Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
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Sailor Moon fairy tales: Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, and Mars.

My friend Nikki asked what Disney Princesses the Sailor Scouts mapped to; I, naturally, responded that the Sailor Scouts were too awesome to be pre-existing Princesses, and would have fairy tales of their own. Nikki then dared me. This was the result.

***

The Princess Who Called Lightning.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom surrounded by a great forest so wide it was like a sea, and so tall it was like a mountain, there lived a princess with hair the color of tree bark and eyes the color of new spring leaves. She lived alone in the great palace that had belonged to her parents, for her mother, who was once a queen, had died of a broken heart shortly after her father, a woodcutter who had been elevated by circumstance and true love’s whimsy, was killed by a bolt of lightning. None of her subjects would dare the palace towers now, for they were the only thing in all the kingdom that stood taller than the trees.

“If your father had kept his head down, the lightning would have spared him,” they told her, and their voices were full of fear. “Keep your head low, and do not dare the skies.”

“If your mother had loved less truly and more practically, she would have lived,” they told her, and their voices were full of pity. “Keep your heart close, and do not let it guide you.”

So the princess had the guidance of many, but she questioned their words, because how could the sky, so beautiful and blue and different than the trees that were the world, be bad? And how could love, which had brought her parents so much joy, and which they had showered so generously upon her, be wrong? She did not know who to trust, and so she trusted no one, but walked alone through the palace halls, and wept at night for what she had lost, and what she might never have.

Now it came to pass that rumors began to spread throughout the Kingdom of the Trees. The princess is beautiful, they said, as tall and lovely as an oak, but she does not keep her head down; she will not back away from a challenge, nor stand demure and quiet when she should. Some said, “Our princess is bold,” and they were pleased. Others said, “Our princess is brash,” and they shook their heads and were glad that her mother did not live to see her so unruly.

When those rumors reached the ear of the princess, she sighed, and said, “People will believe what they want to believe.” Then she went down to the kitchen, where she was nearest to the soil, and she baked a pie for the door of every house in her kingdom, that her people might know that she was humble, and that she cared for them. Some ate, and grew bolder. Others refused to touch food that had been created by the hands of a girl with no manners, and they did not see what this meant for their manners, or what it said of their own brashness.

Once more, rumors began to spread throughout the Kingdom of the Trees. The princess is loving, they said, as sweet and generous as her mother, but she does not show patience; she will not wait for her counselors to tell her that her passions are allowed, or that her suitors are the right type. Some said, “Our princess is like her mother,” and they were pleased. Others said, “Our princess is too wild,” and they shook their heads and were glad that her father did not live to see her so uncultured.

When those rumors reached the ear of the princess, she sighed, and said, “People will believe what they want to believe.” Then she went out to her garden, where she had walked once with her mother, and picked a bouquet of roses for the window of every house in her kingdom, that her people might know that she was compassionate, and that she cared for them. Some placed the flowers in vases, and loved them. Others refused to display flowers that had been grown by a girl with no standards, and they did not see what this meant for their standards, or what it said for their own culture.

And still, the princess was alone.

Each night, she would climb to the very top of the very tallest tower, so high that it seemed like she could reach out her hand and speak to the stars. They were all her friends, for they alone had never left her, only passed occasionally from sight, but it was the moon that was her dearest friend, so close and round that it was like a silver apple waiting to be plucked.

“I am very lonely, and I do not know what to do,” she told the moon. “Some of my people view me as an ogre, a brash and horrible creature that is no substitute for my parents, and never could be. Others insist on seeing me as a story, something to be told and turned in their hands like a pretty trinket, but never to have a life of my own. I am tired of fighting. I am tired of silence. I am tired of everything, and I do not know what to do.”

That night, she slept on the slate tiles of the roof, and she dreamt that the moon was a girl in a gold and silver dress, with silver apples in her hair. They walked together until dawn, and what the moon told her was forgotten when the sun rose the next day. Still, a change had come over the princess. Everyone who worked in the palace agreed that something was different, but none could have said what it was, until they woke one day and found that she was gone. They were concerned, of course, but there was nothing to be done, and life in the kingdom was not measurably changed; the princess was a story, after all, and stories endure whether you can see them or not.

As for the princess herself, she had finally decided what must be done. Her mother had loved more, and more generously, than anyone else in the palace. Her father had been braver, and more willing to offer a helping hand, than all the men in all the kingdom’s villages. So she must show that she had in her the best of both of them. She had love in plenty, but bravery was a harder thing to hold, and only one thing truly scared her: the lightning that had taken her father away. So she walked through the forest, dressed in the commonest of clothes, with only a small sack of rice and sweet dumplings, looking for a tree that was tall enough to take her to the lightning.

She had not walked very far when she met a white rabbit sitting on a tree stump. “Hello, puss,” she said, for she was a polite princess. “What are you doing here?”

“Starving,” said the rabbit. “Give me something to eat, and I will help you.”

“I do not have much, but what I have is yours,” said the princess, and gave the rabbit half her lunch, which the rabbit ate in a twinkle. The princess was quite impressed, having never seen a rabbit eat rice before. “Is that better?”

“Yes,” said the rabbit. “Now I will help you. You are looking for the lightning, are you not?”

“I am, but I do not know where to find it,” admitted the princess.

“There is a tree, deep in the forest,” said the rabbit. “It is not so tall as the palace, nor so tempting as a rose garden, but it is good and strong, and it has been struck by lightning many times. I can take you there, but be warned; if you go, you will climb, and if you climb, you will not come back the same.”

“I do not want to come back the same,” said the princess. “I am lonely, and my people do not know me. The lightning may. Take me there, rabbit.”

“As you wish.” The rabbit struck its hind leg against the stump, and then it was off, running so fast it seemed almost to have wings. The princess ran after it, and only her stature allowed her to keep up. At times, all she saw was the bright flash of its tail ahead of her, a glimmer in the darkness. And on they ran, and on they ran, until it seemed that half the kingdom was behind them, and there, in front of them, stood the tree.

It was an old tree, bark burnt silver and black in places by the lightning. Half its needles gone, leaving its branches bare. “This is your place,” said the rabbit. “Climb or no, princess, everything changes.” Then it was gone, hopping away into the dark, and the princess was alone.

