By Steph Shangraw
LGBT Perspectives fiction writer
Author’s note: this is yet another retelling of a fairy tale that already has been handed down to us in numerous versions, including “Tattercoat,” “Donkeyskin,” “Thousandfurs,” and “The Bear,” but this one, while closer to the original than you might believe, has a single twist to it. For those with possible triggers: the implication and intention of incest is in the original fairy tale (many of those are darker than you might think, if you read the versions that haven’t been bowdlerized). Nothing actually takes place in this version or, generally, the older ones. (Castle illustration by Pearson Scott Foresman/Wikimedia commons)
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom whose people were happy and prosperous. Their king ruled them well, if perhaps more firmly than necessary, but his sternness was moderated by the gentle wisdom of his beautiful queen. They had been blessed with a single child, a son the queen had named Robin. As the young prince grew, it was often remarked that he had inherited from his mother not only her raven-dark hair and mist-gray eyes, but her grace and her soft-spoken manner as well.
One bitter winter, the queen fell ill. Though everyone in the palace loved her and did all they could for her, she weakened with every day that passed.
“Promise me,” she said to her husband, “that you will not choose a new queen in haste. Promise me that you will wait until you find one who is as fair as I and who can help you as well as I have.” And, once the king had given his word, the queen closed her eyes.
“Take care of Robin,” she whispered, and drifted into dreams from which she never woke.
The kingdom mourned for their beloved queen, but time heals grief; summer came, and winter again.
As more summers and winters passed, the king searched for a new queen, but nowhere could he find a woman he could marry without breaking his promise. Robin was left alone more and more; he learned his lessons dutifully, and withdrew into solitude the rest of the time.
* * *
Robin considered his reflection in the mirror, and smiled in pleasure. The royal blue velvet of the dress that had once been his mother’s suited him well, he decided. He smoothed the soft heavy folds of the skirt with one hand, then scooped up a pair of silver combs to hold his dark hair back.
Robin whirled to face the door in sudden fright; he was given no time to do more before it opened, admitting his father to the outer room of Robin’s suite. Robin bit his scarlet-tinted lip, lowered dark-lined eyes, clasping his hands tightly in front of him.
The king’s utter silence lasted so long that Robin dared to raise his eyes. “Father?”
“Rosalyn,” the king murmured.
“No, Father, Robin.” The intensity of the king’s gaze made Robin distinctly uncomfortable.
“My god, you’re her very image. I’ve travelled all over this kingdom and countless others, to find your mother’s equal in beauty and gentleness. And the only one has been right in front of me all along. You will take her place as queen.”
“I what? Father, please…”
The king’s expression softened. “Of course, you’ll need a day or two to grow accustomed to the idea. I can wait a little longer. You look pale, why don’t you sit down and let me take care of everything?” There was something new in his voice, that Robin couldn’t quite identify but flinched from regardless.
Robin sank down in his favourite chair, head spinning, watching as the servants obeyed his father’s commands. They took away his clothes, his sword, everything save the few things he had taken from the chests holding his mother’s clothes; they replaced it with the remainder of the contents of those chests.
The king returned in person, carrying a somewhat smaller but much more ornate chest. He set it on the table, handed Robin a small key.
“These are rightfully yours,” he said gravely.
“Thank you,” Robin said faintly. “Father, I…”
“The servants will finish soon, then you can have peace and quiet to think. We’ll have the seamstress in, in a day or two, to make you some new clothes, but there’s no hurry.” He patted Robin’s hand, and left.
Before much longer, the servants completed their tasks and departed, all save a single young maid, who curtsied to him.
“His Majesty says every princess needs at least one maid, Your Highness, and hopes you will find me acceptable.”
“Princess,” Robin echoed softly. “He’s gone mad. I’m no princess, and you know it.”
“It’s no place of mine to contradict His Majesty, Your Highness.”
“No, of course not.” Robin sighed wearily. “Thank you, yes you’re acceptable, and the only thing I want right now is to be alone.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” The maid curtsied again, and closed the door quietly on the way out.
Robin simply sat and thought for a long time. The maid brought a tray of food at suppertime; he nibbled at it without really tasting it, his attention entirely on this new and unexpected situation.
Finally, he smiled to himself, certain that he had a way to avoid this insane marriage his father had conceived.
* * *
The maid was there, in the morning.
She helped Robin to dress, styled his hair for him; he accepted her assistance with the cosmetics, and her suggestions as to which jewelry to choose from the ornate locked chest.
When the king sent word that he would be pleased to have the princess join him for lunch, Robin was ready. His delight in the fact that he looked better than he’d yet achieved in his own attempts was rather tempered by his nervousness about going outside his own rooms.
No one appeared to pay the slightest heed, including the servant who admitted him to his father’s suite.
