The Witch in the Woods:
She breathes on the sapling and silver hawthorn branches shiver and chime as they stretch out twigs like a child's greedy fingers. The ghostly light in its roots seeps into the earth—ahead, the ancient trees shape another few feet of path. Somewhere beyond, not in any sense actually so, the princesses' bedroom awaits, and an end to this long folly.
She wears the burden of averted fates like a cloak, and she and the youths are weary of the weight. It is time and past time for their lives to begin anew.
She moves forward to plant another seed.
An Enchanted Prince:
A sweet-scented breeze on his brow, the coolness of wet cloth on feverish skin.
Memory, his mother in the doorway, weeping. Limbs too weak to stand and reassure her. A smell of sickness, blood in his mouth.
He crouches by the lake, running his fingers through the water—cold on his skin, grounding. But his reflection is a dark shadow, hollow eyes returning a distant stare. He shudders, turns away.
One of the others stands beside a pillar, watching him. Unbound hair, fever-flush—the intimacy of the deathbed. She offers him her hand.
“They'll be coming soon. Shall we practice?”
All that night she whirls and spins, traded from one dance partner to another. One's face is death-pallor white; one's eyes limpid and fever-bright. One boy moves with such frailty she fears one spin could fling him into the lake. One girl dances with a fervor like the world is ending.
The music hums down from the dome above, sweet as a lullaby. Whenever it slows, they press wine into her hands, and sugared fruit that tastes like the night before Christmas.
When it ends, they kiss her hand each in turn, and beg please, please come again.
She notices the shoe as the housekeeper is wishing the princesses a good day—scuffed satin toes and a loosened sole, peeking out from under the bed of the second-youngest. Her eyes, downturned as their charges file out, catch on another, half-covered in a discarded blanket—a silk-wrapped heel discolored by water stains.
By the time they've finished cleaning, twelve pairs of shoes sit at the center of the room, huddled together like uncovered stowaways. It's the third time in a week.
“Nothing for it,” sighs the housekeeper. “Pull some out of storage. I'll talk to the butler.”
His apprentice lowers the missive and looks up at him, eyes round with dismay.
“But they're our best shoes! How can they be breaking down so fast?!”
The shoemaker picks up the last he'd been sewing leather around when the messenger came. Though he's checked before, he checks again—but the stitches are tight and clean, the leather fine and shining. He would swear before God and the magistrates that this shoe should last a lady of means a decade. Yet his windfall is evaporating as quickly as it blew in.
And here he'd thought his competition was just getting lazy.
The Royal Exchequer:
“Are there any more issues to be brought before His Majesty? Then, the court declares—”
“Wait. One more thing.”
“We acknowledge the Exchequer.”
“It's—I beg Your Majesty's pardon. This will sound very strange.”
“It's—the princesses' shoes.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“And this matter could not have been sorted out with my lady wife?”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty; we have tried, but... I must tell you, that—your household has been ordering, on average, thirty-six pairs of dancing shoes--”
“Well, man, there are twelve of them—”
“—Per week, Your Majesty.”
“Per—! Good God!”
“Quite so, Your Majesty.”
The Captain of the Guard:
It wasn't that the castle lacked halls where one could easily increase the guard—guest rooms for foreign diplomats or visiting family, for example. It was that the princesses' chambers were nothing like such an area. They nested at the heart of the palace, hallways branching out in six directions, all eventually leading to rooms with windows, garden doors or servant's exits. Which made, “Make sure they aren't slipping out a'night,” easier commanded than staffed.
“I've worked here for thirty years, and I would have sworn we had dungeons for prisoners,” he complained aloud to his half-finished duty roster. “Hah!”
She corners every one of her daughters. Those she birthed and those who came with the marriage, both hug her, smile, and keep their secrets. She is certain the bonds of motherhood will be strong enough; she has some hopes for truces that flowered over time into true affection. But they're grown now, and have learned well her lessons about supporting one another in the face of everything.
She's never seen them so determined, and she trusts their noble, generous hearts. She's very, very proud of them.
She is also, regrettably, a trifle annoyed. Godspeed, she tells them, and means it.
A Drugged Prince:
Laughter drifts around him like a curl of smoke, carrying a scent of patchouli and brush fire. The heat licks at his skin, but he dares not move, paralyzed with fear—if he lifts his temple away from the worked steel of his sword hilt, sleep will assuredly take him.
Somewhere far distant from his vigil, music plays. Just the feast, he thinks. It will help keep me awake. His wound muscles ease as he listens.
The song takes him quickly, heaving and swaying, a waltz that spins him blind in the dark.
His hands twitch, slack and insensate on the floor.
The Youngest Princess:
She trails at the back of the line again—she slips farther behind every night, it seems. She lingers in the hawthorn path, staring at the diamond leaves, pursuing a thought she can't pin down.
A soft cough behind her, and she turns to find the youngest dancer, who smiles at her apologetically.
“I'm sorry, Princess. I don't mean to hurry you, it's just my throat—”
She shakes her head and moves towards him, taking his offered hand.
“It's perfectly all right. It's just—it's all moving so fast...”
She climbs into the boat. Her sisters have already gone ahead.
The Royal Dance Teacher:
They are nearly finished, and for the first time in several weeks he is hopeful that they might finish a lesson without incident.
Then the eldest princess, his last partner for the day, shifts her footing. He barely has time for the stab of apprehension before she catches him about the waist and dips him.
She releases him and walks away with nary a backwards frosty glance.
He's taken, of late, to attending more ballet. It is a relief to know that there are still dances that the princesses cannot immediately repeat after a single demonstration. Yet.
An Enchanted Princess:
The witch has been dissatisfied of late, though she refuses to say why. She stays on the far shore, sewing a cloak with rabbit's fur and wool. The twelve of them worry at the topic daily, as the sun sets over the lake.
At the dances, though—ah, the dances!
She releases one gloved hand and meets the eyes of the next princess. She smiles, radiant. In the early days, she knows she danced with a fever pitch, certain she would die before the night did. But the sickness lifts more every day, and soon, soon they will be free.