1. The Widow Queen
“What was it like, your majesty?” asks the youngest and boldest of her handmaids one morning, “To be cursed, I mean.” The other maids are quiet, moving about their morning rituals as though they are not listening intently.
There was no curse, Aurelia imagines telling them, oh, the trapdoor was magic, and the stairs and the forests and the lake and the dancers, as well. But we went through the door willingly enough.
Do you know what it is like, she would say, to be twenty-nine years old and trapped in your childhood room? No, the curse came before and after the dancing, not during. The curse was a locked door every night; the curse was a father who would sell his daughters for an answer; the curse was a choice between strange men’s lives and our own freedom. The curse was a soldier who would barter a stolen secret for a kingdom, for my body in his marriage-bed.
The curse is that food will never taste hearty enough, nor wine taste sweet enough, nor the moon gleam bright enough. When I rise to dance my partners will always be disappointing, and when I sit to listen the music will always sound just a little flat.
The fairies stole something from us when that door closed forever, but it is not them I blame. They gave as much as they took, for me at least. They gave me freedom, and for freedom’s sake I learned not to flinch at the death of a man. For freedom’s sake I learned how to slip sleep into a prince’s chalice, though it was for my sake and mine alone I learned to slip poison into a king’s. Sometimes it pays to play the same trick twice.
Once upon a time, I feared I would spend the night of my 30th birthday locked away. Instead I spent it at my own coronation. Who could call that a curse?
All this Aurelia could say, but she does not. She looks at their faces - young and curious and hiding it - and at herself in the mirror - gown of silver, earrings of diamond, crown of gold.
“It is the most terrifying thing in the world, my dears,” she says instead, “to be trapped by the whims of others.”
2. Beatrix Listens
Beatrix has been listening at the door for a good few minutes when Aurelia finds her, touches her gently on the shoulder.
“All well?” Aurelia whispers.
A familiar smile lights Beatrix’s face, this time tinged with resignation, “All well. Sexta and Allie have all my children enthralled."
“All of them?”
“Shh,” Beatrix chuckles, “All of them. Even the little ones.”
Aurelia looks skeptical, and the two women fall silent for a time. After a few minutes of listening, Aurelia speaks again.
“That’s our story,” she says softly, and Beatrix nods.
“I said they were too young, but Sexta insisted. She says someone has to tell it, and it might as well be sooner than later. I think she’s afraid we'll forget.”
“Or be forgotten.”
They listen for a bit longer, and then Beatrix says, “I’m glad she’s telling it, I am. Ten years later and I still don’t think I could, but the dancing and fairy, at least, are good memories, and as for the ending -"
“- as for the ending,” Aurelia says, “I hope she lies.”
3. Constance Wanders
Constance knows that she is next, when both her elder sisters are married off. The night of Beatrix’s wedding, she packs a few small things, pulls Aurelia aside for a few hastily stolen words, and leaves under cover of the revelry.
She returns once and only once, years later. She appears at the castle gate with one arm around another woman’s waist. The woman is Connie’s opposite - tall and slim, pale-faced and taciturn - and just as beautiful.
Connie stays for one week, kisses each sister she can find, asks after each sister she can’t, holds each niece and nephew, chatters her way through each meal. It is not until later that the remaining princesses realize she also evaded each question about where she has come from, dodged each question about where she goes next. They do not know where Connie goes when she and her lady walk away from the castle side by side, but the morning mist gathers about and before and behind them, and they look so hazy there, between the mist and the dawn, that they might be disappearing entirely.
But women do not disappear forever - at least, not in this world. Nearly a decade and many miles later, Connie’s second-youngest sister will stumble onto a traveling troupe mid-performance, will, intrigued by the colors and music, slide into a seat at the back. She will find the story disconcertingly familiar - a yarn about mortal ladies at a fairy ball, with the lead lady pale, slim and the lead fairy dark, larger than life. That night, Andante will leave early; she has a child to feed, a young woman - or man, this time, she cannot remember - waiting. She will return the following morning, intent on slipping past the bell-spangled wagons to the leading ladies’ tent, but by then the troupe will have moved on.
