Or steaming here:
Once upon a time you're a princess, and your life is normal. Well, as normal as it gets when you're a princess. It's all noble christenings and fairies and blessings and etiquette and quietly watching your mother navigate court life and your father rule court life. (Except you notice that, really, your mother and your father both navigate and rule and that maybe they're a lot more complementary than you ever thought.)
But you don't care. You don't care that your mother's power — terrifying power, that ruins lives and builds reputations and creates kings — will one day be yours. You don't want it. You don't want corsets and teas and wines and dainty snacks. You want the stables and muddy boots and your horse (astride, not side saddle). You want to be curled up on the chaise in your bedroom with a novel and toast dripping honey, not surveying a room from a throne with whispers in your ears and perfume in your nose and poison on your tongue. You bow to your mother's power, but you fear it and it's alien to you. But you are the only heir.
Your lineage is woven into a tapestry that hangs in a dusty attic room. Once, you trace your family back, as far as you can, clambering on top of a step-stool that you place on a chair that is in turn resting on bureau, standing on your tiptoes to see as high as you can, although the tapestry climbs higher still. You see that there's always one girlchild born per generation and no other babe. You don't ask why. You saw your mother the day that your sister-to-be was stillborn, you saw the grotesque corpse before they burned it, and you saw the flames turn chartreuse as they devoured the twisted thing. You'll never have a sibling.
So you talk to your fairy godmother. She's been around a long time and seen a lot. She was your mother's fairy godmother, and her mother's before her, helping the women of your line with a bit of common sense and a bit of fairy dust and maybe a little bit too much happily-ever-after. But you can see the threads of fate tangling up and drawing ever-tighter in the corner of your eye, and perhaps she can help.
And your fairy godmother frowns and makes an offer. And it's an offer you can't take, to shunt the kingdom aside so that you can escape your weirding. She says, "It would twist the very bones of this land, dearie. You're the anointed heir, and to corrupt yourself is to corrupt it. But I just want your happiness, and I'll do it, if you ask." And she smiles with sharp, pointed teeth, and you know the answer is no, no you will not lay aside your duty, your kingdom, your doom.
And she smiles again, and why did you ever think her teeth were pointed? They're as blunt as yours and your mother's and your blesséd-father-that-was before his unfortunate hunting accident. "That's a responsible princess, that's a good girl," she says and pats you on the head, and you burn.
You still don't ask questions, but instead of fleeing to the stables you haunt the rooms of the courtiers and the corridors of the servants. You watch and listen and stay oh-so-quiet as people ebb and flow around you. And so you hear of sorcery and witchcraft, of quests and battles, of curses broken with kisses and curses broken with spells and curses broken with curses.
Finally you ask. You ask the kingdom, the land that you will one day protect and rule. You are (will be) its chosen avatar, and sometimes it… helps. A little. If it can. So you step past the castle gates and ask the kingdom's aid and start walking.
You come to a door in the woods, the deepest, darkest woods, and there's a woman there. And when she opens the door and sees you standing on her threshold, dirty and miserable, she laughs and laughs, peals of laughter, and you take in her peculiar clothes and her weird devices that make sound appear in thin air and her strange hair — it's so short, you've never seen a woman's hair so short, and you envy her it, that it doesn't need one hundred strokes before bed or oils and unguents and powders.
And you ask her a question, too. You ask if she can break your curse — surely you're under a curse, to be so discontented when you have a fairy godmother guarding the happily-ever-after awaiting you. And she says, "Sure, honey, we can do that. It's taken more energy to keep you and yours away from the slipstream of history than in it. I can break that spell if you want." Her eyes glitter. You don't look away, and she continues. "You're really okay giving up the legacy your grandmother, and her grandmother before her, left you?" You nod. "Okay, then, that's easy enough. There, it's done. Good luck, sweetheart."
And you're confused, but you go back home. And the kingdom still shows you the way, helps you along, gives you soft places to rest when you are weary and food when you are hungry (although gutting rabbits is not your favorite pastime) and water when you are thirsty. But now the paths are different, hard, smooth, black surfaces with lines instead of game trails, and sometimes monochrome carriages rush past faster than a dragon and you are so confused.
And then you're home, but home is different. And your mother is gone and the servants are gone, and instead there's dust and shadow and automatons, no longer little diversions on clocks but you-sized and larger, bustling about the household. One gives you a letter. You read it, and your mother tells you that you've broken the spell-blessing-curse and thrown away all the wishes of your foremothers who dreamt of happily-ever-afters with their princes, damn you-bless you. She's going out in the world, and you are now the queen of nothing and should have fun rotting in the castle like the fool you are.
You don't cry.
You enter the library, and suddenly it's bigger, full of books you've never seen before, bindings that aren't calf or morocco or shagreen, and you run your hands over them and start reading. You read about histories you've never heard of, revolutions and riots and rights gained and lost and gained again. You read about fashions that look outlandish and fashions that look comfortable. You read about entire new vistas of natural philosophy that unfurl themselves before you.
The automatons give you jeans when you start taking care of the garden.
