Once upon a time…
…There was a young prince. His parents had given him everything he asked for, and everyone in the castle had been told to acquiesce to his requests. Unfortunately this made the young prince quite proud until he thought this was his right and he treated everyone around him with disdain. Eventually his parents realized what they had done and were so appalled that they left him in the castle with only the servants for company. The woods grew up around the castle and no one ever ventured there because rumors had spread all through the kingdom of the prince’s cruelty.
One cold rainy night, however, a loud noise echoed all through the castle and the servants all exclaimed. The prince jerked his head up and yelled out,
“Jerome! Answer the door and send whoever it is away.”
“Yes sir.” Jerome was the butler and that was his job, so he stood up from in front of the fire and walked to the large mahogany door at the front of the castle. Outside stood a huddled old woman wrapped in ancient blankets full of holes.
“Please sir, may I stay in your barn until the rains pass?” she asked
“If it were up to me, I would let you. I am not the master here. I need to ask my master.” Poor Jerome knew the prince would not let her stay, but he didn’t have it in his gentle heart to send her away without at least asking.
He walked back to the library. The prince did not even lift his head,
“Now get that fire started Jerome. I’m cold.”
“Sir. Do you think…”
“Why are you talking to me and not starting my fire?”
“Well, it’s just, at the door, it’s an elderly…”
“Are you telling me you didn’t send whoever it was away? You’re useless Jerome. Fine, I’ll take care of it. You have my fire started by the time I get back.” The prince leaped up from his chair and stomped off towards the foyer. Once he was there, he slammed open the door into the foyer from the rest of the house and hollered,
“Get out of my home!”
“Please sir,” the elderly woman began, “I just want to stay in your barn until the rain stops. I won’t take any resources away from you.”
“And what can you offer me in return?” he sneered; seeing she was poor he knew she would have nothing and he could send her on her way.
“All I have is this.” She said and pulled out form inside her cloak a single red rose. “But I will let you have it, if you let me stay.”
“I have no use for that rose! Leave my house now!” he screamed again. She tried again but he cut her off before she had done more than gasp. “Get out.” His voice had lowered form hollering to a dangerous growl.
“Please…” she tried once more, but when he again cut her off she nodded her head.
“Fine.” He tried again to cut her off, only to find that he could not speak. She swept the hand holding the rose, over her head and the rags wrapped around her body changed to a beautiful yellow gown, her hair grew and changed from a wild grey mop to long brown tresses. In moments she had changed from an old hag, to a beautiful woman. Had the prince been able to speak he would have tried to change his mind, but he was held silent and still.
“I heard rumors of a handsome, cruel prince here. I thought I would see if you were reclusive or cruel and I came here meaning to punish or reward you as I saw fit. I see fit to punish, because of the cruelty you showed me. When the sun rises tomorrow, your exterior will match your interior and it will stay that way until you learn to love. But you cannot just love; you must also be loved in return. You have until the final petal falls off this rose, in ten years, to learn this lessen and change back to your current appearance, but after that no matter how you change, you will continue to look the way you will at dawn until the end of your days. Those here in your castle, for helping make you this way, will undergo a similar transformation.”
By the time this speech was over the prince was horrified, the beautiful woman had faded completely away and the rose was encased in glass on a table in front of the prince. On the table there was inscribed just one word- Love.
Nine years later…
“Johnny!!” a scream broke through the castle that had been nearly silent for nine years, except for its master’s occasional rampage. Servants, who looked only vaguely human, suddenly jerked at started running towards the scream.
“My Johnny is missing!” the matronly woman was one of the more disfigured servants in the castle. She walked hunched over until she was mostly on all fours and was nearly covered in hair.
“Melissa, it will be okay. I am sure he is just off playing with the horses.” Jerome said. His appearance was had also been drastically altered the morning after the visit by the witch. He had four arms, which came in use today as he embraced the sobbing woman and also gestured for the other servants to go looking for the young boy.
“Oh, dear! Did you hear, the master still does not love anyone but himself and another petal has fallen off the rose…Hmmm did you hear already, ya’ll seem very melancholy otherwise?” A half feline, half human creature named Cory came in prattling.
“Johnny is missing. We are about to send out a search party for him.” Jerome answered. “I am going to inform the master.”
“Oh, oh dear, and here I come rattling off more bad news. Oh dear.”
“Cory, be a dear and go tell the master what’s happening. Perhaps he’ll consent to go looking for Johnny, or at least deal with someone else while we look.”
