Once-Upon-Thyme Sample


Our tale begins quite normally as so many tales do, in Once-Upon-Thyme, that tiny and unusual country. Just like most women’s handbags, it was bigger inside than it appeared to be from the outside. So, while on a map Once-Upon-Thyme was barely the size of a large city, cross its borders and you could lose yourself in an incredible vastness that was riddled with royals, fairies, witches, pretty milkmaids, and courageous shepherds.

Perhaps because its very existence defied logic, attempting to apply reason to Once-Upon-Thyme could only result in the kind of headache normally encountered when disentangling a knotted ball of yarn.

This was a place where shepherds were regularly crowned king, in spite of being utterly unqualified to rule, where medicine was actively discouraged from progressing, because queens were supposed to die in childbirth, and where curses were more prevalent than the common cold.

Our tale therefore begins here, in this odd little country, and specifically within the walls of one of its more lavish palaces. Traditions being incredibly important in Once-Upon-Thyme, certain phrases must always be used when beginning a new story. And it goes something like this.

In Once-Upon-Thyme, there was a prince who had an ardent wish. You could be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing unusual in this—princes are, after all, forever wishing ardently for things—but you’d be mistaken. This is no ordinary tale of princely wishing....



In one of the largest palaces of Once-Upon-Thyme, Prince Charming (for that was, in fact, his name) was in the middle of an embittered battle. Struggling for air amongst the crush of chiffon and tulle, knocking tiaras off heads and setting wigs askew, Prince Charming was attempting as valiantly as he could to find an exit from the hell in which he found himself. Everywhere he turned, another princess, another set of batting eyelashes, another flirtatious smile. Hands reached out for him from every corner, insidiously slipping lace handkerchiefs and favours up his sleeves or down his collar.

Charming ignored the handkerchief assault, for he had now almost reached his salvation: the doors that led out of the ballroom to the balcony that overlooked the garden. With a final and desperate shove of a rotund woman, he managed to expel himself through the double doors and into the cool night air.

The rotund person he had so manfully removed from his way had let out an indignant squawk and was now making such a fuss as to distract and confuse the gaggle of females. Not wanting to waste this opportunity, he hurried down the steps that led to the garden and hid behind a hedge trimmed to resemble a rabbit. He crouched in the darkness, panting, his clothing in disarray.

What Prince Charming desired above all else was to be left in peace. Unfortunately, he was well acquainted with the particular craze that took hold of women when in the presence of a prince—Prince Fever, as he dubbed it to himself—but that didn’t make him any less uncomfortable when confronted with the phenomenon. The affected women went into frenzies of flirting, laughing, mad twiddling of hair, and for some reason he had never been able to fathom, they all went to great lengths to bat him on the arm. The latter was most troublesome since Charming bruised like a peach.

Worse was the fact that the merest flirtatious look threw him into paroxysms of sweating (to say nothing of actual flirtatious comments), so that this latest assault on his person had left his clothing dangerously damp. From behind his rabbit hedge, Charming pulled out the plethora of clandestine handkerchiefs that had hitched a ride in his sleeves, letting them fall to the ground. He found his own handkerchief and dabbed at his moist face.

The cool night breeze helped dry him off, and he lifted his face to it, enjoying this brief moment of peace. The breeze brought him sounds of voices—women calling his name, playfully searching for him among the hydrangeas that lined the balcony. Charming crouched further down. After a while he started to hear impatient sighs and grumbles as it became obvious to the princesses that he wasn’t there.

For a moment he feared that they might push the search to the gardens, but the voices slowly drifted off, swallowed by the faint music that wafted out of the palace doors, until at last some thoughtful soul closed the doors, and the night was blessedly silent once more.

Charming sighed miserably, wondering how long he would be able to stay hidden in the garden this time before he incurred the Motherly Wrath.

A large part of being a prince meant entertaining a bevy of princesses in an endless procession of balls, some masked, some unmasked, with the expectation that he would eventually select one of said princesses to be his wife. His mother would not be swayed on that last point, and since she had decided that his father the King agreed with her in this, as he did in all things, Charming was left with no choice but to comply. But how he was supposed to select a wife from the squawking multitude when he couldn’t bear to speak to them, let alone spend time with them, was beyond him.