She looked after the rabbit for a moment, and then back to the tree. Finally, she walked forward, grabbing the lowest branch, and began to climb.

There are many kinds of princess, and all of them have stories. There are princesses in ice, and they are wise, but they have uncalloused hands; they cannot climb a mighty pine. There are princesses in fire, and they are clever, but their hands are hot; they would set the branches burning. There are princesses in lands where the sun has never set, and they are beautiful, but they have narrow shoulders and slender arms; they cannot pull themselves, hand over hand, until their foreheads brush the sky. This princess was a princess of trees, of tall places and implacable challenges, and she climbed until the sun went down, and there was her old friend moon, shining silver in the darkness.

The princess looked up into the sky, so clear and empty, and shouted, “Where are you? I have come here to find you, and you cannot leave me here alone. You took my father. You took my mother. Now come, lightning, and take me too!”

The sky was clear as any glass has ever been, but still the lightning struck, coming from nowhere to lash out at the princess who dared to challenge it. And she reached up, this princess of green things and growing places, reached up and grabbed it in her own two hands. It fought and snarled, it raged, but still she held it fast, pulling it to her heart.

The lightning spat. The princess smiled. And then, without ever knowing why she did it, she pulled the lightning closer still, until it saw her heart, and knew why she was there. The lightning calmed, flowing into the princess until her fingers spat sparks and her hair stood briefly on end. She blinked, wondering, and looked back up at the moon.

“I am not alone now,” she said. “Is this why I came?”

The moon did not answer. The moon so rarely does.

The princess returned to her palace, and if she was no less bold and no less quick to love or anger, she seemed calmer, more aware of her own skin. The people rejoiced and were content, and bragged far and wide of their princess, who danced in her own lightning storm on the palace roof at night. In time, those stories would travel as far as the lands of those other princesses we have mentioned but not considered further, and things would change again.

But that is another tale to tell.

Now rest, my dear, and be at ease; there’s a fire in the hearth and a wind in the eaves, and the night is so dark, and the dark is so deep, and it’s time that all good little stars go to sleep.

*

The Ice King's Daughter.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom very far away from here, so far away that they do not even share the same winds, because the winds of this land are warm and wistful things, and they do not like the cold, there was a glacier. And on that glacier was a kingdom, carved from ice and sustained by clever magic, which brought forth winter apples and snowflake grain. And in that kingdom was a palace, blue and white and silver, all the colors of the glorious cold. Where there is a palace, there must be a king and a queen, and where there is a king and queen, one day, there will be a princess. This is her story, for their story ended long ago, with happy ever after, which is the kiss that closes all things. Never wish an ever after on anyone; ever after ends adventure.

This princess was very far from ever after: her adventures were only just beginning. She was a small thing, slight as a whisper, slender as a smile, with hair the color of deep glacial ice, and eyes only slightly darker. While most princesses her age dreamt of princes and balls, of advantageous marriages and beautiful gowns, this princess dreamt only of her kingdom, and of the clever magic she would need to learn if she wished to protect her people. Flesh does not blend easily with ice, you see, and should the spells falter even once, all would be lost forever.

We think we know ice, here in the lands where seasons come one after the other, playful as puppies. We think we know snow and cold. But what we know here is nothing to the lands of endless winter, where a moment’s indiscretion could spell damnation. The princess grew up knowing that one day, everything would be on her shoulders; one day, her cleverness alone would keep the cold at bay. It was a great burden to set on one so young, and bit by bit, it pressed the laughter from her heart, until she was the only one in the kingdom who was not warmed by her father’s spells, nor shielded by her mother’s charms. In the kingdom of ice, the princess froze.

One day, as the princess sat in the garden of snow roses with her mother, reading from her book of wards and protections, a group of the palace children ran by. They were laughing and throwing snowballs at one another, and it made the queen smile to see them. “Look, my daughter,” she said. “Look how they play. Go with them for a time. Learn their game. It will do you good, to run.”

“There is not time, mother,” said the princess. “Please excuse me.” Then she stood and returned to the library, where no one laughed, and it would not matter that she knew all the names for ice and snow, all the signs that a shield was failing, but did not know how to play.

Not long after that, word came to the palace that a foreign king was to pass through their frozen land, with all his court in attendance. The king and queen declared that there must be a feast, and called for the travelers to dine with them. This visiting king was from a land where it was always daylight, and the sun was always bright upon the grass. He was seated across from the princess, and it made him smile to see her, for he had a daughter just her age.

But the princess did not smile, and when the jesters and merrymakers came to ply their trade, she did not laugh, but put her plate aside and excused herself to return to the library, where no one looked on her with pity, and it would not matter that she knew all the songs of winter coming, all the sighs of snowfall nearing, but did not know how to smile.

The foreign king returned home to his own bright and beautiful daughter, and held her close, and thought how sad it was that the princess he had seen should be so cold, and seem so very far from happiness.

Now, it would be incorrect to say that the princess had no friends, for all that she did not associate with the other children. The palace librarian loved her dearly, as did all her teachers. And always, of course, there was the moon.

Her window was wide and open, as befitted a princess, and allowed her to look out on all the kingdom. During the day, the view spoke to her only of responsibilities to come, of tests that must not be failed. But at night, when the stark edges of the ice softened with twinkling lights, she could admit that it was beautiful. She would sit on her balcony and look at the moon, wishing they could speak. Surely the moon would understand.

“I am very lonely, and I do not know what to do,” she said to the moon. “None of my books can tell me what the cure for loneliness is, and none of my teachers seem to know the way to unseal my lips and bring the words I know I could speak out of me. No one listened for so long, and now I cannot speak to them, because I am so cold, and I am frightened of what they would think of me. I am tired of expectations. I am tired of solitude. I am tired of everything, and I do not know what to do.”

That night, she slept with her window standing open to the cold night air, and she dreamt that the moon was a girl in a gold and silver dress, with silver snowballs in her hair. They walked together until dawn, and what the moon told her was forgotten when the morning came. The princess awoke feeling somehow calmed, like everything was going to change, even though she could not have articulated why. That should have frightened her, for she was not accustomed to not knowing, but in this case, in this single time, she did not worry.

