When Princess Talia was fourteen, her eldest sister was placed in a tower.
Princess Adina was eighteen by then, and so of a marriageable age. She had grown quite beautiful, though she was more willful than winsome, and she did not care for the notion of the tower very much at all. Their mother did her best to persuade her on the subject. After all, the queen herself had been eighteen when her own parents had sent her to live in that very same tower, to be safely tucked away until her husband could be chosen, and then ride out to claim her. A tradition going back ages and ages.
“It was such a sight,” their mother said, wistfully. “I had been alone for so long. Reflecting upon the nature of the world, and my place in it, and what it would mean to serve my kingdom. And the solitude was difficult. But then one bright morning I saw a vision of a gallant knight riding towards me; and I knew I would never feel lonely again.”
“Then you had best make certain you pick a strong man to be my husband,” Princess Adina had replied. “For if I go to that tower you can bet I will spend my time honing my skills with a blade, rather than staring wistfully out of windows. And any man who thinks to claim me for a bride by anyone’s leave save my own will need to defend himself.”
Their mother had tutted, and their father had rolled his eyes; and when Princess Adina’s belongings were packed with a very pointed dearth of swords or spears or knives, it was Talia who slipped a wrapped sabre into the travel wagons, and it was their middle sister, Devorah, who tied another to the underside of the first food cart to leave for the tower.
Barely a few weeks had passed since Adina left the castle, however, before word began to spread of dragon sightings in the south. The king and queen saw this is a good sign; and they let it be known that any lord bold enough to slay the dragon would be granted leave to rescue Princess Adina from her tower. It seemed all too fortuitous, for surely any man who could defeat a dragon could handle a willful princess; and Adina could hardly deny the bravery or skill of any such person.
“It is perfect,” their mother had said.
That was before the dragon reached the tower.
Talia had been present when the messenger had arrived, bursting hastily into the hall and speaking in broken tones about barricades destroyed, and mountains crossed, and ancient enchantments broken as the dragon had forged its way straight to the hidden princess. Rumours abounded of the dragon absconding with Adina; though some varied as to whether she had been seen clutched, terrified, in the menace’s claws, or riding on its back, whooping loudly. (Calling for help, the court agreed - if anything; the confused descriptions of startled shepherds were unlikely to be too reliable).
The matter of rewards changed, of course, and so it became that any brave soul - lord or no - who could rescue Adina from the dragon could claim the princess for their bride. Talia worried, but she didn’t worry too much. She was of a mind that if the dragon was still alive, then it was likely because Adina wanted it that way; and her sister was at least out of the tower she had held such contempt for.
Not six months after the incident, a story came back of a renowned hero who had nearly slain the dragon at its caves in the west, only to be disarmed by Princess Adina herself. Who, by his report, made a very rude and anatomically improbable suggestion before knocking him down a mountainside.
The king and queen seemed convinced the report was nothing but slander; but Talia was inclined to give it far more credence than tales of her sister weeping whole rivers of tears or cowering beneath the dragon’s glare.
It was around that time that Princess Devorah began sneaking out of the palace at night.
Talia discovered this one evening while in the midst of her stargazing. If her eldest sister could be said to be beautiful and headstrong, then it would be easy to claim that the middle sister was plainer, and yet more charming. She owned a pale blue cloak which suited her quite well; but which stood out, too, in the moonlight, as she slipped away through the palace gardens.
This went on for quite some time before Talia at last confronted her sister, who blushed most tellingly at being discovered.
“I have found my knight,” she admitted. “There is a doorway in the gardens, and it opens to the fairy forest. I did not mean to go, not the first night. It was only that I saw the doorway and I wondered where it went. And I could not help but think that my own time to be locked away in a tower is coming swiftly, and what a thing it might be to escape, and that perhaps fate had given me a chance. But then I got lost in the fairy forest. It was strange and dangerous, and I feared I had been too foolish for words until my knight found me.”
