A Fairy Tale from The Kingdom of Little Wounds
"The Princess Without Conscience"
When we are very young, we learn about life through fairy tales and other stories. Even as adults, we long for what's now called a fairytale ending--but in the old versions, these stories don't always end so happily.
In The Kingdom of Little Wounds, women such as the narrator Ava Bingen tell stories for entertainment and to get a leg up on political strategy. Here is the start of one of the stories from the book. (There are a few that didn't make it in; those may be coming later.)
The Princess Without Conscience
There was once a princess who married a duke much older than she. At the ceremony, the girl promised her new husband the same obedience she had shown her father, the King, but she’d heard the duke whispered about and had some fears as to what he might require of her. He had already buried two wives and had no children thus far; it was said his desires were somewhat peculiar and not likely to produce offspring.
On the evening after her wedding, as she sat primly expectant in the great hall of the ducal palace, the princess received a visit not from her husband but from his steward, a cheerful man of flaxen hair and a ready smile.
He began with a bow, then asked, “Do you have anything you would like me to tell the master?” When the princess simply blinked, he clarified: “Any secrets not yet disclosed?”
She blinked again. “I have no secrets.” In fact, she might as well have had no conscience at all, for she had never been known to commit a sin.
At that, the steward handed over a candle and a basket containing keys to all the rooms in the castle, with instructions to use them judiciously and only after full consideration. The princess spent the rest of the evening exploring. She found that many doors were already unlocked—the kitchens, the laundry, her own bedchamber and dressing room, where maids waited to help her change into her night shift. She decided to lock none of these essential rooms; she searched on.
High in the castle attics, she discovered a door, a plain door, that did not open readily.
Deciding that this must lead to the most important place in all the castle, the princess rummaged through her heavy basket, trying key after key. The bright ones of brass and steel were all too big, but there was one small key of dull black metal that might … might … did fit.
Before the princess released the latch, she remembered the steward’s warning about judicious use of her new rights of entry. She also remembered a tale often told by her nurses about a locked door, a bloodstained key, a roomful of wives hanging from meathooks and gutted like game.
She jiggled the black key, the works inside turned over, and the lock slid open like a bride.
* * *
When the duke’s new wife stepped into the chamber of the black key, she found there were indeed secrets inside. Ragged, ashy secrets: They clung like bats to the rafters, crept like lizards up the walls, seeped like beetles from cracks in the floorboards.
As the dark things came chittering greedily toward her, the princess tried to think of a secret of her own that might shield her—but no, she was a young girl much protected, with no wraith inside to do battle.
The duke’s secrets swarmed over his bride, gnawing her soft flesh and burrowing into her most intimate parts. From here on they would live and grow within her.
The princess felt all the pain of this, but she also felt a pleasure: She had come to her marriage a true innocent, and at last she, too, had something to hide.