There was, once upon a time, a Prince, who was known throughout his kingdom as a clever man. He lived alone-his page, Master Eric, his most frequent company. His often restless mind craved challenges and unusual problems, and, one day, a messenger of a neighboring King delivered an intriguing request.
Prince Gregory called for Master Eric, anxious to relay his news. "Just wanted to let you know," the Prince said, "I'll be going away for a few days."
"There's a King a few kingdoms down. Can't figure out why his daughters wake up with their shoes worn through to the soles of their feet. Apparently nobody else can figure it out, either."
Master Eric raised one eyebrow, crossing his arms over his chest. "Probably just sleepwalking."
"Nowhere to walk," Prince Gregory replied. "Twelve sisters in one room doesn't leave a whole lot of walking space. There's another reason."
Master Eric sighed. "Right, of course there is. How long do you think you'll be gone?"
"Just a few days. I've only got three to figure it out. After that, if I don't have the right answer, they kill me."
"A little risky, even for you."
Prince Gregory did not appreciate the doubt in Master Eric's tone. "I'll have figured it out in less that three. Watch. I'll know more once I get there."
"So what do you get out of all this?"
"You mean, besides the pride and joy of solving a stupifying mystery?" Prince Gregory pressed his finger to his chin, as if he were deep in thought. "Oh! I remember. I get one of his daughters."
"You think you're ready for a woman around here?"
"You really don't have any confidence in me, do you?" The Prince asked, standing from his chair and striding to the door. As he left the room, he shouted over his shoulder, "While I'm gone, you're in charge. Try not to set the place on fire just to spite me."
For the remainder of the day, the task weighed on his mind and Prince Gregory set off through the woods to think.
As Prince Gregory walked, sidestepping gnarled tree roots and twisted branches, a sudden, sharp crack startled him. The Prince spun quickly, nearly stumbling, his eyes searching the shadows for a man, a beast, his sword gripped with a white-knuckled hand.
A voice projected from a cluster of trees. "Oh, relax. You'd think you'd never traveled through the woods before. Some Prince you are."
Prince Gregory, his hand still tight around the handle of his sword, rounded the nearest broad tree trunk. A moment later, the Prince's eyes fell upon a familiar boyish face, brown, feathered hair swept away from his forehead, and the Prince fought against a grin. "Come all the way across two kingdoms, mine and yours, to mock me?" Prince Gregory asked, his hand falling from his sword.
Prince James, heir to the eastern kingdom, leaned against the tree trunk, one leg bent at the knee, his foot flat against the bark. His hands were folded over a thick piece of fabric, draped over his knee. "No, I would never do that." Prince James gathered the fabric, pushed away from the tree, tossing the heavy cloth over his shoulder. With a knowing expression, Prince James peered at Prince Gregory. "You couldn't resist, could you?"
"We both know that-"
"There's a time limit on this, you know. Three days."
"I've solved problems in less-"
"People have died. Four people, actually. My brother the most recent, and he'd been certain-" Prince James bowed his head, resting his hands on his hips, breathing deeply.
Prince Gregory's shoulders fell as he rolled his eyes. "Listen, I appreciate the concern, but unless your brother had any parting advice, I'm not interested in your sob story."
Prince James' head jerked up to face Prince Gregory, his eyes narrowing. "He did. Or, well, he wrote it. Last words before he was-" Prince James' voice wavered; words abruptly stopped as his hand dove into his pocket, withdrawing a folded piece of parchment. Prince James unfolded it, cleared his throat, and read. "Take, but do not eat or drink any princess's offering. Drugged. Fatal mistake." Falling silent, Prince James folded the parchment and slipped it back into his pocket.
Prince Gregory's brows furrowed, his mind absorbing this new information, and studied Prince James' face.
Breathing a sigh, Prince James said, "If you insist on risking your life, God knows you could do with some extra protection." Prince James lifted the heavy fabric from his shoulder and heaved it at Prince Gregory.