That day, a messenger came to her father’s court. He dropped to one knee, cheeks red with frostbite, and gasped, “Your Majesty, there is word from the north. A great beast that breathes cold deeper than we have ever known has risen from the snows, and all who face it wither. We are done. We are doomed.” Then he fell, and when the king’s guards ran to him, they found that he was dead, frozen straight through.

The court fell into arguing, everyone crying that something must be done to stop the beast; that the kingdom must be saved. But no one volunteered, nor dared to risk themselves against such a foe. The king cried for a champion, and was not answered.

Then, in the silence that followed, the queen looked to him and asked a terrible question.

“Where is she?” asked the queen. “Where is our daughter?”

The king set all his men to searching the palace, to no avail; the princess was far and away, trudging through the snow as she walked to the north. The wind whipped hard behind her, blowing her footprints into nothingness.

She did not feel the cold, for she knew her father’s clever spells by heart, and could shield herself against it. She did not hunger, for she had packed a satchel before she left, carrying dried meats, sweet carrots, and of course, winter apples, which were blue of skin but filling in the stomach. All she could not carry was water, and she could fill her hands with snowflakes any time her need grew strong, using the heat of her own skin, for all that it was barely warmer than the snow, to melt as much as she wanted.

She had walked for the better part of a day when something moved in the snow ahead of her. She stopped, readying her clever spells, only to see a white rabbit hopping closer, all but invisible against the winter landscape. “Hello, rabbit,” she said, for the shyness that stopped her tongue with people did not extend to animals which could not talk back.

“Hello, princess,” said the rabbit.

The princess paled. “Y-you speak.”

“I do. Where are you going?”

“There is a beast that harms my kingdom. It must be stopped, and I have studied very hard.”

“Studying is a good thing, but it will not protect you completely,” said the rabbit. “Give me some of the food you carry, and I will help you.”

The princess was not as cold-hearted as the people thought her to be, and she spread half the food she carried on the snow for the rabbit to enjoy. The creature was small, but it made short work of the meal. She had never seen a rabbit eat so much, so fast, and something about it made her face feel strange. She reached up to touch her mouth, trying to find the source of the strangeness.

“You are smiling, princess,” said the rabbit. “Now. I said I would help you, and I will help you. You are a princess of ice and cold, but coldness is only a weapon against the self, not against the world. You must warm the beast.”

“But I have nothing warm,” protested the princess. “I have never been warm. I am not sure what warm is!”

“What melts the ice?” asked the rabbit. Then, before the princess could address this nonsensical question, the creature was gone, blending back into the snow like a secret that intended to be kept.

The princess resumed her journey, lighter now by half her food, head filled with dizzying questions. All her weapons were cold ones; all her spells were intended to shape and change the cold, not to chase it entirely away. What melted the ice? She was sure she didn’t know.

But there were tracks in the snow, tracks as large as the span of her arms, and she passed no houses, and she saw no hunters. The beast was near. If she did not find her answer soon, if cold was truly not the way, then she might never find her way back home.

She was thinking so hard, and focusing so strongly, that she did not notice when a pit opened in the ice, and she fell, plummeting deep down into the darkness that sleeps at the heart of every glacier. She knew the clever ways to call light from snow, and so she did, and saw the beast for the first time.

It was something like a bear, and something like an elk, and something altogether like a beast, with none of the traits of any other thing. She stared at it, and she was afraid. The beast, which had not been expecting to receive a princess, stared back.

And then it roared.

That roar was permafrost and deep, killing chill. It was the cold that creeps beneath the skin, and it was more than that, it was familiar, because it was the frost that creeps into the hearts of lonely young girls when no one sees them for themselves. It was doubt and fear and loneliness, and the princess knew the beast in an instant, because she had made it, one day of isolation at a time. Emotions had been too much trouble; they had distracted from her studies, and so she had exiled them, one by one, out into the cold. That would have been the end, had she not lived in a kingdom where magic fell as freely as snow. The things she had rejected found each other and came together, and now, they were going to destroy her.

She forced herself back to her feet, legs shaking, hands half-frozen. She had done this. Perhaps her death would end it, and her parents could have another daughter, one who would be more clever, one who would not have any emotions to send away. One who was as cold as the ice beneath her feet…

But the ice beneath her feet was not as cold as it had been. She looked down, and saw that where she had fallen was a thin film of water. What’s more, the water had spread, not far, but far enough to show her what she needed to understand. Ice was frozen water, and water wants to move. Water melted the ice. Movement melted the ice.

If the beast was her own frozen heart, then it needed only to move.

“The moon is a beautiful girl with snowballs in her hair, and I love her, which means I know what love is,” she said, taking a step forward. The beast looked confused, and did not roar again. “I saw a talking rabbit while I was looking for you. It made me smile. It ate all my apples, which was very rude of it, but I gave them to it, so I suppose it’s rude of me to resent their loss. It was a funny thing.” Her mouth twitched. “How it hopped! Like it thought it was larger than it was.” And then, to the surprise of both herself and the beast that she had crafted so carefully, so unknowingly, she laughed.

The beast took a step backward, whining. The princess sighed.

“If I can love the moon, I can love you,” she said. “I am sorry I did not love you properly before. I will try to do better, if you will let me.” Then she reached out her hand, and placed it against the great beast’s snout. “I am sorry,” she repeated.

There are many kinds of princess, and all of them have stories. There are princesses in fire, and they act quickly, but they cannot bear the touch of ice; they would steam away to nothing. There are princesses in lands where the sun has never set, and they act bravely, but they have duties to fulfill; they cannot surrender themselves to logic. There are princesses in forests, and they act compassionately, but they cannot grow in cold places; they would dwindle in the snow. This princess was a princess of winter, of endless glaciers and quiet rooms, and when she touched the beast, it burst like a bubble, and all the room was filled with the sound of her laughter.

It took the princess many hours to climb back out of the ice. By the time she emerged, the sun had set, and there was her old friend moon, shining like a snowflake against the sky.

“I am not afraid now,” she said. “Is this why I came?”

The moon did not answer. The moon so rarely does.

