A Princely Price


Part 1: The Gift

Laughter twinkled from every corner of the room. Glasses were clinked, and stories were swapped. A small knot of adoring visitors clustered around a small crib, in which a tiny baby lay, asleep, oblivious to the celebration in his honor. One of the partygoers reached into the crib to scratch the baby’s head, and when she did, the baby awoke and laughed a tinkling little laugh. All the guests smiled and congratulated the queen on such a healthy beautiful baby.

A moment later, a herald cleared his throat from the corner and announced in a loud, booming voice, “The fairy Tatiana has come to bestow upon his Royal Majesty Prince Phillip his birth gift. Welcome, Tatiana of the Eastern Glade!” There was polite applause as a tall fairy clad in sweeping blue robes swept into the room. Her wings, protruding from holes cut from her robes, were a deep, glittering, azure, and their ends almost brushed the marbled floor. She glanced smiling around the room and made her way slowly over to the crib.

When she reached it, Tatiana paused for a moment, then turned to Queen Arabella, the prince’s mother, and said, “Your baby is beautiful, and healthy, and so I need not give him those gifts. Instead,” she said, turning back to the crib, “I give him the gift of persuasion. May he be a gifted a speaker with a quick tongue and a ready reason. May his words always hold true with those around him. This gift, I give to you, Prince Phillip of Helgana.” Tatiana then opened her palm above the baby’s head and a shower of dazzling stars rained down upon the infant.

The guests waited expectantly in hushed silence. Nothing happened. Tatiana broke the awkward silence in an imperious voice, “His gift pertains to speech, and as such, it will not take effect until the child can talk. I believe, for a child of his capabilities, that that would take approximately two-”

“Tatiana,” The Queen Arabella interrupted, “I think you’ve done enough here. Might I have a private word?” The queen’s face was ashen, for she alone had realized what her son’s birth gift would truly mean when he grew up.

Tatiana strolled casually after Arabella as she led the fairy to a small antechamber off the hall. When they were both inside it, Queen Arabella asked, “Do you mean to tell me that my son will be able to control anyone he wishes to with his voice alone?”

“Naturally, Your Grace.”

The Queen moaned, “What have you done, Tatiana? As soon as he finds out the extent of his gift, there will be no one who can control him. He will be king someday, assuming someone doesn’t kill him first, can you imagine that? My birth gift was resourcefulness, my sister’s compassion, why couldn’t you have given him a gift like that? Can you imagine a ruler whose word is literally law? There is a reason fairies aren’t supposed to give children all-powerful birth gifts! A monarch that has too much obvious power is in more danger than a monarch with none. Do you know how angry the people will be if he misuses his gift? There will be uprisings, rebellions, plots, and murders! By blessing my son you have cursed my kingdom!”

“Calm yourself, Your Grace. If you raise the child well, your kingdom will have nothing to fear.”

“I cannot control who he will be, Tatiana! Yes I can love him, and raise him well, but in the end, it is his own heart that will decide the course of his rule.”

Tatiana sighed, “Very well, Your Majesty. I think I can devise a loophole.” She closed her eyes and concentrated, “One moment… yes, I think I have it. You know, of course, that there can only be one of each birth gift alive at any given point?” The Queen nodded.

“That’s not entirely true,” continued Tatiana. “Fairies are not the only ones who can give birth gifts. Gnomes give them too, though never to royals, and to only a few, select commoners. If, somewhere in the world, a child gifted with persuasion met Phillip, and one of them tried to use their gift upon the other, and one resisted, one of the gifts would break in the struggle. If Phillip’s broke, then the void normally filled with persuasiveness would steal some of the birth gift of the other, and vice versa if the other’s broke. Either way, Phillip’s gift is substantially reduced and completely harmless. He probably couldn’t even convince you to give him a box of candy. And voila! You have your happily every after.”

Arabella did not look so happy. “That’s a lot of ‘ifs’, Tatiana.”

“It’s the best I can do, Your Majesty. There may not even be need for the loophole.”

“Let us pray that there won’t be. Farewell, Tatiana. Give my greetings to your brother.”

“Farewell, Your Grace. Good luck with that boy of yours. I’m sure he’ll turn out to be a splendid young fellow.” With these words she swept out of the room as gracefully as she had come, and at that moment, thirty-six miles away, a baby named Carrie Anna Felton was being granted the gift of persuasion by a kindly old gnome.

