Longlisted for the 2020 Voyage Short Story Award
The knight comes careless and proud, as they always do, as if he has a right to whatever this fort of roses holds. As if he has a right to you. I watch from the tower as he blurs the horizon and takes shape against the sky, riding for the castle at a gallop.
You’ve been so long sleeping the briars are scrabbling at the second-floor windows and the thorns are thick as my finger. When you wake up, the whole castle will be engulfed, thorns and roses, roses and thorns, a tomb for the sleeping cursed.
Over the years, visitors have pounded a gleaming path in the dust, all the way from the entrance hall to your bedchamber, a wound that just won’t heal. They come in twos and threes on the wings of their fairy tales, their stories warped in every retelling: a princess more beautiful than the dawn, an ogre feasting on bones, a crown for the knight who braves the thorns, kills the monster, and kisses the princess awake.
Don’t worry. You aren’t kissing anyone.
The visitors didn’t know the curse when the curse was only a threat. They never heard it repeated in exacting detail, unembellished, meticulously captured by people braced for impact. It isn’t their curse, so it isn’t etched in their memories, word for wretched word.
On her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall down, frozen in sleep. Every creature in her castle will join her in slumber, from the smallest mouse to the king himself, and nothing shall wake her for one hundred years.
No ogres, no kisses, no crowns. Just one hundred stolen years.
The knights, at least, usually leave once I explain there’s no ogre to defeat, once I promise you won’t wake up, however masterfully you are kissed.
The villagers aren’t so easily deterred.
They struggle through the briars to bring you coins and flowers. They don’t care if you aren’t waking up. They’d rather you didn’t. They want to see the princess more beautiful than the dawn, to stand one breath from a fairy tale. There’s nothing to do but show them to your chamber, to recite my stale script:
Leave the daisies outside, she’s allergic.
Don’t bother whispering—they’re not waking up.
I’ve told you three times, there’s no ogre here.
Don’t touch the sleepers, not even the princess.
Didn’t I say don’t touch the princess?
If you try to kiss the princess, I will cut your throat.
They call me ogre, I call them fools, and when they leave I feed their presents to the fire.
Now, the knight is near enough I can see the crest on his shield, the set of his jaw. He thinks you’re his to save. He has come to brave the thorns, kill the monster, kiss the princess. He has come for a crown.
~ * ~
I was in the orchard when it happened, basket full of plums, and all I saw were the roses. They exploded from the earth and clawed thick and thorny for the sky. Even through the trees, I could see they were cursed.
I dropped the basket and ran for the castle, your plums left behind, bruised in the dirt.
I ran for the castle and tore wild through the briars, hardly feeling the thorns. When I collapsed in the dirt on the other side, my skin was in tatters, my dress stained red as the roses. I might have cried out, but all I remember is the thud thud thud of my sprinting panicked heart.
I stumbled to my feet and dashed through the herb garden, and as I threw open the kitchen door, I understood it was already over.
The room was lumpy with bodies.
The baker’s head was pillowed on partly-kneaded dough, the scullery maid half-drenched in dishwater, the butcher’s fingers perilously near to her knives. Your birthday cake, ten tiers tall, and the pastry chef below, a piping bag in his hand, and three layers to go.
The briars were not a warning. They were a lament, the last handfuls of dirt on this sixteen-year-old grave.
There were more of them in the hall.
Spaced along the walls, our guards held halfway to standing by their armor, some still grasping swords, and at the end of the corridor, I could see the queen and her ladies like a heap of thrown-away dolls.
One of the king’s hounds was sprawled at the entrance to the ballroom, paws twitching in a dream. I knelt beside him and worked my fingers into his coarse fur, feeling the skin stretched over his ribs.
Still warm. Gently rising, gently falling.
But where were you?
There was only one option, only one place you could have been alone long enough to be enchanted. And you must have been enchanted, to ever touch a spinning wheel.
I left the dog in the hall and spiraled up the stairs to the tower, wishing my hands would stop trembling. Up and up I climbed, up and up and up.
If I was in the tower, if I wasn’t picking plums, I could have stopped you. I could have saved you.
