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Ash on my Tongue

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Once upon a time there lived a grouchy young man in a farmhouse by the forest. Grouchy was he, for his two mothers were gone, one dead and the other locked away, and his second mother, upon her removal, had left him with his stepfather who was terribly unkind to him. It was in his nature and if there was ever a rare kindness to be had from the man, his daughters were the sole recipients of it. It came in the form of dresses or sweets they wished for, or proud laughter at their antics, for they were always playing tricks on the young man. The daughters’ tricks added greatly to the young man’s grouchiness.

The daughters were the young man's sisters by his second mother and stepfather. The young man had looked after the twins and cared for them when his mother couldn't, still too stricken with grief over her wife's death as she had been. He had raised them from the cradle, yet they thanked him not. Too young were they. The young man, wise beyond his years, understood this. He had caused his fair share of mischief in his youth. Mischief that one mother scolded him for and one mother commended him for in secret. He would never hear a cross word from that mother.

Yet where his second mother had not a stern bone in her body, his stepfather appeared to thrive on malice. He made the young man work all day and most of the evening too, to keep the farmhouse in order and the animals fed and watered. The labours were hard and the young man not given a break, even at suppertime when he had to prepare meals for his stepfather and his sisters of which he would only be granted the leftovers to sup on himself. The young man did his chores with much grousing and cussing and muttering under his breath until he had none more to spare. And at night when he was tired and his body was sore, he lay down in front of the dying embers of the kitchen fire, near the cinders.

In the morning his sisters would laugh at him and dance around him and ruffle his hair and his clothes that were sooty with ash.

"How dirty you are!" cried Dee. "Now you not only have a white streak in your hair, but a whole head of grey!"

"Dirty Jason! Cinder Jason!" sang her twin sister Dee.

"Cinder Jason, Cinder Jason!" sang they together and twirled around each other.

"Hold on," said Dee and stopped them in their tracks. "That's a mouthful. How about we just call him Cinder Jay?"

"You know that's still longer than my actual name," replied the young man drily.

The sisters looked at him, then at each other, and broke out in laughter and dance and song again. "Cinder Jay, Cinder Jay, Cinder Jay!"

With a sigh, he brushed off his clothes, swept the ashes into the hearth and set about his daily chores before it came to the little rascals to use him as target practice once more.

"Stab, stab, stab!" would they say as they attacked him with butter knives and sewing needles. Their displays of violence, harmless though they were, delighted their father and incited him to call for meaner demonstrations. Blood was what he was after and it never filled him with glee so much as when his daughters provided it -- when they nicked the young man's skin with a bread knife or other sharp instruments.

If the young man's trousers or shirts ripped during his labours or indeed during occurrences such as these, the father would not replace them, nor would he spend money to have them mended. It fell to the young man to mend them himself which he did under a hazel tree he had planted on his first mother's grave. They had buried her in the garden of their farmhouse by the woods so she would be near them all their lives. His second mother had tended to the little hazel tree every day, watering it with her tears until it grew tall and strong and she had no more tears to shed.

Yet the young man did not go outside to mend his clothes right away. His sisters' behaviour told him that they had gone too long without seeing their mother and that a visit was what they needed, for it was their mother who knew how to soothe them and to lessen their father's terrible influence on them. So he would bundle them up, throw them over a horse, and take them to her.

Not many a wanderer came down the path through the forest and so the young man was free to take his sisters without interruption. Should anyone see his sisters' hands tied and their mouths gagged he would surely be halted and, if he was lucky, asked to explain himself. If he was unlucky, he might be taken before the magistrate for kidnapping two young girls from their home.

One day it happened that a lone man on horseback crossed the young man's path on the way to his mother. The rider was a young gentleman fair of face and dressed in a merchant's fineries, yet he was unaccompanied by a caravan of a merchant's wares. The young man held the reins of his horse fast and kept his gaze steady. Who would be fool enough to ride these woods alone? thought he. Perhaps the gentleman knew not of the dangers that lurked within their depths. And indeed, if he was a stranger to these parts, he would not readily take it upon himself to bring anyone before the magistrate, and so the young man felt safe.

"Ho!" cried the gentleman, reining in his horse. "Where are you taking these young ladies?"

"To see their mother," replied the young man.

"Tied up like that? Seems mighty suspicious, don't you think?"

The girls nodded in their seat, beseeching the gentleman with looks to free them from their captor. The young man glared.

"I'm just making conversation," said the gentleman with an apologetic smile.

"You're obviously not very good at it."

"We're still talking, aren't we?"

"Unfortunately," groused the young man. "I must be on my way. A good day to you, sir."

"Mind if I keep you company for a bit?" asked the gentleman and wheeled his horse around.

"Yes."

"I would like to escort you and these ladies to their mother."

"No need. I'm their escort."

"Oh, I insist. It's such a fine day and I would like to enjoy the fresh air and your company a little while longer."

The young man saw a sword hanging from the gentleman's hip and knew that he meant to use it if the young man did not do with these girls as he said he would.

"Fine."

They rode in silence until they came upon the madhouse where the young man's mother was kept.

"Are you sure you're visiting their mother," asked the gentleman, "and not delivering these young ladies into the care of this facility?"

"She's my mother too, and yes, I'm sure. I'd have left them there a long time ago otherwise."

"Is your mother a nurse there?"

The young man eyed his companion askance and steeled himself for the judgement that was sure to follow. "You already know she's not, so you don't have to give me a chance to lie just to make you feel better. My mother is a patient in the asylum. There. I said it. You can stop beating around the bush now."

"I'm very sorry. I did not mean to offend. I am not familiar with the etiquette surrounding... well, much of anything, really."

"Screw etiquette. Just don't be a dick and look down your nose at other people and you'll be fine."

