Once Upon a Time, the most beautiful princess in all the land was Princess Rose. And she was not only beautiful but absolutely good. Her main mission in life was to give food and clothing away to the poor, distributing it with her own hands to the dirtiest and most destitute of the citizens in the kingdom. Her father and mother, King Jack and Queen Miranda, were as proud as their citizens to have such a wonderful daughter. They believed she was wonderful on her own merit, but the people of the kingdom knew that she had been raised so by her parents, who were the holiest rulers the kingdom had been blessed with for time out of mind.
Yet it is impossible for anyone to grow in kindness and goodness without some people hating them, and the King and Queen, possessing authority and power as they did, garnered more enemies than the average individual.
Every day for many weeks, when the princess went out of the palace on her rounds to bring food baskets to the poor, she was maliciously watched by beady eyes from behind dark shadows and hidden alleys. Sometimes she would feel the hair on the back of her neck prickle and lift, and then she would whirl around to see what might be following her, but she always saw nothing.
Nothing, that is, until one day a gigantic, fat, bulbous bear waddled into the village and heedlessly stampeded through the palace gates to eat up all the extra food that was set aside for the poor. He had been sent on this mindless mission by a person who hated the royal family, and hated Rose most of all.
The palace guards tried to stop the bear, but they could do nothing against its layers and layers of protective fat. After being peppered with twenty or more arrows, the odious beast just waddled back the way he had come.
The princess wept, and the entire kingdom along with her. (Except, of course, those few who hated the royal family because they were good, and so whispered to each other that this is just what comes of setting yourself up as so much better than everyone else). The royal family was at their wits end about what would happen to the poor and helpless of the kingdom.
The princess went to the king and pleaded to him, “What shall I do, father? How can I help our people?”
“My daughter,” said her loving father, sitting her down beside him, “your mother and I have an idea. The kingdom of Coresh is wealthier now than ever before, and the prince of that land is about your age. We can invite Prince Joseph to come stay with us and throw a great party in his honor. If you fall in love with him, then you can marry and unite our kingdoms for the benefit of our people.”
She considered his proposal carefully. She knew that her mother had married her father for love and no other reason, so she determined to only marry this prince if her heart truly desired it. After all, this was only one idea that they could try for the good of the kingdom, and if it failed, they could pursue others. So she nodded and said that yes, she would meet this prince and see if she fell in love with him.
They invited the prince to stay with them for a month, and to impress him, began the visit with a great party. It was a royal affair, with dukes and bishops and counts and courtiers. Everyone of importance in the kingdom was invited.
Everyone gathered in the splendid ballroom, mingling and enjoying the lovely refreshments, when the trumpeter announced the entrance of Princess Rose. When the prince first beheld the beauty of King Jack’s daughter, standing at the bottom of the staircase and gazing up at her as upon a goddess, he was stricken to the heart. From that very moment, he wanted nothing more in the world but to marry her.
Rose, however, was not so fortunate. She was generally unimpressed when she saw him at the foot of the staircase, gaping at her with round eyes and open mouth like a puppy. She strictly told herself not to be deceived by appearances, and after all, if he wore a different expression, his face could have been rather pleasant. She danced with him all night and found that, although he was handsome, strong, and a good dancer, his brain held nothing deeper than the depths of his dull blue eyes. She tried to speak of the states of the kingdoms, and he managed to interpret her remarks as clever observations of the weather. She brought up the current theological debates circulating amongst the clergy, and he misinterpreted her statements as mere pious niceties. As a last resort, she attempted to discuss the training methods of knights and squires, and he grew most animated, taking it upon himself to boast of all his greatest and most impressive exploits on the training field of battle.
At the end of the evening, her father found her between dances and requested the next. She melted into his arms in gratitude, and enjoyed the peaceful cadence of the dance.
“So, what is the verdict?” he asked as they swayed to the violins.
“I’m spoiled by you. There’s just no man who can measure up.”
