Once upon a time, there were twelve sisters. Their father was a king and their mother a queen, which meant they were princesses. So, twelve princesses then. They lived in a castle by the sea, with lacquer cabinets and fine dresses. They drank strawberry cordials for breakfast, nibbled on pecan streusel for lunch, and ate lemon pound cake with almond dacquoise for supper. They had everything they could wish for, and yet none of these princesses were happy.
Every night, after the candles had been snuffed and the rest of the palace went to bed, the twelve sisters would creep from their beds. They would meet each other in the antechamber that connected their rooms, and they would walk together down the hall, past the guards who had been paid to ignore them, and through the third door of the twelfth row, the door that only they could see.
There was a river beyond the door, and twelve boats that would carry the sisters across the river and to a ball, where they would dance all night.
The first time they went through the door, the river was made of fire, and their dances were heated and passionate, sweat sticking their hair to their cheeks as they whirled and whirled in red hot shoes, twirling from the arms of one partner to another. The eldest of the sisters, who was engaged to be married to a neighbouring king, danced until her feet were sore, and when the morning came, she would not leave.
"Please, sister, please, come home with us," the other princesses begged, tugging at her hands. But the eldest princess shook her head defiantly.
"I won't go," she said. "I won't live that life. The man our parents want us to marry is a beast! He hits his servants and he is cruel to me. I want to stay here, in this hall of fire. I want to dance with someone of my own choosing."
But the master of ceremonies came forth and said, "You are a creature of the world above. This is not your home. If you want to stay, you must pay a price."
"What is the price?" asked the eldest sister.
"A lock of hair," said the master of ceremonies.
The princess touched her golden hair, which was the pride of the kingdom. She nodded and began to search for a pair of scissors, but her youngest sister, whose name was Princess Tutu, cried out. "Your hair is so beautiful!" she said. "Let me give him a lock of my hair instead." So Princess Tutu snipped off a lock of her own hair, and gave it to the master of ceremonies, who snapped his fingers twice and welcomed the eldest princess to the hall of fire forever.
When the king and queen saw that one of their daughters was missing in the morning, they grew angry and demanded to know where she had run off to. But the remaining sisters did not say, and the next night they went through the door again to a hall of water, where they danced among melodies of seashells, and fish circled their ankles as they leaped. They danced until their hearts were light again, all except for the second sister, who hesitated when morning came...
Ahiru was a girl again.
It had taken Fakir four years to write the proper story, but he had succeeded. When he lifted the pen from the paper, he had gone down to the lake and there she was, naked and shivering, eyes wide with wonder. Two arms, two legs, Ahiru. He had given her his coat and walked her to his house, where he poured her hot cocoa and waited for her to speak.
When she spoke, she croaked his name in a rusty voice. "Fakir," she had said, and her fingers made circling motions on the ceramic mug.
"Is this what you want?" Fakir had asked, struck with the sudden insecurity that maybe Ahiru had preferred to stay a duck, after all. Maybe he had done this all wrong.
But Ahiru had nodded and then smiled brilliantly. "Do you think I'll stay like this?"
"I'll make sure you do," Fakir replied, and he had kept his word so far. Turning Ahiru back into a girl had been the product of creative inspiration, a language of frenzy that had occupied him for those four years, pushing him towards long nights and melodramatic bouts of anxiety. He'd end up at Autor's doorstep more often than not, and Autor would scoff at him and tell him he was Drosselmeyer's descendant, was he really so weak that he couldn't write a story where a duck turned into a girl? That sort of thing happens in so many fairy tales, Autor had said. It's practically Writing 101.
So Fakir had never claimed to be good at this, but he'd gotten there in the end, hadn't he? He'd written the right story and he'd worked the right magic.
Except the problem was that it wasn't permanent magic. He wasn't Drosselmeyer, after all. His blood was diluted and his skills second rate. Even after the first day, he noticed that the magic was starting to fade. Ahiru's fingers started looking webbed again, and she would make occasional quacking noises when she tried to speak. She had looked up at him, afraid, and said, "I think I'm turning into a duck." So Fakir had gone to write another story. A story where Ahiru had legs, and was a girl. Had always been a girl. If he wrote these stories every day, and they all had this commonality, their combined power should be enough to stop Ahiru from transforming.
It was like medicine. The first story had been the surgery, and now a daily dose was necessary for continued maintenance.
Becoming a girl was easy, Fakir thought. Staying a girl, ah! Now that was the hard part.
"The music is so wonderful here," said the second princess with a wistful expression on her face. "I have never heard music like this before in the palace. It makes me want to sing."
"You can sing at home," her sisters pleaded with her. "Come back with us, and you can sing whenever you want."
But the second princess slipped her hands from theirs and took a step back. "Not like this," she said, and she began to sing with the underwater choirs, her voice a ship through the sea. When the others heard it, they began to weep, for they had never witnessed such a sound before. Two mermaids came and took the second princess by the hand. They touched her mouth and they stroked her throat. Still she sang.
"If you want to stay, you must pay a price," said the master of ceremonies. "You must give me one of your fingernails."
The second princess looked down at her hands, and at her delicately painted nails. It would hurt to rip one off, she thought, but then her youngest sister, whose name was Princess Tutu, barreled in front of her.
"Yours are so beautiful!" Princess Tutu cried. "Look, mine are ugly and falling off anyway. Take one of mine instead."
So the second princess stayed in the underwater hall, where she could sing to her heart's delight. The king and queen, when they discovered that another daughter was missing, turned the palace upside down looking for her. But they could not find her.