Suddenly, like a puncture, I understood. Like a thorn snagging flesh, like a spindle piercing skin, I remembered you don’t even like plums. You did it on purpose. You sent me away and I trotted off to the orchard with a basket for your plums.
After all, what’s a servant girl against a curse? If I was in the tower, I’d probably be dead.
My hands were mangled from the thorns, smearing the banister with blood. I balled them into fists, crested those winding stairs, and stepped into the tower.
There you were.
A spinning wheel that hadn’t been here yesterday and you crumpled at its foot, sleeping gilded in afternoon light. Your arm was curled close to your chest, your hand folded under your chin, but there was that one wounded finger, that telltale bead of dark blood.
~ * ~
The knight leaves his horse at the briars and hacks at the brambles with his sword. I imagine thorns tearing him to ribbons, an ogre crunching on his bones. He sheathes the ineffectual sword and tears at the briars with his gloved hands.
By the time I reach the entrance hall, he’s pounding the door knocker, iron on iron, the sound harsh in the dusty hall.
I wish he’d fallen from his mount, cracked his skull on the flagstones like a raw bloody egg.
Thud. The knight throws his shoulder against the door. The wood only shudders and stills, solid as it is.
“That won’t get you in.” I slip my hand in my apron pocket, feeling the gritty leather of my dagger’s sheath. One never knows with men. “You might as well go home.”
The pounding stops. “Ahoy? Fair maiden? I’ve come to rescue the princess.”
Haven’t they all. “Our princess doesn’t need rescuing. Goodbye.”
“The villagers told me there was a princess who’d wake for a kiss, and an ogre who’d eat my bones.” He taps the door, and I can hear the smile in his voice. “Are you the ogre, then?”
I wrench open the door. The knight goes sprawling across the threshold. His chainmail rustles as he hauls himself to his feet.
“You’re not an ogre at all,” he says with a twinkle and a bow. He thinks he’s charming.
He shoulders into the hall. His face is bleeding from the thorns, gouged by scratches that might settle into small, jagged scars.
“The ogre is a story,” I say. “So is the kiss, the crown.”
“Thorns, ogre, kiss.” He counts them off on his fat, gloved fingers. “Defeated the thorns—why yes I did, aren’t my wounds dashing—now for the ogre!”
“Sir—” I loathe calling them sir, but knights are easily charmed by courtly manners. “There is no ogre to defeat. The curse is one hundred years of sleep. Nothing will wake her.”
His face glistens with sweat. “I think the ogre will be near the princess, don’t you?”
“There is no ogre here,” I snap. “I’ve told you three times.”
He blinks at me. “No ogre?”
Finally. “No ogre.”
Barely a beat, and he grins again. “Swell,” he says. “The job’s half done.” He throws an arm around my shoulders. “Now, tell me, sweetheart, where’s the princess?”
~ * ~
After you pricked your finger, I couldn’t bear the thought of ghosting through the castle, stumbling on all these softly breathing sleepers, all these people I used to know.
I rolled them onto scavenged sheets and dragged them through corridors, down staircases, into the cavernous ballroom. For three months I searched the castle and heaved the bodies and slowly, slowly, the ballroom filled with sleepers. I arranged them in tidy rows, like an infirmary, an orphanage. A place for the lost.
Except for you.
Dainty, you called me. You wouldn’t have guessed I could carry you, but I did.
You’d only been a few hours sleeping. You still smelled like you as I bore you with quivering arms down the spiral stairs, all the way from the tower, and settled you gently on your canopy bed.
“Have adventurous dreams,” I whispered. Sweet would bore you.
Then I snatched a sword from the guard sleeping in your doorway and I took his dagger too. I marched through the castle, up the spiral stairs, up to the tower, and I hacked that spinning wheel to bits.
Swords aren’t made for chopping, but the spinning wheel was flimsy with magic. It fell to fragments as I swung the sword again and again, splinter and snap. The sword was heavy, but I kept slashing until the spinning wheel was gone.
I left the sword upon the heap of jagged kindling. I kept the dagger in my apron pocket. That morning, there were a hundred guards to keep you safe. Now, it was only me and the briars.
