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All That's Best of Bright and Dark

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Three, do not make bargains with the fae.

Once upon a time, there lived a king and a queen who longed for a child but could bear none. Without an heir, they feared for the future of their kingdom and their throne, for age waits for no one, no matter what crown sits upon their brow, and the neighboring kingdom had a young son already approaching his seventh year. The good faeries, the friends of the kingdom, expressed their sympathy and blessings, but their magic was not enough to quicken the spark of life where there was none.

So as the years passed and the first creeping fingers of frost in his hair whispered the warnings of his life’s approaching winter, King Stefan made a choice.

He left his crown at home and dressed in a dark cloak made of rough cloth that hid his form and his face. Beneath it, he tied a pouch of gold coins and gems. He told no one where he was going; if he did not return, it was better that no one knew where to search for his body. It was better that his wife did not know what devil he was bargaining with.

His gold she refused, but the bargain was struck: Within a year, they would have a child, a daughter, but the girl must never take a husband or else their kingdom would be overthrown and languish in ruins for a thousand years, until Stefan’s name passed out of memory.

The dark queen’s words settled over his mind like the burgeoning clouds of a storm, and when he slept, he dreamed of his kingdom falling, of chaos and war and then the long stretch of silent sorrow as the stones of his castle crumbled to dust and there was no trace of him left.

But when the child was born, it was if dawn had crept through the months of dark dreams, and the weight of worry that he carried in his heart was lifted. And so they named her Aurora for the rising of a new day of hope, and they invited the whole of the kingdom to celebrate with them.

King Hubert brought his son, Phillip, and nudged Stefan as the boy stepped forward with a gift for the new princess.

“Just what we always wanted, hey, Stefan?” he chuckled, pulling his hand over his mustache to muffle the words so Phillip wouldn’t hear. “Our kingdoms united at last.”

“United?” Stefan watched Phillip offer the wrapped box to his infant daughter, watched the queen take it from him with a kind smile. She must never take a husband--

“Aye, you know Robert has been amassing an army in the west, and neither of us could stand against him on our own. But if our kingdoms were united, say by a marriage between my son and your daughter…”

--or your kingdom will be overthrown--

“...together we might stand a chance at holding him off.”

--and lie in ruins for a thousand years--

“Besides, think of what beautiful grandchildren they’ll make.”

--until your name passes out of memory and is spoken no more.

“You know, Hubert, I believe you have a point.” What chance did his little kingdom stand against Robert’s on its own? If he didn’t make an alliance with Hubert, his kingdom would fall anyway. It was probably exactly what Maleficent wanted, for them to be weak and defenseless and without an alliance so that she could take the power of rulership for herself. She was trying to trick him, but it wouldn’t work. As he watched the three good faeries step forward to present their gifts to his daughter, he nodded. “Yes, you make a very good point. Very well; let them be betrothed.”

--

Two, do not tell your true name to a stranger. They might be a fae.

When Rose was fifteen, she met her first stranger.

The Aunts had been telling her since she was five to keep her true name as a secret in her heart and not to tell it to strangers, but she had never met a stranger before. The farmers the Aunts traded with for food and clothing had been there since she was a baby, so they didn’t count. She had always imagined strangers to be foreboding, shifty people, frightening--but this one wasn’t.

He had a kind smile and warm eyes, and when she drew back from him, he let go of her hand and apologized.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he said gently. “I heard you singing and wanted to meet the person who had such a beautiful voice.”

“Your singing is lovely too,” Rose answered, shy, offering her hand again, and he smiled as he took it.

Rose lost track of the hours as they walked together, talking. He wanted to hear all about the things she liked, which berries were her favorites, the time Aunt Merryweather had planted all of Aunt Flora’s bulbs upside down so that they grew through the bottom of the window box, and the time Aunt Fauna had let a skunk into the cottage thinking it was a cat. (Everything had been fine until Flora shrieked and frightened it. Merryweather still brought it up to win arguments, even unrelated ones.)

“What about you?” she asked, holding on to his hand to steady herself as she stepped into the brook. “What’s your home like?”

“Can I tell you a secret?” He’d watched her carefully, grip tightening when the pebbles under her feet were slick. She nodded, and his hand immediately trembled in hers. “My father wanted a son so badly that it was all he ever talked about. A son to carry on his name, follow in his footsteps. When my mother became pregnant, he just knew he’d finally gotten the boy he always wanted. But only my mother and the midwife know—”

“Rose!”

Her head snapped up at the sound of her name floating on the wind; the Aunts were calling her back home.

“I’m sorry,” she blurted, scrambling out of the brook, water splashing onto the hem of her skirts. “I’m sorry, I have to go.”

He blinked at her in surprise and then disappointment. She let go of his hand, and he clenched his fingers. “Will you tell me your name?” he asked, an edge to his voice, and she paused in her flight, staring at him, wide-eyed.

He wasn’t truly a stranger, was he? After all they’d talked about. Surely if he was a fae looking to steal her name, he would have tried much earlier.

“My name?”

“So I can find you again.”

“It’s—” Briar Rose. Aurora.

The Aunts’ voices rang out again, and she flinched.

“I can’t, I’m sorry!” He looked hurt, and she paused, her fingers tight around the handle of her basket. She pried one hand loose and pressed it to his face. If the Aunts met him, they could tell her if it was all right to tell him her name. “Come find me. In the woodcutters’ cottage. Tonight.”

He smiled then, bright and sunny, and caught her hand in his, turning his face to brush a kiss across her palm. “I’ll be there,” he promised, and she beamed at him, warmth like sunlight bursting through her before she tore herself away and ran through the forest toward home.

When she glanced back over her shoulder, he was standing on the stream bank where she’d left him, watching her go.