Part 2: The Journey

Eleven Years and Three Months Later…

Carrie awoke with a start, clutching her blankets and staring wide-eyed out her window. Wolves circled the house, drawn by the gnome sleeping in the adjacent bedroom. Gnomes often came to stay, as her father worked with them often for business, and every time one stayed for the night, frustrated wolf howls kept her awake. Breathe, Carrie, she thought to herself, Just breathe and it’ll be over before you know it. They’ll leave before dawn, Carrie, they always do.

Within an hour, the wolves gave up and left, and Carrie fell asleep shortly after. She awoke with the sun, and went downstairs to find only the gnome awake, happily humming as he made flapjacks and eggs for breakfast.

“Why hello, sleepyhead! You’re normally up an hour before this!” exclaimed the gnome cheerily.

“The wolves kept me awake last night.”

“Ah, yes. Sorry about that. My magic must be getting stronger!” He laughed, letting a few gold sparks dance merrily off his fingers.

Carrie smiled, unable, as always, to be sad or tired in the gnome’s presence. “Must you leave today, Mookmack? Mother’s making mushroom soup tonight, your favorite.”

“I admit it sounds tempting, mi mookadi,” said the gnome, using Carrie’s gnomish nickname, “but I must be up at the palace tomorrow. Queen Arabella has requested my presence and it would not do to upset a royal.”

“Why’d she summon you?” asked Carrie curiously.

“She’s asked me to do a Telling. Apparently she’s worried about her son’s birth gift, and wants to know if it’ll cause any trouble. Persuasion, same as yours, mi mookadi,” Mookmack said, ruffling Carrie’s hair fondly. For once, Carrie did not smile back. Instead, she stared hard at her plate and made no response.

“Ah, forgive me, I had forgotten you abhorred your birth gift so. You know, not many commoners get birth gifts. If my cousin, Zookam, hadn’t been so fond of you, you wouldn’t have a birth gift at all. Besides, I’d venture to guess you’ve never manipulated anyone with it?”

Carrie shook her head. Though she didn’t say so, she hadn’t used her gift since she was four, and had no intention of using it in the near future.

Mookmack smiled, satisfied, “Gnome gifts are always more down-to-earth than fairies’ are. I’ve always said fairies shouldn’t be trusted to give out gifts; they’re much too prone to arrogance and hunger for power, not something you want in a royal.” Mookmack tossed the last flapjacks onto a plate and placed it on the table, where three other plates sat steaming. “Everything’s ready for breakfast, mi mookadi, go wake your parents, and tell them I didn’t add mushrooms to this batch of pancakes.”

An hour later, the plates were cleaned and put away, and Carrie, her parents, and Mookmack sat at the table, chatting about Mookmack’s journey to the palace.

“Be careful on the roads, and keep an eye out for brigands, I’ve heard there’s a swarm of relatively intelligent pixies who’ve taken to thievery,” said Carrie’s mother, Kathryn.

Mookmack laughed heartily. “Don’t worry, this gnome’s got a few tricks up his sleeve that no thief on earth has seen before.”

“All the same, you might travel faster if you didn’t have to worry about safety. You sure you don’t want to take one of the dogs?” Carrie’s mother asked, concerned.

“No, no. I don’t get along well with dogs, no canine breed seems to get along with gnomes, but,” he said slowly, “I was thinking that maybe, if she wanted to, Carrie could come along with me.”

There was a rather startled silence at the table.

“Well… I suppose so… what d’you think, Carrie?” asked Carrie’s father tentatively.

“I-I’d love to, Mookmack… but it’s just… the farthest I’ve been from home is to the meadow to take the dogs for a run.”

Mookmack reached out and squeezed her hand fondly. “You’ve got good, gnomish instincts, mi mookadi; you stick where you belong, but sometimes it’s good to get out and see the world, so that when you get come, you appreciate it all the more. Besides, I’ll be with you the whole time, and when we get home, you’ll have something extra special exiting to tell all your friends. What’d you say?”

Carrie thought for a moment, then said, “I think I would like to very much, Mookmack. What should I pack?”

Three hours later, Mookmack and Carrie sat upon the back of an old mule, Carrie in the front and Mookmack behind, and along the ten-hour ride, they told stories and jokes and riddles, and though Carrie thoroughly enjoyed the gnome’s company, she was glad to dismount the mule and approach the castle gates.

Part 3: The End

“Your Majesty, Queen Arabella of Helgana, may I present you with the gnome Mookmack Zinzendorf of the Southern Tunnels, and Carrie Anna Felton of Farwick!” called the herald in a loud, clear voice as Carrie and Mookmack entered the throne room.