A cramp began to crawl up his leg, and he stood up to relieve it, stepping out from behind his hedge.

“Ah, there you are!”

Charming started at the interpellation and, turning, found a woman regarding him severely with her hands on her hips. She was wearing a ballgown, as they all did, but she was somewhat older than his usual pursuers. Quite a bit older in fact. She had grey eyes and a surprisingly hooked nose. That is to say that it protruded more than the button nosed norm he was so accustomed to seeing at every turn.

In fact, there was a distinct lack of prettiness to her features which was highly unusual. Princesses were always pretty, so much so that they all vaguely resembled each other, and Charming had the hardest time remembering who was who.

Charming steeled himself, stoically awaiting the usual assault of flirting, but to his surprise nothing came. The woman was still watching him expectantly. It occurred to him that maybe she was awaiting a reply to her previous statement.

“Yes, here I am,” he said.

The conversational requirements having apparently been met, the woman sprang to life like a toy whose mechanism had been wound up. She marched towards Charming who shrank back reflexively.

“I have been waiting and waiting for someone to show me the gardens. I have heard many good things about your gardener, mainly that he isn’t Cornish, and I’m very interested to see what he has done to your roses.”

While Charming had been bestowed with many qualities at birth, as all princes were, speed of deduction wasn’t one of them, and said speed decreased exponentially when in the vicinity of a member of the female sex. He stared at the woman nonplussed. What was she on about?

“Well, are you going to show me your roses?” she asked, proffering her elbow.

The mist of confusion that had hitherto filled Charming’s mind melted like snow on a furnace. She wanted a tour about the garden! Not only was this not flirting, it was a real and legitimate excuse to stay out of the ballroom. He could have kissed the woman, if propriety, nerves, and inclination had permitted.

Instead, he took her arm and replied, “I’d be delighted to.”

He led her away from the laughter and the music, towards the cool and silent gloom of the rose garden. Never had a sight been more welcome. That was until he realised that as a host escorting a (female) guest through the garden, he should really be offering some sort of commentary on the flowers. Worse, maybe he was expected to rhapsodise about the woman’s beauty in the dark, or some other such nonsense. Charming began to sweat once more. He knew next to nothing about flowers, and how was one supposed to comment on a woman’s beauty when it was too dark to see it? And in any case, she wasn't beautiful.

Thankfully, he didn’t have to sweat for long, as the woman began to monologue at him (or at the night—it was unclear who, if anyone, she was addressing) about the state of the roses. Charming did his best to listen and follow the Unusual Female’s chatter, but he kept tuning off and wandering off into his own thoughts. Every few minutes he would catch himself adrift in reverie, and he would return to the flow of words that poured from the woman’s mouth, much like a man who, despite his best efforts to stay awake, keeps finding himself asleep with his head hanging at an awkward angle.

After a time, it became apparent that no answer was required of him. Not only that, but the Unusual Female didn’t even seem to expect him to pay her any attention.

Charming smiled. What a delightful woman. He followed her through the rose garden, letting her drag him by the arm this way and that, while he ambled pleasantly amongst his thoughts. Just as he reached the conclusion that this was the most pleasant evening he had passed in memory, the Unusual Female anchored herself to a point on the ground, causing him to jerk to an abrupt stop as she still held his arm tightly, thus yanking him out of his reverie.

“Ah!” she exclaimed triumphantly, pointing at a rather haphazard cluster of roses among the bush. “There! There! Nature’s whimsy at its finest. I cannot wait to tell Lowen of this. Would you believe it, he wants all my roses to be symmetrical and evenly distributed, and he proposes to have them enchanted to achieve that end. Have you ever heard anything more preposterous in your life? An enchantment, on my flowers? A little nonsense is to be expected—he is Cornish after all—but that is just poppycock. Don’t worry my dear, I told him. I said, ‘Lowen, you are a gardener of great skill’. He isn’t you know, but I find the best way to deal with the Cornish is to first butter them up with a compliment. Mind you, Lowen is the only Cornishman I know, but he strikes me as particularly representative of his kind—I’m sure you agree. Then I told him, ‘It behoves the professional gardener to know when he is out of his depth. This, my dear Lowen,’ you’ll note how unfailingly polite I remained. ‘This my dear Lowen,’ I said, ‘is one of those instances. Under no circumstance, whatsoever, are we enchanting my roses!’”

