I posted this story for my Patreon supporters back in April. Now, I’ve decided to share it with a wider audience. Here for your entertainment is the closest I have yet come to writing a traditional fairytale.
Princess Blue Jean
Gareth L. Powell
A LONG TIME ago, before the Egyptians built their pyramids and before the pillars of Stonehenge were hewn from the hills of Wales and carefully maneuvered into position on Salisbury Plain; before the end of the last Ice Age, during which glaciers smothered northern Europe and Neanderthal huntsmen pursued reindeer across seemingly endless tundra; there lived a princess.
She was the daughter of a kindly king and queen, and she lived very comfortably in a timber and stone castle on the exposed tidal shelf of what we now know as the Mediterranean Sea. The gently rolling plains of her father’s kingdom were fair and exceptionally fertile, and warmed by the southern sun. Herds of caribou and mammoth grazed in wide-open pasture, and fruit trees and vines hung heavy with ripening produce. Life for the people of the kingdom was about as good as you could reasonably expect. However, to the north, the forests and Alpine mountains of Europe, which lay just beyond the kingdom’s northernmost borders, were wild and elemental, and home to all manner of frightening and eldritch beasts, from lone sabre-toothed cats to packs of slavering dire wolves, and worse. And it was from these darkened, windblown lands that the enchantress came. She walked out of the wilderness on the day of the princess’s birth – a frightening creature born of desolation and necessity. Human teeth hung in a necklace around her neck, and the flayed skin and mane of a male lion formed her cloak. She walked out of the wilderness with the lion’s tail dragging in the grass behind her, and laid a terrible curse on the castle, on the king and queen and, especially, on the head of the newborn princess.
But we know this part of the story, don’t we? We know how the princess grew to womanhood and then pricked her finger on a needle and fell asleep for an unusually long period of time; how a prince came to kill the enchantress and free the child from her curse…
Yes, we know all that. I can see you nodding. So, let’s skip it. You’ve heard it before.
You may not, however, have heard the truth about what really happened when the princess awoke. The story usually stops at that point, with celebrations and a wedding. But that’s not what really happened. The truth is that the princess didn’t want to get married straightaway.
In fact, she had other things on her mind – things the like of which no one in the kingdom had ever conceived…
The princess awoke with a start, alarmed to find a strange man leaning over her bed.
“Who on earth are you?” she demanded, for, as a princess, she was unused to finding strange men in her private chambers.
“I’m… Well, I’m the prince,” the man replied, somewhat taken aback.
“What are you doing in my room?” The princess sat up and pulled the covers up to her chin.
The prince’s cheeks flushed like two ripening apples. Now that she had blinked some of the sleep from her eyes, the princess could see he was little more than a boy, hardly older than she was.
“I have awoken you with a kiss,” he stammered. “And now we are going to be wed.”
“Wed?” The princess threw off her blankets and leapt to her feet. Unnerved, the prince backed away.
“I believe that is the tradition,” he said.
The princess shook her head.
“But we’ve just met. Are you insane?”
“No, I…” The prince was clearly out of his depth, and the situation was obviously not progressing as he had pictured it might.
“And besides, I’m only eighteen years old,” the princess continued in an aggrieved tone. “I don’t want to get married yet. Especially,” and she gave him a glare that would have melted a glacier, “especially not to a boy prone to stealing kisses from sleeping girls.”
The prince swallowed and ran a finger around the collar of his ill-fitting military tunic.
“But I rescued you,” he protested weakly. “I lifted the enchantment.”
The princess raised an eyebrow.
“And I thank you for startling me from my lassitude,” she said as politely as she could manage under the circumstances, “but that doesn’t mean I’m going to throw myself into your arms. What kind of girl do you take me for?”
The prince was not to be deterred. He had sworn an oath and to return home without his bride would be to return home to scorn and ignominy.
“Nevertheless,” he croaked, voice raw with nerves, “I have sworn to rescue you and make you my bride, and I will not leave until you consent to my proposal.”
A smile tickled the corners of the princess’s ruby lips.
“In that case,” she told him, “you’re going to have a long wait.”
A few days later, with the prince trailing after her like a neglected puppy, the princess summoned her father’s advisors, alchemists, viziers and mages. She brought them together in a small, private and largely forgotten chapel in an unused, ivy-eaten tower towards the rear of the sprawling castle. When they were gathered, the learned old men were aghast to find her dressed not in her finery but in a pair of blue cotton trousers and a grubby white collarless shirt that she had sewn herself on the very spinning wheel that had put her into her magical sleep. She had a quill behind her ear and her fingers were black and stained with ink. Behind her, the prince’s arms were filled with rolls of parchment, each of which the princess had covered in sketches and diagrams and row-after-row of dense, spidery handwriting.
“Gentlemen,” she said from the lectern, “I want to tell you about my dreams.”
She cleared her throat and took a sip of water from a glass the prince had thoughtfully placed within easy reach.
