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Once upon a time, there was a princess with amber hair and sky-blue eyes. She lived in a palace like a birdcage, with a clockwork queen. But she danced with a unique charm, whenever she wasn't tripping over a crack in the floor or her own feet, and the kingdom loved her with all their wind-up hearts.

Once upon a time, there was a peasant girl with ink-black hair and scarlet eyes. She had been raised by a ravenous father, and had never known what it was like to be loved. So she danced with sorrow, but with such grace that even the queen noticed and promoted her to be her daughter's personal handmaid.

Once upon a time, there were two pendants, two gemstones. One scarlet, like a drop of spilled blood, given by her queen. One amber, golden as the sun, but tainted with blood from her father.

Once upon a time, there was a prince who had lost his heart.

"The name of this gem is 'love'," said the queen. "Though this gem is strong, it is easily scarred. Though it is beautiful, it is easily tarnished. And if it is fought over, it may sometimes lead to death."

Once upon a time, there was a heroine and a villainess.

"May those who accept their fate be granted happiness," said the queen. "May those who defy their fate be granted glory."

That's how stories go.

 

(click)

 

She had been heartbroken by the prince for as long as she could remember. How sad it was, the kingdom whispered, that the prince had lost the ability to feel love. How sad it was, the handmaid thought, that she could love him enough for the both of them, for the world and forever, but she would never be able to.

And then the queen had found the gem called 'love'.

But she knew she should be happy for the princess, who had always treated her kindly despite her low station. She should be happy that she had been chosen to accompany her to the prince's kingdom and restore his heart. She should be happy just to receive the opportunity to be that close to him, the closest she would ever be at all to his perfect world.

"I am," the handmaid said.

She should hate the princess for receiving all the love she could never have.

"I," the handmaid said. The gears clicked. Her hands trembled. "I do."

She could at least make the princess's journey that little more unpleasant for her, until she married into a life of even more luxury than the one she already had. She expected that the princess could at least get her own water to drink, even if that meant she had to wade clumsily into the river to do so, dress hitched up, skinny birdlike legs bare in the current.

She did not expect the princess to slip on a mossy rock, fall with a loud quack, and bob up from the water as a duck. That actually came as quite a surprise to both of them.

 

(click)

 

The princess was small and warm and fit snugly in the handmaid's cupped palms when she fished her out, squawking and flapping, from the river. Ducks can't drown, can they? But princesses could, couldn't they? She wasn't sure what the decision would be on ducks-who-were-once-princesses, but she supposed she shouldn't risk it and find out.

She was the most highly-ranked handmaid in the kingdom, but even she hadn't been trained in the proper response of what to do if the princess she was serving were to transform suddenly into a duck. However, she was at least trained in the proper response to the princess getting wet, which she often did when she danced in her royal gardens and tripped into a fountain.

And the princess was still rather wet, even if she was preening herself after the handmaid had tried to towel her off. This, the handmaid thought as she hung up the princess's gown to dry, was probably the most she could do for now.

It wasn't until she clipped the princess's petticoat to the clothesline that she realized that her pendant was missing.

 

(click)

 

"The way I see it," the handmaid said, "we've failed our quest."

"Quack," the princess said.

"The purpose of our journey is for you, the princess, to restore the prince's heart, which is trapped in the gem called 'love'," the handmaid said. "But it's lost in the river and you're a duck and now we have no princess, no gem, and no heart."

"Quack," the princess said.

"The truth is," the handmaid said, "I'm not sure what I should do."

"Quack," the princess said.

"It's simple," the goat said. "You should just take the princess's place."

The goat was a shrewd old nag that the handmaid had been assigned to travel on. She was nothing at all like the elegant chestnut mare that the princess rode, especially in that she could speak. The goat complained more about carrying the handmaid and chasing cats than anything else, but the handmaid listened to her now, as she could talk while the princess had nothing to suggest but 'quack'.

"You've always wanted to be her," the goat said. "You've always envied her and believed you would do a better job. Why not prove it?"

