Prince Jeord Stuart was eight years old when his royal parents introduced him to an angry, ghost-haunted harpy who was out for his blood. He was eight years and a week older when he decided he was bound to marry her – once he stopped evading her murder attempts and her belief that the dead women in her head were correct about him eventually killing her.
Their engagement had started in about the strangest fashion imaginable, for one thing. Ever since Jeord had hit the age of five and been recognized as a genius, he had been courted in one fashion or another by the most prominent families in the Kingdom of Sorcier who had a daughter of about his age. And by the time he hit the hoary old age of eight, he felt quite practiced in the art of charming the giggling, love-struck girls that he inevitably was paired with for a stroll in the palace gardens or an afternoon of tea. Although it was a rather odd set of skills to hone long before puberty ever unfolded, Jeord was quite the lady’s man even at eight, and knew just how to charm young women his age with a calm, cheerful stream of conversation that mostly involved inquiring about their families, compliment their dress sense (no matter how dubious it might be) and staring deeply into their eyes while he absently wondered how much longer he had to spend in their company and what maneuver his sword-master would introduce to him eventually.
Needless to say, this was not the way his meeting with Lady Katarina Claes, the heiress to the mighty Claes Duchy and the grand daughter to the intimidating Duke Ames, had gone. For one thing, Jeord had never been left alone to stroll in the garden with a girl – only to have her pick up a rock and threaten to bash his head in if he touched her.
“You heard me!” Katarina cried, shaking that rock – which, to be fair, was rather jagged – in her little fist as all 4 feet and 2 inches of her vibrated with some core of inner rage that Jeord had never seen before. “If you try and kill me anytime soon, I’ll strike first! And believe me, I may look little, but I am plenty angry!”
“So,” Jeord said, both bewildered and intrigued at confronting a situation he had never been in before. “Your reaction to thinking that I might kill you is to try and pummel me to death?”
“Yes!” Katarina cried, passion ringing in her voice and fire ablaze in her eyes. “If I can kill you and bury your body where no one else can find it, I shall be safe eventually!”
“Honestly,” Jeord said, nodding thoughtfully, “I can respect that.”
But still, though Jeord was a fan of preemptive strikes, he was still confused about one interesting sticking point.
“I suppose,” he conceded, “it only makes sense to try and kill me if you think I’m about to kill you, Lady Katarina. But… er… would you mind telling me why you think that I’m about to kill you?”
Because as far as Jeord knew, he had not yet penciled homicide into this afternoon’s schedule. Somehow, it was hard to know how that would work in between his usual round of lessons and dealing with Geoffrey’s nonsense and parent-enforced wooing of young ladies his age.
But whatever insane logic Jeord was thinking would trip off the entertainingly insane Lady Katarina’s lips was somehow topped by her actual explanation.
“It’s because I have thirty-six ghost ladies in my head!” she cried, even as she waved the rock around so hard, it seemed more of a menace to her than him. “And they all say that if you don’t kill me – and you usually do kill me – sometime before I turn twenty, I will die because of that awful incoming step-brother or your twin brother or even that terrible Lord Nicol Ascart!”
While Jeord knew nothing of Katarina’s step-brother – and was not even aware she had one – he did admittedly find it hard to picture Alan or Nicol striking down any young women, even ones that seemed as well defended as one before him.
But that all seemed secondary to the real revelation, which was –
“Ghosts?” Jeord slowly asked, his eyes going wide as something warm felt it was blossoming in his chest. “Did you just say you are haunted by ghosts?”
“Yes,” Katarina said, her rock flinging slowly dialing back as she answered his question, although she kept a beady eye on him. “Thirty-six of them! Only, they are all me and dead. And you killed half of them!”
Jeord blinked, even as he tried very hard to keep his smile from growing. After all, Mother had already given him a series of stern talks about when it was and was not appropriate to smile. And though she had not explicitly said as much, he could only assume that smiling during revelations of past homicides of what were apparently alternate selves was part of the Not Appropriate column.
“Tell me more,” he said, and batted his blond lashes for all they were worth. “Please. Perhaps if I know what happened before, we can work together to avert this tragedy.”
And though Katarina’s grip on the rock did not falter, her cheeks did flush a little before she grudgingly nodded her assent.
“All right,” she muttered at last, even as she hefted another sizeable rock up in case he made a mad dash at her. “I will start with Katarina Number 1 and then we shall talk all the way to Number 36…”
An hour later, Jeord was staring at Katarina, equal parts captivated by how amazingly skilled her ghost-women were at being killed and aggravated by how stupid his future self was.
“Cabbages,” he finally said, in a tone of deep wonder. “Somehow, you managed to get killed by a cabbage merchant that some other Jeord bribed into arranging a most deadly, vegetable-based incident.”
