In honour of the recent release of The Mostly-Forgotten Memoirs of Rose Red, here’s a free read from the fabulous, twisted fairytale world I’ve created.
Once upon a time there was a girl who was offered a kingdom in exchange for one tiny, little lie…
I stared at the prince in disbelief, and six feet of well-built, handsome Cristonian royal stared back at me with guileless blue eyes. So well-mannered, so charming under that perfectly styled blond hair, that I still couldn’t quite believe what he’d just asked me.
“You want me to lie to your mother,” I echoed. “About a pea.”
Prince Damien shrugged apologetically, but didn’t take it back. “I know it sounds wrong, but hear me out. I love my mother, but I think everyone knows that she’s not the most reasonable when it comes to who I can marry. I mean, you’ve got to be the ninth princess she’s brought by this year-”
“Tenth,” I interrupted. The good Queen Calista had been quite clear about that. Bloodlines, looks, behaviour had to all be impeccable before she’d consider a girl a suitable bride for her precious son. She’d turned down princesses and nobles from all the lands surrounding this small kingdom of Cristonia, and in my opinion she was scraping the bottom of the barrel with me.
Lancastre was on the south coast of Cristonia but was barely one tenth its size, only rating status as a kingdom because nobody could be bothered to take it over. My father had been voted king after the last one died because he was the only distant relative who wasn’t insane, a drunk or a communist, so the letter requesting my appearance at the royal Cristonian palace had been a shock indeed. And now this?
“Fine, tenth,” the prince agreed. “But it’s getting ridiculous. There’s no way that any girl alive can pass the test she’s set. I mean, to feel a pea underneath all those mattresses? At this rate I’ll still be single at forty.” His voice softened, and for a moment I was reminded of why I’d liked him so much. “And I really like you, Azalea. I really want you to pass this test, if that’s what it will take for us to have a chance.”
A twinge of pleasure shot through me, and I turned away. It sounded so good, what he was saying. Stay the night in the bed that the queen had prepared for me, then in the morning claim I’d slept badly because of some hideous lump in the mattress. Queen Calista would be satisfied that I was suitably sensitive and well-bred, and then Prince Damien and I could court…which was almost a guarantee of marriage when you were talking about two teenage royals in this day and age.
See, I hadn’t expected him to be so attractive, so likeable. I’d heard all manner of things about the snobbish Cristonian royals so I’d been expecting someone with their nose stuck in the air and their feet in solid gold shoes (sounds uncomfortable in my opinion, but that was what I was told). What I found was a lovely palace in the green countryside, full of pleasant, happy-looking servants and a queen who reminded me of our alewife back home. She didn’t look like the sort to have such foolish perceptions of true royalty, but there you go. You couldn’t judge someone’s true character just by looking at their face, could you?
Damien, on the other hand, had been remarkably normal. He’d been wearing good quality but not extravagant clothing, and had the sort of well-groomed looks that seemed ordinary at first but grew on you with conversation. He was likeable, and I had just decided that I found him very handsome after all when he’d thrown this ‘lie for me’ idea out there.
All I’d have to do to pass the test was tell one single lie. But the problem was, I’d been raised on a steady diet of honesty. Truth with love, that’s what my father would always say, and I’d known I could trust him with everything even when I didn’t like what he was telling me. But perhaps that was because we weren’t proper royals, just elected leftovers.
“I don’t know,” I said finally, a lump in my throat. “I’ll have to think about it.”
He stared down at me, a crooked smile on his face. “As long as you decide yes in the end, Azalea. I think we could be very happy together.”
After an engagement of several years and a massive celebration ball, sure. Wasn’t that how these things went? But then he turned and picked a single rose from a bush next to where I sat, my full skirts almost filling the small garden bench. Or should I say, tried to pick. The small pink bloom clearly didn’t want to go, and after a moment Damien pulled back, his fingers stained green and his expression rather perplexed. “Ah…should have brought a pocket knife,” he said ruefully. “These thornless stems are remarkably tough.”
I wordlessly pulled a small blade out of my reticule, handing it to him. I kept one on me ever since that day I’d accidently got my skirt hem caught in a turnstile and had to rescued by a farmer – very embarrassing, and not to be repeated.
“Oh. Thank you.” With a little ceremony the prince finally managed to saw off the rose, then handed the battered remains to me in triumph. “Here you go. And, er, your knife.”
“Thank you,” I said dryly. Just like my excitement over meeting Damien, the flower certainly wasn’t what it once had been.
The prince hadn’t exaggerated when he said my bed had a lot of mattresses. Queen Calista led me there after the late dinner, holding the candle before her as she walked. But even with that dim lighting I could see that this was no ordinary bed. The thin, quilted mattresses were layered higher than my head, perhaps even twice my height, and were held in place with four massively tall bed posts. There was even a ladder to climb up.
