in which there is screaming, and troubling concepts
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess. Her name was Ellinetta of Burgstein Berg.
Ellinetta was younger, prettier, simpler and more available than her already-betrothed sisters: she was the most desired woman in all the land of Steinburg Stein.
Romantic types would tell you she had the perfect amount of cluelessness needed to put an ever-present dreamy look into her lovely, big eyes. Less romantic types would tell you she had the perfect amount of dowry needed to put an ever-present dreamy richness into a lovely, big bank vault, and the perfect amount of royalty to put an ever-present dreamy title in front of a loving, new husband's name. Minstrels would tell you the same things, but in different words, with a tune.
On this particular day, if you'd asked Steinburg’s Esteemed Instructor in the Vital Practice of the Scream, she would tell you what Ellinetta most certainly did not have: a proper petering wail at the end of her Help-me-I've-encountered-something-frightfully-ugly scream.
“And I need not emphasize further how important the wail is, need I?” the Esteemed Instructor puffed, hands clutching the air and eyes rolling.
Ellinetta averted her own eyes toward the window.
“You need not.”
Summer dusk lay outside, enticingly. This room, this resonant white chamber of stone, this class and Ms. Wrorr, all were simply unbearable. It had been a long day of needlework and brushing up on court gossip with her sisters, and now her screaming teacher was waxing verbose. All Ellinetta wanted to do was take a quiet walk through the valley to the hot springs nearby, or to read some romantic poetry in her bedroom beside a tinted lantern.
Of course, Ms. Wrorr was expounding upon her last statement with a blatant disregard for Ellinetta’s.
“A princess must needs,” she said, pacing and pausing luxuriously between words, “differentiate between,”-- here she stopped walking and held up one hand-- “something frightfully ugly,”--now she held up the other--“and something, for instance, large and fire-breathing.” She paused. “Sometimes they overlap, but let us not think of that yet.”
Ellinetta glanced up hopefully, but as if on cue her teacher began to pace and speak once more.
“Say she is encountering, perhaps,” --pause-- “a dragon or a Winged Rupsap.” Pause. “In that case she must emit a scream both piercing and desolate, to echo pathetically from mountain tops.” Pause. “Now contrast this with encountering frightfully ugly creatures, the sight of which may induce nausea or mental trauma.” Pause. “Then, princess, the scream must be of a more guttural and wailing nature... and why is that?”
Ellinetta, gazing at distant mountain tops and envisioning this long-winded villain stranded on one, looked back to her teacher. “The ugliest things reside underground,” she replied dutifully.
“The ugliest things reside underground,” Ms. Wrorr said, as though Ellinetta had not answered, “and thus a scream from underground requires different wavelengths to penetrate most effectively the mud and grime."
At the words "mud and grime,” Ellinetta shuddered and spoke up. "I understand, Ms. Wrorr."
"Good," rasped Ms. Wrorr. Her voice was always rasping. She took a sip of water. "When you are ready, try again."
Ellinetta looked at her teacher quickly for inspiration, and screamed.
"It is still sounding like you've only seen something rather ugly,” began Ms. Wrorr, then broke off with a sudden suspicious look at the princess, who blinked and tilted her head: what?
The instructor sniffed, touched her hair, and continued: “Let us first isolate the wail and work only on that. Repeat after me:
Ellinetta made a moue. “I need a sip of water also.”
“Take one, then.”
“I have misplaced my glass.”
“It is there, on the credenza.”
“The raspberry in it is turgid.”
“Take it out.”
“All the water is undrinkable if the raspberry is inedible.”
Her teacher strode to the credenza and poked her face down towards the glass with a furious determination. “The berry is fine.”
“Certainly, ‘tis not.”
“Then look at its ugliness and scream, Princess! You may not break for more water yet again tonight!”
But the woman was dreadful! Did she think fifteen years of being instructor to a princess gave her a sort of superiority in status? It seemed so. But Ellinetta was tired and impatient, and if Ms. Wrorr was in the mood to argue, it would be faster to acquiesce and satisfy the old bat, than to engage in a struggle of wills. So Ellinetta crossed her arms, scowled, and tried to duplicate the demonstrated sound.