The princess returned to her palace, where her parents rejoiced and scolded her in the same breath, and were struck silent when she laughed. The winters seemed a little warmer after that, and the spells that kept the kingdom standing seemed to last a little longer. The people of the kingdom bragged far and wide of their princess, whose hands were cold, but warm enough to melt even the thickest ice. In time, those stories would travel as far as the lands of those other princesses we have mentioned but not considered further, and things would change again.

But that is another tale to tell.

Now rest, my dear, and be at ease; there’s a fire in the hearth and a wind in the eaves, and the night is so dark, and the dark is so deep, and it’s time that all good little stars go to sleep.

*

Gold As Sun, Blue As Sky.

Once upon a time there was a kingdom where the sun never set, no, never, not even once, and so the people who dwelt there did not know night, nor darkness, nor the customary fears that shadows awaken in the human heart. They lived always in bright and shining splendor, and for this they thanked their king and queen, whose love, they said, lit up all the heavens, so that the sun did not have to work so hard as it did in other lands, but could simply shine and shine without interruption. The king and queen lived in a palace all of gold, and it gleamed in the sunlight like a second sun, so that all who came to visit this wonderful country needed first to stop and stare in awe at the brilliance of their home. Yet for all that brightness, there was a quiet within the halls that no amount of light or joy could chase away, for the king and queen had no children, and the queen wept with longing every day.

One such day, as she walked in the garden, she saw a movement deep within the roses. Curious, she stepped closer. A fine white tomcat burst out of the leaves and onto the path in front of her, his tail curved like a question above his back. The queen, who was well-versed in all the queenly graces, laughed and bowed to him, her tears forgotten; for those who live eternally in light must be mercurial at heart, or else be seized by melancholy at the absence of the dark and all its wonders.

“Hello, dear sir cat,” she said. “What may I do to ease your troubles on this day?”

The cat settled himself on the pathway, wrapping his tail tight around his feet, and looked at her. Finally, he said, “You have cried many oceans in the wanting of a child. Fish swim in the memory of your sadness, and mermaids sing the tale of your desires.”

The queen, who ruled over a country where the sun never set and was thus no stranger to magic, was nonetheless somewhat surprised to be spoken to so, and by a cat, no less. “I am sorry for the mermaids,” she said. “My sorrow is hard enough to carry by myself, and I had no wish to inflict it upon them.”

“The mermaids have their own troubles, and find yours a pleasant diversion,” said the cat, dismissing the troubles of girls who were foolish enough to swim their lives away. “I am here to offer you a bargain.”

“And what bargain would that be, sir cat?”

“Let me live with you in your palace. Give me soft cushions to sleep upon and sweet cream to drink, and scratch my ears whenever I desire, and stop whenever I tell you to. If you will do these things, you will have a little girl before year’s end, as golden as the sun, as blue as the sky, as sweet as the daylight. She will want for nothing, and neither will I.”

The queen considered the cat’s request for but a moment before she said, “All these things are yours, and whatever else you ask of me.”

“Then carry me home, my queen, and tell your king to prepare for the birth of a daughter.”

The queen gathered the white cat into her arms, running back into the palace, and for a time, everything was as he had said. He lay on silken pillows and drank sweet cream, his ears were scratched when he wanted them scratched and left alone when he did not, and after the customary interval, the princess was born. She was, indeed, as golden as the sun, or at least her hair was; and she was as blue as the sky, or at least her eyes were; and when she first saw the white cat she gurgled and giggled and clapped her hands with joy, so that all could see that she was sweet as daylight.

The queen laughed for joy and turned to the white cat, saying, “You shall have all you desire for the length of your days, sir cat, and be a part of this family always.”

The white cat licked his paw with a pink tongue and said, “I will be as I will be.”

There are no true nights in a kingdom where the sun is always in the sky, but there are quiet times, times when everyone has agreed that they will draw the shades and sleep, and because they do not know any better, the people who live in such kingdoms will call those times “night.” Humans are magpies, and do not like to leave words unused. So it was that the white cat waited until night had come, and the king and queen slept sound in their beds, and the nursemaid of the new princess dozed beside her cradle. Then, and only then, did he come to sit beside the newborn babe, who alone in all the kingdom had not yet learned to sleep when all others told themselves the pleasant lie of nighttime.

“I will miss you,” he said. “But we have long and long before we meet again, and it was mine only to bring you into this story; it is not mine to see you through it, nor lead you where you need to go. You will not remember me, and still I promise you this: I will always and forever be your friend.”

When the kingdom awoke the white cat was gone, and none had seen him leave.

The queen was sad for a time, for it is difficult to lose a friend. But she had her beautiful daughter to distract her, and the princess grew day after day, until sixteen years had come and gone, and she was everything her parents could have wished. She was beautiful, yes, beautiful as light on water. She was warm and compassionate, as welcome as sun on skin. She was lightfooted and lithe on horseback or on the dance floor, as quick as a sunbeam slipping through a needle. All the kingdom loved her, and rejoiced that they had been blessed with so perfect a princess.

Whatever the princess wanted, she was given. Whatever the princess asked for, be it time or love or answers, it was ripe and ready for the taking. Had she been less sweet, less inherently good, she could easily have turned spoiled. Instead, she walked in guileless innocence, never knowing what it was like to be refused.

As time went on, however, she found that more and more, visitors to the court of her parents did not want to comment on her dancing skills, or on how gracefully she rode her horses, which were golden as the sun and white as clouds; all those foreign dignitaries and visiting nobles seemed to notice was her beauty. “So lovely,” they said, and “Such good fortune,” and “She will enrich your coffers by the ransom of a thousand kings.”

These words confused the princess, and stilled her laughter for a time. “So modest,” said those visitors to the court, and “So quiet; she will make a fine queen one day, if she continues to hold her tongue.”

And finally, the princess understood that all they saw was the surface of her, and not her heart. They were kind because she was beautiful, and not because she was herself.

It would be easy to think that the princess of a kingdom where the sun never left the sky would never have seen the moon; the moon is a nighttime visitor, creeping in as twilight fades to brilliant black and spangled stars. But who has not seen a daylight moon peeping over the horizon, shy and faded, yes, but still! The moon does not like to be left out, and will always find a way to make its presence known.