“You flatter me, my dear. Do you expect to find someone exactly like me? Can you not appreciate him on his own merit?”
She smiled in a way that told him the prince was really a lost cause.
“Very well. What shall we do about caring for our poor?”
She looked around the room. “We throw a great party….Let’s throw a charity ball.”
The king smiled at his resourceful daughter. “And the prince?’
“There’s no real harm to him. We can let him wear out his welcome.”
He grinned, and then frowned in thought. “Can we afford another party? We threw most of our resources into this one to impress the prince.”
She smiled impishly as he twirled her around, and he knew she had a trick up her sleeve. “We can’t. But Lady Geraldine most certainly can.”
Lady Geraldine was the King’s Aunt’s Brother-in-Law’s Cousin, who had married into the family from a low but wealthy station. She had little interest in aiding the poor, but she craved Royal approval far too much to turn down a chance to work with the beloved princess on a pet project.
The young princess, for the next few days of palace life, found herself greatly regretting her leniency toward the visiting prince. If he had looked like a puppy dog that first night, he acted like one now. From dawn to dusk the princess employed all her ingenuity to escape his unwelcome attentions, and it was a constant game of cat and mouse. What made it far worse was the apparent fact that Prince Joseph had no clue she sought to avoid him.
Her propensity to send him on long, pointless errands only gratified his idea that she had his heart romantically wrapped around her little finger. Her constant questions about ‘wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the stables?’ or ‘isn’t it time for your midday meal?’ filled him with joy over her loving concern for his welfare. Finally, her forthright confessions of a far-distant marriage with a still unfound partner only soothed any doubts about her feminine modesty.
Princess Rose eagerly awaited the night of Lady Geraldine’s Charity Ball for more than simply philanthropic concerns: the ball was to take place far from her home and Prince Joseph was not invited. She looked forward to a night free from his unremitting attentions.
It was with alarm then, when, at the breakfast table the morning of the ball, she overheard the Prince requesting permission from her father to escort her to the party.
She turned pleading eyes upon the King, and he stuttered that he would give the prince his answer later.
He went up to his daughter after the meal.
“Father, please, you must tell him straight out that I am uninterested him. Perhaps he will hear it from you. I went so far as to tell him that I do not see a future between us, but he seems to hear my words as encouragement! I don’t know what to do!”
He smiled at his beautiful daughter. “Be easy on him, my dear. There was a time I might have behaved so foolishly towards your mother.”
“But you will say something?”
“Yes. I will speak to him.”
King Jack found the prince strolling through the gardens, lost in weaving the imagery of the multi-colored blossoms into an eulogy of Rose’s incandescent radiance. The prince was not a bad sort, only rather pathetic, and so it amused and saddened the king to end his blissful dreams.
He sat the young man down on a stone bench and gently but firmly told him that his daughter was not interested in a marital union. The prince was shocked: he cried out that the princess had given him every encouragement. He grasped in vain at memories rich with the sweet scent of her presence, but could recall no hint of her disapproval. The king watched him flounder a moment, and then repeated, for surety’s sake, that his daughter truly had no designs upon the prince.
“What have I done? What can I do? King Jack, I adore your precious daughter: no, more than that, I love her! I would die, lay down my life, perish, grapple with the hounds of hell, for her sake. Can I not prove this? I must prove it!”
The king lay his hand on the prince’s shoulder. “My boy, you can prove nothing. Your death will serve no good but to determinately wipe you from her life forever. And at this point,” he stated bluntly, “she might find that a welcome change.”
Joseph’s shoulders drooped deeply, and he hung his head. Then he turned serious, pleading blue eyes upon the king. “Please, sir. Please advise me. All I want is for her to be happy. But if there is some way…something I can do…I must try, even if I fail!”
The King respected the prince’s resolve. “Very well. I cannot promise that anything you do will improve Rose’s opinion of you. I can, however, tell you some of what she finds lacking in your character. If you believe that after diligent work you can supply what is lacking in your person, then I here and now extend an invitation for you to return in a year’s time and prove it to her.”