4. Diane Wishes
“And what do you want?” the witch asks from her place in the center of the triangle. She sounds peeved.
Diane stares - she had not, in all honestly, expected the spell to work. The old books she’d read certainly hadn’t been clear about the ritual, and Diane had been certain her piecemeal rendering of the procedure would prove entirely inaccurate.
“Well?” the witch prompts, sounding more annoyed still. Faced with her pale, angry form, Diane has to acknowledge that the spell did, indeed, work.
“Oh, I- I mean,” Diane starts, “I didn’t think-”
“People rarely do,” the witch says, and Diane finds she is not too intimidated to roll her eyes.
Diane’s royal upbringing urges her to introduce herself, ask her guest’s name, offer the witch a seat and maybe something to eat, but she knows better. She is in a glade, for one, with no seating or edibles in sight, and she knows that it is not polite to ask a witch her name, nor smart to offer your own.
She goes to offer an answer, instead, and realizes she does not know how to phrase her request. She’s spent so much time building towards this moment - learning the rituals, collecting the materials (a “borrowed” silver locket from Andante, a gold bracelet filched from Aurelia, her own pair of diamond earrings, the points of which she used to prick her fingers and provide her own blood, which is the blood of royalty, which is the blood of her sisters, spilled upon the ground where the witch now stands) dreaming and wishing and praying. She never thought of how she’d ask for what she wanted if she got the chance.
Diane would like to return to her room, where she would collect and then read book after scholarly book advising best practices and worst pitfalls for requesting favors from witches (or fairies, or other summoned creatures of magic). She might cross-reference these practices with the legal counsel section. She longs for time and silence and paper and ink so she can pen her desires, cross them out, and retool them into more political, more ironclad, unambiguous and utterly planned.
The witch’s glare tells Diane what she already knows - she does not have time.
“I want,” she says, voice louder and stronger than she would have anticipated, “freedom. For me and for my sisters.” This is the truth, she knows, in it’s most honest state. But it is also vague and open to interpretation, and she curses her own lack of specificity. She curses herself doubly as she recognizes that there will be a price, and she is for the first time unsure if she is willing to pay it. She’s opened her mouth to - she doesn’t know, take it back? Add conditions? Threaten I know your kind have tricks so don’t try them on me? Beg? when -
“Okay,” the witch says, blunt.
Diane is silent for a shocked moment, before “wh-what?” she stammers,”but...I-I mean...you didn’t...and...the price! Isn’t there…I read...there’s always...”
The witch laughs a laugh that cracks against the still air like lightning. “Maybe there is no price,” she says, and her voice cracks like her laugh.
Diane gapes. “But there’s always a price,” she tells the witch, as though the witch needs instruction on the proper form of witchery, “that’s what all the stories say.”
“Well,” the witch says, “maybe I was overstating it a bit. My magic is free, as gifts are wont to be - I bestow it where it gives me amusement, and it helps or harms as it sees fit, not I. But freedom is both fleeting and feisty, and magic has limits.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, girl, that I like you. Oh, goodness knows you’re nothing especially pretty or clever, but you’ve got guts and you’ve got drive and you’ve got the audacity to put not just yourself but the hearts and souls of eleven other women on the line - by the by, do they even know you’re here?”
Diane shakes her head in a shamed no.
The witch laughs again, “of course they don’t. So here it is: you will have your freedom, as you ask, and so will your sisters, whether they will it or no. I’ll call upon friends of mine to give it shape, no tricks. It will be as wonderful as you could imagine - but it will be only partial, and it will last only for a year and a day.”
“A year and a day?”
“Of course a year and a day, sweetpea, what kind of witch do you think I am?"
“What will happen then?”
“Well, it will end, obviously. That’s what “not lasting” means.”
“How will it end?”
“Oh you do love your questions, don’t you? Frankly, I don’t know how it will end.”