The gentleman gave a startled laugh. "Thank you for the advice. I shall remember that. I'm sure your mother will be delighted to see you."

The young man thought that this would be the end of their journey together and that they would finally part ways, yet the gentleman stayed insistently by his side.

"I shall accompany you," said he.

"Still don't believe me?"

"I'd like to see the facility from inside. Make sure the conditions are passing muster."

"They have only themselves to thank," muttered the young man. "My sisters. In case you're still wondering why I tied them up."

"Oh? What could they have done to incur such punishment?"

"They got on my nerves."

"An awfully harsh punishment for a few frayed nerves, I should say."

"It's not only my nerves that are frayed," the young man continued muttering, and picked at the tattered rags he was wearing. Too late he noticed that the wounds his sisters had inflicted upon his arms were showing. "It's why I need their mother to talk to them again. They get wild if left too long in their father's charge."

And so they entered the insane asylum. The staff nearly tripped over their own feet in their haste to invite them inside and take them to the dining area that doubled as a meeting hall. They must never have had a visitor so fine as this here gentleman, thought the young man.

His mother was already sitting at one of the dining hall tables, poring over a picture book she used to read to the young man when he was a child. His sisters were overjoyed to see her and rushed into her arms.

"Babies!" exclaimed his mother. "Momma is so happy to see you!"

Each fell into the other's arms and there was much rejoicing. The young man looked on, the gentleman still by his side.

"Are you still here? See, I didn't kidnap them or drop them off here to get rid of them."

"Never questioned it," replied the gentleman.

"You so did, asshole."

"Jason?" called his mother. "Jason, is that you, baby boy? Why aren't you giving your mother a hug yet? There, that's better," said she when he dutifully embraced her. "You brought someone. Is he your boyfriend? Have you finally found someone? Look at me, crying of happiness. This is the best news you could give your mom. And what a handsome man he is. You've got that good taste from your mother, of course you do."

The young man's mother began to sob openly then. Memories of her dear departed wife flashed before her eyes. The young man no longer had the heart to tell her the truth, that this was all a misunderstanding.

"Hey, it's all right, mom," said he, sitting down beside his mother on the bench and rocking her gently. "Let it out."

"I'm sorry, I'm such a mess," said his mother, dabbing at her eyes. "And what is your name, my handsome young man?"

"My father calls me Dick." The gentleman takes her outstretched hand in his and kisses it.

"That is awfully rude of him. You let him get away with that?"

"Well," laughs the gentleman, "he lets me get away with much, much more than he probably should, so I guess it's only fair."

"Your father is right to spoil you. I spoiled this one rotten," said the mother and pinched the young man's cheek, "and he turned out better than I could have hoped. Of course, that was all his mother's doing. His other mother, I mean."

"Hush now, mom." All throughout this exchange, the young man kept glaring daggers at the gentleman. "Didn't you want to have a look around the facility? Now would be a good time."

"Oh yes, of course." The gentleman kissed the mother's hand again. "It was an absolute pleasure, my lady, but I have to take leave now. Duty calls."

"Aww, so soon? We barely had time to get to know each other! But what am I saying? You young ones don't want to sit around listening to old crones like me."

"It's not so bad."

"Will you come visit again?"

The gentleman smiled. "If your son allows."

"Of course he does. He would never deny his own mom, wouldn't you, darling?"

"Excuse me for a moment," said the young man and drew the gentleman aside. "What the fuck are you doing?"

"Saying goodbye to your mother."

"You don't understand. You shouldn't have said what you just did, basically promising her you'd be back."

"I didn't promise anything."

"But she'll expect you to be back, and it'll break her heart if you don't come. She can only take so much since her wife died ten years ago."

"Ten years? And you've been taking care of her and your sisters all this time?"

"Don't change the subject, asshole."

"Relax," said the gentleman. "When are you going to visit her again?"

The young man looked perplexed. "I come here every week."

"Then I'll be here next week with you."

"You better be or I'll find you, and you won't like what I do with you then."

"Sounds scary. Let's meet out by the road where we just met. I'll be there before noon."

The young man did not believe in the gentleman's sincerity, yet he had no choice but to let him go his way. He had wanted him to leave, after all, and so leave the gentleman did.

That night, the young man's sisters were less severe in their teasing and they would even rub some balm on his wounds as their mother had instructed them to do. "Rub, rub, rub," said they in hushed whispers. Come bedtime, when he carried them to bed and tucked them under their blankets, they would not let him leave and tugged at his sleeves and urged him to stay the night. He could do nothing but slip under the covers with them and let himself be cuddled till dawn.

The following week he rode alone to visit his mother. His sisters were once again engrossed in their games and unless they needed a talking to from their mother, he would not take them with him. He travelled faster without them, and his mother could not always greet them with the love and enthusiasm she had displayed the week before. The girls reminded her of the man she had married and consequently of the death of her wife. Sometimes, sorrow still overtook her soul.

The young man knew that that sorrow never entirely went away, yet the pain of it eased over time.

At the crossroads where they had promised they would meet, he found the gentleman already waiting for him. The gentleman waved when he saw the young man trotting down the path.

"Told you I'd be there," said he.

"You kept a promise. Congratulations."

"I didn't want to find out what you'd do to me if I hadn't come."

"Probably the smartest thing you've ever done."

"You may be right about that," agreed the gentleman as they fell in next to each other. "Have you thought about a story for us yet?"

"A story?"

"We need a story. I'm sure your mother will want to know how we met."

"Oh, yeah, you bet she does. She wanted to know all about you. Lucky for the both of us, my sisters were there last time and didn't want to share mom's attention with you for even a second."

"So that means you don't have a story ready?"

"Of course I do. Had to be prepared for when she'd finally pounce me. Fleshed it out over the week. Should be enough to satisfy her curiosity."

"Fill me in then, so I don't contradict your carefully created tale."

