Once upon a time, there was a princess. Wait, scratch that. That one's been done.
Once upon a time, there was a raven. But the princess doesn't like that story, so scrub that one, too.
Once upon a time, there was a duck.
She wasn't startlingly beautiful - ducks rarely were. Nor was she disconcertingly ugly - that's quite another story. Although the duck did turn into a swan, she only did so occasionally and always turned back into a duck by the end.
The most notable thing about that duck was her funny, sticky-up feather, which waved wildly above her head as she flailed in the water.
"What a silly thing you are," said the princess, but she did not say it unkindly and she took the bread off her sandwiches and fed the duck from her own fingers. The duck quacked at her reprovingly, but she didn't turn her nose up at the food.
After she ate the cheese from the sandwiches, the princess took off her shoes and socks and began to move smoothly through her warm-up exercises. These were as much a practice of balance as anything else; without a barre, they were bizarre and difficult to maintain. Elevé, plié, relevé. Elevé, plié, relevé. The duck watched, transfixed; not because the princess was doing anything particularly exciting, but because her simple economy of movement was in itself beautiful.
Slowly, the seeds of an idea began to form.
In fairy-tales, wishes are often granted. Most people get three, if they're lucky, and one if they're not. The duck only got one.
She had to grant the rest of her wishes herself.
"Rue-chan!" the duck called out. "Rue-chan!"
"I'm here," said the princess. "What is it that you wanted to say?"
"Well," explained the duck, "I have to go shopping today. I need new shoes - look!" And indeed her ballet slippers were in a sorry state. "And Pique asked me to bring her some chocolate from Frau Klein's sweetshop and Lilie wants catnip - I don't know why - and I was thinking of buying shortbread and putting it in Fakir's locker in case he wants to feed ducks again, it's good to know what they like best..."
"I'm not your secretary," said the princess, easily annoyed. "Why are you telling me all this?"
"Because you're coming, too, of course!" chirped the duck, curling her arm round the princess's. "That's what friends do. We can go to the dressmaker's and pretend we have enough money to buy the pretty blue one in the front window, too."
The princess considered struggling, but it would have been undignified in front of all the other students, and she allowed herself to be tugged along just enough that the duck wouldn't be discouraged and no one would think that they weren't two perfectly average ballet students going into town.
In fairy-tales, transformations take place all the time. Princesses into servants, stepsisters into statues, princes into ravens - oh, but we weren't talking about that one.
Sometimes, it has to be admitted, ducks turn into swans.
Even princesses cried sometimes, when they were sure they were alone, and this princess had run all the way to the bridge to escape her classmates. The evenings were drawing in and it had been a dreary day; the light was grey and the water below her feet gloomy. The princess leant over the edge and thought of how easy it would be to fall from there; a child could do it. And the black river would suck you down, endlessly flowing over your face and in your eyes and your ears and your lungs. She leant over a little way more.
"Rue," said a voice, soft and calm and authoritative. The princess turned and saw a swan, who was gesturing effortlessly with her milk-white arms. In sunlight, her feathers would have sparkled; in the grim twilight she merely stood out sharply against her backdrop. She was ethereal and sturdy, like a ballerina should be. The princess wondered uneasily if her thighs were too fat. "Will you dance with me?"
The princess, dreamlike, stepped towards the swan and the swan swept a glissade around her, until her hands were resting on the princess's waist. The movements were simple enough that the princess could follow them without rehearsal; but the swan's warmth at her back was not simple at all, nor was the slight pressure of the pearled bodice on her shoulder-blades. It was a very slight pressure, the princess comforted herself. It was hardly worth thinking about at all.
"You are very unhappy, Rue," said the swan. She sounded as if this made her unhappy, too, and the princess grew scared. She broke free of the swan's spell and performed a grand jeté to make her escape.
"It's none of your business!" she said, although she knew very well that it was, and ran for as long as she could without losing her breath.
In fairy-tales, you have evil villains. Witches are wicked; giants are loathsome; any member of your family not biologically related to you is a constant threat. In the oldest tales, even your own blood wouldn't spit on you if you were on fire.
Did people ever wonder why? Perhaps the witches were doing their best with the limited medical knowledge they had and didn't mean to poison anyone. Giants have it hard, being so much bigger than everyone else; they all expect giants to be bullies anyway. Maybe the hero was so annoying that his family had to send him on a dangerous quest just to get some peace and quiet.
Everyone has their own reasons.
"Rue-chan," said the duck sadly, "I don't understand."
She was so sad that she quacked disconsolately and waddled all the way back to the pond in a state of clucking misery. To her surprise, the princess was already there, curled up on the bank. She turned as she heard the squelch of the duck's webbed feet on soggy leaves and the first smile the duck had seen from her in weeks brightened her whole face.
"Quack," said the duck, who was eyeing the pond with rather more nervousness than before.
"I remember you," said the princess. "You're the silly duck."
"None of the others have this." The princess put a hand out and touched the duck's tuft of feathers, which was still sticking straight up from her head.
"Quack," said the duck despondently. Yes, she knew.
"I wish I could be a duck," said the princess. "It's better than - " She did not say what it was better than, because she knew, and in fact the duck knew as well. "If I were a duck, I wouldn't have to worry about anything."
"Quack!" said the duck indignantly, for she knew that ducks had to worry about a great many things, and she had the most of them all. "Quack, quack, quack!"
The princess drew her hand away quickly. "Even you don't like me," she said.
"Quack!" said the duck, trying to sound plaintive and affectionate, but the princess ignored her and walked away.
Some fairy-tales have happy endings. And then there are those that don't (there's more of them). We did warn you that the swan turns back into a duck at the end.
The princess came back from her honeymoon with one preoccupation.
"Did you - " she began.
"No," said the knight-cum-writer. He was a Jack of all trades, but master of none, the princess thought darkly. But his face was so drawn and pale that she could not say so, and, hesitantly, she reached out a hand to squeeze his arm. He looked as surprised at her action as she was herself and hurriedly excused himself.
"Ahiru," the princess whispered. "Ahiru, come here a moment."
The duck waddled over obligingly.
"Ahiru, do you want to become human?" The princess considered her question and added, "Quack once for yes, twice for no."
"Quack," said the duck cheerily.
The princess, you see, had had some experience with being forced into a form she didn't belong in, and she had had enough sorrow that she could gladly bear some more in the name of the duck's happiness. But she was relieved.
"Well, I don't know if this will work," she said, and kissed the duck on her beak.
Perhaps it was some remaining talespinner magic; perhaps the knight-cum-writer's story had been waiting for the right characters; perhaps the duck just hadn't felt like transforming back until now. But -
The duck - girl, one supposes - sprawled naked across the princess's lap; thrilled, the princess hugged her tightly. The knight-cum-writer entered and immediately exited, blushing; the prince followed him, smiling.
Perhaps it had been True Love's Kiss, because all love is true love, else it isn't love at all. So there were the princess and the duck, and the prince and the knight-cum-author (and various combinations thereof besides), and I can tell you that they lived happily until they died.