This last exclamation was punctuated by the forceful jabbing of her index finger in the air. The gesture startled Charming into retreating as much of his neck between his shoulders as he could, like a frightened turtle. After a couple of blinks he realised that what had ignited the Unusual Female’s passions was either the roses or the gardener, or both, but thankfully not him. By the time he had reached this conclusion, the Unusual Female had departed from the topic of the symmetry of the roses, and she unanchored herself, dragging Charming forward by the arm once more.

“The Cornishman was a whim of my late husband’s you see,” she continued. “You’re wondering why I let him have his way when it is wreaking such havoc with my garden, to say nothing of my nerves. I have to admit, my late husband never interfered with my garden—never. The darling man knew his place was indoors, god rest his soul. So when he told me that his only wish was to have a Cornish gardener, well I couldn’t deny him. He loved their accent, you see. Can’t see why myself—it’s so full of ‘r’s, it’s a wonder they manage to squeeze in any other consonants. Anyway, I let him have this little whimsy. I thought it would be perfectly harmless. Well my dear, what a disaster, I cannot even begin to tell you. Putting up with Lowen’s botanical heresies has frayed my nerves to such an extent…”

Charming tuned out once more, missing the extensive report on the state of the Unusual Female’s nerves, and returning instead to that pleasant state of aloneness with his thoughts. They strolled on from one end of the garden to the other, and two hours passed with what seemed to Charming to be the speed of mere minutes. During this time, he had moved from just thinking this was the most pleasant evening he had ever spent to thinking this was the most amazing woman he had ever met. She brought out the best in him and put him in a state of contentment like no one had ever been able to. That is to say that she left him in peace and neither required him to listen nor respond. He had never felt so happy and at ease. So complete. So understood and appreciated.

Yes, by the time they reached the rhododendron maze, Charming realised that he was utterly, totally, and unequivocally in love.

Finally, he had found the woman for him.

The clock struck ten to midnight as it always did to allow princesses time to leave before their spells, curses, and other enchantments ran out. Charming turned to gaze adoringly at the newfound love of his life. As he did, the fog of adoration parted long enough for him to realise that the Unusual Female was dragging him back to the palace at brisk speed. No doubt heeding the call of midnight. His blunt powers of deduction told him he only had a few minutes before they were back at the ballroom, where he would once again be drowning in feminine charms and would therefore lose the opportunity to ascertain his love’s name along with his ability to speak or think.

For the first time in his life, Charming felt a wave of assertiveness wash over him. He acted. Decisively.

“I say, we haven’t even been introduced,” he said. “I—”

“Oh yes, quite right. Petunia, Queen of Viridi.”

Queen? Charming would have been startled into stopping if the Unusual—that is Petunia—wasn’t still dragging him forward by the arm.

There were very strict rules as to who a prince could marry. Princesses and any kind of pauper were fair game, but the bourgeoisie was wholly off limits (whoever heard of a prince falling in love with the middle classes?).

Charming wasn’t sure where a queen featured on the eligibility spectrum. Of course kings married queens all the time, but that was always after their first wife had died, generally in childbirth, and then they always married evil women, most often witches.

Charming had no dead first wife, he wasn’t a king, and Petunia didn’t seem like an evil woman or a witch, despite her slightly hooked nose (in fact now that he had had time to get used to it, it wasn’t so much hooked as charmingly pronounced.) His brow knotted with concern. This was problematic. But, princes were, after all, supposed to conquer insurmountable obstacles to win their fair ladies. He would simply have to find a solution, which would no doubt require a significant number of hours spent in the library researching the matter.

Cheered by the prospect of uninterrupted time with his precious books, Charming turned to inform Petunia of his plans and of their forthcoming engagement. He was shocked to discover that, unbeknownst to him, his arm had been released, and Petunia had climbed the stairs to the balcony, reaching the double doors that led back to the ballroom. This was so startling a development (no woman save for his mother had ever walked away from Charming before) that he could do nothing but gape as she disappeared into the sea of bustles and petticoats. He only had the time to notice that she had steel-grey hair, a fact the night had kept from him till then, before she was swallowed up by the light and the laughter and the whispers of silk.

