Maps in a mirror, p.60

Maps in a Mirror, page 60


Maps in a Mirror

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  As if it wasn’t bad enough that her father was forgetting himself around a commoner, that was the very time that things started going bad with the prince. She suddenly noticed that the last several packets of mail had not held thirty letters each—they only held twenty, and then fifteen, and then ten. And the letters weren’t five pages long any more. They were only three, and then two, and then one.

  He’s just busy, she thought.

  Then she noticed that he no longer began her letters with, “My dearest darling sweetheart pickle-eating princess.” (The pickle-eating part was an old joke from something that happened when they were both nine.) Now he started them, “My dear lady,” or “Dear princess.” Once she said to her nurse, “He might as well address them to Occupant.”

  He’s just tired, she thought.

  And then she realized that he never told her he loved her anymore, and she went out on the balcony and cried where only the garden could hear, and where only the birds in the trees could see.

  She began to keep to her rooms, because the world didn’t seem like a very nice place any more. Why should she have anything to do with the world, when it was a nasty place where fathers turned into mere men, and lovers forgot they were in love?

  And she cried herself to sleep every night that she slept. And some nights she didn’t sleep at all, just stared at the ceiling trying to forget the prince. And you know that if you want to remember something, the best way is to try very, very hard to forget it.

  Then one day, as she went to the door of her room, she found a basket of autumn leaves just inside her door. There was no note on them, but they were very brightly colored, and they rustled loudly when she touched the basket, and she said to herself, “It must be autumn.”

  She went to the window and looked, and it was autumn, and it was beautiful. She had already seen the leaves a hundred times a day, but she hadn’t remembered to notice.

  And then a few weeks later she woke up and it was cold in her room. Shivering, she went to her door to call for a servant to build her fire up higher—and just inside the door was a large pan, and on the pan there stood a little snowman, which was grinning a grin made of little chunks of coal, and his eyes were big pieces of coal, and all in all it was so comical the princess had to laugh. That day she forgot her misery for a while and went outside and threw snowballs at the knights, who of course let her hit them and who never managed to hit her, but of course that’s all part of being a princess—no one would ever put snow down your back or dump you in the canal or anything.

  She asked her nurse who brought these things, but the nurse just shook her head and smiled. “It wasn’t me,” she said. “Of course it was,” the princess answered, and gave her a hug, and thanked her. The nurse smiled and said, “Thanks for your thanks, but it wasn’t me.” But the princess knew better, and loved her nurse all the more.

  Then the letters stopped coming altogether. And the princess stopped writing letters. And she began taking walks in the woods.

  At first she only took walks in the garden, which is where princesses are supposed to take walks. But in a few days of walking and walking and walking she knew every brick of the garden path by heart, and she kept coming to the garden wall and wishing she were outside it.

  So one day she walked to the gate and went out of the garden and wandered into the forest. The forest was not at all like the garden. Where the garden was neatly tended and didn’t have a weed in it, the forest was all weeds, all untrimmed and loose, with animals that ran from her, and birds that scurried to lead her away from their young, and best of all, only grass or soft brown earth under her feet. Out in the forest she could forget the garden where every tree reminded her of talks she had had with the prince while sitting in the branches. Out in the forest she could forget the palace where every room had held its own joke or its own secret or its own promise that had been broken.

  That was why she was in the forest the day the wolf came out of the hills.

  She was already heading back to the palace, because it was getting on toward dark, when she caught a glimpse of something moving. She looked, and realized that it was a huge gray wolf, walking along beside her not fifteen yards off. When she stopped, the wolf stopped. When she moved, the wolf moved. And the farther she walked, the closer the wolf came.

  She turned and walked away from the wolf.

  After a few moments she looked behind her, and saw the wolf only a dozen feet away, its mouth open, its tongue hanging out, its teeth shining white in the gloom of the late afternoon forest.

  She began to run. But not even a princess can hope to outrun a wolf. She ran and ran until she could hardly breathe, and the wolf was still right behind her, panting a little but hardly tired. She ran and ran some more until her legs refused to obey her and she fell to the ground. She looked back, and realized that this was what the wolf had been waiting for—for her to be tired enough to fall, for her to be easy prey, for her to be a dinner he didn’t have to work for.

  And so the wolf got a gleam in its eye, and sprang forward.

  Just as the wolf leaped, a huge brown shape lumbered out of the forest and stepped over the princess. She screamed. It was a huge brown bear, with heavy fur and vicious teeth. The bear swung its great hairy arm at the wolf, and struck it in the head. The wolf flew back a dozen yards, and from the way its head bobbed about as it flew, the princess realized its neck had been broken.

  And then the huge bear turned toward her, and she saw with despair that she had only traded one monstrous animal for another.

  And she fainted. Which is about all that a person can do when a bear that is standing five feet away looks at you. And looks hungry.

  She woke up in bed at the palace and figured it had all been a dream. But then she felt a terrible pain in her legs, and felt her face stinging with scratches from the branches. It had not been a dream—she really had run through the forest.