And so the young man did. The gentleman listened well and gave suggestions of his own to embellish the tale so that by the time they reached the asylum, they had a pretty tale to tell indeed. The young man's mother was delighted to see them both and to hear what yarn they had to spin. She urged them to go on and on and make it ever more colourful for her to imagine it as though she had been right beside them the day they met or the day they had confessed their feelings for each other. It made her feel to be a part of her son's life again.

"Thank you," said the young man upon their departure. "For doing this. I haven't seen my mom this happy in a while."

"It was my pleasure. Your mother is a delightful lady."

The week following, the gentleman waited for the young man anew. And the week following that. Sometimes he would bring little gifts for his mother, chocolates or candied apples, even a small silvery comb once that looked more dear than anything they had ever owned.

"Oh, no, I couldn't," said the young man's mother, unable to accept so great a gift although her eyes did shine with glee. "No one comes to visit me here except my sweet children and they are used to seeing their crazy mother with her nest of hair."

"This is just for you," said the gentleman and closed her fingers around the comb. "You do not have to use it if you do not want to but perhaps it will make you feel better. Or I can get you something else if you'd prefer."

"No, no. You've done so much already. I don't deserve this."

"Yes, you do. You gave the world this handsome young lad." The gentleman nudged the young man's arm. The young man nudged back, though less friendly.

"But I didn't. My wife and I, we... we adopted him. But he's not mine."

"Hey now," said the young man and gathered his mother in his arms. Behind her back, he rolled his eyes at the gentleman for his blunder. "We're still family."

His mother clung to him. "You'll always be my good boy."

Weeks went by like this and soon the young man found himself looking forward to these encounters. The gentleman proved to be of good cheer and laughed at his mother's famed humour and made her laugh in turn. Laughter had always been his mother's driving force and it was good to see her become more and more herself again through it.

Even outside of the asylum, the young man did not hate the gentleman's companionship. Something about the easy manner of their exchanges drew him in and he found himself dallying longer and longer on these excursions to his mother. So much so that his stepfather, who spared the young man no thought unless he wanted to needle him, took notice. He began noticing a change in his charge. The young man had become less grouchy and less prone to fall for the stepfather's goading. The stepfather liked this development not in the least and devised harsher and harsher punishments, yet none of what he came up with made the young man suffer as the stepfather wanted.

Yet one day it came as it had to come. The young man waited for his companion to arrive. He waited as the sun steadily rose to its noonday height, but still no one came. Eventually he grew tired of waiting and went on ahead, hoping the gentleman would catch up with him.

He did not come. Nor did he come the week following, or the week after that. Soon, the young man ran out of excuses to tell, and his mother grew sadder with each passing visit that would not bring the handsome young gentleman with it.

The young man realised what a mistake it had been to place his hopes upon a stranger. It had been a kindness of the gentleman to play his part for as long as he had even though he had no stake in the young man's family. Perhaps the gentleman had to return to his own family elsewhere. The young man never got him to tell where he was from exactly, or what his trade was, or what had brought him to the forest that day when they had first met.

One day, long weeks after the young man had first met the gentleman, his sisters were aflutter about the news they had heard in the town square. A ball was to be held at the palace, and all the ladies of the land, be they noble or common, were invited to attend.

"I should like to dance at a ball, Dee."

"What's that, Dee?"

"Don't you want to dance at a ball, Dee?"

"I should very much like to dance at a ball, Dee. Daddy, can we please?"

The stepfather agreed to take them and to buy them pretty ballgowns, for he saw in it the opportunity to perform before the king and his court again, which had long been a goal of his. He had always borne resentment toward his wife for she had been invited to be a fool at court when he had been beaten and turned away, although he knew not why. He remembered happier days when he had been given the honour of performing before the king. Yet those had been many and many a year ago, before his daughters were born, when his wife had still been wed to that red-haired hussy that talked to plants.

Soon, a garish suit and two darling dresses arrived at the farmhouse. The twins were overjoyed to see them, for it meant their father had kept his promise and would take them to the ball. The young man felt chagrin at this, for the ball would keep his sisters up past their bedtime and he had promised their mother he would take care of them and not let their father's influence spoil them too much. Yet confronting the stepfather about it did no good. He would take the girls to dance, for it was what they wanted and was he not a kind father to give them their wish? The stepfather punished the young man for daring to speak up.

Thereupon, the young man sought comfort in the shade of the hazel tree in the garden where little robins and squirrels and turtledoves chittered in the branches. Beneath the hazel tree sat he until his stepfather and his sisters left. His thoughts drifted once more to the gentleman who had been so kind to his mother and who had given him something to look forward to each week. His stepfather's beatings had not seemed so severe back then. He now resented ever having let himself feel something akin to anticipation.

"You want to hurt him," came a voice from the branches.

The young man looked up. Stretched out on one of the thicker branches as though it were a chaise longue was the most beautiful woman the young man had ever seen. Her skin was darker than any he had ever seen, a dusky complexion as even as an unruffled pond, and she wore an emerald robe as silky and smooth as her dark hair.

"Like he hurt you," continued the woman.

"Who the fuck are you?" asked he, startled out of his wits. He had not noticed her there. "No, wait. I don't care. I just want you to fuck off."

The young man wondered what manner of weird woman this was, sitting in a tree, a picture of poise, with not a strand of hair out of place. It was like she had appeared out of thin air. One does not climb a tree -- in a gown no less! -- and not look at least somewhat unkempt. Yet he sensed that she was no ordinary woman. It surprised him not, for what in his life had ever been ordinary? Maybe only himself.

"I have seen your plight, and wish to help you. You have been hurt by someone close to you and wish for them to hurt as you did."

For some reason, the young man felt that the woman did not mean his stepfather.

