ethel said. “Take Fernando with you. You might find him useful in a fight or for a shotgun wedding.”
Rowena ate bluebells and said: “Nature will have its way.”
Alicia looped her arm around Ethel’s side, resting against the solid bulk of her white forequarters, and thought about going home with all the academic credentials to be queen.
Then she remembered that she had to go back and announce her marriage to a frog accountant.
Her parents took it very well.
“Of course it’ll have to be annulled at once,” said her mother Queen Penelope, formerly Princess Penelope of the Midnight Curls. “If it had been a frog prince, of course, or a frog duke, or even a frog minor baron, it would be a different matter. But it’s Miles.”
Miles bowed and blushed and looked as if he wished he were, with mathematical exactitude, a thousand miles away.
“I like Miles,” Alicia snapped. “He’s my friend.”
“Oh, we all like Miles,” agreed her father King Charmain, formerly Prince Charmain the Dragon Slayer. “Very useful chap to have around the place. Knows all about numbers and so forth. Counted up the dragon’s hoard like a champion. But not exactly the stuff of a young girl’s dreams, is he now? Haha.”
“It’s all right, Alicia,” Miles muttered. “It’s quite true.”
It was quite true, but it didn’t feel fair to say it to his face. Alicia had rescued him. It gave her a peculiarly protective and possessive feeling. Miles wouldn’t be human without her, and so Miles was her responsibility. You couldn’t make someone human and let them be hurt.
“I will not hear a word against Miles,” the Princess Alicia said flatly.
“Oh quite,” said her mother. “Excellent work on the quest, both of you. And of course your unicorn will remain to testify to your purity while we get the marriage annulled?” She smiled on Ethel. “As our honoured guest.”
“I will stay as long as Alicia needs me,” Ethel allowed.
“Having a unicorn about the place will remind me of my days at the Academy,” the queen sighed. “Happy, happy days. Can I ask you a question, Ethel?”
Ethel inclined her head gracefully and Alicia waited with dread for her mother to ask Ethel exactly how well Alicia’d got on at the Academy.
Queen Penelope leaned forward and asked, very seriously: “How do you get your mane so shiny?”
Once they had a moment alone, Alicia asked Miles if he wanted to talk about it.
“What is there to talk about?” Miles asked, looking more miserable and like a squashed frog than ever. “Excuse me, I need to get back to the treasury. Managing it via letters for a year hasn’t been easy, and the country can’t afford to lose much more money.”
“YouÉ manage the treasury?” Alicia asked.
Miles said, “I have to go.”
It seemed to be settled, and that seemed to be for the best. The annulment proceedings were underway when the plague struck.
Nobody knew what it was or how to stop it. It started with sores and swellings, and then fever, and after that you lived or died. It was infectious, and some people seemed immune, but most caught it, and most died. People shut themselves up in their houses. Alicia’s family shut themselves up in their palace.
Alicia sat in her royal bedroom and thought about the amulet she had so carelessly sent to one sick queen. She had done all this so she could be a queen herself and being a queen meant being responsible, as she’d been responsible for Miles in the maze.
Being a queen meant doing what it took to help.
She packed up a few clothes and a lot of food and everything she could think of to use as medical supplies.
“You don’t know anything about healing,” her mother protested as she ran after Alicia.
“I know I’m healthier and better fed than most of the country,” Alicia said. “So I know I have a better chance of surviving. And if you wanted me to learn about healing, why did you send me to the Princess Academy?”
“If you hadn’t gone to the academy, you couldn’t be a queen!”
“If I don’t go out to my people when they’re in trouble,” Alicia said. “I can’t be a queen.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t understand why you sent me to the Academy!” Alicia shouted. “Spinning wheels and chivalry and princesses with golden hair and marriage and adventure — why are princesses and princes supposed to do those things? Why are kingdoms nothing but prizes awarded for good behaviour? Why did you send me there when I learned nothing — nothing — nothing?”
There was a small, ladylike cough behind her. Alicia spun around.
“Obviously, you learned something,” said Ethel.
Alicia kissed her unicorn goodbye, but not her mother.
She went out into her kingdom. She was not able to help many people, and her inexperience helped kill some. She went hungry, and she saw people dying who could have been saved. She saw waste and horror and she was there, at least, among her people in the time of plague.
She stood under Miles’ balcony and talked to him when she could.
“We’re borrowing money,” he said. “If my calculations are right and the grain stores we have can be spread over another winter — if the statistics you gave me are correct then we can feed all the survivors who didn’t get a chance to sow the crops this summer. Traders have to be bribed to cross our borders now, of course, but if you make an equation involving the rate the plague spreads at and the time it takes until the victims are no longer infectious then I estimate we can get some traders over the borders in less than three months.”
Alicia thought of her people, and then tried to think of them as part of an equation. She couldn’t, but she knew someone had to.
“Is there anything you can’t do?” she asked Miles.
“Well — I can’t dance at all,” Miles said, seriously. “And blood makes me vomit. Also, you may not believe this, but I don’t really have any luck with girls.” He looked down at Alicia’s face, which he could not have been able to see very well from the balcony. “One thing I could do — is come down and help you.”
Alicia closed her eyes and leaned her head against the shining white marble of the palace walls, wishing she could lean against the warmth of Ethel’s shining white flanks.
“No you can’t. You’re the only one who can calculate all this. We can’t risk you. You’re the most important person in the kingdom.”
Miles looked astonished. Alicia laughed up into his face.
“Trust me,” she said. “It’s a mathematical certainty.”
It was well past time to go then, and she went.
On the third day of the third week of the plague, the day was saved by a prince in shining armour.