That's not true, she wanted to say. I shouldn't, she wanted to say. But the words weren't part of the script and she felt an invisible pressure on her wrists as she searched the sky for the right reply.

"It's not that simple," the handmaid said, even as the gears in her head were beginning to click.

"Nobody in the prince's kingdom knows the princess's face." the goat said. "Nobody would recognize you if you dress in her clothes. Nobody should realize that your pendant isn't hers, and if the prince is really as heartless as they say, he would tell you that he loves you if you simply order him to."

The handmaid said nothing, but she could feel the world turning.

"You love him regardless. You always have."

She did.

"He's all you ever wanted."

He was.

"It would be so easy."

It would be. The path before her crystallized suddenly. Everything seemed so clear, clearer than any decision she had ever made in her life. She had never made any before. The role of a handmaid was to serve those with power, not to have any agency of her own. But, truthfully, she had never felt that the role of handmaid fit her.

The duck-who-was-once-a-princess did not take a step back as the handmaid turned to her, but she curled her wings in, tilted her head up trustingly.

"She can't talk," the goat said. "She's a duck. She can't betray you. But if you'd like to make certain of that, you can."

In another story, once upon a time, there were two princesses. In this, the handmaid thought, there had only ever been room for one.

 

(click)

 

The prince's kingdom erupted into celebration upon her arrival. It had been such a long time since they had hope, but it was reignited again by the sight of the girl on the chestnut mare, the poise of her smile, the glimmer of the gem at her neck. People fell over themselves to assist her, to kiss her knuckles, to push through the crowd and just catch a glimpse of her story-perfect face.

"The journey went smoothly. I won't need rest. I would simply like to see the prince as soon as I can."

"The pack-goat stepped in a pothole and sprained her leg. Please put her down humanely. She served me well."

"A handmaid? I'm afraid you must have been mistaken. I travelled alone. I'm quite capable of taking care of myself."

It was as if a spell had been cast. She charmed the people instantly with her beauty and grace and independence. A royal escort had been summoned to accompany her through town to the palace, but just as soon as the call had been put out, she had already slipped away to venture to the castle alone. How brave of her to navigate the kingdom by herself, everyone whispered, to make the long trip here without even a single servant to aid her.

How clever of her to pause by a field of geese on her way to see the prince. How delicately she withdrew a bird from her bag to set free. How softly she left on red slippers, a flash of amber at her throat, tufts of feathers at her wrists.

 

(click)

 

Once upon a time, there was a gooseherd called young Conra

"That's not my name," he said.

d, who looked after the birds on the king's land. He had a simple life. The life of a goose boy usually was.

"That's not what I am," he said, pulling himself shakily to his feet. Finding this place had been tougher than he'd thought. The gears continued to tick, and he had to restrain himself from reaching out to stop them. There would be a time for that later.

"I don't have time for this," he said. "I've wasted enough time already writing myself into the story in the first place. There's no need to introduce me. I'm just a minor character. At least, the role I'm taking up is."

Your role is that of the goose boy, young Conr

"For now, yeah. But I'm more than my role. That goes for all of us." He approached the mirror, placed a bandaged hand on the frame as he prepared to step through. "And I told you, that's not my name."

Your name doesn't belong here.

"None of us belong here, so stop being a moron and shut up." The mirror flickered as the reflection gave way to a vision of city walls and cobblestones. He entered. "I have someone to find."

 

(click)

 

"She thought that she could stop me from revealing her secret by having me put to death," said the goat's head from where it had been mounted atop the gate. "But this is a fairy tale. If I could talk when I was a live goat, there's no reason for me to quit because I'm now dead."

"Quack," said the duck.

"Of course I've always known," said the goat's head. "You realized it for yourself when you lost your pendant and turned back into a duck, but I was always supposed to be a goat. Not knowing your place in the world is dangerous, but not as dangerous as not knowing your place in a story."

"Quack," said the duck. "Quack?"

"Well, I still have a role to play," said the goat's head. "What will happen to the false princess now? That's what the reader will want to know. She's impersonating the true princess and deceiving the heartless prince with a pauper's gem. Those crimes can't go unpunished. That would be bad storytelling."

