Disclaimer: This is a story based on this version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. This version has the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen.
You know about Lina and Michael.
Michael betrayed our secret. He told the King about our adventures, told him about the secret trapdoor, the staircase that led us to the worlds beyond. He told him of the three woods, the one of gold, of silver, and of emeralds. He presented him with the twigs he’d broken off, the beautiful nosegay that spelled our doom. He was the one who proudly informed the king that he’d released us from enchantment, and chose Lina as his bride.
Oh yes, you know about Lina and Michael.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses, that is what we were called. The most beautiful maidens in the land, fair and delicate, each sweeter and lovelier than the next. We all differed one from the other, none of us sharing the same hair color or complexion. The deepest gold or purest white-blonde; each shade differing in its vivid hue, its great beauty. We were the fairest in the land, the realm, queens all.
We refused to be married off, to be given to those we did not desire. We found our princes and bewitched them, lived a double life. Perhaps we were deceptive. Is it not in the nature of women to be so? We were clever, sly, cunning, deceptive. We were beautiful. Every simpering dolt would look into our beautiful faces and instantly do our bidding.
Except for Michael.
Oh, Michael thought himself quite the savior, and it must be said that Lina dotes on him. But he ruined our lives.
He broke the spell. He informed our father.
You know only one version of the story. You know that Lina, the youngest, wed Michael. You know they inherited the throne, and lived happily ever after.
But what of the rest of us?
What of me, the eldest? My name is Zara.
My hair is ebony black, and falls to my waist. My eyes are green as emeralds. My skin is pale, as pale as death. I have the kind of beauty that arrests and wounds, that strikes men down and bids them die for me. I have no softness, as Lina does. I have no romance. Some say I have no heart.
Those who say this do not know the story of my life. They do not know me. They know only how the story ended. They have heard it said that it was my idea, that I was the one who desired to enchant the princes, to have them forever under my sway. They have heard it whispered that I am a sorceress, an enchantress. It was their words that had me banished. I was cast out of the realm, thrown away by my romantic sister. It was the price of her marriage to Michael.
You see, Michael loved me first. There are some versions that survive where I am the chosen one, I, the eldest daughter. That is because of the love Michael had for me. It was only at the end, to spite me, that he chose to wed Lina, my sweet sister.
Oh, Michael was no savior. Michael was cruel, cruel to me and to all those who frightened him. He believes he has won.
He has not.
He rules us all, he thinks. He believes he has punished me, exiled me to realms of night and dark, the realm of horror and madness. He has forced me into the world of murders, the world of mortar and pestles, the world of Baba Yaga in all her wild madness. He has forced me into the darkness.
But there was a reason I was born a princess, born to be a queen.
There’s a reason I was born to rule.
And my laugh, my wild laughter, rings in his ears. He has Lina, in all her simpering sweet softness, her golden curves and bewitching laughter, but he does not have me., He does not have my obedience, my submission, my loyalty or my love. He has the pain he caused me, the revenge he took. And that, for him, is sweet.
He ruined our lives, all our lives. All this for the kingdom and a queen. All this for my father’s love. My father hates me now, believing Michael’s lies. My father believes me a traitor, a cruel sorceress. He curses my black hair, believes me the spawn of the devil. He swears he did not sire me.
Was ever any eldest child so cruelly treated?
But it matters not.
For it is my laughter that rings in their ears, my wild triumph that spites the dawn. It is my face he sees in the silvery coldness of the ,moon, my beauty that haunts his nights. He reaches for Lina when he truly desires me, and he curses me every day of his life. For nothing can take his soul from mine. I cast a powerful curse and called him to me. All his days he sees my ghost, whispering to him on the wind. My soul calls to him. He will go mad, eventually.
By that time, however, I will be dead.
This is the story of Zara, princess of the Twelve. Hear and be faithful, so that you may learn the true story of the twelve, learn of the darkness that near killed us all, that I saved us from. Hear, I command you; hear and do not judge. For you have not the right to judge me, I, Zara, princess of the twelve.
I was thirteen.
Thirteen and in the garden, a solemn, quiet creature. My eyes opened wide in curiosity and terror, but I had early learned to hide my thoughts. My queen mother was a venomous creature, obsessed with her own beauty and her jewels. Although all praised her on our behalf, she could not but hate us. She saw in us rivals for her husband’s attention, believing my father valued us more than he did she. She hated us all.