Carrie could not help but gape. Her whole house could have fit in half the room alone, and her eyes had never witnessed such an incredible display of color. Banners hung on poles high above her head, and portraits lined the walls along the hall. Then there was the queen herself. She was clad in a deep purple gown with a crown that glittered as though stars gleamed through the diamonds adorning it.

Mookmack led Carrie to the front of the hall, directly before the queen.

“Your Grace, the gnomes send their fondest wishes of your health and happiness.” Mookmack did not bow, but touched his heart, eyes and nose with one hand, and extended it towards her, palm up, as was gnomish custom.

“Greetings, Mookmack. You do not know how grateful I am for you to have come. I thank you.” She returned the gnomish gesture of heart, eyes and nose, and then turned to Carrie. “I did not realize you intended to bring along a child, Mookmack, though of course she is more than welcome if she journeys in your company.”

Carrie bowed respectfully, “Your Majesty.”

The queen smiled. “You look the same age as my son. Speaking of which, Mookmack, I am assuming, by your presence here, that you are willing to do a Telling for my son?”

Mookmack nodded. “I am, but I must warn you, Your Majesty, his future may be murky; I cannot guarantee a successful Reading.”

“I understand that, but I do not feel that I have any choice. He’s getting more dangerous by the day.”

“How do you mean, Your Majesty?”

Queen Arabella sighed, “He is becoming obsessed with testing his gift, controlling everyone around him with his voice. It’s become so bad we’ve had to lock him in a tower and keep practically no one around him.”

“Is that really necessary, Your Majesty? Do you know how many stories there are of children turning into angry, dangerous adults because they’re bitter about injustice as a child?”

“I assure you it’s necessary, Mookmack. The other day he used his gift to make a stable-hand jump into the moat just because he’d forgotten to feed Phillip’s favorite horse breakfast. It took three hours to fish him out, and the poor lad is recovering in the infirmary and is likely to be there for another two weeks.”

“I see your point. Lead on.”

The three of them walked out of the throne room and climbed up a steep, spiraling, cold, stone staircase. They walked down a long corridor, then down a small flight of steps, then down another corridor, and when they reached a thick, wooden door, the queen finally signaled them to stop.

“The prince is inside. I know your magic will protect you from his words, but all the same, be careful. When you have completed the Telling, come back out here and tell me what you found. Carrie and I will wait here until then.”

Mookmack disappeared inside the room, closing the door firmly behind him. They could hear nothing through the sturdy, wooden door, and it felt like an eternity, though in reality it was only five minutes, until Mookmack came back outside.

“Your son’s future is difficult to perceive,” he said solemnly. “There are two clear paths he could take, though there could be countless others that I was simply unable to see.

“The first is quite simple. He would continue on the path he is on now, and become a destructive and tyrannical king. He would die and his child would take over, etcetera, etcetera.

“The second path is more complicated. And it involves Carrie.”

Carrie looked up, startled. “What?”

The gnome looked gravely up at the queen, “I happen to know how to break a fairy’s birth gift, and though it doesn’t happen very often, I believe we could manage it- if you would allow it, of course.”

The queen nodded. “Continue.”

“I don’t know whether you realize, but Carrie’s birth gift is persuasion.” Mookmack took a breath to continue, but was interrupted by the queen.

“Do you mean…” She trailed off, then bent close to Mookmack’s ear and began whispering urgently to him. Carrie couldn’t catch what they were saying, though she tried to. After a few moment of this, Queen Arabella straightened up and said, “Carrie, I would very much like you to go into the room, and when Phillip tries to control you with his voice, as he undoubtedly will, you are to resist. Resist with every fiber of your being. If you successfully resist him his gift will be broken. Then we can give him a less dangerous gift, perhaps, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

“What if I fail? What if I’m not strong enough? Would my gift break?” asked Carrie in a small voice.

Mookmack put a hand on Carrie’s shoulder and said quietly, “Only you have the power to fix this, only you can save Phillip, and by extension, the kingdom, from this disaster. Please, Carrie, I ask you as your friend, do this for Helgana.”

“I’d like you to know, Carrie,” said the queen in a tense voice, “that I do not say this often, but… I need your help.”

Carrie looked up at both faces, and felt rather flattered, though she knew it was because of her birth gift, and not because of her. “Um… okay. I’ll try.”

Queen Arabella beamed, and Mookmack smiled proudly, “That’s my little gnomeling!”

Carrie couldn’t help but smile as she pushed the door open and let it close with a dull thud behind her.

The prince sat reading in a chair in the corner, and barely glanced up when Carrie came in. “Oh, yes, you. Please take away my tea things. I found I wasn’t very hungry today.”