  “What happened?” she asked feebly. “Am I dead?” Which wasn’t all that silly a question, because she really had expected to be.

  “No,” said her father, who was sitting by the bed.

  “No,” said the nurse. “And why in the world, why should you be dead?”

  “I was in the forest,” said the princess, “and there was a wolf, and I ran and ran but he was still there. And then a bear came and killed the wolf, and it came toward me like it was going to eat me, and I guess I fainted.”

  “Ah,” said the nurse, as if that explained everything.

  “Ah,” said her father, King Ethelred. “Now I understand. We were taking turns watching you after we found you unconscious and scratched up by the garden gate. You kept crying out in your sleep, ‘Make the bear go away! Make the bear leave me alone!’ Of course, we thought you meant the Bear, our Bear, and we had to ask the poor man not to take his turn any more, as we thought it might make you upset. We all thought you hated him, for a while there.” And King Ethelred chuckled. “I’ll have to tell him it was all a mistake.”

  Then the king left. Great, thought the princess, he’s going to tell the Bear it was all a mistake, and I really do hate him to pieces.

  The nurse walked over to the bed and knelt beside it. “There’s another part of the story. They made me promise not to tell you,” the nurse said, “but you know and I know that I’ll always tell you everything. It seems that it was two guards that found you, and they both said that they saw something running away. Or not running, exactly, galloping. Or something. They said it looked like a bear, running on all fours.”

  “Oh, no,” said the princess. “How horrible!”

  “No,” said the nurse. “It was their opinion, and Robbo Knockle swears it’s true, that the bear they saw had brought you to the gate and set you down gentle as you please. Whoever brought you there smoothed your skirt, you know, and put a pile of leaves under your head like a pillow, and you were surely in no state to do all that yourself.”

  “Don’t be silly,” said the princess. “How could a be
ar do all that?”

  “I know,” said the nurse, “so it must not have been an ordinary bear. It must have been a magic bear.” She said this last in a whisper, because the nurse believed that magic should be talked about quietly, lest something awful should hear and come calling.

  “Nonsense,” said the princess. “I’ve had an education, and I don’t believe in magic bears or magic brews or any kind of magic at all. It’s just old-lady foolishness.”

  The nurse stood up and her mouth wrinkled all up. “Well, then, this foolish old lady will take her foolish stories to somebody foolish, who wants to listen.”

  “Oh, there, there,” the princess said, for she didn’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially not Nurse’s. And they were friends again. But the princess still didn’t believe about the bear. However, she hadn’t been eaten, after all, so the bear must not have been hungry.

  It was only two days later, when the princess was up and around again—though there were nasty scabs all over her face from the scratches—that the prince came back to the palace.

  He came riding up on a lathered horse that dropped to the ground and died right in front of the palace door. He looked exhausted, and there were great purple circles under his eyes. He had no baggage. He had no cloak. Just the clothes on his back and a dead horse.

  “I’ve come home,” he said to the doorman, and fainted into his arms. (By the way, it’s perfectly all right for a man to faint, as long as he has ridden on horseback for five days, without a bite to eat, and with hundreds of soldiers chasing him.)

  “It’s treason,” he said when he woke up and ate and bathed and dressed. “My allies turned against me, even my own subjects. They drove me out of my kingdom. I’m lucky to be alive.”

  “Why?” asked King Ethelred.

  “Because they would have killed me. If they had caught me.”

  “No, no, no, no, don’t be stupid,” said the Bear, who was listening from a chair a few feet away. “Why did they turn against you?”

  The prince turned toward the Bear and sneered. It was an ugly sneer, and it twisted up the prince’s face in a way it had never twisted when he lived with King Ethelred and was in love with the princess.

  “I wasn’t aware that I was being stupid,” he said archly. “And I certainly wasn’t aware that you had been invited into the conversation.”

  The Bear didn’t say anything after that, just nodded an unspoken apology and watched.

  And the prince never did explain why the people had turned against him. Just something vague about power-hungry demagogues and mob rule.

  The princess came to see the prince that very morning.

  “You look exhausted,” she said.

  “You look beautiful,” he said.

  “I have scabs all over my face and I haven’t done my hair in days,” she said.

  “I love you,” he said.

  “You stopped writing,” she said.

  “I guess I lost my pen,” he said. “No, I remember now. I lost my mind. I forgot how beautiful you are. A man would have to be mad to forget.”

  Then he kissed her, and she kissed him back, and she forgave him for all the sorrow he had caused her and it was like he had never been away.

  For about three days.

  Because in three days she began to realize that he was different somehow.

  She would open her eyes after kissing him (princesses always close their eyes when they kiss someone) and she would notice that he was looking off somewhere with a distant expression on his face. As if he barely noticed that he was kissing her. That does not make any woman, even a princess, feel very good.

  She noticed that sometimes he seemed to forget she was even there. She passed him in a corridor and he wouldn’t speak, and unless she touched his arm and said good morning he might have walked on by without a word.