Talia saw the lovestruck look on her sister’s face, and felt a great well of sympathy for her.
“Fairy folk are strange and dangerous, but Mother and Father are not without pity. If your knight is as noble as he sounds, perhaps they will understand,” she suggested.
But Devorah only sighed, and shook her head.
“Perhaps they would, if my knight were a man. But she is a maiden, as fair as moonlight. And I would have her no other way.”
Talia’s sympathy increased tenfold at that, for she knew as well that their parents might make some concessions, but that would be a bridge too far for either of them. As she began to offer comfort, however, Devorah turned it back towards her.
Her sister told her of a plan that she and her fairy knight had concocted; that when Devorah was taken to her tower, her knight would come, and open a door there; and then Talia’s sister would away with her to the fairy realm for good. The tower would sit empty. Whatever suitor their parents at last settled upon would ride out to find no one waiting for him.
“I planned to tell you,” Devorah assured her, and then offered her a single silver bell. “When it is your time to go to the tower, stand on the highest point and ring that bell. A door will open, and you can come away with us. The fairy realm can be frightening, but my beloved will help us, and as well-read as you are, I am certain you will have more of an idea of what to expect than I ever did.”
Talia took the bell and hugged her sister and thanked her; though she admitted that she did not know what she would feel, when it came her own time to go to the tower. But Devorah only said it would be her choice, whichever she made.
And indeed, after a year had passed, her sister went to the tower with none of the fuss nor complaint that Princess Adina had put up. Being as charming as she was, there were no lack of suitors for their parents to choose from, and it was not long at all before the king and queen made an advantageous match with the eldest son of a neighbouring kingdom. One just beyond the western mountains where Adina and her dragon still roamed.
When the son came back empty-handed, accusations of trickery abounded. The western kingdom accused the king and queen of withholding their daughter, and the king and queen accused the western kingdom of stealing her to some unknown fate. In the end matters were only settled once a scryer confirmed that Princess Devorah had not been in the tower when her suitor arrived; then, the dispute was settled with the consolation offer of Talia in Devorah’s place.
The rulers of the western kingdom demanded their princess at once; but Talia’s parents insisted that she was still too young. A compromise was reached. Since the tradition of the family was to ensconce their princesses in towers, and since twice these towers had been breached and the princesses lost, the king of the western lands offered a tower in his own domain. There Talia would stay until she turned eighteen, and was of age to marry the prince.
Even so, the king and queen would not have agreed but for the fact that the western rulers were renowned for their masterful sorcery and spellwork. Should conflict break out, the armies they could amass would be formidable indeed.
“Sometimes princesses must think of their kingdoms first,” Talia’s mother told her.
And so Talia did think of her kingdom.
She thought of it as she rode with her accompaniment through the mountains, and when a great dragon’s roar split the air; and when her guards scattered in fright, or else were pinned down by the claws of a gigantic emerald beast, with eyes like flames and wings that sounded of lightning when they clapped. She thought of it when her eldest sister slid down from the dragon’s neck and rushed to hold her, and begged her not to be afraid.
“You come with us,” said Princess Adina. “The western prince is a monster, and the rest of his family is no better. I would not let a pig marry him, nevermind my little sister.”
Talia marveled at how well-informed her dragon-riding sister seemed to be, but Adina only waved off such questions.
“I go into town all the time,” she said. “No one expects to see a princess who was kidnapped by a dragon wandering around a market square.”
“And you spend enough of my coin for them to overlook it, even if they were suspicious,” rumbled the dragon, though it sounded more amused than anything else.
“You are the one who demanded expensive company,” Adina returned.
Talia watched them with fascination, and wondered if they might not be able to fight an army themselves. But her sister was forced to sadly admit that her dragon was nearly more show than substance, and that any well-armed force would take them down with relative ease. Particularly if that force could bring magic to bear.
So Talia thought of her kingdom as she declined her sister’s offer, and sadly sent both she and her dragon on their way. Then she set about encouraging her guards to come back, and help gather the horses, so that they could head out again.
