An old soldier limped slowly down the dusty road, headed home from war.
That is the way it’s supposed to start, isn’t it? I know that, I really do, but I have a couple of problems with that first sentence. In fact, I don’t trust it at all. First off, he wasn’t exactly what you’d call old old. Maybe pushing thirty. Maybe. It might’ve been how he looked so faded that got people off on this “old” thing. Or maybe they were talking about the worn blanket he had wrapped around his shoulders like a cape. Maybe it was the way his rucksack had a hole in the bottom and the tin pans tied to the outside were dented and maybe scratched in a place or two.
Or maybe he’s just a bit old to be the hero of a fairy tale.
Anyway, he wasn’t that old. He was limping (can’t help that, now, can he, with that injury to his knee? Why else would they send him home?), but not slowly. Miles Brandit was always of the opinion that if you could do something quickly, you might as well. Slowness was something to be saved up and used carefully. Besides that, he’d picked a spot a bit further down the road to stop for lunch, and he was hungry. That’s worth hurrying for.
You should also note that the road wasn’t particularly dusty that day. Not that it was muddy either, mind you. The weather had been very pleasant lately and the dirt roads, perforce, were that perfect combination of moist-and-not-dusty that made travel much more pleasant. Dry roads make for gritty teeth, and then perhaps Miles wouldn’t have been so interested in lunch.
So what have we learned so far? That you can’t take into account what everyone says because, let’s face it, most of them get it wrong.
Let’s try again.
Miles Brandit, a not-so-old soldier, limped along quickly enough, his old tin pots rattling together and his blanket looking almost nobly cloak-like as it snapped in the light breeze. He wasn’t paying much mind to anything except making it to where he was going to stop for lunch, which is saying something about how hungry he was since Miles Brandit had a minor problem. He didn’t have a home to go to. (See? What did I tell you about that first sentence?)
Miles was the youngest of 7 children, and by the time his parents had sent him to university, they had thrown him out the door, his rucksack after him, cheerfully shouted “Good luck!” and run away to Aruba. This was fine with Miles. He went away to university and read lots of books and majored in philosophy and planned on being a very wise person for the rest of his life.
Then the war broke out, and Miles had to make a decision. He decided to do what all his friends were doing (a very inauspicious beginning for a career wise person) and marched himself straight from university graduation down to the army camps.
Now, several years later, Miles had lost his army job due to injury and, as I said, didn’t have a home to go to. Not that he told anyone that. Miles was also of the opinion that if he made his own problems, it was his job to solve them.
Perhaps it was because of that attitude that Avalbane appeared to him.
“Whoa!” yelled Miles suddenly. “Personal space!” Which would’ve been a very odd thing to shout at an empty road. Fortunately there was an old crone standing directly in front of his face, and that make the exclamation extremely reasonable.0
“Good day, sir,” the crone replied in a voice so dry it crackled like branches on fire. This person, I think, could be safely described as old. In fact, ancient might be even better. “Share your lunch with a hungry old lady?”
Now Miles, having been at war, was understandably jumpy. He found that his knee didn’t stand a whole lot of jumping, though, so despite his suspicions about people who appear out of nowhere, he replied, “Uh… sure. Why not.”
Why not indeed, Miles asked himself. (What’s that? How do I know what he was thinking? Because I’m the narrator. I know everything.) After all, it wasn’t like it mattered if he shared all his food with this woman and didn’t have any left for supper; either way, he’d be hungry by morning.
“Come on. Let me help you sit down.” He led the woman off the side of the road, much like being in boy scouts again, and settled her under a convenient shade tree before dropping his rucksack to the ground and removing a loaf of bread and an apple. The sack was empty after that. “Here,” he said, offering her half of the loaf of bread and the apple as he sat down in the grass. “I’m afraid it’s not much.”
“Truth’s not anything to be afraid of,” the old woman responded, taking the food from him. It disappeared into her wrinkled old mouth so quickly – the apple and the loaf in one go – that Miles blinked, wondering if she’d actually eaten the food or it’d just gotten lost in one of those creases. “That was very nice of you.” Miles didn’t object. She was right, after all. “And you look like a soldier down on his luck.”
