Once upon a time, a beautiful princess lived with a king who could transform into a fearsome dragon and a queen who appeared solid by day but turned spectral by night.
As the dragon king set fire to curtains, entire rooms, and everything that dared to defy his iron will, the queen wandered her lonely halls, forever seeking the king who had arrived on a white horse to ask her father for her hand in marriage–the king with whom she had fallen in love.
Occasionally, she shielded the beautiful princess or her son, the strong prince, from the scorching heat of the dragon king’s poisonous flames. The princess and prince felt terribly guilty for leaving their mother while she begged and bargained and cajoled the dragon king, pleading for his mercy upon their children. Sometimes, he relented. Other times left the prince and the princess locked in their respective rooms, terrified and painfully alone as they covered their heads with pillows to drown out the loud crashes and deadly roars that filtered through the castle, reverberating off of the walls and amplifying the dragon king’s rage to terrible heights.
The princess could never understand the depths of the dragon king’s fury, and her mind folded in on itself to create labyrinths of fantasies, often dreams of faraway lands with handsome princes who never turned into dragon kings, because they would save her and take her to a place she would immediately know as “home” even if it wasn’t a castle. She would become a troll and live under a bridge before she would ever stay forever trapped in this gilded cage.
Oftentimes the princess wondered what had changed the king into a dragon, whether a magic spell or a bad potato or something she had yet to understand. Did all kings become dragons? Was the queen searching the castle for something that would break the spell so she could be reunited with the man she loved? The princess asked the queen why she had searched so long up and down the castle halls, and what exactly she had been searching for.
“The king,” the queen replied, looking up from her needlepoint.
A fierce bellowing voice sounded from elsewhere in the castle. The shadows stretched into steeples along the floor as the sun sank below the horizon, and it was clear that the dragon king had transformed.
“But he’s right there,” she said, her brows furrowed in confusion.
“That isn’t the king,” the queen corrected gently, for she still believed the dragon king and the king she’d fallen in love with to be two separate forms.
“Why is he always so mad?” the princess asked, for the dragon king and the king looked no different in her eyes.
“He has a castle and no mighty hoard to fill it,” the queen responded, as if this explained everything. Most of the time, the queen showed a quiet strength that rarely manifested from under the docile, pleasant demeanor that propped up the corners of her lips each day as though on stilts that were a shade too tall.
The queen dropped her meek illusion only when the dragon king’s flame curled in sharp tendrils around the princess and prince’s bare little feet when they ran across the castle as children do. When his flames contaminated their flesh so that all his children could feel were swords that sliced with white hot fire on the soles of their feet wherever they walked, he asked if they’d learned their lesson.
For her part, the princess certainly had. Playing tag with the young prince had only ended in pain–much like many interactions she’d had with the dragon king–so it seemed clear that he was to be avoided, for any attempt at connection or solidarity with him only ended miserably.
Yet the more the queen protested, the more ferociously the dragon king raged. On one cloudy day, the princess met great misfortune when she happened to be in the line of fire between the king and the queen, failing to dodge the vitriol spewing from his cavernous jaws in a torrent of fury. The princess’s beautiful face melted like she had just bobbed for apples in a vat full of acid, revealing the slick muscle and sinew beneath, and the agony she felt as she lay screaming seemed only to intensify when the dragon king banished her to her room for failing to forgive him when he told her that she was still beautiful.
Regardless of the princess’s feelings, once she was out of sight, the dragon king felt satisfied, power-drunk on the wine that he and the queen guzzled by the barrel each night, which never seemed to run empty even as the dragon king’s fields went barren and grapes died on the vine. The wine had an astonishing effect–with each glass, the queen grew more weak, complacent, and cold; she hated how it affected her, but after years of isolation she no longer felt that she had the right or the resources–nor the family or friends–to abscond from the castle with her children unscathed. She tried desperately to soothe and placate her terrified children as the dragon king grew portly and more cruel.
The princess’s face had finally started to heal and smooth over charred bits of flesh, but it seemed harder than the face she’d had before. Thinner. Thin to the point where no matter how her face moved its muscles or froze them, the muscle fibers lay practically translucent beneath, and her expression was never meek enough. No matter how much life and joy she bled from her “tone” with leeches that remained to feast on her trachea long after her swift departure from childhood, it was never flat enough.
The princess, who loved to read, met friends within the pages of her precious books; the only children she ever saw in the castle vanished in a puff of stale smoke when they caught her running after them, her throat hoarse from begging desperately to play as her brittle, raw face peeled into forgotten flakes of skin that would one day blanket her entire bedroom. If she ever caught them, she had no idea what to do with them, so as she had seen done countless times before, she used and discarded them like broken dolls.
Of course, they didn’t come back, but the princess didn’t know why. Hadn’t she been a good sport? Hadn’t she let them play with her brand-new toys?
It was around this time that her shadow detached itself to become a malicious, ghostly figure with lank hair and a permanent smirk of mischief; its owner was weak and positively reeked of self-loathing and fear, which it feasted on at every opportunity in the corner of the princess’s vision before her head whipped around to find nothing there.