"Yes," said he, for he cared not how the woman knew. She had an air of command about her as someone accustomed to giving orders and seeing them obeyed at once. The young man found it difficult to dismiss her.

She nodded. "Your opportunity will come at the ball tonight where he will be dancing among the guests."

"Wait, who are you talking about? Pasty face in there or Dick?"

"Either. Both. Does it matter as long as you get to pay someone back for what they have done to you?"

"No. I guess it doesn't. So, what do you suggest? I take it you didn't just bring it up if you didn't have a plan. You don't suppose they need more cooks? Or servants? Scullery maids?"

The woman smiled. "You are correct. I will help you get into the palace if you can do but one small thing for me."

"And what would that be?"

"Bring me the little princeling."

There was a pause before the young man guffawed loudly.

"Yeah, okay, nuh-uh," said he. "Count me out. I'm not getting hanged just because some guy made my mother sad. He's not worth that much trouble."

"But is perhaps your freedom worth the trouble?"

"What do you mean?"

"Do you not want to be rid of this life? Rid of your stepfather?"

"Yeah, I wanna get rid of the old coot but I don't wanna lose my head over it."

The young man had thought often of leaving, yet he found that he could not. He had the twins to think of. Pests though they were, they were still his sisters and he found he could not leave them with their father. Yet the young man had no money to his name and while he could subject himself to a life of abject poverty and day work, he could not do the same to them. His mother would not forgive him.

"You will not. Nor will your sisters suffer any consequences, rest assured."

"Okay, but even if you can smuggle me into the palace, there's no way I can get to the prince, much less leave with him. That's just crazy."

"You needn't worry about such trifles," said the woman and waved the wand she carried in her hand with a mien of distaste. "Bippity boppity boo."

The young man felt a tingle throughout his body, then a sudden jolt, and when he looked down he saw that he had shrunk in some ways and grown in others. Long hair fell over his shoulder as he cupped his bosom in wonder.

"What the ever-loving fuck?" exclaimed he. "What did you do to me?"

"You will find it much easier to wander the palace in search of the young princeling as a maiden. Few people are unkind to one so fair of face."

"Just say that my normal face looks suspicious."

"Do you want your friend Dick to spot you in the crowd before you have had the chance to spot him first? It is better not to be recognised at all."

"He's not my friend," muttered the young man. "Not anymore. That asshole."

"Get me a pumpkin, my dear," said the woman, ignoring his complaints.

"What do you need with a pumpkin?"

"Quickly!"

"Okay, okay!" And off he rushed to the greenhouse his first mother had tended while she was still alive and fetched a nice big pumpkin.

With another flick of her wand the woman transformed the pumpkin into a stately horse-drawn carriage and a nearby butterfly into a uniformed driver.

"This will get you into the palace."

"But I can't go like this," said the young man and gestured to the rags he was still wearing.

"Patience," said the woman with a stern look and waved her magic wand again.

The next moment the young man, who now had the appearance of a young woman, stood in the shade of the hazel tree wearing a beautiful ball gown made of the finest materials that shimmered in the evening light. Satisfied that he would not be turned away at the palace doors, the young man walked towards the carriage. Yet as he walked, he found that his feet ached. He pulled up his skirts to discover on his feet a pair of dancing shoes that glittered like crystals.

"What the fuck is this? Do you want me to break a leg?"

"Only in the metaphoric sense of wishing you good fortune. These are glass slippers."

"Glass slippers, really?"

"You'll find they are quite comfortable."

"I already find that they're not."

"Get in," said the woman and bade the butterfly driver open the carriage door for the young man.

The young man stopped. "Hey, if you can do all this magic mumbo jumbo, why can't you just magic the young prince here?"

"My magic cannot touch that which I cannot see, and from here I cannot see the palace. So you will have to go there for me."

"Okay, but one last question," asked the young man as he climbed inside the carriage. "Who are you? What's your stake in all this?"

"Why," said the woman, her eyes crinkling at the corners, "I'm your fairy godmother."

As they drew nearer to the palace, the young man could hear the gay music of horns and trumpets drifting from inside. Never before had he seen so many people in one place before, not even at the marketplace where the merchants hawked the wares they had brought from foreign countries. Everywhere he looked a new marvel presented itself before him, yet he had no eyes for the splendour of the palace. From the distance, he saw his sisters dancing with each other on the dance floor. Unlike them, the young man had not come here to dance and be merry. He had come here to find the princeling.

There was but one problem. The young man had no inkling of what the young prince looked like. Yet someone here would know. He had but to mingle and open his ears to the gossip around him. And so he listened to the benign chatter that ebbed and flowed through the room. He caught fleeting glances his way, followed by hushed whispers he could not make out over the din of the violins and the trumpets. At times, he was approached by men asking him for a dance, yet he waved them all off.

Just as the young man decided to ask around for the princeling, another gentleman approached him.

"Forgive me, my lady," said he, "but I could not help noticing that you have not had the pleasure of a dance yet."

It was not any gentleman, but the gentleman who had, for a time, accompanied the young man each week to see his mother. He was dressed in fine garments as befits a ball, finer than the young man had ever seen him in, yet it was him without a doubt. So his fairy godmother had spoken true, thought the young man. The gentleman was here as she had predicted.

"Dick," said the young man tersely, for he had no intention of forgiving him anything.

The gentleman was startled to be addressed in this manner by what to him looked like a stranger. Stupid, thought the young man. Of course the gentleman would not recognise him.

"Excuse me if I have offended you for speaking to you so suddenly and without invitation. I simply meant to ask if you're enjoying yourself."

The young man had been enjoying himself rather splendidly for a guest about to kidnap royalty, yet the appearance of the gentleman had ruined it. "I don't dance, if that's what you're asking."

"Then why come here, to a ball?"

"I am looking for the young prince," said the young man. "Is he around?"

