Marie was six years old when she first saw a unicorn.
She had imagined that she saw them before of course, a glimmer in the corner of her eye, a tossing of branches that could have been a mane or tail if she had only seen it directly. She performed all the correct dances every morning, so proud each time she was introduced to a new form. She submitted to the spells that bound each Princess of Retrouvailles, she worked diligently to remember the rituals and she clung to the knowledge that one day she would dance for unicorns. Small wonder that when she saw a shape that might be a head or a leg, a shadow that could have a horn, she told herself it was her first unicorn. But now she could see how foolish such thoughts had been.
The creature standing across the garden from her was undeniably real. Deep eyes seemed to look through her, but she felt she could get lost in them. The unicorn poured the ground impatiently, head raised to listen to something Marie could not hear and it seemed to her that it was the everyday world that was insubstantial.
She could not tell how long she stood and stared, knowing only that this creature was more desirable to her than life itself, but she only returned to herself when the unicorn whirled and disappeared. She had been on the way to a history lesson, but her normal diligence vanished as she turned to run through the palace.
“Zéphine! Zéphine!” she cried as she flung herself at her big sister, wrapping her arms around her. “I’ve seen my first unicorn and it was beautiful!”
Zéphine did not respond for a long moment. Then her hands came up to Marie’s shoulders, half an embrace and half holding her away. “I’m sure it was,” she said.
Marie continued to chatter, vaguely aware that Zéphine said very little, but still riding a wave of euphoria, until her sister abruptly stood. “It’s time for my next lesson,” she said abruptly. “And you must be due with your tutor too”.
She left the room hastily and Marie stood by the window, arms wrapped around herself, barely seeing the beauty of the garden outside.
She had been so afraid! But there was nothing to fear now. Zéphine, of course, would be the Reine-Licorne. Marie had always known that it would be her sister who would truly reflect the unicorns to themselves and hold the protection of Retrouvailles. A second princess was a useful safeguard, but not really needed when the eldest fixed the purity of her vision on her country. Marie’s maiden dance would not be necessary in the same way as Zéphine’s, but she still could see unicorns! She resolved to be the best demoiselle she could possibly be so that when she came of age they would look at her heart and she could dance for them with her sister.
“… Indeed,” said Monsignor Barre, “your own father was the tenth noble to watch your mother dance.”
Marie had been listening to her lesson with all her usual focus. But this pulled her attention from the political point being made. “Nine men?” she asked. “That means nine were torn apart by the unicorns?”
“Nine men were found unworthily,” a tutor said sternly. “If the unicorns do not permit a man to live, he is not a man who should rule Retrouvailles in the Reine-Licorne’s place. You cannot allow sentimentality to cloud the purity of your vision for the country.”
“Of course not,” Marie murmured, abashed. “The protection of Retrouvailles is all that matters. I do know that sir.”
However that night, alone in her room, she hugged her blankets closer to herself. Of course one man’s life, or nine lives, or even more did not compare to the safety of the realm. But she still thought of human bodies torn apart by the unicorns’ uncompromising intent.
Sheltered within the nine sides walls of the palace, Marie had never seen violence. Even the animals for her food were slaughtered elsewhere. Unicorns could not do right or wrong, could not choose but to be as they were. She knew that deep to her bones, that was why they sought uncompromising purity of purpose in their demoiselles. She would not allow her vision to falter or be distracted by pity for men. But the first time she ever saw bloodshed might be when the unicorns came to her and tore an unsuitable man apart. In the darkness of her bed, she shivered.
The palace of Marie’s childhood, stately beauty turned to purity of heart and purpose, had become a nightmare. Bodies lay in the corridors, blood glinted on the golden walls. Kyrlander soldiers dragged her to the Great Dome where her father lay dead before the Unicorn Throne and her sister begged for her life, submitted to the invader for Marie’s sake.
The Kyrlander king talked crudely of her and her sister. He put his ugly hands on Marie and said he would make her his bride. But it was when he ordered his nephew to kill Zéphine that she broke. She begged and she screamed but it was the barbarian prince who saved her sister’s life.
