Elizabeth journeys back to the castle the same way she came, following the wide swath of destruction. It is very hot, and very lonely, and she keeps stubbing her toes on horses’ bones. But she makes up a travelling song and sings all the parts herself, doing different voices for the call and answer. It takes a long time, walking back. The aftermaths of stories always do.
But then, Elizabeth doesn’t know that yet.
Curiously, the kingdom is whole again by the time she arrives, gleaming and white and perfect. It is as if the castle rebuilt itself by magic, brick upon brick upon brick, and then ordered the city to grow up around it as well. Elizabeth decides she quite fancies that idea, an enchanted castle full of tinker-toy moveable parts. Perhaps they rearrange themselves as you sleep.
Then again, perhaps it was the insurance policy.
In any case, it probably doesn’t matter—when Elizabeth really thinks about it, she finds she cannot remember the original layout very well. Rubble after the dragon, certainly, but nothing about the actual castle itself.
There must have been turrets, she expects. Turrets are the usual thing.
Architectural questions aside, she is hoping for a parade, or at least some sort of all-day celebration. It would follow nicely, Elizabeth is sure of it. Even if she did come back without Prince Ronald’s clammy-crummy hand in marriage (a detail Elizabeth remembers perfect, incidentally, Elizabeth you are a mess; as if he could have rescued himself with that silly tennis racket, the dolt), the whole thing was still a Quest. There was a Dragon and a Lair and Daring Deeds. As Elizabeth understands it, these are the hallmarks. A party must naturally follow, with or without courtly love. She is quite looking forward to the cake.
But there is no cake. In fact, there are no celebrations at all. When Elizabeth arrives in the vast throne room with its newly-reconstructed ceilings, the sole occupant is a tall lady in a white wimple. As soon as she sees Elizabeth she rushes forward, clucking her tongue.
“Oh dear,” the lady declares, wringing her white-gloved hands. “We must have done it wrong again.”
It is not quite the reaction one expects when one has completed a Great and Terrible Task. Perhaps, Elizabeth thinks, she was supposed to kill the dragon. He had such a nice yellow belly, though, soft and pulsing like the underside of a great glow worm. A sharpened horse bone would have done the trick, certainly—Elizabeth had even considered it at the time—but in the end she was simply loath to gut him. He was sleeping so very soundly, after all. It would have been quite unfair.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Elizabeth says now, drawing herself up. Someone, although she expects she could not name precisely who, has raised her to be a polite child. “But do I know you?”
“You do now,” the lady in the wimple declares grimly, licking one silk-covered thumb and rubbing it across Elizabeth’s cheek. Elizabeth is sorry to see those fine gloves ruined. Ordinarily she would hate the fussing, but now that she has arrived, she finds she is a bit tired of being sooty. Her hair itches with dirt and lice, and the soggy paper bag is being dragged down at the hem by mud. Already she had been thinking that a bath before the party would perhaps not be entirely out of the question.
Of course, now it would appear as though the party itself is out of the question.
Nevertheless, dirty or not, party-less or not, Elizabeth is still a princess. Furthermore, she reminds herself, she is the Conquering Hero of an Important Quest. It would not do to complain. “I am Elizabeth,” she tells the lady firmly, extending one gritty hand. “Very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“If you say so,” the lady replies, ignoring the handshake but holding out long, elegant fingers for Elizabeth to kiss. The silk across her knuckles is cool and slippery. “But we may have to change your name for the next one.”
Elizabeth blinks. It is beginning to dawn on her that the problem might be larger than simply letting a yellow-bellied dragon live. “What?” she demands, quite forgetting her manners. “I mean, pardon me?”
“Never mind,” the lady coos, straightening up to her full height and folding those delicate hands. Strangely, both of her gloves have remained entirely pristine. “Now, what would you like?” she asks, as if she has known Elizabeth all her life and never once suggested snatching away her name. “Tea? Some hot milk before bedtime?”
As a Hero, Elizabeth knows she should be demanding answers. Storming a fortress. Something. But she is only seven and it has already been such a very long adventure, with no one around to put her to bed or make her hot milk or feed her stew. This strange lady and her strange words are just another of many things about today Elizabeth does not understand.