As the fabric fell into his outstretched arms, Prince Gregory nearly tumbled forward with its weight. His fists closed around the edge of the fabric, and he raised his arms, allowing the fabric to unfurl. Prince Gregory's eyes widened; he had never encountered an object like this one, but he recognized the gift, immediately identified it. "But, this-this is an-"
"An invisibility cloak, yes," Prince James supplied, his hand gesturing through the air. "If you fold it carefully, it can fit in your knapsack. Take it with you. Don't eat or drink anything, and-"
"Pretend to fall asleep."
"Right. Then, use this." Prince James pointed to the cloak.
Prince Gregory nodded, draping the cloak over his arm, his throat too tight to speak. A silent few seconds passed between the two princes, before Prince Gregory cleared his throat and, this time, managed a smirk. "You're not getting this back, you know. Way too cool."
Prince James's lips slowly curved into a smile. "Good luck."
After a jubilant reception at the King's palace, Prince Gregory retired to his chamber. His knapsack, filled with Prince James' invisibility cloak, remained close to his side, and Prince Gregory reviewed his plans-foolproof, the Prince told himself-itching to satisfy his curiosity. Logically explain this puzzling occurrence to a flabbergasted kingdom.
The Prince's attention shifted to the door of his chamber; a beautiful woman-one of the King's daughters-entered. Brown eyes matched her straight brown hair, and she smiled boldly at him, offering him a plate of fruit, a goblet of wine. The Prince reached for the plate and cup, setting them both on a small square table. Prince James' words resounded clearly in his head. He planned to heed them, leaving his fruit untouched, but bowed his head in thanks to the Princess, who, he noticed, peered at him skeptically.
"You're not eating," the Princess said, raising her eyebrows.
"Eat in front of someone with nothing?" Prince Gregory asked, falsely aghast. "I have manners, you know. I'll eat after you leave."
The Princess crossed her arms over her chest, planting her foot firmly on the floor, as if to make it clear she had no intentions of exiting the room. "You'd rather starve?"
"You'd rather stay and watch?"
For several seconds, the Prince matched the Princess's fiery gaze. A smirk broke over the Prince's face, privately enthralled by the Princess's beauty, her boldness, her quick tongue and brazen spirit. The Prince's smirk broadened as the Princess pursed her pink lips, breathed a defeated, frustrated sigh, and turned for the door.
Once the door closed, the Princess's footsteps fading on the other side of it, Prince Gregory carried her offerings to the window, leaning forward to watch the fruit and wine spill into the thick shrubs below.
Following his plans, Prince Gregory pretended to sleep, fooling the beautiful Princesses and her sisters. Securing invisibility cloak around himself, the Prince stole after the Princesses, following their hushed laughter.
Each Princess was beautiful, but none more so than the Princess who had visited his chamber. Prince Gregory followed closely behind the last Princess in line, craning to catch a glimpse of the Princess he admired, and accidentally stepped onto the trailing fine fabric of the last Princess's gown.
"Oh!" the Princess cried, stumbling to a halt.
Prince Gregory lifted his foot silently and held himself still. The Prince's breath stalled in his lungs as the cluster of Princesses turned, alarmed for their sister.
One Princess stepped forward, her blue eyes and her face soft with concern. "What's wrong? Are you all right?"
The last Princess tugged at her dress, her green eyes widening with shock as the hem lifted easily from the floor. "I-my dress. Someone stepped on it. I think someone's following us."
Another Princess, possessing sharp blue eyes and brown hair, thick with curls, replied, "Don't be ridiculous. There's no one here." The Princess laughed softly.
The Princess that the Prince admired offered a logical explanation. "You must have tripped on it yourself."
"Or you're losing your mind," teased another Princess, pushing her straight dirty-blonde hair aside.
"No, I didn't! I'm not! I-"
Another Princess, blond hair framing her determined, unyielding expression, walked to the front of the cluster and called over her shoulder, "Come on, you're wasting our time."
As the Princesses scurried down the corridor, the Prince breathed a sigh of relief and followed the twelve into their chamber. There, the determined, blonde Princess tapped her fingers on her bed, and the Prince stared, impressed, as the bed sank through the floor. One after another, the Princesses descended a secret set of stairs. The Prince followed the last Princess until he reached the bottom.