“Yes,” Katarina said, looking deeply aggrieved even as she rubbed her head. “I haven’t even been able to look at one of those green implements of death and disaster ever since! And I will not forgive you for that. I used to love stuffed cabbage, thank you kindly!”
As far as Jeord was concerned, saving Katarina from the horror that was stuffed cabbages was doing her a favor. But he moved on and instead said: “And… squirrels?”
“Big squirrels!” Katarina insisted, already starting to shake with fear! “With – with killer nuts in hand! And we’re pretty sure that awful Nicol Ascart was the one to mesmerize them into going after me!”
Leaving aside the disturbing notion of Nicol corralling the local wildlife into a homicidal frenzy, Jeord just had to keep up the questions. “But also… a tree?”
“Trees are very lethal when they topple over and hit you on the head,” Katarina said, lifting her chin up in a pugnacious glare. “I’d like to see you fight one, actually.”
Jeord had to admit that that was a good point. Still…
“A chocolate fountain?”
“I’m pretty sure one of your minions pushed me into that one!”
“Poisoning is a very nasty deed!”
“They were structurally unsound!”
“They took ‘break a leg’ far too seriously and broke my entire body!”
“You said that already!” Katarina snarled and looked ready to use her rocks on Jeord’s skull.
So to forestall that possibility, Jeord fixed his eyes – as limpid and liquid as he could make them on her – and said: “Lady Katarina… you are the most interesting young lady I have ever met and I am quite sure that I would not like to commit homicide on you – or let others take a turn to do so either – if only we could be together. So why should we not get married?”
Because as far as Jeord could tell, this was by far the most interesting marriage prospect he was likely to come into. Most of the other girls he was introduced to were perfectly nice, sensible, but dull girls whose hobbies ran along the lines of sewing or riding horses or going to the theatre. And though he had barely known Katarina for two hours, Jeord felt very sure that he was unlikely to find a more exciting bride than the ghost-haunted harpy threatening constant murder with her eyes and rocks alike.
Katarina shrunk from him like a vampire assailed with a dozen crosses. “No! No no no! Never never never! I would rather take my chances in a pit of cabbages!”
Given her justifiable fear of them, that was rather offensive.
“Why would you not want to marry me?” Jeord said, pouting. “I am clever and good-looking and a royal prince. If you marry me, you can become first a princess-consort and then a queen. And I would keep you from all sorts of mischief and homicide, thank you kindly. If you wanted me to, I could even ban cabbages from the kingdom altogether. And then you would only need to fear potatoes and carrots and so on, which have far less of aerodynamic velocity!”
For a while, Katarina seemed to soften, swayed by his impeccable logic. But then, she frowned and said: “But my ghost ladies tell me that every time I get engaged to you, I die eventually! In fact, as soon as we get to the Magic Academy, you fall in love with some blond commoner girl and throw me over for her. And even when you don’t kill me yourself or get a minion to throw cabbages at me, you exile me and then I go off to sea and get ship-wrecked or trip over a barnacle and drown!”
Jeord had to admit, those other, older Jeords were not currently covering the prospect of marrying him in glory. Still, just because those other Jeords had done as they had done, it did not mean he had to follow in their path. After all, if there was one thing that Jeord truly despised, it was doing as others expected him to.
“But I would not try to exile or kill you,” Jeord argued back, now pouting for real. “Why would I do such a thing? Even if I did not like you – and I do, I really do! – I am just a prince. And even as a crown prince, I cannot just exile noblewomen willy nilly – especially if I am engaged to them and they are the daughter of a duke. That is not something I can do at the snap of my fingers!”
After all, Jeord might be only eight years old thus far but even he knew that trying to exile or murder a duke’s daughter who was a fiancée as well was a terrible idea. It was not as though royalty got married on a whim, after all. There were all kinds of contracts and land transfers and dowries involved, with astronomical sums of money and power being exchanged in such deals.
“Well, plenty of Jeords have managed to kill plenty of Katarinas before,” Katarina said with a sullen glare that made it clear that she still considered homicide a reasonable defense on her part. “And I am not about to get engaged to you and hope you don’t decide to go off with some blonde commoner girl because she’s prettier than I happen to be!”
Jeord could only blink in sheer confusion. “Why would I care if some commoner girl were prettier than you? I don’t care how pretty anyone happens to be.”
Honestly, Jeord did not care very much for looks, whether they be good or bad. He knew he was a good-looking boy who would probably grow up to being as handsome as his golden-haired father and he was already learning how leverage those looks to get his way. But so long as someone was reasonably interesting, he did not particularly care how comely their face or attractive their figure was. And even if Katarina’s face was undistinguished and her figure currently non-existent, her mind was wild and her eyes were bright with potential homicide and that trumped any amount of prettiness for him.