I was the oldest, and I learned this first.
She bruised me where others could not see. Cruel pinches or twists of my fingers. She would inflict little tortures upon me, take away my toys and playthings. She would never force me to do work, but she would take the people I loved, my maid Melissa most frequently, and would force them to do cruel work. It was many a time that I saw Melissa stumbling over the steps, carrying a bucket from which emanated fumes that turned her face red and chapped her hands. I knew my mother had deliberately poured an unnecessary potion into the water, and I could do nothing but stand on and watch, pretending to ignore her tortures, pretending not to be hurt by her lack of regard.
Should my mother catch sight of any suitor paying attention to me, any prince or would-be knight asking for my hand, a mere dance at a ball, she would be enraged. She would glide over and poisonously require my attention elsewhere. She spread rumors about me, claiming that I was a slut, a whore, an undeserving daughter. She claimed I threw myself at man as though I were no better than a common tramp. Her eyes would gleam golden with each venomous lie. The men looked at me in distaste, and instead started after her. Assured of her potent effect upon them once more, she swept away into the distance, raising her lovely fan, smelling of sweet scents and the richest perfumes.
I hated her.
Is it wrong to hate one’s mother? I cannot judge. I know only that she was deranged, unstable. There was no way I could love her. My father the king was madly in love with her, and always believed her over me. He could not understand her thinking me a rival for anyone’s attention, and even if I could have brought myself to hurt him by telling him of her desire for other men, he would not have believed me. I am sure he would have thought me a liar, perhaps even have banished me as she oft-insisted. I do not know whether she enchanted him, perhaps cast a love-charm upon him. I know only that I saw no refuge in him.
She continued to abuse me. She would flaunt her conquests before me, telling me in her sweet, bored voice of the men whom she had seduced. She threw them away before they could cause any damage to her reputation, but it made my blood boil to hear of it. She knew I hated her. She knew of my anger, of how I would have killed her to protect my father. She would taunt me with that knowledge. “Your father loves me,” she would mock. “You would hurt him more by killing me than letting me live.” I gritted my teeth and thought of ways, ways in which I could do away with her and make it seem an accident.
It was only me against whom she directed all her merciless tactics. The rest of her daughters she charmed. She turned them against me, making sure that they would never follow the oldest child. She knew I was the one who was most dangerous to her, being the wisest and cleverest, the slyest one of them all. The other eleven were clever enough, I suppose, but their wants were fewer and less threatening. Nosegays, pretty toys, gardens, presents and gifts sufficed for them. They were not of the age to attract suitors yet, and so she did not care about them.
But she made them hate me.
She would whisper in their ears, poisonous whispers. Adele believed that I was part-witch. “Her black silky hair,” my mother whispered to her, “it is the sign of a witch. You must always wear this charm I give you,” handing her an amulet in the shape of an eye, “to ward off her jealousy of you.” Adele, wide-eyed and beautiful with her auburn curls cascading down her shoulders, pinned the brooch to her dress and backed away from fear. Julianna outright laughed at me and my pitiful attempts to warn her against my mother. “I know how you envy her,” she said, tossing her golden tresses. “She told me of your attempt to seduce the stableboy, and how miserably you failed.” I fared no better with Iryna, Narcissa, Evana or the rest. Each one thought me mad or pitiful.
I would see my mother laughing with my sisters, see her brilliant red nails stroking their soft skin, and I would swear to kill her. Each time she smiled at me, a secret smile behind her fan, as she continued to win them over, to charm them, to win them with bribes and kisses, prizes and toys. It gave her pleasure, excited her almost, to see that I knew her in her true form, knew her as she truly was, but could do nothing to prevent her cruelties and obscenities.
Many a time I found her with one of her paramours or lovers. She did not think to hide them from me, knowing that I knew of her in all her evil. She would laugh at me as she lay with them, running her fingers through their silky hair. Always her secret smile, that smile that would drive me mad. I saw that smile and I swore, I swore that I would kill her. I knew that I would find a way.
But what was more important was to save my sisters. After a time, I was sure that one of them would attract a suitor my mother desired, a knight or a prince, someone highly-born, a royal nobleman. I did not know how far my mother’s envy would take her. If I could not kill her, then I must prevent it from happening, must hide them all away. I must save them from themselves. But how to do it? How to make them appear disinterested in all men, to think them beneath themselves, almost ridiculous? How to encourage them to dance to my tune?
