The Twelve Dancing Princesses (A Christmas Tale), Day 5: Pieris’ White Gown with Yellow Ribbon and Sunflowers

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Ced felt trapped, for at this rate the princesses would come back long before he figured out the book’s secret, and they would take him before the king, and he would have nothing, no proof… He glared at the book and the goofy-looking girl and dog walking across its cover. Then he realized that perhaps it wasn’t the book that held the magic, but the words. He read the whole first page aloud, and the whole last page, but neither had any effect. It was too long of a book just to read out loud all night, and the princesses had probably just read a passage of it, so that wasn’t the solution. Finally he hit upon the idea of simply opening the book and seeing how the pages fell; it should open, he reasoned, to the page with the heaviest usage. (Please do forgive him for not realizing this earlier, since Ced was not a great reader.) The book opened to a spot about two-thirds of the way through, and Ced started reading aloud from the top of the left side…

“Suzanna shifted, and resolved to find a properly embellished pillow to put on the throne tomorrow. It seemed like years since the Nonians had hailed her as their Queen, and while it had been fun at first, she could see quite clearly now why the real Queen had taken advantage of their queer similarity and escaped. Fawning attendants dogged her steps and agreed with whatever she said, she was shepherded to the most boring dinners and when she wasn’t making small talk with dukes and duchesses, she was back on this cold, hard throne with the crown slipping her forehead, all alone unless someone had a petition or a party for her. Even her little dog had a crown provided for him, but at least he had a nice warm pillow to curl up on by her side. It was true that she had wished for something to happen to her, but this wasn’t what she had wanted, not at all. ‘If only,’ she mused out loud, ‘I had never run away from my godfather’s house, none of this would have ever happened. I wish I was back in his workshop painting those toy trains!'”

And then he felt the book slide from his fingers, and he tried to catch it but he was grasping at nothing, standing on nothing and the library shelves were swaying to and fro. Being able to proceed with the investigation was such a huge relief that he wasn’t at all scared. It seemed wisest to close his eyes, however, and wait for whatever process he had started to take its course.

When he opened his eyes, he was sitting in what seemed like a dark room dusted with snow. Right in front of him, light peeped through a door. Brushing the snow off of himself, he stooped through the door, almost crawling, and found himself on his hands and knees in a snow-covered forest path. The door behind him had been deftly worked into a tree; the other trees, as far as he could see, had similar doors in their trunks. A sign on the door behind him read, in tiny script, “Castle Sjalfer.” As he was looking at it, a door on the same tree above Ced’s head opened and a tiny fairy tumbled out, barely acknowledging Ced before flying off. The path went both ways, but it was easy enough to track twelve pairs of footprints in the snow, so Ced got to his feet and started running down the path, following the fairy and the princesses.

The Minister of Sorcery had suggested that he might see fantastic vistas wrought from gold and diamonds, but there wasn’t much of anything besides trees and footprints. He had a faint sense that he was being joined on the path by others, but in his haste to catch up with the princesses, he ran past them without a second look. The blue shoes the cobbler had given him meant that the snow under his feet made only the slightest crunching sound, and he moved, cat-like, dodging the occasional figure in his way. After a while, he saw the brightly colored gowns of the princesses a ways in front of him; greatly relieved that he hadn’t lost them after all, he stopped and bent down, catching his breath. When he was ready to keep walking, he could still see the princesses far in the distance, almost near where the forest thinned out and revealed a huge, snow-covered boxy building. As long as I can see them, thought Ced, I’m doing OK. Now that he had the luxury of curiosity, he looked around, wondering what else was around besides snow and trees.

Ced hadn’t seen other figures on the path, but he was so focused on his task that he paid no attention to them. So it came as a shock to him that they weren’t what he had thought them to be. He wasn’t precisely a cosmopolitan fellow, so he gawked openly at the fairies, elves, halflings and who knows what else who kept walking by him without a second glance. Plenty of humans were joining the group, but so many of them seemed alien, with all their different skin colors and costumes. He even saw a group of pink and blue-haired girls in shimmery gowns walking unsteadily (mermaids on their first outing on human legs, although he had no way of knowing that). He leaned against a tree, stunned by all that he was seeing, and a door hit him in his back. Ced jumped away and started to apologize, but when he saw a trio of dwarves step out, he was tongue-tied. Dwarves in and of themselves would have been interesting enough, but one of them was a female with a lovely beard tied with a pink bow at the end. Ced never would have been so stupid as to pick a fight or cause offense back at the castle, but this was just too much for him, and his eyes boggled. The dwarf at which he was boggling stepped forwards, both hands on her hips.
“And what might YOU be lookin’ at?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.
“He’s obviously too ignorant to be offended by! Leave him, or we’ll be late,” one of the other dwarves called to her, as he was walking away. The third dwarf looked at her friends, then back to Ced.
“If we weren’t… where we are now, I’d certainly learn ye good for your insolence,” the dwarf threatened, and shaking her fist at Ced.
“Er… I’m sorry. Are you here to dance?”
The dwarf stepped back, looking at Ced incredulously. “Like I have the time t’be tutoring fools,” she grumbled. With one last glare, she jogged back to her group.