“I haven’t decided yet. I’m sure I’ll figure something out.”
“Can we stop it? From ending, I mean.”
Again laughter, and “you can try, I suppose. If you try real hard you could even succeed.” At Diane’s surprised look she adds, “Foregone conclusions are really no fun.”
You’re not what I thought you’d be, Diane wants to say, and it’s true - the woman before her is tall, yes, that she expected, and beautiful, but thick-limbed, with eyes set just barely too far apart to be entirely human. She is paler than human, too, and her cloak is more utilitarian than dramatic, though Diane can see how the hood might easily serve to obscure the witch’s face.
The witch will disappear as quickly as she came, will take with her the silver locket, the gold bracelet, the diamond earrings, will leave the blood-soaked ground where she stood. The next night, a trapdoor to a fairy ball will open in the room Diane shares with her sisters, and she will stay silent when they wonder at its origin. Diane, unsettled, will keep her silence for fear that she’s damned herself and her sisters besides, for fear they will hate her for the dream she’s invited into their lives, for fear they will hate more her when the dream ends.
5. Emilia Laughs
Victor is nineteen when he finally brings it up, though Emilia suspects it’s been on his mind much longer. They’re lingering over their weekly supper in her castle rooms, so she props her feet up on a nearby chair to wait while he fidgets his way into confidence, takes a deep breath, and rapidly spits out his question.
“Mother, my father wasn’t human, was he?”
Emilia’s first thought is that she’s not sober enough for this, and her second is that her son has been abnormally attentive to her cup tonight. Clever boy, she thinks ruefully, though little surprise there. “I’ve said it once and will say it again, Vic, you have no father.”
“Don’t try that on me, of course I have a father. Everyone has a father.”
Emilia giggles like the 23-year-old girl she was when she first birthed him, “oh, you have a sire alright, but I wouldn’t say you have a father.”
Victor looks at his mother blankly. “What?” He says, “Mother, I know biology. There must have been a man who helped…” he starts to gesture, realizes his inability to form an appropriate one, and stops, “...make me. My father -”
Later, Emilia will blame the wine for her interjection of “- was a fairy. Vic, my Vic, never try to apply biology to fairies.”
Now, she waits for understanding - or lack thereof - to dawn on her son’s face, and once his shell-shocked expression is fully formed she laughs and laughs and laughs.
6. Sexta Remembers
“Once upon a time, there were twelve princesses, each more beautiful than the last.”
“Like you and mommy and the aunties, Aunt Sexta?"
“Yes, precisely like -”
“Nah, we have less than eleven Aunties!” Emilia’s little boy was trying to count on his fingers.
“Yeah, and her majesty is definitely prettier than mommy.”
“No she isn’t!”
“That’s enough of that, children. Do you want to hear the story or not?” Sexta asks, and the children grumble assent. “Again, once upon a time, there were twelve princesses, and they were all beautiful. They slept in twelve beds all in one room, and every night, when they went to bed, the doors were locked behind them. And yet, every morning, their shoes were worn through, and the king had to send them to a cobbler to to be repaired. Well, the cobbler’s customers saw the shoes and soon all knew of it. ‘Twas the great mystery of the kingdom - where did the princesses go at night, and why were their shoes so worn?”
“Maybe they used sandpaper!” One of Beatrix’s brood suggests, and it startles a laugh out of Sexta.
“Indeed, maybe they did. But their father didn’t think so, and so he sent out a proclamation: whosoever could discover what the princesses did each night would have one of them as his wife and become heir to the kingdom besides. Any man that tried and failed would, after three nights, be put to death.”
“Why didn’t their father just ask them?”
Sexta is already starting to regret this, “Good question. He must have thought they wouldn’t tell him.”
“Why didn’t he ask their mom? Mommy always knows what we’re up to.”