The simplest way, of course, would be to kill my mother outright. I planned a way to do it. I slipped into her bedroom one night, thinking to place a poison in her facial creams. The next morning, as she applied it to her face, she would expire wordlessly, still beautiful, her skin unmarred. I crept to her dressing table, sorted through the jewels and gems littered across it until I found the unguent I wanted. I reached into the pocket of my filmy robe and removed the satchet of nightshade.
A mocking voice behind me. “What do you think you are doing, Zara?”
I whirled around. There was no one there. I turned back to the dressing table, and started in dismay. There, in the mirror, I saw my mother’s face. It was beautiful, though slightly distressed. I looked like her, a fact that I resented more than anything else. Her long black curls tumbled around her face in artful disarray. She wore a white negligee and smiled up at me in her mirror.
“I am not so easily poisoned,” she laughed. “Well, Zara?” The shadow of her crossed her arms in the mirror. “What do you mean to do?”
“I meant to kill you, Mother,” I answered honestly.
She laughed. “Oh, how amusing to have let you try! But I rather thought you might appreciate the warning.” Her voice turned nasty. “There is no way to outwit a sorceress of my power. Be warned. Next time I will not let you off so easy.”
The mirror glass turned milky-white, and she faded into shadow. I clenched my hands together tightly, then stood up to leave. I did not know what to do next.
It was the next day that I begged leave of my father. “Father, I am your successor,” I began. “I believe it is time that I see the realm, venture through it in order to learn of your people, your subjects. I desire to make a good Queen.”
He smiled at me benignly. “Of course, Zara.” He rumpled my hair as though I were still a child. “I trust you entirely. Do you desire an escort?”
I knew it would look odd not to take one. “My maid, Melissa, and a few soldiers, dear father. I shall be fine.”
My mother strode into the room, elegantly dressed in a long gown of pink and fuschia, gorgeously sewn, a delicate lace choker with a radiant pink jewel at her throat. She wore a diadem in her hair, also set with a pink stone. Her long lashes framed her delicate face. “My dear Zara,” she said kindly, her tone sad, “I shall miss you so. Come to me and give me a kiss.”
It repulsed me to touch her, but with my father looking on, I moved toward her. She forced me into her arms, my mouth screwed up in a wretched grimace of a smile. She hissed in my ear, “See that you do not return.” I straightened, and smoothed my gown.
“Why, I do believe I am crying,” she said, delicate droplets dotting her lashes. The King smiled fondly at her.
I wanted to retch, to reveal her and her lies as she stood there. But there was nothing I could do, naught that I could prove. She was my mother, and he my father. He would not believe any bad of her, any wickedness or cruelty. What was I to do?
I knew what I had to do.
I summoned Melissa to me. “Melissa, I am giving you a command that I do not wish to give,” I said, my face like stone, impassive, betraying none of my true feelings. “You will do it regardless of what you feel. I am asking, commanding, you to die for me.”
Confusion, even a hint of hurt, flashed across her face. “Of course, my princess.”
I lifted her chin forcefully, my fingers clutching her jaw. “I ask this sacrifice of you not only for my sake, but for that of my sisters. I mean to save them all.”
“What is it you would have me do?”
“Only this,” I answered. “We will change clothes. You will pretend to be a princess, will dance through the realm and speak sweetly to all those that ask after you. You will buy me time. I mean to make for a certain place, a place where I may learn what is to be the bane of my mother, what is to be her undoing. I mean to free us all from her dark spell. I will not tell you where I go, for if you do not know, it cannot be forced from you.”
She dipped into a curtsy, tears in her eyes. “It is a brave death,” she said. “I will accept it honorably.”
I smiled at her. “Come, let me kiss you.” She came toward me, and I pressed my lips against her cheek. They were cold, cold and icy as I was, as I had made myself. There were some who thought I felt nothing. It was not so. I could not bear to feel.
“From now on, you are Zara.” I cast a glamour upon her, something that made her appear as I was. I had learned some petty spells from books, from ancient tomes that were scattered across the library, books my mother neglected because she thought them no threat to her. She looked at me and gasped. “Yes, and I am Melissa. I shall be you,” I grinned. “You will have to act suitably upset about your runaway servant.” She nodded, determined to act the queen.