The gentleman looked startled once more. "Which young prince do you want?" asked he with a smile.

"The youngest."

"The youngest, huh? Are you sure about that? He's not the kind to receive visitors."

"I'm sure."

"Tell you what. Do me the honour of the next dance, and I will take you to him."

"I told you, I can't dance."

"That's alright. Just let me lead. You won't regret it."

The young man thought he was already regretting it when he took the gentleman's hand. At the very least he could still delight in stepping on the gentleman's toes. So they lined up with the other dancing pairs and began to move in time with the music. The gentleman gave him encouraging instructions about his footwork which the young man gleefully ignored.

"May I ask your name, my lady?" asked the gentleman.

"Jacinda," replied the young man with a tight smile. He had to thank his sisters for that one.

"That's a lovely name. And where do you come from, Jacinda?"

"Aren't you going to tell me your name?" deflected the young man, although he already knew the answer.

"You're right, my bad. I'm used to being introduced, not to introducing myself. Name's Dick."

"You're seriously calling yourself that? No wonder you looked startled when I swore at you."

"I was startled to see a pretty lady such as yourself use such coarse language."

"Is it coarse language if it's your name?"

The gentleman laughed. "Touché."

Thereafter, every attempt at conversation from the gentleman's side was blocked by the young man claiming he had to concentrate on the steps. The glass slippers were killing his heels. He could not wait to be rid of them. It rankled the young man that the gentleman's easy charm was bewitching him again, so that he became inclined to forget all about the grudge he had been holding against him. Yet the young man would not let it go so easily. He drives the point of his heel onto the gentleman's foot and calls it yet another honest blunder.

When their dance ended the gentleman led them off the dancefloor with a slight limp.

"I hope you now thoroughly regret asking me to dance with you," said the young man.

"Not in the slightest," replied the gentleman, his good humour never wavering. "But you need to come back again so you can practice your steps."

"You may heal up first before I do. Now, you said you'd take me to the young prince if I danced with you. I fulfilled my end of the bargain, it's time you do your part."

"As my lady commands," said the gentleman with a polite bow that the young man could not help but see as mocking.

At one end of the ballroom, a staircase led up to the gallery overlooking the dance floor. The gentleman ascended them and bade the young man follow, for the princeling would be at the top, practicing his sword forms or reading in the library. And so they found the little princeling attacking shelves in the library as he balanced a book atop his head. When he saw the gentleman, the princeling jumped at him. The book toppled from his head. The gentleman brandished his rapier quickly and parried.

They exchanged thrust for riposte until the point of the princeling's rapier touched the front of the gentleman's uniform, just above the heart.

"Touché," said the princeling. "Your footwork is atrocious, Richard."

"I have been dancing all day."

"That's no excuse."

"Perhaps not, but I offer it as explanation regardless." He gestured to the young man. "This lady wishes to speak with you."

"But I do not wish to speak with her. Send her away."

"Damian," warned the gentleman. "Be nice."

The princeling scowled. What a delightful brat, thought the young man.

"I have to be downstairs again. If Bruce doesn't see me among the guests, he'll assume I'm slacking off and find other ways to torment me." The gentleman lingered in the doorway. "Take care," said he to the young man. "And you," addressed he the princeling again, "don't hurt her, okay? I don't want to hear any complaints at the end of the night."

The princeling glared at the gentleman's retreating back.

"Did he just call the king 'Bruce'?" asked the young man, his incredulity plain in his voice.

The princeling nodded. "He and Father are not on speaking terms right now. Ever since Richard decided sneaking out of the palace to spend time with a peasant was a better use of it than dedicating it to study. Or rather, since Father caught him doing it and forbade him to leave the grounds without express permission."

"So he has been cooped up here for the past few weeks?"

"For the most part. One time he acted as an envoy to a neighbouring kingdom, but other than on official business, Richard has not been allowed to leave."

The young man had to sit down on one of the cushioned chairs for a moment. So the gentleman had not abandoned him and his mother because he wanted to, but because he had had no choice.

"So Dick was seeing a peasant," said he. "Did he ever mention him before he was caught sneaking off?"

The princeling clicked his tongue. "Did he ever. He almost talked about nothing else. It was Jason this, Jason that. Almost made me want to seek him out myself."

The young man was touched. "Because you wanted to get to know him as well?"

"Because I wanted to slice his throat."

"Slice his throat, huh? Don't you think that's a bit of an overreaction?"

"This person was a distraction. Still is. At first I thought it wasn't so bad because he made Richard happy and seeing him made Richard focus harder on his studies. But then it became like a fever and Richard could barely think of anything but the time he would get to see this Jason again. He needed to go. It would have been in Richard's best interest."

"Did you ask him if that's what he wanted?"

"Of course not. He was too blind to see reason. But he would have agreed with me eventually."

"Is that so?" The more they talked, the more the young man felt a plan beginning to hatch in his mind.

"It is so. Richard is sad now all the time."

"He seemed to be enjoying himself just fine right now."

The princeling made a derisive sound. "Of course he did. He doesn't show it around other people, but I know he is sad, and it's all that peasant's fault. Why are you asking me all this?"

"No reason. I was just thinking. Does that mean you still want to kill the guy? I happen to know where he lives. I could take you. If you can get us out of here undetected."

The princeling clicked his tongue, sheathed his sword and picked up his cloak from a chair by the fireplace. "Follow me."

The princeling led them into the gardens. The light from the castle provided only meagre illumination but it was enough to see by. They halted in front of a tall, gnarled oak tree. In the dark, its crown was invisible.

"Help me up," said the princeling.

"Why do you want to go tree climbing at this time of night?" asked the young man.

The princeling clicked his tongue again. "Because its branches will help us cross the palace wall. This is where Richard crossed. Guards are stationed in the area during the daytime, but with this many guests around, they're all inside and have been instructed not to let Richard step outside the palace."