"No: -uaaughah!" Ms. Wrorr wailed.
"-hgaaauugh!" Ellinetta gurgled.
Ms. Wrorr pinched the bridge of her nose. One must pity her for these lessons, for while Ellinetta was suffering, the skinny older woman had her own tribulations.
Ms. Wrorr’s professional upbringing lay in the wild North En’, amongst the truly magnificent Zkantinafyan Zkreemers, and there she had achieved, over the course of many years, almost a full head of grey. (The number of grey hairs, as we all know, are a mark of triumph amongst Screaming Instructors, and highly prized as such.) But then she had been hired by the King of Burgstein Berg, in the southern land of Steinburg Stein; the princesses of the South simply did not have the capacity to match the sort of bloodcurdling cries Ms. Wrorr was used to; and the unfortunate lady had been dismayed to find her silver locks quickly returning to their original orange hue. It truly caused her immense emotional distress, especially at night.
Now Ms. Wrorr suggested they turn their attention to last week’s assignment, the I-broke-my-longest-nail screech. As homework, Ellinetta had been commanded to actually break her longest nail, and more than a few tears had been shed over the matter.
Cradling the abused finger in her other slender hand, the princess took a deep breath, closed her eyes and relived the horror of that moment.
"Quite right," said her teacher as the echoes died away. "Now the scream for losing the entire hand."
"Beg pardon?" Student paled and teacher snickered.
"A mere jest. Obviously that would be a circumstance in which to faint, or die from blood loss. Remember, Princess Ellinetta: keep things in perspective, and hands clasped in safety."
The two women eyed each other with dislike. Ellinetta was unsure if she had just been threatened.
Ms. Wrorr smiled placidly. “Now: Oh-no-there-is-a-stain-on-my-dress."
Seven I-just-saw-a-mouses, three I-am-about-to-have-a-temper-tantrums, five Help-there's-a-bug-in-my-hairs, and one surprisingly well executed Help-me-I'm-being-carried-off-by-a-dragon-or-Winged-Rupsap later, Ellinetta finally began to weep because her throat hurt, and Ms. Wrorr dismissed her from class with the assignment of finding something ugly to meditate over every day, in silence, until she could bear it no longer.
"Something ugly!" Ellinetta murmured to herself, rustling down the stairwell from the Screaming Room, “something ugly!”
Now she emerged into the wide hallways of sea-green marble; she marched past a steady row of the castle’s low, upper-storey windows, open to the sky which was resplendent in the day’s last blazes of purple and gold; and these marvelous tableaux of sunset streamed past her as she strode on. A faint crescent moon was fading into sight.
"Oh, it’s preposterous! How will I find such a thing? Unattractiveness is not permitted in our fair abode!" She looked about herself at the white limestone walls, the columns and statues gilded with marble dust and embossed with bronze, the cypress rafters gleaming in the ceiling’s shadows. Here hung a tapestry, there a glass lantern.
The princess halted momentarily. “Everything,” she murmured, “in Burgstein Berg is beautiful and perfect, or it is not permitted.” And the castle around her gleamed in confirmation of this thought, until the doglike visage of a floorsweep who passed suddenly by proved “everything” to be an exaggeration. Ellinetta’s eyes followed the man with vague hope for a moment, before dismissing him as simply homely.
It doesn't take long for a princess' brain to overheat when presented with a problem, especially as they are explicitly instructed in the art of not bothering their pretty little heads over things. Ellinetta knew, as all beautiful princesses know from an early age, that thinking has an arsenal of dangerous side effects: the least of which is an aggressive clarity to the eyes (undesirably frightening to suitors even if a clever tongue is held), and can range to far worse things like the clever tongue itself, wrinkles in the brow, and unhappiness.
