They say the Queen of Lirsee need only smile and all disputes are resolved. They say her husband the King turns water into liquid gold with which he can paint the walls of the castle.
And they say the Prince is so brave dragons would lay down at the feet of his charger.
My mother tells me what is said of me: that I am charming enough to escape any trouble, but that I don’t bother because I enjoy wrapping trouble around me like a blanket.
When we receive word that the Prince of Lirsee wishes my hand, Mother glances at Father. He shrugs and glances to me.
"I don’t know," I protest, flinging up my hands. I knock the silver coronet from my head and it smacks into the corner of the dining table before rolling across the rug to where Mother’s dogs gnaw on a plate of ribs. At the tittering laughter from the lower table, I press my lips together and force a merry smile.
Lord Donovan calls, "Things are so perfect in Lirsee, Highness, that the Prince decided he needs – "
I stand, raising my eyebrows all the way to my browline, lifting a meat pie off the platter.
" – needs a calming, lovely influence," Donovan finishes with a grin and I resist lobbing the pie in his direction.
I go. The Royal family of Lirsee has called me, and so I must. I pack two trunks of my best riding habits and dancing gowns, my paints and thick paper, my minimal jewels and at least two gold-embroidered robes: one for my introductions and one for my wedding.
Mother kisses my forehead and whispers that I must not look for trouble in the Queen’s court. She promises to send pups from the next litter. Father embraces me and the rims of his eyes are tight and red. He opens his mouth to speak, but in the end only shakes his head and hugs me again.
We travel along the coast and as we approach Lirsee City I hear more stories of the Royal family’s greatness. Even the beggars in the street smile when they hear the Prince’s name, and they kiss the Queen’s face on the coins I toss them.
How will I ever live to be loved so much? How will they think of my slight stature and boyish way of walking? My inability to hold in a laugh? I cannot be demur and when I dance it is with joy, not skill.
My woman, Therese, touches my elbow as the tall golden walls of Lirsee City loom overhead. "He chose you for a reason, my lady. Hold that in your heart and lift your head high. He asked for you."
The official robe is so heavy with embroidery and pearls that I must walk slowly. Beneath the robes I wear my riding boots and trousers which make me remember who I am.
Servants pause and bow as I pass with my women and footmen. My shoulders are stiff and my heart pounds so rapidly I am lightheaded and spare a moment’s humor in thanks that the heavy robe will keep me from floating away. As we reach the throne hall and pause in the antechamber to await the herald, everyone around me gasps and goes to their knees.
Too startled, I look to the side door with my mouth ajar.
It is the Prince. He smiles, and my worries melt away. With soft steps he crosses to me and takes my hands. "Ah, my dear," his voice smoothes over me like warm milk. His hands are soft and his face as beautiful as any story. I’ll never be able to paint him.
"No distress, I implore you, Princess."
My open mouth is dry, but I swallow fiercely to say, "I only realize that it will be impossible to capture you on paper, sir." It is a ridiculous first thing to tell my husband.
But he laughs. He laughs and I want to cry for relief. His face is like a sun and my only thought is to please him. To kick off my riding boots and allow him to chose delicate slippers for me.
"This way, my love!" The Prince sweeps me under one arm and pushes open the arched doors with the other.
Light blinds me; the throne hall’s open glass ceiling and silver walls shine to brightly, my eyes water. But I keep my feet moving at the Prince’s side. I wish not to lose him, or I’ll wander through all this glittering like a baby.
There are people bowing in pastel gowns and jackets, smiling and waving and laughing with one another. All their eyes on me, like paired jewels in every color of the sky. The Prince’s hand is warm and I cling to it. When we stop and he spreads out his arm to present me, I lift my head to the impossibly high thrones.
One is draped in gold and green, and upon it the King reclines. His beard seems to be twined, curling gold, and his hands grip the arms of the throne firmly. I feel suddenly safer than I ever have in my life.