Miles frowned. “Luck has nothing to do with it. I joined the army, didn’t have an exit plan, and here I am.”
The woman eyed him, her old eyes widening ever so slightly. He could just barely make them out, now, under the piles of wrinkles around them. They were blue. “It wasn’t very lucky when you got a knife in the knee.”
Miles shrugged. “It was a war. You stand in front of enemies, they try and kill you. What was luck was that he left me able to walk at all.”
The old woman looked away, closing her eyes so they disappeared. Miles, who was a much slower eater than she, munched on his half of the loaf, choking on his last bite when she quite suddenly slapped him on the shoulder. “I like you, young man.”
“Um… thanks,” Miles choked back.
“I was going to just give you a bag of plenty. You know, so you’d have food forever for having such a good heart. But I’m going to do you one better than that – I’m going to give you advice.”
Miles finally stopped sputtering, spitting out the half-chewed piece of bread and then regretting it because apparently that half loaf was going to be it for a while. “Well that’s…” he trailed off, mourning the passage of his mouthful of bread. After a moment, he took a deep breath and said politely, “I’m not in the habit of taking advice from people I don’t know.”
“Quite right. Not sanitary.” The woman held out a hand. Or a claw. Miles wasn’t quite certain, but he shook it anyway. “Avalbane the Crone. Nice to meet you, Miles Brandit.” Miles didn’t object to her knowing his name; crones do that kind of thing. “Now listen closely. A few leagues that way–” she waved off toward her left “—is the capitol city. In the city, there’s the king’s palace.”
“I know that. And this is information, not advice,” interrupted Miles mildly.
“Hold your patience, child. I’ll get to the advice when I like and not before.” Avalbane folded her arms huffily and Miles waited while she snorted a bit and got out her ill humor. “Now, in the palace live the king and his twelve daughters – each more beautiful than the last.” She paused and looked at Miles severely, but he only nodded politely so she continued, “Each night, these girls are locked into their bedroom and a guard posted. However, each morning the girls’ brand-new dancing shoes are worn away to tatters. The king would like to know why.”
“It’s good to have involved parents,” offered Miles, though what he was thinking was We’re fighting a war for the king and he’s worried about shoes? That’s silly.
“It is silly,” agreed Avalabane. That surprised Miles. He hadn’t known that crones always know what you’re thinking. They’re like narrators that way. “And if the old man’s so worried about it, he should just stop giving those girls shoes. But I haven’t offered him advice, so he just keeps buying them – new pairs every day. Anyway,” Avalbane waved a claw – hand – in the air and continued, “He’s offered any man who can solve the riddle half the kingdom and the hand of any one of his daughters in marriage.”
“Yes,” Miles nodded. “He’s also only given you three days to solve the riddle and kills you if you fail.”
Avalbane shrugged. “He’s a king. It’s how they do things.” Miles didn’t reply to that, not even in his thoughts. He didn’t have anything nice to say about it. “However, dying doesn’t seem to be on your agenda, so here’s my advice.” She held up one crooked finger-claw, and opened her eyes wide, locking gazes with Miles. “First, you should take on this challenge. Second, you should not get discouraged. Third,” she paused, flipping up two fingers to get caught up. “Third, under no circumstances should you eat or drink anything any of the princesses hands you.”
Miles nodded. “Thank you for the advice. I’ll think about it.”
“Think about it quickly,” Avalbane offered him one last piece of advice, just because. “If you don’t start walking that way soon you’ll starve before you reach the city.” Miles nodded. Avalbane tapped her mummified lips thoughtfully. “I feel like there’s something else… Oh, yes! Silly Avalbane. You’ll need this.” She picked up the tattered blanket, which Miles had left laying on the ground, and handed it to him. “Nobody will see you when you wear it. At least, not the parts it’s covering.”