The villagers say our castle is haunted, and I think they’re right. After all, what’s the difference between a ghost and a dream? It’s been five years of dreaming, and I’m worried I’ve dreamed a princess more beautiful than the dawn, a fairy tale version of you. I know I’ve dreamed a fairy tale me: a ghost girl who waits and waits, who never says goodbye, who turns to stone to watch her princess sleep.
But I’d rather haunt the castle with you than haunt the world alone.
~ * ~
The knight claps me on the shoulder and sets off loudly down the corridor.
He runs his hands along the tapestries as he walks. Clouds of dust billow from the fabric, turning the gray air grayer. I take a deep breath. I’ve come to expect reverence, perhaps a bit of awe. We are a fairy tale, after all.
“Lovely castle you’ve got here,” he calls over his shoulder. “You’re a wonderful maid, aren’t you?” I’m close enough to hear him breathe through his mouth, but that doesn’t stop him shouting. “Keeping everything so clean.”
“You’ll notice I’m particularly attentive to the tapestries,” I say drily. We’re leaving a path of footprints in the dust, clear as fresh-fallen snow.
He halts at the entrance of the ballroom. “Are those people?”
“And a few dogs, cats.” I step into the archway, standing as far from him as I can manage. “Every creature in her castle…”
“How are you awake?”
Because I was in the orchard, basket full of plums. He doesn’t wait for an answer.
He picks his way to the center of the dancefloor, where he stands surrounded by bodies. He turns in a slow, astonished circle, taking in the rows of sleeping forms. He kneels beside a page in dusty breeches.
“Don’t touch them!” I take a breath, soften my voice, inch toward him through the bodies. “They’re just sleeping, there’s nothing—”
“Is that the king?”
The knight bounds across the sleepers, hurtling them as if they’re nothing but roots in the path, and crouches beside the sleeping king.
I always meant to bring your parents to their chambers, but I couldn’t bear their somber faces, brows furrowed and lips pursed like they’re dreaming of your bleeding finger. So I quickly dragged them to the ballroom, arranged them together near the dais for their thrones. When I come through to sweep cobwebs from gaping mouths and brush dust from lidded eyes, I avoid their empty thrones, their sad sleeping faces.
“How do I look?”
The knight is wearing the crown. It’s gold and pearls and the king’s, and the knight is wearing it on his own undeserving head.
“Take that off.” My hand is in my pocket, reaching for my dagger before I know what I’m doing. “Now.”
He chuckles but doesn’t remove the crown. “There’s another one for you,” he says. “No need to be jealous.”
He plucks the queen’s circlet from her head and flings it to me.
I catch it, barely, by my fingertips. I always imagined the first crown I touched would be yours, that I would nestle it in your hair for your coronation.
I carefully return the queen’s crown to her head, then grab the knight by his arm. “What will your princess say if she knows her rescuer likes to play catch with her mother’s crown?”
He blinks at me, then dips into a courtly bow and sweeps the king’s crown from his head.
I tug the crown from him and return it to the king, settling it among his curls, so much like yours. “It’s time for you to go home.”
“What’s the rush?” He gallops off through the ballroom, toward the corridor that leads to your bedchamber. “I haven’t even met the princess!”
~ * ~
You loved the ballroom, and balls, and dancing, and you taught me to love it too under a full moon, once everyone else had gone to sleep.
“Into the dress,” you said, dangling a gown I knew weighed more than a horse. “There are shoes in the wardrobe, those clunking boots of yours just won’t do.”
“Princess…” I took the dress, silk. “Shouldn’t you go to sleep?”
You laughed like bells and birdsong, like we were already at a party. “We’re dancing!”
“I don’t know how to dance.”
“Dear Anna.” You patted my cheek. “You will.”
You bullied me into the dress and laced it tight. Then, from the back of your wardrobe, you produced a pair of breeches and a velvet evening coat.
I folded my arms, concealing the gown’s generous neckline. “Where did you get those?”
“The next-door prince and I made a trade,” you said, daring me to be scandalized. “You remember my dress for Mother’s birthday? Ghastly, the ghastliest, but he’s darling in lace.”
“And you’re darling in breeches?”