“I do not know how long the glamour will last,” I told her. “I do not wish you to die. If you are found out- run, if you can. I would rather have you remain alive. I do not wish you die.”
“I know, my princess,” Melissa answered me. It was my own features that came toward me, my features as cast upon her in the glamour I had wrought. “I know you did not wish me dead. I wish you luck with your quest.”
We left the next morning.
At a stream, when Melissa arrogantly bade me fill her golden cup with water, I slipped away into the wood. I had a destination, a specific place I desired to reach. I had packed provisions for myself, a rucksack filled with bread and cheese and apples and a canteen of water, the staples necessary to survive. I had read many a story in which the heroine survived on such fare, and believed myself very clever to have packed this way.
To my dismay, I found that many a stream was brackish and that I soon ran low on food. Parched and starving, I made my way through the wood, looking for helpful fairies or dwarfs, people to whom I could give my last loaf of bread in exchange for aid. I met no such people. Cursing the stories that had mislead me so, I at last reached the great white stone castle, the one that I had heard of, the one where the Mermaid Princess had turned into foam because the Prince could not love her.
I had heard that tale, heard it in horror and sadness, heard of the beautiful mermaid princess who sacrificed her tongue to the Sea-Witch for a pair of mortal legs. I heard, too, of her kind sisters, who cut off their hair in exchange for a knife, a knife with which the Mermaid Princess could have murdered the Prince, so that she could return to her glorious green fish-scales, shimmering in murky light. But she threw away the knife in horror, and instead doomed herself to die, to become foam, ocean’s breath, ever-present and simultaneously painfully, desperately negligible.
I knelt on that very beach, the sandy spit of land upon which she had lain, and raised the sharp knife to my wrist. I meant to summon the Sea-Witch, and I must call her with blood. I made a small horizontal slit in my skin and shook my wrist angrily over the waters, exclaiming, “Sea-Witch, Sea-Witch, I call you to me!” I knelt upon the sand and peered into the water, intent on whatever I might see.
The water bubbled red and viscous, the small droplets of blood turning into great crashing waves. I found myself drenched, cold and shivering upon the sand. At length I closed my eyes and felt the water pass over me, dragging me down to the depths. I opened my eyes inside her lair, the home of the Sea-Witch. I had my legs still, and my human form, and was strangely able to breathe, even though I was underwater.
Crags and stalacites hung above me, beautiful icicle-like shapes from which dripped rainbow water. The light hit the stalacites and stalagmites and reflected back off the minerals and ores that studded the rock, deep grainy purple veins and darkened silver that ran throughout. I looked upward in awe, glanced at the smooth grey rock that surrounded me. The water upon the floor of the cave was dark and purple, somehow I stood on a jut of grey rock inside the mouth of the cave. The water flowed all around the outside of the cave, but did not come inside, had it entered I would have choked to death instantaneously.
There was a great silver carving arising from the midst of the floor, two open pleading hands, curved so as to hold a great orb. A white substance swirled within the orb, holding no fixed shaped but remaining ever-liquid, blurring. The Beast’s mirror lay next to this orb, and I longed to look into it, glancing at the beautiful carving of the rose which composed its elaborate handle. The rose’s stem twined around and about, a glossy obsidian handle that meant to represent the darkened green leaves.
There was a set of knives and daggers inside of a golden rack at the far end of the cave. Their handles differed; some were made of mere bone while others were studded with gems and jewels. Plain and elaborate, they all shimmered. I caught the scrollwork upon one sword, it read, in elaborate English, ‘Whoso draweth this sword from the stone whence it is stuck shall be King of all of England. I smiled inadvertently as my eyes traveled over the riches of the cave.
Who called me? The voice was sibilant, sinister, and creaked as though rusty from disuse, as though the Sea-Witch was oiling the gears that allowed her to speak. Who has summoned me to my cave?
I stepped forward, my eyes defiant. “I have. I, Zara, princess of the throne.”
“And so you are,” her voice answered, as she emerged from a dusky backentrance to her cave. I took a sudden step backward as I saw her form.
Rheumy red eyes made up her face, which was sunk from the wrinkles that lined it. Long, wavy tendrils of grey hair flitted around her, wrapping around her nude upper body. Her chest was flat, the nipples shrunken, the skin itself still flesh-colored but obviously old. Her nails were long and clawed. She had a long green-gray tail that she wrapped around various pieces of stone, and her teeth were uneven, even slightly curved to give her a fanged, bloodthirsty look. I recoiled from her and she cackled.