This dress belongs to Pieris, who is twenty-one. Although you might not know it from this dress, she and her twin sister Holly are tomboys who have done the most to test the King’s limits, bullying the Minister of Defense until he allowed them to take fencing and fighting lessons, sneaking out of the castle, and challenging would-be suitors to duels instead of chess. Far from being malicious, they’re quite good-natured; they’re just full of energy and frustrated with their sisters’ acceptance of quiet castle life. Pieris’ favorite color is white, and she loves sunflowers.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses (A Christmas Tale), Day 4: Gabrielle’s Blue Gown with White Ribbon and Pink Columbines

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“Is there anything else?” asked Perdita. “I confess that I’m a little surprised by this visit.”
“That’s right, we never see you!” chimed in Arleyne. “Just the shoes in our closets, like magic. Like you were some sort of reverse thief!”
“Quiet Shoeman! That’s what we call you,” added Joy merrily. The younger princesses dissolved in giggles, but Ced felt that Perdita was looking at him with suspicion, and he fumbled with the bag that held the book and his shoes.
“I have another errand — my mother Gwen sent you this. As a Christmas present,” he explained, holding out the book and feeling that the explanation would be less flimsy if he had bothered to wrap it.
“Did she really?” asked Camellia, smiling. “How is she doing? It’s been years since we saw her.”
“She really must come see us someday!” added Gabrielle. “And she got a book of fairy tales for us,” she said, taking the book from Ced and flipping through it. “Look at the illustrations!”
“Oh! A new book! How lovely,” Daphne said, almost tearing it from Gabrielle in her haste to see it. “I swear I’ve read everything in our library, and I’m so bored of all of them…”
“Not ALL of them,” Natalie said meaningfully. Iliane giggled, but Holly elbowed her sharply, glaring at Natalie.
“She’ll be glad you liked it,” said Ced. “Anyways, I’ll just see myself out,” he continued, addressing himself mainly to Perdita and Camellia since the other ten princesses had retreated to their library, arguing over the book. Camellia smiled and vanished inside the library as well, but Perdita seemed intent on seeing him out herself. Luckily for Ced, one of the girls called out, “Perdita! This book has The Princess and the Troll, your faaaavorite…” and she sighed and joined them.

Ced opened and shut the door without leaving the hallway, hoping that everyone would believe he had already left. Taking the blue shoes from his bag, he slipped them on and made his way noiselessly to to one of the closets (filled with dark green, he noted, so it must be Iliane’s). He pushed his way past green overskirts, green underskirts, green petticoats and a green nightgown and crouched in the very back, pulling one of the voluminous skirts over him and poking his head through the waist. From his hiding place he couldn’t see the princesses, but he could hear to some degree. They were reading one of the stories in the book, Camellia narrating, Pieris taking the part of the prince, Juliette that of the princess and Mariel making a strikingly evil goblin.

By and by, the goblin was vanquished, the lovers were reunited and it was past the princesses’ normal bedtime.
“Let’s get out of here!” said one. (Sounds like Holly, thought Ced.) “Come on, Perdita, let’s…”
“Quiet!” hissed Perdita. “What of the cobbler’s assistant? Mariel, Joy, Arleyne, split up and check for him.”
Now, if Perdita had assigned inquisitive Holly and methodical Pieris to the task, or perhaps gone to look herself, the story may have ended right here, because of the twelve they had the sharpest eyes and the quickest minds, and while Ced’s hiding spot was good it wasn’t flawless. But Mariel, Joy and Arleyne were the youngest of the princesses, and had been jumpy all night, waiting for night to fall so they could get back to this new game Perdita had discovered a week ago. Therefore, they made only perfunctory checks under beds and in closets, and Ced passed unnoticed.
“He’s long gone, Perdita,” announced Mariel confidently.
“Just us,” chimed in Arleyne.
“Good,” Perdita replied. “You three go first, then.”
Ced was, of course, unable to see what “going first” actually entailed, but he could hear what sounded like some sort of hushed chant. Real magic! he thought, his stomach turning over. (His master had always held, grudgingly, that magic existed, but he had held even more strongly that the Minister of Sorcerery was a right old quack, so Ced had never had much regard for the mystical arts.) Perdita directed them, having three chant at a time, and after a while said, “Camellia, Daphne, shall we?” One last chant, and there was silence. Ged stayed perfectly still, just in case; his instincts served him well because he finally heard Perdita muttering “I guess he really IS gone after all.” Then she, too, performed the chant; this time Ced didn’t just hear the chant, but also a loud thud. The strange sound seemed like a signal to Ced that he was finally alone.

