Hush now, my Margarete. It's all right now, your mother is here. I won't let that nasty loud man come into your chamber anymore, you can be sure of that!
You'll go to sleep soon—at least, I hope so!—and when you wake up it'll be to a new day, free of worries. You won't remember anything of that nasty man, neither what he looked like, nor all the terrible things he said.
Your mother only wishes she could be as carefree.
The thing is, that man was right. Nasty, rude and loud though he was—his accusations were true!
It was my fault that His Majesty King Vladimir and Prince Ivan had forfeited their lives so many years ago. Partly—we'd all played a part in it, my sisters and I—but my fault all the same. I am the last of the twelve Princesses, after all. The only one around to shoulder the fates that befell so many men, Kings and Princes mostly, but also on occasion young men who, although they had not a drop of blue blood in their veins, were every bit as adventurous and eager to seek their fortunes.
Many would count your father as one such young man. But to be honest with you, my Margarete, I'd hesitate to do the same. You haven't had the chance to spend as much time with one another, I'm sad to say—he is King, after all—but surely you have seen enough of him to know how little adventurous spirit he has. Why, whenever I ask your father to hold you for me, he'd give me the most pitiful look, as though I was one of his pompous advisors and had forbidden all the servants in the palace from giving him needle, thread and fabric!
Your father was no royalty, that's true, but he'd succeeded where so many men before him had failed nonetheless. And as for how he managed not to forfeit his life…
Listen well, my Margarete. What I am about to tell you is a secret shared known only to your father, myself and my eleven older sisters. A secret that has led to the deaths of hundreds of men, the fear and suffering of countless more, and, on one too many occasions, pushed our kingdom to the brink of war. If the rude gestures and threats that nasty man had made had frightened you, imagine just how awful it would be to have to live with such unpleasantness for nearly every waking minute of your life!
There was a very long time ago twelve Princesses—or as you, dear Margarete, would know them, your eleven aunts and your mother.
Edeline, the eldest, was more mother than sister to us younger ones. Out of necessity, I daresay, rather than any sort of maternal calling—she always spent most of the daylight hours scolding us for causing some mischief or other.
Cäcilie, the second oldest, was the complete opposite of Edeline in this matter. She was a lady first, and a beautiful one at that—I shudder to think what would befall anyone fool enough to come between her and her cosmetics!—and a sister second.
If Cäcilie was a lady, then our sister Dietrune was a girl who came by her title of Duchess by way of catching the eye of a hapless Duke and went about ingratiating herself with the court, with the help of not gold or silver, but a pair of keen ears and a loose tongue. She was as likely to report the wrongdoings of us younger ones—and, should she have the chance to do so, of Cäcilie as well—to Edeline as she was to tell a tale of her own making.
Our sister Valerie, on the other hand, was as honest as a mirror. Not a day would go by without her having a quarrel with Dietrune over some accusation or other that she'd made. As you can imagine, she was quite the knight in shining armor to us younger ones!
Friedegunde was the most gentle of us twelve sisters. If there was a quarrel going on—with, more often than not, Dietrune or Valerie being one of the party involved—then you can be sure that Friedegunde would not be around to bear witness to it from beginning to end.
If Dietrune and Valerie were seldom seen one without the other, because of their quarreling, then Alexandrine and Siegelinde, my sixth and seventh oldest sisters, being born a mere month apart from one another, were as thick as thieves, always running off with their heads bent together, whispering and giggling. Goodness knows exactly what they were discussing—none of us ten sisters had ever been taken into confidence by either of them.
Our sister Liselotte was the darling of the court. If Dietrune was willing to tattle and tell lies to gain favor, then Lieselotte was willing to sniff and shed tears and make a fool of herself—a poor and pretty fool, of course, but a fool all the same. Why, she cried even more than I back in the day and that was saying something!
Nathalie, the ninth oldest of us sisters, was the bane of Edeline. Not a day went by without her disagreeing with someone over every little thing.
Grishilde and Cäcilie were very much alike, in that they both spent hours on end in front of their mirrors every day. If Cäcilie had more love for her face than she did for us sisters, then the one love of Grishilde's life was her long flowing hair.
Hannelore was the sister closest to me by way of age. Many would imagine that we'd be inseparable as a result of this, my older sisters included, but as a matter of fact, this was not the case at all! She would not want anything to do with me and the instant she heard my name or saw my face, she put on the most horrid grimace and stalk away in a huff.
And last, but not least, there was I. Princess Zita. The youngest of the twelve sisters—they call me by Baby more often than they did Zita and, oh, how I hated that!