The next night, the sisters went through the door to a hall of snow, where they danced under the winter moonlight, and their breaths were crystals in the chilled air. Foxes and bears watched them, and a wolf came from faraway lands, hungry for the taste of human flesh. The wolf stalked the edges of the snowy chamber, waiting for the right moment to strike...
Fakir's house seemed much smaller now that Ahiru was a girl and not a duck, because girls took up more space than ducks. But he didn't mind. He only had the one room, and he told Ahiru to take that room and the bed, but she refused. "I'm not going to take your bed," she said, folding her arms across her chest, her hair like wild holly. "It's your house. I'm just your guest."
"Where are you going to sleep then?" Fakir asked irritably.
"Don't you have a cot? A blanket I can roll on the ground?"
"I'm not letting you sleep on the ground," Fakir said, and Ahiru puffed up in indignation. But they reached a compromise, eventually. There was a room to the left of the kitchen that Fakir had used for writing, but he could easily write in his own room instead. So he bought another bed and gave it to Ahiru, who looked at it doubtfully — she probably wasn't used to beds after so long. But then she fell down on it, bounced a few times on the mattress, and giggled.
"Thank you, Fakir," she said earnestly, and Fakir turned away with a scowl.
Ahiru was his guest, but Ahiru was determined to be helpful. "We're adults now," she said, and then paused as if she needed to think about that some more. "Well, we are!" she insisted. "You're graduated and I should... I should get a job!"
"It's not as if we're poor," Fakir said. "My parents left me money, and in case you haven't noticed, I teach ballet part-time at the Academy." He'd also sold the occasional story, but he didn't want to mention that. He wasn't a real writer, he thought. He just wrote to fix Drosselmeyer's mistakes.
"I should do something," Ahiru said unhappily, so Fakir grabbed the closest thing to him, which was a mop.
"Here," he said, and Ahiru grasped the mop like it was a precious jewel.
"I can cook too!" she said.
She couldn't. Ahiru's cooking was terrible, awful, and it always tasted fishy no matter what ingredients she used. Fakir ate of it whatever he could, and when Ahiru's back was turned, he fed the rest of it to the stray cats that always begged at his window. But it seemed to make her feel better, to have Fakir come home after a day at the Academy, or a day spent in Berlin. He would come home and see Ahiru standing on her toes, stirring a pot on the stove, humming to herself. She would be messy, splatters all over her apron, but she would say, "Supper's in half an hour!" and make Fakir wash his hands. Which was a bit rich considering that Ahiru had spent the last four years eating insects with her beak, but Ahiru treated supper like a production of her favourite play.
It was because she'd never had a real family before, Fakir realized. He didn't know much about duck families, and what Papa Duck or Mama Duck had been like. He didn't want to think about it too deeply. But Ahiru had probably never sat down at a table like this and shared bread she had baked like it was a simple thing.
The bread tasted like mealworms, but Fakir ate it anyway.
The wolf grew bolder and bolder, weaving among the dancing princesses until at least he decided to leap, aiming for the throat of the third princess, whose back was turned to him.
But he chose his target wrongly, for the third princess was the one who had always run the fastest, jumped the highest, shot arrows the furthest, and when she felt the wolf's breath on the nape of her neck, she drew the dagger from her skirts. The wolf came, but she was ready. She brandished her dagger and thrust with it, sinking her knife into his sides.
The wolf yowled, and so she quickly tied him up with her silk scarf, and presented him to the master of ceremonies.
"Do you have a wolf problem?" she asked.
"In the hall of snow? Often," said the master of ceremonies. "We try to keep them away, but they are lured here by the sound of the dancers."
"I have always wanted to be a warrior," said the third princess. "My mother and father won't let me. It is not a very feminine desire, you see. But I can wield a sword and shoot a bow, and I can take care of your wolves for you."
"If you want to stay, you must pay a price," said the master of ceremonies. "Give me the ring on your hand."
The third princess hesitated, for the ring she wore was a prize she had won in a competition, where she disguised herself as a boy and jousted with the knights. It was a symbol of her strength. Her youngest sister, who was called Princess Tutu, saw this and came forward. "That ring is so beautiful!" said Princess Tutu. "Mine is cracked and worn. Take mine instead."
So the third princess stayed in the hall of snow and became a wolf-hunter of great renown. The king and queen were even more furious in the morning. They were losing daughters like pens. But that did not stop the remaining sisters from traveling through the door the next night, where they found themselves in a hall of books, a library larger than even the royal library, with a domed ceiling and violinists playing poems that filled their heads with fantasies. They danced, with the smell of ink on their fingers. They danced with librarians, with writers. They made sonnets with their bodies. When it came time to leave, however, the fourth sister was too busy reading and did not notice...
Every Tuesday and Thursday, Fakir took the train from Gold Crown Town to Berlin, where he attended class at the Universität unter den Linden. The train left at six o'clock in the morning, where Fakir sat in compartments with tired-faced businessmen and ladies with large hats. He would arrive in Berlin within a few hours, and because his classes were not usually until the afternoon, he would find a space in a park to write, or to read, or to catch up on his assignments.
He sat in lectures where his professor rhapsodized about Goethe, about Schiller, about Hoffman, about Kleist, about the Nibelungenlied, about the Thidrekssaga. Fakir wrote a paper on the influence of the Brothers Grimm on the narrative structure of modern German literature, and then he wrote another paper on the juxtaposition of animals and civilization in paratext productions of early Luther Bibles.
He enjoyed writing papers, because they were already true. He didn't have to worry about the wrong verb summoning a monster to life, or how the wrong adjective could send his professor into a sleep of a thousand years.