"Quack!"

"You should be happy," said the goat's head. "You have been wronged. There is always a heroine and a villainess, and the villainess always gets her just rewards. The king will be here shortly on his morning walk. When I tell him the truth about his daughter-in-law to-be, we will find out what exactly those just rewards will be."

The duck scrambled frantically towards the gate, but was blocked by the sudden snap of a cane. She froze, then turned with dread to look up the length of the instrument to the beaming smile of the goose girl wielding it.

"My, little duck. Where do you think you're going?"

Because things can never be that easy.

 

(click)

 

He found her in the field, a small golden bird standing in a crowd of her white, long-necked flockmates. But just as soon as he started forward, opening his mouth to call her name, a blonde obstacle appeared in front of him in the form of the goose girl.

"You're late," the goose girl sing-songed, clasping her hands together, expertly side-stepping in time to block him as he tried to brush by her. "It's not polite to keep a girl waiting, Fakir."

"How do you know my--" he said, but then changed his mind. She was the logic-defying type, even in this story. Maybe it was better not to overthink it, especially when there were more important things to be concerned about. Like how he was going to get past her without resorting to some kind of physical violence, which had always been his go-to in the past and looked like a more tempting option by the second.

But the duck would scold him. "Get out of the way. I have something important to take care of."

"What could be more important than taking care of me?" the goose girl said.

"Do you really want me to answer that."

"We're supposed to look after the birds together," the goose girl said, cupping her own cheeks dreamily. "You can't imagine how terrible it was trying to do it alone. This morning, I had to rescue a duck from the town gates before she could get run over by a cart. But you don't have to worry! I put her in the middle of the flock so she won't escape and get trampled by her own adorable clumsiness again."

"She looks like she's being smothered," he said, trying to shoulder past her one more time, then stopping still as the goose girl snapped her cane in front of his face, nearly breaking his nose.

"Don't be silly. I'm only protecting her for her own good," the goose girl said. "Even though she would look so cute if I patched her up when she gets hurt..."

This wasn't working. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and time was a valuable commodity. He took out his writing pad as the goose girl continued to fantasize about playing vet.

"--and while I'm making the splint, you could rip your sleeve to use for bandages, and--"

And then a sudden gust of wind blew the dainty hat off her head, bearing it away to the far side of the field. As if amazed by its absence, the goose girl reached up to touch her hair, then caught sight of the flowery bonnet in the sky and ran to chase it with a squeak of dismay, blonde curls flying free.

The writer put down his pen and was already starting forward to scoop up the duck in his ink-spattered hands. "Finally," he said. "I found you."

Fakir!

"Yeah?"

The duck reached up, wrapped her wings around his shoulder. I knew you would.

 

(click)

 

It was already too late when they reached the town gate. No matter how much the duck pleaded, the goat's head was immobile, unblinking, unresponsive. The writer considered taking up the pen again for only a second. The dead were dead. Some crueller storytellers would reanimate them as a plot device, to make sure the fairy tale would proceed as planned. He wasn't careless enough to be one of them.

She said that she would tell the king about Rue and how she's pretending to be the princess. But Rue is a princess! I'm a duck. And the king is going to punish her anyway!

"We're not going to let that happen," the writer said, gathering her up again as he made his way through the gate. The castle was a tall, dark shape in the distance, beyond the rest of town. It was going to take a while to get there, but, he thought as he struggled to balance the duck on his shoulder and write at the same time, he could probably find a way to speed things up.

Do you know what's going to happen?

"There's going to be a royal banquet before the wedding," the writer said, nearly walking into multiple villagers as he kept his eyes trained on the paper. "The king will tell the false princess her own story and ask her what she thinks the villainess deserves as corporal punishment. Whatever answer she gives will be the one given to her."

What? No! We have to stop them!

"We will," the writer said. He finished his sentence just as a neigh whinnied out, and the princess's chestnut mare tossed her head from the nearby stables where she was being held. This would do. The door was serendipitously unlocked, and the writer led her out and saddled up.

