The Cursed Prince
My father is mean, really and truly mean, just not to me. I’m his darling, and therein lies the first problem. I’m twenty years old, an adult, and I have rarely left this cottage. Parties? Only if they are girls-only affairs. Boys? Having your father answer the door, limp pronounced and loaded rifle in hand, deters any sane suitors from calling. Adventures? Good, unwed girls cannot go on adventures to see the sea or ride an elephant in a sultry foreign land. Education? Why should I want one when I have everything I need right here? Sewing? Mandatory.
It’s a boring life when your father is Gaston, king of uncompromising men everywhere. Problem number two? I love the pigheaded old man. I do. I remember him picking me up in his big, strong arms, cradling me next to the warm hearth, my toddler fingers wrapped in his jet black hair. I remember him sitting me on his knee, telling me his too big for this world hunting tales. The best, the most wonderful story was how he faced the beast to save the girl he loved from the monster’s Stockholm like magical hold over her only to be pushed to his near death. He walked away limping and broken but walk away he did. He is a stubborn survivor, my old man.
My mother would tell you something different, much different. She would say that Gaston, young and whole, dashed off to irritate the woman he was infatuated with, leaving behind his pregnant mistress. Buxom and blonde and willing to love him unconditionally, he had stopped seeing her when she said that she was carrying his baby. Her family was frantic to find their beautiful daughter and Gaston’s castoff a husband before her condition began to show. He returned from his encounter with the beast bloodied and lame but willing to make an honest woman out of the only person still keen to love him. The potbelly and stale ale smell would come later.
They hated each other, my parents. Theirs was a relationship of mistrust, anger, and co-dependence. That is how I learned to read and write. My father absolutely would not allow it, so my mother made sure she snuck me to a tutor weekly. My mother wanted to marry me to the baker’s son, who was going to open his own pâtisserie in the city. She imagined me twirling in ball gowns, visiting friends while sipping tea out of delicate china cups. My father gave the boy money to leave, with the understanding that he take the hatter’s daughter as his bride.
I was never asked what I wanted. I loved them both. I was sick of this life.
That’s when the invitation came. Pretty and beribboned and splendid with its gilded edges, it was from the one couple my parents could agree to hate. Addressed to me, it was from Queen Belle and King Carlisle, once known only as The Beast. It was a beautiful summons to join them and their son, Prince Thierry, for a Valentines Ball. It was not an invitation to neglect. The wording stated that all eligible maidens were to attend in order to fulfill the prophesy of The Curse. To not attend would be to break royal decree and face appropriate retribution.
The prophesy? It is sung to newborn babes, whispered in make believe games between children, shared in hushed tones by adults tired of monsters in their land. It goes like this-
Born from love
But cursed in blood
The royal son will be born
When daylight beams
And all can see
Between monster and man will he be torn
Yet on the year of his majority
She will save him as she must
A wife, a princess, she may be the morn
Should she hide
Or choose to seek her ventures off elsewhere
Darkness will come, all will wither, this must I warn
My mother would roll her eyes and say that Belle found a way, again, to make herself and her son the center of attention. My father would say the beast got what was coming to him, having a son damned from birth with an inherited curse. What we all knew was this- a creature again roamed the halls of the stunning castle on the hill during the day. At night, it was whispered, he was a human boy again. The invitation seemed to confirm this rumor. The ball would not start until darkness fell.
“She is not going to the ball!” my father roared from his chair.
“It’s a summons. She has to go,” my mother said, picking a strand of golden hair from her dress, “I’m not any happier about it than you are.”
“I forbid it! The prince will turn 22 at midnight, and they will be looking for him to find his bride before then. I absolutely forbid her from going!” he yelled, red in the face with his anger.
My mother got that familiar gleam in her eye, the one that said she was going to delight in defying him.
“And how will you stop me if I send her, you fat old cripple?” she said, her voice teasing and low.
“I’ll make you pay for that wench,” he said, trying to heave himself out of his seat.
Sure, she was quicker on her feet, but he never let a slight go. He would get her eventually. He always did.
Her hand came quickly around my arm, and she piloted me out of the cottage. She kept moving, taking me with her, until we stood outside the small clothier. Inside we bought a dress, already made, and a sash for my waist because the dress was too large. She took me to her sister’s house, where my six cousins had all received their summons as well. My mother swiftly did my hair, pinched my cheeks for color, and directed my cousins to take me with them. My aunt’s eyes held all the knowledge in the world, though she certainly was not a scholarly sort. She could guess what my mother was doing, why she was getting me out of the house, why she was letting me go to the ball.