His classes were in the afternoon and often in the evening as well. Fakir ate lunch and supper at the university. Some of the other students invited him to their clubs, to smoky dens where they could drink and talk philosophy, but Fakir always turned them down. He was a loner, so after a while his classmates stopped trying. He's a dancer, you must realize, they said. He has an artistic temperament.
It was always dark by the time Fakir took the train home. Ahiru would have a warm drink on the table for him, but she would be asleep, her door gently closed. The house would be clean, and the stray cats in the alley would be well fed. If it was cold, there would be a low fire burning in the braziers, and Fakir's bed would always feel comfortably cozy by the time he fell asleep too.
The fourth sister was the quietest sister, so they did not even realize she was missing until they had returned to the palace, and Princess Tutu looked around. Immediately she went back to the door, but she was waylaid there by the fifth sister, who said, "Are you going to look for her?"
"Yes, I am," said Princess Tutu.
"I shall come with you," said the fifth sister, and the two of them walked through the door and into a hall of wind.
"This is not the hall of books," Princess Tutu said. "This is not where we were last night."
"It always changes," said the fifth sister, but she was not afraid. She set forth into the hall of wind, where dancers floated in breezes, or danced as wildly as tornadoes. They found the master of ceremonies and asked him how to return to the hall of books, so that they might find their lost sister.
The master of ceremonies, who was the same man every time, said, "Your sister wants to stay in the hall of books. She wants to read every single book there. She wants to learn."
"We have schools where we come from," the fifth sister said angrily. "We have universities!"
"But the best universities are for men only, and she will never learn as much as she can here, where wisdom and knowledge are free," said the master of ceremonies. "Yet if she wants to stay, she must pay a price. She must give me her necklace."
"Not her necklace!" Princess Tutu said. "That was the necklace our godmother gave her. Our godmother was precious to us, and she died last year. Here, take my necklace instead. It is old and of no value."
The master of ceremonies accepted this payment.
"Still, we can't let her stay without a goodbye," said the fifth sister. "I will find her again and I will give her our blessings."
"Finding your sister will be a difficult task," said the master of ceremonies. "Even I do not always know where to begin. There are many dancing halls in many worlds."
"Then I will travel them all," the fifth sister said. Colour leaped to her cheeks. "I have always wanted to see the world."
"Then you must give me your bracelet," said the master of ceremonies, and the fifth sister did not like that, for the bracelet came from a land far to the east and it sparked her imagination every time she looked at it on her wrist.
"Have my bracelet instead," offered Princess Tutu, and so the the fifth payment was made, and the fifth sister set off on her journeys.
The next night, the remaining sisters traveled through the door again, and they came to a hall that opened to the sky. They danced on clouds, with birds as their audience, and the sun hung so low that they felt they could reach out and touch its waxy surface. The sixth princess seemed even more enchanted by it than the rest, and she flitted about the clouds and the sun, laughing. It came as no surprise then, that when they were to leave, the sixth princess did not want to. It was a surprise when she transformed into a bird...
On Sundays, they went to the marketplace together. With the sound of the church bells ringing all around them, they browsed the stalls and picked out the choicest apples, the hardiest potatoes. Ahiru carried the basket and seemed not to notice its growing weight at all, bouncing among the different vendors, chatting with every one of them freely. "We have to buy this cheese! It's so fresh!" she would say to Fakir, or "It's a lot of flour, but we can make it last a long time."
The vendors would smile at Ahiru, and then turn to Fakir and tell him what a lucky young man he was, which made Fakir turn dark red and yell, "It's not like that!"
"What's not like that?" Ahiru asked curiously, overhearing.
"Nothing!" Fakir said. "And that's too much flour!"
"A-are you mad at me?" Ahiru asked.
"No!" Fakir said, and then he grabbed the basket from Ahiru. "Go pick out some cabbage. I'll finish up here."
Ahiru wrinkled her nose, but even picking out cabbage couldn't keep her out of trouble because a few minutes later Fakir heard the sound of wild barking, followed by a child crying. When he looked up, he saw Ahiru waving her arms at a huge dog, shouting at it. A little girl clung to her ankles. "Leave her alone!" Ahiru said. "Go back to your owner! Shoo!"
The dog snapped its teeth at Ahiru.
"You're scaring her!" Ahiru said.
Fakir walked over. "That dog has no owner," he said. "He used to belong to Mr. Heine, but Heine died last month. It was pleurisy."
"Oh," said Ahiru, and her eyes went wide. "I didn't know. I didn't mean to—"
"That dog's been terrorizing the whole town since," Fakir said.
"But that's so sad!" Ahiru said. She picked the child up and squeezed her on her hip. "Shhh, you don't need to cry. We'll protect you. Fakir and I won't let anything happen to you, you'll see!" Then she handed the little girl to Fakir, who looked around wildly and desperately, afraid that he would drop her. Where were her parents anyway? Ahiru, arms free, leaned down and looked the dog in the eye.
"I'm sorry I was mean to you," she said. "But you have to behave, do you understand? We can be friends if you promise you won't bite me."
"He doesn't understand you," Fakir complained. "This is stupid."
"Animals can understand us just fine," Ahiru said softly. She reached out to stroke the dog on the nose. Fakir's first instinct was to stop her, because that dog had bitten five people in town just last month. But the moment Ahiru touched him, the dog stopped barking.
"Let's take him home," Ahiru said cheerfully.
"You call me your sister, but I am not," said the sixth princess when she began to explain. "Our parents did not birth me. They found me, one night, when I was a child. They found me lying in the field, and they took me in and raised me as your sister, for which I am glad. I am glad to have known all of you, and you have all treated me so kindly. But before I was your sister, I was a bird. A witch changed me, but the magic here, in this hall of sky, it can change me back."
