A short story I wrote last week as a break from my longer projects.
The Stubborn Princess
The king tapped his fingers on the windowsill, looking out over the fertile green lands of his prosperous kingdom. Prosperous, happy, and headed for absolute disaster.
Why couldn’t his daughter, the princess Annie, just give in for once?
She had yelled at him; she had thrown a vase of flowers at his best mediators. When he tried to lock her in her room so that she might have time to think on her poor, unprincess-like behavior, she had rearranged the furniture in the chamber so that it blocked the door. He might have starved her out, but, somehow, she was getting food into the chamber. The only reason he knew this was because she would toss half-eaten sandwiches and fruit out her window at his mediators.
But Annie was too much like him: too stubborn to relinquish her opinion on a subject (and she was far too opinionated for a princess), too mulish to compromise, too defiant to listen to reason.
Ministers Farthing and Burgling were even then speaking with her through the open window of her tower chamber, though the king wasn’t sure if they were going to try piggyback style or stilts to get within shouting distance of her window. It was the king’s hope that his latest offer—that she could have ten dresses of gold and twelve of silver if she capitulated—might encourage her to behave and agree to his demands.
His spirits rose when he saw Farthing and Burgling approach. His spirits crashed when he noted their drawn, pensive expressions. Burgling hobbled along, rubbing his shoulder.
“What news?” the king asked them.
“The princess has threatened to sing, Sire,” Farthing said.
The king shuddered. Though Annie’s face was akin to those featured in old masters’ paintings, though she glided as over water when she danced, though she could pick up any instrument and strum or pluck or tap it as well as any court minstrel, she had a singing voice like a rockslide. Birds died hearing her sing.
“What should we do, Sire?” Burgling asked, digging his fingers into his shoulder and wincing. “The piggybacking did not work, but I believe that this threat to sing must be her last line of defense, though it was, admittedly, a threat to scare us off more than it was an ultimatum.”
“It works efficiently enough for either,” Farthing replied.
“She must simply learn that threats are against the code of royal behavior, and there are consequences to such actions,” the king said, though he had no idea how he would enforce that code when he couldn’t even break past the fortress wall she had built at her door. He sighed.
“Never fear,” Farthing said. “We will get in touch with her again. The piggybacking didn’t quite work as well as we would have liked, but we’re willing to test the stilts.”
“Yes, the stilts will be good,” said Burgling.
The king nodded his assent to this and waved his hand at them to send them off. Farthing and a hunched over Burgling disappeared from the study.
The king hoped that he wouldn’t have to take this conflict to the next level, but he feared that, if Burgling and Farthing could not communicate effectively with the princess while on their stilts (yet why shouldn’t they, since they would be twenty feet off the ground and close enough to the princess’s window that all involved parties should hear each other well?), he would have no other option.
The king found himself brainstorming different ways to retaliate, but he cut himself off from such thoughts. There would be no need, he told himself. In their endeavor, Burgling and Farthing could not help but be successful.
“We were unsuccessful, Sire,” Burgling said.
He dragged his broken, wholly cast leg behind him like some kind of Igor. Farthing blinked twice in agreement, for the royal physician had said that he wouldn’t be able to talk for another week or so and the neck brace kept him from nodding.
“We were upon our stilts, Majesty. The princess was not ten feet higher than us, and she asked us what we were doing. We insisted that we meant to parley with her, to which she responded that she would have nothing to do with her father’s lackeys and that she wished that a great wind would just blow us away.”
When it became apparent that Burgling had not stopped his story to catch his breath, the king prompted, “And?”
“A great wind just blew us away,” Burgling said. “In hindsight, I’m coming to understand that walking on stilts during a hurricane was not one of our greater endeavors.”
Farthing blinked twice.
“This is terrible news, indeed,” the king said, clapping his hands together and drawing them to rest against his chin. “I hate to say it, but I am afraid we will have to call in the ninjas.”
Burgling shook his head.
“Sad is the day when the ninjas return,” he said.
“And frustrating are the days before,” the king replied. The determination in his voice was imaginary. He felt like a child begging for a pastry from the castle kitchens, knowing full well that he wouldn’t see a crumb of one. “Summon the ninjas.”
Burgling swallowed, then bowed his head—he was unable to bow at the hips due to his hip cast—and took hold of Farthing’s wheelchair. Farthing blinked twice.
The king tried to relax and returned to his kingly work. The ninjas would scare her. And they probably wouldn’t even have to do anything. Annie would realize, once they had climbed up to her window, that her father was serious about forcing her cooperation, and she would surrender at once. He was tempted to leave his study and watch the ninjas that night as they scurried up the tower, but then he remembered that no one ever really saw a ninja, and he didn’t feel like staring at a tower of bricks all night.