Miles took the blanket slowly (these are the moments you should save up slow for – when you’re not certain if the person sitting next to you is completely cracked) and shoved it, wadded up, into his rucksack. “Thank… you…”
But of course, he was talking to no one by then. As crones tend to do, Avalbane had disappeared.
Miles stared at the spot where she’d been sitting, then down at the blanket, the rucksack, the dented tin pans, and that mouthful of chewed-up bread sitting on the ground. This was all that he had in the world, and some crone named Avalbane wanted him to go to the king’s palace and try to solve the mystery of the twelve princesses and hopefully not lose the one other thing he had – his life. It didn’t sound like a very wise idea.
Then again, Miles reasoned, sitting here and waiting to starve to death was certainly less wise than signing up for something that only might lead to death.
Then again again, finding a job at a nice bookstore would provide both food and reading material. Oh, except he’d have to work for at least two weeks before he got a paycheck, and he’d definitely starve before then.
That settled it then. Half the kingdom would be nice, and he could probably figure out something to do with a random princess. Everyone knows they’re not good for much but rescuing and looking at. He wasn’t really into rescuing as a hobby, but he could possibly stand her in the corner and tell her to look pretty. If she could be trained, she might be able to fetch him books when his knee hurt. He’d rather have a real girl, but you couldn’t be picky once starvation became an impending doom.
Miles got to his feet, stretched his knee out carefully, and started walking again, this time toward the capitol.
By the time he reached the capitol four days later, Miles knew, well and truly, what it meant to be hungry. Fortunately for him, there had been some very convenient, very free streams along the way or he probably would’ve known, well and truly, what it meant to be dead.
However, this wasn’t to be his fate (and a good thing, too, or what a short fairy tale we’d have), and he instead came dragging hungrily into the city, ready to be done with walking, and quickly learned something very useful: being dirty, stinky, and slightly wild-eyed is a great way to deal with crowds. In no time at all, he had made it through the lower portions of the city; packed close though the market-strewn streets were, everyone found some way to make room for the limping, half-starved, ratty, stinky soldier.
He made it almost to the outer gates of the palace before he staggered to a stop and considered for a moment. Showing up at the palace stinky and half-starved probably wasn’t the best way to impress his future father-in-law (you know, the king? Yeah, Miles tries to be optimistic). Miles kicked a few stray pebbles off the cobbled street, eyeing the guards at the front gates. This wasn’t the best way to introduce himself to them, either. If he were still a soldier, he wouldn’t have let himself within a hundred yards of the gate.
With a sigh, Miles turned away. “Now what, Avalbane,” he grumbled, almost loudly enough to drown out the growling in his stomach. “I get all the way here and…” He paused, pale green eyes widening as a young boy carrying a sack full of potatoes walked purposefully around a corner and toward the back of the palace. The servant’s entrance. Of course! He could probably beg a meal and, quite possibly, a bath off of them, maybe in exchange for a chore or two. If that failed, he was fairly certain he could make it back down to the lower levels of the town and try an inn.
Whistling cheerfully now, glad to have a plan, Miles walked around in the direction the boy had gone, assuming he would find the kitchens in that general direction. The wall he walked past was heavily fortified and with plenty of guards, several of whom eyed him suspiciously (which is what guards are paid to do, after all). Miles waved to them cheerfully and limped right along, slowing only when came within sight of a small wooden door, one that was opening repeatedly as a multitude of people went in carrying food and came out empty-handed.
It was the food that made him stop for a second, head spinning, as he tried to calm his jumpy, demanding stomach. He shifted closer to the door, leaning against the wall, vaguely considering that someone might well just offer him something if he looked pathetic enough, saving him the trouble of speaking up. This didn’t happen, of course. Plenty of people gave him sideways glances (probably due to the smell), but no one offered him food. Don’t be too hard on them, though. It wasn’t their food, after all.
Miles stood for long enough that the steady stream of serving people slowed to a trickle, then stopped. The shipment for the day must be completely arrived, then, and Miles was in no better shape than he’d been half an hour before. Being a wise person — with the degree to prove it — Miles decided that it was time to make his own luck. Taking a deep breath to steady his head, he walked as boldly as he could to the door, glad to hear a feminine voice on the other side speaking.