She does not ask any more questions.
(Later, this lesson will be one that sticks with Elizabeth, together with Princes Can Be Bums, The Aftermath of the Story Is the Tricky Part and Sometimes, It Is Okay Not to Kill Dragons.
Always Ask Questions.)
Life in the castle turns out to be very strange indeed. Or very ordinary, depending—Elizabeth cannot precisely remember what life was like before. Certainly, she thinks, she was always called Elizabeth. And certainly there was a King and a Queen and a court, and all the normal trappings of a castle, like a moat and a drawbridge and perhaps even a dungeon. Secret passageways. Battlements. A tennis court for Prince Ronald. And there are all those things, it’s not that there aren’t, it’s just that they seem to change configuration an awful lot. Sometimes the tunnel behind Elizabeth’s bedroom draperies leads to the kitchens and sometimes it leads to the armoury. Sometimes, it is not even there at all.
And the castle is not the only thing that changes shape.
“Go outside and play with your sisters,” the lady in the wimple says one day. She is spinning straw into gold on an oxblood spinning wheel, a process Elizabeth understands she is supposed to stay far away from. She thinks she remembers the King ordering all the spinning wheels in the land burned once, although that might have been a dream. This particular wheel’s spindle is leafed in gold, and very sharp.
“I don’t have any sisters,” Elizabeth complains, before remembering that she does, of course she does. “You mean my stepsisters,” she corrects the lady.
The lady smiles. “Yes. Them.”
So Elizabeth dashes away to join her stepsisters in the library, which is full of millions of books with clever titles like Histoires ou contes du temps passé and Kinder- und Hausmärchen, all bound in ornate, gilded covers. Elizabeth uses a ladder to lift the heaviest, highest tomes off the shelves, then spreads them out across the carpet carefully. She enjoys inhaling the bookdust, but something about their lovely pages always makes her feel funny, like the catch of a key not quite made for a lock. Which is silly—Elizabeth has never known a book to be full of anything other than blank space. Space is what books are for.
“Come play,” her stepsisters call, rucking up their petticoats to run between the shelves. Elizabeth takes off after them. They play a cruel game where the other two tear off her dress before a Great and Important Palace Ball. It doesn’t make any sense, of course, seeing as how they are already at the palace and can therefore hold balls whenever they please, but Elizabeth finds herself shaking and crying afterward all the same. What’s even more ridiculous is she expects she would not enjoy a ball one bit—she likes dancing well enough, but none of the young gentlemen ever let her lead. And then they always step on her toes.
Yes, Elizabeth thinks, sobs slowing, how could she have forgotten? Balls are crummy. Make-believe balls even more so. They are not a thing to cry over.
When she picks herself up off the floor, she finds her dress is not torn at all. Not one seam.
What’s even more curious is that later, when she asks the lady in the wimple if her stepsisters are coming down for supper, the lady tells her that she is an only child. “And with your mother gone, too,” she simpers. “The King should have never made her that promise.”
“What promise?” Elizabeth asks, feeling as if she would very much not like to know. Her head is all muddled. Why did she ever think she had sisters? Of course she doesn’t. Her only playmates are the animals.
“To only remarry a woman of equal beauty to herself,” the lady explains, dishing out heaping spoonfuls of winter salad, root vegetables cut so fine Elizabeth can see straight through them. “He’ll never find anyone. Although—” And here she catches Elizabeth’s chin, her gloves a thin layer of protection between Elizabeth’s skin and the surprising bite of nails. “—You are growing up to be quite lovely.”
(Not nails, not quite. More like—talons.)
Elizabeth ducks away to poke at a blue carrot, its edges crimped as intricately and uniquely as any snowflake. “I don’t think people should marry for looks,” she mutters. “After all, remember what happened with—” Only then she finds she cannot remember his name. Rupert? Roger? What was it?
When she looks up, she is speaking to an empty chair.
