“Falada, Falada, thou art dead, and all the joy in my life has fled.”
Elisa woke on a plump goose-down bed, as she had for many mornings now. She stretched, enjoying the feel of not having to get up at dawn.
The wedding was in a day. She was so happy she felt she might float.
The ladies-in-waiting came in to dress her. Elisa was always careful to be cordial, but not too friendly with them. No point in getting familiar, as if they had anything in common.
They dresses her in heavy linen and fixed her hair and tied her slippers elaborately. Elisa tried not to look too pleased.
There was not much for a princess to do, so Elisa strolled about the castle. It always did her good to look out over the lands that would soon be hers.
Something was off. The servants would whisper and suddenly fall silent when she drew near. And was it just her, or were they giving her sidelong glances?
Elisa put on her haughtiest look and strolled right past them. As if they had the right. As if she were anything like them.
She wasn’t, really.
Fairy tales were full of girls like her, who struggled to make their own fate. Who fought with cleverness and skill and won happiness for themselves. They didn’t sit weeping on the ground for their mother.
Elisa made herself look at the courtyard. She had to, every morning.
That simpering idiot was nowhere in sight, but that nag’s head hung like a bad omen above the gate.
Elisa shuddered. Such an ungodly thing. Speech in an animal, especially after death, was a heresy.
Still, she was wary of pressing the matter too much. The goose girl held too fond a place in everyone’s hearts.
Elisa turned away from the sight. Best to ask to have it taken down after the wedding. She would be granted everything and anything, she reckoned.
It was really too easy, pretending to be noble. She had lived among them her whole life, hadn’t she? If a roughness was betrayed in some manner, speech or gesture, she could laugh it off as hailing from a small kingdom.
A pageboy tittered behind his hand. Elisa shot him a look of such venom he started back a little. Such impudence! She really must have a word with her betrothed, right away.
She paced to the throne room, where she found the old king and the chamberlain, engrossed in some private joke.
“My dear,” the king cried, almost sardonically, “what is your royal desire this morning?”
She remembered to smile gracefully, though she was very confused. Was it some country tradition she was unaware of? Damn! She should have asked the wretch that question before taking her clothes.
“Your majesty, where might my affianced be this morning?”
The old king took a long look at her. Elisa smiled, though her face was really becoming quite tired.
“Out in the stables,” the old king said finally, eyes glittering, “near the old iron stove.”
Elisa thanked him gratefully and left.
“Mind the hem of your lovely robes in that stableyard mud!” the king called after her.
Elisa had to stop and examine the hem of her dress. Spotless. Had she missed some etiquette? Should she hold her own skirts, or should she solicit a maidservant to do so?
Elisa settled for sneaking quickfooted out a side door.
The beast’s head was dripping from the lips. Elisa shuddered as she passed beneath, wary of being hit by stray drops.
The prince was indeed by an old iron stove. He was posed as if in mid-dance, one leg slightly bent, arms out as of entreating an invisible partner. He appeared to be listening.
Elisa tried her brightest smile. “Hullo, sweetheart!”
The prince turned to her, and through some trick of the light he looked suddenly unfriendly.
“Darling, it’s me!” she yelped without meaning to.
His face slowly sank into a neutral expression. “Elisa,” he said softly.
Elisa tried to bat her eyes coquettishly. “Yes, it is I. You haven’t become betrothed to someone else while I was asleep, have you?”
The prince let the silence drag on for too long before replying, “No. I have not been promised to anyone new.”
Elisa fanned herself. “Oh darling, it is so foul in this place, I need some fresh air.”
She held out her arm. The prince took a calculating look before accepting it.
Elisa babbled as they walked, trying to break him from his mood. “The whole castle has been so strange today. They look as if they see a complete stranger! You must make them behave, dearest, or there shall be no peace for me.”
The prince was silent.
Then, he asked, “will your mother be attending the wedding?”
Elisa had a sudden sting of panic she covered well.
“It nearly broke her heart to bid me farewell,” she said, “it might break completely to see me given away.”
The prince’s face was strong, but not unkind. A hardness had crept in somewhere, some worm had gnawed him, made him less favorable to her.
“Darling,” she said, “it may be a whole day until we next see each other, might I have a touch of your lips before we must part?”
The prince was looking over the fields, to where the geese were.
“If we are so soon to be joined, I don’t think the wait warrants a kiss.”
Elisa felt a pang of indignation, but reminded herself not to show it. The whole day was as if she was being tested for some invisible flaw.
“Well then, until we next meet.”
Elisa dropped into a curtsy. The prince bowed sharply at the waist, and Elisa could admire the fit of his uniform. Ah, well. Tomorrow.
The servants were talking about her. She could overhear snips of gossip—but they were always careful to fall silent at just the right moment, look busy. She knew all the tricks, but couldn’t denounce them without revealing herself. Even the waiting girls exchanged looks as they dressed her for dinner, pulling laces too tight and nearly throttling her with ropes of pearls. Elisa gasped and slapped their hands, but the girls proclaimed innocence and clumsiness. She shooed them away and finished the dressing herself, too incensed to care what they thought.
The room had a looking-glass that was long enough for Elisa to see herself in total. She examined her fastenings, making sure everything was in place. Did the bodice droop? Were her sleeves uneven?
She caught her own eye in the mirror.
Maybe it wasn’t the dress. Maybe it was her. Maybe she was too crude, too plain for even the finest silks to elevate. And they could see it all. She could see in their eyes, they knew. They mocked and chortled because they knew. And the prince…
“No,” Elisa said firmly to her reflection.
Her hair was not golden. And she did not have charms or enchanted animals. But she had grabbed tightly to her own fate and would not let go. Will was a virtue, to be rewarded as any other.
“I will be queen,” she whispered. “I will be queen…”
The tables were all abuzz with talking and feasting, all died down when she walked in the room. Elisa straightened her spine and walked to the raised table as if it all didn’t matter. Because it really didn’t.
The old king ate, son on his right side and a strange noblewoman on his left. Probably some distant cousin come to witness the wedding. The king spoke fondly to her and she laughed, hair brighter than the circlet she wore.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.
The prince rose, smiling handsomely. It did seem a staged smile, but at least it was something.
“My dear lady,” he said, offering his hand, “now that you are here, we can begin.”
The old king asked the chambermaid as a riddle, what punishment a person deserved who had deceived her master in such and such a manner, then told the whole story, asking finally, “What sentence does such a person deserve?”