He didn’t take much note of what it was saying, but in case you’re curious, this is what he heard: “I just don’t know, that’s all I’m saying. Aradia talked him into it, I don’t know why, and it’s just a little–”
The voice cut off with a slight shriek because Miles had chosen that moment to push the door open. His hope had been to catch this girl, whoever she was, and ask for a crust of bread. Instead, he’d beaned her with the door. At least so he assumed, since the door stopped with a solid thud about half-way open, and there was a girl sitting on the cobblestone courtyard, her skirts splayed about her, rubbing her forehead.
“I’m so sorry,” Miles apologized immediately, as you should do when you’ve been stupid. He reached out a hand to help her up. “I didn’t realize you were so close to the door.”
The girl accepted his hand, replying calmly, “Quite all right. I shouldn’t be so close to it at this time of day,” as he pulled her to her feet.
“Are you all right?” Miles asked. At least, he should have asked it. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), he was too busy staring at the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen in his life to actually get the words out.
And she, in turn, was too busy eyeing him to remind him of his duty. She took in the clothes, the rucksack, the tin pots, the blanket, and the smell, and offered him a very gentle smile. Miles hadn’t thought she could get any prettier, but she managed it somehow with that smile. “You poor man.” His stomach growled and Miles realized he was blushing. An unfortunate habit of his. “You must be starving.” She looked over her shoulder and commented, “Run along, Princess. I’ll take care of this.”
It was only then that Miles realized that this girl had to have been talking to someone. Unless, of course, she was quite out of her head, but she didn’t seem the type. So he looked over her should too and found himself… staring at the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
Miles blinked a few times, looked at the first girl, then back at the princess. No doubt about it. It was like magic; the princess managed to top the girl he’d knocked over. Miles wondered if he’d actually died leaning against that wall, or gone completely hallucinatory. On second thoughts, watching the princess wave a scented kerchief under her beautiful nose, he decided probably not.
“Are you certain, Felicity?” the princess asked, already stepping away, her satin dress trailing behind her as she moved. “He seems…”
“He’s fine,” replied Felicity. “Just an old soldier.” The princess offered a shrug (the most beautiful shrug! Miles couldn’t stop staring) and walked away.
Felicity watched him watching her sister (Shh! Don’t tell Miles, you’ll ruin the surprise) and shook her head ruefully. That’s what happened when you were the last, after all, and she was used to it. She waited until Michelle had gone out of sight before she plucked at the soldier’s sleeve. He turned to her, his faded looks buried under several days’ worth of stubble, his face gaunt from hunger, and she sighed internally. The war needed to end. If only they hadn’t taken her mother… Well, no time for regrets, she told herself sternly. “Come along. We’ll find you something to eat, and a bath,” she said, turning to walk away. “A bed for the night.”
She went a few steps before Miles realized he was supposed to be following her, and he hobbled quickly to catch up – not too closely, since he did smell, and that was only polite. “Thank you,” he rumbled, then finally added the forgotten, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” the girl replied without looking back at him. “Thank you for asking.”
She was very polite. She was still very beautiful. Miles, however, found that this became less and less important to him as the smell of food got stronger and stronger. He did manage to preserve enough of his dignity to add, “I’d like to work for my food. And my bath. And I’d rather find my own bed, I think.”
The girl paused. They had reached the kitchen doors. She looked back at him and offered another quiet smile, “You’ve worked hard enough already.” She indicated his knee and Miles blinked. She hadn’t looked at him once while he was walking, he’d thought. “Please, accept a meal and a bath, at least.”
Without giving him a chance to answer, she pushed open the swinging door and called, “Food and a bath for the soldier, all right?” and gestured him inside. He stepped forward and was immediately caught up in a whirlwind of hands and kind faces, all urging him to sit and eat this or taste that; when he turned back to give a final thank you, the girl was gone.