He burrowed out from under the piles of laces and skirts in Iliane’s closet and made his way to the library. There was the fairy tale book on one of the chairs and, lying haphazardly on the floor, was another book. No doubt this is the book of magic they are using, thought Ced, picking it up as gingerly as if it was a live crab. He was surprised, then, to find it was only a fantasy story. He flipped through it, held it by one cover and shook it hoping for a secret note to come out, searched the spine for secret magical objects, flipped through it again backwards. Feeling silly, he raised it over his head and proclaimed, “Book, take me to where the princesses are!” He read the title aloud, then read it backwards. He read the first word from every sentence on the first page, then skimmed the margins for hand-written notes. Frustrated, he let it fall to the floor with a loud whump! Sitting on the floor alongside it, his mind wandered to the Minister of Sorcery’s threats of what the King might do to him if he couldn’t figure out the secret. Holding the book tightly to his chest, he mumbled “Please, book, I don’t want to die.”

This dress belongs to twenty-two year old Gabrielle. Although she doesn’t have much artistic sense herself and is hopelessly unorganized (the less charitable might call her “messy”), she is adept at making things and is a sort of jack-of-all-trades. One of the more extroverted princesses, she seems to have a project going on with all of them: she takes Iliane’s dress designs and sews them into doll clothes, she binds beautiful journals for Daphne, she created wooden swords and shields for the twins (before they moved on to the real thing), she helps Mariel wire things together for her experiments. Her favorite color is royal blue, and her favorite flowers are columbines.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses (A Christmas Tale), Day 3: Daphne’s Purple Gown with Light Purple and Silver Accents and Moonflowers

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Now, said cobbler’s assistant was actually a wise choice on the part of the Minister of Sorcery. The cobbler himself had encouraged his apprentice to look into a (higher-paid) position with the Sjalfer military, for there was something about his cat-like way of delivering shoes to people and staying under the radar that suggested a potential spy or an assassin. But the assistant himself, whose name was Ced (short for Cedric, but no one called him that), much preferred making things and was rather shy besides. The wordy explanation from the minister left him rather dizzy, but he was already formulating plans before he left the room.

First he visited his master to pick up the slippers that had just been made for the princesses. The cobbler presented a box of them and also a pair of royal blue shoes. “The slippers are for the princesses and those shoes are for you. Special soles, you see,” he said proudly as he turned them over and poked at them. “Wonderful things, muffle your footsteps. Like walking on little clouds, almost. I’ve been working on a pair for the Minister of Defense, but he can wait while you track those silly girls.”

After thanking the cobbler, Ced’s next destination was his mother’s room. The Minister of Sorcery had hinted that returning to the King with no answer might be fatal, and although Ced suspected that this was only one of the Minster’s dramatic flourishes, he had better make his preparations anyways. She was a seamstress, and was stitching away at some golden material as he came in, her hands flying even as he explained the situation.
“My, I can hardly blame them if they have found a way out, even if demons are behind it,” she said disapprovingly. “His Majesty keeps them on a tight leash, yes indeed. You know, I taught Gabrielle how to sew, yes I did, but that was when the Queen was alive, and after her passing those girls got locked up, it seems like. It seemed like a major breakthrough when he first let them out to decorate for Christmas a couple years back! I miss them. You know, I got something for them last year, and I never did get around to applying for an audience… Can you bring them this book from me?” She produced a handsome old book from her closet and handed it to her son. “They do love their fairy tales, those girls. I bought this off a peddler with them in mind. Don’t mention that it’s a year late, of course.”

At twilight, armed with the box, the shoes and the book, Ced hurried to the princesses’ chambers. He had been there before, but only to drop off their finished slippers; being naturally shy and wary, he liked to finish the task as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. So he had hardly ever seen them, much less talked to them, and although he knew their names he wasn’t sure he could tell them apart without looking at their shoes. His mom had taught him the basics of etiquette when dealing with royalty, but all Ced could remember of it was that you kneeled and used titles instead of names. He had developed his stealthy style partially to avoid having to remember such troublesome things.

After announcing his name and mission to the guards at the door, he stepped into the hallway. Usually he would deliver the shoes into individual closets without announcing his presence, but this time he called out “Delivery for the princesses,” and in a moment he was mobbed by twelve young women.