She thought of her kingdom all the way up to the tower itself. It was a bleak spire. Once a sorcerer’s lookout and secluded place of study, according to their guide; who then helped set up the wards and enchantments. Talia thought of her kingdom as she bid everyone goodbye. As she made her way inside with her things, and found that though the place had clearly been cleaned and dusted, it was sparse and severe and cold. Dark stone twisted up the walls, and drafts blew through the ragged edges of the window frames. The lights were magic, at least, but only half of them worked, and there was little in the way of artwork or decoration.
Talia thought of her kingdom as she selected a room on the highest floor, and unpacked her things.
But when at last it was dark, and she was alone, she did not think of her kingdom. She thought of herself, instead, and she wished she had flown away with Adina and her dragon. She wished she could climb to the top of the tower and ring her silver bell, and escape with Devorah and her knight. She thought of the unfairness of being sent to her tower too soon, and even vindictively imagined having told her parents of Devorah’s escapades, and being spared this fate by forcing her sister to do her duty instead.
And then she felt an awful wretch for thinking such a thing, and she cried herself ragged until she fell into a deep sleep.
In the morning, her mood was grim.
She woke to the discovery that the usual enchantments were in place, which was something of a relief. Princess Talia was educated in matters of diplomacy, finance, tactics, mathematics, literature, history, geography, and many more besides, but she had no idea of how to boil an egg. The tower gave her meals in the kitchens, and warmed the hearth against the cold. She spent her first day mostly in that room, with one of the books she’d brought clutched firmly in her hand, wondering how she was supposed to survive years of this without going mad.
Or if, perhaps, the intent of all this business with towers was precisely to drive a princess mad. It would explain a good deal about her mother.
The second night, she cried again, and the one after was much the same; but on the fourth day she woke to the grey dawn, and the cawing of ravens outside her window, and she decided that if she was going to live in this tower for many days yet to come, then she may as well explore it. She made a point of mapping out all the floors, and figuring out how to reach the highest part if she should ever need to. And she found that the attic was full of old boxes of clothes. Robes and hats and gloves and scarves, worn things and shimmery things, and a very impressive collection of walking sticks.
That was all well and good and sorting through it gave her a diversion, at least. She aired out some of the clothes. They were much too big for her, and the tower wardrobe could provide her with some very nice dresses. But she imagined she might tire of very nice dresses after a while, and some of the robes looked very comfortable.
The real find, however, came the next day, when she discovered the door to the basement.
She had thought that the spareness of the tower was owed to its lack of usual occupancy; but when she found the basement, another answer made itself clear - someone had taken practically everything out of the main rooms, and shoved it all haphazardly into the basement, and then closed the door on it.
Talia supposed she could see, on one level, why someone might have deemed the objects in the basement unsuitable for a princess. Though she could not fathom why they assumed a bored princess would not simply go downstairs at some point. She felt inexplicably insulted at the lack of locks on the door; this feeling swiftly gave way to curiosity, however.
The room's contents had not been kindly handled. She tutted over books that had been dumped in piles, their pages crinkled and their spines twisted. Some heavy tomes on stands had been left to accumulate dust and cobwebs, and boxes full of glass bottles had been ungently handled, leaving some to crack and leak suspicious liquids that stained the floor. Several rune-marked skulls lined a shelf in the room, and looked to be the only things that had not been touched very much. There was strange furniture, and jars of things like powdered unicorn’s horn, which told her plenty about the ignorance of the people who had cleaned up this place, because even she knew that was valuable stuff.
At length, she rolled up her sleeves, and set about organizing it, just as she had done the attic. Though in this case, the task was much larger. She broke it down into its simplest steps. Step One - the books. Going through the mess, she picked out all the books she could find, and did what she could for them. Some were in languages she did not recognize. Even the ones she recognized had uncommon titles, like A Beginner’s Guide to Necromancy, and The Lost Art of Summoning, and A Comprehensive Bestiary of the Northern Wilds.