And so Elizabeth grows, in a beautiful, changeable castle with beautiful, changeable food. Sometimes she has parents and sometimes not, but she is never, ever allowed to eat apples. There are many legends floating around the court about her that seem to shift and change with the wind, alleging that a sorceress cast a spell on her as a baby, that she will marry a beast, that she will die young, that she will live forever. It is quite a lot of rumors for one little girl to deal with. What’s worse is that no one ever seems to remember she once completed a Great and Terrible Task. Sometimes, even Elizabeth herself forgets. She blames the lack of a parade.
She is seldom alone, at least. More often than not she has sisters, and sometimes they are cruel, sometimes they are kind, and sometimes there are twelve of them and they go out dancing. Elizabeth ignores her partner and climbs the silver and gold trees in the grove beside the lake. Sometimes she has brothers, but much less often. Once they all turn into crows and fly away. Elizabeth stands by the window and waves.
One thing that never changes are her good looks—in those respects, at least, the lady with the wimple is right. Sometimes Elizabeth’s hair is the colour of gold, sometimes straw, and sometimes the ebony windowsill, but it is always long enough to hang down to the middle of her back. Elizabeth finds it constantly in the way.
Unfortunately, there is never again a dragon with a nice yellow belly. Of all the changes, Elizabeth discovers that one is the hardest to bear.
Once, memorably, Elizabeth herself becomes a swan, which she enjoys. She frolics in the palace pond and spreads her wings. The lady in the wimple tells her she will remain under the curse if she cannot find someone to pledge his eternal love. But Elizabeth likes flying, and runs from the royal hunters who skulk in the bulrushes. Eventually, the lady in the wimple changes her back.
“There, there, it will be all right,” she tells Elizabeth, smoothing back her wet hair. Today it is red-gold and copper, like coral growing under the sea. “It’s only because you’re still so young. We have time.”
Time for what? Elizabeth doesn’t ask. She has not yet learned the lesson about questions.
She is twelve years old. She hardly ever feels like a Great and Important Hero anymore.
And then, finally, there is a dragon again.
But first there is a sixteenth birthday party. The lady in the wimple helps Elizabeth into a beautiful ball gown made of watered silk, and dyed satin shoes the color of a carroty moon. “You’re old enough now, my sweet,” she says, smoothing Elizabeth’s sash. “And this is the easiest story.” She never calls Elizabeth by her own name anymore, just nicknames and strange, foreign words that always feel like they’ve been borrowed from somewhere else: Aschenputtel, Briar Rose, Belle. They slip like sand along Elizabeth’s tongue and chase her through her dreams.
“There,” the lady declares, finally satisfied. “Now you look like a princess.”
Something snags at the edges of Elizabeth’s memory; Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.
She hopes there is cake in this story.
But when Elizabeth arrives in the great, gleaming throne room, there is no cake. There is no party at all, just a great, empty space and a low, glittering table in the center. On the table is an apple, and on the apple’s stem is a very tiny scroll which reads EAT ME.
Shouldn’t there be a parade? Elizabeth thinks. Only that’s wrong, parades are for Heroes, and she isn’t a— Is she?
(You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.)
Elizabeth sits at the table. The chair is a plush, pink velvet that seems to move of its own accord, as if an invisible waiter is pushing it closer. Elizabeth has a moment of trouble with her voluminous skirts, which the table is really not high enough to accommodate, but then she is seated comfortably.
And there is the apple.
Elizabeth is muddled. She has been muddled for many years. But she remembers that there was once a Great and Terrible Task and she completed it, even though she was dirty and small and walked for many days on her own, stubbed her toes on horses’ bones and did not look like a princess.
Elizabeth takes a bite of the apple. She does not swallow.
As the world goes dark around her, she holds it tight in her mouth.
Elizabeth wakes up in the highest room of the tallest tower. She knows because she looks out the window. It is a very, very long way down.
The bit of apple is still in her mouth, tucked between her gums and the inside of her cheek. After a moment of indecision, Elizabeth spits it out over the windowsill. It makes a triumphant sort of whistling sound as it falls through the air, story upon story until it lands with a satisfying plop on the battlements.