Charming remained in the darkness, mulling over the events of the evening. It occurred to him then that he hadn’t had the chance to introduce himself. Did Petunia even realise who he was? No matter, he would simply introduce himself when he informed her of their engagement. For now though, the library awaited.



The following morning found Adrianna in a morose mood, which meant that she was standing barefoot and in her underthings in the kitchen, munching on leftover apple crumble from the previous day. Cook had used some of the precious cinnamon, so that between the tartness of the apples, the sweetness of the crunchy topping, and the earthiness of the cinnamon, the crumble was a truly delicious explosion of flavour.

And yet Adrianna munched it absentmindedly, mechanically shovelling one spoonful after the other into her mouth. The kitchen's stone floor was cold beneath her bare feet, with a slippery smoothness brought about by centuries of kitchen staff rushing over its surface. Of course, it had been a long time since there'd been any staff to continue the polishing of the stone floor. Cook only came every other day, so Adrianna, her evil stepmother, and the rest of the household made do with leftovers on the days off.

Today was such a day. The kitchen was clean and silent, its myriads of pots and pans and spatulas and other things Adrianna knew nothing about put away out of sight. She always felt a sense of expectation from the kitchen, as if all those tools couldn't wait to be brought back out in a bustle of activity to assist in the making of food. The faint smell of warm meat pies that seemed to have gotten encrusted into the stone over the centuries was like a prediction of the food that Cook would prepare tomorrow.

Adrianna finished the last bite of the crumble, scraping her spoon against the earthenware dish to remove the caramelised bits that had stuck to the bottom, both enjoying this ritual and feeling disappointed that there was no more crumble. She really should have paid more attention to it and actually enjoyed the eating of it rather than mindlessly shoving it into her face.

Never mind, next time.

The problem was that if there was no more crumble to eat, then she was back to contemplating the fact that she had failed, yet again. She knew, of course, that all she needed was to succeed once. She just needed one prince to choose her one time, and then she would fulfil her role as princess. But it was disheartening to keep failing over and over again.

She put the crumble dish in the sink for the maid to clean and headed out of the kitchen, back upstairs. Veridi Castle was a very far cry from the luxurious and lavish palace she'd been at last night for the ball. It was a higgledy-piggledy pile of bricks, a sprawling but ramshackle structure that had been built without any planning or thought towards practicalities.

Which was why there were stairs that led up to a blank wall, rooms deep within the castle without windows, while others had so many it was hard to keep them clean, especially the windows that were situated right beneath an overhanging roof that pigeons and doves loved roosting in. They covered the glass in guano with gay abandon, no matter the efforts to shoo them away.

The decoration wasn’t much better. In Adrianna’s opinion, what made Veridi castle unique was its wonderfully haphazard collection of parapets, extensions, tiled roofs, and its myriad of Gothic flourishes. All of it scattered about with no apparent plan or thought to creating any sort of cohesive whole. One of the most obvious quirks of the castle, though, was the lack of mirrors. They had all been removed apart from the one in Adrianna’s room and another one in Alinor’s room—Adrianna’s evil stepsister. Otherwise there wasn’t a single reflective surface in the castle.

Adrianna truly loved her home, as fiercely as if it were a family member. She loved the fact that her father had had the foresight and open-mindedness to install running water in a couple of the rooms, but had never succeeded in doing so properly, so that turning on the taps made an awful groaning, rattling sound before letting forth a spray of disturbingly red water. They'd all thought it was blood due to some kind of curse at first, but the late king had assured them that it was simply a matter of the red clay to be found in the soil around the castle.

He'd passed before finding a way to pump clean water to the castle. Adrianna thought of him every time she washed herself in the red water.

She reached the first floor, stepping through the servants’ door and into the main part of the castle. From there she took another set of stairs down, before climbing back up two storeys. Corridors and passages twisted throughout the castle, putting the most convoluted ants’ nest to shame. Yet more levels sprawled beneath the ground, although those were seldom used anymore, given over to rot and mould and general decay. Adrianna knew every last nook and cranny, from the sun-filled music room to the dank and dark sub levels.

Her bedroom was just after the triangular room, so named because it was a triangle, the corridor making sharp bends around it.

She flung her bedroom door open and let herself collapse backwards onto her bed, the scrunched-up quilt making for a soft landing.

“Been at the crumble?” Mirabelle, her fairy godmother, asked, appearing in the doorway.