Meanwhile, he could rest assured knowing that the ninjas would work.
“The ninjas didn’t work, Sire,” Burgling told him midmorning of the next day.
The king groaned and buried his face in his hands.
“They were defenestrated,” Burgling said.
“Kicked out of the window,” Burgling clarified. “I think the princess is serious.”
“Well, I’m serious, too,” the king said. “Has she called for any kind of summit? A negotiation? Did she send a message down with them, at least?”
“I think sending them down was her message, Sire,” Burgling replied.
So the ninjas hadn’t worked. That was unfortunate. How did Annie know that they were coming for her? Of course she knew, he thought. She knew him too well and would have assumed, correctly, that the ninjas would be his next course of action. She was expecting them. She was too smart for her own good.
But her intelligence, though it included eerily accurate precognition, could not always predict his next move.
“I’m afraid that this means that I must take even more drastic measures than the ninjas.”
“But Sire, you can’t possibly be thinking. . . .”
“It is the only way, Burgling.”
Burgling pursed his lips, his swollen, black eye winking haphazardly and not entirely according to Burgling’s volition.
“Send for the dragons.”
Burgling sighed and nodded his head. Farthing blinked twice, and Burgling rolled him out of the study in his wheelchair.
The king rubbed his temples as the headache that had encroached on him for the last two days erupted like a slow-motion volcano. He knew that it wasn’t Burgling’s bumbles that bungled their efforts. The princess remained solely responsible for all the trouble that ensued.
Soon, the king thought, the entire situation would be over. Calling in the dragons went against his own instinct, the instinct that Annie knew so well and would be able to predict. Normally, his next step would be to call in a torch-and-pitchfork mob, but since Annie might guess that, he decided to jump straight to the dragons. She wouldn’t see that coming.
Between her ignorance of what was about to befall her and the sheer power of the dragons themselves, the king could entertain no doubt that this new plan would solve the problem.
“The new plan sort of solved the problem, Sire,” said Burgling a few hours later after the dragons had finished their task and left their invoice.
The king lifted a brow.
“What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”
“I mean, the dragons were successful in knocking down the tower,” Burgling said. Farthing blinked twice. “But they were a little less successful in extracting the princess from it first.”
“A little less?”
“Rhetorically speaking, their effort to accomplish this last was not as successful as that in razing the tower.”
The king darted toward the door and ran into the hallway, with Burgling swinging his broken leg behind him in a rollicking canter as he pushed Farthing’s wheelchair before him. They burst out into the courtyard, a full quarter of which was comprised of a pile of dust and brick and stone. As the king watched, at the top of the mound, a patch of the ruin wavered up and down, and suddenly a golden head poked up like a daisy among the debris.
“Wow,” said Princess Annie. “I wasn’t expecting that. I thought the next thing you would have tried was the torch-and-pitchfork mob.”
“I knew you would guess that, so I went right for the dragons instead.”
“Fair enough,” the princess said, wrenching herself from the rubble with some exertion.
“Are you ready to surrender this ridiculous feud and let us all return to acting like well-adjusted beings?”
The princess glared at him, brushing the dust off of her tattered green dress. She looked down at herself, wearing only one shoe, and straightened one of the bows on her skirt carefully. Pleased with the improvement, she looked back up at her father.
“I submit. After all, you brought out the dragons. I can’t contend with that.” She faced the two ministers. “I’m sorry about what happened to you. I didn’t mean what I said about the wind.”
“It’s okay, princess,” Burgling said. “We’re just maimed.”
Farthing blinked twice.
“Very well,” the king said. “I’m surprised you didn’t kill any birds before you surrendered.”
“That is not a bygone possibility.”
“But you agree to stop sticking your tongue out at diplomats?”
“On the condition that I still get those ten gold and twelve silver dresses.”
“Those were not offered in perpetuity, and your surrender precludes conditions.”
Annie crossed her arms, narrowed her eyes, and tapped a war tattoo with her shoed foot.
“Ten gold and twelve silver dresses.”
“Five and six.”
“Seven and nine,” Annie countered. “And a special one to wear to my birthday party next weekend.”
The king turned to his ministers, but neither Burgling nor Farthing had much to say on the matter, mostly because Farthing still could not speak, and because Burgling passed out on the ground after so much exertion. Farthing blinked twice. With a sigh, the king turned back to the princess.
“Six and eight, and a special one for your birthday,” the king conceded. “But we’re inviting the dragons.”
“Don’t make me break out the wizards!”