Princesses, Elizabeth would wager, are not supposed to spit. She finds she rather doesn’t care.
From what she can see out the window, she is quite alone. There is no one in the courtyard, or the stables, or coming across the drawbridge. Elizabeth ducks her head inside and rubs her tingling hands together. Pins and needles are shooting through her whole body, as if she slept with every single limb bent at a funny angle.
“Right,” she says to the room.
She opens the great wardrobe filled with all her many dresses and crawls right to the back. There, underneath a fur-lined cape with matching muff, is a skinny, melted crown and a dirty old paper bag. Elizabeth takes off the watered silk ball gown she is still wearing and puts them on. The bag is quite a bit too short for decency now that she is mostly grown, but Elizabeth doesn’t care. Her bloomers are showing, fussy and beribboned, but on the whole it’s much more accommodating than the dress.
“I wish I had a sword,” she sighs. Heroes, as far as she can remember, always do better with swords.
In the end, she almost misses the dragon. She is halfway down the secret passageway to the kitchens before she hears the great breathing sounds and becomes pressingly curious—perhaps the castle actually is alive, she thinks. Perhaps that’s why it keeps moving about.
“Well,” the dragon roars when she comes across him in the throne room. His yellow belly looks rather less like a friendly glow worm than Elizabeth remembers. “A princess. You aren’t supposed to be awake for another hundred years.”
Elizabeth stands up very tall. She has done this before, in the faint recesses of her mind. It is only a matter of finding the nerve. “Dragon,” Elizabeth begins, her voice shaking. “Is it true you can lift one million tonnes with a single claw?”
“Oh, yes,” says the dragon.
Elizabeth swallows. And swallows again. And swallows once more. “Well?” she demands finally. “Aren’t you going to show me?”
“And tire myself out needlessly?” the dragon asks, curling and uncurling his tail. The movement is mesmerizing, like a snake charming in reverse. Elizabeth does not like it one bit. “Whatever for?”
Elizabeth blows out a frustrated breath. “I don’t believe you," she wheedles. "Unless you show me, I won’t believe you.”
“Suit yourself,” the dragon says. He reaches out to stroke her cheek with his tail, the tip like a great green leaf. It is surprisingly soft. “I don’t need you to believe me to be dangerous, dear Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth gasps, slapping away the tail. “H-how do you know my name?”
If dragons could raise their eyebrows, Elizabeth thinks, this one would. “Why,” he declares brightly, as polite and delighted as any monster come for tea. “We’ve met before, of course!”
“But before you were so much more—so much less—” Elizabeth stops. It would not do to insult a dragon’s intelligence.
“Ah, yes.” The dragon sighs, a sound like wind through ancient trees. “Well, that was a child’s story, with a child’s solution. You are no longer a child, Elizabeth.”
“I should have killed you,” Elizabeth gasps, fists clenched. "I knew it." She is cold inside the paper bag. Surely, for the last adventure, she was never this cold.
Surely she was never this—
"Don't be frightened, Elizabeth," says the dragon. His giant muzzle is shaking sadly, almost like the shake of a person's. But Elizabeth can still see the teeth. “And no, you could not have killed me. It wasn’t in the story.”
Elizabeth is so very, very tired of stories. “Are you going to kill me?” she asks. He could. With his fiery breath that can burn fifty forests, and his powerful wings that can fly around the world in ten seconds, Elizabeth expects he could kill her quite easily.
“No,” the dragon says. “That’s not how this story goes, either." He sighs, sitting back on his haunches like a cat. His feet are long and elegant, spoon-shaped like the oars of a great boat. They would be beautiful if not for the claws. "There will be a prince," the dragon explains, "and he will kill me. But he will not arrive for a long while." He considers Elizabeth. "If you wish, we can pass the time playing chess.”
Elizabeth looks at the dragon.
The dragon looks at Elizabeth.
Somewhere, a clock ticks.
In the end, that's exactly what they do. For ten years they play chess, neither one of them aging, although Elizabeth expects if the dragon did she wouldn’t be able to tell one way or the other. The prince will not arrive for a century, so they have a very long time to contemplate their moves. And also to think. For ten years, Elizabeth thinks. She moves her knight to E4 and thinks. She moves her pawn to H6 and thinks. She moves her bishop to A8 and thinks.