"Surely you don't think Dick is still interested in seeing his friend."

"The least he wants to do is apologise for vanishing without a word. Father wouldn't even let him deliver a letter explaining the situation. A man of his station shouldn't have to explain himself, he says. He instructed the guards to inform him and bring him any letter he might try to send should Richard attempt to bribe them. Now help me up already. We don't have all night."

The young man helped the princeling climb the branches, his head in disarray because of this new revelation. The young man kicked off his glass slippers and left them in the grass beneath the oak tree, much to his relief. His feet were aching and throbbing. He dropped onto the ground on the other side of the wall and found even this pain preferable to walking in those slippers. Yet as they walked down the slope, the young man realised that he did not know where he was, or how he could take the princeling to his home where his fairy godmother sat anticipating their arrival.

As if by magic, the young man's carriage stood at the ready for them on the road from the palace. They climbed inside and were back at the farmhouse as quick as the wind.

"This is where he lives?" groused the princeling. "It's even shabbier than I thought."

The young man had so far tolerated the princeling's haughty air for there had been a need to bring him to the farmhouse. However, he would not suffer him to speak ill of the place where his mothers had raised him. "Not everyone can live in a fucking palace, you know?"

"But this squalor? It looks deserted. Are you sure we are at the right address?"

"Pretty sure. He must be at the ball. Come on, there's someone else we can pay a visit until he comes back."

The princeling clicked his tongue and followed the young man into the garden where the fairy godmother had first appeared to the young man. Behind him, the carriage turned back into a pumpkin and the butterfly who had been the driver but mere moments ago flew off into the night.

"You have brought him," said the woman when she saw them.

"I keep my promises. Now you keep yours."

"What's going on?" exclaimed the princeling. "Who is this?"

The woman illumined the garden with a flick of her wand. Of a sudden, a thousand fireflies swarmed around them, making the spot beneath the hazel tree near bright as day.

"You won't recognise me," said she. The threads of gold embroidery on her robe shimmered in the light. "I have only held you in your infancy, many years ago."

"Mother?" asked the princeling.

"So you do recognise me after all."

"You're his mother?" boggled the young man. "Wait. Wouldn't that make you the Queen?"

The woman nodded. "I used to be queen a long time ago but I have forfeited that title. It is no longer mine to hold."

"Mother," said the princeling, kneeling, and pressed his forehead against the woman's hand. "I have missed you. All my life have I wanted to meet you."

"And I, you, my child. I have so longed to watch you grow up."

"What happened?" asked the young man. "How come you are here?"

"It is a long story."

"Humour me."

Just then, the clop of hooves and the sound of voices came down the path to the farmhouse. The young man's stepfather and his sister were returning from the ball.

"What's with all the lights?" asked the stepfather.

"Maybe Cinder Jay was holding a ball of his own while we were out," said Dee.

"Who do you suppose he danced with, Dee?" asked Dee. "A broom?"

"Poor Cinder Jay had to dance all alone," replied Dee.

"Hush now," said the stepfather and all was quiet again.

Until the stepfather burst into the garden, a shovel held aloft. "Come out, little Jason," called he. "I will not hurt you... This time."

Yet as he looked around, the young man he sought was nowhere to be seen. In his stead, the stepfather found someone else to let his anger out on.

"You!" cried he and pointed at the fairy godmother. "I thought you were dead."

"I have been, and I have not been," said the woman.

"I'll see that you stay dead this time!"

Then he launched himself at the woman with a shrill yell, yet before he could so much as come within five paces of her, the princeling had stepped in front of her and pierced the stepfather's chest with his rapier.

The stepfather looked down at the sword in his chest with astonishment. This was not an outcome he had foreseen. Then he fell dead to the ground.

The twins shrieked when they saw their father die and attacked the princeling, hurting him with their nails, their fists, and their teeth. The young man was too stunned at first to step in. Then he roused himself and pulled the girls away from the princeling. As he was yet inhabiting a young woman's body, he could not throw them over his shoulder as easily as he did all other times. They would not cease their struggling and focused their attention on him now, whom they thought of as a stranger. Then, time slowed all around him. One moment everything was happening too fast, the next the children hung suspended mid-swing.

"Quickly now," said the woman. "You must go get your mother. She's the only one who can calm your sisters down before they kill my son. I can't hold them for long. Hurry!"

"I'll come with you," said the princeling.

"You just got your mother back. Don't you want to stay with her?"

"And let these harpies attack me again when she can no longer hold them? I think not."

The young man could not argue with that. Together with the princeling, he sped toward the horse where it had been left in front of the farmhouse.

"Sorry, old girl," said he to the mare, "but I have to take you out on one more trip before you can have your well-deserved rest."

He helped the princeling into the saddle, then swung himself behind him, and off they rode into the forest. His horse ran like the wind and they reached the asylum in the twinkling of an eye, faster than they had ever done. The young man roused the minders and bade them release his mother. Groggy though they were from sleep, they refused his request. The young man cursed, for he remembered that they did not recognise him in this appearance.

"Move," said the princeling and shoved himself past the young man. "Do you people not know who I am?"

"Your Highness!" scrambled the minders all at once. "What brings you here at this time of night?"

"You will release this woman's mother. On my authority."

"The requested patient is not this woman's mother, however," explained one nurse.

"What?" asked the princeling. "Why would you request her if she is not your mother?"

"But she is my mother!" cried the young man. "Look, I'll explain later. The important fact here is that the patient we requested is the girls' mother and will know how to console them in their grief."

So the young man's mother was brought to them, confused and sleep-drunk and still in her nightgown.

"Who are you people?" asked she. "And what do you want with me?"

"You have to come with us," said the princeling.

