Friday, January 6, 2012

Sleeping Beauty, Part 3

(Starts here. Continues from here.)

A hundred years passed. The kingdom fell into the hands of a family from beyond the mountains, who ruled with somewhat less benevolence and wisdom than did the old king. At first the populace looked on the bygone regime with fond nostalgia, but, as time passed, memories of that era faded. The new regime was all they knew, save for half-remembered tales told by grandparents and great-grandparents, themselves repeating stories of their ancestors.

It was during this time that the only son of the current king found himself in a deep forest. Prince Luthor, as he was known, was with a small hunting party, having traveled with his father across the mountains to visit this part of his kingdom. Despite having come into his majority several years before, Luthor was uninterested in affairs of state and very interested in demonstrating his prowess with his hunting rifle, so his father, with a mental eye roll, dismissed his son from the day’s activities.

The hunting party had followed a large stag, which had bounced between trees with such dexterity that the prince could not take aim. Still, the creature was easy enough to track when the forest was fairly open, and the hunters moved as quickly and quietly as they could. Now the forest had become thick with old trees and withered shrubbery. The stag’s path was clear, the broken branches and trampled bushes signaling the creature’s every move. Luthor followed, his men close behind him. Suddenly, the forest ended and the men found themselves facing an ancient castle. How could such a castle exist behind such a dense forest? the prince wondered to himself. No one could get in or out of such a place.

One of his men spoke: “Your Highness, I met a lady last night - “ This was met with guffaws from his fellow hunters, but the man soldiered on. “- who told me a fantastic tale that I scarce credited. These rural people, as you have remarked, lack the sophistication of the court and are inclined to let their imaginations run wild, with tales of fairies and ogres. Nonetheless, what this lady told me was a story she heard from her grandmother, who herself heard the tale told by her grandmother.”

“Yes?” Luthor said, impatiently.

“She related a tale of a castle in the clearing of a forest, one that had been abandoned for several generations, save for one occupant: a beautiful young princess who, having been cursed, would sleep there for a hundred years, until awakened by a king’s son, to whom she was promised.”

If there was one activity the prince enjoyed more than hunting it was spending time with ladies, especially attractive ones. In addition, the young prince suffered from an affliction that, while common to all humanity, seemed particularly virulent among those enjoying great power: the belief that they were the center of events. He was a king’s son; the prophecy referred to a king’s son; ergo, he was the person to whom the prophecy referred. Luthor urged the hunting party forward, until they came to the great doors of the castle. The doors were closed and sealed, with no apparent entrance. One by one, the members of the hunting party tried the doors, each to no avail. Then Luthor strode to the great doors, which opened at his touch. So startled at this was he that he took a step backward - at which point the doors started to close once more.

“No!” he said, and moved toward the doors again. Once again, the doors opened for him. Luthor stepped inside, into the gloom of the foyer. His men started to follow him, but the doors slammed shut, keeping them on the outside. He swallowed hard, because he was not, at heart, a brave man, but, keeping the prophecy in mind, he gamely continued deeper into the castle.

He found a lantern with a dim flame and, taking the lantern in hand, found that a twist of the dial increased the flame to full brightness. He looked about him. The interior was still in magnificent condition despite the years during which it contained but one human occupant. The wall tapestries were still intact; the marble busts of earlier kings were polished and dust-free; the oil paintings on the walls still shining as though wet. The long dining table was set with a place setting at every chair, from fine china, gold-rimmed, to eating utensils, each embedded with gleaming jewels, to crystal goblets, whose facets caught the light from the lantern and projected images in every direction. Confused, he continued up the main stairway and, in short order, into the bedchamber of the princess.

She lay upon her bed just as she had been placed a century before, her beauty undiminished by time. Luthor looked at her and judged her to be but fifteen or sixteen years old, and the loveliest creature he had ever lain eyes upon. He knew he had but to touch his lips to hers and she would wake.

Luthor hesitated. She was young - perhaps too young for him? She would no doubt be grateful toward whoever ended her long slumber, but he had his doubts as to her willingness to showing that gratitude in the way he would prefer. He was alone in the castle with the girl of his dreams, his men safely outside. Luthor lay down the lantern, removed his hunting rifle and leather bag from his shoulders and placed them on the ground, then hastily undressed. He pulled back the bed covers and, taking care not to brush his lips against those of the sleeping princess, proceeded to climb into the bed.

Only when he was finished with her and once again fully dressed did Luthor provide the necessary kiss. Princess Alexis awoke in an instant. She saw the handsome face of Luthor looking at her, though she did not know who he was. Indeed, her last memory was of being in the unused part of the castle, in the secret room, at the work bench, starting to touch the mainspring. What had happened? she wondered. She knew she had been violated, but who would dare such a thing and incur her father's wrath? In any event, where were her servants?

Luthor was about to speak when he heard a mechanical sound from behind him and, with a guilty start, he jumped to his feet. A tall mechanical man glided into the bed chamber. "My lady, you are awake!" exclaimed the mechanial man. Luthor was terrified and scrambled for his firearm, but the Alexis appeared calm and said evenly, "Would someone please explain what has happened to me?"

At the sound of her voice, several other mechanical servants entered the room with a whirr and began to perform all the functions of her human servants. "I believe I can relate some of the events since last we spoke." Her eyes widened as the machine explained that a hundred years had passed in what to her seemed but an instant. He described the old fairy's curse (of which the king and queen had sheltered their daughter, so as not to worry her), the king's efforts to keep the curse from coming to pass, and how it was all for naught. He explained how the royal court had abandoned the castle and how the young fairy used her magic to keep the castle from prying eyes. The king had programmed all his mechanical devices, save those necessary to build and repair their own kind, to serve the princess both during her long sleep and after she woke, as she would have no human servants. The speaker, bowing deeply, said that, as he was the most advanced device, he had been given the honor of the role of butler, coordinating the efforts of the other clockwork servants. He and his staff carried out their duties for the past hundred years, until sentries identified the hunting party of Prince Luthor and his men. Knowing that the kiss of a prince was necessary to break the spell, the mechanical devices hid in order to not frighten the young man, appearing only when they heard the sound of the princess's voice.

"I was not frightened by your kind," said the prince, though his voice was a half-octave above his usual tone. "So it was you who prevented my men from entering?" The servant bowed again.

"Thank you for awakening me, my prince. Forgive me, but I have much to ponder, and I desire to be alone with my thoughts."

Luthor kissed her hand, collected his rifle and hunting bag, and left the castle, rejoining his men. Alexis threw back the covers and rose to her feet, a little unsteadily. She looked at the array of clockwork servants standing before her and said to no one in particular, "Would someone prepare my bath?" With a whirr, one of the smaller devices sped to the bath room and started the water. She stared at the butler. "It seems no one programmed you to know that not all princes are gentlemen."

The butler replied, "Have we done wrong, my princess? If so, we did not know, and we humbly beg your forgiveness. Should you allow us to continue serving you, we will ensure that no such harm ever comes to you again." Alexis nodded, though her eyes now showed a weariness that was much older than the rest of her.

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