Adrianna nodded, not taking her eyes off the large web a spider was diligently spinning between the dust-covered chandelier and the nearest panel of the dark oak coffered ceiling. That part of the ceiling was still in decent shape. It was best not to look at the left corner, though. Damp was seeping in through the wall near there, the wallpaper in that corner marred by ever expanding, ugly, brownish-yellow rings, while above it the wood of the ceiling was slowly rotting, turning black and dotted with patches of white mould. Maybe polka dots would make a comeback and then her ceiling would be fashionable in its decayed state. Adrianna snorted to herself, amused by the thought.

The room above was now condemned in case the rotten floorboards gave way beneath the weight of furniture or people. Not that it was a great hardship to lose the use of the room—there weren’t enough servants to fill all the rooms of the top floor, anyway. Not by a long way.

“I don’t think last night was too bad in the end,” Mirabelle said, entering the room.

“Total and utter disaster,” Adrianna muttered. “I don’t think he even noticed that I exist.” Which stung all over again. The worst part, of course, was being so completely ignored by a man she found as appealing as a limp handshake. Being a princess required having almost zero self-esteem, which wasn’t easy to do.

“Yes, he was a rather peculiar young man, wasn’t he?” replied Mirabelle, ringing for Helga, the maid. “Very distracted I thought. Surprisingly fine hair too. Princes should always have thick, curly hair, in my opinion. And so very blonde… His fairy godmother did a rather poor job of blessing him at birth.” She settled herself among the cushions of a divan, stretching back luxuriously like a cat.

Adrianna’s fairy godmother was a woman, or rather a fairy, on whom nature had bestowed generous proportions. She had a generous rump, a generous bosom, a generous laugh, and a very generous appetite for the good things in life, particularly chocolate and Cornish gardeners. She always wore the same gown, in cerulean blue with a dramatically low neckline. The corset she favoured was a feat of engineering that defied gravity so impressively, her ample breasts seemed to be floating. She had frizzy russet hair that was always in perpetual danger of escaping from the pins that struggled as mightily to keep it in place as her dress’s neckline struggled to keep her breasts from popping out.

Helga, being well accustomed to the habits of the princess and her fairy godmother the day after a ball, arrived bearing a bottle of wine and two glasses along with a large silver bowl full of chocolate truffles.

Adrianna sat up alertly.

“Really Adrianna, wine so early in the morning?” reproached Mirabelle.

“Oh leave off it, I know you’ve already had a brandy—I can smell it on your breath.”

Mirabelle chuckled heartily. “Touché.”

“Anyway, what else is there to do today other than eat and drink my feelings, since no one is going to come and ask for my hand in marriage?” Adrianna watched despondently as the maid poured out two glasses of wine.

If this were a normal castle, Helga would then have proceeded to tidy Adrianna's room which looked like an explosion had taken place, flinging her things all over the furniture and the floor. But seeing as they couldn’t afford to employ anyone else to help Helga, she had far too many duties to be able to keep up with the tidying of everybody's bedroom. So long as she brought food and drink when summoned, nobody minded too much about the cleanliness of the castle, certainly not Adrianna.

Mirabelle began eating the chocolate truffles, with much smacking of her lips and licking of her fingers. “You know, precious, you're never going to succeed at snagging yourself a prince unless you really, truly want it.”

“I do want it,” Adrianna protested half-heartedly, reaching out for one of the wineglasses. She had to reach so far to the side of the bed she almost toppled out as she grabbed the glass, laughing as a little wine sloshed over the rim and onto her fingers. “Oops.” She sat back up and swapped the glass from one hand to the other, licking her wine-covered fingers. “I do want it. It's just that I want the right one.”

“Yes, of course you want to fall in love—”

“Not even that. I just want someone who will let me live in peace in my castle while he goes and lives in his. That would be ideal.”

“That's not how our world works, and you know it. Happy Ever After does not involve living in separate castles.”

“No, what it does involve is me dying a few years later in childbirth if I give birth to a daughter, so that she might grow up an orphan and repeat the exact same cycle I went through.” Adrianna took a hearty gulp of wine. Sometimes life as a princess was truly depressing. In fact, make that often.

“Well then, just be an old maid, like me. There really are many great advantages to being single in one’s golden years. Such as being able to pursue certain delicious Cornishmen.” Mirabelle gave her a saucy wink.