Her sisters all wept, for they loved her, and they wanted her to be happy, even if she was to be a bird.
"I can fly again," said the sixth sister.
"If you want to stay, you must pay a price," said the master of ceremonies. "You must give me the gloves for the hands you will no longer use."
It seemed like such a small price, but when the sixth princess looked at the remains of her lovely dress and her silken gloves, she felt sad, for she wanted at least one thing to remember her human life by. So Princess Tutu, her youngest sister, stripped off her own gloves and gave them to the master of ceremonies. "My sister has already sacrificed so much. We can't ask her to give any more," said Princess Tutu, and though her arms were now cold from the lack of gloves, she did not hesitate.
The king and queen were angry beyond words the next morning, for they had always marveled at the novelty of having a bird-daughter, and now she was no more. They threatened to lock the sisters up in their rooms at night, but the sisters were clever and knew how to escape those locks. They went through the door and into a hall of trees, where dappled sunlight played over their dancing feet, and woodland nymphs strung flowers into their hair as they twirled and twirled on the mossy ground.
There had recently been a war, however, between the clans of the oaks and the clans of the pines. Orphan children watched the dancing from the trees, and when the seventh princess saw them, her heart was heavy. She knew what she must do...
They did not remember her, those in the town. The end of the spell had wiped the memories of a girl named Ahiru from their minds. Mytho and Rue remembered, but Mytho and Rue lived in their own castle now, and though they tried to visit every time they could, their lives had become part of a different story.
When she saw Lillie and Pique on the street, Ahiru waved. But when they stared at her blankly, wondering who she was, Ahiru's hand wilted like a flag on a windless day.
"I forgot," she said in a small voice.
"It doesn't matter," Fakir told her. "They're silly and annoying."
"They're my friends!" Ahiru said. "They are not silly and annoying!" She set her face forward, determined, but Fakir could see the slight shake of her shoulders, which meant that Ahiru wanted to be devastated but knew she had to be strong. Ahiru had given up Mytho once before; she could give up her friends too. But it was unfair, Fakir thought angrily. It was so unfair that she had to.
So the next time they ran into Lillie and Pique, Fakir purposefully dragged Ahiru towards them. Ahiru tripped and stumbled, flailed like the clumsy fluffy duck that she was, but Fakir shoved her in front of Lillie and Pique and said, "This is Ahiru. She would like to be your friend."
"Are you a friend of Fakir's?" Lillie asked.
"I — yes!" Ahiru said, practically saluting.
"How romantic!" Pique said, clasping her hands together. "We hear all the gossip! The two of you live together, don't you? And before you're even married!"
"M-m-m-married?" Ahiru squeaked. Fakir's face froze in rictus. "It's not like that!" Ahiru said. "Not like that at all! Fakir and I are f-friends!"
"You don't have to keep the secrets of your heart from us!" Pique said, and she took Ahiru by her arms and started frog-marching her towards her house. "You have to tell us everything. What is Fakir like at home? What foods does he eat? What does he prefer in, you know, bed?" Lillie squealed, and Pique grinned. "We're not schoolgirls anymore! We can talk about these things!"
Fakir stared after them in horror.
The seventh sister left the dancing and approached the orphans. She held out her hand to them and they took it, tentatively, drawn to the warmth of her smile. When her sisters noticed, she said, "I may not be one of our older sisters, but I have never needed them to take care of me. I wanted to take care of them. I have so much love to give, and no one who needs it."
Her sisters were shocked. "You want to be a mother? But you are not married!"
"So what?" asked the seventh sister. She looked at the orphans, who stared back. "I don't want to get married. I am tired of dresses and ballrooms and handsome suitors. I want to have a house of my own, and someone who will wait for me."
The master of ceremonies said, "If you want to stay, you must pay a price. That price is the stockings on your legs."
The seventh sister looked down at her stockings, which were warm and sensible. She thought they might be useful in the hall of forests. So her youngest sister, Princess Tutu, said, "I do not mind if my legs are cold. Dancing will warm them up. Take my stockings instead."
"Thank you," said the seventh sister, and she went to the orphans, who welcomed her hungrily, for she had a kind face, and unlike her other sisters, she knew how to make soup.
The next night, the sentries in their rooms multiplied, but the princesses slid elixirs into the drinks of the guards, and they went through the door into a hall of metal. It was like being in the belly of a machine, with cogs whirring and pieces of gold and silver and chrome glistening. The mechanical thrum was their melody as they danced, until the eighth sister went to one of the machines and pressed her ear to its heart. "It's broken," she announced...
"No webbing today?" Fakir asked, looking at Ahiru critically. "No feathers? No desire to dive into the pond and eat worms?"
"Nope, nope, nope," Ahiru said. "I'm still a girl. Thank you."
"For what?" Fakir scoffed.
"For writing the stories," Ahiru said. She had just fed Dog, and so she came over to stand by Fakir's shoulder, looking down at the page he was working on. "I know you're very busy! You have school and teaching and I shouldn't take up so much of your time! But I'm glad you keep on writing the stories." She lowered her chin and seemed embarrassed.
Fakir, equally embarrassed, said, "They're not very good stories. They're mostly just about you as Princess Tutu, dancing on your legs with your twelve sisters."
"Twelve sisters?" Ahiru asked.
"Twelve is a good number," Fakir said defensively. "I need to make the story last as long as I can."
"Then why not thirty sisters? Sixty sisters?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Fakir said. "Who ever heard of a princess with sixty sisters? The king and queen wouldn't have time to rule the country. They'd be so busy making babies all the time."