How the princess loved the moon! Here was something pale and quiet and secret, that most people never seemed to notice, being as absorbed as they were in brightness and in laughter. She thought of the moon as her friend, and as more and more visitors to the court remarked only on her beauty, and not on anything else, she came to think of the moon as her best friend. The only one who would not leave her always, but would come back to her, even if her beauty somehow faded.

One night—which was truly day, but we must adhere to the conventions of the kingdom we are visiting, and here, the night was a negotiated thing, not to be ignored—the princess crept from her bed to sit upon her windowsill, looking at the pale circle of the moon that wavered, paper thin, against the blue, blue sky.

“I am very lonely, and I do not know what to do,” she said to the moon. “I am surrounded by friends and by people who love me, but all of them seem to see me as a living portrait, a beautiful thing to be admired, yes, but never allowed any value outside its surface. I want to mean something. I want to earn something. I want to choose and be chosen, not because I am beautiful, but because I am myself. I am tired of superficiality. I am tired of being a prize. I am tired of everything, and I do not know what to do.”

That night, she slept in her bed with the sunlight streaming over her, and she dreamt that the moon was a girl in a gold and silver dress, with silver mirrors in her hair. The princess awoke full of energy and excitement, for the most wonderful plan had sprung into her mind, fully-formed. She leapt from her bed and ran to her closet. For those who live in sunlight always are by their nature mercurial, and will never be slow when speed might serve them better.

When her ladies in waiting came to prepare the princess for the day ahead, she was already gone. There was a great hue and cry in the palace after that…but ah, you do not care for hues, or for cries. You wish to follow the princess, and so do I, so follow the princess we shall.

The princess had left the palace before her ladies arrived, and did not know that she was leaving chaos in her wake. She wore a dress of many rags and tatters, in a thousand colors, so that no two agreed, but rather presented a cacophony to the eye. Her hair was streaked with berry juice from the kitchen, and with mud from the lane, and none who saw her would have known her for the princess, but would have thought her instead a wood-maid, come into the presence of people for the first time in many days.

Bold as anything, she walked into the village square and stopped, waiting for everyone around to greet her. No one seemed to note her presence, and bit by bit, she realized that they had not greeted her because they were pleased to see another soul, but because she was their princess. Her clever disguise was too clever, and none could pause in their work to ask her if she needed anything, or if she wanted anything, or if she was looking for a friendly hand to hold.

She walked to the edge of the fountain at the village square and sat, suddenly plunged into deep sorrow. If she was not beautiful, no one saw her. If she was, no one saw anything but her beauty. “What value do I have?” she asked.

“You have hands,” said a voice. Startled, the princess turned and saw a small white rabbit regarding her. “You have feet. You can work.”

“What would be the point of that?” asked the princess.

“If you work, you will be paid,” said the rabbit. “If you are paid, you can buy food. If you buy food, you can feed me, and if you feed me, I will tell you a secret.”

“We could go back to the palace. I can have all the food I want for free.”

“Ah,” said the rabbit, “but I will be gone by then, off to find some other princess, some princess who wants to feed me, and wants to learn a secret. It is a good secret. You would like it very much. But if you want me to give it to some other girl…” The rabbit made as if to hop away.

“No, wait!” said the princess. “Wait, please. I will work. I will get money. I will feed you. Please save your secret for me.”

“Very well,” said the rabbit. “I did not feel like walking anywhere today, anyway.”

Everyone likes a secret, especially when it is a good secret, and most especially of all when it is a secret that could be given to someone else. The princess looked frantically around the square, until she saw an old woman with a bundle of sticks on her back. She rushed to the old woman’s side. “Can I help you?” she asked. “My back is young and strong, I would be glad to work for you.”

The old woman smiled. “I would like that very much,” she said. “What a good girl you must be.” And she handed the bundle of sticks to the princess.

Now the princess, being a princess, was not accustomed to working very hard, but she had a willing heart, and she had seen the trouble the old woman was having. The secret slipped from her mind as she walked through the village with the bundle of sticks on her back, and when they reached the old woman’s home, she felt a hot new pride under her breastbone, like a second sun.

“I haven’t any money,” said the old woman. “But please, take this bread, and Sun bless you, my child.”

“Thank you, aged mother,” said the princess, and ran off to find someone else who needed help.

The princess helped an old man draw water from the well, ripping the skin of her palms; the old man paid her three fat apples.

The princess helped a little girl wash her dishes in the stream, getting water in her eyes and reddening her skin; the little girl paid her two small pies that smelled like ripe berries and sugar.

The princess helped a young mother fish her middle child out of the fountain, which he thought was a fine place to play; the young mother paid her a wedge of cheese already sticky with jam.

Exhausted and aching, the princess went looking for the rabbit, finding it asleep in the shadow of the fountain. “I have worked,” she announced. “I did not get any money, but I got quite a lot of food. Are you still hungry?”

“I am always hungry,” said the rabbit, leaping awake. The princess set her wages in front of it, and the rabbit fell on them with a will. One, two, and everything was gone, down into the belly of the bunny.

“Well?” said the princess. “What is the secret?”

“Sticks snag fabric,” said the rabbit.

The princess stared at the rabbit like it was the most foolish thing she had ever seen. “What?”

“Sticks snag fabric, and water washes faces, and soap washes hands,” said the rabbit. “Small children pull hoods away. This is the secret, princess: you are the princess, and now everyone knows it.”

The princess froze before turning, horrified, to look around the square. There were all the people she had helped, staring at her, knowing her for who she was.

Then the young mother rushed forward and hugged her. “I have always known you were beautiful, because how could a princess not be beautiful,” she said. “But before today, I would never have known that you were good.”

“You are still beautiful,” added the old woman. “But if you wish to be more than that, we are happy to let you, and besides, my thatch needs mending.”

There are many kinds of princess, and all of them have stories. There are princesses in forests, and they love their people, but they cannot turn away from the land; they must be forever tending gardens. There are princesses in fire, and they protect their people, but they cannot turn away from the fire; they must be forever tending ashes. There are princesses in ice, and they understand their people, but they cannot turn away from the ice; they must be forever tending storms. This princess was a princess of sunlight, of days unending and beauty that warms, and when she looked at her people, she finally understood that her place had never been alone in a palace, where she was lovely but lonely.