“I trust you’ll be comfortable,” the queen said pleasantly. “This is what we call the Hundred-Layer Quilt, and we save it for only our most valued royal guests. Each layer is filled with swans’ down, and it will provide the softest, most comfortable sleep you’ve ever had. I guarantee it.”
I closed my gaping mouth and managed to smile back. If she thought that anyone could feel a single pea through this lot, then she wasn’t just fussy, she was insane. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I’m sure I will.”
Unsurprisingly the bed was soft. I sank into it deeply enough to think I’d have trouble getting out again in an emergency, like a fire or needing to use the chamber pot.
But I couldn’t sleep. All I could think about was what Damien had said. Prince Damien. Would I really go against my conscience just for a boy? But he wasn’t just an ordinary boy, but one who came with a gorgeous kingdom attached…and a crazy mother. Ugh.
But he likes you, a quiet little voice murmured. Wouldn’t you do it, just for him?
The little voice had a good point, but I still couldn’t just accept it. Finally I did sleep, but ironically it was one of the worst nights I’d ever had.
Breakfast the next morning was held in the Glass Parlour. That room was long and wide enough to seat a fifty (‘an intimate gathering’, the queen said) and was beautifully designed with mirrors all down three walls. The fourth wall was completely made of expensive lead and glass panes, the view overlooking the rose garden with all its tough, thornless stems.
The three of us sat at one end of the too-long table, sampling a variety of marvellous baked goods from the palace kitchen. I couldn’t enjoy them, though. I was incredibly tired from my poor night’s sleep, and waiting for the queen to ask that leading question made me so nervous I could barely hold my fork.
“So how did you enjoy the Hundred-Layer Quilt?” she finally asked, smiling at me over her fruit pastry. “Was it as soft as I have been told?”
I jumped, dropping my fork, and in that moment made a decision. This was ridiculous, and I wasn’t going to buy into it any more. “Very soft,” I agreed. “The softest bed I’ve ever slept on.”
Now Prince Damien was the one to drop his cutlery, looking up at me in surprise. I gave him a cool glance, then turned away.
“Are you sure?” Queen Calista persisted. “I wouldn’t want you to lie just to please me. You see, I’ve heard that even with all those layers, if the servants aren’t careful things can get caught and perhaps…cause discomfort for the more…sensitive.”
A.K.A. ‘true princesses’.
I took a sip of my morning chocolate, focusing on the pale froth on its dark surface. “It was fine. Thank you.”
The queen and her son exchanged a glance I didn’t understand, and she went on. “But you look weary, Azalea. I mean no insult by it. But you have shadows under your eyes…?”
Ugh. Even though I wasn’t very pale, I was thin-skinned, and so tiredness would show. Ironically it was creating the opposite effect of what I’d wanted. “I’m afraid I was kept awake,” I admitted finally. “But not by what you might imagine.”
Her cool smile dropped. “Oh? And what was the problem?”
Ah. Now how to say this without causing terrible offence? Lancastre wasn’t up to fighting off an invasion of offended Cristonians, so I would have to be careful. “It was suggested to me yesterday,” I began slowly, “that there was a rather…unusual test given to all the princesses who visit here. That an object was placed into those mattresses and if the princesses noticed it, then they were deemed good enough, I suppose. Is this true?”
The queen and the prince exchanged another glance, this one distinctly startled. “Where on earth did you hear that?” the queen asked.
I looked away. I couldn’t betray her son, even though her methods were insane. It wouldn’t be fair. “It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “But it bothered me enough to keep me awake. And I didn’t feel a pea, not one bit, but that’s not important.”
“Oh, and what is important?” Damien asked. He was smiling rather more than someone in his position ought.
“That if you choose someone by how easily they complain, you’ll get exactly what you deserve.” A moment too late I realised what I’d said. “Oh, sorry. That didn’t come out quite right. I am very tired.”
“You mean someone who thinks their specialness is measured by how difficult they are to please?” Queen Calista asked. Her expression was rather like her son’s, almost smiling, although that didn’t make sense to me. “Indeed you are right, Azalea. There was no pea.”
I stared at her, then at Damien. He was watching me with a distinct smile, his blue eyes dancing, and none of it was making any sense. “I beg your pardon?”
She took a sip of tea then carefully set it back in its saucer, seeming completely placid. “No pea, my dear. The test was not sensitivity, it was honesty. Anyone that Damien liked was offered the chance to show whether they valued position more than their integrity. Incredible to note how many did.”