Let's hurry.

He nodded and tucked her against his chest, felt her rapid-fire heartbeat against his. They took off.

 

(click)

 

She remembered her role as soon as she'd put the princess's crown on her head. It was like waking up from a long slumber, but still being paralyzed by the dream. In this case, she thought, it would be a nightmare. No matter how much she tested her bonds, they only tightened around her neck and wrists as the gears clicked onwards, picking up in speed.

She was a handmaid and a false princess. Once upon a time, she had been a cruel stepsister, an evil queen, a wicked witch. There must have been a time she was someone else, before that, too. It was getting harder and harder to remember with each story. She couldn't remember, didn't know if she ever had a happy ending.

What she did remember was a girl with a sun smile, and being in love with a prince without a heart. It was a painful love, as delicate as a feather, as sharp as a dagger. But no matter what happened, she was fine with sacrificing herself just as long as she could save him.

The king wouldn't permit her to see him until tomorrow, their wedding day. But he might be at the banquet tonight, and she had to be there to find out. She had to apologize for losing his heart, for disturbing the plot, for continuing the tragedy.

The golden pendant was heavy around her throat. She closed her fingers over the tainted gem and thought of the one friend who had always been there for her, story after story, no matter how often she'd been written to betray her.

"Sorry, Ahiru."

 

(click)

 

Why does there always have to be a villain?

To drive the story.

Why does she have to be punished?

She deserves it.

She does not! She's a good person. Good people can do terrible things, but they can change. They can be forgiven. Why do they have to die? Why can't they ever be part of the happy ending?

Because that's no fun.

"Ignore them," the writer said. "They have a sick sense of humor."

You're a storyteller, too.

"Yeah," he said. "But I'm not an idiot. We're not under your control anymore. If we don't like your ending, we'll rewrite one of our own."

 

(click)

 

The king was a wild-eyed man who laughed too much and dressed more like a jester than a ruler, but he was shrewd and had a special taste for tragedy. She could feel hers closing in on her as he spun his story, a tale of a princess and the handmaid who deceived her. He knew. He probably knew she knew he knew, and there was nothing she could say or do but doom herself.

What kind of punishment does the villainess deserve? What kind of exquisite death sentence would befit such a miserable life? he pressed the tips of his gloved fingers together expectantly, grinning at her with the look of a hunter watching his prey enter the trap. He had no wrists, she noticed vaguely. The hands of a writer were terrifying things.

Something twisted around her neck, like vines, or a noose. Once upon a time, she'd been forced to dance in red-hot shoes, had been brutally stoned, had been blinded by the claws of birds. Back down by the riverside, she thought she'd finally gained some agency. She'd dared to hope that she could choose her own fate and free herself from being a handmaid, from serving others forever.

But she was still meant to serve the story. She knew that now. She never had any freedom at all after all.

Well, at least now she could choose her own fate, even if it meant choosing how she would die.

She closed her eyes, then opened them again to the sudden flutter of wings.

 

(click)

 

Rue, I'm here now.

She wanted to call her name, to ask her what she was doing in the castle, but the words rising in her throat were the wrong ones and the bird pressed her wings against her mouth to stop them from escaping.

Don't say anything! You'll just doom yourself!

Where did this duck come from? the king asked, rising to his feet, both baffled and annoyed at the interruption to his plot. But the door to the hall was opening and by then it was already too late.

 

(click)

 

It had been a while since the writer had taken up the sword again, but the weight of the weapon was still familiar in his hands. His goal was clear. He had to act fast, and the false princess was there, holding the duck to her shoulder, staring at him with wide scarlet eyes.

He rushed towards her, raising his blade to her head, and sliced--

Rue!

--the invisible threads holding her up. She collapsed, a marionette on cut strings. Something glimmered in the air above her, like gossamer, before curling into itself like wisps of smoke and dissipating. The duck fluttered down by her side, curled her wings out to embrace the fallen girl's neck, lay her head gently against her cheek and closed her eyes.