"Actually,” Allegra jumps in, “the princesses had different mothers - the oldest five’s mother died in a hunting accident and the youngest four’s mom ran away and frankly we don’t even know about -”
“- their mother,” Sexta cuts her sister off, “was gone. As I was saying, the king sent out a proclamation, for little did he know that each night the princesses would put on their most beautiful gowns and jewels and they would open a magic trapdoor that appeared in their floor. Glowing, floating candles would guide them as they descended, one after another, down a dark staircase. The staircase would take them down and down, and when they gazed at their destination it would look as though the moon shone below them, but as they got closer they would find that the shining light was a forest of trees, all of which were made of silver.
“Each night, the princesses would walk through the forest of silver trees that shone like the moon, then one of gold that shone like the sun, and finally one of diamond trees that shone like nothing on earth and yet did not even for a moment hurt their eyes. They would come, then, to a lake clearer than the smoothest glass, and on the lake would be twelve boats. And in each boat was an escort, some of whom were tall and some of whom were short, some large and some small, dressed in silver and gold and diamond.”
“Were any of them princes?” One child asks.
“Maybe,” Sexta responds, “but I think they were fairies. Each princess would step into the boat of her desire, and the fairies would row them across the lake to a bright, glittering pavilion full with fairy ladies and lords who would dance all night and the sweetest wine, the heartiest food to keep the dancers nourished for their revels. It was little wonder that the princesses wore through their shoes each night before their return to the world above, and much wonder that they returned at all.”
Sexta smiles at her silent audience - at the children, their eyes shining with wonder, and at Allegra, eyes dark with yearning. She closes her own eyes, takes a deep breath, and moves on.
“At this time, there was a valiant soldier who had just returned from war…”
Later, Allegra asks her why she changed the story, and Sexta pauses with a dish in one hand and a washcloth in the other. “What was I supposed to say?” she asks, “That the soldier was power-hungry and the princesses hated him and not a day has passed since they’ve mourned what they lost in that place? What kind of ending is that?”
“Then why tell it?” Allegra asks, perplexed, and then answers her own question, “It’s for the magic, isn’t it? You can’t bear to forget.”
“Yes,” Sexta’s eyes are far away, even as they remain directed at her sister, “it was wonderful, Allie, you remember. Who cares what the rest of the story says, if we can pass a little of that magic on?”
7. Septima Forgets
When the princesses are exposed, Septima breathes a sigh of relief. In the subsequent weeks she finds a suitable nobleman from abroad, obtains permission to marry him from her father, and vows never to dance again. She leaves with her new husband, goes far away, far as she can from magic trapdoors and fairy balls, and settles into the role of housewife and mother with little trouble. She becomes adept at city and court gossip and does not mention her sisters except to make mean, vague little jabs when appropriate for the cattiest conversations. She is very happy.
She breaks her vow once and only once. It is her youngest son’s wedding, and when he asks her to “dance with me, please, mother, just for tonight,” Septima cannot find it in her heart to say no.
When Septima dances, the room stares. She is a woman of sixty at least, now, squat and large, but she dances like one a third of her age - all grace, all poise, something otherworldly about the way she moves. She does not step but she glides; when she spins it seems to be the world that revolves rather than the woman. When the dance ends, her son looks at her like he’s never seen her before.
“Where -” he begins to ask, but there is a warning in her smile when she cuts him off to congratulate him, and he does try to not ask again.
8. Octavia Mourns
After they are found out, Octavia waits all night for the trapdoor to open. Her sisters find her in the morning, curled on the hardwood floor with a bodice and cloak thrown over her nightgown, tear-tracks dried on her face, and still-tattered slippers laced tight to her feet.
She barely stirs as Sexta unlaces the bodice and pulls it from her body, but she kicks out when she feels Adagia’s fingers gentle on the slippers. Octavia wakes, then, and cries half the morning, scrapes her nails on the floor in the place where a trapdoor once opened into another world until they bleed; Beatrix holds her through it all. Octavia weeps, on and off, for the next three days, and then abruptly stops.
She does not cry again for six years. She is in a tavern, then, thick cloak pulled around her and body hunched over the bar. The figure beside her is also cloaked, with smooth skin, beautiful, but with eyes just a little too far apart and mouth just a little too small to appear strictly human.