The prince leaned forward eagerly to hear tell of all his faults. The king recited them in a pragmatic list, and the prince nodded curtly at each one,
“Lack of interest in politics; lack of knowledge regarding politics; lack of interest in anything academic; lack of true understanding about science, religion, literature, or medicine; general distaste for anything deep or thought-provoking; a tendency to over-romanticize life; reciting poetry with no true understanding of its deeper nuances; and finally, your nagging tendency to follow my daughter around ‘like a puppy-dog’, as she puts it.”
“I had no idea those things were important to her. Whoever heard of anyone liking politics or religion? They are an everyday part of life, but liking them?” This was a new concept to him.
“If you develop a thoughtful understanding of these things, and learn to improve your blind gaze of life and love, you may – and I say may – have a chance to win my daughter.”
The prince beamed gratitude and left for his home immediately to gain a deep insight into these mysterious realms of knowledge. Great was the astonishment of his old tutor when he barged in upon him and demanded lessons in Aristotle, Archimedes, Ptolemy, and Aquinas, and still deeper was his surprise at the prince’s diligent interest, which stretched into not only a week or a month, but month after month, for an entire year.
Rose’s philanthropic pursuits developed significantly over that time, and her unremitting efforts brought benefit not only to her own kingdom, but all the lands far and wide. The poor and needy had never known such loving care.
The same menace that had once unleashed a bear upon the palace kitchens, devastating the princess’ charitable work, still hated her and everything she did with a passion. It had not been idle through that year, only silent, waiting for a chance to strike.
Evil, like the earth, waits for its prime season. On April 3rd of the next year, which happened to be Good Friday, the waiting, lurking presence rose up to make its move.
Princess Rose sang blithely to herself as she dug inside her garden, which was going to be, unlike most Princesses’ gardens, not a bright medley of blossoms and sweet fragrances but a veritable rainbow of fruits, vegetables, and grains. She tilled the thawing earth and enjoyed the warmth of the midday sun on her bent back, when she heard the approach of shuffling feet. It was an old hag with a dirty cloak.
“Hello, my dear,” spake the hag, “and who might you be, such a sweet little thing?”
“I am Princess Rose. Do you need anything, mother?”
“Oh! Youth, naturally. Goodness. All those intangibles that pass away easier than water through your fingers.”
Rose smiled sadly. “I can only offer you food, lodging, and a warm smile. Will you accept it?”
The hag smiled back, but it was a terrifying grimace, and Rose stumbled back despite herself. “I said,” repeated the old woman, “that I want your youth!!”
And with that, she waved a hidden wand and dissolved herself and the princess into thin air.
The witch bragged to all her friends that she had captured a princess, and soon word came to Rose’s parents. All the kingdom was in alarm for its beloved princess, and King Jack and Queen Miranda feared greatly for their beloved daughter. The King prepared to go out and seek her just as he had years and years ago when she was an infant, and he gathered together all his aged knights. Since Sirs Serence and Terence had both passed away a few years before in a battle against the gnomes of Karesh, his remaining knights were Sirs George, Richard, Corncob, Roho, and Verde. They were all hale and still handsome, and eager to set forth to find their beloved maiden. Sir George stood brave before the king, trying desperately to conceal his notable limp; Sir Richard gazed forward steely-eyed, praying that no one remembered his black eyepatch; Sirs Roho and Verde gripped their swords tight through the shaking of their oncoming arthritis. Corncob was the only one who did not shake, wobble, or lack depth perception, upright as he sat in his wheelchair.
The King looked over his brave-hearted retinue and his heart sank. As eager as were these men’s faithful hearts, their mortal bodies did not have the strength. King Jack realized that he needed younger blood.