Although nine years had passed, the prince had retained his scornful attitude. The only servants he allowed to see him were Jerome and Melissa, the others were either ignored or forced to talk to him through the door to the east wing of the castle, his private wing.
“Oh of course sir, I’ll go right now.” Cory’s voice faded as he skipped out of the kitchen towards the east wing. He was clearly more subdued however, as he approached the east wing and the pull that would alert the master that one of his servants wished to speak to him. Since they were not allowed in the east wing, they had set up this system to avoid angering the prince.
Just as Cory entered the room just outside of the east wing, he heard the prince holler, “Get out! No one is allowed in here! Jerome!” The prince seemed truly outraged and Cory was practically shaking in his boots as he rang the bell that would call the prince. A few moments passed before the door slowly opened. Instead of hearing the prince, or perhaps even seeing him, Cory saw a head covered in purple hair poke out.
“Oh, Johnny! Thank goodness, your mom was so worried when she couldn’t find you. What were you doing in there?” Cory grabbed the boy and pulled him out of the doorway and practically dragged him away from the prince’s private domain.
Other than his abnormally colored hair, Johnny looked fairly normal. The servants had noticed long ago that the servants who had been around the prince longest, looked by far worse than those who were new to his service. Children born after the transformation were completely normal, but Johnny had been five years old when the witch visited. He had therefore been changed, but not nearly as much as the older servants.
The two continued on the way to kitchen followed by the sound of the prince continuing to yell for Jerome.
“Jerome, look who I found! I couldn’t believe it when I saw his purple head poking out of the east wing of all places. I’m pretty sure the master must have seen him because he was hollering for someone to get out and I know you two were both in here and…” Cory’s voice trailed off as he realized that no one was listening to a word he said. They were all quite busy exclaiming over the young man at his side.
“Johnny, I was so worried, I didn’t know where you were.” Melissa exclaimed as she gave the boy a hug.
“You must never go in the east wing.” Jerome added as he too leaned down to hug Johnny, Jerome was uncommonly tall.
“I don’t understand why not. Why is the master so mean to us? You guys were all transformed too, it’s not like he’s unique around here.”
“Just promise me son, no more east wing.” Melissa said.
“Fine mom. Can I get some dinner now?” The boy was never very affectionate and he had had plenty of hugs and reprimands. His mom nodded and he ran off.
“Jerome, you better go talk to the master. He was clearly not happy someone else was in the east wing.” Cody said. “And I should go about my business.”
“Yeah, thanks for finding him Cody. I’ll see you later.”
“Who was that child Jerome? And why didn’t he know he’s not allowed here?” the prince was growling as he spoke, but since his jaw had transformed so much, he nearly always growled. Still, Jerome stammered a bit as he answered.
“T-that was my son Johnny. He had been given orders to never bother you, but he’s grown a bit rebellious and apparently decided to come check out why he wasn’t allowed back here.”
“Well I don’t like it when new people see me.” The prince paced as he walked. “But, since the boy has seen me, and he didn’t react with horror, I want you to send him back here tomorrow. I think he can help me with something.”
“A-are you sure master? I wouldn’t want the boy to bother you and he hasn’t been trained to be a servant. He’s headstrong and…”
“Send him here tomorrow with my lunch. You may go.” The prince turned his back and walked out of the room before Jerome could comment.
“But you said I’m not allowed there anymore. Why are you sending me there? I don’t want to go, that man was mean and he yelled at me.” Johnny was whining at Jerome.
“I don’t know what he wants you to do, but the master’s not cruel. He won’t hurt you. Just listen and do whatever he tells you to. I’ll stay as close as I can, but I don’t know what he wants either.”
“Okay, fine. But if you yell at me not to go there again, I’m gonna remind you about this.”
Jerome smiled and finished checking that his son was neatly dressed. “Okay, here’s the master’s lunch. Now, be careful and remember to be on your best behavior.”
“Okay dad.” Johnny laughed as he grabbed the tray with the prince’s lunch and walked away.
Johnny acted like he was unconcerned about what the prince might do to him, but he had listened at the door the night before as the adults talked among themselves about what to do. The prince had never asked to spend time with anyone before, not before the transformation when he was a handsome man, and certainly not since. Some of the adults had advocated hiding him since the prince never left his wing anyway, but they were sadly mistaken if they thought that he would hide from danger.
He tentatively pulled on the bell just this side of the east wing and opened the door that separated him from the prince.
“Hello, John. Thank you for bringing my lunch today.” The prince was waiting in the small library that was just on the other side of the door. “You may set the food on this table. I know you’re probably fairly worried about what I might need from you, right?”