--

One, choose your words carefully. Every word means something to a fae.

The chains were cold and strangely heavy for all that they didn’t look like much. Enchanted, Phillip thought. They burned wherever they touched skin, ice and fire in one. Phillip could feel the fingerprints of her magic like bruises blooming across thoughts and memories, but the worst part was not being able to see.

In this tiny room, every thought was suspect. Visions flickered and disappeared, reality shifted in and out of focus. More than once, Phillip had discovered that a thought was actually the whispered suggestion of Maleficent’s voice, stealing hope, stealing certainty.

So when Maleficent’s voice echoed from down the hall, it seemed as though it might be another one of her tricks.

“So your fairies saved you from the spindle, but there is another curse, laid upon you from your birth, and I will see that one fulfilled. It will be much more satisfying anyway.”

Phillip looked up at the sound of footsteps in the doorway and lurched against the chains at the sight of the peasant girl from the forest, dressed in fine blue silks. It must be another dream, another temptation—but the chains held fast, and so it couldn’t be. She was in danger.

“Leave her out of this!”

Maleficent turned toward Phillip with a dark laugh. “Oh my dear boy, I can’t. She is at the very center of all of this. She is the reason you are here. Or did she not tell you who she was?”

“She’s an orphan who lives in the woods with her three aunts. What could you possibly want with her?”

“Ah, but she’s not an orphan at all, now is she? Darling girl, why don’t you tell him who you really are.”

Phillip looked at the peasant girl, the dream girl, the warm light of hope from the middle of the forest—and she sighed.

“I am the princess,” she said quietly. “King Stefan’s daughter. Though I did not know it when we met.”

“The…”

“And you are my betrothed.”

Hubert had mentioned more than once that Phillip was betrothed to Stefan’s daughter Aurora from the day of her christening. He’d held it up as a reminder time and time again to rein in Phillip’s headstrong behavior.

“Boy, you’ll do well not to shame yourself in the eyes of your future in-laws. When Robert brings his army from the west, you’ll wish you hadn’t thrown away our best alliance.”

“But your father never told you, did he?” Maleficent’s hand on Aurora’s arm bit into the fabric, squeezing, but Aurora didn’t flinch. “That I am the reason you exist. He came to me seventeen years ago, desperate for a child, and I, gracious I am, granted his wish...on the condition that you never take a husband.”

“But…” Aurora darted a glance toward Phillip. “But I am betrothed on his word. Or did he not agree to the arrangement, as I was told?”

“Indeed.” Maleficent reached up to pet her raven. “Your faithless father broke our bargain, but I am generous, and I am giving you a chance to save him even so. Denounce your betrothed, leave him here in my dungeon, and save your father’s life and his kingdom. Or save the prince’s life and condemn your father’s kingdom to wrath and ruin. Which will it be?”

Aurora steeled her spine, her chin held high, but Phillip saw the tremble in her lip. This was no choice to force a heart as kind as hers to make. So Phillip would help her make it.

“Don’t worry about me,” Phillip said quietly. “I am one person in the face of a kingdom.”

Aurora shook her head. “You are more than that,” she said quietly. “You showed me kindness before you knew who I was. You were the first person I knew for myself.”

“Make your choice!” Maleficent snapped. “Your father’s kingdom or your future husband?”

Aurora paused, pressing her lips together. “Your excellency,” she said quietly, showing more respect than Phillip could have. “You said I must not take a husband.”

“Yes, that’s what I said. Get on with it.”

“Then I may still take my betrothed and leave, and my father’s kingdom will remain safe.” She turned back to Phillip, her eyes shining, her smile like the sun through clouds.

“What foolishness do you speak, child? You are as faithless as your father.” The air around Maleficent was charged, sparks of angry lightning sizzling along her staff, but Aurora didn’t cower.

“I must not take a husband,” the princess repeated clearly, “but I may still take a wife.”

For the first time since being captured by Maleficent at the woodcutter’s cottage, Phillip felt the soft, dangerous thrill of hope—and the soul-deep warmth of being truly known.

“Forgive me,” Aurora said, addressing Phillip. “I don’t mean to presume, but wasn’t that what you were about to tell me in the forest? That your father wished for a son so badly that your mother let him believe you were one?”

For twenty-four years, Phillip had been her father’s son. She’d found joy in the freedom afforded her by men’s clothing and schooling and expectations, in the independence given to a prince that would never have been given to a princess. And she’d delighted in charming pretty young girls who found a prince worth their time and attention—but she’d never expected to be accepted by the princess her father had arranged to marry his son.

Phillip smiled, and the chains on her wrists fell away with the fulfillment of King Stefan’s unwise bargain. “Yes,” she said honestly, softly. “That is what I was going to say.”

The cell around them felt as perfect and welcoming as her best dreams, Aurora’s eyes on hers, those beautifully red lips turned up softly at the corners. It might have been perfect.

If only there hadn’t been a dragon.

--

There are three things you must know, Aurora, if you are to outwit a fae. Listen carefully.

Sometimes Aurora still heard Maleficent’s dying scream of rage in her dreams, but when she woke, it was to a warm, comfortable chamber and the solid presence of her wife, in a kingdom that never knew how close it had come to annihilation.

“I didn’t think you would still want to be wed once you discovered the truth,” Phillip said one early morning, the first fingers of dawn creeping through their window, and Aurora had laughed softly, her head resting on her wife’s fire-scarred shoulder.

“Of all the strange events in my life,” she murmured, running her fingers through Phillip’s short, soft hair, “somehow discovering my handsome prince was a handsome princess instead was the least of them.”

And so Phillip and Aurora joined their kingdoms and their lives and reigned together in grace and wisdom, much beloved by their subjects.

In fact, you might say they lived happily ever after.

The End.