Author: Selena Taiki
"Nor are you the only girl to whom this has happened with this particular tale. All over the Five Hundred Kingdoms, down through time, there have been countless girls like you for whom the circumstances were not right. Their destined princes were graybeards, infants, married, or terrible rakes, or not even princes at all, but princesses!"
The birds were singing sweetly in greeting to the rosy light that was just beginning to edge over the horizon. One particularly brave chap, a tiny yellow fellow with dashing black bands, alighted on the window still and fluffed out his feathers. Tara Maclay, or Soot as she was disparagingly known as to those few who remembered any name for her (generally when they needed her for something), smiled and playfully flicked her soapy fingers at him. She was hunched over the sink scrubbing as many of the pots and pans as she could before the dishes actually containing breakfast where done and ready to be cleaned again. "Shoo you," she told him. She wiped her hand across her forehead and absentmindedly tucked a lock of long blondish hair behind her ear. "You should be out enjoying the spring and impressing a mate with your warbles, not sitting in this dusty old kitchen." With that, Tara turned to check on the bread and found herself critically regarding the room in question. Truly, it was her favorite part of the cottage, unless you counted the garden (which far too cold for much of the year), and the only place in which she could sometimes find refuge. Fragrant bundles of herbs dangled from the kitchen rafters and a fire continuously burned in the hearth that Tara loved to sit and watch, dreaming that she was somewhere far away. When she turned back to the sink, she discovered that the bird had heeded her advice after all. "I wish I were you," she whispered after him. I wish I were free to fly away from here.
"SOOT!" a voice thundered through the walls causing the drying herb bundles to tremble. At the sound Tara unconsciously ducked her head, her hair falling forward to obscure her face, and tucked her arms close to her sides. "BREAKFAST READY YET?"
Hurriedly Tara grabbed the already prepared tray and slipped out of the kitchen. She missed its safe, dull wooden walls instantly. The rest of the house conformed to the highest fashion with ornate fixings and gaudy colors, under which the truth of their financial status was appallingly noticeable. Trembling slightly she entered the dinning room and set the tray on the table between her father and her brother. Gingerly she served them, her movements quick and flightily. Donny could generally be counted on not to trip her if it meant she would drop his own breakfast. However, Tara wasn't about to trust his self-interest to overcome his mean streak if she didn't get the much more pleasant and distracting food in front of him quickly. As much as she wanted to flee after she set the last item in front of Donny, Dad had ideas about what was proper and his ideas of proper included them all having breakfast and dinner together as a family. Tara sank into her seat at the square table careful not to even squeak the legs of the chair against the floor.
They ate in silence. She couldn't leave until Dad has risen and excused them. He ate his food leisurely while Donny shoveled the food into his mouth in a manner that was barely civil. Tara grew paler and paler as she watched Donny's plate empty while Dad smeared butter across the flaking surface of his toast. She was conscience of every half-heal raw green and purple mark on her body, under the hideous bulky dress she wore. Before she began to hyperventilate Tara began the breathing meditation pattern she had learned from her mother. Even though her hands where shaking Tara forced herself to continue sipping her tea.
"Soot," Dad said suddenly, startling even Donny.
"Y-y-yes S-s-s-sir?" Tara asked, curling up unconsciously, drawing back against the solid wood of the chair.
"You're to mind the house tonight. Be a good girl. You remember the rules."
Unable to speak, Tara nodded; she remembered.
"Good," he said. He sounded pleased. It was the same sickening tone of voice he used after one of her ‘lessons.' Tara had learned to both hate it and greet it with relief. "We'll be out late; the Ball doesn't end until well after midnight."
"B-b-ball?" Tara asked in spite of herself. That was her problem! She couldn't always stop things from leaving her mouth. Tara closed her eyes and cringed as the backhand caught her solidly against her cheek and knocked her back into the strong frame of her chair.
"Charming Princess Golden-Rose Enberg's Wedding Day Ball," Dad informed her, wiping his hand on his napkin.
"O-o-one of the, um, Qu-questers got t-t-t-t-t-through?" Tara asked. She realized her mistake as soon as the words left her mouth.
"Donny it seems your sister has forgotten her place. Please remind her that curiosity is not a virtue and that women should hold their wagging tongues when in a Man's presents."
When they where finished with her Tara dragged herself out the tree that grew above her mother's grave in the town's cemetery. She lay in the leaves at the tree's roots unmindful of the dirt. Sometimes she imagined that her mother would sit with her, put an arm around her, and stroke her hair like she used to before she died.
The entire village had been talking about the Ball, Princess Rose and her Prince, Daniel Ozborneth, as Tara made her way to the grave. So was every other village in the kingdom most likely, for Princess Rose was universally adored by her people. Even as a child she was the most beautiful little girl anyone had ever seen; everyone who met her could only describe her as charming. Eventually people had begun to refer to her as Princess Charming. That nickname had been replaced after her Father's unfortunate encounter with a Midas Fish in the royal well. Princess Rose had, of course, been turned to gold by her Father's touch. Henceforth people had referred to the charming Princess as Golden-Rose when they spoke about her fate in hushed tones. Everyone was relived that a Quester had finally succeeded in turning her back to flesh. Even now Prince Daniel was escorting her back to the castle.
Her eyes began to burn and Tara realized she was crying. She didn't know why. She had met the Princess once, when they were children. The market had been crowed for the parade and Donny had shoved her out of his way, making her fall on the cobbles. Tara remembered a soft voice asking if she was alright and a gentle hand gripping her shoulder. She had looked up into the deepest green eyes framed by hair as glittery and crackling as the kitchen fire. Angrily Tara wiped the tears away, ignoring the sting of the salt in the abrasions on the back of her hand. If anyone deserved a happily ever after it was Princess Rose. She deserved to be with the person she loved. Nevertheless, Tara was glad Dad and Donny were leaving her at home; she had no desire to go to that Ball.