The last memory I have of my father is the feel of his hand on my cheek and the sight of his ragged smile as he said, “I named you well, my Rose. A beautiful flower that also has thorns.”
I had tightened my grip on the tiny dagger Father had given me two years earlier, for my sixth birthday, the dagger I had used to wound the man who had stabbed him, and held his hand until he breathed no more.
The first memory I have of my father is the first of any I can recall. I was three summers old, wearing my finest gown and standing to the side of the Royal Audience Chamber. Father held my hand, waiting, until the last ornately-dressed courtiers had left, and he drew me toward the carved wooden cradle.
“Princess Snow White will be queen someday,” he said, “and you must be her protector, my Rose, as I am for her father, the king.”
I leaned in to look in the cradle, where the baby princess was lying. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen— the most beautiful I have seen since— and had I taken after my mother, I would have been instantly jealous. But though I had inherited my mother’s features, her pale skin and copper hair, my heart had come from my father, and I only felt a sweep of protectiveness that seemed to settle in my very bones.
Even so young, I had been intensely proud of Father, how he stood so tall at the king’s side. As the little princess burbled and reached a hand up to me, I swore that I would never let any harm come to her.
It was a harder promise to keep than I had thought. A body is much easier to protect than a heart, and Snow White’s heart is bigger than anyone’s. Snow White was barely three years old when her mother, the queen, died. Her Majesty had been ill for many years, but her pregnancy had taken a great toll. She hardly left her chambers, though she doted on her daughter as much as she was able, until finally, she could hold on no longer.
Snow White was inconsolable, though I did my best to comfort her. I held her hand as the queen was placed in the royal crypt, and let her hide her tears in the shoulder of my gown. I slept beside her bed and held her when nightmares woke her.
Father, of course, allowed me to remain with Snow White whenever she might need me. “You are her protector, my Rose,” he told me, as he had so often said. “She will need you now more than ever.”
At the time, I did not understand why Mother had also encouraged me to attend to Snow White, as well. Normally, she was quietly disapproving of the way I looked up to my father, or why, despite my nobility, I was never counted among the crown princess’s ladies-in-waiting.
Now, I realize that she wanted me to get close to Snow White, to further her own ambitions.
As a child, I simply knew that we were happy. I trained with Father, who taught me how to use the little dagger he had given me. I spent time with Snow White, who smiled simply upon seeing me and made me feel more protective each time I saw her.
And then, a few weeks after my eighth birthday, an assassin attempted to murder the king.
The man slipped passed the entirety of the Royal Guards, all the way through to the king’s chamber. But it was not the king he found there— it was my father. I do not even remember why I had gone looking for Father, just that I walked through the open door just as the man stabbed him.
I must have screamed, for something must have alerted the guards, but my training asserted itself and I lunged forward with my small dagger. I did nothing more than wound him, a score to his left cheek that splashed blood across my face. The man stumbled backwards, then fled, leaving my father to die in my arms.
The king had my father buried with full honors, and Snow White held my hand through the ceremony. Mother didn’t even stand next to me.
I threw myself into my training from that moment on. Even Snow White’s worry couldn’t make me do more than keep my weapons-work to the times when she would not need me. Because if my father, a strong and experienced warrior, could be killed, then I would need an extra amount of skills and training to make up for my youth.
And, as much as I disliked them, I applied myself to etiquette lessons with the princess and her governess. I had thought of my father’s dying words, that I was a flower with thorns, and came to realize that I could use my beauty, a graceful movement and genteel demeanor, to hide the skills I was learning. Even courtiers who had known me my entire life, who had known my father, dismissed me as an ornament to Snow White’s retinue.
Which was precisely what I wanted them to do.
Even my own mother did not see me for what I truly was, beyond a disappointment to her ambitions.
But later, I would be grateful for the distance that disapproval put between us. As Snow White held tight to my hand, as we raced through the darkening woods, blood still fresh on my stolen sword, as we left behind everything we had known to escape the huntsman sent by the new queen— my mother— the only concern in my heart was for Snow White’s safety.
And as the sun rose that next morning, as Snow White and I emerged in a clearing that held a small thatched cottage and the laughter of children, I knew that as long as we were together, we would be all right.