“What, the lovely young princess does not wish to pay the price? You summoned the Sea-Witch, girl, I trust you know there is a price.”
She grasped my hand. Her grip was strong; I could not have thrown her off for anything. Her aged, wrinkled hands felt my young blood, ran up and down the cut by my wrist. She licked her lips. “Ah. I see the youngling has some wits about her.”
With an obscene smile, she bid me be seated. “So tell me what I can do for you, my young princess.” She smacked her lips.
I was nervous, frightened, but dared not show it. “I want to kill my mother,” I answered plainly.
“Matricide?” She smiled. “That is costly. Are you willing to pay for it?”
“What must I do?”
“Why, for that, I believe you would have to die. I would like a young body,” she purred, “and yours is quite comely. It would be quite easy to kill your mother, but the price is a little high, no?”
“I do not wish to die,” I said, “unless it is the only way. I want to protect myself and my siblings, to save us from her wrath. Can you devise nothing else?”
She lit a candle. I do not know how that candle could burn underwater, but burn it did, its orange-yellow glow filling the murky water with a disturbing glow. “Oh, I think I can,” she smiled. She reached for a large book, her gnarled fingers wrapping around the spine. “Let me see,” she thought aloud. “A castle, a castle with enchanted admirers. Yes, twelve princesses and twelve princes. I rather like that.” She turned to me. “That should last for a while. You should be safe. The only thing you must guard against is that none should ever discover your castle, for if anyone does, you will all be ruined.”
I was wary, for I saw no reason to trust her this easily. “What castle? Just what do you imagine to do for me, Grandmother?”
She cackled again. “Why, I shall give you a magnificent gift. There is a trapdoor in your tower room, one that you have never discovered…until now. That trapdoor, upon my command, shall lead to another kingdom, the netherworlds. It is eerily beautiful, with woods in which emerald trees grow, where golden forests and silver plants exist. You shall have suitors, my dears, men to entertain you and dance with you, men to love and who shall love you. If you do not like the ones my world provides, you need only entrap those who shall try to solve the mystery of where you go at night…to dance. Yes, dancing is quite right. I rather like dancing. You will recall that the Mermaid Princess entertained the prince by dancing, though her soles burned because of it. As you are human, and mortal, your feet need not feel on fire, however.
“You shall have lives,” she continues, spinning this fantasy for me once again, “more wonderful and beautiful than those of any other princess. Your princes shall love you and only you. You shall be at home amidst the enchanted, the beautiful, the spellbound. All this you shall have…so long as you please me.”
“What do you want in payment?” I flung at her suddenly. “What do you wish of me?”
“What do I wish of you? My dear, what I wish and what I demand are not the same at all, no, not the same. I wish your soul of you, your beauty, your tongue, your hair, but I think that I shall demand your happiness of you, my dear. You have a great capacity to be happy- I see it in you- but so long as I grant you all this, you shall never be happy. You shall be a princess, a queen, sorceress and enchantress, your beauty will be renowned and your sisters shall obey you- but you will not be happy. Should you ever meet a man whom you truly love, you shall not be happy with him. He will betray you or hurt you, whatever may be the case, I will take him from you. You shall not have him. This is the price I demand. The ruin of the happiness of one so young affords me much delight.”
Her red eyes flamed as she spoke thus, and I stood transfixed, frightened. I did not know how to answer her. I believed I would rather be unhappy and alive rather than dead and unfeeling, however, and so I acquiesced.
“We bind it in blood,” she said, “and then I will give you the key to the trapdoor. Remember, now, that you must never fall in love. If you do, I shall ruin your happiness. Should you ever have the gall to demand happiness of me, all bets are off. That is how the game is played. I shall wreak my bloody vengeance upon you, girl, and you may think yourself the winner. But it is not so. Oh, it is not so.” She smiled. “We bind it in blood.”
She wrenched my wrist away and took out a copper knife, a copper knife with a mother-of-pearl handle. She nicked her wrist but cut deeper into mine, and mixed our bloods together in a golden bowl. “We are joined, joined,” she intoned, “and you shall have your otherworldly pleasures.” I fainted, then, for I remember nothing more until I was cast up on land once more, bearing a strange scar on my wrist. It was odd in that it was in the shape of a star, a beautiful shape, milky-white, slightly paler than my own skin.