Carrie stared at him, not moving. It took the prince a moment to realize that Carrie wasn’t following his order. “What are you doing? Take the tray away!”

Carrie still didn’t move. The prince sighed impatiently, “Why must I always ask three times for something to be done? Very well, if I must, I must.” He set down his book and locked eyes with Carrie. When he spoke, his words were layered with what seemed like hundreds of different tones and pitches, yet all synchronized into one, perfectly balanced voice. “Take the tray downstairs.” He said, “Take it to the kitchen. When you have completed that…” Philip trailed off for a moment, thinking, then smiled craftily, and said, “When you have done that, hand in your resignation. The royal palace does not need disobedient maids like you. That is all. Go.”

The prince picked up his book again and resumed reading. Carrie still didn’t move. She knew he had used his gift, or tried to, and though it had taken very little effort to resist, she also knew Philip was perfectly capable of turning the power up, so to speak, as she had learned from personal experience.

Her prediction came true within moments. Philip looked up once again from his reading and this time, looked annoyed, “You’re either exceedingly stupid, or you have a stronger will than most I’ve met. Now, let’s try again.” Philip locked eyes with Carrie and repeated his words, only this time his voice seemed layered with thousands of different tones, not just hundreds. Carrie stared back, feeling the magic flow from his voice into her mind, telling her to bring the tea tray downstairs, but somewhere in the back of her brain, a different voice awoke. A voice that said no. Even as Philip’s gift urged her to bend to his will, her gift made her hold her ground.

When Philip increased his power for the fourth time, Carrie could feel the pressure building in her head and could see sparks dancing along the line that connected their eyes. Philip stood, and then collapsed back into the chair, still pushing magic at Carrie. Carrie felt as though a chair to collapse into would have been nice. She felt her gift pulling energy from the rest of her body as magic from her gift began to dry up.

Sweat began pouring down Philip’s face, and Carrie could feel the same on hers. On the line where their magic clashed now danced fire instead of sparks, a growing, hungry fire. It started in the middle of the line and ate its way towards Carrie’s and Philip’s faces. It reaches Carrie’s first. She watched it approach, not daring to give in and break the connection, but the pain she had expected didn’t come. Instead the edges of her vision began to grow dark as her magic fed off the last of her energy to fight off Philip’s. It was too much. She didn’t have the strength to maintain the connection. Her vision was flickering. I can’t do it. I’ve failed. Forgive me, Mookmack. I tried.

The next second the fire exploded. It consumed everything. Carrie couldn’t tell where her body ended and the fire began. The only thing she could feel was the thin line of magic still somehow connecting Philip’s gift to hers. And then, somewhere in her sub-consciousness, she felt something snap. She couldn’t tell if it was the connection, Philip’s gift, or what was left of hers. She found she couldn’t muster the strength to care… and then everything faded and her vision went black.

Voices. Not manipulative voices. Not hungry, angry voices. Just voices. Carrie opened her eyes and stared up at a deep purple ceiling speckled with silver stars. She rolled over onto her side and found herself looking at Mookmack. He was smiling. “Well done, mi mookadi.”

“Mookmack…what happened?”

“You destroyed the prince’s birth gift. I’m afraid you accidentally destroyed your own gift as well, but no matter, I can replace it. How would you feel about maybe strength, determination?”

Carrie thought for a moment before deciding, “That sounds wonderful, Mookmack.”

Mookmack beamed, “I’ll do it when we get home.”

At that moment the queen entered what Carrie now realized was the infirmary. Arabella wasted no time getting down to business. “I trust Mookmack has filled you in sufficiently?” Carrie nodded. “Well then,” continued the queen, “I’ve been thinking about how to replace Philip’s gift. I was thinking maybe patience or courage, but I’m not sure. I was just wondering what you thought.”

Carrie knew instantly what to say, “Understanding. He’s been making everyone else see his point of view for so long he should see theirs now. It might make him more accepting about losing his old gift.”

Arabella smiled. “I agree. Farewell, Carrie Anna Fulton. You are welcome here any time you wish. I’m sure my son will find the humility to thank you one day. I can do so for him now.” The queen bowed slightly in farewell. “Have a safe journey home, and don’t forget to visit. When you get older there’ll be a job waiting for you here. I promise. Just… wait a year or two before you do; my son is a very stubborn fellow.”

Carrie smiled back, “Thank you, Your Majesty.” But in her heart, Carrie knew where she belonged, and it wasn’t in the palace. Mookmack seemed to know what she was thinking and as the queen swept out, he whispered in her ear, “You have good instincts, mi mookadi, good instincts.”

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