Prince Cedric of Cinders, bearing the amulet that had saved his mother’s life, came and lifted plague from the land and was welcomed rapturously by both the populace and the palace. There was a parade held in the street and impressionable young women threw flowers and underwear as Prince Cedric rode by. Alicia could not blame them: Prince Cedric’s smile was even better in person than it was in his picture and, most charming of all, he didn’t seem to know it was anything special.
“Princess Brianna and Prince Fernando told me all about you,” he said to Alicia at the formal dinner.
Alicia was wearing her Princess Academy uniform. After weeks of rags and dirt, she was enjoying the pearls and pink satin enormously. “Did they?”
“They both said good things,” said Prince Cedric, smiling his terribly nice smile. “And they never agree on anything- – not even, as I recall, who was going to wear the wedding dress. It was a very . . . special wedding.”
Alicia smiled. “I hope they’ll live happily ever after.”
She reached out and snagged the potatoes as they went by.
“I was awfully nervous about this,” Prince Cedric went on. “I didn’t do all that well at the Prince Academy. Chaps like Fernando alarmed me a bit because if they didn’t get me with their swords then they could bash me on the head with their manly chins. And the other sort of chaps, well, they all seemed either to be swearing eternal devotion to married ladies, which is a little dodgy if you ask me, or..” He dropped his voice. “There were a lot of squires about the place,” he confided. “Some of them wore glitter.”
“Fairy dust that you rub over the skin to make yourself look all sparkly,” Cedric answered in a pained tone.
Alicia spared him any further questions she had about the glittery squires. She was fairly sure Ethel would be able to fill her in on the details.
“Anyway, there was some talk about not letting me go on a quest, but I asked if I could try, and well, it all worked out,” Cedric said, beaming. “And I’m glad I could return the favour you did me. Thank you for what you did for my mother.”
“Thank you for what you did for my country,” Alicia said, and smiled at him again.
“I heard you at some trouble at the Academy, too,” Cedric said, leaning forward. “It looks like everything has worked out well for both of us.”
“It has,” Alicia said, and raised her glass to him. He paused, laughed, and then raised his own. “To having trouble at the Academy,” she said. .
“You seemed to be getting along excellently with Cedric of Cinders,” Queen Penelope remarked archly. “He reminds me of your father,” she said, sighing. “Your father had hair glittering as a golden helm, you know. Before he went bald.”
“They always do.”
“What, have hair glittering as a golden helm, or go bald?”
“Both,” said Alicia.
They were sitting in her mother’s bedroom. Her mother checked under her mattress for peas — she’d had a traumatic episode in her youth which she did not talk about, and which had left her with a deathly fear of peas — and then, unthreatened by lurking legumes, popped into bed.
Then she continued with her line of questioning. “Do you like him, my dear?”
“I like him very much.” Alicia leaned her elbows against her pink satin lap and thought about her country. “Mother?”
“Yes, darling?” asked Queen Penelope. “Do you want to know what happens when a prince and a princess love each other very much?”
“Er — no,” said Alicia. “Ethel’s covered that. She drew little diagrams in the earth with her horn. I was thinking about what would have happened if Prince Cedric had not arrived with his amulet.”
“We would all have been doomed, utterly doomed!” Queen Penelope declared. “If not for that valiant prince, destruction would have fallen on our land.”
“Yes, that’s what I was thinking about,” Alicia said. “If we lived in a world without magical solutions, everyone would have been sick and cold and miserable and hungry, and a lot of us would have died, and then out of the destruction we would have had to build something. Miles had plans, you know. Miles would have saved at least forty per cent of the population.”
“Prince Cedric saved at least a hundred per cent of the population,” Queen Penelope pointed out.
“Yes,” Alicia said. “Yes, I know.”
“You should go to bed and dream on it,” Queen Penelope advised. “Watch out for peas.”
Alicia leaned down and kissed her mother goodnight. She went out into the corridors of the palace, walking down long stone halls and thinking about academies, and saving people, and quests. She walked the halls, passing by pictures of past princesses and queens. As she walked the stars in the sky, from being bright sparks to wish on against the dark, became faint points of light far away. The sky lightened from black to blue and then paler blue touched with gold. The gold was the pale colour of wine in a goblet, held to the light: it was the colour of Ethel’s eyes.
She thought of Ethel and saw Ethel at the same time. Ethel was a white shape against the hills and the dawn, mane streaming, body moving so smoothly it seemed as if she was flowing against the landscape, about to mingle with it like paints all running together in one vivid glorious mess.
Alicia stood at the window and watched her unicorn leave.
Then she walked slowly down the passageways until she found a door and opened it. There were still candles burning in this room, the dawn light not strong enough yet to pass through the windows, and in the glow of candlelight Alicia could see heaps of treasure, golden and gleaming.
They were all arranged in neat rows. The coronets were organized by size.
There was a desk in one corner of the room, looking small, dark and rather bullied by the towering heaps of gold. Miles was sitting at it, going over a stack of statistics reports and the new trading deals he was trying to settle. In his counting room he looked tall, and strong, and not like a frog at all.
He looked up and went so pink that the only animal he resembled at all was a flamingo. “Alicia!”
Alicia took a deep breath. “I’ve come to tell you something.”
Miles went hunched in on himself, small as a frog again.
She moved forward, her Princess Academy gown shimmering in the candlelight and whispering through the gold. She had her hands clasped before her like a proper princess and her eyes downcast in a demure way Ethel would have approved. She passed that dark little desk, and sank in a rush of satin and pearls to kneel down by Miles’ chair.
“I came to tell you that you are my hero,” said the Princess Alicia.
– END –