“Yes sir.” Johnny answered more subdued than he had ever been. He walked over to the table about a foot from the prince, set down the tray of food, and walked back towards the door.
“Tell me John, are you scared of me because of the way I look, or because of the stories you’ve heard about me? It’s okay to be honest, I won’t be mad.” The prince shuffled towards the table where Johnny had set his lunch. He sat down at the table, carefully not looking towards the young boy.
“I’m not scared of how you look sir. Everyone here looks different from the pictures in books and stuff.”
“Good, good. Tell me Johnny, do you and the other children go to any sort of school?”
“Ms. Carrie teaches us to read and write and do math. She used to be your secretary, but you don’t have any appointments for her to schedule anymore.”
“I’m glad she found some other way to spend her time. And are you any good at your studies John?”
“Sir, I’m not so good at math, but Ms. Carrie says I’m one of the best readers in my grade and I write good stories that she asks me to read to the younger kids.”
“That’s great.” The prince stopped talking for a moment and ate a bite of his lunch. After a few moments he raised his head again, “Now, while I’m eating I would like you to do me a little favor okay?” Johnny nodded. “I want you to go over to the book shelves and I want you to pick a book you think you might like to read. Take your time; I’m going to eat my lunch.”
“Okay sir.” Johnny walked over and did exactly as the prince said. He took his time, waiting until the prince was done eating before he brought over the book he had selected, even though it was about the third book he had picked up. “I picked one sir, now what?”
“Now, I’m going to tell you a secret. Are you good at keeping secrets John?”
“Yes, sir. I have lots of secrets.”
“Okay, good. Now, here’s my secret I haven’t told anyone in nine years. After the witch visited, everyone was transformed physically right?” The prince waited until Johnny agreed. “Well, part of my transformation is that my eyes don’t work well. I can see colored blurs, but in nine years I haven’t been able to read my books and I’ve been alone in this section of my castle. If you’re willing, John, I would like you to get cozy in one of these chairs, and I would like you to read to me. Do you think you could do that?”
“Umm, I guess. But can I get a glass of water first?”
“Of course. There’s a small bathroom with a sink just through that door on your left.”
Johnny left and got a glass of water and then sat down in the second most comfortable chair in the room, the prince was sitting in the most comfortable.
“It was the best of times,” began Johnny. “It was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ….”
Before either reader or listener knew what had happened, the light was gone and Johnny had to look up from Dickens great work A Tale of Two Cities.
“Sir, would you like me to light some candles and continue reading?”
“No John. I did not mean to keep you from your life so long. Will you return tomorrow to continue the story?”
“If you want me to sir.” Johnny answered. Never before had he been allowed to spend hours reading without interruption, and he was quite pleased to be allowed now.
“This was once my favorite book John. Back when I could read to myself. I will see you at lunch time tomorrow. You may bring yourself a snack if you would like.”
“Thank you sir.” Johnny placed the ribbon in the book where he had stopped and stood to stretch. He had been quite comfortable immersed in the language of Dickens, but now his muscles began to cramp. He picked up the lunch tray he had brought with him and left the room.
“What did he want?” Jerome asked anxiously rushing up to Johnny as soon as the door into the east wing had closed.
“I’m not really sure. I mostly just read A Tale of Two Cities all afternoon.” Which was technically true and allowed Johnny to keep his promise not to tell anyone about the prince’s semi-blindness?
“Okay, let’s get dinner. Tomorrow you can tell me about it.”
“Mmmm, no I can’t. Tomorrow I’m going to take him his lunch again.” Johnny ignored Jerome’s surprised stammering and walked off to the kitchen.
Today there was less panic in the kitchen when Johnny came to get the prince’s lunch. Clearly he had not been damaged by the previous day’s visit. This time there were two plates on the tray, one with the prince’s lunch and one with a snack for Johnny.
Johnny put the heavy tray on a cart and wheeled it through the passages to the east wing. The room just this side of the forbidden east wing was a sitting room that had not been used since the prince shut himself up. It was one of the few rooms that were poorly maintained because a good number of the maids were afraid of the prince. Still, it was one of the nicest rooms in the castle and Johnny had often found himself playing in here.
He pulled the bell and entered the east wing library room. As soon as he closed the door behind himself, the prince spoke.
“Hello John. I’m glad you came back today. Please put lunch down for me.”
“Have you ever A Tale of Two Cities before yesterday?”
“I haven’t read it before, but my mom reads us A Christmas Carol every year at Christmas. It’s the only novel by Charles Dickens that we have in the rest of the castle, and it’s one of my favorite stories. That’s why I picked this book.”