  And then sometimes, for no reason, he would feel slighted or offended, or a servant would make a noise or spill something and he would fly into a rage and throw things against the wall. He had never even raised his voice in anger when he was a boy.

  He often said cruel things to the princess, and she wondered why she loved him, and what was wrong, but then he would come to her and apologize, and she would forgive him because after all he had lost a kingdom because of traitors, and he couldn’t be expected to always feel sweet and nice. She decided, though, that if it was up to her, and it was, he would never feel unsweet and unnice again.

  Then one night the Bear and her father went into the study and locked the door behind them. The princess had never been locked out of her father’s study before, and she became angry at the Bear because he was taking her father away from her, and so she listened at the door. She figured that if the Bear wanted to keep her out, she would see to it that she heard everything anyway.

  This is what she heard.

  “I have the information,” the Bear said.

  “It must be bad, or you wouldn’t have asked to speak to me alone,” said King Ethelred. Aha, thought the princess, the Bear did plot to keep me out.

  The Bear stood by the fire, leaning on the mantel, while King Ethelred sat down.

  “Well?” asked King Ethelred.

  “I know how much the boy means to you. And to the princess. I’m sorry to bring such a tale.”

  The boy! thought the princess. They couldn’t possibly be calling her prince a boy, could they? Why, he had been a king, except for treason, and here a commoner was calling him a boy.

  “He means much to us,” said King Ethelred, “which is all the more reason for me to know the truth, be it good or bad.”

  “Well, then,” said the Bear, “I must tell you that he was a very bad king.”

  The princess went white with rage.

  “I think he was just too young. Or something,” said the Bear. “Perhaps there was a side to him that you never saw, because the moment he had power it went to his head. He thought his kingdom was too small, because he began to make war with little neighboring counties and duchies and took their lands and made them part of his kingdom. He plotted against other kings who had been good and true friends of his father. And he kept raising taxes on his people to support huge armies. He kept starting wars and mothers kept weeping because their sons had fallen in battle.

  “And finally,” said the Bear, “the people had had enough, and so had the other kings, and there was a revolution and a war all at the same time. The only part of the boy’s tale that is true is that he was lucky to escape with his life, because every person that I talked to spoke of him with hatred, as if he were the most evil person they had ever seen.”

  King Ethelred shook his head. “Could you be wrong? I can’t believe this of a boy I practically raised myself.”

  “I wish it were not true,” said the Bear, “for I know that the princess loves him dearly. But it seems obvious to me that the boy doesn’t love her—he is here because he knew he would be safe here, and because he knows that if he married her, he would be able to rule when you are dead.”

  “Well,” said King Ethelred, “that will never happen. My daughter will never marry a man who would destroy the kingdom.”

  “Not even if she loves him very much?” asked the Bear.

  “It is the price of being a princess,” said the king. “She must think first of the kingdom, or she will never be fit to be queen.”

  At that moment, however, being queen was the last thing the princess cared about. All she knew was that she hated the Bear for taking away her father, and now the same man had persuaded her father to keep her from marrying the man she loved.

  She beat on the door, crying out, “Liar! Liar!” King Ethelred and the Bear both leaped for the door. King Ethelred opened it, and the princess burst into the room and started hitting the Bear as hard as she could. Of course the blows fell very lightly, because she was not all that strong, and he was very large and sturdy and the blows could have caused him no pain. But as she struck at him his face looked as if he were bein
g stabbed through the heart at every blow.

  “Daughter, daughter,” said King Ethelred. “What is this? Why did you listen at the door?”

  But she didn’t answer; she only beat at the Bear until she was crying too hard to hit him anymore. And then, between sobs, she began to yell at him. And because she didn’t usually yell her voice became harsh and hoarse and she whispered. But yelling or whispering, her words were clear, and every word said hatred.

  She accused the Bear of making her father little, nothing, worse than nothing, a weakling king who had turn to a filthy commoner to make any decision at all. She accused the Bear of hating her and trying to ruin her life by keeping her from marrying the only man she could ever love. She accused the Bear of being a traitor, who was plotting to be king himself and rule the kingdom. She accused the Bear of making up vile lies about the prince because she knew that he would be a better king than her weakling father, and that if she married the prince all the Bear’s plans for ruling the kingdom would come to nothing.

  And finally she accused the Bear of having such a filthy mind that he imagined that he could eventually marry her himself, and so become king.

  But that would never happen, she whispered bitterly, at the end. “That will never happen,” she said, “never, never, never, because I hate you and I loathe you and if you don’t get out of this kingdom and never come back I’ll kill myself, I swear it.”

  And then she grabbed a sword from the mantel and tried to slash her wrists, and the Bear reached out and stopped her by holding her arms in his huge hands that gripped like iron. Then she spit at him and tried to bite his fingers and beat her head against his chest until King Ethelred took her hands and the Bear let go and backed away.

  “I’m sorry,” King Ethelred kept saying, though he himself wasn’t certain who he was apologizing to or what he was apologizing for. “I’m sorry.” And then he realized that he was apologizing for himself, because somehow he knew that his kingdom was ruined right then.

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