“You will,” Katarina cried, clutching her stones to her even as a dull blush hung over her face, “when you’re 15 years old! That’s when all boys start liking pretty girls!”
And it was with great terror that Jeord realized that his haunted bride-to-be was completely correct after all.
After all, Jeord was a veritable genius – which was why it had taken him only a few minutes to realize that it should be impossible for any version of him to suddenly kill and/or exile his fiancée – especially if she was a duchal daughter was secured to him through a marriage contract and a dowry that should be about as escapable as an Iron Maiden. And to do so for the sake of a commoner girl – even if she were a light mage prodigy – was utterly absurd on the face of it.
But… if he was 15 years old… and had already gone through the terrible transition that was… puberty…
Jeord suddenly had a vision of the terrible talks that Mother had had with him and Alan about the changes that were supposed to come over them in the next few years, followed up by Geoffrey gleefully detailing how an eventual flood of hormones were going to make them strapping young men that were besotted with beautiful women.
(Honestly, there was almost no situation that Geoffrey could not meddle in and make even more traumatizing).
“So I am a genius now,” Jeord whispered, with great fear. “But I will eventually turn into an idiot over some pretty commoner girl in the next seven or so years. And the only way to try and avert that awful fate is…”
And it was then that Jeord dropped to his knee and offered his hand to Katarina, looking at her with all the hope in his heart.
“Please,” he said, with the utmost sincerity that his eight-year-old, pre-puberty-and-thus-not-yet-an-idiot self could muster. “Please marry me immediately so I do not become an idiot because of hormones and kill you. And I promise that I’ll help you and the ghosts in your head avert homicide eventually!”
It had taken some cajoling but after a while, Jeord had talked Katarina around to seeing things her way. As he said – over the vociferous objections of the ghost women inside Katarina’s head – no other dead Katarinas had ever been married before. And while getting a husband certainly was no guarantee that Katarina would survive, it was a variable that had never been factored before into the dead Katarina equation.
“I can help to protect you,” Jeord pointed out, even as he made sure to pour cup after cup of tea and serve slice after slice of cake to Katarina, who was apparently more mollified by sweets than attempts to save her life. “After all, if I am powerful enough to exile or murder you in the future, surely I can also avert other people’s attempts to do the same to you. You sometimes need a thief to catch a thief – or in this case, one would-be murderer to avert another.”
Chewing on a piece of chocolate cake, Katarina looked thoughtful. But then, shaking her head, she said: “All right, that might be fair – you might be able to keep your brother and your friend Nicol Ascart and maybe even my stepbrother-to-be from murdering me. But what if you decide to murder me? If I am your wife, I shall be around you all the time – ripe and ready for the murdering!”
Katarina shoved half-a-cake in her mouth at that thought, apparently deciding only concentrated doses of chocolate could mollify such fears.
“But,” Jeord counter-argued even as he poured more tea for Katarina so she wouldn’t die from choking on cake and thus, doom him to a horrible life of puberty-induced stupidity. “I only kill you because I go through puberty and get all sorts of awful hormones and then do stupid things to get the attention of pretty commoner girls. If I am married to you, I will not have this problem because everyone knows that married men do not have hormones. They do not like kissing or holding hands or all the things 15-year-old boys want to do with pretty girls. They just bicker with their wives and go hunting and drink a great deal of whisky.”
This was the pattern Jeord had seen in his father and all the other married noblemen he knew, which made Katarina nod reluctantly.
“That is true,” Katarina brooded. “Husbands don’t care about pretty women if they have wives. So if we get married, we shall never want to hug and kiss so, we shall never have any hormones. Although… are we going to be small forever if we get married and don’t go through puberty?”
Jeord had to sigh. “Yes, I am afraid so. But at least I will not turn stupid over girls and you will not get murdered.”
“That is an acceptable trade,” Katarina responded, after chewing on some more cake. “Even if I must be small all my life, I do not want to die. And at least I will always be good at hide-and-go-seek!”
Jeord could only nod at her wisdom. “You are truly the cleverest and most haunted wife-to-be I could ever find. Come to the palace at this same time next week and wear a nice dress. I will tell mother you are coming over to take another stroll and I shall arrange everything for our wedding.”
“All right,” Katarina said, straightening up and looking about as fierce as a haunted eight-year girl could be with chocolate smeared all over her face. “I shall leave it to you, husband-to-be!”
“Thank you,” Jeord said, feeling pleased with both the situation and his immense intelligence. “I will make sure you do not get murdered, my future wife. Even if we are forever small, we shall be clever and alive for a very long time and I am sure that will make us both happy.”
