"Once upon a time, there was a heroic prince. He was young and handsome and brave, and he performed many valiant deeds. He slew monsters, routed bandits, and saved many innocent people from injury or death. As you might expect, his name became renowned throughout the kingdom as a great hero."
The Crown Prince's children, Eric and Esther Courvoisier, twins aged seven, looked at their nurse expectantly. They were savvy at this story-time game, and knew well that when a hero started a story famous and well off, things tended to go south for him in a hurry.
"Now, the prince had been betrothed to the princess of a neighboring kingdom when they were both children, and one day as he was out riding, a crow flew down from the sky and alighted on a branch near him. Inky black, it turned its head and croaked, 'Noble prince, your betrothed has been abducted!'
"As you might expect, this came as quite a shock to the prince, for crows could not speak."
"Yes they can," Princess Esther said. "Mr. Macabeo says so."
"That's ravens," Prince Eric said as archly as a seven-year-old could manage. "And anyway, they can't really talk, just imitate words."
"Crows are just little ravens!"
"No, they're not! They're a different bird. Tell her, Miss Sherry!"
Miss Sherry blinked, not quite sure how this had become a biology lesson and wishing that the tutor were there to reap what he'd sowed.
"I think that's right, Eric," she hazarded.
"Eric!" she said firmly. She might have been hesitant about ornithology, but when it came to discipline Miss Sherry was on firm ground. "You will not tease your sister! When one of you is stronger in your lessons than the other, you should help them learn, not mock them!"
"Yeah, don't be mean or I won't help you with your times tables!" the princess crowed.
"Esther, that is not the point you were supposed to learn. Now apologize to each other."
"Yes, Miss Sherry," they chorused. The "Sorry, Esther" and "Sorry, Eric" were grudging, but they said them and that was the point.
"Good. Now, back to the story. The prince feared a trap, this talking crow was so strange, so he drew his sword and chased the bird away."
"That was a mistake," Eric said. Esther nodded her agreement.
"The prince then rode on into the wood. After a little while, there was a rustle in the undergrowth, and a lean black wolf emerged, with bright eyes and lolling red tongue. Believing it was going to attack, the prince drew his sword again, knowing that wolves do not generally approach a human on horseback, particularly not alone. Instead of attacking, though, the wolf merely looked up at him and said, 'Courageous prince, your betrothed has been abducted.'"
"He probably didn't believe it again," Esther commented. This time it was her brother who nodded in agreement.
"The prince, though, was distrustful of the wolf's fierce and threatening appearance. 'You are devils sent to trick me!' he shouted, and spurred his horse, charging the wolf with drawn blade."
"The wolf, however, refused to stand and fight, but dove into the underbrush as a fearful coward."
"I think it was right!" Eric declared. "A man with a sword attacked it!"
"Yeah, and all it wanted was to talk!"
"Children! It is extremely impolite to constantly interrupt a person when they are reading a story, or giving any kind of public performance."
"Yes, Miss Sherry."
"Now, where was I? Oh, yes. When the wolf retreated, the prince sheathed his sword once more and continued on his way. Not long after, the undergrowth parted, and a sleek brown doe emerged from the wood. She looked up at him with bright, liquid eyes and said to him, 'Heroic prince, your betrothed has been abducted.'"
"It's always three," Esther murmured. The children really were developing a good grasp of literary tropes, Miss Sherry thought with satisfaction.
"At first he was suspicious, but the doe's gentle demeanor and quiet voice eased his distrust, and he met her eyes with a solemn nod. 'Lead on, gentle creature,' he said, 'and I shall follow.'
"The doe brought him along a narrow track that was not even a game trail, through dark and shifting shadows cast by the trees above, until the way was blocked by a thorn hedge that reared nine feet above the forest floor.