"Fakir," Ahiru said. She looked at the page again and read the last line out loud: '"It's broken,' she announced.'" She furrowed her eyebrows. "What's broken?"
"The machine in the hall of metal," Fakir said. "At first I was going to make it so that her desire was to be rich, but that didn't make sense. She's a princess. She's already rich."
"Maybe the royal family of this country is poor," Ahiru pointed out.
"I should have foreshadowed that then," Fakir said. "It's too convenient otherwise to mention it now. 'Oh, by the way, even though we have all this jewelery and fancy dresses, we happen to be poor so that this plot device will work.'" He tapped his pen on the desk. "No, eighth sister is going to be a mechanist. All stories need a touch of modernity."
"If you say so," Ahiru said doubtfully. She plopped down on the chair beside Fakir, the one he had positioned there not for this very purpose — why would he ever do something as sentimental as that? Ahiru would find watching him write terribly boring. Any sane person would. "So how come not all of it is coming true?" Ahiru wondered, tucking her chin against her knees. "How come dancing princesses aren't appearing in town?"
"But they already are," Fakir said, looking directly at Ahiru.
"Me?" Ahiru said, flustered. "But there's only one of me!"
"It's the broad sweeps of the story that come true," Fakir said, shrugging. "I'm not powerful enough otherwise, and that's a good thing. As long as the constants are the same every night: you're a human girl, you're a princess, you dance — it's all the formula needs."
"Princess Tutu helps the other princesses," Ahiru said dreamily. She smiled, and Fakir's heart went thudding against his chest. "You're right. It's the kind of story I like best."
There was a wrench nearby lying on the floor, and the eighth princess picked it up and began to work on the dying machine. Her dress started to get dirty with the oil, and her hair became filthy with grime, but she had never put much stock into her appearance, and soon the rough rumbling of the machine became a smooth purr that astonished the dancers, who had not known another type of music could exist in the hall of metal.
One of the guests was a master mechanist from Vienna, and he approached the eighth princess, saying, "Your skill is extraordinary. Come back with me to my city. We will open up a shop, you and I, and we will make all sorts of miracles."
The eighth princess readily agreed, for there were few machines where she came from, and she longed to explore her gift.
But the master mechanist had ill news as well. "I am trapped here," he said. "I made a foolhardy wish to stay in this hall of metal forever, and now I must pay a price to return. But you see, I have nothing on me that the master of ceremonies might want."
"If you want to leave," said the master of ceremonies, "I must have a pair of shoes."
The master mechanist looked at his bare feet. The eighth princess looked at her feet, which were covered with the most exquisite pair of shoes the hall of metal had ever seen. She began to take them off, but her youngest sister, Princess Tutu, stopped her. "Those shoes will be worth a fortune if you sell them!" Princess Tutu said. "You will need money to open a shop. Let me give the master of ceremonies my shoes instead. I will walk barefoot, and I will not mind if it hurts."
So the master mechanist was free, and the eighth princess went with him to a door on the opposite side of the hall. They stepped through it, to Vienna, and disappeared.
The next night, the ninth princess, who was the most beautiful, sighed and sighed as they danced in a hall of stars, where celestial bodies lit the dark sheen of her hair. "Why do you sound so sad?" Princess Tutu asked, and the ninth princess replied.
"I am in love."
"Who are you in love with?" asked Princess Tutu, happy for her sister, who she knew had a romantic soul.
"Look at the master of ceremonies! Is he not a handsome young man, pleasing to the eye? He watches us so coolly, so impartially, but I long to be the one to turn his head," the ninth princess said.
But the master of ceremonies was cold of heart, and he did not love the ninth princess, as beautiful as she was.
"My heart is broken!" cried the ninth princess, but Princess Tutu held her in her arms and wiped her tears with a handkerchief.
"There are other young men," Princess Tutu assured her. "And all of them would gladly say yes to you. Look at that fellow over there. He has been staring at you all night. He may look shabby, but he also looks kind."
The ninth princess lifted her tear-streaked face, and she saw the young man in the corner, who watched her in hopeful longing. "Why don't you give him a try?" Princess Tutu suggested, and the ninth princess, in her wounded pride, wanted to show the master of ceremonies everything that he had lost. So she went to the shabby young man, haughty at first, but as he spoke to her, she softened. And the night seemed to last years rather than hours. Soon, she found herself talking to the shabby young man quite in earnest, discovering that they had a shared interest in horses, and also the works of Mozart.
"I would like to stay with him, and get to know him better," the ninth princess decided at the end of the night. "My sister was right. He does have a kind heart."
"If you want to stay, you must pay a price," said the master of ceremonies. "You must give up the dress that you are wearing."
"What will I wear instead?" the ninth princess said scornfully, but Princess Tutu was prepared. She removed her fine blue dress and folded it carefully, handing it over to the master of ceremonies. Without the dress, all she had was her shift, and it was thin and not very warm. Goosebumps dotted the expanses of both her arms, but she smiled as she kissed her sister goodbye.
The next night, they went to a hall of stone, where granite faces stared down at them from high rock cliffs. They danced somberly, all except for one of the guests, who was an oracle. The oracle danced on layered rock like madness was upon her, and when she saw the remaining sisters, she threw herself at the tenth sister, shrieking, "You have the gift! You have the gift! I have been waiting for you!"
The tenth sister did not resist...
For the longest time, he didn't see Ahiru dance. He asked himself why he would want to. Ahiru, when she was just Ahiru and not Princess Tutu, was an atrocious dancer, falling over her own feet and jabbing her partners in the ribs. Nobody with any love of the art would ever want to see her butcher the choreography of Coppelia or mangle Swan Lake, even if she was dreadfully earnest about it. He didn't understand why it bothered him that she didn't dance, now that she had legs again. He didn't know how to bring it up either.