"I'm not going anywhere. I haven't been outside of these walls for quite some time and I'm not sure I want to be now. Are you sure you want to let me go with these people?" addressed she the nurses.

The nurses shrugged. "Prince's orders."

The princeling had two horses from the asylum's stable saddled and left the mare in a sleepy groom's capable hands.

"Is that my son's horse?" asked his mother. "Why is it here?"

"She brought us here," explained the young man, trying to get her to understand and to come with them. "Your son needs your help."

"What has he done now? Do we have to pick him up at the constable's again?"

"It's about your daughters."

The mother gasped, suddenly alarmed. "Has something happened to them?"

"Not yet, but I fear they're in a bad way."

Off they sped into the night again and returned to the farmhouse as quickly as they went. The godmother's spell had broken in the meantime and the girls now lay crying over their dead father's body.

"My sweet darlings," exclaimed their mother and hopped from the saddle. "Oh no, is that your father? What happened here?"

"Mom, mom!" cried the twins and rushed to her. "He killed him! He killed him!"

"Who killed him?"

"I did," said the princeling gravely. "It was self-defense. He attacked my mother."

"Your mother? Is that her?" The young man's mother looked over to the fairy godmother and recognised her for who she had been, for she jumped up and curtseyed deeply in her nightgown. "Your Majesty, we thought you were dead!"

The fairy godmother smiled a wan smile. "Perhaps like dead, if you will. But not quite."

The young man had had enough. "Now will anyone tell me what the fuck is going on?" To the fairy godmother he said: "Why the fuck did he attack you? And why the fuck does everyone appear to know one another?"

"Watch your tongue, lady," admonished his mother. "If my girls pick up this foul language of yours, you'll be hearing from me."

The young man cursed under his breath, for he could not make his mother recognise him.

"It is a long story," said the fairy godmother, ignoring the squabbling around her. "I knew this man because, many years ago, we traded a death for a death. He had been a fool then, a jester who at times performed at the court and who, as such, was allowed closer to the royal families than anyone save their spouses. I bade him kill my father, for reasons of my own, yet he was caught and tortured until he went insane. I had made it so he could not reveal who had ordered him to kill my father even on pain of death."

"So that's why he... changed," whispered the young man's mother and sank to her knees, tightly clutching her daughters. "He came home one day and was but a broken shell of the man I used to know."

"Quite," said the former queen. "My father, however, powerful sorcerer that he is, could feel my influence on this man and bound me to this tree so that I may see this man's daily struggles, see how evil he would become because of my deeds."

The young man watched his mother and his sisters weep and wanted to comfort them. "Can you change me back now?" asked he the former queen.

She nodded and waved her wand and the young man turned back into his old self. The princeling took a step backward.

"Jason!" exclaimed the young man's mother. "You have been this young lady all along? No wonder she had such a foul mouth. I should have known."

"Jason?" asked the princeling. "You have been Jason all this time? You lied to me!"

The princeling lunged at the young man and they both fell into the dirt.

From afar, the thunderous hoofbeats of several horses were heard coming down the path to the farmhouse.

The man first to arrive jumped off his mount before it had even come to a halt and looked about the courtyard.

"Damian!" called he. The princeling stopped pummeling the young man and pricked up his ears. "Damian, are you here?"

"Richard?" returned he the call.

"Oh, thank God you're here." The gentleman rushed into the garden from whence the princeling's voice had come. "What are you doing on the... ground... with Jason? Hi, Jason."

"Hello, Dick," said the young man, unamused.

"Dick!" exclaimed the young man's mother.

"Jason's mom, hi!" replied the gentleman breathlessly and breezed through his words, as though he thought he might never get the chance to utter them if he did not do so now. "I'm so, so sorry I've been absent for so long. I'll explain everything if you need me to, but I hope you are well. I'm also sorry my brother roused you from your slumber. He does these things sometimes."

"What the fuck are you doing here?" interrupted the young man. "How do you know where I live?"

"I don't. I mean, I didn't. You live here?"

"I just said that."

"Jason, be a bit more civil to your boyfriend," said the young man's mother.

"He's your boyfriend?!?" screeched the princeling.

"I am! I mean, I was? Sort of? I don't know. It's... complicated," babbled the gentleman like a brook. "Anyway. You asked me why I'm here. Well, we got a message from the asylum that Damian had been there and requested to have your mother released. They gave us this address and I came here as fast as I could, hoping to find Damian." The gentleman sank to his knees beside the princeling and embraced him. "You had us worried when you just vanished without a trace."

"Now do you know how your weekly escapades made me feel?" grumbled the princeling.

"I'm sorry I made you worry about me," said the gentleman and kissed the princeling's temple. "And you, Jason. I'm so sorry I left you hanging all these weeks without a word. Can I give you a hug too, to make up for it?"

"Wait," said the young man and slapped away the gentleman's arm before it landed around his shoulders. He wanted to be no nearer the princeling, whom the gentleman hugged with his other arm, than he already was. "Did you just call this little devil your brother?"

"Yes. Didn't you know we were related?"

"I thought the relation was more distant than that."

"Wait, my son is dating the prince? Oh my God, that's why you looked so familiar. I used to see you at the court when you were still a wee little kid."

"That's right! You were one of the fools who performed for us, weren't you? I thought I had heard your voice somewhere."

Another contingent of people arrived in the garden. It was a tall man in a stately uniform and a long, dark cape that billowed out behind him as he strode toward the rabble, flanked by an armed guard.

"Dick," demanded the king in a grave voice. "What happened here?"

"Bruce!" went the gentleman who turned out to be the prince.

"Father!" went the young princeling.

"Your Majesty!" went the young man's mother.

"Harley!" went the king. "I thought you were..."

"Dead?" supplied the young man drily.

"I was going to say locked up," said the king.