“You should really stop tormenting the poor man. He lives in fear that you’ll either snap him like a twig or gobble him up.”

“Ah darling, what can I say? I can’t resist the burr of his accent, and the way he throws those skinny little arms of his around.”

“He looks like a pigeon if you ask me, always bobbing his head at the flowers and fluttering around Petunia.”

“Don’t criticise Lowen just because you're bitter about your prince,” said Mirabelle curtly.

“He wasn't my prince,” Adrianna muttered into her glass. “That's exactly the problem.” He’d had potential as a candidate, as well, seeming to be utterly devoid of personality, and therefore more likely to be prodded into agreeing to the living arrangement Adrianna wanted.

“I think I feel a headache coming on,” Mirabelle announced suddenly, apparently unaware of the dusting of chocolate on her generous bosom. “Maybe I'll ring for a port and brandy. Excellent remedy for a headache, that. In fact, excellent remedy for most ailments.”

Before she could summon the maid again, the bedroom door opened, and a head stuck through the gap. Alinor looked like a slightly plainer version of Adrianna, which wasn't in itself a judgement of Alinor's prettiness at all. Instead, it simply reflected the fact that Adrianna had been born of a king and queen, and therefore had been blessed with staggering beauty at birth, whereas Alinor had come ten years later, after Adrianna's father had married Adrianna’s evil stepmother.

Technically, Alinor was Adrianna's evil stepsister, to go with the evil stepmother. But then, as with the rest of the castle, nothing quite worked the way it was supposed to, and Adrianna and Alinor got along like a house on fire, in spite of their ten years of age difference and the rivalry that was supposed to exist between them.

Alinor caught sight of the wineglass in Adrianna's hand and wrinkled her nose, which displayed a good helping of freckles. “You really need to stop drinking so early in the day—it's not good for you.”

She entered the room fully. At fourteen she still had that long-limbed, slightly clumsy bearing, like a doe coming into her long legs. Her wide mouth was perpetually further widened by a smile. Adrianna remembered being like that before she came of age and had to deal with the pressures of being a princess. Now it was all frowns and crumble and wine for breakfast.

Despite her age, Alinor refused to graduate to the longer dresses that she should by rights be starting to wear, preferring the lighter, shorter styles worn by little girls, since it left her legs free to run. Adrianna agreed with the sentiment, but since she no longer had any short dresses that fit her, she most often ran around the castle in her underthings. Nobody ever visited, and the few people who still lived in the castle didn't care how improper she looked.

“I guess last night didn't go well?” Alinor asked, approaching the bed.

“I'm destined to be a fabulous spinster,” Adrianna replied with a flourish of her right hand, sending a little red wine sloshing over the rim of the glass, staining the bedsheet as well as her fingers this time. Not the first red wine stain, and very unlikely to be the last. Every so often she badgered Mirabelle into returning the bedsheet to the pristine white of its origins, which the fairy only did with much grumbling that her magic wasn’t supposed to be used to clean out wine and chocolate stains.

“She’s taking inspiration from me,” Mirabelle added smugly from her chocolate-stained divan.

“I'm sorry.” Alinor frowned and sat on the side of the bed.

“It’s all right. It’s probably for the best. Better to be alone than to be married to an invertebrate.” Adrianna did her best not to think about what it meant that she had been rejected by said human invertebrate.

“Can I have a sip?” Alinor gestured at the glass.

Adrianna knew that as a responsible sister she should say no, but she was already a little tipsy, and anyway, a sip would do no harm. She handed the glass over.

Alinor snatched it, jumped to her feet, ran to the window, opened it, and flung the wine out. Then she grabbed the bottle.

“Hey!” Adrianna protested.

“Race you to the library. The first one to arrive gets to keep the bottle.”

Alinor didn't wait for an answer, sprinting off. Adrianna cursed, jumping off the bed after her, and almost falling flat on her face, tangled up in the bedsheet. She yelled a rich selection of swearwords as she yanked the bedsheet away, but she found that in spite of her annoyance she was already smiling.

Racing through the castle was one of their long-standing childhood games. There were so many twists and turns, so many corridors and stairways and secret passageways that there were a myriad of ways to cross the castle. Adrianna and Alinor had spent endless days figuring out the best possible route to every room, challenging each other to race after race after race.