The witch, Octavia thinks, looks exactly the way her brother-in-law had described.
“Oh, you,” the witch says when Octavia sits down beside her, “the one with all the sisters.”
Octavia’s brow furrows in confusion, and the witch turns to her fully, examines her face with those uncanny eyes. “No,” the witch says, after a while, “no, not the same. It’s the eyes, I think.”
Octavia does not know what the witch means, but she takes a deep breath, recalls her carefully planned words, says this: “I am the eighth of twelve; daughter of a father who couldn’t be bothered to name me and princess of a kingdom that would never have me its heir. I have eleven sisters, and of them I am not the prettiest, nor the funniest, nor the most graceful. I do not have Aurelia’s ruthless strength nor the kindness of Beatrix’s hands; I cannot dance like Constance, nor understand like Diane, nor laugh like Emilia. I have none of Sexta’s storytelling nor Septima’s conviction, Adagia’s skill with her hands nor Allegra’s warmth nor Andante’s independence.”
“And your youngest sister?” The witch asks, for the witch knows.
“Send me back,” Octavia begs, her carefully crafted speeches and coercions replaced with blind desperation, “Please, send me back. All that is good in the world I had six years ago, it was the only time in my life I have been special, been beautiful, been the most and not just another girl in a castle and I lost it. I have moved heaven and earth just to find you and beg you, I am begging you, to please send me back.”
If the witch were kind, she would tell Octavia, you’ve got guts and you’ve got drive and you’ve got the audacity to put your soul on the line - if you just paid attention to yourself and stopped trying to open a door long sealed, you would realize that. This is true enough - Octavia would never have found the witch at all if it were not.
But the witch is not in the mood to be kind today, and does not like repeat performances, so, “No.” she says, slurps back the rest of her mug, and is gone between one blink and the next.
Octavia stares at the empty place next to her, at the empty mug and past it, back into six years of wheedling and puzzling and searching relegated to failure, and cries.
9. Allegra Changes
Martin finds his wife in the kitchen, head bent over a cutting-board full of vegetables. Allegra is beautiful, there, in a domestic way - her dark hair pulled tight into a bun, wisps escaping about her face, a maroon cotton dress and white apron in stark contrast against her dark skin.
She is alone - or thinks she is alone, at any rate - and in her solitude she flips her kitchen knife into the air. The motion is casual, sweeping, deadly in its precision and its nonchalance. In the moment when the knife is in the air, Allegra’s eyes - he sees them from the side - are alight with a strange burning, her hair looks severe and formal, her dress is the color of dried blood.
This is not a woman he knows, Martin thinks. He does not know what to call the difference, but if he did, he would call it this: this woman has carved her body into wicked points and her grin into sharp smiles as she danced, danced, danced until dawn. This woman once slid poison into a man’s chalice with no hesitation; this woman slid more poison into her eldest sister’s sleeve when she knew Aurelia was under her father’s and husband’s watch. This woman is all movement, all fire, all whirling dance; this woman might never have had reason to use a knife for more than chopping vegetables, but if called upon she would without hesitation.
The woman in the blood-colored dress catches the knife, laughs, calls out to their children, and she is once more the Allegra Martin married. He goes to her, kisses her, stirs the soup as she chops, staunchly ignores the glint of her knife.
10. Adagia Mends
“No.” Cornelius shouts when he sees the girl, “no, no, no. We are closed. Get out.”
The girl - pretty, plump, in her late teens, a bit too soft for the typical serving girl - hefts the basket against her hip and gives Cornelius a skeptical look. “You don’t even know what I want,” she says.
Cornelius gets up from his workbench and gives the basket a wide berth as he skirts around it to the door, which he opens with finality. “Oh, I know what you want,” he says, “you want me to fix those shoes, and I want you to get out,” he points out the open door.
“I-” the girl starts, and Cornelius rolls his eyes.