Felicity, several hours later, was half-way through a formal dinner with all eleven of her sisters, six of them per side of the table, and her father at the head. And lest you be fooled by that word “formal,” I should point out that this was how they ate every night. Gold plates, silver forks, half a dozen different goblets, and everyone wearing their finest.
Felicity thought it was a bit ridiculous herself. She would’ve preferred they saved this kind of thing for Sundays or special occasions, like her mother had used to do. But now that the queen was gone, Aradia was in charge and Aradia… Aradia liked for things to glitter. Felicity, being the youngest, didn’t go about questioning her eldest sister’s wisdom anyway, so she just sat quietly at the far end of the table, listening to what everyone else said and occasionally thinking her own thoughts. On that particular night, she was telling herself to be grateful there had only been 13 places set, not 14. An extra plate would’ve meant someone was there for the challenge.
“Father,” Aradia’s voice floated gently down the length of the table, the pitch of it carrying over everything without even trying, “hasn’t any prince come to try their luck today?”
Felicity perked her ears up, glancing around at her sisters. A few ignored the question, uninterested, but the majority were suddenly giving their father rapt attention.
“…What, I’m sorry?” Their father looked up from the missive he’d been perusing. Probably something to do with the war or a possible location of the queen. That was about all he focused on these days. Felicity’s heart throbbed painfully for him; Mother’s being gone had aged him a decade or more in the last few years. He still held out hope that they held her somewhere, despite the vehement protests to the opposite. It was a good thing he had Aradia to help him. At least Felicity told herself that. But honestly, deep in her heart, she thought… well, never mind what she thought. I don’t know that those particular thoughts are any of your business.
“Ah, oh, princes. No, child, I’m sorry.” He looked around vaguely at the suddenly downcast expressions of the majority of his daughters. “I’m sorry, all of you, really.” His glance drew back to Aradia. “I really think that this penalty of yours is–”
“Oh, Father,” Aradia laughed lightly, cutting him off with a brilliant smile that dazzled him into momentary silence. “You know you’re the one who put that order out.”
“Yes.” The king had already turned back to his letter, his brow contracting heavily. “Of course.”
Aradia looked down the table and smiled. “Don’t look so downcast, my dears. After all–”
“You know,” the king interrupted suddenly, without looking up, “I don’t suppose I could talk you into just telling me what you get up to every night, rather than dragging all these unfortunate men–”
Aradia laughed again even as she signaled the servers forward to clear the plates. “I’ve told you a hundred times that we don’t get up to anything. I’m certain I don’t know how those shoes get worn out.”
She paused to glance meaningfully at the few of her sisters who giggled at that comment. Gigglers shouldn’t try to lie, nor should they sit at tables when they know someone else is lying. Then again, princesses are prone to empty-headed giggling, aren’t they? So perhaps the king never got suspicious.
Aradia continued with a kind smile directed at the top of her father’s head.
“But since you seem so worried about it, I’m glad you’ve come up with such a clever solution. And with the punishment attached for failure, well, at least we know no cowards will come.”
“No cowards, just idiots,” Felicity muttered under her breath. Michelle, sitting directly to Felicity’s right, stifled another silly giggle. Salene, the sister just older than Felicity and sitting across from her, gave her a wide-eyed stare. Felicity subsided under the look, flushing guiltily.
“Well,” Salene finally said loftily. “Would you like to suggest a solution? At least with this, there’s a chance someone could get married.” She gave Felicity a pitying look. “Not you, of course, dear.”
“Of course,” replied Felicity colorlessly, giving a quiet nod to the maid who’d just cleared her dessert plate.
“But maybe me,” said Michelle dreamily.
“Doubtful,” said Rochelle, the sister to Salene’s left unhappily. “I mean, Aradia… or Christine or Nicole, of course. But…”
She trailed off and they all glanced down the table at Aradia.
But, really, Aradia certainly doesn’t need any more attention than she normally gets, which is why I count it a very good thing that just as the princesses were staring at her again, a footman came in and muttered something in the king’s ear.
The king frowned and spoke back, putting the letter he had been holding aside and drawing all of his daughters’ attention. The footman nodded, and the king sighed. The table had fallen into complete silence, and each girl clearly heard him utter the words, “Well. Bring him in, then, whoever he is.”