“Do you like it so far?” the prince asked.
“I do sir.”
“You can sit down while I finish my lunch John. There’s no reason for you to stand there while I eat just because I don’t want you to read yet.”
Johnny nodded and moved towards the same chair he had sat in the previous day. Then he stopped and walked back towards the cart.
“If you don’t mind, sir, I’ll just get ready to read.” The prince nodded his head.
“Actually John, would you please call me William. It’s my real name and I haven’t heard it in awhile.”
“Um, okay sir. I mean William.”
“You could also relax. I don’t plan on hurting you or anything.” Prince William growled. He looked down and began eating his lunch while Johnny got settled in.
“Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself while I eat John?” The prince asked a few minutes later.
“Oh, well I’m fourteen years old. My mom is your housekeeper and my dad is Jerome. He always tells me not to come here, but clearly I don’t listen to him much.” Here Johnny laughed a little and was surprised to hear a gravelly chuckle come from Prince William. “I like to read books, but we don’t have many so I started writing my own stories to read to the younger children. I also like to play with the horses in the barn. I really love playing with them. There’s one grey mare who is the most playful animal I’ve ever met. She nuzzles my arm and when the stable master says we can go out, she loves to go for runs. I call her Gracie. Other than that and school there really isn’t much to tell. What about you sir?”
“Humph, me huh? I would bet you know just about everything there is to know about me. Servants always know all the gossip about the master in the house and under these circumstances; I’m sure extra gossip has circulated.”
“Well, I have heard gossip, but you could tell me the truth. If you wanted to.”
“Alright!” Prince William yelled, “Why don’t you read the book instead of questioning me.”
“Uh-yeah okay sir.” The boy stammered. He picked up the book and began reading. Again the story went quickly and neither man nor boy realized how much time had passed until Johnny was squinting and struggling to read.
“Alright John. Please return tomorrow to continue. You may go.”
Seeing as how the prince has been fairly upset with him for his questions earlier, Johnny did not feel like lingering. He quickly collected the lunch materials and let the room.
Dinner over, Jerome sat Johnny down in the servants quarters. “Okay, son. You have to tell me what’s happening with the master.”
“I don’t know dad. He just wants me to read to him. And he asked me to tell him a little about my life today so I told him about Gracie. He knows that we have classes in the mornings. Then I read him some of A Tale of Two Cities and then I came here for dinner.
“Okay, well just be careful. Don’t provoke him Johnny. We don’t see him out here anymore, so you don’t know this, but the master does have a bit of a temper.”
“Whatever dad. I’m gonna go out to the barn for a few minutes before bed time.”
The barn smelled of horse and hay and slightly rotted wood. It was one of his favorite smells. Johnny walked up to Gracie’s stall and whispered to her. It was true that he told his stories to the other children in the castle, but before he told them to the children, he told them to the little grey mare. Tonight he didn’t have a new story to tell her, but he touched her nose with his finger and told her about his days with the prince. He ran his finger through her course mane and whispered his fear of the strange man who couldn’t see as well as his pride in being the only one to know his secret. In return the horse wickered a little noise and snuffled his pockets looking for the sugar cube she knew he kept there for her.
“Hee-hee, alright already. That tickles. I guess you care more about the sweet stuff than stress, huh?” Johnny finally laughed and handed her the sugar cube and a few slices of carrot.
“Johnny, time for bed!” he heard his mother shout from afar, and he rubbed the horse’s head one more time before he headed in for the night.
“My word people! Have you heard about the rose?!? We’re down to only one blasted pedal and stupid Prince William still won’t stir from the blasted east wing. I’m going to be stuck looking like a stupid cat for the rest of my life!!” Cory wailed before bursting into tears. He did not handle it well each time a pedal dropped and the last few had been especially hard on him.
“Now, now Cory. It’s not that bad.” Melissa scrambled forward to give the poor man a hug.
“Not that bad? NOT THAT BAD??? I look like a blasted cat! You look like a bear, lumbering around on all fours! Your son has purple hair for God’s sake, and what had he ever done? Nothing! Nothing I tell you. We were cursed because that blasted prince won’t get off his blasted behind to help someone, and even now, he still won’t bestir himself!! It is that bad!” Cory was a tad dramatic.
“Do not insult my wife Cory. Just because you are miserable does not mean you must make the rest of us unhappy. Adjust to your current state. We caused this by allowing him to behave that way, we too must suffer the consequences of our decisions.” Jerome growled from behind the pair. He walked over to Melissa to give her a hug and used his third hand to gesture for someone to remove Cory. This was a familiar scene in the castle ad Cory was easily removed.