Fakir grabbed the edge of a gear, grimacing as the metal bit into his wrapped hand, and pushed it to a stop.

 

(cli--)

 

"Sorry, Ahiru."

Why? You didn't do anything wrong.

"I did. I refused to serve you. I pretended to be a princess when I'm really just a handmaid. I wanted to marry the prince, even if I couldn't save him or restore his heart..."

There's a place deep inside the machinations of a story where logic and fantasy collide. Once upon a time, the duck had been a girl and a princess. She was her true self again, but the gears were stopped and the plot had ground to a halt. She could borrow some of that time from before, for now.

Princess Tutu extended a hand to the girl on the ground, who still had stray strands of authorial intent wrapped around her arms and ankles. Dance with me, Rue.

How long had it been since the handmaid danced? She had been hired for the beauty of her art, but tending to the royal family left her with little spare time to practice. The princess had often invited her to pas de deux, but she was an amateur and over time the handmaid had grown to resent the widening gap in their talent. The princess could dance like a duck and still be idolized by the kingdom and the queen who adored her. The handmaid could dance like a swan but she would only ever be a peasant girl, with no friends or family but a father who never loved her.

She reached out for the princess's hand, then stopped short. There was still a length of puppet's string chained around her forearm, and no matter how she struggled, she couldn't pull herself free.

They say that there's always a villain, Princess Tutu said. But I disagree. It's not wrong to feel loneliness, or sorrow, or pride. Everybody does. Even if it's painful, they're precious emotions for us all.

"But--"

Princess Tutu clasped the girl's outstretched hand and pulled her into an arabesque as her bonds began to dissolve into light. Rue felt something invisible lift from her shoulders, a weight she hadn't even known was there, a sensation like drowning and then finally breaking through to the surface again. She squeezed Ahiru's hand. They danced.

You've felt a lot of fear and regret, but you're devoted and affectionate too. Most importantly, you love. I love the prince, Princess Tutu said, with a knowing smile. But my love wouldn't save him. Yours will.

"I'm just a handmaid," the girl said, even as remembrance was returning her memories to her. Once upon a time, she was just a raven. Once upon a time, she was only human.

You're not a handmaid. You're not my servant. You're not a raven or a villain. You don't deserve to be punished, and you don't deserve to die.

Tears gathered in the girl's eyes, slid down her cheek and neck to the amber pendant at her throat. Princess Tutu touched it, and for a moment something black shone through the golden luster.

Once upon a time, there was a gem called 'love'. Hers had been hope, but she didn't need a pendant to hold it after all. She had enough for the prince and his princess and everyone else to spare. But Rue had always been deprived of love in story after story. This belonged to her.

There was a magic in loving someone deeply enough, so deeply that you could repair their shattered heart. Maybe that had been the secret all along.

She embraced her, stroked her hair as Rue clung tightly back.

You're Rue, and I love you. It doesn't matter how many stories try to make you the villain. I'll change the ending. I'll always be your friend.

 

(--ick)

 

When she opened her eyes again, it was to the sight of golden feathers and bright blue eyes blinking down at her, full of concern. Something sharp twisted around her wrists--the last of her marionette strings. She tore them off and sat up, then struggled to her feet.

The king was hastily escaping through a mirror portal on the wall, and the writer had let go of the story's machinations to return to the duck's side. Ahiru's heartbeat was rapid and muted, but she smiled up at him, as much as a bird could.

"Quack," she said, glancing back at Rue, then to the door of the great hall. Rue followed her gaze and felt the world turn suddenly, as if on the wheel of a gear.

The prince was at the entrance, amber eyes wide with amazement as he took in the scene of the banquet. He hadn't lost his sense of curiosity, after all. Just love. But she had enough for the both of them, for the world and forever.

She still hesitated. She'd never returned a heart shard before. But there's always a first time for everything, right? That's why stories always start with 'once upon a time'.

"You could say that." Fakir looked tired, but then he smiled. "Go kiss your prince, you idiot."

And she did.

 

(click)

 

And they all lived happily ever after, but that's another story.