The knowledge of these threats is embedded from childhood in the forefront of a princess' mind, and with ample cultivation of fear and discouragement of mental activity, by puberty will have grown into a palpable mental barrier against potential insights that might otherwise find their way in. To actively try to problem solve, then, goes directly against the trained instincts of princesses and will almost immediately create a headache.
If ignored, the overheating begins.
There are many documentations of overheatings, usually written in a tellingly jocular tone and in great detail by court scribes, published formally only after a few generations have passed. Though there are a number of instances in which the carelessly pensive princess simply fainted, "in a manner somewhat, shall we say, less graceful than usual, and I won't deny nor confirm that there may have been royal bodily fluids involved,” the most common overheatings seem to manifest themselves as hallucinations of flocks of adorable woodland creatures presenting themselves to the princess with the answers she seeks, ofttimes through song and dance.
Though Ellinetta had not been told formally of this particular jarring detail, she'd heard of it from her eldest sister, whose first nurse had spread all sorts of unallowed, mischievous old court gossip before she was caught and beheaded. Now, as a small tingle started somewhere behind her eyes, warning of an oncoming headache, Ellinetta remembered the Mania of Lady Melrose. The poor princess had overheated in the middle of a Winterfest feast and begun dancing on the table in front of her, singing about how all the dishes were to be washed by a great many people who would not even have been allowed to touch the food served on them. When the guests had been rushed out and the princess had been restrained and doused with cold water, she insisted that someone had released terribly well-trained rabbits and birds into the hall, who had danced and sung with her, and that she was to be believed on the account that she would simply never have been brave enough to dance and sing on a table by herself.
The tingle in her head had amplified to a small throb, and Ellinetta obediently desisted all neural activity. "I shall command Henra to present me with an answer to this situation," she decided matter-of-factly, and all stress lifted from her delicate shoulders.
Henra could be summoned by a small bell in Ellinetta's room, but when Ellinetta entered her chambers, the stout old maid was already there, standing rather straighter than usual.
"Good day, Henra. I need your help," Ellinetta announced.
Henra curtsied. "It is ever my pleasure to assist your Highness, Your Highness, but I am afraid your Highness' request must wait in lieu of an immediate summons from His Majesty your father and Her Majesty your mother to the royal hall of His Majesty your mother and Her, I beg your pardon, I do mean His Majesty your father and Her Majesty your mother. Your Highness." Her speech was rushed. Finished, she bobbed once on the balls of her feet.
Ellinetta looked at Henra out of the corner of her eye.
"What is it they wish to see me about?"
"Begging your Highness' pardon, your Highness, but I am not privy to such knowledge," Henra said, speaking even faster and bobbing again. Elinetta narrowed her eyes.
“Why do you bob about like a heron, maid?”
"That is," the old maid continued quickly, "though be it contrary to my every instinct and desire to not assist your Highness in any and every way possible, your Highness, I have been expressly forbidden by His Majesty your father and Her Majesty your mother to bestow information upon your Highness before your Highness has heard of it formally in His Majesty your father's and Her Majesty your mother's own words, Your Highness."
"Oh, very well," sighed Ellinetta. The family meeting hall was in a far wing of the castle, and Ellinetta always got lost. "Did you say an immediate summons?"
"Yes, your Highness."
"Oh, very well. I shall go immediately, after you fetch me a glass of water. I have just come from my class of the Vital Practice of the Scream."
"Though be it painful for me to disagree with the wisdom in anything your Highness may say, Your Highness, I must humbly follow the order of His Majesty your father to remind your Highness that, in his very words, 'immediately means before anything else'."
"Oh, very well!"
In the middle of throne room, under a drowsing and contended gaze of his sovereigns, Riquel Longlash sat crosslegged on a reed cushion and strummed his lute. He was not a very good player, but the sound of his instrument was sparse and pleasing in the large room; and his voice, a high alto, was very beautiful. His eyes were half-shut in rapture, which gave him a dopey look. He sang:
“Engulfed in sun, before the stream,
Oh, love, let us tarry.
It shan’t be long but it shall seem
Eternal as a happy dream;
We need not wait to marry!
Engulfed in love, and clouds above
Look down on us, my faerie.
