Greetings, O readers! Life has been a bit hectic lately (as when isn't it), and I haven't been blogging as often as I sometimes do. My apologies for that. Still, I'm doing my best to keep up with Fiction Fridays, whether the fiction in question is of the fan variety, as it was last week, or more or less original, as this week's offering will be.
Why do I say more or less? Well, as embarrassing as this may be to admit, I find that I write better with a starting point, a framework to follow, if you will. Complete and total originality, coming up with absolutely everything off the top of my head, always feels overwhelming to me, so I tend to launch from something I already know, and today that something is a common fairy tale theme: the contest for the hand of the beautiful princess.
I found myself thinking (probably a bad habit, but I can't seem to shake it) that the contests in the stories always seem to be designed for men, by men. That they're not really trying to find a husband for a young woman, but a clever ruler for a kingdom. Politically speaking, that's probably accurate, but what about the princess herself? Why shouldn't she get a say in the criteria to be used for choosing the man she's going to spend the rest of her life with?
And so, today's Fiction Friday offering. If you missed last week's Frozen ficlet due to website issues, here's the link back to it. Please enjoy, and I hope to get back to more regular blogging as March begins!
Once upon a time there lived a princess who desired a husband. So, in proper fashion, she sent out word of a contest for her hand to the neighboring kingdoms, and because the princess was known to be as kind as she was beautiful and as clever as she was kind, the princes and lords of those kingdoms responded, coming by ones and twos and threes up the hill to the palace with its tall spires. There, they ate and drank and lounged in splendor, waiting to find out what their tests would be, so that they could get on with winning the hand of the beautiful Princess Agatha.
On the third day after the princess's suitors had gathered, a shy little serving maid entered their room to gather up discarded goblets and plates. The suitors watched her and murmured together, smiling smiles that brought a blush to her cheeks, and some of them reached out to pat her rump or stroke her waist as she passed, making her shrink away with a shudder. Finally one young man stepped out of the crowd with his hands full of soiled crockery, and handed over his burden to her.
"Here is what you came for," he said in a carrying tone. "You will not need to go any further."
"Thank you, sir," the maid whispered, and smiled up at him before fleeing the room. The young man watched her go, then returned to his place, ignoring the disgruntled glances the other suitors were casting him for spoiling their sport.
The third son of a country baron, Philip was not sure why he had come to this contest, unless it were for something to do. Dragons to slay or villains to dispatch were in disappointingly short supply, and even beautiful ladies in need of champions were hard to come by. Still, he'd sworn at his knighting to protect the powerless and meek, and the little maid qualified on both counts.
The next day, the contests began at last. When Philip returned, exhausted, to his tiny cubby of a room, he found a hip bath set out with a can of steaming water, a folded towel, and a cake of soap beside it. On the miniscule desk reposed a plate containing a slab of roast beef, potatoes, and stewed greens beside a mug of the sweetened herbal tisane he secretly preferred to beer or ale.
With a smile, Philip took full advantage, and kept his tongue between his teeth the next day as the other suitors grumbled about the long waits for tubs in the bathhouse, the scarcity of hot water for the latecomers, the scantiness of meat in the stew they'd been served, the thin and sour nature of the beer. His dark-haired little serving maid, he thought, was taking good care of him, and when he saw her on the sidelines of the javelin competition later that day, made sure to send her a grateful smile before taking his turn to throw. She blushed, but kept her place at the fence, and even smiled back as she applauded his effort.
"Why doesn't the Princess bother to come out and see us?" the suitors began to grumble as day succeeded day, contest followed contest, and the awning-sheltered throne at one end of the tourney field remained untenanted. "It's her we're fighting for, so we ought to have some chance to impress her!"
"Chance to look over the goods, you mean," drawled the prince of a nearby country, whose foppish ways imperfectly disguised his deadly prowess with rapier and bow. "See if the game's worth the candle. Oh, I've heard all the same rumors you have, kind as she's beautiful, clever as she's kind, but princesses are always beautiful, don't you know."
"Ah well, what's it matter," boomed a bluff and hearty duke, slapping the prince on the back. "Women are all the same in the dark!"
Under cover of the raucous laughter at this sally, Philip slipped from the room, and nearly bumped into a familiar figure. "I beg your pardon," he said to the little maid, bowing to her. "But perhaps you shouldn't be here. The conversation is...not pleasant."
"I know it, sir." The maid twisted her hands, one inside the other. "Is that how men truly think of women?" she burst out. "Why should—the Princess be married at all, if that is what her husband will think of her?"
"Some men do think of women that way. But not all." Philip cast a disgusted look over his shoulder. "Though I would say few of these men merit the titles they bear, for every knight and every lord swears an oath at his investiture that he will act always with courtesy, uphold the right against all odds." He turned to smile at the maid. "Defend those who cannot defend themselves."
"I have heard the words, sir." The maid lifted her eyes to his and smiled in answer. "But until I met you, I did not know there were any knights who took them to heart. For that, I thank you."
"The pleasure is mine." Philip bowed once more. "Will I see you again?"
"Oh, I think so, sir." The maid's smile turned soft and secret. "I think so indeed."
And when Philip was summoned to the throne room on the next morning, he laughed softly in wonder as he bowed to the Princess Agatha for the first time, for atop her dusky hair, where her beautiful golden crown now reposed, the day before he had seen the simple cap of his little serving maid.
"I wanted to be wooed only by a man who would respect even the least of my people as he would me," Agatha explained with her warm smile. "A true knight, who was chivalrous, modest, patient, and kind. You, Sir Philip, have passed all my tests, so..." She rose to her feet and held out her hand. "Would you care to walk in the garden with me?"