“Oh, I think I am.” You sat down to wriggle into your pants. I hovered awkwardly, smoothing my skirts again and again. “Anna, Anna, Anna in silk,” you murmured, tracing a seam of your pants from hip to knee. “How lovely you are.”
I froze. Lovely?
I was beginning to see you were unconventional, but unconventional didn’t take away your crown. I searched for a reply, found none, and tugged at that lovely ill-fitting dress.
You fastened the last button of your breeches, tucked in a blouse with extravagant sleeves, then gave me a dazzling smile. As if you hadn’t said anything out of the ordinary, as if you hadn’t blurred the lines.
“Let’s go.” You shimmied into the coat. “Moonlight’s wasting.”
I followed you through the cavernous halls, stumbling in my heavy gown. You put an arm around my waist, and I felt painfully like a princess, a precious and beautiful thing. In the ballroom, you pulled me to the very center of the dance floor. The marble was slick on my slippers, your slippers. Princess shoes.
“I’ll be the man.” You stepped close and slipped your hand into mine. As the other settled at my waist, you nodded at my floating, gratuitous hand. “That goes on my shoulder, Anna. You’re the girl.”
I placed it on your shoulder. “Yes, princess.”
And we were dancing, you in the lead, me stumbling after, and I was remembering your fairy gifts, that you could dance perfectly even in breeches. I was already clumsy and the gown didn’t help, but you kept one hand in mine, the other at my waist, and you never let me fall.
~ * ~
The knight smashes like a cannonball through the castle, knocking into this and that, leaving a trail of fractures and dents and broken things. There’s no one to hear him, but I find myself wincing at his noise, at my own too-loud voice as I shout after him.
“Which way to the princess?” he demands.
“You won’t be touching the princess.” It comes out breathy, unthreatening.
He barely spares a glance for me, just a flick of his chin, then he’s bounding up the grand staircase toward the bedchambers.
I imagine darting up behind him, a quick foot at the right moment, his nose cracking on the stone. I imagine him slipping, falling thud thud thud all the way down, landing in bruised unconscious mass.
You would have relished a chance at this knight. You wanted weapons and adventures, enemies to fight. If the castle was yours to defend, there would be blood on the flagstones, invaders buried in the orchard.
I want to be brutal, for you, but I can’t bring myself to be anything but tired.
“It’d be faster if you helped,” the knight shouts, slamming a door open and letting it bang shut. “Aren’t maids supposed to be helpful?”
“I’m not your maid.”
He pauses and looks me over, his gaze moving from my scuffed boots to my scowling face. His eyes linger at my hips, my breasts.
“Bet you’re tired of this big empty castle,” he says. “How long have they been sleeping? Two years? Three? How about this—when I wake the princess, you can come with us. I don’t have an estate, but her gold will build a castle and one to spare. You can have your own bedroom, like a lady!”
“I’m not a lady.” I’ve not forgotten who I am. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He shrugs. I’m just another thing to take or claim or use. I’m not worth more effort than he’s given. He storms down the corridor, flinging open doors, muttering under his breath about unhelpful maids.
He’s getting near your chamber and my mind is whirling, searching for the right thing to say, the perfect deception, a chandelier to drop, a wardrobe to topple.
“Well, well, well, would you look at that.”
He’s spotted your shining doorknob, free of dust, the only thing that sets your door apart.
I wedge myself between the knight and your door. “Didn’t I say don’t touch the princess?”
“You might have,” he says, then shoves me aside.
It’s like colliding with a horse. I’m thrown to the ground, my elbow clashes into the stones, and the knight steps over me to reach for your door.
~ * ~
You sprawled across your canopy bed, one foot braced against the wooden post, your hair a delicious tangle and your nightgown twisting in your legs. You traced your foot up the carvings in the post, stretching your leg, pointing your toes, letting your silk nightgown fall toward your hips.
You’d asked me to stay the night in your bed, and here I was, my nightshirt spun roughly from wool, with no idea why the prospect was so thrilling.
Out of nowhere, responding to nothing at all, you murmured, “Anna, Anna, Anna in wool.” Then, louder, “I’m thinking about men.”