The dragon king, in his wisdom (meaning, after his dukes had conspired to force his abdication), decided that it was time to leave the barren fields and broken dreams behind for greener pastures. While they packed up their belongings, the princess skirted the castle’s perimeter to avoid her malignant specter and noticed vast lines of cemetery plots along the sides of the castle that she’d never seen before. Her tired, tattered fingers traced the letters on the headstones, and there she found the names of the children she’d frantically run after in hopes of being their friend.
It wasn’t until then that she realized her new face had betrayed her to keep her safe the way the dragon king hadn’t and never could, closing her eyelids to the blazing flames that devoured her would-be friends, opening when only wisps of smoke remained, and looking past the ashes scattered across the floor. The dragon king, who left to wreak devastation elsewhere in the castle, didn’t spare a glance back as the princess sifted through the ashes and wondered if this was what it meant to have friends.
After all, she hadn’t had any that weren’t lining the shelves of her library, and from those pages spilled timeless tales of eternal friendship and true love–but none of the illustrations she found had a face like hers, cracked and scaled more each time the dragon king’s fierce flames consumed each brittle face that replaced the one before, and when they began to break too easily, the queen surreptitiously showed her the wardrobe of faces she used to hide from the dragon king–maids, crones, peasants, and her personal favorite: broken mirrors.
“But how do they survive the fire?” the princess asked the queen, reaching out to skim her fingers along the smooth glass.
“They don’t,” the queen replied simply. “That’s why he likes them the most. They’re enchanted to show him a false self, and when he tires of each one, I commission another before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?” the princess wondered aloud, but the queen said nothing further on the matter, and the shadows in the corner grew darker and longer.
The new castle made no difference. Eager to escape the dragon king’s wrath, the princess would often blame her transgressions on the young prince, stuffing her ears to block the shrill screams and sobs that echoed down the expansive halls.
She was too afraid to find and comfort him, but her left hand said it knew the way, so she chopped it off and bit into her pillows to muffle her own shrieks. Into the roaring fireplace it went, and she trembled on the floor of her room and felt like a coward.
Her right hand told her to pick up a sword and vanquish the dragon king, so off it went to join its twin in the fire. After they’d roasted to ashes, she carefully gathered their remains with what was left of her bleeding stubs and piled them in an enchanted cabinet that restored whatever was hidden within it–but at a very steep price.
Having no allowance of her own, the princess stole one of the broken mirror faces from the queen’s wardrobe and offered it as payment. The cabinet accepted it gladly, and she now had both of her hands back, so everything was all better now. Surely the queen wouldn’t notice that one face had gone missing.
Over time, the dragon king’s powers only grew in proportion to his rage. Each time he demanded to know what was “wrong with her” when she dropped and shattered a glass or spilled milk on the floor, the sharp sting of an invisible slap met her face, even if the king was nowhere near her.
After years of reading books and faces, she pondered the question and thought perhaps it was a riddle. Maybe the pain would stop and the dragon king would vanish in a blaze of glory if she could only fit the right words into the right order, so she set to work on lists of permutations, crossing off each one when the words had no effect on the dragon king and posting it to her bedroom wall to remind her of the failure until her walls were covered in stacks of hastily scribbled-on pages.
WEAK. WORTHLESS. STUPID. INSIGNIFICANT. FAT. UGLY. LAZY. MANIPULATIVE. DIRTY. DISGUSTING. ANNOYING. INSECURE. PETTY. LOUD. DECEITFUL. WASTEFUL. SHAMELESS. RUDE. CHILDISH. CHURLISH. WRONG. RUINED. DAMAGED. BOASTFUL. BROKEN.
As she wrote each word on each page, many hundreds of possibilities presenting themselves as new words joined the fray, each word sliced into the flesh over her heart and left slivers no bigger than papercuts. Why wasn’t it working? Why wasn’t she good enough yet?
“Even I don’t want to be near you,” her detached specter whispered into her dreams, carving more deeply into her heart with each word. “Who would? You’re foul, you’re evil, and you’ll never be enough. Never.”
Desperate, the princess made one last effort to save herself from complete self-destruction, knowing that her path was headed nowhere fast. The gashes on her chest oozed thickly with fresh blood, and her eyes met those of her specter’s as she defiantly ripped her still-beating heart from her chest with hardly a sound and ran to the enchanted cabinet before it could follow, stuffing it into a locked compartment in the back of the cabinet that she’d found once while attempting to find a place to hide from the dragon king. Quickly, she locked the compartment and pocketed the only key.
As beads of sweat collected across her brow, the princess sneaked from her castle window using a makeshift rope fashioned from bed sheets and sprinted to a clearing of trees that stretched their branches skyward and shuddered at her sudden arrival.
“Ohhh, look, it’s the young lady who loves trees,” one of the trees simpered sarcastically, shaking its leaves. “You can tell by all the dead ones she keeps locked away in that castle, bound like captives.”
“Please,” the princess begged frantically, “You have to help me. I don’t have much time.”
TO BE CONTINUED….
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