Zéphine - the first born of the last Reine-Licorne, the demoiselle who should only be touched by a man the unicorns would permit to see them and live, the sister Marie adored - was married to her betrayer in a room soaked with blood and with their father’s body lying on the floor. Then Marie was dragged back to a cell, with no chance to even speak with Zéphine.
She flung herself on the bed in the bare room and cried. Retrouvailles had fallen and the unicorns had forsaken them. Launrad called her demoiselle, a horrific mockery of the future she should have had and she was powerless.
Eventually her tears dried up, but the despair remained. Her entire existence was bent towards the power of the unicorns, the protection of her country. What could she do? What could she desire now? Who would Marie be if she were no longer demoiselle for the unicorns? Food was brought and she ate a little but then returned to the bed where she lay unmoving and in despair as the shadows moved towards evening.
The door to her cell opened silently and it took her a moment to recognise the Kyrlander prince. Surprisingly, he had come alone.
“Be quiet,” he murmured. “I’m going to take you to your sister. I will find you a way out of this.”
Marie stifled her protests and went with him. She dared not trust him, but he led her through the palace in shadows, apparently keen not to draw attention. She was deeply relieved when he opened a final door and she was able to run forward to hug Zéphine.
“I was so scared for you,” she whispered. “What did he do, to make you grovel so?”
“He threatened to kill us.”
“You’re still a princess!”
“I’m still a prisoner. Anyway, a dead princess won’t help anyone.”
“What do you mean, prisoner?” asked Marie.
“What else could I mean? We are bound in the palace by spells, to stay here until we dance or die. If we survive to become queens, we can leave but we can never go far because we must return to the palace and dance every month, while our husbands rule in our names. And when we die, we are nothing but meat to fill the unicorn bellies.”
No one should speak with such bitterness. And this was Zéphine, Marie’s older sister, the perfect demoiselle she had aspired to be. Marie shook her head. “But the unicorns.... Zéphine, you’ve seen them. How could you want anything else? You have seen them, right? You always said you did!”
Zéphine pushed her away. “I lied. I lied every day. Morning, noon, and night. I lied and I lied and I hated you so much. Because you could see the unicorns and you were going to live and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I broke the defenses on the palace trying to escape and I would take it all back if I could.”
“Oh,” said Marie, “that... I suppose that’s why you were so unhappy.”
Zéphine looked up. “You knew?”
Marie had pulled her knees up under her chin and hugged them to herself. “I could tell you were angry with me. I didn’t know why. But you were always so unhappy, I knew that something was wrong.” Her voice dropped to a rough little whisper. “I always wished I could help you.”
Zéphine reached forward and took her hands. Marie clung to her. “Marie, Idrask told you we’re going to escape, right?”
“I made everything go wrong. And I can’t dance for the unicorns anymore. But I’m going to get you to safety. I’ll find Father’s generals, and we’ll rally the army and drive the Kyrlanders out of our country, and Marie, someday—someday you’re going to be the best Reine-Licorne that’s ever been. All right?”
Marie smiled at her brave, brave sister. Zéphine had lived every day of her life in the palace, fulfilling all the rituals and spells of Retrouvailles, learning a dance she was sure would lead to her death. Even now, she was planning a future to save their country, one where Marie would dance with the unicorns though Zéphine could not.
“Will you be happy then?” asked Marie. Her trust, her confidence was shattered, she wanted this day never to have happened, she wanted her father to be alive, she wanted her country saved from this invasion, she wanted to see the unicorns again. It did not feel as if any of her desires could ever now be fulfilled. But if her sister could be happy, then that would be a start.
It seemed like fate when Marie realised that their escape route had taken them close to the Great Dome. The calculation was simple. With one act she could save her country and free her sister from her unhappiness. All she needed was the courage to dance six years before her time.
It seemed less simple when she entered the Dome and it was guarded by Kyrlander soldiers. In only a few minutes, Launrad had been summoned and by the time Zéphine arrived, Marie was held in his arms, a knife to her throat.
