This was written as an extra for Round Four of the Dimension Shop Fic Exchange, that is to say, I liked a prompt that I had not been assigned and carried it through for my own selfish gratification. I never did find a good title, either.
Title: Scraps From a Storybook
Characters/Pairings: Himawari, Doumeki, Yuuko, Watanuki, with appearances by Maru, Moro, Kohane, the pipe-fox;
Rating: PG13 for implied violence;
Summary: Fairy-tale AU;
Warnings: Non-linear storytelling, plot by implication, and none of the characters actually have names, they just get described.
The princess was making slippers. He smelt the dust rising from the ancient brocade as she cut up antique curtains with silver scissors and stitched the cloth, her needle flickering in and out. "It's nice to keep busy," she said, twinkling, setting a pair beside her on the window seat and starting a new one. Her frothy black hair mingled with the gauzy white of her dress as she turned and looked out the window. The soldier turned away from the curve of her white neck and looked down himself, at the courtyard filled with lines of silent, patient people, at the magnolia trees dry and barren around the courtyard well.
At the other end of the arcade, two of the princess's sisters started shrieking at each other. "Excuse me," said the princess, rising and slipping away, moving lightly as a butterfly lifted on the breeze. The soldier knelt, after, and peered at the dabs of red on the parquet floor where she had set her feet. Walking on knives, he thought.
The witch's boy stopped him as he turned the corner. "You left this behind," the boy said, dumping a pile of black velvet into the soldier's arms.
"No, I didn't," said the soldier, handing it back.
"Gah, what's with you, have you no understanding of how these things are supposed to work?" fumed the boy, his face turning red behind his glasses. His shirt hung baggy on him but his arms were long, and bony wrists protruded from dark blue sleeves. His hands clenched and unclenched in the black velvet as he explained at length how stupid and unappreciative of nuance and narrative necessity were all members of the military and the oaf in front of him in particular. The soldier thought, incongruously, of a cat kneading cloth with its paws, but didn't say anything.
"... Which is why you have to take it, and, you know, do your thing, whatever that is," the boy concluded. "Because it's terribly important."
"Okay," said the soldier, taking back the velvet.
"Believing is not seeing," said the boy. "And stop asking for pie," he said irritably. "I cook a mean roasted bat."
That first night they all looked at him, the princesses, clustered round him where he sat on a chest in his dusty military tunic with his gun across his knees. The youngest was sucking her thumb, though her honey-blonde hair had been carefully twisted with rags to make ringlets for the next day. The eldest sister gave him hot wine in a carved glass goblet, steaming and heavy with spices, which he refused.
Smiling, "Oh, but you'll be working so hard guarding us tonight!"
"I'm a cheap drunk," he said, handing it back. He thought of three officers from his regiment, all drummed out for 'gross dereliction of duty' after serving as guard here, and the two who disappeared without a word. A clunk from the locking of the doors echoed through the room and the youngest princess flinched. The eldest stayed smiling, though, pulling her sister into her side. "Perhaps another time."
He fell asleep anyway, and dreamed of the brush of her fingers as he gave her back the cup.
There were fresh magnolias in the vases in the morning.
"My children thirst," said the witch, draping a dark red shawl over hair that fell like ink around her angular face. Two small children squatted on the hard ground beside her, their hair wound up on their heads like fluffed sugar candy, pink and blue, and their eyes feral. Behind them a tall skinny boy crawled out of a canvas tent and scowled at him as if he were personally responsible for the drought, the civil unrest, the lack of manners in the young and wisdom in the old, the high price of poppy-seed cakes, and rats.
The soldier unhooked the canteen from his belt and gave it to the witch. She smirked and emptied it all out and a scent like summer rain rose up from the ground.
He said nothing. Perhaps he was responsible for some of it, after all.
He wrapped a cloak blacker than night about himself and padded on stocking feet away from his cot. He followed the shushing sound of the cloth and the faint glimmer of their nightgowns as the princesses crept out of their own cots and opened a stair in the back of the cold fireplace. The eldest glanced behind them, her grave eyes passing over the soldier without pause.
Standing in the doorway, he smelt damp earth and heard water rippling. A train of little lights wound below him in the dark.