The books proved not only to be the first step in cleaning up the basement, but also the world’s most sufficient distraction. Talia paged through them out of sheer fascination with the volume of subjects available, and the fact that she knew next to nothing of these topics. Soon enough she had gathered up every book for beginners she could find, and before long she discovered that one of the largest tomes was a dictionary, and she unearthed also a translation guide for one of the unfamiliar languages that seemed common to the texts.
It was, then, slower going for the tasks of dealing with the broken bottles in the crates - in the end she found a pair of thick gloves in the attic, and picked out the ones that were not broken, and shoved the rest - crates and all - into one of the empty closets.
After a reading a bit more, she then barricaded the closet.
She left the skulls be until she opened up the book on Necromancy, and then she carried them up to a room where the moonlight could hit them. That evening she had her first proper conversation in weeks as she took a chair into the room, and waited for nightfall, and then spoke to some quite interesting and helpful spirits. They were transparent of course, and not all of them were very coherent. But they seemed happy to be out of the basement, and keen enough to help her get a better understanding of some concepts from the books that had been tricky for her.
She organized the jars of ingredients, and discovered several discarded cauldrons, and after some more reading, she went back up to the attic and fetched down the wizard staffs that she had mistaken for walking sticks, and put them where they’d be closer to hand. In a box under an overturned table she discovered a smashed crystal ball with a tiny pixie’s skeleton in it; and an unbroken crystal ball which gleamed and glowed only faintly when she held it up to the stars.
It made her think of Devorah and her knight. So that evening she at last went up to the highest point of her tower, and rang her silver bell.
Sure enough, a door appeared in the basement. She wrapped the pixie skeleton in a piece of black velvet, and tucked the crystal ball under her arm, and opened the door.
Her sister was delighted to see her, but confused as well. It was too soon for Talia to be in her tower. So it was that Talia had to explain what had transpired, and when she did, Devorah was overcome. It made her feel triply awful for her uncharitable thoughts that first evening, to see her sister cry and offer to go back and take her place.
“You have to stay here with your knight,” Talia insisted. “It isn’t all bad. There are some interesting things in the tower. And if I can talk to you sometimes, as well as the skulls, I probably won’t go mad.”
Devorah blinked back her tears.
“The skulls?” she asked, in a voice that said she was worried her sister’s mental state had already faltered.
Talia explained about the tower, and its basement, and the crystal ball she had brought, and the little skeleton, too. That made Devorah cry a bit more, because she was a kind heart and she had grown fond of the little pixies in the fairy realm - even the vicious ones. She called for her knight to come at that point,and Talia watched as a silvery figure rode up on a white horse that gave more of the impression of a phantom than a proper steed.
Devorah’s love looked like moonlight made flesh; slender but sharp as the blade of a knife, and she bowed with courtly grace. She showed less grief over the pixies than the princesses did. But then again, her expression seemed to reveal very little at all until it turned towards Devorah. At which point it would soften, and stars would seem to dance in the dark pools of her eyes.
“Who is this prince, who is so perilous a betrothal?” the fairy knight asked.
“I do not know him. I know only his reputation, which had seemed fine enough until Adina spoke to me,” Talia explained.
“I know a little more of him,” Devorah admitted, frowning. “Adina and I went to one of his sister’s weddings, years ago. You were too young to come along. He was a horrible brat, but then, he was a child. His father wasn’t much better, though.”
The fairy knight looked at the tiny pixie skeletons, and then at once broke the crystal ball. The wisp of a sprite which escaped was small and quick, barely there before it was gone again. But Talia didn’t mourn the loss of the crystal ball. And after a moment, her sister’s knight tilted her head towards her, and went to draw a small vial from her saddlebags.