Adrianna had won all the recent races to the library, so she ran in the opposite direction to Alinor, confident in her ability to get there first. She slid down a wooden banister, its balusters carved with vines and flowers. The wood was polished to a shine from years of sliding. She jumped off at the end, bursting through a door so low she had to bend in half to fit through it. Beyond it was a narrow, tunnel-like corridor that had once been used to spy on the room next door. Of course, given that anybody could find the door to enter the corridor, it was hardly an effective method to spy on people discreetly.

Adrianna sprinted through it, breathing the air that was thick with damp and mildew. The feather-soft, ever so slightly sticky feel of a cobweb against her face didn't so much as slow her down—she had picked hundreds of spiders from her hair over the years and no longer cared if one hitched a ride for a while.

Back up another set of stairs, through two rooms, one of which was entirely shrouded in sheets, down a final set of stairs, and then she stopped abruptly. The library door was already open.

Alinor stood beyond, grinning and waving the bottle of wine, taunting.

“How d'you get here so fast?” Adrianna asked, genuinely impressed, and not at all bothered that she had lost.

“There's a new hole in one of the ceilings. I made it bigger and dragged a mattress underneath it so I can jump down from one floor to the other.”


Alinor bit her lip, turning serious. “Do you really need the wine bottle? If you do, you can have it, you know. I know balls are always hard for you.”

Adrianna sighed and shook her head. She wasn't sure exactly when she had started drinking wine as a way to feel better after her endless failures, but she wasn't exactly proud of it. It was probably after she'd heard of her childhood friend consenting to being robbed of speech for the rest of her life just to secure herself a prince. It had worked, leaving Adrianna facing the very bleak prospect that she may one day be also forced to make such a terrible sacrifice, and all in the name of securing something she didn't even really want in the first place. This was hardly unusual. Princesses were forever being locked away in towers, made mute, and tortured in a hundred inventive ways, all in the name of providing the kind of insurmountable odds princes needed in order to work up the courage to make a marriage proposal.

“We could go check on the mouse nest?” Alinor suggested, brightening.

Adrianna smiled indulgently. “Let's do that.”

In moments like this, when she was with her sister—Adrianna never thought of Alinor as a stepsister—Adrianna struggled to see what the importance was of securing a prince. She was happy here, in this ramshackle, crazy little castle, with her ramshackle, crazy little family. Living a quiet life with them all out here sometimes seemed far more appealing than chasing the fabled Happy Ever After.


The castle was its very own ecosystem, a whole, self-contained universe. Its state of general disrepair meant that a plethora of little creatures and creepy crawlies had taken up residence within its walls. There was always something to look at—a new plant that was making a life for itself with its roots digging into a crack between two stones, or a neat little nest diligently made by a small furry creature.

“Before we go check on the mice, there might be eggs over with the doves,” Alinor said hopefully. Sometimes she acted with all the maturity of a young woman, other times she was still very much a kid, and the combination made her all the more endearing.

“All right, let's go check on them first, then,” Adrianna said as she had said hundreds of times over the years—in fact every time Alinor wanted to go check on some animal or another. 

They climbed up to the attic, and from there to a ladder that reached all the way up to the high and massive beams that supported the roof. One after the other they crossed one of the beams, walking with arms carefully stretched out to keep their balance, until they reached a small nook on the other side. There wasn't much space, only just enough for the two of them to crouch next to each other. They called this nook Dove Cove since every year doves made their nest here.

Alinor had been right. Nestled between two woodworm-chewed struts was a small nest and in the nest were four perfectly smooth eggs, the shells a delicate pink, like the inside of a shell.

Alinor beamed, turning to look at Adrianna with shining eyes. Adrianna couldn't help but smile back, her sister’s joy contagious. She slung an arm around Alinor’s neck, yanking her close, and leaned her cheek against the top of her sister’s head. They stayed like this for a moment, silently watching the nest.

Yes, moments like this really made it hard to remember what exactly was so important about bagging a prince.

Adrianna looked up at the rustle of wings followed by anxious cooing. “We should go. That'll be the mother, and she won't be happy to have us so close to her eggs.”