The silence continued as the footman, and the rest of the servants who had been clearing, left the room. As soon as the door slid closed behind them, the table burst into a flurry of activity. Girls started checking each others’ hair and pinching their cheeks and giggling wildly.
All except Felicity, who knew there was no point. That’s what happens when you’re the last. Instead, she leaned forward, around the flouncing skirts of her sisters, to get a look at her father’s face. He looked even more tired than before, as he gazed at his happily chattering children, and worried. Felicity frowned, glanced at Aradia, who was serenely adjusting Celeste’s hair for her.
Felicity still didn’t why they kept is such a secret anyway.
But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) it was Aradia. Aradia was, as Felicity had learned many times over the years — as they had all learned many times over the years — always right. Felicity just had to trust her.
The footman reappeared, this time at the guest entrance. The princesses immediately quieted, settling back into their chairs with the rapidity of long practice, and turned expectant faces to the door.
The footman announced gravely, “Miles Brandit.”
Miles felt more than heard the momentary pause that followed the announcing of his name. It was — well, I was going to say “painfully clear” that he didn’t have a title, but Miles doesn’t seem very pained by it. Rather, let’s say it was obvious that the occupants of the room had expected some kind of appendage to his name and it took them a moment to realize that none was coming.
Anyhow, Miles stepped into the room and offered his best bow. It was a trifle awkward, frankly. But your best is all one can ask for. “Your highnesses,” he rumbled in his clearest voice, then straightened slowly and waited.
The king — it must be the king at the far end of that enormous table, Miles decided. He was the only male — spoke. Miles made a point of focusing only on him, in hopes of avoiding seeing that gorgeous princess from earlier and becoming completely distracted again. “Welcome, Mr. Brandit. You’re from…?”
“Here, Sire. Well, a hamlet not far from here. I was at university here. As in, in the capitol here. Most recently from the war, however.” Miles was rambling and he knew it. It was a talent of his, particularly when nervous. He was fairly certain this talent was why he had graduated — something about the testing panel passing him to avoid being talked to death.
“And your title?”
“I haven’t one, not having written a book, Sire.”
There was a stifled choking sound from the near end of the table. Despite his best efforts, Miles looked.
It was that girl from earlier. The one who’d insisted on feeding him. Shoot.
“Ah. Well.” The king brought Miles’s attention back to the front., and Miles looked back to him gratefully. Mostly because Miles didn’t want to look at the princess anymore, worried that she’d figure out that he’d mistaken her for a serving maid. That was an oops. “There wasn’t any rule against that, was there? Then. I understand you’re here for the challenge.”
The tension in the room suddenly changed, and Miles knew he was being evaluated. Interesting sensation. The king raised an eyebrow at him. “You believe you can solve the mystery?”
Miles nodded his head, adding honestly, “At least, Sire, I’d rather take my chances with shoes than with starving to death.”
The king studied him minutely, looking dangerous. “You realize you’ll die when you fail.”
“If I fail,” agreed Miles amiably. “Still, I will’ve lived three days longer than otherwise.” He cocked his head to the side as he considered, “And I don’t suppose I’m too concerned about old man death. We’ve met before.”
He wondered, now that he’d said it, if that sounded too cocky. Probably. We usually sound a lot different out loud than we do in our heads.
Miles just shrugged it off. No skin off his nose, anyway. Let them think he overestimated himself. He probably did.
All right, then,” agreed the king abruptly. He gestured the footman forward. “Take him along to his room.” He nodded briefly in Miles’s general direction, already losing interest in favor of his letters. “I’ll see you in the morning for a report.”
Miles turned to go, not minding a hair how short the interview had been and plenty tired enough for bed, when one of the princesses spoke up suddenly, her voice clear and soft and ringing to fill the entire room. “Father, might not it be better to introduce us first?”
The king simply waved a hand at her, “I’ll let you do that, child,” and buried his nose back into his letters.