“This is a poison of sleep,” said the knight. “If you drink of it, you will fall into a trance, and will not wake but for true love’s kiss. In dreams you may find freedom. I would have offered it to Devorah, had she refused me, and her suitor proven cruel. I will offer it to you now instead. Should the worst come to pass, drink it.”
The tiny vial was silver and elegant. Pretty enough, even by the reckoning of princesses. Talia took it with gratitude. And when she left through the fairy door before dawn, and came back into her tower, she felt lighter than she had since leaving home.
For several months, then, the little silver vial rested in her pockets, as she wore dresses but also sometimes robes. Talia learned the few benefits of a life primarily alone, in an empty and unoccupied tower that was locked up tight. But even her mostly-indoor spirit began to long for the feeling of wind in her hair, and grass between her toes, despite the fact that she could also parade around the rooms naked as she pleased. Or clad only in a long robe which trailed behind her, as she sang songs with no one to care that they might be off-key, or that they were ones she had overheard drunken servants singing.
She poured through her new books and consulted with spirits, cavorted with her sister and the fairies by night, and one morning she woke up and snapped her fingers in a moment of grand epiphany; and flames darted up at the gesture.
And alone, in the long and quiet days, she learned.
Four months into her stay, Talia discovered how to unlock the tower door. It was a simple spell, in fact. More a matter of tricking the tower into doing as she wished. She strolled the grounds, well away from any guard posts, and found wild vines and strange plants growing in the tower gardens. There was a book of plants inside, and so she dragged it out with her the next day, and set about identifying all the growing things she could not recognize; which, apart from the dandelions, was nearly everything.
She dusted off the cauldron, then, and must have burned herself sixteen different times in attempting to master the various magical recipes involving the garden plants. And plants from the fairy realm, as well. In one of the big, heavy tomes, which always seemed to fight her every time she turned the pages, she discovered a recipe for the sleeping draught which Devorah’s fairy knight had given her; and by the gleam of a full moon, she gathered ingredients from both worlds, and set about trying to recreate it.
Success was difficult to gauge without tasting the end results. She was very sure to label her own attempts accordingly, and dared not drink any of them.
It was not a bad life. Not at all. It was lonely, at times, but with Devorah and the spirits, not terribly so. And the freedoms she discovered were beginning to seem more and more appealing. As time went on, Talia found herself thinking she would much rather stay in her tower than see any shining prince approach from the horizon.
But when at last he came, she was ready for him.
The time almost sneaked up on her, but the terrain visible up from the tower window was wide and barren, and one night as she went to bed she chanced to see a campfire burning in the distance. And she counted the days in her head, and then fell into a flurry of activity. She readied a fine dress, and packed up her things. She slipped the best staff in among her chest of clothes, and packed the skulls in with her jewelry. She slipped the sleeping potion into her pocket, and emptied out the bottom of the crate containing her shoes and slippers; and she did away with half of them, and fit as many of the most important books she could manage in their place. She hid potions ingredients in with her cosmetics, and her own notes were kept safely in her diary behind misleading pages of amateur poetry and seemingly-innocuous doodles of plants. In every spare nook or cranny of her luggage she could find, she stuffed something she deemed worthy; until the things she had first arrived with had become like a veil for the things she had uncovered since.
“You find yourself in that tower,” her mother had once told her.
And her mother had found her place as queen; and Adina had found a dragon; and Devorah had found her doorway out. As the sound of hoofbeats grew closer, Talia stared towards the horizon of the western kingdom. Her fingers toyed with the stopper of the sleeping draught.
She wondered what she had really found.
Why drink it yourself? one of the spirits had asked her the first night she had come back from visiting her sister, with the tiny vial in hand. It seems to me that the logical thing to do, in an unhappy marriage, is to poison the other person. Especially when that opens a door to you taking his kingdom out from under him.
Such interesting things, her skulls had to say.
And of course, the kingdom she would marry into was one ruled by magic. Sometimes princesses must think of their kingdoms first.
With a wry little twist of her lips, Talia practiced her best expression of swooning relief, and waited for her prince.