“What have you brought for us?” asked one eagerly.
“The cobbler has finished your slippers, and I’m here to deliver them,” he answered, opening the box and selecting a petal pink pair to pass out first.
“Those must be mine,” one cried, reaching for the shoes. “Pink’s my favorite.” I almost forgot, thought Ged with a great wave of relief, the princesses are color-coded. Juliette likes pink, so that one’s her. He next pulled out a red pair for Perdita and a gold pair for Camellia, and by and by all of the princesses were poking out their feet from under their bell-shaped skirts and admiring each others’ slippers.

This dress belongs to twenty-three year old Daphne. She isn’t as smart as Perdita or as wise as Camellia, and she’s even more passive and shy than either of them, so she often feels a little overshadowed and put-upon. She has a romantic soul and a refined aesthetic sense, and she loves to be by herself, writing poetry and drawing. She’s kind, but not overly friendly with any of the princesses except for Juliette, as the two of them have collaborated in writing songs and lyrics for several years. Her favorite color is violet, and her favorite flowers are moonflowers.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses (A Christmas Tale), Day 2: Camellia’s Gold Gown with Calla Lilies and Green Ribbons

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“Those are mine, Father,” the youngest daughter Joy said quickly. “I sent them to the cobbler yesterday because they were so worn. Is something wrong?”

The king’s face softened, and he started to smile. It was quite impossible to be angry at Joy, who had arrived an orphaned baby at the castle in such a miserable little basket during the worst ice storm anyone could remember. “I am just curious as to why your new slippers are so worn. Surely you are not leaving the castle?” Joy turned quickly to Perdita, the eldest, who had come over to them.

“No indeed, how could we leave? There is nothing for miles, and the attendants know that we aren’t allowed the horses and carriages without your permission. Besides, the weather is so very treacherous this month that I for one wouldn’t want to leave, don’t you think Camellia?”

Camellia was one year younger than Perdita and was well known for her wisdom. “Of course! Dear father, the shoes are only worn because we have been so busy preparing for Christmas. We’ve run all over the castle all this week. Juliette even decorated the South Tower yesterday, and you know how many stairs that one has.” When quizzed, each princess could provide a plausible reason for her shoes being worn out — decorating, games of hide-and-seek, aimless walking. However, although they spoke earnestly and without any nervousness, the King felt that all was not right. The explanations were so weak, for one thing, and they moved languidly, as if they were tired. A couple of them seemed to have dark circles under their eyes, Natalie was rubbing her feet when she thought no one was watching, and Daphne was still sleeping. He left the room perplexed, not willing to admit that his honest and good daughters had lied to him, but feeling like something was going on beyond his knowledge.

First he summoned the Minister of Defense and found that the castle guards had neither seen nor heard anyone leaving the Princesses’ quarters or the castle. Next came the Minister of Architecture, who after being briefed by the Chancellor dispatched his subordinates to go over every inch of the Princesses’ quarters and check for secret passages or hidden doors. None were found, and the King resorted to calling the Minister of Sorcery, a mysterious man who the King didn’t really like to bother.

“I quite understand the situation,” the Minister of Sorcery said imperiously after the King had explained all. “Unexplained movement, no possible means of escape, the girls’ excuses have the ring of truth and yet their behavior seems odd… Of course, it can only be an enchantment. Did they seem enchanted to you?”
“Not at all,” said the king uncertainly.
“Well, never mind that, that’s part of the enchantment. Yes, there was a similar case I read about, very curious indeed, where the victims accessed a sort of portal and, led on by demons through halls of crystal and gold, they danced all night with enchanted princes.”
The King’s face had been turning paler with each detail. “Demons? Dancing? Not my poor girls!”
“Your only hope,” continued the Minster, “is to ascertain the details of the enchantment and confront them with the truth. But it must be done secretly, such that the princesses are unaware that something is amiss.”
“You mean to spy on them?”
“Well, yes, you could say as such. I believe I know just the person we need, as well. I have long remarked that the cobbler’s assistant would be better suited to stealthier work, and indeed have even thought of making him my…”
“The cobbler’s assistant?” interrupted the king. “Should it not be a prince of some persuasion?”
The king’s chancellor coughed. “Most of those of noble birth who have visited the castle as of late left almost in tears after being bested in chess. I doubt they would wish to revisit the scene to do us a favor.”
“Princes be hanged, then,” the King replied irritably. “Find this assistant and set him on the case.”

This dress belongs to Camellia, who is twenty-four. Where Perdita is clever she is wise, and when there are differences among the princesses she’s often called on to resolve them; her father also goes frequently to her for advice, for she’s quite as learned as any of his advisors and has even written books about their country’s laws and history. She is a little more assertive and direct than Perdita, but she respects the king and thinks him fair, if a little overprotective, although she would secretly love to travel. (It’s my opinion that if the stronger, more independent Holly and Pieris had been born first, none of this would have happened.) She loves champagne colors and calla lilies.