I made my way home, walked through forests, trudged over hills, and cannot recall what I ate or how I lived so that I might survive. When I returned it seemed that I was much older; years had passed, of that I am certain. I walked through brambles and thornbushes and none of them seemed to touch me; my skin was not marred, nor was I hurt in any way. Nothing appeared able to hurt me. Perhaps I was guarded by the Sea-Witch’s curse, perhaps that was the reason that nothing caused me pain or pleasure.
I returned home only to be exclaimed over and loved. As the Sea-Witch had said, my sisters obeyed me now, and seemed to have suffered sadness during my long departure. Melissa, I was saddened to hear, had been put to death for impersonating me. No one had known where I was. There was a great feast given in honor of my return, but my mother looked daggers at me the whole time. She seemed slightly afraid, slightly disturbed by my return. My father greeted me with joy and bestowed presents upon me. I explained that I believed that I had been taken captive, but could not remember where I had been forced to reside or remain. I shuddered delicately whenever anyone brought it up, and so people learned to put it aside, lest their vulgar curiosity cause me a series of convulsions.
It was that night that I made for the trapdoor. I did not know what was the true key, for I had been given a necklace by the Sea-Witch, a delicate necklace that was not any key I knew. I looked at the floor of our tower chamber when my sisters were sleeping, and instantly realized that I had only to move my bed to discover the trapdoor. I did this, and saw a small, glittering star upon the floor. I smiled, then, to realize what my key was, and held my wrist against the floorboard. The trapdoor opened, revealing a series of steps that led into the night. I was determine to go alone on this my first night, to face the dangers that were here on my own.
I made my way down the golden steps only to step into a silver wood. I was amazed at the silver trees that sprung up around me, the silver plants and blades of grass. As I walked, I felt no unpleasant sharpness, no cruel stab of metal against my thin slippers. I gazed about in amazement, feeling the rush of cool air, the pleasant smells of a forest, the dark midnight blue of the sky. I saw a glorious moon above me and moved quickly, in order to reach my destination.
I stepped into a field of gold, then. I followed the path in the wood and heard small cracking sounds that I soon realized belonged to little animals, weasels and rabbits, running through the wood. I moved onward, reaching an emerald wood, and finally a crossing. There were great beautiful boats, carved in the shape of swans. I saw an oarsman in attendance. I touched his arm and he arose.
“Princess Zara,” he bowed to me. “I am delighted that you have come.”
He was quite handsome, with an open expression and beautiful brown curls dusting his forehead. It was only his deep brown eyes that bore a slightly glazed expression, and I did not let that bother me over much. He took me to the castle, wherein I beheld fairy couples dancing across the floor, each garbed in satins and samite. Chandeliers with glittering crystal graced the hall, and the clothing was like none I had ever seen. I looked at these fairies and fae creatures and smiled, for they did not even seem to notice my presence. I saw that there were a few men partnerless, doubtless members of the fae. I soon learned that if I merely tapped one on the shoulder, he asked me for a dance.
And that is how it began.
It became a game, as you well know. I invited my sisters into the darkness, the world beyond, and enchanted them. We all became quite cruel to our suitors, which made our mother laugh and smile. She did not realize that we were well content with our fairy kings and princes. What is more, once my father offered a reward to those who would discover our secret, we drugged those men and brought them to our kingdom. There, they became our princes and suitors as well. We were loved by everyone, thought lovely and handsome and beautiful. We had new dancing slippers every day, and the fairies made us gifts of the rich clothing they wore.
We were all content and perfectly well-satisfied. There was nothing to disturb us.
That was until I met Michael.
I did not know his name was Michael at first. I knew him only because I met him at a tourney. I was a princess, but I was tired and hot and cared nothing for the sun. I meant to go inside, and was walking toward the gardens. That was when I saw him the first time, his hair dark as well, but he was dressed in gilded armor, and he had a jolly, kind expression upon his face.
“My lady,” he said, and lifted his visor. I extended my hand and he kissed it chivalrously. He made for the fountains, took off his helmet, and splashed water upon his face. I laughed at his disregard for chivalry. It was only afterwards that he scooped up a bit of water, and his face screwed up into a great smile, motioned toward me and asked whether I wished to drink.
That was how I met Michael.