Nine princesses, it seemed. Stunned, I stared down at my food blankly. He’d lied to me, then, wanting to see if I would go along with it and have these two know I was a liar. And I’d been so tempted…
Even though I’d supposedly passed their test, I couldn’t help but find myself let down. So the mother was rather more canny than insane, but still. They’d lied to me, and the chance to humiliate myself had been so, so close…
Queen Calista began to talk about contacting my father, and suddenly I was seeing a side of her I hadn’t realised existed. She was more like the alewife at home than the icy queen I’d first thought, full of opinions and chatter and good humour. But perhaps it was the late night catching up on me, because I couldn’t be pleased about it. After breakfast she let Damien and I go back to the garden again to talk, and finally I could be honest.
“This is great,” he said finally, breaking the silence. “I told her that if anyone would do it, you would. And you did.”
“Yes, I did,” I agreed stiffly. “What a very clever trick for you to pull off.”
He seemed to pick up my mood at last, his face falling. “But can’t you see why we did it? You won’t believe the things girls and their families will say, will pretend to get on our good side, and so many people can put on a good face for just long enough to make us think that’s who they really are. There were some near misses, and…well, that was why we devised the pea test.”
He shrugged a shoulder, looking a little shamefaced. “This Gentravian duchess last year – she was so awful. But she kept going on about the lumps in the mattress we had given her, then saying how her very sensitive skin couldn’t bear it. We thought it was a joke, sort of, then realised how many people seem to think that way. We just wanted to know someone’s character…”
“Fair enough,” I said finally, still grumpy. “You realise that you lied to me, right? Straight to my face, and you did it to see if I would lie. And you do realise that if honesty is very important to me, then you haven’t done yourself any favours.”
Damien’s face fell further, if that was possible. “Does this mean you don’t want to marry me?”
“We’ve known each other a day,” I exclaimed. “How can we know if we want to get married? Besides, I don’t know if I’m what you’re looking for. I mean, I’m barely royal. My father was voted king, Damien. Voted! And I don’t own one single piece of gold jewellery.” I held up my wrist, decorated with a delicate silver bracelet. “I’m wearing almost the entire Lancastre treasury just to impress you lot, and suddenly, I’m not sure if I even want to.”
He slumped down into the garden seat next to me. “You know, I hadn’t really considered that this might backfire. Everybody always wants to marry me. I’ve never met a girl who didn’t. I’ve just never known who I could trust.”
Maybe because I’d been intimidated at first just as much as I’d been impressed. “I’d like to know if I could trust you,” I retorted. “It goes both ways. You look so perfect, but is there anything else you’ve been hiding from me?”
Damien was quiet a moment. “I’ve got heels on my boots.”
I stared at him in shock. “What?”
“Heels on my boots,” he repeated, flushing a little. “Princess number four was tall, and my valet thought that I should always be taller. I wasn’t sure about you, so I thought it was better to add some height.”
I looked down at his shoes curiously, and what did you know, he had slight heels on his boots. Not huge, but enough to add a couple of inches. “Is that your confession?” I asked in disbelief.
“My hair’s curly, and usually very messy,” he said quickly, “And my valet virtually glues it down right before public appearances. It always falls over my face, you see. Whenever I have a soup course I spill it, so we don’t have soup when I need to impress. I failed foreign languages dreadfully, so it’s good that we both speak the same one. I’m…” His voice faltered. “I’m actually very ordinary, and being a prince is like pretending to be special all the time. I never understand what makes me any different from anyone else.”
There was a long silence as I watched him, and he grew more and more awkward. “Too much?” he said finally. “And now I’ve put you off me. Damn it.”
Finally I smiled, a real, easy smile for the first time since he’d asked me to lie the day before. “The exact opposite, actually. I never wanted a prince. Too lofty for me, like a golden statue rather than a person. I think…I think knowing that you’re tremendously ordinary means that maybe, maybe we could get on after all.”
Damien smiled crookedly, and a lock of hair fell over his eyes. “I would like that.”
I smiled back, brushing the hair off his forehead. “Good.” I knew what this would mean. They’d send for my father, and there’d be diplomatic meetings back and forth for months, and if at the end of that Damien and I still liked each other? Then we’d marry, and our two kingdoms would be forever connected. That wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, it was sounding better and better. A kind, interesting, ordinary guy who valued honesty? He was a real catch.
But there was just one more thing I had to say first. “Oh, and by the way…”
I held out the tiny green object I’d fished from under the third mattress first thing this morning. “I found this in the bedding. You might want to tell your servants to be a little more careful when constructing elaborate lies; they might accidentally tell the truth instead.”
The End of this story, but not of the Fairytale Memoirs world.
These loosely connected books take place in the same world and share some minor characters, but each can be read on its own.