In the morning the girls come downstairs, their eyes still far away. Susannah, as always, is the exception: hers meet mine, a combination of guilt and resentment and defiance. She understands as none of the others ever has; but I have no words for her, no explanation that can compensate. Even Iâm sorry
would feel like a mockery. I knew exactly what I wished for; just not what the consequences would be.
The prince of the week follows them, his eyes a bit shiftier than my daughtersâ. What excuse is he to give me, their father; what excuse is he to give his parents, who expected him to win this prize; what if he never gets to give the excuse? My excuses would suit him no better: It was never me who killed those who failed.
I can only do what I always do: play the furious king, pretend it is an exception I make in sparing his life this one time, make sure the bottle of sleeping potion Susannah uses to stop them following is always full.
âIt has been three days,â I intone solemnly.
He bumbles out his excuses while I inspect my daughtersâ faces. Liza, the littlest, just fifteen, looks frightened, as if she has woken from a nightmare. Part of me wishes she would come to me for comfort, but it is a familiar, dull ache. I also know who set the nightmare on her, and all her sisters; I also know it is not yet over. Diana is still thrumming to the beat of the music. Irena looks put out; perhaps she liked the look of this prince. His outfit was certainly bejewelled enough for her. Others look simply exhausted.
ââ¦please, I beg you, one more chanceâ¦â
With an effort I remember my role in this drama. âAnd what good will one more day do you?â My voice booms around the room. The prince cowers; my daughters barely notice.
âI only wished to be of serviceâ¦â Heâs terrified, pleading for his life.
âOf service?â I echo. âDrinking my wine, and eating my food, and neglecting to perform the one task I asked of youâis that what you call service
Heâs stunned into silence. Meek idiot. The first men who came to brave their task thought they might care for one of my daughters; these men simply seek glory. Which none of them have found.
I lower my voice to a hiss. âGet out.â
His mouth gapes like a fish for just a moment, and then he scuttles from the room as fast as he can, before I can change my mind.
Susannah says, âFather,â and curtsies before leading her sisters out. Itâs a perfunctory politeness at best. This is as much as any of my girls have said to me in years.
The worst part is knowing I deserve it.
It was twenty-some years agoâHanna had just been born, Susannah was perhaps sixâwhen my uncleâs daughter made her debut. She was ten years my junior, the Princess Rosanna; I could remember holding her in my arms when she was born. My uncleâs only child, born of his late life, seventeen and graceful and royal and heir to his dukedom, attributes enough to recommend her to anyone.
But also unlovely, with a twist to her lip and a squint in her eyes and hesitance in her speech, shy and trusting and slow of mind.
My uncle was a good man, if proud; and perhaps if he had been wellâ But the fact is he was not. And my father too was ill then, and I was much occupied with preparing to take on the mantle of kingship. My spare time was devoted to my lady wife and my daughters, and not to my cousin, much as we had played together as children.
Make what excuses as I can, what happened is that Rosanna fell deeply in love with one of her suitors, a man handsome if poor, with charm enough to capture any womanâs heart. It was her fatherâs dearest wish to see her wed before he died, and so the wedding was held. Her father survived their wedding by barely three weeks.
And I, as I have said, was too busy to notice.
He only stayed two years, and they were of hell. He never got a child on her, for perhaps he despised her too much, but he made free of her wealth. When finally I realized he fled before I could bring him to account.
The hardest part was Rosanna was still as deeply in love, crying in my arms, saying if only she could have had a child of his to be always her own, as handsome and as good as he was to her.
The bargain I made was for my daughtersâ protection: that only one who cared for them could ever come close enough to win their hearts; that no one who courted them for riches beyond their love would ever do so again to any woman. What price will you pay?
the sorcerer asked me, and I answered: Any.
I had thought, you see, the price would be mine, and not theirs.
So they disappeared each night to a land of illusions, and those who followed, should they take a step off the path or a sip of the wine, never returned. I followed once; but as I was no suitor, my diligence could not break the spell. In the mornings they cared nothing for the life of the court, neither for the men who came to win their love nor the father who had tried to protect their hearts.
The challenge became well-known, though not spread by me; and eventually I contrived to have Susannah notice a sleeping potion, to protect the untrue suitors from deaths they did not deserve.
Rosanna I set up in a cottage a little ways away, isolated and protected; she was not aware that soldiers guarded her, for they would have frightened her. I visited as often as I couldâoftener, for my daughters cared nothing for my presence.
And one day a soldier reported back to me that a man had come to Rosannaâs cottage, who was gentle and kind, who listened patiently to her slow speech, and rushed to help her; who had no idea who she was; who was a foot-soldier himself, crippled by an injury from the wars. Rosanna cared nothing for him; she waited only for her false husband. And clearly he did not seek to win her, but saw her goodness and appreciated her hospitality, for he was recuperating still.
Had I come to him as the king with advice for escaping my own trap, of course he never would have listened. So I disguised myself. He had heard the tale of my dancing daughters. I told him not to drink Susannahâs wine, and I gave him a cloak that would hide him from their eyes, and I advised him to care for the girls and not the treasures if he wished to return.
And I waited.
Itâs a strange feeling, to wake up with hope.
This is an intersection with lrig_rorrim
, who wrote this tale
from a different perspective