The first time he caught her dancing, it was when he returned home early from Berlin on a Tuesday night. He walked up to their house and prepared to slide the key into the lock, but he stopped as he heard tinny music playing from his old, worn down phonograph. So he put down his books and he walked around to the side of the house, where the largest windows were, and there she was: Ahiru, feet in first position, with her arms raised above her head.
Fakir watched in fascination as Ahiru started to dance, as she started to bumble her way through the music, a sloppy arabesque followed by a turn so wide that she knocked a book off the shelf. It didn't seem to daunt her, however, and she kept on dancing, poorly executed step followed by poorly executed step. Fakir couldn't stop staring at the wildfire in her hair, at the shadows burnished over her cheekbones.
She was older than the last time he saw her as a human. Those years had made a difference. She was taller, and her body was no longer that of a child's. She moved differently too. She was more self-assured, this older Ahiru, more at peace with herself. She made mistakes, but she didn't stop.
So the next Tuesday, Fakir purposefully skipped his evening class, and he returned home early to watch Ahiru dance.
After a while, though, it made him feel dirty. Why should he skulk in the bushes? If Ahiru wanted him to see her dance, then she would have let him see her dance. That she was doing it only when he was gone meant he clearly wasn't welcome, and Fakir simmered in his own frustration until finally, one day, he said to Ahiru over breakfast, "I can get you a better phonograph, if you want to dance."
"What?" she asked, squeezing her spoon.
"It's not a secret," Fakir said, even though it was. "You dance when I'm out of the house. It's fine. I don't care. Do whatever you want."
"You saw me dancing?" Ahiru asked in confusion, and Fakir looked away so he wouldn't have to see the betrayal on her face.
"I couldn't help it," he said coldly. "The curtains were open."
"I don't mind."
Fakir glanced up.
Ahiru looked nervous, but her gaze was clear. She didn't look away. "I only — I only dance when you're not home because, well, it's a small house. I'm not saying that you're poor!" she added quickly. "I'm not trying to say anything bad about you! But it's a small house, and I — I wouldn't want to bump into you or take up too much space!"
"And that's why you've been hiding it?" Fakir demanded.
"That's why," Ahiru said.
"You are so... you are so stupid," Fakir said.
"I'm a duck," Ahiru protested. "My head is full of duck thoughts!" She poked at her porridge with her spoon, and then she said, shyly, "I do miss dancing with a partner."
"And Mytho isn't around, unfortunately," Fakir said. "But I suppose, if you're that desperate, I can dance with you. If I finish all of my other work first. And if you don't step on my toes." He tried to look bored, to deliver his words casually, but Ahiru lit up. His voice faltered. "We could do it tonight, if you want," he continued.
"Yes!" Ahiru interrupted. "Yes, please, can we?"
"I have always been able to see things other people can't," said the tenth princess. "My mother and father told me to hide it, because they did not want a daughter who was a witch. But the older I become, the harder it is to hide."
"You should not have to hide anything," said the oracle. "You cannot hide. Sooner or later, it will come to you, my girl. Better that you go to it instead."
"You're right," said the tenth princess. She turned and gasped the hands of her two remaining sisters, who stared at her sadly, but they were used to this by now, at the ways in which these worlds took them down different paths. "Listen to me," said the tenth princess gently. "I have seen futures for both of you, and they were happy. Let me go. Let me stay here, where no one will call me witch."
"You have never been a witch to us," said Princess Tutu, kissing her sister's cheek.
The master of ceremonies said, "If you want to stay, you must pay a price. For seers, it is a high price indeed. You must pay in blood."
The tenth princess blanched.
"I am afraid," she confessed. And so was Princess Tutu, but she stepped in front of her sister and held out her arm.
"My sister is often sickly," she told the master of ceremonies. "If she gives up blood, she may become even more ill. I am healthy and strong, so please, take some of my blood instead."
The master of ceremonies produced a needle, and he pierced Princess Tutu's skin. The other princesses cried out, and the oracle said nothing, but Princess Tutu's face was calm. They watched the blood drain from her arm to the silver needle, and then the master of ceremonies stepped back and said, "The price is paid."
So the tenth princess stayed in the hall of stone, with the other oracles, with the other dreamers.
By now there were only two princesses left, and the king and queen locked them into a high tower, surrounded by thorns. But the two princesses were enterprising and intelligent, and they wove ropes out of their hair and blankets, and they found swords to cut through the thorns. They went through the door, and this time they were in the hall of the dead, where ghosts danced minuets, and the walls were filled with vines bearing their last fruit.
The eleventh princess cried out. "Look over there!" she said, and they both looked to see one of the ghosts. They recognized her. It was their beloved godmother, who had died the year before.
The eleventh princess, who had been the closest with their godmother, ran into her arms. But the moment she was close enough, the godmother vanished.
"What happened?" the eleventh princess asked.
"They are the dead," said the master of ceremonies. "They must forever be just beyond your reach."
The eleventh princess' face was wet with tears. "But I miss her so much. All I want is to see her again. Don't you understand? We argued, the night before she died. The last things I said to her, they were terrible!"
"That is none of my concern," said the master of ceremonies. "However, if you do wish to speak to a ghost, there is another way, a dangerous way..."
The girl who sold flowers in the marketplace always stared a bit too long at Fakir when he bought poesies from her to decorate the kitchen table. The flower girl had walnut brown hair and eyes as green as glens. She was very lovely, he supposed, not that he really cared to look. Ahiru was the one who looked. He caught Ahiru studying her intently one Sunday afternoon.
