You may believe you know this story all too well. In truth it begins with this: once upon a time, in a faraway land, a young Prince lived in a shining castle. Although he had dogs and horses aplenty, he fell short of that which his heart most desired: acceptance among his peers. The antecedents he claimed were unobjectionable, and he carried out his duties of service to the King without complaint, but somehow, he fell short. His feet were clumsy as they moved through the steps of a dance. His mouth curled with disgust as he pulled His Majesty’s sweat-sodden nightshirt over his head. There was a spark of wildness deep in those blue eyes. For these reasons and more, his fellows shunned him and sought not his company.
At first he rejoiced in his peace, and then the loneliness curdled the goodness of his soul. His lack of social engagements gave him more leisure than most, and when even hunting failed to cheer him, he turned to study of the arcane.
Perhaps at one point he had intended to impress the rest of the court with the knowledge he had mastered; but as the years wore on and his study progressed, he found himself falling even further from favor, and minding less and less. He was not yet thirty when he uprooted himself, his wife, and their infant son from the palace and retreated to the castle that was his patrimony.
Happily, the prince found himself perfectly content pursuing study and sorcery, surrounded by a staff whose sole object was his comfort. Less happily, the same could not be said for his spouse. She had wed him for love, true, but also for the hope that he would provide her with a better life than had her father. She had wanted extravagance and adventure, and found neither in the quiet castle she had secretly been relieved to leave behind. Domestic harmony can survive many things, but it cannot endure false promises, and so even that was denied our prince -- had he but taken the time to notice it.
His interests were far-reaching, and they may have even extended to clairvoyance. Possibly it was merely the memory of his own disdain of the fripperies of the royal court, and a shrewd guess as to how such disgust might have multiplied throughout the land. Whatever the reason, unlike his fellows, the prince failed to turn a blind eye to the unrest throughout the land. Before the insurrection came, he knew, he must take action.
His father would have turned to his guards. The prince turned to his greatest protectors: his books. And what they offered him was a course so unholy it would lead to his ruin.
It took effect slowly. One morning the inhabitants of the little village that bordered the castle woke to find themselves every bit as hungry at they had been, as destitute and derelict, but possessed with a newfound buoyancy and a predilection for song. The whispers from the capital of injustice grew fainter. Even the memories of the damnable aristocrats who were the architects of their misery faded.
Up in his workroom in the West Wing of the castle, the prince sat back in satisfaction. Before him a rose shone with unnatural light; he had already used a silver knife blessed with blood from seven weeping children to sever its thorns. Hatred, he reflected to himself happily, was so easy to manipulate. He rose, and went to the balcony, and plucked every petal from the rose before casting them to the winds, and congratulated himself on a job well done.
Time passed. The village smiled and sang through a winter of starvation; the castle feasted for the benefit of its three inhabitants; and dispassionately the prince and his wife heard of the reckoning that had come upon their peers who had remained in the palace. Years passed. The castle flourished, the villagers sang, and the prince had the temerity to hope for success.
It was not to last.
There came a summer's day when the princess rode out alone. It was her habit of long standing, largely due, as she said, to the paucity of other occupations. Under other circumstances, it might not have been perfectly safe, but the locals were so very placid, she had adopted Her Majesty's fashion of dressing simply.and besides, it was not that her husband the prince would take any notice even if she was subjected to any misfortune.
With this happy thought in her mind, she set out; but her ride was as free of interruptions by brigands or buffoons as ever. Just as she was riding back towards the castle, she heard her name called by a quiet female voice. Turning, she found only a plain middle-aged woman clothed in well-mended but worn clothing. A merchant, by the looks of things; terribly shabby.
Her request was simple. She was in desperate trouble; her husband had disappeared and she lacked the funds to go to Paris and search for him. Would Her Highness be so kind as to loan her a few sous, only to pay for the carriage ride there and back?
The princess considered. Her husband's disregard extended to the household finances, and surely the few coins this woman would need could go unnoticed. She was about to assent--when her gaze fell on the spectacular necklace that adorned the woman's neck. The princess had always had an eye for jewelry, and this lovely thing put to shame anything she had seen before.
"I should be delighted, my dear woman," said the princess, "but I shall need some collateral to ensure your word. I think that trinket you wear would do in a pinch."
The woman's eyes filled with tears. It was quite impossible. The necklace was all she had left of her long-dead father, a jeweler of some fame. She had nothing else to offer at the time, but once she did, all would be at Her Highness's disposal; only, please, not this!
"Then it is quite simple," said the princess, bored. "You shall not have your husband and you shall cease tiring me with your complaints."
The penitent let her shoulders sag. "Very well, then," she said. "It shall be as you choose, Highness." With shaking hands, she unclasped the necklace and gave it up to the princess, who, in return, threw a few coins to the ground. She did not wait for the other woman to pick them up before she spurred her horse onwards.
Once alone, the princess gave into temptation and looped the necklace around her neck. Not a soul knows what happened next, until her body was found the next morning, cool and stiff. Her clothing was undisturbed, there were coins scattered at her feet, and a series of stark red marks about her neck. Otherwise her neck was quite unadorned. The prince ordered an investigation, but the foresters, as afflicted by joy and content as their fellow villagers, attributed it only to a stray attack. Unfortunate, yes, but unlikely to ever recur; there was no need to worry.