“All right,” she said. “We have work to do.”

It took the princess many hours to move all through the village, helping everyone she met, at least a little, at least enough to come and love them as they had always loved her. By the time she turned home, tired in a new and wonderful way, all she could do was look up at the sky. There was her old friend moon, pale as a cloud on the horizon.

“I am not unseen now,” she said. “Is this why I came?”

The moon did not answer. The moon so rarely does.

The princess returned to her palace, but ever after, she ventured out into the land, further each day, until all in the kingdom knew that she would appear, as if by magic, when they needed her. In time, she would even come to lead her father’s hunters through the wood, and to patrol the borders with mother’s scouts. The people of the kingdom bragged far and wide of their princess, who was more beautiful inside than all the golden suns and wide blue skies in all the world. In time, those stories would travel as far as the lands of those other princesses we have mentioned but not considered further, and things would change again.

But that is another tale to tell.

Now rest, my dear, and be at ease; there’s a fire in the hearth and a wind in the eaves, and the night is so dark, and the dark is so deep, and it’s time that all good little stars go to sleep.

*

Ash, Soot, and Flame.

Once upon a time, very far away from here, there was a kingdom on fire.

Now this may seem like a strange thing to you, living as you do in a place that is not on fire, and where fire is a thing to fear and flee from, but in the kingdom of which I speak, flame was the natural order of things. The ground was packed ash and obsidian, and the plants grew somehow already burning. The air smelled always of smoke, of char and cinder, and it was never truly day or night as we define them, because ash blanketed the sky, turning everything into eternal twilight. Yet there were people who dwelt there, and gladly, because flame was all that they had ever known.

In the kingdom, there was a castle, built all of stone and smoulder, and in the castle, there was a princess, for castles and princesses nest together like sparks and tinder. She had hair as black as ash, eyes as black as soot, and skin the color of the white-hot heart of the flame, where it burns most brightly and with the least mercy. She was cared for by her grandfather, who was the only family she had, her parents both having died in the making of her.

Ah, but this is a custom which should be explained. In kingdoms that are not on fire, there are many ways of having children. They can be found asleep in peach pits or under cabbage leafs; they can be brought by great white birds with wings like sails or deposited on doorsteps. They may even, in some strange kingdoms, be born from the bodies of their mothers. And in a way, it was this last custom to which the kingdom of fire adhered, for every child was born from the bodies of their parents, who would build themselves a great pyre and leap into the flame. Some emerged missing only a limb or heart or some other inessential body part; others never emerged at all, having chosen to give all they had to feed the flame that birthed their babe. So it was that the princess of the kingdom of fire knew that her parents had burned against the night like the brightest star in the heavens, because they loved her so very much that they felt the need to give her everything they had to give.

So great was their sacrifice that as they burned, two crows rose with the smoke, their feathers black as char, and they were with the princess always, from the day that she was taken from the ashes and wiped clean by her grandfather’s hands. The people said that the only time she had laughed was when she saw those crows, and perhaps they were right, for as she grew, she proved a grave and serious girl. The love of her parents burned in her breast like a living coal, and she was determined to show her people that she was worth the king and queen who had died in making her.

It is a heavy thing to place upon a child, the need to prove herself worth two adults, and adults who had chosen to sacrifice themselves to serve what they saw as a greater good. It is a heavier thing by far for the child to take that burden upon her own shoulders. The princess grew up beautiful and clever, with a temper like the fire’s own heart, and determined to carry all her kingdom’s trials as her birthright. Never was an alarm sounded in the kingdom but the princess was there, ready to assist. Never was a question posed but the princess was looking for an answer.

“My dear, you must rest,” said her grandfather, who loved her better than anyone else in the kingdom. “You are young yet. Let others toil while you enjoy the time when you burn brightest.”

“That seems entirely out of order,” she replied. “I should work now, while I have the strength for it, and enjoy my time when I am old and ready to be resting.”

Her grandfather, who knew all too well that this would not be the way of things—that those who work in youth will work in age, even when that work extends to the guardianship of headstrong princesses—shook his head. “Time is short, and you will miss it when it is gone,” he told her. “Believe me, for I am older than you, and wiser than you.”

And the princess smiled, for she loved her grandfather more dearly than anything in the world, more dearly even than the black crows who shadowed her every step. She pressed a hot kiss against his brow, and said, “Now is your time to rest, Grandfather, and not mine. I love you, and I have work to do.”

Then she was back into the whirl of her kingdom, and she did not look to see her grandfather watch her go, tears cutting through the soot that covered his cheeks. For he knew, as she did not yet, that time is always shorter than we think, and that nothing, however dear, can stay with us forever.

I have already said that there were no true nights in a kingdom where the sky is ever shrouded in ash. It would seem to follow, then, that the princess would not know the moon or stars, because they would have blocked from view. But who has not loved the sight of smoke curling up into a clear black sky, like a ribbon extended as an offering to the heavens? Sometimes, the clever wizards who lived in the palace towers would call to the wind, whispering sweet promises, until it cleared the skies just enough to let the people see.

So yes, the princess knew the moon: knew it, and had no time for it. The moon was a lazy layabout, resting fat and contented in the sky until the fire she was sure must burn there roared out of control, burning the moon entirely away—and then, not content to be a properly burnt thing, the moon would grow back, returning to shameless brilliance. It seemed quite improper, and a waste of good kindling, which could have been put to better use in the homes of her people, who were always in need of something they could burn.

But the princess, for all that she worked hard and hoped to work harder, was tired. She knew that her own fires needed fueling, much as it pained her to admit, and so she took the sticks and tinder that her faithful crows brought to her. One night, with a small fire burning slow and steady in her lap—for people who are born of fire are strengthened by it, not weakened in the least, like those of us who are born in all the other myriad ways—she sat on the steps of her palace, glaring resentfully at the eternally lazy moon.

“I am very lonely, and I do not know what to do, but I suppose you would know nothing of loneliness, or of the trials of others,” she said to the moon. “I work each day to save and support my kingdom, only to find it endangered again on the next day, as if my toils had done nothing at all. I do not have time for friends, or games, or any of the other frivolities that I am told a princess should desire. And I am told that every princess loves the moon. I am not every princess. I do not love the moon. I am tired of struggling, and do not know what to do, but I will never love you, and would be glad to see you vanish from my skies.”

