FOOL’S GOLD • by Leigh Kimmel

“This is so exciting.” With a theatrical sigh the princess waved languidly to the courtiers. “Off I go to marry my handsome prince.”

All three of the castle’s heralds blew the fanfare. Although poor, we had spared nothing for the royal sendoff of our queen’s daughter.

Yet she would have no retinue of servants and guardsmen on the journey, only one of her mother’s trusty maids — namely myself. As protection from the perils of the road, the queen had woven a magical necklace for her daughter to wear.

We’d barely left when the princess began her demands. The first few I fulfilled as a matter of course, but as they became burdensome, I gently reminded her that she was no longer in a palace surrounded by servants. She must not exhaust her one attendant.

The princess tilted her chin upward in contempt. “So-rry.”

Had she given such a false apology to her mother the queen, she would’ve been slapped silly. As I raised my hand, I felt a tingling in the air. The protective magic could not distinguish between a bandit’s attack and much-needed correction.

They say the saints have patience without bound. I am no saint and my forbearance had its limit. On the third day that last bit frayed out.

All morning the girl had whined about the hardness of the ground upon which she had to sleep, the staleness of the journey bread and the rough gait of her mount. My tongue had become raw from the biting. As we passed a lake, she wailed about the heat.

Patience exhausted, I pointed at the water. “Do you think me mistress of the weather? If you’re so hot, take a swim.”

She glared at me until she realized I would not budge. With another of her martyred sighs she flounced over to the shore.

I watched as she bathed. One would think her quite ill-used, to listen to her complaints. When a stray branch caught her necklace, she threw herself against the obstacle without even stopping to see what it might be.

Magic beads flew in all directions. Pattern destroyed, its power trickled away.

Without the spell constraining me, I could finally give her the punishment she so desperately needed. Compelling her to exchange clothes with me required a few firm slaps, but she choked down her sobs and stepped from her fine gown to my plain cottons.

I’d intended the switch to last a day or two, enough for her to see life from the other side. Except I had miscalculated the length of our journey, and thus was quite caught by surprise when we topped a ridge and caught sight of the white stone castle.

What to do now? Even as I considered possibilities, a sentinel came up to us. He bowed so low that his forelock brushed the grass.

“Welcome to our land, Your Highness. Allow me to escort you to your promised husband.”

I opened my mouth to protest, only to realize that admitting the truth would be my destruction. I followed him in silence. Behind me the princess choked back muffled sobs. I gave her a sharp look and she was silent.

As we rode into the courtyard, a dozen heralds blew a fanfare upon long, straight trumpets. A tall man walked out to meet me. A slender circlet of gold upon his brow accented his angular face and hard gray eyes.

He lifted me from the saddle and swung me down to the cobblestones. His hands gripped my waist a little too tight. “Greetings, my promised bride.”

The prince escorted me to meet his father the king. I was able to get through by rote recitation of protocol until the king turned to the window overlooking the courtyard.

“Who is the young lass who came with you?” There stood the true princess, staring up at the walls. She could destroy me if she exposed our secret. I had to put her out of the way.

Trying to look nonchalant, I waved a hand in dismissal. “Just a girl I brought to take care of my things on the way. Find her some task to keep her from standing idle.”

The king spoke to his chamberlain, who passed the word to his subordinates. Satisfied that the princess was safely removed from consideration and my deadly secret would not be betrayed, I did my best to settle into her place.

Over the next several days, as preparations for the royal wedding proceeded apace, I caught glimpses of the erstwhile princess. Mornings and evenings she would cross the courtyard behind the palace in the company of a young man, herding a flock of fowl. At first she shied away from his efforts to talk and joke with her. As the days passed, her aloof demeanor crumbled and she began to respond. By the morning of the wedding, I saw them walking hand in hand, chatting and laughing.

Looking down from my windows, I smiled at their happiness. At least the poultry boy seemed good to her, which was more than I could say for the prince. I suppressed a gasp of pain as my maids tightened the laces of my dress right across the bruises from last night’s beating. Unbidden the memory returned of the prince, breath heavy with the wine he drank when out of his parents’ sight, lashing out in fury at some offense known only to himself.

I turned to look at my reflection in the mirror. At the top of the bodice long purple marks, fading to yellow, reached for my shoulders — souvenirs of an earlier argument and not something to show the world as I went to the altar.

“Pull that bodice higher.”

Leigh Kimmel is a writer, artist and historian with degrees in Russian langauge and literature and in history.

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