It was the first of our clandestine meetings. I laughed with him and amused him and bewitched him. He did not know he was a princess. I never told him. There were so many of us, how could he know? It was hard for our royal father not to confuse us with one another. Michael brought me nosegays and I flirted with him, though I knew that I could never truly marry him. He was a simple soldier, simple and kind. I suppose I used him, though in truth I hoped against hope that I could find a way to allow for our love to become a reality, to end in marriage.
My mother put a stop to that.
My mother found us one day, flirting by the fountain. She watched and observed and pouted, smiling cruelly. She informed my lord father the next day. He summoned me before him, and bade Michael attend him as well. Michael went white when he realized that I was Zara, the Princess Zara. He listened as my father sternly lectured him, as he thundered at me. Michael’s eyes held such betrayal when they looked at mine. I had broken him, somehow, broken him by my oblique lie. I could not even hear the words my father said, words that sounded familiar and slurred, words which included, “honor” and “duty” and “obligation” and even some too cruel to repeat over, gleaned, I think, from what my mother had said.
It gave my mother great happiness to take my love from me. I ran after Michael once our audience was over, ran after him and begged him to believe that I would never have been so merciless or cruel to him. He could not. He could not listen to me. I told him about my mother, about her vindictive cruelty, about how she was jealous of her own daughters, jealous of our beauty and our suitors. I thought I saw the flicker of belief in his eyes for a moment, but then he coldly informed me that I was a liar and a Princess, and far too good for him to speak with.
I cried that night, cried in the castle towers, cried bitterly and angrily.
And that was when I made the worst mistake of my life. I cried out, bitterly and angrily, that I wanted my happiness. I wanted happiness and I wanted freedom, I wanted the freedom to love and choose and be loved. I did not give a damn for my sisters or my mother or anyone else; I merely wanted to be happy, happy and free.
The image of the Sea-Witch appeared before my eyes and she hissed at me, a cruel and terrible sound. “You have reneged on your promise,” she said, and her eyes promised revenge. “You have reneged on your promise, and you will pay for it.” Terrified, I begged her to forgive me, begged her to ignore the words I had foolishly, stupidly said. I begged her, I prayed to her, I swore to give her anything she might want. “You have reneged on your promise,” she answered. “I will remember.”
For a while, nothing happened. All seemed right with the world. The sun still shone, the dancing princes still existed, we still wore our slippers through and the mystery went unsolved. My sisters still obeyed me and even showed some affection toward me. My mother, while still cruel and vindictive, did nothing worse to me. I dared to believe it was all a bad dream, a mirage that had thrust itself before my face, borne of my fears and my dark hopes.
But then Michael came again.
You have heard, of course, of the old woman that Michael encountered on the road. This old woman told him not to drink the wine we would give him, the wine that would drug him so that he would sleep soundly through the night. This old woman gave him an invisibility cloak so that he could steal after us unseen.
Who was this old woman? Why, the Sea-Witch, of course.
And so it was that Michael, now a soldier, disillusioned with the world, wounded, but still incomparably kind and handsome, came to our castle. When I saw him I gasped, and tried to dissuade him, but he would not be dissuaded. I prepared the wine myself, spicing it well, making sure that he drunk it. When I saw him snoring I ran my fingers through his hair and kissed his cheek. I loved him so, though he did not know it.
And then we went down the trapdoor.
Lina heard him, though I paid no attention to her. She felt him step upon her cloak; she heard the crack as he broke off the branches that he would present to the king. She felt the extra weight in her swan boat.
We all danced with the princes that night, though my heart was not in it. But I was determined to have a good time, and so I placed a smile on my face, and made my heart merry. I danced with my suitors and smiled at them, wheeled about in my dress of fine cloth-of-gold. I drank rich wine and tasted of the sweetmeats and delicacies. My face was a mask of delight, when all that I truly desired was to remain with Michael.
He saw me, and he hated.
How could I have known that he watched me, beneath his invisible cloak? He saw my gay countenance, my smiling face; he saw me and he judged. He judged me false, thought me a liar, thought that I had toyed with him when in truth my love for him was the purest feeling I had ever known. He thought me a liar and his eyes bored into mine. I felt uncomfortable, even watched, but dismissed the idea that anyone could have followed us. I knew it was impossible. I knew.
His hatred should have frozen my blood, I should have felt it, I did feel it…but I would not admit it to myself. I knew that something was amiss, but I did not know what it was.
I did notice the missing goblet. But I could not imagine who could have taken it.