The other spills with blue and white cloth. The Queen tilts her head at me and I cannot breathe for her beauty. Her eyes are like the oceans; a dozen colors at once, and each deeper and wiser than me.
I am certain now that this country is the greatest in all the worlds.
They speak, and I speak, but I don’t know what I’m saying. Nothing bad, for the smiles continue and the light holds me up. The Prince kisses my fingers and we are dancing. Everyone can see my riding boots, but I don’t care.
The Prince leads me down a long red hallway to a small door. "Here is your chamber tonight, for you to become what you are meant to become, that we may be married in the morning."
I don’t understand what he means, but he is holding my face between his hands and smiling, so I still can’t bring myself to care. He kisses my lips and my eyes close against the overwhelming nature of his nearness. I am hot, flushed, and I want to shrug out of my robe so he can see what I am on the inside. So he can see my trousers and vest – the proof that I am what he asked for. Myself.
He leaves me just inside the doorway and I hear the lock tumble.
The tiny sound rattles something lose and I sigh, slowly sinking to my knees. I unlatch all the hooks of my robe so that it falls stiffly around me. "Therese?" I call. Surely my women were directed here to aid me. And my trunks.
But I am alone in the large circular room. A tower. This level is a sitting space, with sofas and small breakfast tables, bookshelves and a wide windowseat against a blue stained-glass window. To my left is the dark archway where the stairs must be.
Where am I? Which tower? And why alone? I smile to myself, thinking that perhaps I am to pray and mediate until morning like a knight before his instatement.
A motion in the dark stairway has me on my feet, the dagger from my boot in my hand.
"Oh, I like that."
The voice is but a whisper, harsh and laughing.
"Who is there?" My palms are suddenly clammy, and I feel aching in my head like I’ve drunk too much.
The figure slips forward to lean against the arch.
The Prince! But no – I fling a glance at the locked tower door. "You…" A brother? A secret brother no one knows?
He laughs slowly, taking a step with every chuckle. "I am he."
The gaslamps shed light on his face, and it is the Prince, but not the Prince. Harder jaw, eyes deeper beneath his brow, darker brown irises lacking that sparkle of rich earth. A derisive twist to his lips.
My skin pricks with cold. I shake my head. "Tell me your name."
"I am the Prince. Or rather, we are both the Prince." He shrugs. "Welcome Lady Emely. I’ve wanted to meet you for some time."
"Explain." I flip my dagger so the blade runs parallel to my forearm and crouch.
The UnPrince walks strangely, without the grace of his twin. His beauty is cold; the moon to the Prince’s sun. As he comes closer I see the sallow tint to his cheeks. His weak muscles and thin torso. Disdain where the Prince smiled only with bright humor. Here is the Prince, but all the opposite parts of the Prince. And the UnPrince stops just out of the reach of my blade. He is a coward, too, where the Prince is brave.
My hand is shaking. "Explain!"
"We need wives. Both of us, not only him."
"Not that – not me. Explain you. You were born together?"
The UnPrince shrugs. "In a way. We grew together, and then we parted on our ninth birthday."
I shake my head. I don’t understand.
"Our country is blessed by this, Lady Emely. Lady Wife To Be." His eyes scrape down me. "You will be glorious. Both of you."
All I can do is stand there. I am trapped. The tower door is locked.
"Come with me."
Up the tower he leads me, past a room filled with machines and toys from every corner of the world. And a very large bed. It is not a bad place to live, he murmurs. All the windows are stained a dark color. Light will come in, but no forms of the country or city below. The next story is another sitting room, less formal, with piles of books and an ink-stained desk. "I’m told you paint," the UnPrince says. "There is good light through the yellow window."
I numbly keep climbing after him to the top floor.
Here is another bed, draped in green and blue, with two figures sitting upon it. Their hands are clasped together and when we arrive they smile.
The UnQueen’s smile is thin and her teeth yellowing. When the UnKing bares his teeth at me I shudder. Their skin hangs off them like old moss.