Entranced within a sunny beam
Amidst where butterflies may dream
My love, oh, let us tarry!
Engulfed in --”
But what engulfs the lovers next was cut off; the king had waved his hand. Riquel slapped his palm over the lute strings and stilled his vocal chords simultaneously. His lips remained belatedly parted for a second after. What miserable timing! This was the last stanza before his virtuosic, eight bar aria. The minstrel directed his reproachful gaze towards the floor, the polished marble of which directed it right back. Behind him, a servant fussily announced, “The princess Ellinetta,” and trotted fussily off.
Well, if it was the princess interrupting, that wasn’t so bad. But she was certainly less late than usual. Normally her propensity for tarrying matched that of Where Butterflies Dream’s amorous narrator.
The royal couple also looked surprised.
Ellinetta curtsied and stepped into the hall. "Good afternoon, Mother. Good afternoon, Father.”
She glided past the minstrel and without a sideways glance bade him a good day also. Riquel blushed, grinned, and bowed forward, still sitting, until his forehead touched the floor.
"Good afternoon, dear," breathed the queen with a tiny smile that didn't stretch her mouth far enough to create any lines.
"You are dismissed, minstrel," said the king. Riquel took his leave, with one backwards smile at the princess as he did so.
The glance didn’t escape the king. "Permanently," he called as an afterthought. Then he peered at his youngest daughter under his eyebrows. "Ellinetta, how was your lesson this morning?"
"Oh, but darling," breathed the queen, “The minstrel’s voice is quite adequate…”
Ellinetta hung her head. "Harrowing, father. I have not yet even had a glass of water due to your summons, and my throat protests its dryness."
"I do like the minstrel's voice," breathed the queen.
"Water for the princess," the king called. Somewhere behind a curtain, a voice repeated, "Water for the princess," and seconds later, a glass of water containing one slice of lemon and a strawberry cut into the shape of a flower was brought into the room and handed to Ellinetta.
"I prefer raspberries to strawberries," Elinetta said to the kitchenhand, who bowed and scurried back towards the curtain with the glass. The queen stopped him on the way with a gesture.
"Take note to the minstrel that he is still employed," she breathed.
"And your I-broke-a-nail scream, it is satisfactory now?" the king asked Ellinetta.
"Wrong princess, bonehead," someone screeched behind the curtain, followed by a splash and a tinkle.
"My I-broke-a-nail scream has been perfected for years, father. But I can now convey that I have broken my longest nail."
"Oh, wonderful, dear," breathed the queen proudly.
"Quite," agreed the king, and to his wife: "How long did it take Essrina?"
"Three weeks at least. The poor girl's nails were simply ragged after. Do you remember, she wore gloves for days to follow."
Ellinetta looked down with a demure smile. A second kitchenhand approached her with a glass of water; lemon slices and raspberries swirled slowly in the bottom. "Thank you," she said. The boy bowed deeply and waited in that position.
"I suppose Essrina did not share with Elliara and yourself that she had difficulties with her screams, did she?"
The queen gave her tiny smile, swept a hand across her auburn ringlets, and waxed kittenish. "The best she could manage for years was I-have-seen-an-abnormally-large-insect... so close and yet so far! It's lucky she never was carried off by a dragon, for she simply would never have been rescued."
“Hee hee,” giggled Ellinetta.
"Hee hee," giggled the queen.
“Ha ha ha,” said the king. “But really, we did live in fear of a dragon attack for some time because of it.”
“Yes, well,” said the queen, “well, yes.”
“Luckily then Elliara came of age to be abducted,” said the king. “And as dragons desire only youngest princess, Essrina needed fear such things no longer."
Ellinetta stopped giggling as a shiver abruptly ran up her spine. "You didn't summon me to tell me a dragon is demanding your youngest daughter, or he will burn down Burgstein Berg, did you?"
Her parents laughed.
"Goodness, no. Oh, my poor dear. Have you been worrying about that the entire time?"
"No, I just thought of it now."