Many men travelled to the palace in which we twelve Princesses lived, from lands far and wide, seeking to choose one of us for his wife and to be promised the kingdom after the death of our father the King, only to forfeit their lives after enjoying our hospitality for a paltry three days.
But still they came to our palace, royal and common men alike, drawn to the golden promise of the King as flies were to honey. The only thing that stood between them and their prize was a request from the King:
Solve the mystery of the shoes that were danced to pieces.
The Princesses had between the twelve of them one chamber, in which their beds stood side by side, and every night the King bade them good-night in person, moving from bed to bed as he did so to make sure that they all had Princesses in them—and that the new shoes at the foot of their beds were still whole—before he stepped outside. The door to the chamber was then locked and bolted, the whole process overseen by the King, who had also the one key to the lock in his possession, hanging from a gold chain he customarily wore around his neck. When the King the Father bade them good-morning the next day, however, he would find the shoes of the Princesses in pieces—as though they had been danced in all night long!—even though it was impossible for the Princesses themselves to have left their chamber, which was much too crowded with beds and mirrors and wardrobes to allow for much dancing.
However did so curious a fate befell the twelve pairs of shoes?
It was a simple request—or so our suitors thought. Men came a-questing to our palace from countries all over, confident that they would be the one to give the King the explanation he so desperately wanted... only to forfeit their lives, time and again.
In the days after His Majesty King Vladmir, so maddened by grief that he vowed to take up the quest on which his only son, Prince Ivan, had embarked and consequently forfeited his life, there was only one question on everyone's minds:
What kind of creatures are we, the Princesses, that we can turn a blind eye to all our suitors' foolhardy quest and their consequent deaths?
To which us Princess would return with another question, which we all thought but were never able to say aloud:
What kind of father is the King, that he would lock his daughters up every night—as though they were dolls which existed for no reason other than his own pleasure—and end the lives of countless men for being unable to solve a mystery that he, himself, had been unable to solve in the first place?
When you are older, dear Margarete, you'll understand how difficult our lives were for us in that palace. Every night the King came to lock us up. Our situation was no better during the day—if we weren't under watch from the royal guards, then we were shepherded from room to room by our tutors. As though we were sheep that knew no better! I can imagine no worse insult to a Princess.
As for dancing—pah! All the dances we were allowed to partake in were more punishment than luxury. Every action we took was under the most intense scrutiny possible and would, more often than not, be taken as an omen of portent. A smile was a harbinger of scandal. A downward tilt of the head was a most rude rebuff to a simple gesture of friendship. A hand raised to cover up a yawn, a wave to someone unworthy of a Princess's attentions and thus inappropriate to the extreme.
Was it any wonder that we Princesses would want to spirit ourselves away, to lose ourselves in dancing until our shoes are in pieces, and we could dance no more?
So there you have it, my Margarete. One frustrated, ruthless king. Twelve silent Princesses. Hundreds of corpses of men. It was a miracle the other kingdoms, made peerless by one mere mystery, did not come clamoring for our heads!
And into this entangled web of intrigue stepped your father, Levin. A tailor by trade with not a drop of blue blood running through his veins. A man who was more likely to smile than he was to sneer, the way so many of our other suitors had done—what fools! We were already loath to let our secret be discovered. Their fates were sealed the instant they behaved poorly.
It was your father's smile, my Margarete, that saved his life—or so I'd prefer to say. It was a lovely gesture to give the youngest of Princesses, I must admit, but of course my sisters were not swayed by that alone. If only they had been—you cannot imagine how heavily I'd been teased as the result of that one smile! What are you waiting for, Baby, your Levin-love? Zita, if you missed your suitor so then you should've stayed back in our room to listen to his snores! And so it went.
The thing was, my sisters were tired of it all. The constant scrutiny, the lies that spread like wildfire, the King's suffocating so-called protection.
It was luck that your father was the one who…
Why, speak of the devil. Look, Margarete, it's your father!
Levin, dear, you surprised me! I thought that you were still with your advisors, fretting over your official response to the drunken tomfoolery of the Mishkak emissary.
Is that so? Is it time already? How strange, I thought that I still had an hour or so with our Margarete.
How is your left hand, Levin, dear? You have kept it unclenched as much as possible, I hope. Remember what the royal physician said. You wouldn't want to be deprived of your needles, threads and fabrics, would you? Oh, I would be more than happy to finish your projects for you, but I doubt you'd feel the same.
Come, dear Margarete. Let us go and meet your aunts! They're nothing like the Princesses I told you about, I'm afraid—time works in mysterious ways when it comes to us ladies. I'm taller than them, now, and they're… I suppose I should say shorter, strange as that sounds. But prettier, too.
You'll keep this a secret, won't you, dear Margarete?