That night, she slept in a great clay pot with coals packed all around her, and she dreamt that the moon was a girl in a gold and silver dress, with silver cinders in her hair. They walked together, against the princess’s better judgment, and what they spoke of, she did not remember when she woke. All she remembered was the look on the girl-moon’s face, so sad and so forgiving, like she could not believe that she could ever be unloved for long, like she would never dream of refusing love just because it was not yet returned. The princess felt regret, somehow, at the memory of the girl-moon’s eyes, like she had failed a test she did not know was being given…and then she forced the feeling away, for the day had begun, and she had work to do.

She was helping the palace gardeners to prepare a rosebush to be sent to a foreign prince who was known for his love of roses when her crows came screaming from the sky, harrying her in a manner they normally reserved for grave and immediate threats. The princess turned, the feeling of regret she had been fighting all morning solidifying into sudden dread.

“Show me,” she said, and followed the crows back into the palace, her steps as fleet as the beating of their ashen wings.

They found her grandfather collapsed in front of the great fire in the main hall, his eyes closed, his fingers curled as if to grasp a hand that was not there. “Grandfather!” cried the princess, falling to her knees and reaching for him. He did not respond, and his skin was cool against her fingers. She gathered him to her, tears steaming away to nothing as she wept. “Grandfather, please. Don’t leave me. Don’t go. Wake up. You have to wake up.”

But he did not wake, and finally, the princess had had enough of weeping, which never fixes anything, but only makes the pain last longer. She gathered him into her arms, and she carried him all through the palace to the tower where the clever wind-wizards dwelt. For in a kingdom of fire, the dead do not grow cool: they burn and they blaze, and they leave no flesh behind, unless it is the living flesh of children.

The wind-wizards were astounded to see their princess at their door, and more astounded still to see the steam-marked patches on her cheeks. “My grandfather is ill,” she said, and her voice was a child’s voice, uncertain and more fragile than she knew. “You have magic. Make him better.”

So the wind-wizards took him, and they did their very best, because they loved their princess, but they also feared her wrath. Fire is a beautiful thing. It warms and it preserves and it keeps away the dark…but oh, how it can burn.

Finally, the youngest among them came to her, and said, “He is very ill. There is a cure, but it is rare and hard to gather. You could send a hundred men and not have a single one return.”

The princess raised her chin, the fire that made her burning in her eyes. “Tell me,” she commanded.

And the wizard did.

She left that very hour, alone, on foot, with only a bundle of curried meat and sweet chili peppers on her back. She needed no weapons; fire is its own weapon. She needed no guides; her kingdom was as familiar to her as her own hands. All she needed was a miracle, and if a miracle was what she needed, then a miracle she would have.

She had not walked an hour when she came upon a rabbit, somehow still white despite the ashes hanging in the air, sitting upon a half-burnt stump. Her crows landed on her shoulders and cawed at the beast, catching her attention. The princess stopped.

“You are altogether too white, and will shortly be eaten by something larger and more fierce than yourself,” she scolded the rabbit. “Scurry away, and find yourself a proper coat of ashes.”

“I would rather find myself a proper lunch,” said the rabbit. “What are you carrying? Will you share it with me?”

“No, because I am on a long quest, and I will need my food,” said the princess. “Find your own.”

The rabbit looked at her reproachfully. “Refusing to grant charity is not a virtue.”

“Neither is starving,” said the princess.

“Ah, but I am starving, so now we are both without virtue,” said the rabbit. “If you would feed me, we would both be virtuous, and all manner of good things would surely befall us.”

The princess was not sure what to make of this, but she sighed, and extracted a single piece of curried meat from her sack, placing it on the stump beside the rabbit. “This you may have, and no more,” she said. “Be glad of it.”

“I shall be,” the rabbit assured her, and devoured the meat in two quick bites. Sitting back on its still-white haunches, it said, “You have done me a favor, and now I must do you one. If you would find what you seek, you will need to travel to the west.”

“I am already traveling to the west, and I do not need help from a talking rabbit,” said the princess, although she had been considering changing her course; still, there was no need for the rabbit to know that. She straightened. “Remember what I said. You are too exposed, and need protection.”

“Thank you, princess!” cried the rabbit, and before she knew it, it had leapt into the air, quick as a flashfire, and settled itself atop her pack. The crows croaked protest, but did not attack. “Your offer is gladly accepted.”

“I offered nothing!” protested the princess, but the rabbit was not to be moved, and in time, she moved on again, grumbling about the laziness of lapines.

She walked long and long, carrying the weight of the rabbit with every step, and at first it seemed like a great burden, but it lessened, until she found herself glancing back, wondering if the creature was still there. It was sleeping, one paw covering its eyes, ears drooping low.

“What a foolish creature,” she said, and walked on.

Night had fallen, and the princess was looking for a proper torch—for even a smoke-filled night is darker than the day—when the rabbit woke, jumping down from her shoulders and taking up a position on the path ahead. So white was its coat that it gleamed faintly in the shadows, and she found that she could travel by it, providing she was willing to trust a bunny.

“We are on a serious quest, and there is no time for whatever foolishness rabbits get up to,” she said sternly. “Promise if I follow you that you will lead us the right way.”

“I will,” said the rabbit, “providing I do not get hungry, because a hungry rabbit is likely to do almost anything.” It looked at her expectantly.

The princess groaned and threw it another piece of curried meat, and some sweet peppers. “Here,” she said. “Now lead me truly, and do not go astray.”

“How could I stray when traveling with such a generous heart?” asked the rabbit, with all apparent sincerity. It fell upon the food as it had before, and one, two, three, there was not even a crumb remaining. The rabbit turned and hopped into the gloom, tail raised high and glimmering like a beacon meant to guide her home.

The princess, who still had reservations, followed the rabbit, for she saw no other choice; there was no time, and she was not sure that she could find the way alone. On and on they walked, the rabbit hopping obliviously ever on, the princess close behind. Her crows launched themselves into the air, circling ever higher as they watched her progress.