Prince Joseph was in the midst of composing a theoretical juridical treatise on the proper treatment of blacksmith injuries in the winter months, which, due to his devoted efforts to interview every blacksmith in the kingdom, he found far more fascinating than he ever anticipated, when he received word that King Jack was looking for young champions to rescue his daughter. Immediately, and still grasping the roll of printed parchment in his hands, the prince rushed determinately to King Jack.
“I will save her!” he cried on entering the palace, a blot of ink glistening on his nose.
Jack raised his eyebrows and said nothing, fearing that if he spoke to this frustrating youth, he would not be very gracious.
“Just tell me where she was taken, and I will save her life. I don’t care if she loves me or not: I care nothing for such things. I care only for her safety.”
The Queen sighed. “This is not the time for idle boasts, Prince Joseph. If you want to save our daughter, then save her, but don’t make useless speeches.”
“Right! Do you know where she is?”
The king grew red in the face and seemed about to burst, but the Queen, who possessed more natural patience, laid a hand on her husband’s arm and said deliberately, “As we said in the summons, the witch of Xaranx kidnapped her and wishes to steal her youth and corrupt her goodness. You must travel to Xaranx and kill the witch to free Rose.”
The prince’s fiery resolve paused a moment at that. His chest remained half-inflated for a long moment in between a breathe to declare his adieus and a distracted reverie.
“You have killed before, haven’t you?” asked Miranda hesitantly.
Joseph stuttered uncomfortably a moment.
“Maybe, at least, a squirrel or raccoon?”
There was still no coherent answer.
Then Miranda could no longer contain her husband’s rage, and really, she no longer wished to, and he roared out, “What did you think would happen, anyway? You’d gallop across the fields and swoop the princess into your saddle? You’re no better than you used to be! Still living deep inside your dreamy head: the world is not all rainbows and flowers and kisses, boy! It’s gore, and hatred, and enemies, and death!”
The prince was visibly shaken, but significantly affected. His year of study, reading, and learning had not been in vain. He may have lacked any real-world experience, but his readiness for it was greatly increased. He squared his shoulders and stood tall before King Jack and Queen Miranda, and for the first time since Jack had laid eyes upon him, the Prince was truly handsome.
“I may not know what I get myself into. I may not have the experience I need. As I learned from Beowulf, however, everyone has to start somewhere, and this is my opportunity to swim the length of the sea. Who knows? If I do not perish in this attempt, I may go on to slay monsters! Farewell, your majesties: if I return, it will be with your daughter.”
The King and Queen watched him leave, and then Miranda began to giggle, and then to laugh out loud.
“What?” asked her husband in annoyance.
“Everything!” she gasped, thinking about his comment that someday he might slay monsters, and yet that was exactly what he had set off to do. “But mostly,” she giggled, “he reminds me of you.”
“Me?” Jack was revolted.
“Standing there, an ant in the midst of a giant’s castle, so fiery and in love, declaring that you would rescue me no matter what the risk.” She looked at her savior with great love.
“Give him a chance,” she said. “Love can overcome many faults.”
Joseph arrived at the Witch’s cottage around nightfall, when the forest made strange noises and normal objects distorted into gruesome, misshapen wraiths. He pulled up his horse and dismounted, his scroll of juridical theory in his belt and his sword in his hand.
He knocked at the cottage door. There was the sound of scuffling and creaking from inside and then the old witch stood before him, wearing a lovely gown of pink satin that looked ghastly on her.
“What do you want?!” she screamed, annoyed that someone had interrupted her preparations for regaining her youth.
“Uh, I uh, um,” stuttered the prince.
“No soliciting!” she cried, and stepped back to slam the door in his face.
But at that moment, the prince had a brilliant idea. He smiled brightly, sheathed his sword, and smoothly drew out his blacksmith thesis, stepping possessively into the house.