And then, deciding there was no time like the present to be a good husband, he picked up a small handkerchief and carefully wiped Katarina’s smeared face, even as she turned pink and averted her eyes.
“Royalty needs to be dignified at all times,” he reminded her. “But don’t worry. I shall make sure of that now that you have me.”
One week later, in a deserted corner of the palace gardens that Mother never bothered to clean up, Jeord and Katarina stood in front of Alan, Nicol, and Sophia to exchange their vows of holy (or perhaps that should be unholy, given the amount of ghosts in Katarina’s head) matrimony. The bride wore a pale cream dress and a scowl that kept threatening to tug into a shy smile, while the groom wore his customary white and sported a new haircut, which he explained away as his coming of age.
“I cannot be wearing long hair as a married man,” Jeord said of his short new haircut. “I am now a man– a married man – even if I never go through puberty. So I shall take care of you and the ghosts in your head from now on, Katarina. Trust me when I say I shall be an excellent husband indeed.”
Katarina had just smiled shyly, before she straightened up and put that frown back on her face. “Well – well, you better. Because if I die, I am going to turn into another ghost and this time, instead of haunting some Katarina, I shall haunt you! And every time you do something stupid because of a pretty girl, I shall throw some – some ghost slime at you!”
Jeord had to shudder, though more because of the idea of becoming a fool rather than being slimed by Katarina’s ghost. Honestly, the latter activity sounded very interesting.
But any further discussion of the ectoplasmic possibilities of Katarina’s future murdered self were curtailed by Alan – wearing a giant ceremonial robe that Jeord had managed to dig up through an old closet – harrumphing at them both. Alan was the officiant of their wedding because as a member of the royal family, he was technically allowed to perform any legal ceremony within the Sorcier Kingdom, be it blessing babies or marrying couples or overseeing funerals. And Alan, bless his cantankerous soul, was willing to help his twin brother get married – even though Jeord assumed it was only because it gave him an excuse to put on a fake mustache and beard created from Jeord’s shorn ponytail in order to look properly aged.
“Excuse me,” Alan said, his voice deepened several octaves. “But as the highest ranking official in this room, I will ask the bride and groom to desist from speaking. Only I can speak right now. Me! The highest ranking official in the room! And I now ask the best man and maid-of-honor to perform their ceremonial duties!”
Nicol nodded solemnly and handed Jeord his make-shift gold wedding ring, which was probably too big for Katarina’s tiny little fingers but would be sized properly in the coming weeks. And though Katarina had been very wary at seeing him at first, Jeord had assured her that Nicol was his best friend and they had many a talk already – as had Jeord and Alan – about why neither of them should try and kill Jeord’s future wife. They had both agreed, especially when Jeord had smiled and told them that he would burn them both into ashes and find a catapult large enough to launch them into the sun if they harmed even a single hair on Katarina’s wonderfully odd head.
It was amazing how often being a magical prodigy could solve problems for you… though Jeord admitted even he was not sure how to avert the upcoming tragedy of unruly bedsheets.
Meanwhile, a blushing Sophia – who looked thrilled by her role as maid-of-honor as well as the prospect of a female friend – handed Katarina a wedding ring for Jeord, as well as a bouquet of daisies that she had picked just this morning. Smiling at the girl, Katarina accepted the wedding tokens, though she blushed and put on a scowl as soon as she saw Jeord smiling at the sweet picture she made.
And once the pieces were all in place, Alan adjusted his enormous bishop’s mitre – which was threatening to topple off his head every time he bobbed it – and began the solemn ceremony.
“Do you, Prince Jeord Stuart,” he cried in a booming voice, “take Lady Katarina Claes as your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to scold, to be brave and be bold, and also to use ghosts to stop murder?”
“I do,” Jeord said, before adding: “Also, I am definitely not going to kill you, Katarina. I want you to stay alive and I will turn people into ashes if they throw even a single cabbage leaf at you.”
“Then I do too,” Katarina said, looking like she was on the verge of smiling though she was fighting it. “And if anyone tries to hurt you because of me, I will throw a battle axe at them. I have been practicing and gotten very good at it. And I will not let puberty turn you stupid, I promise you!”
Then Alan boomed: “You may now kiss the bride!” And since the thought of kissing was weird and disturbing, Jeord pulled Katarina into a gentle hug that she returned so fiercely, he thought his ribs might be creaking.
Alan laughed out loud, Nicol clapped politely, and Sophia giggled with delight. And through it all, Jeord put his chin on his new wife’s shoulder and decided that the years ahead of them were looking brighter and more interesting than ever before. And even if his life with Katarina would involve far more hauntings and ectoplasm and homicide than he had ever considered possible before her, he knew it would be a future worth fighting for.