Sometimes you slip into the village, and you know it and know it not. Gaston, whom you remember as a braggart hunter, swaggers past in light brown pants and shirts with Greek letters. Bethany and Maria no longer bake bread; instead they make the most exquisite pastries and put them on plates with tiny cups of coffee and charge exorbitant prices. Jean-Paul the bookseller has become Jean-Paul the tavern owner; rumors around town suggest that unsavory radicals meet there every night, but you're pretty sure it's just boisterous students dreaming.
You know you shouldn't discount their dreams — yours changed reality — but they're so silly. They've never seen what happens when a man dies of poison or a woman would just as soon slit your throat as look at you. You've survived your mother's court as her heir: you know.
You know you say the wrong things, do the wrong things, laugh at the wrong places. The land is still your kingdom, still hums in your bones, but its people are none of yours. You watch the way the villagers, who are no longer under your care and your mother's will, contemplate you with puzzlement, with disdain, with kindness, with pity, with humor. The nice ones don't blink at your oddities, but you feel as if you're speaking different languages.
Objectively speaking you are, your tongue informed by a reality that they can't perceive, shaped by the sylvan whispers of elves and the guttural cries of centaurs. Except you can't perceive them any more, either, and you wonder if it is you or they who are the liar.
You see her one day, the woman you met in the woods, and she smirks at you and nods her head. Startled, you stare like the rabbits you once gutted as she slips away.
You retreat, wondering if she can undo what she has done. Years and years later you realize that she can't, that she's cancelled a spell, not enacted one, but you don't know that yet. Instead you know that your world is gone, that you live in a castle of clockwork instead of courtly dances, and that you don't fit into this world either, even if you like the clothing more. You know that if you try to leave the borders of the land in which you were born — borders narrower than you remember them, woods on one side, village on the other — your muscles cramp and your lungs spasm and it's not worth it, not even for the long-dreamt-of sojourn at university. Still, you'll take this wildness over the court-that-was, rude mechanicals over ruder servants.
So you hide from the woman, from yourself, from this weird, strange world you now inhabit. And you rattle around your castle, reading and tending roses and talking to clockworks. You might go a little mad. You certainly lose all the graces your mother beat into your head. You wanted to lose those anyway.
And then she comes. Belle. Curious and tall and talkative. She's there on a dare, she says, as part of her initiation into some sort of club you never quite sort out, but she's there. And she talks to you, even though you terrify her, your hair rough-shorn and your manners degenerate. She asks your name and you shrug. "I am a fool," you say, "that is all." She's skeptical, but she doesn't press.
She leaves and comes back, and you begin to talk. You talk about brewing, and she takes you to Jean-Paul's tavern and guides you through the long list of beers he serves. You talk about dancing, and you teach her to waltz, properly, instead of the rhythmless flailing that she insists is adequate. You talk about hats, and you gift each other the ugliest hats you can find at the milliner's boutique.
Eventually, you even begin to argue. You argue about books — she loves fiction and you devour history — and you argue about vegetables — she recognizes their necessity but you relish crunching into carrots and broccoli and peppers — and you argue about dessert — she prefers tart and you prefer sweet.
You want to hold her close. You want to make her to run away lest your touch warp her. Your own mother condemned you — your last contact with her was the note she left with the automatons — and your fairy godmother abandoned you — you haven't seen her since the night you asked for her help and then refused her gift. You have no kingdom to offer and no dowry to give.
Belle doesn't run away.
Instead she keeps coming back. And it takes years, but you grow together. And you sort out the shreds of your life in this new world — "It's the modern world," Belle says, laughing, "enjoy ice cream and the internet with me" — and you find yourself.
You find yourself working at the boarding stable on the edge of the village, mucking out the stalls of other people's horses and remembering how to sooth them, not spook them with your wild mien. You take correspondence courses using the village library's computers and work your way through all of the botany and zoology courses offered. You discover that you're terrible at bluffing when Adele, the village mechanic, talks you into joining the penny-ante poker game at her shop. You trade gardening tips with a few people and suddenly you're writing a monthly blog for the village website about horticulture which becomes writing book reviews (you never review fantasy novels) and an irregular column on wine and viticulture. You miss the satyr-nurtured vintages you once knew, but you have a fine time — and endure no few aching heads — searching for comparable libations.
You and Belle go on dates and she cooks for you and you nurture artichokes, the only vegetable she admits to liking, for her. She tinkers with the automatons and helps you sort through the mounds of stuff in the castle, some of it valuable — the gem-encrusted ornaments, the candlesticks, the rugs — some of it junk &mash; the rotted spinning wheels, the rusted smithy tools, the mice-chewed quilts — and some of it unexpected — the cache of eyeglasses, the brown-glass jars, cabinet full of blue pigments. The gems are sold and the candlesticks are kept and the pigments are given to the community center for their art classes.
You still can't leave, not really, but you can strain the bonds tying you to your kingdom-that-was enough to go two towns over and see her wear a funny hat and a funny smock and walk across a stage as part of an indistinguishable mass of people when she completes her studies. She leaves and comes back. You fight and make up.
You stand together, she and you, and it works. It's love.