She sang, The maidens came, when I was in my mother's bower; I had all that I would. The bailey beareth the bell away; the lily, the rose, the rose I lay. His bones ached, even in this dry weather: best not to think on it. He stayed on the floor by the window-seat, resting his back against the wall, and listened to her sweet, husky voice. In the locked arcade some of the younger princesses played with a shuttlecock and paddles; another had convinced the outer guards to bring in a loom and worked sturdily at incongruously plain striped fabric, clacking a counterpoint to the princess's song.
Silver is white; red is the gold
The robes lay in fold
The bailey beareth the bell away.
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay
Someone was stroking his hair, with touches so light they might be a butterfly settling on a flower. He sat quietly under it and pretended to sleep.
And through the glass windows shines the sun
How can I love, and I so young.
The soldier opened his eyes suddenly. "Roasted bats," he said. The fingers stopped.
The princess's hair shadowed her face but her sparkling smile remained. "Not everyone gets a happy ending," she said cheerfully. "Would you like more tea?" And she floated lightly away.
The bailey beareth the bell away
The lily, the lily, the rose I lay.
The witch grinned and for a moment he saw her wolf face, tongue lolling, before she folded it away. The music box between them tinkled merrily and the little pink dancers inside the lid turned mechanically. "Well, if you don't want it," she said.
"Can I have pie?" asked the soldier.
"All I'm saying," said the witch's boy, "is that clocking your head on the lintel and knocking yourself out for hours is the most inelegant and, and oafish way to fail a task that I've ever heard of."
"Trailing preposition," muttered the soldier, looking out over the stables where they loitered.
"What? What?" the witch's boy shrieked.
"You look tired," said the soldier. "That must be why your grammar is getting flaky."
The witch's boy face turned scarlet and then the colour slowly drained down his face, white replacing red with a distinct line between them. "Some of us are working," he said pointedly. "The princess," he asked then, "the eldest I mean. How is she?"
The witch's boy twitched. "Work harder," he said.
He gave the soldier a powder horn, a soft leather pouch of bullets, and a warm bundle of something solid wrapped in cloth that steamed fragrantly.
The soldier weighed the steaming bundle in his hand. "Is it blackberry pie?" he asked hopefully.
"Blackberries are out of season! It's deep-fried honey-locust and you will eat it and you will like it!" The witch's boy mounted a giant, three-tailed, stripy wolf, balancing awkwardly over the creature's narrow spine. "I must go," he declared, "For -" The wolf jigged to one side and he caught himself hurriedly, sliding precariously over the three-tailed wolf's shoulders as it leapt heart-stoppingly over the courtyard wall. "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh..."
She fluttered her fan and looked out the window at the delicate, gaudy sunrise, smiling gently. "Do you sleep walk often?" she asked.
"No," said the soldier, kneeling by her feet. He cleaned the last of the blood from the great broken blister on the ball of her foot and wrapped it deftly with clean bandages from his kit.
She touched the bruise on his forehead lightly, regret lurking in her eyes.
"Neither do I."
Because they were dancing with shadows, spinning elegantly through the motions of a minuet on a marble floor in a lush garden, in a black lake, under the earth in a cave with walls slick with black rainbows.
The soldier blinked lake-water out of his eyes and silently watched the princess sparkle and shine and smile as the shadow put a possessive hand on the small of her back and turned her through the dance. A flourish of phantom music and she bent back in a dip so far the ends of her hair brushed the floor and the white curve of her neck stretched out like a drooping flower. Her youngest sister saw him, then, and put a fist in her mouth before a shadow turned her away.
There was neither sun nor moon, here, and a roaring in his ears like the sea.
He rose up out of the water.
The witch's boy poked irritably with a stick at the coals of their fire, blinking as crackling sparks rose up hot against the faded blue of the twilight. The witch and the rest of his new family watched hungrily as he gingerly rolled singed roots and a clay lump that held the carcass of a scrawny, luckless rabbit onto a platter. Bah - there wasn't much he could do with these. A nice stew of tarantula legs with a side dish of snails sautéd in butter, now...
Thunder sounded over the mountains and he looked up. Clouds were massing overhead like curdled milk and the first heady smell of dry earth meeting water rose up around him: It was going to rain.
Once upon a time, there was a soldier who marched, trip-trop, trip-trop, through a dry land. He was very thirsty.
The fairytale I was riffing off is "The Twelve Dancing Princesses".
The poem the in the middle (with the lilies and roses and that) is "The Bailey Beareth the Bell Away," from the Middle Ages, author now unknown.