“As you know, I have been asleep for some time. While I slept, I dreamed,” she began, “of a time as far removed from this age of magic as our present day is from the age of thundering lizards. A time after the ice that covers the north has retreated. A time of wonders.”
The crowd muttered and grumbled, unhappy at her words. The priests and scholars eschewed prophecy as merely errant superstition, while the soothsayers and fortunetellers considered it their private purview and resented any who might claim insight into its mysteries.
Undeterred, the princess continued.
“As I slept, I beheld this world to come, where the men and women carried compact black mirrors in their pockets, which allowed them to talk to anyone they pleased, no matter how far away they might be, and to send written messages through the air like wishes, without the aid of parchment or carrier pigeon.”
The princess took another sip of water and straightened her back, assuming a regal pose that would have made her deportment tutor shiver with pride and apprehension.
“They rode in shining carriages that travelled at dreadful speed,” she declaimed, projecting her voice above the susurrus of disbelief, “and they flew in metal birds that soared higher than even our mightiest eagle.
“They had more knowledge than is contained in all our libraries, and all of them had access to it through their magical mirrors. Endless, endless litanies of facts and figures, wrapped around the world like the threads of an invisible net.”
In the front row, the Grand Chamberlain coughed into his hand, stifling a sneer behind his fist.
“Wrapped around the world, your highness?”
The princess looked down her nose at him. She might be dressed like a carpenter, but she was still a princess, and still used to being able to talk without impolite interruption.
“Yes,” she insisted, “around. For the world is a globe, my Lord Chamberlain, and round like a grapefruit.”
At this, a tumult broke out. Fists were waved; grey-bearded men who should have known better exchanged insults and recriminations; and it was only when the prince stepped forward and unsheathed his sword that order returned, grudgingly, to the room.
When all was still, and the only sound in the room was the puffing of red, aggrieved faces, the princess drew herself up once more.
“The magic in this new world,” she enunciated slowly, “is different to the magic in ours. There are no dragons or trolls, no centaurs or griffins, no manticores or unicorns. No, the magic they have is magic wrought from their own ingenuity, enabled by machines built of iron and glass and fire.”
She unrolled one of the parchments the prince had been carrying for her.
“You see,” she said, tapping her drawings with a chewed and inky fingernail. “This is the mechanism for driving their horseless carriages. You pump oil into a metal chamber and ignite it with a spark. You do this dozens of times a minute, and use the force of the resultant explosions to drive a series of pistons, which in turn drive the wheels.”
At this, the alchemists began to look interested.
As the princess worked her way through parchment after parchment, she saw brows knit in concentration; eyes glaze in thought; and lips move with silent extrapolation.
By the time she reached the last parchment, the scholars, clerics and professors, the diviners, wizards and bards were all listening attentively, their eyes like saucers.
At the end of her speech, after she’d regaled them with every detail she could scrape from the memory of her magical dream, there could be no question that they were with her, that they would help her to realise her visions in the waking world.
“But where,” asked the Grand Chamberlain gruffly, “will we get the raw materials for such undertakings?
The princess smiled at him, her manner warmer now and less imperious. Her discolored hands gripped the lectern’s edges.
“We need to mine the hills for metals,” she announced, “and the deserts for oil.”
And so, all through the autumn and winter of that year, while the Age of Ice continued to rage in the north, the princess and her followers worked. They turned the ramshackle chapel into a busy workshop; brought in ores and smelting equipment from the northern mountains, and crude oil from their newly constructed derricks in the southern deserts.
Clad in her blue jeans, a spanner in her back pocket, and her long dark hair tied up in a red bandana, the princess supervised every stage of their work – much to the displeasure of her father, the king, who had hoped to arrange a marriage for her that would have cemented his alliances in the east; but, after several months, even he had to admit that no prince would ever come from a far-away land to marry her. Her reputation had spread, and those who were kind and disposed to give her the benefit of the doubt regarded her as quixotic and headstrong, while those of less generous spirit denounced her as addled and unable to distinguish dreams from reality.
The only suitor she would ever have was the prince who had awakened her. For all his bravery and martial prowess, he was a simple creature, capable of slaying the enchantress but unable to imagine a world bereft of her kind. But he was loyal and patient and had sworn to marry the Princess, however long she made him wait and however far from the paths of tradition her dreams would lead them. And, in the meantime, he had his uses. He was strong and seemed to enjoy manual work. Given time and careful instruction, she thought fondly, he would make an accomplished blacksmith.
The days lengthened, and her little group toiled until the first spring flowers pushed through the last of the winter snows. Under her guidance, they demonstrated that the fireworks the king had been saving in order to celebrate his daughter’s wedding could be better employed as the basis for muskets and pistols powerful enough to fell a charging dragon, and that certain kinds of mould could be cultivated to form a medicine of use against infection and disease.
And when, at last, the princess took her leave of the castle on a bright spring morning, chuffing westwards on a wooden-wheeled, steam-powered cart built like a mobile forge, her little band of old, learned men shambled after her, carrying with them the tools to tame a magical world, and the seeds of all that has since come to pass.