The king greeted him warmly, drew him into the room and over to the table; Robin started slightly as his father held his chair for him, but was too well-trained in courtesy to show it, only accepted the gesture gracefully.
“My lord,” Robin said finally, once the servants had withdrawn. “I’ve been considering the offer you made yesterday.”
The king nodded. “Of course.”
Robin smiled, lowered his gaze coyly. “A princess has the right to set a challenge for any suitor seeking her hand, does she not?”
“I cannot give you a reply until I have a dress that glows like the sun itself.”
“Then you shall have one.”
Robin listened quietly while his father made plans for the wedding and coronation and a great tour of the kingdom so all the people could see their new queen, and smiled inwardly. Surely such a dress could never be found, and Robin would have a way out.
* * *
Robin found his lessons in reading and writing, swordsmanship and strategy, horsemanship and history, cancelled. In their place came lessons in the skills of a princess: embroidery, the overseeing of the palace servants, the planning of meals. Dancing lessons continued, but he must learn to follow, not to lead; riding lessons continued as well, but the sidesaddle took some time to grow accustomed to.
Rather to his surprise, Robin enjoyed it thoroughly. The weight of long layered skirts, the constriction of the boned bodice, being “the princess” rather than “the prince,” all became familiar, simply a part of life. These new skills came more readily than the old ever had, and he found running the household more satisfying than endlessly practising his indifferent military abilities.
One month to the day from Robin’s challenge, the king presented him with a dress that was surely the masterwork of both weavers and seamstresses. The brilliant gold caught the faintest light and cast it back, warm and rich as sunlight.
Robin gazed at it, torn between fear and awe. Practicality won over either.
“It is beautiful beyond words, my lord, and truly it does glow like the sun. But what is the sun without the moon? I can give you no reply until I have a mate to this, a dress that shines like the moon.”
“Then you shall have one!”
Another month passed. Robin settled comfortably into his new place as princess, content save for the lingering possibility of being forced into marriage with his own father. Surely, though, he could never come up with two such fabulous dresses.
One month to the day later, the king bestowed upon him a dress of dazzling silver-blue, shimmering like moonlight on rippling water. It was every bit the equal of the first.
“It is a true marvel, my lord, like moonbeams woven into silk. But… the sun, the moon, one cannot forget the stars. I can give you no reply until I have a dress that sparkles like the stars.”
“Then you shall have one!”
The king had guests soon after; they praised the delicacy of the meals, the excellent state of their rooms, the attentiveness of the servants. Robin smiled quietly, playing proper hostess at his father’s side, and after the meal retired to the kitchen to discuss the next day with the head cook.
A month passed, and the king gifted Robin with a dress that outdid the other two. The sky-black silk, woven with threads of silver, had been sewn with countless tiny diamonds, so that the whole glittered like the night sky trapped on earth.
Robin gazed at it in despair. Was there no way to escape the horror his father intended?
Yes, there was one.
“Yes, Father, I will marry you,” he said softly.
That night, when all the palace slept, Robin rose.
Into a magical bag that his grandmother had passed to his mother, one that appeared small but could hold a great deal, he packed the three dresses and such underclothes as went with them, and his favourite pieces of his mother’s jewellery, and a few other things.
From the palace laundry he stole the clothes of a male servant and a tattered cloak that was surely destined to become rags soon. With the magical bag concealed under the cloak, he slipped out of the palace that had always been his home.
He wandered aimlessly, grateful for the autumn weather that made sleeping outside merely uncomfortable rather than miserable or dangerous. The ground was less uncomfortable than his father’s bed would have been.
At last, he came to a palace in a kingdom some way from his own. His clothes were ripped and stained, his cloak worse than ever, his face and hair streaked with dirt, but he gained a place in the kitchen and the mocking name of Tattercoat.
Always, he was given the chores no one else wanted; always, he did as he was bidden, without complaint. His quiet obedience won him a grudging sort of approval from the head cook, who declared it a miraculous and welcome change from the endless moaning of his other staff.
The king and queen who ruled this palace had a son. For some time, they had sought a bride for him, but as yet they had been unable to find one he was willing to marry.
Finally, they decided to hold a ball, and invite all the well-born maidens in their kingdom and the neighbouring kingdoms.
Robin longed to go. He took a chance, pleaded with the head cook to let him have a little time to himself so he could watch the ball.
The cook good-naturedly allowed him to go, with an admonition to keep his tattered self out of sight of the guests.
Robin darted off to get his bag from its hiding place and find a private corner to wash himself swiftly and clothe himself in the dress that glowed like the sun.
Heart pounding, he walked decorously into the ballroom.
In all the colour and glitter, he felt much less conspicuous. He mingled easily, found himself chatting with a lovely voluptuous chestnut-haired maiden from a nearby kingdom.
The prince himself wandered by, and paused. Robin looked down, properly modest, but the prince came nearer, held out a hand to him.