"'Beyond this wall,' said the doe, 'lies a tower and in that tower is the maiden whose heart yearns for yours. But be wary, for the thorns are sharp, and will seek the life of any who tries to pass.' The prince, however, was bold and strong, and would not quail from his quest. He dismounted from his horse and hitched it to a tree, then advanced on the hedge. As he had been warned, the branches coiled and struck like serpents, but his bright blade slashed and chopped, and at last he hewed his way through into a clearing, his armor scratched and marred but his spirit unbroken.
"Before him the prince found a small tower of dark stone, perhaps thirty feet high, pierced only by a single window at the top and a door at its base. Cautiously, he advanced across the clearing, but there was no sign of movement, no soldiers, no monsters, nothing wrong at all. He reached out and took the door's brass handle and turned it. The latch worked easily and the door opened into a comfortable reception room. Cut-glass lamps burned from wall mountings, giving the room a cheery glow. There were tables and chairs of rare woods, and beautiful tapestries hung on the walls. The prince noticed none of those things, though, for there was a beautiful woman in front of him, with long blonde hair and eyes that were the same emerald-green color as her dress.
"As he stood there, confused, she spoke to him, saying, 'Welcome, Your Highness. For long I have watched you from afar, saw you perform many brave deeds that no knight or champion could match. My maiden's heart melted with love for you—'"
Miss Sherry chose to ignore that exchange.
"'—so I strove to find a way that we could meet. And thus I have used I all my arts to call to you.'
"'Where is she?' the prince cried. 'Where is my betrothed?'
"'I do not know. I have done nothing to her, but only said so in order to bring you here.'
"'Why would you do that?'
"'Would you have come to me otherwise? If so, then I am sorry. But now that you are here, come, sit, and dine with me. You are weary from your travels and I would welcome you.' She took a silver goblet and poured it full of wine, then offered him the cup. Its crimson depths tempted, as did the woman's beauty, but at the last he pulled away.
"'No!' he cried, and struck the cup from her hands. 'You are a witch, who seeks to enspell me with your magic!' His sword leapt once more from its sheath in a silver flash, and he pointed the blade at her. 'Now, confess your crimes and surrender to the law, or I shall run you through, foul sorceress!'
"With that, the witch gave a high, wailing cry, and there was a great wind that roared like thunder, and when it had gone the prince stood on an empty plain. The witch, the tower, the hedge, even the woods themselves had vanished, and there was nothing there but for his horse placidly cropping the grass. And the prince did fall on his knees and give thanks, for he knew that he had narrowly escaped the snare that had been set for him—"
Miss Sherry never got to finish the last sentence.
"That's not how it's supposed to go!" both of her charges exclaimed.
"Yeah, princes are supposed to fall in love with beautiful witches!" Eric added.
"What? I've never heard of such a thing in a story."
"Uncle Hiram did," Esther pointed out.
"Yeah! He married Aunt Opal!" The twins had always had trouble pronouncing "Opalneria."
"And she's really pretty, just like the witch in the story. And she loved him, so that's good, right?"
"Well, yes, it's good that Lady Opalneria loves Prince Hiram..."
"Not Aunt Opal, the witch in the story." Eric obviously had not had trouble following his sister's change of topic. Miss Sherry wondered if that was part of the remarkable sympathy that twins sometimes displayed. That was a more pleasant option than thinking that a seven-year-old's logic was moving too fast for her to follow.
"That's right. He shouldn't be mean to a girl that likes him. Knights and princes aren't supposed to be like that!"
"It isn't chiv'rous!"
"Chivalrous, Eric. And she did trick him with magic and lure him into an illusion."
"That was just so she could get the chance to talk to him."
"It's not like she could just walk up to his castle and say hello."
"But the prince was already betrothed. That means he had already made a promise to marry someone else."
"No, it doesn't," Esther said, shaking her head.
"You said they'd been betrothed since they were children."
"That means it's an...an arranged marriage," she enunciated carefully.
"Like Uncle Roland," Eric named the second prince, who had entered into an alliance marriage with the daughter of the Illyrian Regent and so secured the southeastern border for another generation—a border that had gotten rather tense during the Archmage's depredations.