The prince hung his head, defeated. For the first time he wondered if he had done quite the right thing, to protect his family and his power. Years passed. With time, his heart healed, as hearts will: it was certainly quieter without his wife's complaints, and his son had grown past the age where he would need a mother, and besides, that was what his nursemaid was for. Better to give the woman --foreign, yes, but trustworthy-- an allowance and have her stay on.
On an autumn sunset, the prince sat with his son in his workshop in the West Wing. He was amusing the boy with the magic mirror he had created early in his studies: a simple trick, only worthy of entertaining children. But it kept the brat quiet while the nursemaid gave birth, and the prince had to admit that his son had at least reached the age where he showed signs of a personality all his own. A loud one, all too similar to his mother's yes; but one not without potential. There was also the not insignificant fact that his son promised to grow up to be the image of his sire -- and that flattered the prince enough to indulge him.
On a whim, the prince reached for the magic mirror and ordered it to show him the greatest sorcerer in the world. He expected to find nothing but his own reflection, but instead found himself staring at a wild-eyed child standing at the gates of his own castle. The insolence was unacceptable. In a rage, he threw the mirror down -- his son let out a cry of dismay, but despite all odds, the mirror did not crack -- and reached for his cloak.
The prince gave orders. He was going out; he would be back soon; his son was not to leave the castle. If he did, there would be consequences upon the prince's return. With that, he was gone and the castle staff were left to gape after him.
He met the child at the gates, as pallid and pathetic as he had seen earlier. What was this frail ignorant creature to his powers? The prince sneered.
"Please, Monsieur," said the child, throwing herself at his feet. "You know why I have come so far to seek you out. Teach me what you know, I beg you!"
The prince, startled, could only laugh.
"I will serve you for a thousand years -- I will pay you in blood and tears and gold --I will be the most faithful heir of your power, if not your blood!"
The prince replied coldly that he needed no heir.
The child's face fell. "I see. Then you intend to pass on your skills to your son?"
This earned her another incredulous chuckle. His skills, to anyone else? No. They would die with him. Not a single grain of power would he yield, not to his son, not to her, not to any living soul.
"Very well," pronounced the child. "Then may it save you now."
In the space between one heartbeat and the next, she was gone. In her stead stalked a pack of wolves, grizzled and growling. The prince turned for the gates, but found they had shut behind him. What happened next all the world can guess.
And so one prince was buried, and another given the castle and the title in his stead. The new prince possessed none of his forebear's talent, save the knowledge of how his father had commanded the magic mirror to work and a faint memory of watching rose petals tumble from his nursery window as a child. There were those who hoped, therefore, that the deceased prince's spell might have shattered with his death; they were to be disappointed. The villagers remained as sunny and childlike as ever, and the hate that should have burned in their hearts shouldered elsewhere.
Years passed. The young prince grew as sullen and spoiled as his ancestors before him. Another winter came upon the land, harsh and cruel, and while the villagers starved, the prince sat at table. The years allotted him came to an end.
On a winter's night the crone approached. In one hand she carried a rose that shone with unnatural light. The winds howled a warning as she knocked on the castle door and begged shelter for the night, offering the rose in return.
She was refused, of course. But the majordomo who demurred on his master's behalf was sympathetic enough to let her crouch in the doorway, partially shielded from the chill. He could make no promises, he stressed, but he could arrange for the master to walk by on his way to bed. Surely the master's young tender heart would be moved by the sight. She had only to wait.
The crone waited for hours, watched the young prince snap and bellow at his servants through the window. When at last he stopped by the grand hall, and the maitre d' opened the door to find her with a practiced gasp of surprise, she met the prince's gaze squarely and repeated her plea.
The young prince studied the shapeless mass of rags, appalled. "Be gone," he told her, and turned away with no little relief.
She muttered something about appearances, and he ignored her. He had no words to explain that it was something more in her nature that repelled him - hair matted like wolves' fur, fingers that twisted and tightened as though they wanted to close around a pale neck.
"Be gone," he said again, roughly, and with that the world seemed to catch fire around him. Everything was light and pain, except golden hair loose beneath a crown (or was it a cap?) and the echo of her voice.
Brute, she called him, for his ears alone and beast and Your servants? Ha! Useless as furniture and as such they shall remain.
She held out the rose to him, and dimly he remembered rose petals falling. Father, he thought, Father, what have you done?
Oh yes Her voice was painful, terrible, and it would not stop. They will fall again, and this time, release all that your foolish father tried to trap away. You were always due this reckoning; and now the reprieve is almost over. It shouldn't be more than eight, ten years before the last petal falls, and when ten years' rage breaks free, I hope it comes for you, I do.
Her lips thinned for this final taunt: Look not so forlorn, Highness. Someday if you are fortunate, citoyen, some woman ennobled by spirit, not birth, might deign to take you. Until you are born again, and not as a prince of the blood, I commend you to this fate.
His vision cleared, slowly; he fell forward on all fours. Later he would take the time to study himself in the mirror, to take in what had become of him, to work out the most palatable half-truth to tell his servants to keep some meagre hope alive in their breasts.
For now, all he knew was this: She had turned her back to him; she was walking away. She would never return. He had only this one chance.
He growled and snarled but his throat and tongue, so altered in shape and size, would not allow him to form words. Later, his servants would assume he was trying to beg forgiveness of her, to plead for clemency for their sakes, if not his own. But she knew better; knew better, because she had been privy to a thousand men and women's dying curses.
Marianne, she offered. Call me Marianne when you consign me to hell.