It was in the morning, when we were summoned to the court, that I realized my mistake. There Michael stood, and his eyes hated mine, did not even look into mine. He presented my father with the three twigs from the three woods, and then with the goblet from our table. He named Lina as his desired bride.
I wanted to die.
I realized, then, exactly what he had seen, exactly how I had undone my own happiness- all this planned by the Sea-Witch, the vile Sea-Witch who was my tormenter! I wanted to kill her; I wanted to die. I wanted to tell Michael the truth.
I tried. I tried to explain to Michael about our mother, our cruel, treacherous, vindictive mother, to explain why I had found this alternate reality, this place where we would not need to suffer her angry glances, her barbed words. Uncertainty flooded his eyes. He promised me that he would look into it.
He returned to clap me in chains.
My mother had been murdered, he announced, and I was the one who had killed her. My eyes burned with righteous anger. “I never touched her!” I screamed, but it was at that very moment that I saw the Sea-Witch flitting by. She wore my form as easily as a cloak, and I knew then, I knew what he had seen. “You demon!” I shouted, and reached for the Sea-Witch, but all that I clasped was the body of Melissa, my faithful servant. Michael recoiled from me in horror. “She calls the dead to her!” he shouted, running for the guards. I wept over Melissa, Melissa whose dead form had apparently still retained the vestiges of my form, Melissa whose body had been used by the Sea-Witch to murder my mother.
I was placed in the dungeons, dank and musty as they were. I refused to yield, refused to admit guilt. It would have been a kindness if I had killed my mother, but I had not; it was the Sea-Witch, wearing my form, stolen from the glamour I had placed on Melissa. But who would believe me? You would think that Michael should have seen it. Had he not worn an invisible cloak just moments earlier? And if he could wear an invisible cloak, why so strange that another could don my form?
But he hated me, he hated me because he had loved me, and so he would never see it.
Michael told my father of my crimes, swearing that I had been the one who murdered my mother. My father delivered a ringing slap upon my cheeks, and scorched my soul with his angry words. He had truly loved my mother, and so he truly hated me.
I was given a trial. It was no true trial, for I was condemned by all. Even from beyond the grave, my mother won, poisoning their hearts. All that I had done, I had done for my sisters, I had done to save them from the cruelty she had visited upon me. They cared nothing for me. They did not believe me.
Michael, as the new King, banished me from the realm. My father seconded the decree. My sisters looked on in dumb silence.
Michael visited me before he sent me away. “I loved you,” he said, and his eyes were filled with pain. “I loved you so. I loved you and you lied to me, tormented me, used men for your amusement, used men as your playthings. A kingdom of men, Zara! A fairy-kingdom made of men! What cruelty is in you.” He looked at me, and his eyes accused me. “You are evil, Zara. You are evil.”
And yet my wicked evil nature did not prevent him from taking me in an attempt to kiss me. I tried to escape from his grasp but he held me with strong hands, hands that gripped like iron. “You deserve this, damn you!” he roared. “You deserve to have the pain that you visited upon me visited upon you.” He kissed me and I laughed in his face, laughed because he did not believe me, because I knew that it was still me he truly loved, and it scared him to love the evil in me.
“I have done nothing,” I said honestly. “I did not kill my mother. I never would. I never loved anyone but you. All that was done, was done by the Sea-Witch.”
His eyes looked into mine as he struggled to believe, but hate won out. He would believe in my evil and his hatred first before he could ever forgive me. For forgiveness would take a letting down of his pride, and that he could not allow.
He banished me. He banished me, but I knew that I was always his, that I was the form that danced before his eyes, I the one he truly wanted. He married Lina, and supposedly he was “happily ever after.” But I know better. For I was the truly good one. I was the only one who tried to save them all, to save them from my mother, to spare my father, to love Michael.
And yet I am the evil one.
It is fitting, then, that I am where I am. Cast out by all, banished by Michael, hated by my father, neglected by my sisters, I am bitter, the bitter and beautiful princess that never was.
I am Zara, Sea-Witch’s apprentice.
I will kill her one day. And then I will become the Sea-Witch, ruler of the seas. I will destroy the lives of innocent maidens in payment for her destruction of my own. The bitterness, the hatred, the cruelty lives in me. Oh, I am evil, but I am evil because they have made me so.
I will be the Sea-Witch.
And you will love me when I kill you.