“Will you dance, my lady?”
“You honour me, Your Highness,” Robin said softly, but accepted his hand and joined him in the dance.
It was frightening and wonderful at once, to have the prince’s undivided attention, and for a time, Robin forgot anything else, until he realized that it was growing late and the cook would be looking for him. He slipped away into the crowd, made his way back to his private corner, and changed back to his rags, smearing his face with dirt, touselling and roughly tying back his hair.
“About time you got back,” the cook grumbled, and gestured to a stack of greasy pots. “They’ve been waiting for you.”
Robin started to work on them without hesitation, silently, thinking of the prince’s green eyes, and the light touch of his hands.
The prince, it was said over the next few days, had fallen in love with a mysterious beauty, but as no one knew who she was, the king and queen intended to host a second ball.
Again, Robin begged, with all his charm, and was given leave to watch.
With all possible speed, he made himself ready in the dress that shone like the moon, and joined the nobles gathered in the ballroom.
The prince made his way to Robin with haste that might perhaps be considered unseemly, and refused to leave his side even for a moment.
“Who are you?” he whispered. “You’re like none of the others. I want nothing of them. You I could share my heart and my crown with. Please tell me who you are.”
“I can’t… I have to go.” Robin fled into the crowd, losing himself.
Moments later, he was back in the kitchen and hard at work.
Within a few days, word ran through the palace that the king and queen were going to host a third and final ball, in hopes that the prince might choose a bride who had a name and an identity.
The night of the third ball came, and once more Robin coaxed the cook into freeing him for a time.
In the dress that sparkled like the stars, Robin walked gracefully into the ballroom, unable to resist the lure of it.
The prince, yet again, danced only with Robin, and pleaded for his name, his home, anything. Robin evaded the questions, turned to escape; the prince caught his hand, and slid onto one finger a ring of gold and sapphire before Robin could break away and flee.
A command came to the kitchen the next day: the prince was distraught and had no appetite, and the cook was to personally prepare his finest soup to tempt him.
Robin used every bit of his charm to convince the cook to let him take it to the prince, though he was commanded first to wash his face and hands, that he might be less offensive to the prince.
Robin, on the way to the prince’s room, took the gold and sapphire ring from his pocket and returned it to his finger.
The prince sat on a windowseat, one foot drawn up, gazing out listlessly over the fields beyond.
“Your Highness?” Robin said shyly.
The prince sighed. “What I want is my mysterious lady, and what I get is soup. Leave it on the table.”
“Your Highness… a mysterious stranger might not be what she seems, and what she is might not please you.”
For the first time, the prince actually looked at him; Robin kept his eyes down, face turned a little away. “What does it matter what her secret is? She is the only one I have ever wished to marry.”
“And is she to have no choice in the matter, Your Highness?”
“Ah, god, I would never force her. Beg her, yes, in a heartbeat, but have her wed me unwilling, or ever be less than happy? Never.”
Robin unclasped his hands, so the ring flashed in the sunlight; it caught the prince’s attention instantly. He strode over to Robin and seized his hand.
“Where did you get that ring?”
Robin raised his eyes to the prince’s. “From your own hand, my lord, when we danced last night.”
The prince searched Robin’s face with green eyes wide with wonder, and slowly nodded. “Yes, you are my lady. Come, sit. Tell me?”
Robin joined him on a long couch piled deep with pillows, more comfort than he had known in many months, and told the prince the tale of how he had come to be there. The prince listened intently, one hand clasped around Robin’s as though fearing he might vanish, not interrupting.
“In truth, my lord, having lived as both, I far prefer to be princess, not prince.”
Gently, the prince cupped his free hand around Robin’s cheek. “Of all the maidens that have been shown to me in hopes of catching my interest, there has never been one I wanted. Save for you. Please. Don’t run away again. Stay, and marry me.”
Robin smiled. “I will joyfully be your princess for all time.”
“Come, my lady, we need to tell my parents. At once!”
His impatience made Robin laugh. “You would present me to them in the rags and grease of the kitchen, and dressed like a boy?” He gave the prince a conspiratorial wink, which made the prince laugh in turn.
“Our secret, my lady,” he whispered, and kissed Robin lightly; Robin closed his eyes in pleasure, shivering.
“Give me a little time. I’ll come back to you, I promise, and then we can go to your parents.”
Reluctantly, the prince released his hand. “Hurry. Please.”
Robin smiled. “Eat your soup.”
Not long later, Robin returned to the prince’s rooms, clean now, and clad in the dress that sparkled like the stars and his mother’s jewels.
The king and queen were quite taken with the lovely and soft-spoken princess their son introduced to them, and sympathetic to the tale Robin told–though that he had been born prince, not princess, Robin left out, and never told another soul. The king and queen ordered wedding preparations to begin at once.
The prince and the princess were married amidst much celebration, and lived happily ever after.