Monday, December 26, 2011

Sleeping Beauty, Part 1

(I had the idea to reimagine this classic fairy tale many months ago, when I saw a call for Steampunk versions of fairy tales. I had thought that the poor princess got a raw deal, but there was no reason my version had to remain that way. As with so many projects, I procrastinated until the deadline passed. More months passed when I wrote almost nothing. Finally, I dusted off my old notes and penned the tale. - RJ)

There once was a king and queen who ruled a small but prosperous land. Though they greatly desired children, they could have none, and this gave them great sorrow. They tried everything from folk medicine to pilgrimages and prayers, but still the queen could not conceive.

The king devoted his energies into administering his kingdom, but in all honesty little work was needed to keep things running smoothly. In his spare time, of which he had much, he developed quite a skill at creating ever-more-intricate clockwork devices, purely for the amusement of his wife and court. The first creatures were fairly simple wind-up devices that would, for example, fetch a daily newspaper from a specified spot in the castle's mail room, take it to the king's library, and spread out the paper for the king to read after breakfast. Another would keep watch for couriers to arrive at the castle and would then wander inside and give word to a servant, who would locate the king and deliver the news. As time went on, these creatures became more complex and more independent, so that the clockwork servant who kept watch would no longer have to travel to the servants' quarters where it would surely find a human servant, but could instead locate the king himself anywhere in the castle. Eventually, the devices no longer required human intervention for winding, but could instead restore their mainsprings by themselves.

The queen kept busy as well, though her interests lay more toward the arts of hunting and self-defense. She was an excellent shot with both hunting rifles and pistols, and was trained in several martial arts, having learned these from a visitor from the Orient who loaned the queen his personal trainer for several years. The queen had the decidedly untraditional view that ladies should be able to defend themselves in any situation and be able to walk the (admittedly low-crime) kingdom without fear.

After a number of years passed in this fashion, and both the queen and the king had become accustomed to their fate, the queen at last conceived a child and, in due time, bore a daughter, whom they named Alexis. There was much rejoicing in the kingdom, not the least among the royal household. The delighted parents arranged for a very fine christening, asking all the fairies in the kingdom, seven in total, to serve as godmothers to the infant. After carrying out the ceremony in the royal chapel, the king and queen returned to the castle's state rooms for a magnificent feast, as both tradition and good hospitality demanded. The fairies, as the honored guests, found before each one of them, delivered by a liveried automaton, a beautiful case covered with gold. Inside were a spoon, knife, and fork, all of pure gold and set with diamonds and rubies.

Each of the fairies was delighted with her gift, and, in return, each prepared to present the princess with a special gift. As they sat down at the table, however, they saw a very old fairy enter the dining room. This fairy had not been invited because she had not been seen for more than fifty years; those who remembered her thought her dead, and most had forgotten about her altogether. The king hastily welcomed the newcomer and ordered her a case of her own, but this case was plain, not made of gold like the others, because the king had ordered only seven jeweled cases. The old fairy felt slighted, and muttered various threats under her breath. It does not do to slight a fairy. The youngest of the fairies, hearing these threats, quietly slipped away as the group rose from the table, for, fearing that the old fairy might give the princess an unlucky gift, determined to speak last so as to repair, to the extent possible, any evil that the old fairy unleashed.

Each of the fairies presented their gifts to the princess. The first decreed that the princess would be the most beautiful person in the kingdom; the second, that she would have the intelligence surpassing the kingdom's greatest scholars; the next, that she be graceful in everything she did; the next, that she would dance exceptionally well; the fifth, that she should sing with great range and always in tune; and the sixth, that she have the gift of great musicianship. These gifts all delighted the beaming parents, who nevertheless paled as they saw it was the turn of the old fairy next. The crone shook in rage and spite, and decreed that the princess would have her hand pierced with the mainspring of a clockwork device and die of the wound. All were aghast at this dreadful proclamation, and the kind and queen wept.

At that moment, the young fairy emerged from her hidden spot and spoke: "Although I cannot undo entirely what my elder sister has done, I assure you, king and queen, that your daughter will not die from this curse. The princess shall indeed pierce her hand with the spring from a clockwork device, but, instead of dying, she shall fall into a deep sleep, lasting a hundred years, after which a king's son shall come and awake her." The parents thanked the young fairy profusely, but were still unnerved by the prophecy.

After their guests had gone, the king and queen discussed deep into the night what could be done to avert the fate destined for their daughter. They agreed that the king would have to sacrifice his avocation, and from then on banished his clockwork devices to a disused wing of the castle. He set forth a proclamation that clockwork devices were forbidden, upon penalty of death, an edict that caused the kindly king great pain.

Some sixteen years passed. Princess Alexis grew into a beautiful young lady, possessed of wit and grace. Her mother taught her the arts of firearms handling and shooting, and that of self-defense. Her parents had nearly forgotten of the old fairy's curse and she, of course, had not been told of it. One day, when the king and queen were both away, visiting a far part of the kingdom, the princess, possessed of free time, explored the old castle. She marveled at the formal state rooms, and the substantial library, and the guest chambers. She spent time with the servants, who, as always, were delighted to see the charming young lady. After she had exhausted the parts of the castle still in use, she made her way into the disused wing, feeling that she was on an adventure. Most of the rooms were dimly lighted and contained only old furniture, covered with dust cloths and smelling slightly of mold. She climbed higher, to the upper floors of the old wing, and heard noises behind a door. Another girl might have been frightened, but the princess was brave of heart and possessed of her mother's martial arts instruction, so she boldly opened the door.

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