“You,” he tells her, “are the latest in a long, long line of young men and women they've sent down from the castle with baskets of shoes, and I am very overworked, entirely underpaid - they’re not paying me at all, you realize, something about civic duty - cobbler who is done with thi-”
“I,” the girl seems to have used Cornelius’ rant to gather her confidence, because she seems a little taller now, her back a little straighter, her voice soft and hard like steel under lace, “am Adagia, I am your princess, and I am owner of one twelfth of those shoes.”
Cornelius stares at her, silent.
“And I don’t want you to fix them,” Princess Adagia adds, putting the box down on a nearby bench and pulling out a lump of tattered silver silk, “I want you to teach me how I can.”
Cornelius continues to stare, though he does drop his hand from the door. It closes with a very loud thunk.
“Well?” Adagia asks, the princess gone from her voice, leaving a nervous teenage girl in its wake. She could be Cornelius’ daughter, when she was younger, and that’s ultimately what makes his decision.
Cornelius sighs, long and loud, moves back to his workbench so he can slump into his chair. “Come here, girl,” he says, thinks I won’t be paid for this either, will I?, but the thought lacks heat, “and bring that basket with you.”
11. Andante Leaves
Two months after her last dance and three weeks after her father’s death, Andante sneaks into his chambers.
The sneaking is force of habit - she knows no one would stop her, no one would stop any of the princesses doing most anything, not now. If she were to give it a reason, it's more to hide from her sisters than from the staff - Septima, in particular, would be appalled at what Andante is doing, and Andante giggles to imagine her older sister’s scandalized face.
She rifles through stacks of paper, pulls out drawers, bangs open closets. She even checks under the carpet, the bed, the pillows. She should feel guilty, she knows, twice over - for one, this man was her father, and for another, it is a terrible invasion of privacy to go through a dead man’s things. Andante knows this, and she also doesn’t care. Later in life, when she is older, she will wonder why she didn’t care, will formulate hypotheses of fatherly neglect and sisterly-motherliness and independence and codependence. But at this moment she is sixteen years old, with one goal and very little introspection.
She finds that goal in the back of her late father’s wardrobe, wrapped - crumpled, more like - in one of his robes and two months untouched. She unrolls the robe roughly, flaps it to get the dust out, and four object clatter to the floor: three leafy twigs, so delicate they could be real if they were not wrought in metal and jewel, and a large, gold chalice, just as fine. Andante is glad they were not lost, holds the twigs and the chalice and smiles at the feel and the memory of them.
She gives the diamond branch to Diane, who looks at her sharply but accepts the gift silently, and she gives the gold branch and chalice to Aurelia, who melts them down for a new Queen’s crown. The silver branch she tucks into her own bag on the day that she leaves home - not so much running away as walking, sedately but purposefully, towards something else. She could not say what.
12. Princess, Dancing
Vivace feels uneasy that night, as the girls prepare for the dance. She feels the catch of her gown on the dark stair, hears the crack of twigs snapping, notices an unfamiliar weight in her boat, reaches for her cup only to find it empty, senses eyes on her back. She knows something is amiss, even when she ceases to call warnings to her sisters. Vivace walks at the back of the procession of princesses, and once the invisible presence that has dogged her steps runs on ahead, there is no one further back to see if she falls behind.
Here is the secret her sisters found after the trapdoor closed on the last night of the dance, which they will never tell, which they will resent their father and the soldier-king after him for caring too little to notice in the months that follow: that morning in the throne room and for every day after, there were only eleven princesses of the realm.
When asked, the girls will say that Vivace left with her elder sister, the one who ran away, and they will say no more. Quietly they will mourn her loss, and they will imagine her happy. They will dream of her, too, on nights when the moon is especially bright. Sometimes she will be in forests, silver, gold, and diamond, sometimes on a lake clearer than any in the waking world, sometimes in a gilded, glittering pavilion, or in a glade, bare but for moonlight. In every dream, her shoes are worn to rags, and in every dream, Vivace dances.