Miss Sherry supposed that she shouldn't be surprised that the Crown Prince's children knew about arranged political marriages, but she still sort of was. They were so young, to be thinking about such things.
Oblivious to her nurse's mental strain, Esther provided the crowning point of her logic. "So he didn't make any promises to anyone. It was his parents, and they could find a way out to help their son to marry someone he loved."
"Besides, who'd want to marry some stupid old princess, anyway?"
Esther whacked her brother upside the head with a slipper. Apparently sometimes crowning points of logic were not enough.
"Esther, apologize to your brother."
"But he said—"
"I heard, and if you'd done nothing then he would be the one apologizing. But you went and did something even worse back to him, and that's never the right thing to do."
"Yes, Miss Sherry. I'm sorry I hit you, Eric."
"It's okay," he said, trying to be "chiv'rous," then backslid a bit. "I was right, though."
"Sorry, Miss Sherry."
"That's better. Well, it's clear that story time is over for tonight, so why don't you go and get changed, and since the story wasn't sweet enough for you, I'll go ring for some hot cocoa."
"Thanks, Miss Sherry. You're the best!"
The children got up and scrambled for their bedrooms, which adjoined the playroom in the suite. Miss Sherry waited a moment until she heard the rustling of clothes, then walked over to the door, which had been swung to but not quite closed all the way. She opened it, then stepped out into the next room and said, "Well, Your Highness, my lady, what did you think?"
Hiram Courvoisier, third prince of the kingdom, looked a little bit bemused.
"I have to say, it's always surprising to hear oneself held up as an example of storybook romance."
His wife, on the other hand, had a smugly confident smile.
"On the contrary, I think it's only natural," Opalneria said. "Prince sees woman and falls for her, prince leaves his home in search of woman, prince woos woman away from destructive and unhappy obsession, and they get married and live happily after after. What's not part of a fairy tale about that?"
"I'll grant that it's a better story than the one we just heard."
Miss Sherry nodded.
"Indeed, and I'm quite proud of the children. They noticed nearly everything about the story that I hoped they would: the prince's headstrong behavior based on nothing but prejudice and assumption, the fact that the witch had done nothing wrong, even the difference between arranged marriages and genuine romance, which rather surprised me."
"They should have a little more respect for such betrothals; they can often be the duty of the monarchy," Hiram noted. He glanced at Opalneria, and Miss Sherry saw his point. A love match they might be, but Her Majesty might have raised objections had it not also helped to tie the royal family to the resources of Gammel Dore's Magic Academy, and had Opalneria herself not been anywhere from the third to fifth most powerful known magician in the kingdom. "They're young, though; it's better to start with high ideals and learn compromise than start without them and try to figure them out later."
"I do wish that they'd caught the difference between the initial two 'dark' animals and the doe that the prince believed," the nurse went on. "They were too caught up by the literary role to notice that part of the prince's behavior, even though they made the right conclusion about his character."
"Still, it's not a bad thing. After all, they'll have to deal with all kinds of political tricks as they grow up, and it's good for them that they learn to recognize patterns of argument and persuasion."
"I suppose that's true."
"In any event, thank you, Miss Sherry, for allowing us to listen in."
"Not at all. Their Royal Highnesses did ask that you supervise the children's education while they were away, after all, and how are you supposed to do that without seeing them at their lessons?"
"Quite so. But we had better let you get back to your duties. After all, you have cocoa to order, and Eric and Esther deserve their reward for doing well on their test, even if they don't know that they were taking one."
~X X X~
A/N: For the curious, Opalneria is "Lady" and not "Princess" in the same sense that the husband of the Queen of England is the Prince Consort, not the King, and I like the idea that the fictional kingdom would be gender-neutral about this sort of thing. I'd like to give special thanks to the fine folks at "Exiled to the Couch" for their help with the draft of this, particularly yuiseppe and Laith for their advice in working out some of the flow-of-the-story issues, and Fuyu no Sora with forms of address!