The queen frowned, just a tiny bit, not enough to create any lines. "You should not do such things, my dear. When I was your age, I never would have come to conclusions on my own like that."
"My side of the family, I'm afraid," the king admitted with a chortle and a shake of his head. Then he grew serious. "But your mother is right, Ellinetta."
"I know," Ellinetta said. "I'm sorry. In fact, I have been on the verge of a headache all this morning, for Ms. Wrorr assigned me homework, and I fear I do not have the answers I need."
The queen looked scandalised. "Homework? Mental homework?"
"Are you having problems with your screams, too?" The king leaned forward, concerned. "I thought those were always such a strong field for you."
"I, well yes, of course, father, they are," Ellinetta stuttered. "It is only one scream-- a silly thing," she said, tossing her head. "A scream for encountering something incredibly ugly. I can only convince the woman I have encountered something passing ugly, and therefore I am bidden 'find something frightfully ugly to meditate over'. However, there is nothing frightfully ugly in Castley Rock to be seen--oh!" she cried, as her head punished her with a sharp throb.
"Well, do stop dwelling on it this instant," the king said hurriedly. "Don't worry your pretty little head over such things. That woman is a barbarian. Where is she from, darling, Zkantynafia?" he asked his wife.
"Indeed," she breathed. "And there is certainly no such scream in the princess repertoire around here; I would know."
"Of course," the king agreed. "Creatures, places and people in Zkantynafia are unarguably uglier than here in our fair realm of Feldeu. So while it may be important for princesses to learn such cries in the North En’, I will tell Ms. Wrorr that our princesses are to go through life seeing only beauty. Certainly not meditating on ugly things throughout the day. 'Tis harmful to the soul and complexion."
"Oh, thank you, father," sighed Ellinetta. "I was going to tell Henra to find me something hideous."
"By all means, no," the king said. "No, Ms. Wrorr shall not trouble anyone further with learning that outrageous scream. And in fact..." He exchanged a glance with the queen, who sighed and procured a handkerchief from her gown's velvet sleeve. "She shall not trouble you further at all, with any screams, be they for ugly encounters or broken nails."
Ellinetta blinked as her mother abruptly sniffled and dabbed at one eye. "Whatever do you mean?" she asked. She had finished her water; she handed the glass back to the kitchen boy, who was still in a deep bow beside her. He straightened with a groan and hobbled back to the kitchen. "Has she died? I just saw her!"
"No," he said crossly. "And do stop arriving at conclusions; it is unseemly."
Ellinetta waited, worried. "Then..." she prompted.
"Well, what we summoned you here for, my dear," breathed the queen with a brave intake of air, "is rather a difficult matter to tell you..." She trailed off.
The king's moustache made a harrumphing movement. "Though at the same time 'tis a joyous and beneficial affair," it said.
"Oh!" Ellinetta exclaimed with a small clap of her hands before she could stop herself. "Sorry," she murmured, as the king fixed her with a glare. Her hands twisted back down to her front. "I just, I wondered... is it another foreign prince to court me?" she asked shyly. Her heart pounded.
Ever since the disaster with beautiful Prince Iaseke, she had suffered a dry spell of courtship by royalty. Then Elliara had become engaged to Prince Iaseke's younger brother, and she and Ellinetta had fought about it, and at that time Elliara had maliciously let slip to her younger sister that in royal circles there were rumours of Ellinetta being unlucky. Indeed, during the months which followed, Ellinetta had been swarmed only with proposals from dukes and nobles.... even some hopeful stableboys. It was insulting, and embarrassing.
"No," the king said. "And in light of that situation itself, what we are about to tell you becomes even more serendipitous." He cleared his throat.
"Since the... mishap with Prince Iaseke, unfortunately I have been forced to conclude that any more forthcoming proposals from royalty are highly unlikely."
Ellinetta fought back a splutter. Her father was dreadfully strict about spluttering princesses.