"Oh, I am. I mean, I was until just now. I guess I'm on parole for the night. Death in the family and all that," said the mother and gestured to her dead husband. Her daughters began sniffling once more.

"How did this happen?" asked the king.

"I killed him," admitted the princeling and stood up, out the prince's embrace. "He attacked my mother. I had to protect her."

"Your mother? But your mother is dead, my son."

"Not quite, my husband," said the former queen. Her regal form has been obscured in part by the branches of the hazel tree. Now, as she stepped into the light of the fireflies, the gold thread in her gown sparkled.

"Talia!" cried the king and rushed toward her through the swarm of fireflies. "Is it really you, my love?"

"Yes, my beloved. It is truly me."

And so, after many and many a year that the king and queen had spent apart, they finally kissed again, and the spell was broken. The fireflies winked out.

"What just happened?" asked the young man, surprised.

"My magic," said the former queen with a quiet gasp, "it disappeared."

"Is that a good sign or a bad sign?"

"A good sign, I believe. I feel... much more solid now. Like I cannot disappear into this tree anymore."

"Does that mean you can return to the palace?" asked the princeling.

"For a time, perhaps," said the queen and ruffled her son's hair. "I fear there are matters I need to take care of that won't let me stay long."

"Seeing all this makes me want to get married, too," said the prince and gently felt for the young man's hand.

"Is this your idea of a proposal?" asked the young man, yet he allowed the prince to take his hand in his own.

The prince grinned. "Would you say yes if it were?"

"Fuck no, you lied to me and then you left me."

"Come on. Would you have spoken to me the way you did if you had known who I am? I wanted a simple connection with someone that was based on who I am inside, not on what my title says I am. People look at you differently when you're the prince, you know."

"Yeah, well," said the young man. "They look at you differently once they learn you've been lying to them, no matter what."

"Can I start over?"

"What?"

The prince cleared his throat and got up from his crouch. "Bruce? I mean, Father. I would like to request your permission to ask this young man's hand in marriage."

"What?" exclaimed most of the parties present. The king merely eyed his son.

"Do you know his pedigree?" asked he. "What titles and lands does he own?"

"Does it matter?"

"Dick, you're my eldest. Barring some unfortunate incident, you will inherit the throne and you will have to find someone who can not only strengthen our kingdom's alliances but who can give you an heir as well."

"Bruce, please. I don't care about any of it except for the welfare of our people. That is the sole reason I would succeed you. But I think I can be a good ruler even if my marriage is not advantageous."

"I will not allow this."

"Fine. Do you want me to renounce my titles? I'll do it. See if Tim likes ruling that much better than his studies."

"Dick."

"Hey, asshole," called the young man and scrambled to his feet. "You're going around here making big decisions and you haven't even asked me how I feel about all this."

"Oh, um. How do you feel about all this?"

"It's foolish. Very sweet, but foolish."

The prince shrugged sheepishly. "That's me."

"And I'd marry you in a heartbeat, you idiot. Rich or poor."

The prince beamed and with nought but rejoicing in his heart, he threw his arms around the young man and kissed him.

"Aww!" went the young man's mother.

"Yeurgh," went the princeling and the twins and all three of them made a show of their disgust.

"Though for the record," rejoined the young man when they parted, "I'm more than certain you'd make a terrible farmer."

"That's fair."

"It seems you will not be deterred," said the king after a hushed talk with his queen.

"I will not."

"Very well. I will allow you to ask this young man's hand in marriage if you adhere to proper courtship proceedings. I will not have our name sullied by spur-of-the.moment decisions."

"Hear that?" asked the prince with a wide grin. "I get to woo you all nice and proper."

"Woo me? How the fuck does that look like?"

"You'll see. I don't wanna spoil everything. Though we do need to do something about that mouth of yours. Can't have my husband spew profanities in court."

"Maybe you'll have to teach me how to use my mouth properly, then," said the young man and kissed the prince once more.

"Children!" called the young man's mother and covered her daughters' ears and eyes to protect them from her son's double meaning.

"Oh, I have some ideas, never you fear," said the prince, blind and deaf to the people around them. "By the way. Is turning into a girl a regular occurrence? Do you change shape when you sneeze or something?"

"What?"

"You were Jacinda, right?"

"How did you guess?"

"Hmm," said the prince and brushed his fingers over the young man's hair. "Let's see... It was my wish to see you at the ball, and then all of a sudden this pretty lady with a curious white streak in her hair and a penchant for avoiding my questions shows up. It seemed too too much of a coincidence."

"Could have been anyone."

"But it was you."

"Told you I'd find you."

The prince breathed a soft laugh. "You also told me I wouldn't like what you'd do to me when you did, but if kissing's the worst you can do, it's not so bad."

"You forget that I kidnapped your brother first."

"True. That part wasn't so nice," said the prince. "So. You're avoiding my question again. Was your turning into a girl a one-time thing?"

"Does it matter, pervert?"

"Well, you heard my father. He wants little heirs. And if we didn't have to look outside our marriage, well..."

"I'd say I'd talk to my fairy godmother about it but it seems she just lost her magic," laments the young man sarcastically. "How tragically inconvenient, really."

"I may have it back by the time I return from my travels," said the queen.

Both the young man and the prince started at that. They had forgotten they were not alone.

"Hear that?" asked the prince with a soft grin.

"You're getting ahead of yourself, Dickhead. First, you have to woo me. I expect all the bells and whistles."

"Then all the bells and whistles you shall get," said the prince and kissed his intended again.

There was much rejoicing across the kingdom when the wedding bells finally rang for the two men. The king and queen were both in attendance, as were the young man's two mothers, one of which had, through nature and the queen's magic, stepped out of the hazel tree as beautiful as the day she had died, and the other of which had thereupon been released from the asylum, as she no longer suffered from the grief of losing her wife.

And they all lived happily ever after.