I followed my mother out the door as she turned to leave, to face what was at home. This time I took her by the arm and I whispered, “I’m never coming back.”
She met my eyes, her own green as emerald and almost as hard, and said, “It’s for the best.”
She hugged me, a rarity, and I swore I could feel her pain in her bones. A life of serving a man, of in turn trying to challenge him and then cowering from him, a life she had chosen long ago and been made bitter from, was all there in that hug. I had always sworn I would never be like her, either of them for that matter, and her hug only solidified that vow.
I was both saddened and empowered by my declaration to my mother. I was never going home. This ball had to mean something to me. It was my first excursion into the world, and it would be my last if I could not find a way to make myself valuable. I needed work, not a prince everyone else was mooning over or trying to save. He could save himself, for all I cared. I had more important things to do.
Once at the castle I did not take even a moment to marvel at the splendor, to gawk at the pink marble floors, to stare openmouthed at the queen’s greying but still luxurious and beautiful cascades of chocolate colored hair. I moved away from the crowds, toward a different sort of noise. Behind me I left giggling girls and the soft noise of silken gowns over polished floors. Ahead of me was the clank and clatter of dishes being prepared, the rough voice of a female cook hollering directions, and the drumming of many footsteps as servers bustled in and out. I headed toward the kitchen.
I waited, amidst the activity, until someone asked if I was lost. I had never done this before and announced, baldly, that I was looking for a job. The server scoffed, her starched frills fancier than my very ordinary last minute finery. The chef, however, stilled. She looked me over, asked if I had ever worked in a kitchen before. I answered honestly, that I had prepared most of the meals in my own home and was willing to work for cheap. Actually, I amended at her pointed look, I was willing to work for nothing save food and shelter. With a shrug of her shoulders she stated that they were in need of more hands for the event and, if I did well enough, she would let me stay on after the ball. She shooed me into the guiding hands of another server who dressed me in a borrowed uniform. My first task, after reporting back to Chef, was to gather mint from the garden for macarons. I had no idea what fresh mint looked like. I promised to return with it.
Once I found my way to the kitchen garden, which itself took far too long, I began to panic. I should know what mint looked like. I knew what it smelled like. Wait, I knew what it smelled like! No matter how imbecilic I looked, I would walk through this garden and sniff every green thing until I found mint. Still nervous but resolved, I began my mint snuffling mission.
I was disrupted from my search, some while later, by a rustling in the corner. I turned, peering into the darkness, to see an occupied bench. The sitter was a boy, dressed in regalia, watching me apprehensively. He must have been there when I entered, because I had not heard anyone else come outside. I felt the fool, standing knee deep in the herbs, sniffing about like a truffle pig. This made me angry. I marched over to him, dirt caked to my hem and shoes, and asked what kind of person sits and watches another without announcing themselves. He quipped that he was the charming kind of person who did not interrupt another who was so clearly enjoying smelling the yields of a garden. For some reason this made me laugh. His voice, so serious, made the ridiculous even more bizarre. Here I was, dirty and failing at my first job, talking to a strange man hiding in the kitchen garden.
He got up, brushed his pants, and asked if he could help me find something. A great part of me wanted to tell him that I did not need help, that I was completely capable of finding mint on my own. The more sensible part decided that I should take any help where I could get it. He walked me over to the bed of smallish plants next to the door and showed me the mint.
“Most men could not pick one herb from another,” I stated, reaching for a handful of sprigs.
“Most men do not help peculiar girls pick mint from their own garden,” he responded, leaning down to help me gather the aromatic plant into my pinafore.
He handed me his pickings and, as our hands touched, I felt a jolt. I felt something strange and wonderful, almost otherworldly. I knew this man. I had a bone deep knowledge of him. He was both intoxicatingly new and gratifyingly familiar. I was meant to spend days, years even, kissing his lips. I was meant to stand beside him, to laugh at his comically unfunny jokes, to advise him as his most trusted counsel. I was meant to rule his country.
“You are Prince Thierry,” I said, knowing it.
“And you are?” he said a bit breathlessly, as though he had felt that same world-shaking jolt.
“I am Roxanne, daughter of Gaston and Rondelle,” I warned him.
“My mother is not going to be happy,” he said, reaching his hand out for me.
Dirt caked and with my heart in my throat, I took it.