“Oh Jerome. What are we going to do? He’s right you know. Poor Johnny didn’t do anything wrong, but he can never leave this castle because of some ridiculous curse. This isn’t the life I wanted for him.”
“I know dear. I wanted better for the boy too. But, even without the curse, he probably would never have left here. We wouldn’t have been able to help him attend a better school or get a better job. We must simply keep calm. And hope. There’s still a few months left in the curse.”
With everyone calmed down again, Jerome took a deep breath. With this latest breakdown, he knew he had to move that blasted rose where few would see it, but that meant the east wing. He steeled himself to head over there and confront the prince.
“…It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”
“And thus ends, A Tale of Two Cities. So Johnny, what did you think?”
Since the day William had yelled at him, Johnny had made an effort to keep to only answering questions and reading from the Dickens book.
“Well, I don’t have a lot to compare it to, but I know I like it more A Christmas Carol. The characters are so real.”
“I agree. And the ending is very satisfying, isn’t it John?”
“Yes sir. I do love a good solid ending in a story.”
“So do I John. A Tale of Two Cities was always one of my favorites. I believe if you look on the shelf you will see another copy. Why don’t you choose one of those to take with you back to the classroom. I imagine Ms. Carrie would be pleased to add another book to her repertoire.”
“Oh thank you sir! Ms. Carrie will be happy. I told her that I’ve been reading it and she told me how much she enjoys English authors of the time.”
“Would you like to read another one to me John? I won’t be mad if you don’t.”
“Oh! I would like to read some more sir. What do you want me to read this time?”
“If you don’t mind if I pick, let’s read another classic. I believe I may have a delightful pirate adventure in one of the corners. See if you can find a book called Treasure Island. I think you’ll like that one.”
Jerome stood on the other side of the door to the east wing, eavesdropping on his son and his master talking about a book Jerome had never read. Finally with the lull in conversation he knocked timidly on the door, unsure what the prince’s response would be.
“What? Who’s there?” the prince growled at the interruption.
“O-only me sire, Jerome. I have a small favor to ask of you.”
“It’s just that some of the others have been getting worked up over, well over some stuff, and I just wondered if perhaps I could move the rose here to the east wing so they don’t have to see it?” Jerome asked timidily, through the door.
“Hmm.” It was more of an exhaulation of air, than an answer at first. After a moment, the prince replied, “You may send it with my lunch and John tomorrow. Go now.”
“Thank you sire.” Jerome said.
Several minutes passed in which the only sounds were the huffing that was Prince William’s breath and the slide of leather bound books over the shelves as Johnny looked for Treasure Island. Finally William could bear it no longer.
“I once yelled at you for asking me a question, but now I’m going to ask you about it again. Would you tell me the gossip that the servant’s spread about me?”
“A-are you sure sir? I don’t want to make you mad.”
“I’m sure. I just want to know what they say about me on the other side of that door.”
“Well, I guess. Most people think you like being like this and that’s why you don’t leave this wing. You don’t want to love anyone because you like being a beast and you don’t care about what everyone else wants.”
At that bit of news, William snorted a little harder than normal, and it was a struggle to remain calm, but he didn’t want to scare the boy who brought stories back to him.
“What do you think John?” He asked when he had calmed down.
“I think you don’t know what else to do. Shoot I just have purple hair and I don’t want to go wandering around where people can see it. I think people’d be likely to run away and I would just get mad. Plus, I think it must be lonely and boring not to have people around. Oh! I found it, and there’s a skull on the cover!”
“Indeed. It’s a pirate story. What else would you put on the cover?”
“I’ve never read a pirate story before. Can I start now?”
“Go ahead and get comfortable first. I think we should be able to get through a bit before dark.”
Back in the hallway Jerome stood looking at the rose inside its glass cover. It stood in a tall crystal vase, kept full of water by the maids. The rose that controlled the fates of everyone in the castle was not much to look at. A single black-brown stem rose out of the vase, topped with a red-black cap that once held the pedals. Now only two pedals clung to the cap. Two pedals. Jerome did not know what to think of that. Cory was well known for watching the rose in his spare time. If anyone knew how many pedals it had left, it was Cory, who had just sworn only one pedal remained, yet there, clinging stubbornly to the cap of the dying rose, were two blood red pedals. Sighing, he dropped a woven cloth over the cover and carried the whole thing into the kitchen, to be placed on the prince’s lunch tray in the morning.