"Though you are my favourite, dear Ellinetta," he was continuing, "the kingdom of Steinberg Stein must have a king, and for that reason, I have willed that Burgstein Berg shall go to Essrina and her Prince Adrick when my time is up. I could not, of course, have a nobleman or duke, as you may well end up marrying, rule it. They are silly, and know not how to rule."
"And they wear ridiculous hats," the queen breathed.
Ellinetta held her nose in stiff un-puffiness and blinked rapidly. Since early childhood, her father had assured her that she would someday inherit Burgstein Berg. It was the right of the youngest princess! Just as was her right the best blessings from the faerie godmother, the hair the most flaxen and the disposition most charming: youngest princesses get the most handsome prince, and they inherit rule of the land.
Another deduction, unbidden, hit her brain with the painful force of a stubbed toe. What if that was a lie? What if the king had actually been promising Burgstein Berg to her older sisters their whole lives, also? And if that were the case, what else might have been told to all of them? What if she, Ellinetta, were not even the most beautiful or the most blessed? What if Elliara's hair was, indeed, more flaxen?
"But..." she whimpered.
"This issue has troubled me for some time, and I did not want to bring it to your attention for fear of hurting your feelings. However, very recently it has suddenly opened up a multitude of happy opportunities. So smile!"
Ellinetta did not move. The king smiled for her.
"You see,” he continued, “your mother's sister Queen Gemina has recently fallen very ill. This in itself," he amended quickly, with an embarrassed glance toward his wife, "is not happy."
The queen shrugged. "But such is the way of life."
"But such is the way of life," repeated her husband. "Now, being rather eccentric, Queen Gemina never married, and as such, has no heirs or heiresses. Initially she intended to leave the Moonshone Palace to-- what was it, darling?"
The queen coughed delicately. “To quote: ‘the wolves’.”
"Yes. Well. But of course when your mother mentioned that our youngest daughter was in a plight of never inheriting her own castle, Queen Gemina volunteered ownership of her own palace! Is that not marvelous, Ellinetta? The Moonshone Palace, Ellinetta. To be all your own, once your aunt passes away. She has asked only that you come and join her, in this time she has left, so as to properly instruct you in caring for the place."
"But when would I have to leave?" Ellinetta asked, fearing the worst.
"As we do not know how much time Queen Gemina has left, we planned for as soon as possible. Perhaps tomorrow."
"But," Ellinetta whimpered, and this time one of the tears that had been lurking in her eye duct escaped, "I don't want to leave Castley Rock."
"The Moonshone Palace is exquisitely beautiful, dear," the queen breathed.
“But--!” Ellinetta rallied against her emotions, wiping her eyes hastily. "But I'm an alternative to wolves! Do wolves require instruction to inherit a palace?"
"I'm quite sure it was just an expression," the king said gently.
"You forgot the other part, darling," breathed the queen.
"Yes, of course! My dear Ellinetta,” said the king, “I know this is a shock, but believe me, it is extremely rare and extremely lucky for you to inherit a palace where you will not be restricted by the covenants of the land that you are used to. Of course, you will follow the general rules of the realm, but being successor to a queen who is famous for her... unconventional ways… you will share the very same liberties! For instance, ruling the castle alone, if you so wish, without a king, is unheard of, but you will be permitted to so. In other words, you will not even have to marry royalty-- you need not even concern yourself with the stature of suitors."
"I believe the term, as I have heard it once or twice, is 'marrying for love,'" the queen breathed.
"But I don't want the Moonshone Palace," Ellinetta said, her voice rising, raspy with shattered trust. This was unthinkable! "How could you do this to me? You promised me Castley Rock! I want Castley Rock! I am not eccentric and unconventional, and my very dignity is hurt that you think such of me! I do not want to 'marry for love'! I want to marry for money and status! I want a prince! Don't I deserve a prince?"
“Now, dear…” breathed the queen.
“I shall not go!”
Outside the room, the eavesdroppers, on a habitually acquired instinct, stood aside and practiced nonchalance just in time for the princess to come storming out past them, sniffling daintily. “Chocolate to my room,” she called, without looking round.
“Chocolate for the princess!” repeated behind her.