"What's the matter?" Fakir asked. "I bought the flowers, don't worry."
"It's not that," Ahiru said. "It's just—"
"Spit it out," Fakir said.
"Don't you think Gretchen is beautiful?" Ahiru said. "And she's so kind too! Every time I talk to her, she always makes me feel so peaceful inside! Don't you think?" She looked sideways at Fakir, and for such an expressive person, her eyes were suddenly opaque.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Fakir said. "Let's go home."
But Ahiru, once she dug her teeth into a subject, was not likely to let it go. "She likes you, I think! I mean, I'm not good at noticing these types of things. Lillie is always laughing at me about it, and she's probably right! But Gretchen looks at you for a long time, and then she smiles. I don't think she smiles like that for anybody else."
"What's your point?" Fakir asked, annoyed. He let them into the house and he dumped the groceries on the counter.
"I'm sure her emotions are strong, and she has so many things she wants to say—"
"And it'd be useful," Fakir said, "if she actually said them."
"I think she's in love with you," Ahiru blurted.
There was a long pause.
"So?" Fakir finally asked.
"So — so — Gretchen is perfect for you! I think you should give her a chance," Ahiru said, whirlwinding her arms. "When we go to the marketplace, you always pick her stall first."
"It's because it's the closest to the entrance," Fakir said. "It doesn't mean anything. I am not going to court Gretchen. Stop being such a romantic little fool."
Ahiru stared up at him stubbornly, but when she spoke, her voice was quieter. It sounded steady, not like Fakir's nerves. "Lillie and Pique are right. We aren't children anymore. You've spent all these years taking care of me, writing stories for me. It makes me feel bad, because you're so busy trying to help my dreams come true that you forget to live for yourself." Her voice grew louder. "Don't — don't try to argue with me, Fakir! I know it's true. I'm human again, and I can take care of myself. So — don't worry about me so much, all right?"
"I don't worry about you at all," Fakir lied.
But Ahiru continued to look troubled.
"There are thirteen halls of the dead," said the master of ceremonies, "and at the last one, there is a door with no key, guarded by a beast with no eyes. You must go through the thirteen halls, find the key, and defeat the beast so that you can walk through the door — and then you will be in the true land of the dead, where ghosts have nowhere to run to, and you may speak to them then."
"And I suppose," said the eleventh princess, who was the cleverest of all the sisters, "that I must pay a price for the honour of traveling these halls and fighting the beast?"
"Not at all," said the master of ceremonies. "The path to the land of the dead has no price, except death."
"How will you survive the journey?" Princess Tutu asked her sister. "How will you find the key? How will you defeat the beast? I am frightened for you."
"There is a way," said the master of ceremonies.
"You are very kind to say so," the eleventh princess said sarcastically.
"I have in my possession the sword of a boy who was once a knight," said the master of ceremonies, as if he had not heard her. "The sword was given to him by a prince of great renown. This sword is one of the few weapons that can slay the beast, and if you slay the beast, then you have time to find the key, and if you find the key, you can go through that door, the very last of all the doors."
"What do you want in exchange for that sword?" asked the eleventh princess.
"I want a memory of something you cherish," said the master of ceremonies.
The eleventh princess fell silent, but Princess Tutu spoke. "If you are to travel to the land of the dead, then you need all the happy memories you can carry with you. You have more need of them than I do, so I will gladly give up one of my mine."
"You can't go sacrificing yourself forever," the eleventh princess said, but she did not stop Princess Tutu. And so the youngest sister gave up one of her happiest memories, a memory of sunshine and meadows, a memory of parents who loved them and did not lock them in towers, a memory of all the sisters together, dancing until their hearts were glad.
When the memory left, so did the eleventh princess, sword in hand.
Princess Tutu returned to the waking world alone. When the king and queen saw her, they raged and yelled. They accused her of murder, of jealousy, of sinfulness. They threw her from the tower and banned her from the kingdom. But there are doors everywhere in the world, and so as Princess Tutu walked away from the life she had known, she came across a door in the hedge. She went through it.
It was a hall of joy, a hall of bubbling champagne and laughter, of music, of sugar treats that melted on your tongue. Princess Tutu stared at all of it, too stunned to speak. But her heart did not lighten. She watched the dancers and the revelries, and she said, "I am so alone. I have no one left to share this with anymore."
She made to leave, but the master of ceremonies stopped her...
It was a sunny day, and they were sitting by the pond. Fakir was writing, and Ahiru was tearing up pieces of bread to throw them at the ducks.
"You stopped writing," Ahiru said. "I don't hear your pen moving anymore."
"It's not important," Fakir said.
Ahiru rubbed her hands clean of bread crumbs and stood up. She came to sit beside him, cross-legged on the docks. "What do you mean? Of course it's important. You're important."
"I'm important because I'm Drosselmeyer's descendant?" Fakir asked icily. "Because everything I write has the potential to come true?"
Ahiru shook her head fervently. "No, you're important because you're Fakir — and because you're my friend."
"How can you say something like that with such a straight face?" Fakir demanded.
"I don't know!" Ahiru said cheerfully. "Maybe my face is just stuck like this. Maybe I'm secretly trying to make angry faces at you, monster faces, but I can't, because you wrote me having a face like this."
"Maybe I'll give you a pig snout in my next story," Fakir warned.
"I like pigs!" Ahiru said, grinning. She tried to grab at the pages in Fakir's lap, but Fakir batted her hands away. "Tell me what's the problem with the story. I'll try to help you fix it."