Checking on the mice was equally successful. The sisters waited a couple of metres away from the nest, their backs against the eaves, their noses full of the smell of the cedar chests that crowded the attic, housing old clothes and other belongings. The slightly medicinal smell of the chests mixed with that of the flaky, slowly decomposing piles of newspapers—a legacy from a crazy old uncle who had, for some reason, collected them obsessively.

The girls had to wait for a while before their patience was rewarded with a mouse coming to feed her little ones. They watched in silence as the little mouse went about her business, feeding her babies before scampering off, no doubt to go back to the kitchen in search of more treats. She might be able to steal some leftover crumbs in the crumble dish.

“See, checking on the mice and the doves is much more effective than a bottle of wine,” Alinor pointed out smugly as they clambered down from the attic. “You look happy again.”

Before Adrianna could formulate a reply, a voice called out to them.

“There you are!” Helga the maid looked positively blown as she ran over to their side, red splotches standing out starkly on her cheeks.

[ Image: Alinor frame.jpg ]

“Everything all right?” Adrianna asked.

“This arrived a while ago, but I couldn't find you anywhere.” Helga handed over a letter.

Adrianna recognised the ornate seal at once—it had also been stamped at the bottom of the invitation she had received to Charming's ball. Her heart pounded, although she wasn't sure if it was excitement or dread, or something else entirely.

“Charming wrote to me?” she asked aloud, voicing her confusion. He hadn’t so much as looked in her direction last night.

She cracked the seal and unfolded the stiff, creamy paper. The note was short, almost terse, the handwriting perfectly neat. It stated that Charming intended to call before midday.

“Shit, shit shit.” Adrianna looked around her wildly. “What time is it?”

“Nearly eleven,” Helga replied. “I looked for you everywhere, but I couldn't find you, and…”

“Not your fault,” Adrianna snapped before the maid overwhelmed herself with misplaced guilt. The last thing she needed was for anyone to panic given how little time there was to get ready. “Mirabelle!” she yelled. “I need you!”

They waited for a moment, but nothing happened. “Urgently, damnit!” Adrianna shouted again.

Again nothing happened.

“Mirabelle, I swear, if you don't get your arse over here right now—”

“What, what is it?” Mirabelle appeared next to Adrianna looking flustered as she patted her hair and rearranged her clothing.

“The prince is coming to call, and he will be here any minute now.” Adrianna thrust the letter at her.

“Prince? What prince?”

Adrianna was having a hard time containing her growing temper. “Charming, who else?”

“That damp sock? Well, I guess beggars can't be choosers, darling.”

Adrianna skewered her with a glare.

“Which storyline are you going to go with?” Mirabelle asked brightly, either oblivious or so used to Adrianna’s glares that she wasn’t affected.

“Do I have to play the evil stepsister?” Alinor asked morosely.

Adrianna shook her head. One thing she had promised herself was that she would never force Alinor into that role. She would simply have to find a way to bag herself a prince without needing a storyline involving an evil stepsister.

“Well, you have an evil stepmother,” Mirabelle pointed out. “So you could simply have her lock you away in your bedroom and let Charming batter the door down.”

Adrianna shook her head again, growing increasingly impatient. “That won't work. We didn't even speak last night. That kind of story only works if he has already had time to fall in love with me. I'm amazed he even knows who I am—I very much doubt he'll be bettering doors down to get to me at this point. But, you're right, I have to use the evil stepmother angle since it's the only one I have.”

She briefly thought back to that other princess, a mermaid called Ariel who had infamously given up her tail and her voice to make herself appealing to a prince, and then on top of that she'd had a witch trying to sabotage her. All the odds had been stacked against her, which is of course what princesses needed, since princes were driven by some baffling need to prove themselves. It made princess's lives a right misery.

A single, lowly, evil stepmother was poor fare compared to a witch, a curse, and sacrificing a part of her body—especially because Petunia was remarkably useless as an evil stepmother. But then, that was a perfect representation of Adrianna's lot. Her evil stepmother was more interested in the garden than in being evil, her fairy godmother was a jolly drunkard who was more often than not found snoring with her mouth open, and Adrianna loved her evil step sister dearly, completing the trifecta of uselessness.

But now, in spite of all this, a prince had come to call. This was her moment. Her one chance to fulfil her destiny and secure herself a prince, and she wasn't going to fail.

Find out what happens next!

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