“I am sorry for your loss.” But the stranger looked past the elderly man in front of him. He did not truly see the kind, gentle eyes, currently filled with tears of pain. He did not truly see the permanent lines written on the Man’s face by hardships and laughter throughout the long years.
“Both of them? My son and his wife?”
“Yes. It was left in their will that they wished you to be their son’s guardian should they die before he came of age. Of course if you think he is too much trouble, you may send him away to a school. It is up to you.” The Cold Stranger turned around and left, his duty done. The little boy who had been invisible until now came forth.
The Boy’s movements were quiet, but determined. His eyes, like his grandfather’s, were kind and gentle, even wise for he had suffered much in his short years.
“Are you hungry?” He asked the Boy, who nodded solemnly at this question. “Let’s go in then and see if the cook has any snacks for you. How old are you?” The Boy raised four small fingers. “Well come on now, speak up. If we’re going to live under the same roof from now on you’ve got to speak up.”
The Boy smiled. “Yes Grandfather.”
Close to the Grandfather’s manor, there was a small, yet prosperous kingdom reigned by a young King and Queen. They had but one child together who was the joy of their lives: a lovely Princess who had just turned three. Each day she grew more beautiful because of her heart of gold. But as beauty attracts Good, so it attracts Evil. At thirteen the Princess’s world collapsed.
“No! How could you? I trusted you! How can you take everything from me?”
“It should never have been yours! Your mother took away the love of my mother should have received! You took away the love I should have received! You are the imposter; I am the true princess.”
The next day the Princess suddenly announced that she wished to go away to a prestigious school for wealthy young ladies. The King and Queen reluctantly decided to send her.
“I have but one request,” said the Princess. “May I take my sister with me?”
“If that is your wish and if your sister does not mind, so be it,” the King announced.
And so for five years the Princess and her elder half-sister, the Lady, was gone from the King and Queen’s eyes. On the few occasions they met, they blamed the change of their daughter on the distance, and they were worried.
“Come here my Boy… well, I guess you are a boy no longer but a young man of twenty-four. Come my Son, I must speak with you,” whispered a man of many years with death lingering beside him
“Yes Grandfather?” Here stood a man full of life and vigor. He stood tall with honor and dignity with the air of quiet determination still strong in him.
“It has always been my greatest wish to see you marry someone you’ll be happy with and settle down to start a family of your own. But it seems that death will claim me before that time.”
“Please Grandfather, don’t speak so!” The Young Man’s eyes filled with pain. “If it be your wish to see me married, then see it you shall.”
“Thank you my Son. There was on thing I knew your Mother arranged about this matter that I have been waiting to tell you. In your parent’s will, it said you are already betrothed to the Princess of our neighboring Kingdom. Your Mother was a great lady there and it seems that their Queen was very close friends with her since childhood.”
“I shall leave at once to present myself there.”
“Go, with my blessings. Take plenty of gifts for her and her family and take the Steward with you. He will help you any way he can.” So with as little delay as possible the Young Man and his Steward was off, laden with many gifts for the Young Man’s future family.
“Little Master… are you not worried about the woman you are about to meet? You will be spending the rest of your life with her, whether you like her or not.” The Steward was fond of his Little Master and would hate to see him burdened with someone he did not wish to be with.
“It matters little how I feel about the Princess. Grandfather is the only family I have left and I can see that he has not much life left in him. I want to see him go in peace and happiness.”
“It is an honor to meet Your Majesties,” the Young Man said as he knelt down in front of the King and Queen.
“The honor is ours to finally be meeting the son of so great a man and woman. Please, make yourself comfortable. Our daughter will be here soon.” The King and Queen were pleased indeed to see that the Little Boy they had arranged their daughter to marry had grown into such an excellent and handsome Young Man.
The Princess entered at that moment, claiming the full attention of everyone in the room save one, the Young Man’s. He saw that the Princess was of great beauty, but also that there was no laughter or joy on her face, so instead his eyes slid to the woman walking slowly behind her with her eyes downcast and yet full of dignity. She was a plain creature, but somehow seemed lovely to the Young Man. Her purity, strength and goodness seemed to emanate from within her.
“Your majesties, forgive me for my late entrance,” the Princess smiled at the monarchs, but it did not reach her eyes. The Young Man shivered at the prospect of such a wife.
“You must take care to be more punctual. Especially when we have such an important guest.” The Princess and the one behind her looked towards him.
“Good sir, I have the pleasure of presenting to you my daughters, the Princess and the Lady,” the King said. The Young Man was surprised to hear them both called his daughters. “My dear Princess, this fine Young Man is your betrothed.”
“She is the daughter of the King’s first wife?”
“Yes Little Master. It seems that she is not called a Princess because the King was still a Prince and her mother died before she became the Queen.”
“How did she die?” The Steward shifted uncomfortable.
“Little Master, are you sure you need all of this information about your future sister-in-law? Already these past couple of days you have paid more attention to the Lady rather than the Princess.”
“Steward, how did the old Princess die?” The Steward became silent but reluctantly told what he learned from the palace servants.