And finally, on the ten day of the tenth month of the tenth year, Elizabeth knocks over her queen.
“That’s not right,” the dragon says calmly. “If you forfeit, you must knock over your king.”
“But that’s a silly rule,” Elizabeth cries, stamping her foot. She looks like herself again now, her childhood self with mousy-blonde, practical hair that hangs just past her chin. She is afraid that once the prince arrives, she will change back. “Who says the king is the most important?”
The dragon does not reply. Elizabeth has finally learned the trick of asking questions.
“Dragon,” she says slowly. “I think I am in the wrong story.”
The dragon blinks. “Well,” he declares eventually, uncurling his tail. “What kind of story would you like?”
Climbing atop the dragon's back is an arduous process. Elizabeth begins at the tail and crawls hand over hand up the ladder of red scales, the paper bag crinkling with every movement. The dragon is filthy from years of setting fires, soot streaking up and down his flanks in wide, chalky rivers. By the time Elizabeth is finally situated she is panting and dirty, as blackened as the day she first rescued Ronald.
She finds, now, that it is easier to remember things.
"I'm ready," she tells the dragon, patting his side. She has tucked the melted crown under her arm for safekeeping.
"Are you sure?" the dragon asks, for perhaps the thousandth time. "Remember, we are going somewhere where there is no magic. And hardly any princesses."
Elizabeth rubs her bare feet along the dusty scales. "But the books have letters. And the buildings don't move. And I will get to pick my own story."
"Yes, Elizabeth," the dragon tells her, lifting his wings. "You will get to pick your own story."
"So," says Elizabeth. "That's enough."
Before they go, she has the dragon use his fiery breath to raise the castle, just one last time. As a personal favour, he breathes out enough flame to burn a thousand forests.
Together, they swoop away like ghosts through the smoke.
Many years later, when Elizabeth is truly grown, without magic or legends or apples, she finally goes to her first real ball.
(In fact, she goes to twelve.
But that's getting ahead of the story.)
As with all good balls, getting there involves a great adventure. Balls are never easily-won rewards. In Elizabeth's case, however, the adventure doesn't depend on a pumpkin carriage or a glass slipper, but four years of work and campaigning and—memorably—one very nasty debate. Elizabeth can hardly believe it when she wins. She's won before, of course, but only once.
(Twice, if you count very long ago with a dragon and a prince who liked to play tennis.)
This time, when Elizabeth stands up to make her victory speech, the crowd is much bigger. The chants of Warr-en, Warr-en, Warr-en go on for much longer, and the lights in Elizabeth’s face are dazzling. Since she can hardly make out the audience through the glare, the overall impression is of a great, bodiless voice calling her name again and again. Elizabeth stands at the podium and feels the hidden teleprompter shake with the noise.
“Four years ago,” she begins, and the crowd falls silent, like so many obedient students in a lecture hall (like talking animals in a wood). Elizabeth does not think she will ever get tired of that. “Four years ago, during one of the Senate debates, the moderator asked me why I thought the state of Massachusetts had never elected a female senator or governor. And I said I didn’t know.” The crowd roars, and Elizabeth holds up a hand. She is not, she has been told, allowed to jump up and down at this particular podium. “And then he asked, did it trouble me? And it did, it troubled me very much.”
She pauses, squinting into the lights. The speechwriters said she shouldn’t, that it would look too teacherlike with the glasses, but Elizabeth wants to see. To her left, a man is holding his daughter up on his shoulders. On her head is a plastic princess crown. “But then I thought about something that troubled me even more. Another position that a women had never held.”
The crowd screams. Warr-en, Warr-en, Warr-en.
When she’s sworn-in in January, there’s a snowglobe on the Oval Office desk. Inside it is a yellow-bellied dragon.
(Remember, Elizabeth tells her staff, we have only just arrived. We have only just begun doing what we need to do.
After all, as any good hero knows, the aftermath of the story is always the trickiest.)