The princess stood, and Miles found himself, for what turned out to be the final time that day, staring at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. You have to understand that Miles really wasn’t usually this concerned with what a girl looked like, especially a princess. He preferred real girls, after all. But when the person smiling at you is literally more beautiful than anything you’ve ever seen or imagined in art, story, or song, it’s going to distract you a little bit. Besides the fact that having that “most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen” thing happen to you several times in one day… I mean, really. Give the guy a break.
He gave himself a bit of a mental shake, told himself to pull it together. It was, after all, the third time today and he should be able to work through this a little more quickly this time. “Good evening, Mr. Brandit.” Miles nodded politely. “Welcome to our home.” She smiled at him, and Miles told himself not to smile back. It didn’t work. Miles was very disappointed in himself for not listening. “Allow me to introduce myself and my sisters.”
Silently, each of the other princesses stood and fanned out, forming a rather long line, six women on either side of the table. Miles wondered if they had to practice that a lot to do it so well. “Let me start with the youngest.” The princess has moved to the end of the line and was standing behind the girl Miles had knocked over earlier that day. Now that he was looking at her again, it was clear he’d left a mark on her face. Oops. “My sister, Princess Felicity,” was introduced without preamble. “Following her we have the Princesses Salene, Michelle, Rochelle, Jeanette, Gina, Annalisa, Marie, Celeste, Nicole, and Christine.” Miles was fairly certain he wasn’t going to remember all that. “And myself, the eldest.” She offered him another smile. This time, being occupied with trying to remember names, he did manage to keep a solemn expression on his face. “Aradia. You mustn’t mind that I’m the oldest; I’m not so terribly old, and I shall be keeping an eye on you during your stay.”
Miles performed another stiff bow. Aradia, at this point, expected him to give her a lovely compliment about being the oldest. After all, with all the princesses lined up this way, it was very clear that she was the most beautiful, gracious, and charming of the 12. It was like magic, how with each convening younger sister she had become more gorgeous, but that was how it worked — that’s how it always works when each princess is more beautiful than the last.
Miles, straightening and eyeing the rainbow of beautiful girls, thought to himself that it was funny that Avalbane had been correct; then again, she was a crone. He realized that Aradia was looking at him expectantly and finally offered her a mild shrug. “I don’t see any reason I should mind your being the oldest. It’s quite none of my business what order the king chose to have his daughters in.”
Aradia’s smile became immediately even sweeter. “Of course. How clever of you.” She moved back to her chair with a dismissive gesture and the other 11 followed her, in unison. “You may go.”
So Miles went, following the footman and taking with him the distinct impression that Aradia didn’t think much of him. Which perhaps did bother him a bit, but he reminded himself that he was essentially there to spy on her. Normal people don’t like being spied on, so perhaps princesses, being the oddly sensitive creatures they are (peas, anyone?) felt it more.
He was taken down several large hallways and through many grand entrances, and finally arrived in a teeny room that looked as though it might better serve as a coat closet than a bedroom. “This used to be the princess’s coat closet,” the footman informed him. “The king had an outside door added, and you sleep here.”
“I don’t know how much sleeping I’ll be doing, with all those princesses around,” Miles replied absently, putting his rucksack under the small bed. “I appreciate it, though. It’s nice.”
The footman nodded and left deciding, on the whole, that the limping, worn-looking man was quite a bit nicer than any of the princes he had shown to the room. In fact, the last two had refused to sleep in it all together, insisted on large guest quarters on the other side of the palace, and then been quite startled that they hadn’t been able to discover where the princesses were going at night.
What a shame the fellow would die.
Miles, meanwhile, tested out the bed, found it was quite a bit more comfortable than a piece of canvas tent stretched over rocks and dirt, and settled back to relax for a while. He was clean and well-fed. They’d even given him a new set of clothes. He’d managed to hang on to the ratty blanket, though only barely, and would’ve been willing to give it up, really, if it weren’t for the fact that Avalbane had told him it would make him invisible.
He didn’t know when the princesses would be back and so, did the sensible thing and drifted off to sleep.