"The problem." Fakir sighed. "The problem is that I've reached the last of the princesses, and the story is going to end here if I don't do anything, and I can't let it end. I have to keep on writing it, so that you can stay human. But what does this last princess want? She's been doing all these things for her sisters, but what's her story?"
"You could try asking her," Ahiru suggested.
Fakir looked at her.
"Do you miss being a duck?" he asked, his throat hurting.
"Sometimes," Ahiru said. "Sometimes I think — I think I don't belong here. I don't fit in with the rest of this town. I'm not real like the rest of you are." She looked down at her toes, considering them. "But then I think of what it was like, being at the Academy with you and Mytho and Rue and everybody else. And I remember that I was happy. I am happy," she said.
"And this last princess?" Fakir asked in his scratchy voice. "What if I don't know how to make her happy?"
"She'll tell you," Ahiru said confidently. "You just have to listen."
The master of ceremonies stopped Princess Tutu from leaving. "Don't go," he said, and his voice wasn't cold at all, but sounded like the rough, aching promises of spring. "This hall, I built it just for you."
"For me?" Princess Tutu asked in astonishment. "Why?"
"Because I— I—"
Princess Tutu stared at the master of ceremonies, and the longer she stared, the more he seemed familiar. Until finally she remembered him. "You're the boy who squired for one of my father's knights," she said. "You lived in the palace with us. We were younger then. We used to play together in the stables, and I would bring you food from the kitchens — and one day you disappeared!"
"I became a knight of my own," the master of ceremonies said. "And then I stopped being a knight. I didn't have the skill."
"I was once a princess," said Princess Tutu. "But I stopped being one too."
"You can stay here, with me," the master of ceremonies said.
Princess Tutu was silent.
"Is it really such an awful idea?" the master of ceremonies asked bitterly. "Am I not handsome enough for you? Do I not dance well enough?"
"If I want to stay, I must pay a price," Princess Tutu said. "And you see, I left my home without my shoes, without my dress, without my necklaces, without my stockings. I left with nothing. I have nothing to pay with." She dropped a curtsy. "So thank you for your generous offer, but I am afraid I must refuse."
"There is something yet you still have," the master of ceremonies said.
Princess Tutu's gaze flickered upwards.
"This is a hall of joy. You will never be alone here. You will never want for anything," the master of ceremonies said.
"It must have a very high price," Princess Tutu agreed.
"All I want is your heart," he said.
"My heart?" Princess Tutu asked.
"Is it currently promised to anyone else?" the master of ceremonies asked.
"Well, no," the princess admitted.
"Then let me have it," the master of ceremonies said. "I will treat it well. There is no other price, just this one. I — I will give this hall to you. If we are to be truthful, I would give it to you even if you paid me nothing. But I am selfish enough to want..." He took a deep breath. "I mean it. I have never been able to say it before, even though you must have known. I — I love you."
Fakir reared back from the pages in shock.
What did I just write? he wondered, and his first urge was to go over the words with a slash of his pen, striking them out of existence. But his hands were shaking too badly, and so he got up and fetched himself a cup of water.
Ahiru was in the kitchen, playing with Dog.
"Are you taking a break?" she asked.
Fakir ignored her. He banged around the cupboards, looking for a clean cup.
"Fakir! Are you all right?" Ahiru sounded worried. She got up and went to him, finding the cup and filling it with water from the tap. She pushed it into his hand and watched him take long gulps. "You look — you look feverish," she said anxiously. "Do you need to go see a doctor? I can call Dr. Lessing if you'd like."
"No," Fakir said shortly. "I'm not sick. I'm just — I'm just not writing the kind of story I thought I'd write."
"What kind of story are you writing?" Ahiru asked, turning her face to his, looking into his eyes. She stood so close to him that he could feel her warmth, and could almost taste the heaviness of her concern.
"It's a love story," he said.
"Oh," she said.
"It's not supposed to be a love story," Fakir said furiously. "It's supposed to be a story about a princess who stayed a princess, and she danced so that no dead writer from ages ago could take that away from her. And yes, there was a man who used to be a knight, and yes, he was the author stand-in because sometimes you've just got to have one, even if you try not to. But they weren't supposed to — he wasn't supposed to —"
Akiru kissed him.
"W-what?" Fakir started to say, but his words were lost against her soft mouth. It was a quick kiss, clumsy in its efforts, and their noses banged together. When Ahiru pulled back, she was bright red.
"Um," she said.
"Um," he said.
"You — you're making it more complicated than it is," Ahiru said. "I think it's okay that it's a love story. I think — maybe it was supposed to be one all along."
"So what you're trying to say is that you want to discredit all theories of author intentionality," Fakir said, feeling his face turn as hot as a gingerbread oven.
"I'm saying," said Ahiru, "that I don't understand any of your university talk. I'm just a duck. And I think that sometimes ducks are brighter than authors are." She bit down on her bottom lip. "I also think that in your story, the princess says yes. Whatever the master of ceremonies asked her, she says yes."
"How can you know that?" Fakir asked.
"Because I know," said Ahiru.
"And how am I going to make the story continue?" Fakir asked. "Love story or not, we've reached a point of narrative conclusion, and this story isn't meant to have a conclusion at all. I've told you this so many times—"
"It doesn't end, not here," Ahiru said. "I know that too."
She reached up and kissed him again. Her hair tickled his cheeks, and she smelled like burnt cooking, this girl, this duck-girl, this princess-girl, this girl-who-danced. She kissed him like she knew this was the right thing to do at the right moment, and it was.
She kissed him, and this time, Fakir kissed back.
She took his hand, and he took hers, and they danced through the hall together.