My knees tremble and the UnPrince grips my elbow. "Do not faint, Lady. Is it truly such a surprise?"
"Yes!" I jerk away from him. "This is why – why you are all so – so perfect? Why the Queen can settle wars with her charm, the King can make the worst criminal laugh, and the – the Prince is more glorious than the sun?"
The UnKing’s rasp crawls along my skin. "The country thrives."
The UnQueen stands and spreads her hands. "This imprisonment is a small price to pay for that."
"All our wretchedness torn out and made whole, so that our better selves might rule,” spits the UnPrince.
I turn to him. “You don’t think it’s fair.”
“I have not the self-sacrificing nature or bravery of my better self.” His sneer twists his face until it is ugly and unrecognizable.
Spinning on my heels, I flee back down the stairs with a clatter. In the receiving room, I wrap both hands around the dooknob and jerk and tug at it. I pound at the door. It echoes dully.
“You can’t escape.”
The UnPrince is behind me, holding the dagger I dropped in my haste. He lifts it so he can see his reflection in the blade. “It’s an ancient devilry, you know. Passed down through generations of Lirsee royalty. And it works.”
I think back through all the stories I know. He’s right. Lirsee is a charmed country with deliriously happy people. If they knew how their rulers became so perfect, I doubt anyone would care.
“You’ll be happy,” he says, taking one halting step forward. “Half of you with my brother-self, dancing and ruling and laughing. Half of you with me. We will suit. Your flaws and mine will suit.”
My mouth falls open and I press my back to the door. “That’s why he chose me. My flaws. My – reputation. My troublemaking and tendency to throw pies at lords. Because Lady Bethrie told everyone she met me with mud all over my face for wrestling with Donovan.”
But the UnPrince shakes his head.
“You had to have a lady who wasn’t already perfect. Don’t lie to me.”
“You’re right, that is true. But you are wrong about one thing.”
I raise my eyebrows to my hairline.
The UnPrince leans closer, his flat dark eyes like spilled blood. “He didn’t chose you. I did.”
He shows me how it works. There is a knife with a black blade, and when he stabs me in the heart I will cleave in two. One half with a lock over my heart, the other half with a key.
“You’ve been like this since you were nine years old?” I whisper. His hand is dry in mine.
“Is it awful?”
“It will not be, with a friend.”
I close my eyes. His breath shakes like autumn leaves.
“Wait,” I whisper, taking the black knife from him. “What if, after, one of us dies?”
His voice is in my ear, and I feel his lips dry against my neck. “I cannot die by any hand but my other’s.” The rasping laugh turns my knees weak. “Didn’t you know? No one can murder your worst self without your permission.”
“Good.” My eyes fly open and I stab the knife into his heart.
There is a shriek of metal and a clang as it buries up to the hilt in his keyhole heart. The UnPrince staggers back, eyes wide, mouth gaping.
He slams back into the ground, and melts into nothing.
To calm my shaking hands, I brush my hair. I weave it on top of my head and pin it with jeweled combs I find in a drawer. Just as I finish, the tower door opens.
The Prince is here.
“Emely,” he breathes.
He is beautiful. But his smile is not smooth, and the glitter is gone from his eyes. They are dark and natural and – angry.
I smile. “My prince.”
“What have you done?” He throws out his arms.
My smile is calm. I step to where the black knife rests on the floor. With a swift stomp, I snap the blade with the heel of my riding boot.
Everything stills. My Prince gapes at me, then down at the broken knife.
“Didn’t you know?” I open my arms. “I wrap trouble around me like a blanket.”
For a moment, he stands before me with clenched fists. Indecisive. Afraid. Furious. He wants to hit me, I can see it warring in his wild, completely human eyes.
But instead, he kisses me.
*As our common prompt this week, the lovely nataliesee has drawn us three tarot cards at random. They are the Devil, the King of Pentacles, and the Queen of Cups.