“Ah, but my dear old mother, your reputation precedes you! You see, I am the proposer of a brilliant business scheme that will make us both filthy rich, and I have come to present this scheme to you. I hear that you are on the verge of gaining youth once again, and what is youth without riches? I have here an uncommon insight into the ways and workings of blacksmith forges. You see, when blacksmiths injure themselves, kingdoms have no means of offering compensation or care for them. They’re left out in the cold. Well, if we increase the amount of blacksmith injuries with your magic, and then I market my doctor services to heal those injuries (but really, you’ll heal them again with magic), we could make a fortune! With my marketing skills, and your charisma…we’d be unstoppable! Come on, mother — what do you say?”
“You don’t have to answer now. In fact, why don’t I just read you the notes I have here? I think you’ll find them very enlightening so you can make your decision. You just sit right down here in the easy chair, and I will read to you.”
Now, this was a very greedy witch, and the Prince’s proposal did not displease her. If she had no princess currently bundled into a trunk in her attic, she would have jumped at the idea. As it was, she was torn between listening to the scheme and throwing the strange marketer out of her home. Since, however, the prince’s actions gave her no room to argue politely, she sat down and let him read to her. This was a legal, hypothetical treatise, and as we all know, anything legal and hypothetical is extremely boring, and there is no quicker remedy for insomnia. Despite her best efforts, after an hour of “therefores”, “henceforths”, and “consequentlies”, the witch’s pointed chin rested deeply inside her shriveled bosom, and head-splitting snores screamed and growled out of her nose.
The prince took no time to congratulate himself or marvel at his good fortune, both of which he was very tempted to do; but as soon as he was certain that she was lost in slumber, he snatched his blade from his side and cut her throat so that her gray, wrinkled head bounced across the wooden floor.
Then Prince Joseph pounded up the stairs and into the attic, where he saw a trunk against the far wall. It was locked.
“Princess Rose!” he called out, “Are you in there?”
Rose managed not to sigh in disappointment: after all, she had heard all that had passed below, and the prince had risen considerably in her estimation. “I am here,” she yelled. “The key is around the witch’s neck on a chain!”
Joseph ran back to the hag and found the key, slippery with the witch’s blood. He put it carefully in the lock and freed the Princess.
After stretching her legs, back, and arms, Rose looked around for Joseph, but did not see him anywhere. She went outside, and he was there by the horse.
“I want to thank you for saving me.”
Joseph smiled sadly. He was glad that she was safe, but he did not expect her to like him anymore than she had before. After all, what was he but an ignorant man who happened to be born with a title? That did not grant him brains, brawn, or virtue.
“Thank you, your highness,” he bowed respectfully. “But I need no thanks. I want you to know that I will always consider you a friend, and I will always come if you need me.”
Rose was surprised by his answer. She found, to her consternation, that she was blushing. But she hid it well. She climbed on the horse in front of Joseph, and they started for home.
Along the way, to break the uncomfortable silence, Rose commented on Joseph’s legal treatise, of which she had only heard snatches in her imprisonment. Her one, innocent question was enough to launch the young scholar into an extensive monologue of the mistreatment of blacksmiths and the legal potentialities that could benefit them. The philanthropic princess, far from falling asleep in the enumeration of these details, grew excited and asked intelligent questions of her own, and proposed possible solutions. Both forgot their discomfort with the other, and were shocked when they reached the castle in what seemed like no time at all. Rose was actually a little disappointed when she tore herself away from Joseph to greet her happy, relieved parents.
Jack offered a sincere apology to Joseph and invited him to dinner. Before they all went inside to eat, Rose put a hand on the prince’s arm, holding him back for a moment.
“Joseph,” she said, addressing him directly for the first time. A deep blush overspread his face.
“Joseph, you said before that you would always be my friend, but I wonder…There was a time when you wanted more than that.”
“Yes,” he said breathlessly, consumed with fear and hope.
“Well, I do believe…I want more too.”
There never was a prouder and yet humbler prince than Joseph in all the world than on the day that he joined in marriage with the daughter of King Jack and Queen Miranda, the beautiful and pure Princess Rose.