Something snarled in my chest, wicked and unknown. “Why?”
“It’s time for a betrothal, haven’t you heard?” You let your leg drop with a thump. “A princess should be betrothed by sixteen. Do you think they’ll let me wear breeches for the wedding?”
The queen, it seemed, was better at denial than you were.
“I’ve never even kissed a boy,” you said dispassionately. “Have you?”
I shook my head.
“Have you thought about it?”
No, I hadn’t thought about kissing boys, but your nightgown was too thin, your bare leg mere inches from mine, and I was thinking about kissing you. You looked up at me, something of a challenge in your jaw, something like hope in your eyes, and I wondered if you were thinking about kissing me too.
I looked away. “Maybe.”
I’d cut an invisible rope, all the tension suddenly snapped and gone. You sat up too quickly, fixing your nightgown. “You’re lucky. No one will force you to get married.”
I offered something a friend might say. “But you’ll be the perfect wife. All those fairy gifts—”
“Useless party tricks,” you barked. “If I was a fairy, I wouldn’t waste my magic on pretty faces and perfect pitch. I’d make people powerful.”
I couldn’t imagine being powerful any more than I could imagine you powerless.
“I wish they made me strong instead. When will I ever need to play the harp?”
“You are strong.”
“Or brave!” you said. “I’m a coward—don’t tell me I’m not. Oh, I would have liked to be brave.”
I thought of all the things a braver me would do. “Me too, princess.”
You stiffened, and too late, I understood what this was all about.
You wanted me to be your equal.
Just for a while, just for the night, and that was something I didn’t know how to do. We were sitting together in your bed, but I couldn’t imagine myself powerful, I couldn’t imagine you powerless. I called you princess and broke the spell.
You jerked your arm away and hugged your knees to your chest.
“What if, instead of dancing and singing and all that, I could ride bareback at a gallop, or shoot a bow with impeccable aim, or climb trees to the highest branch?”
“You’d need another pair of breeches,” I said, hoping to make you laugh.
You were so far from here, I’m not sure you even heard. You stared into the dark, brow furrowed. A lock of hair had fallen across your face, fluttering in your breath.
“What if instead of beautiful,” you whispered, “I was impenetrable?” There was the faintest tremble in your voice. “What if…nothing could ever hurt me? What if I could never bruise or bleed?”
What if you didn’t have to prick your finger? What if you didn’t have to fall asleep?
Before I could respond, you blew out the candle. Without another word, you plopped into your pillows, rolled over and away.
I sank down beside you. You never liked talking about the curse, and where else could we go from here? I kept my eyes on your back, your tangle of moonlit hair.
If I was a fairy, I could have made you stronger than iron. I could have given you a sword that never dulled and a voice that never wavered. I could have made you a warrior instead of a wife.
But you had never needed magic to be fierce.
“At least they didn’t make me patient,” you murmured into the dark. “Wouldn’t you hate to be patient?”
~ * ~
The knight slams open your door and storms into your chamber.
I scramble to my feet, pulling myself up on the door handle. My voice is weak. “If you try to kiss the princess—”
“Dark in here!” he booms. He marches over to the windows, tracking dirt on your rug. He doesn’t notice the dirt, the finely made rug. He doesn’t even notice you. He winks at me, then rips open the curtains. Sunlight barrels in. “She shouldn’t wake up in the dark.”
“She’s not waking up at all.” I try to position myself between the knight and your bed. “I’ve told you the curse.”
His back to the sunny window, he’s nothing but shadows. He could be anyone. He could be an ogre. “Oh, settle down,” he says. “Won’t hurt to try.”
“She doesn’t want to kiss you.” I’m proud of my voice, nearly a snarl. I bump into something and realize I’ve backed into your bed.
“What are you?” He steps into the room, away from the window, and his features swim up from the shadows. “Her nursemaid?”
I wish you were here. I wish I was brave.
“Jealous? I can kiss you too.”
“If you try to kiss the princess—”
“She’s asleep,” he says. “She won’t know what hit her.”
He’s only a foot away now, and I can smell his sour sweat. He’s too large for your quiet room, too loud for our sleeping castle.