“Little girl,” he asked as he trailed an knife over her cheeks “ what shall we do with you?” He had heard of their rituals of the unicorn brides. He expected Zéphine to have no love for her, that all affection must be killed by the prospect of Marie’s hands sewing her eyes shut before Zéphine would be torn apart. Marie’s thoughts faltered as she realised that this was the fate Zéphine had expected for most of her life. Yet she knew her sister loved her anyway, even now she was pleading with this monster for her life.
“But I can’t have my betrothed marked in an unsightly fashion,” continued the king. Take her away, bandage her up, and make sure she isn’t so foolish again.” He abruptly pushed Marie to the floor. The guards were already reaching out to grab her, but this was her chance. She jumped away into the first movements of the maiden dance.
“No!” Shouted Zéphine. “Marie stop!” But Marie barely heard her. She had been born to dance for the unicorns and had trained in these steps since she was able to walk. She spun across the floor of the Great Dome and the unicorns came.
Marie had seen the unicorns before, but this time they were here for her, called by her dance, her purity of purpose. She was vaguely aware of the guards moving to kill them, but they were in an irrelevance, a distraction, there was nothing steelecould do to the unicorns, or to Marie as they moved towards her.
She flung her hands wide and sang a single note of unicorn song. They circled her at the climax of dance. She gazed into their endless eyes, saw the certainty of their purpose without choice. Then, at the edge of the dome, she saw her sister. Her eyes caught on Zéphine who she loved and she faltered.
Unicorns lowered their horns, ran her through and drank her blood.
The unicorns ran fluidly in the space between the tangible world and the ether, they slipped through towns without waking the inhabitants, through forests without disturbing the trees.
She clung to a unicorn’s back. She was a whisper of thought, a ghostly shape among the unicorns, she had no personhood, she was nothing. There was only the rush of the wind and the thunder of hooves, until the unicorns flowed again into the physical world and tore through Kyrlander soldiers. But even their screams and the pools of their blood could not reach her.
“….” “..…” The Reine-Licorne was speaking and the unicorns moved around her, but the meaning of words seemed very far away. “Marie!” called the Demoiselle la Plus Pure, “I call on my sister Marie!”
The demoiselle grabbed her wrists and pulled her off the unicorn. “Marie,” she said. “You are my sister. Remember.”
Marie blinked slowly.
She was Marie. She was a princess of Retrouvailles. She had danced for the unicorns before her will failed and they drank her blood. The demoiselle was the Reine-Licorne, but she was also Marie’s sister Zéphine. Marie had always wanted the unicorns, but Marie had also loved Zéphine.
“Yes,” she said, knowing that her next question was the most important in the world. “I remember you. Are you happy now?”
She was Marie and she was Princess of Retrouvailles. She was separate to the unicorns but she rode with them and guided them. She remembered her name and they protected her country. She was the Demoiselle la Plus Pure, and in her undefiled eyes they saw their own purity of purpose. She embodied a new covenant and was herself its proof.
The Kyrlander king was destroyed and his men routed. Word of the latest bloodshed of the unicorns would spread to the ends of the known world. Men would not dare to war against Retrouvailles and if they did, they would be torn down.
At the next full moon, she the unicorns strode inexorably from the shadows and she danced at last with her sister Zéphine.
But she was not so lost to the world outside the Great Dome that she could not tell when another power was summoned into her country. How could she not know when the Great Bull of the North was summoned into her borders? Of course she was aware of the Prince Consort offering his eyes for his heart’s desire.
Even at the full moon, she could have sent the unicorns to the Royal Chambers faster than Idrask could speak. She could have had him struck down before the bargain was completed for daring to challenge the single-minded duty of the Reine-Licorne.
She was the Demoiselle la Plus Pure and she was Marie. She was Princess of Retrouvailles and she was Zéphine’s sister. Zéphine would be the Reine-Licorne, but she would also be herself and she would be happy. Zéphine would rule the country, Marie would guard it and they would come together at the full moon with the unicorns. But Marie would be the one whose heart and eyes were single-minded in their purity.
She permitted the Bull to enter her country. She permitted him to tear out Idrask’s eyes. She knew when all Zéphine’s multitude of desires returned to her.
Marie desired the protection of her country; she desired the eternal unicorns; she desired her sister’s happiness. Now all her desires were one, fused together into absolute certainty and the single-minded purity of the unicorns.