Prince Gregory's eyes widened at the sight before him-a hilly orchard of trees, all with golden leaves. Wishing to procure proof of his discovery, the Prince tore a leaf from a low-hanging branch. When he released the branch, it bobbed slightly, and the Prince almost groaned aloud as the leaves rustled. The Prince crept under the umbrella of the tree, pressing himself to its trunk.
"Did you hear that?" asked the last Princess. She pointed wildly at the trembling tree branch. "Look! It's shaking! Something rustled its leaves!"
The blonde Princess, who appeared to have the least patience of all, reached for her sister's hand. "It's the wind. That's all. Let's go."
Despite the last Princess's protests, the twelve Princesses darted through the orchard, climbing a large hill. The Prince reached the crest of the hill, still trailing behind the last Princess, and felt his mouth drop open with shock. A brightly-lit castle-modest and not so large as the King's or his own-stood at the bottom of the hill. Prince Gregory followed as the Princesses raced toward it, bursting through its doors and into its grand ballroom.
The Prince watched in wonderment and personal satisfaction as the Princesses began to dance. Careful to keep silent and out of the way, Prince Gregory kept to the corners of the room. The Prince's eyes fixated on the dark-haired, dark-eyed Princess, and he, unable to resist, stole her drinking goblet, tucking it inside his cloak before returning to his chamber.
Prince Gregory hadn't been able to sleep for the rest of the night and, when the sun rose, he approached the King, presenting him with the golden leaf and the Princess's goblet.
The King glanced at the objects in Prince Gregory's hands. "What are these? Where did you get them?"
"Hot on your daughters' trail," said the Prince, a note of arrogance in his voice. "All twelve of them have been sneaking out right under your nose. Check out the trap door under the blonde's bed. It'll lead you right to the site of their secret rendevous. Your girls can tear up the floor."
Surprised and delighted, the King called each of his daughters into the room. All twelve Princesses gathered near their father, peering from him to Prince Gregory as he spoke, "Is he right? About the secret passage in your chamber?"
"No!" the blonde Princess blurted. Too quick, and too insistent. All but the Princess that the Prince admired seemed to be in indignant agreement; she was the only Princess to keep quiet.
"She's lying." Prince Gregory grinned, displaying the goblet for the King to see. "This is one of the cups used by one of your daughters overnight. The lip color's still on the rim." The Prince pointed to it, a pink cresent along the edge of the cup. "I'm betting that if I compared shades right now, I'd find a perfect match." Without waiting for the King's permission, Prince Gregory strode over to the cluster of Princesses, bringing himself to a stop beside the dark-eyed Princess he admired. The Prince raised the cup to her face, just for show, and gestured for the King to take a closer look.
Once the King determined for himself that Prince Gregory's theory was irrefutable, he offered the Prince his prize. The Prince never hesitated to select the dark-eyed Princess, a rising sense of self-satisfaction coursing through him as he took his leave with her.
When the Prince glanced at the Princess, he found her grinning. "So," the Prince said, "you have a name? Or should I just call you Princess?"
"Do you? Or should I just call you Arrogant, Overconfident Jerk?"
Prince Gregory fought against the grin of amusement tugging the corner of his mouth. "Gregory, but you could call me Greg. All that formal stuff wears on my nerves."
"Stacy." Princess Stacy stayed silent for a moment, taking Prince Gregory's hand as she climbed into their waiting carriage. "You should be more careful with invisibility cloaks, you know."
Mid-step, Prince Gregory froze, unable to cover the expression of surprise that formed on his face-jaw slack, eyes wide. "You saw me?"
Princess Stacy quirked her eyebrows. "I spotted your foot, back in the hallway. Way to be smooth."
Caught between admiration and annoyance, Prince Gregory shook his head. "So you did that on purpose, made sure to leave a clear mark on the cup."
The Princess smiled at him, leaning back into her seat. "Do you have any idea what it's like living with my eleven sisters?"
"Can I find out?"
Princess Stacy slapped his knee, and the Prince grinned before leaning out of the carriage window to instruct the driver to detour through the eastern kingdom. Prince Gregory had a cloak to return, not to mention an awesome tale to tell; Prince James was going to love this one.