“If you try to kiss the princess,” I whisper, “I will cut your throat.”
Then he sweeps me aside again, one careless chainmail arm against my chest, and he leans over your sleeping form. He is going to kiss you.
Before I know what I’m doing, before I’ve made a choice, I grab him by the scruff at the nape of his neck and pull. He stumbles back, blinking in the sun, and he doesn’t see my dagger until it’s at his throat.
Skin tears so easy.
He falls with a sputter, a thump, and now he’s bleeding, bleeding onto your dirty rug, bleeding like I’ve ripped open the sea, bleeding, and he looks up at me like what have you done, then his eyes flutter, flicker and shut.
He might be sleeping, but for the gaping wet mouth of his neck. The whole room smells of salt and iron.
The blood seeps toward my foot and I back up, but I can’t look away. I can’t close my eyes.
Are you dreaming blood?
I sink onto your bed, crushing the duvet. I realize I’m still clutching the dagger. I realize I’m shaking. There’s blood on my hand, blood on the velvet. I fling the dagger away, and it clatters once, twice, then everything is silent.
I am so tired of silence.
I fold down beside you, huddling against your still, sleeping body. I lay my head against your chest and trace a trembling finger over your lips. I inhale the dusty, forgotten smell of you. I force myself not to think of the blood on my dagger, the knight on the floor, the fools who will come again tomorrow.
I think only of you, the warmth of you against my cheek.
There, and there, there’s the faithful march of your heart. There’s the familiar whoosh, rush, sigh of your lungs.
I close my eyes.
I match my breath to yours.
~ * ~
The orchard was all in blossom, all the plum trees and quinces and pears, and petals swirling on the wind. You tilted your face up, eyes closed, wishing on these drifting stars. Petals lighted in your hair, and you laughed and asked me to pluck them away.
The fairies made you beautiful, but they couldn’t have made you like this—so precisely and perfectly flawed. They couldn’t have magicked the dimple of your nose, the spray of freckles under your eyes, your too-full bottom lip.
You caught my wrist. “Anna?”
“What is it, princess?”
“Call me Talia.” Tentatively, you brought my hand to your face. When I didn’t pull away, you pressed your cheek into my palm. “Please, Anna, it’s just Talia.”
With my skin against yours, I was weightless as the petals. “What is it…Talia?”
You smiled, satisfied, and your hand slid from my wrist to cradle my elbow. Your other hand found my waist, traced along my apron strings, tugged me closer. Our bodies only a breath apart.
“Is this alright?”
You were truly asking, perhaps even pleading, and how desperately I wanted to say yes, oh yes, but you were the princess, and I was your servant, and I was not allowed to be in love with you.
This was before, when I still thought a heart could break, when I was terrified of giving mine to you: bare and bloody and beating your name.
I lurched back, out of your arms.
“I’m sorry!” You hid your face in your hands. “That was dreadful of me, wasn’t it? I’m the princess, your princess. You must have felt so obligated. You must have felt trapped! Did you feel trapped, Anna?”
You peered at me through your fingers, and it was your sadness that made me brave. I was in love with you, and for a moment, I stopped pretending I wasn’t. For a moment, I dropped my mask.
“Talia.” Talia, Talia, I’ll follow you anywhere. “I do not feel trapped.”
“Oh.” You drew a ragged breath. “Good.”
Then I pulled you close and kissed you under the apple trees.
We knew it wasn’t forever.
We knew you’d get married or fall asleep and either way, this would be over.
I know this isn’t forever.
I know when you wake up, your mother will marry you to a prince. You’ll say Oh, Anna, Anna, Anna in blood, how can I ever repay you? and I’ll lace you into your wedding dress with a thorns-and-roses smile.
But maybe you’ll love me still, and I’ll love you, and maybe we’ll keep loving each other in sweet sanctuaries, orchards, and bedchambers and ballrooms in moonlight. Maybe we’ll keep loving each other, secret and stolen.
I have to believe we’ll keep loving each other.
In the orchard that day, we kissed and kissed. We sat under the apple trees with petals in our hair, then crept back to the castle and slept all night in your canopy bed.
Then, like a happy ending, like a fairy tale…
We woke up.