“They say she was a powerful witch. So when she learned that the Prince’s true love lay not with her, she raved about vengeance but suddenly died out of pure hatred of the current Queen, who was not a queen then.” Now it was the Young Man’s turn to become silent.
“I will go out for a walk in the woods.” He grabbed the cloak and walked out the door, leaving the Steward worried for his Little Master.
“Now jump! You think you can just take away my future husband’s gaze and get away with it? How very much like your mother.” As the Young Man quietly walked up he say the Princess’s retreating back. When he saw the Lady fainted over broken pinecones with bloody feet, his heart cried for her.
“My Lady, are you all right? Please, open your eyes!” The Lady stirred and the Young Man sighed with relief. He tore a piece from his cloak and soaked it with water from his flask. He began to carefully wash her feet, cleaning her cuts with his makeshift cloth.
The Lady stopped him with her hands. “Please don’t. I will be punished again if the Princess finds out.” But the Young Man just tore another piece of cloth and gently bandaged her feet.
“Do you think you will be able to stand?” The Lady lifted her plain face to look directly into the Young Man’s eyes. His breath caught, as he looked into her strong, gently face and intelligent eyes.
“Why are you doing this? If you are trying to curry favor with the Princess, I’m sorry to say you are going about it the wrong way. Whatever you motive might be, please stop.” She stood up to go, wincing slightly. “And thank you.”
“Steward, I cannot do it.”
“I cannot marry the Princess. I will go visit her this evening to tell her that I will marry the Lady and no other.”
“… Yes sir.”
“The Young Man wished to meet me in the forest. It’s probably to apologize for his ungentlemanly behavior and proclaim his undying love for me. All men do eventually, no matter how kind you are to them. Come.” The Princess swept out of the room with easy grace while the Lady limped along painfully. Her face sad as she fingered the cloth in her pocket the Young Man had used for her feet.
The Young Man waited in a secluded area to speak with the Princess. He wished to be alone with her when he broke the news; so he was dismayed when he saw the Lady limping behind.
“I hoped to be alone with you for what I have to say.”
“Whatever you need to tell me you can say in front of my dear sister.”
“… If that is your wish. I am sorry to say that I cannot marry you. I am unworthy of your hand. Tomorrow I will formally announce my decision to the Court and I will take the blame.” The silence crackled through the trees while the Young Man stood firm, the Princess was in shock, and the Lady was frightened for his safety.
“And might I ask why exactly you have suddenly changed your mind on this decision?”
“I…” the Young Man hesitated. “I have fallen in love with another. Tomorrow I will also ask for the hand of the Lady, your sister. I thought you should be the first to know…” The transformation the Princess went through was incredible. No longer was she breathtakingly beautiful, but a monster being barely contained.
“You are drunk,” she said through gritted teeth. The Young Man noticed a green tinge growing on her complexion. “I shall return to my rooms and forget all about this little mistake.” She turned to go but the Lady suddenly blocked her path.
“Stop!” Cried the Lady with surprising force. “You heard what the Young Man said! He chose me over you, proving that it is not beauty that can capture a man’s heart. Proving that my mother did not capture my father’s heart through her beauty.”
“Quiet! How dare you speak to me so, the true princess!” But already her evil spell was breaking and the Princess was transforming until all that stood in front of the Young Man and the Lady was a gigantic snake, hissing its tongue, looking hungrily at the Lady.
“You shall pay for yours and your mother’s insolence!” The Snake lunged for the Lady.
“Lady watch out!” The Young Man cried in despair as he grabbed his sword and ran to her aid, knowing he’d be too late.
Much to the surprise of the Young Man as well as the Snake, the Lady pulled a sword of her own and slashed at the Snake’s gaping mouth. This move was followed by a lunge of her own, a fatal one for the Snake. There was a flash of green smoke which cleared to show the disappearance of the evil snake. The Young Man looked at the Lady with new admiration. But no longer was he gazing at the face of the Lady, but the face of the Princess. Somehow the Princess looked even more beautiful, more complete with the same kind of gaze looking out through the eyes of a face that was once the mask of an imposter.
The Princess smiled. “I thank you.”
“Princess?” The Young Man asked, unsure of himself.
“Yes. The Snake was my half-sister, the Lady, until she put a curse over me when I was thirteen. From then on for ten years we had switched places.”
“I’m afraid I still do not understand.”
“My sister… was always angry, blaming others for her mother’s death. But most of all blaming me and my mother. And so she put a curse that could only be broken by the purity of true love…” the Princess paused and came to stand next to the Young Man. “What would you have me do now my love? For truly I have loved you with all my being since you have been here, paying more attention to me than my manipulative sister.”
“I have already let you know my heart’s desires; to marry you.” A smile broke out across the faces of the Young Man and the Princess.
It is said that in a Kingdom not so far away, there was once a King and Queen who ruled with kindness and wisdom, who loved each other very much. A love so strong that it not only held them together in the face of great difficulties, but also the land itself. For their love was not that of outward value, but the purity of the heart and the strength of the mind. The people called them the Gentle King and his wife, the True Queen… or as some would fondly call her, the Snake Killer.
By Anna Oh (email@example.com)