To be a princess in a kingdom of fire is to learn the signs of things, the little omens that mean danger. A twig snapped; a spark flared; a small, almost tame bonfire suddenly arched through the night. Without thought, the princess leapt, gathering the rabbit into her arms a bare second before a firecat flew through the space where the bunny had been. Terrified, the rabbit buried its face against her chest and trembled.

“I told you to be careful,” she scolded the rabbit. “Now stop your shaking; you are unhurt, and there is no call for weeping, or whatever it is that rabbits do. We must save my grandfather.”

The rabbit raised its head. “Do you love him?”

“What manner of question is that?” demanded the princess. “Of course I love him!”

“Then you can love,” said the rabbit, looking strangely pleased. “I was not sure.” It jumped down from her arms and began moving onward into the dark, leaving her no choice but to follow.

On and on they walked, through fields of ash and fields of flame, the crows circling overhead, and the rabbit guiding the way. Bit by bit, the sky began to clear, and the air grew cold. The princess, who had little concept of anything but heat, began to shiver.

“What is this place?” she asked.

“There are many kingdoms in the world,” said the rabbit. “Some are desert-dry and some are green and growing. Some are wet and some are dry. Your kingdom is a kingdom of fire; did you not think that it would have an opposite number? You share a border, although you may not have realized. No one comes here by mistake, or even by intent, unless their need is great.”

The princess did not care for the idea that her kingdom had been keeping secrets from her. But the sky was growing clearer, and the air was growing colder, and she had to admit that the rabbit spoke the truth. On they walked, until they came to a place where ice met fire, forming a clear, clean pool of water. Flowers grew all around it, white in their centers, but with blackened edges, so that they seemed ashen, or like the changing moon.

With a glad cry, the princess reached for the water, only to pull back her hand as if she had been burned. For she was a creature of ash and soot and flame, and the water was too cold for her to touch. She sank to her knees on the bank, weeping tears of steam.

“I have failed,” she said. “I cannot do this. I would die in doing this—I will die in doing this—and still it will not save him. I have nothing left.”

“You have your lunch,” said the rabbit helpfully.

The princess turned to the rabbit, ready to explode with rage. Then she stopped herself, and said, slowly, “When I fed you before, you helped me.”

“True,” said the rabbit.

“You were surprised that I could love,” said the princess.

“That is also true,” said the rabbit.

Then the princess—who was a princess of fire, and very good at reading the signs written on the skin of the world—shrugged out of her bundle and placed it on the ground before the rabbit, exposing every scrap of food she had remaining. “Eat,” she said. “Eat and help me.”

And the rabbit ate. It ate until there was no sign that anything had been there at all, until it should have burst from eating. Then it turned to her, eyes solemn, and said, “You will know what to do. And it does not matter if you love me, because I have always loved you.”

With that, the rabbit leapt into the water, quick as the blinking of an eye, and vanished beneath the surface. Ripples spread out where it had been, and just as the princess began to think that she had been deserted, the rabbit floated back to the surface, drifting until it reached the bank.

“Rabbit?” said the princess, hesitantly. The rabbit did not answer, and she reached for it, only to find it cold and soaked through from the pool. It did not move, but its body had warmed the water enough that she could survive its touch. The princess closed her eyes, realizing what the rabbit had done. Then she lifted its body from the ground and wrapped it in the thick leather of her bundle, where the water would be kept, protected from the ash. She pulled handfuls of flowers, packing them tight around the rabbit’s still, small shape. Then, with tears still steaming on her cheeks, she turned and ran, eyes closed, body unerringly seeking the palace.

She ran that night, further and faster than any princess has ever run before, until the palace appeared before her, and she ran even faster. The wind-wizards were stunned when she burst through their door, and more stunned still when she threw her bundle onto the table before them.

“Heal him,” she commanded.

They opened the pack and were astounded, for no one had ever brought back so many clean, undamaged moon-flowers, or so much clean, pure water. As for the princess, her heart lifted when she saw that the rabbit was gone, for its absence gave her hope.

The wind-wizards banished her from their tower, for they had work to do, and she paced the battlements, watching the burning land below her, watching the smoke-shrouded sky above. “I know that was you,” she scolded the ashen air. “Show your face, so I may thank you properly, and hate you for frightening me.”

But the clouds did not part, and the princess remained on the battlements alone until the wind-wizards came to her, and said, “He is awake. He will not go.”

Then she flew to him, the moon quite forgotten—and rightfully so—in her joy over the recovery of her grandfather. As for him, he held her, and stroked her hair, and told her he would stay as long as he was needed, for she clearly was not as ready as she believed to rule her lands alone.

There are many kinds of princess, and all of them have stories. There are princesses in forests, and they know their duty, but they cannot resist the sky; they are forever looking upward. There are princesses in unending sunlight, and they know their duty, but they cannot keep themselves from dancing; they are forever filled with laughter. There are princesses in ice, and they know their duty, but they cannot fight the urge to know more; they are forever seeking knowledge. This princess was a princess of fire, of ashes and cinders and beautiful destruction, and as her grandfather held her, she finally understood that she could be strong without needing to stand ever and always alone.

Her grandfather was still tired, and so she saw him off to bed, scolding until he swore that he would stay there. Then she returned to her own room, trying to shake off her own weariness, and stopped as she saw that the sky had finally cleared. There was the fat white moon, shining as bright and lazily as ever against the crown of the sky.

“You are horrible and I hate you, but I think I love you too,” she said. “Is that why I came?”

The moon did not answer. The moon so rarely does.

The princess shook her head and went to bed, and when the next day dawned, she resumed her duties as she had always performed them…but now she took time to watch her crows fly their strange and elegant dances against the sky, and she sat with her grandfather for games beside the fire, and she took the time to remember that her life may have begun with a sacrifice, but it did not have to endure as one. The people of the kingdom bragged far and wide of their princess, who loved them so dearly that she had learned to conserve her fires, and would be with them forever. In time, those stories would travel as far as the lands of those other princesses we have mentioned but not considered further, and things would change again.

But that is another tale to tell.

Now rest, my dear, and be at ease; there’s a fire in the hearth and a wind in the eaves, and the night is so dark, and the dark is so deep, and it’s time that all good little stars go to sleep.
Tags: fairy tale remix, fanfiction, nikki, too much tv, writing
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