content warnings: references to rape, incest, ableism, and medical gaslighting
“Oh, Kate,” cried Kathryn-with-a-Y, peering at her reflection between the teardrops that blurred the pond’s surface. “It is truly my fault—if only I weren’t so pretty!” And she scrubbed at her eyes as if she could wash out their pretty hazel-brown color, and tugged her hair as if she could make it stop curling so gently.
Kate, or princess Katherine, laid a comforting hand on her twin sister’s shoulder. “Our stepfather isn’t just a rapist—he’s a coward. Maybe he just thought you were the heavier sleeper, and therefore the easier target. Your beauty is not your fault, and neither is the cruelty in his despicable excuse for a heart. I’m just glad I woke up in time to scare him away.”
“When I woke up, I was so frightened…” She buried her head in her arms, but Kate pulled her to her feet.
“If we stay here, we’re not safe. I’m sure he has men on horseback sent out to look for us. We need to disguise ourselves and keep moving.”
Katy clutched at her sister’s sleeves. “Quick, disguise me with your magic!”
Kate closed her eyes and imagined an impenetrable mask. Something that would disguise her sister’s delicate features beyond recognition.
“This isn’t an unobtrusive disguise at all, Kate,” Kathryn-with-a-Y whispered, at the edge of tears once again.
Kate opened her eyes and looked. “Oh, dear.”
Well, she wasn’t technically ugly. That is, from a certain perspective, she was very beautiful indeed…if you were a donkey. “Do you mind having a donkey head?” Kate ventured.
“Not if it keeps our stepfather from recognizing me. Just be more careful when you change your own face. One of us should look at least halfway normal.”
Katherine-with-an-E-and Kathryn-with-a-Y were seventeen years old. When their mother realized she’d given birth to two daughters instead of just one, she’d panicked and given them both the same name.
Kate looked at her features in the pond. Unlike her sister, she had plain brown hair and plain brown eyes. She had a nice face, good at smiling, but she didn’t mind changing it to keep herself safe.
This time, Kate knew just what she was doing. She let magic flow into her face and her fingertips and molded her features like they were clay. She made one eye bulge and pinched the other one so it had a permanent squint. When a few leaves and acorns fell from the oak tree next to the pond, Kate caught an acorn and attached it to her face. Now it looked like she had a wart the exact shape of an acorn on the end of her nose. She grimaced. “Does this look good?”
Katy wiped her tears and did her best to smile. “Perfect.”
The two sisters walked for the whole rest of that night and into the early morning; their stepfather’s men rode past them three times and didn’t bother stopping. The next afternoon, after a rest beneath a spreading maple, they crossed the border (a narrow creek) into the kingdom of Arcadia. They made their way into the main part of the kingdom, a bustling city near the royal palace.
Now that the immediate terror had passed, Kate with an E realized she was hungry. “I want blueberry pancakes. What about you?”
“Carrots and apples,” said Katy with a Y. “This head has cravings.”
The elderly apple-seller squinted at them. “You look like witches. Are you here to try your hand at breaking the curse?”
“Well, I don’t know the details, but…” They pointed to a large sign nearby. The neatly-chalked text read: WHOEVER CAN BREAK THE CURSE UPON PRINCESS MATILDA—TEN CHESTS OF GOLD AND THE PRINCESS’S HAND IN MARRIAGE—INQUIRE AT THE PALACE.
“Perhaps it is a curse of being unable to answer letters,” Katy whispered, and Kate almost laughed. Then she thought of the Princess Matilda’s delicately shaded pencil sketches, her neat round lettering, and the way her letters always smelled like her almond-peach perfume, and how sometimes she’d enclose a button or a pressed flower or something else wonderful, and the smile turned to a lovelorn sigh.
She scowled and shook her head. “Well, I don’t want her hand in marriage, but we could absolutely do with the ten chests of gold.” Then we could hire an army and get revenge on that awful stepfather of ours. She’d do practically anything in exchange for his head on a pike.
So they went to the palace. Luckily, that day was the day when the king and his daughter held audiences and heard petitions. The hall was noisy, filled with squabbling couples, farmers holding chickens, and babies crying.
Where was Princess Matilda? Her pink marble throne was empty. Then Kate saw the bed in front of the throne, and the girl in the bed, and she gasped.
The portrait she’d seen of Matilda two years ago showed a girl holding a little white puffball kitten. The girl had been as round as a plum, with a smile twice as sweet. The puffball kitten, now sitting on the king’s lap, had grown into a dignified fluffball of a blue-eyed cat, but the girl looked like a prune—withered and pinched. As the line moved on, Kate couldn’t help glancing at her again and again. She seemed so sick and weak.
“What is your petition?” the king asked them. He looked tired, too, and Kate couldn’t help thinking how exhausting it must be to watch someone you love waste away.
She straightened her shoulders. “I am Acorn Kate. I’m a witch from Peran. I have experience with shapeshifting spells, invisibility spells, faerie lore, seeing in the darkness, and much more. I’m here to break the curse.” Katy nudged her sister. “Oh, and my sister is looking for work in the palace.”
With a quiet noise of pain, Matilda pulled herself into a sitting position. “Come with me to my quarters,” she said, “and I’ll have your sister shown to the garden. We’re in need of people who can weed flowers.”
Katy, who had spent many a happy afternoon amongst lilies and lilacs, nodded eagerly and hurried after the gardener. Kate followed the princess into a large dumbwaiter which took them to another floor of the palace; a servant opened a door and ushered them inside.
At first glance, Matilda’s room was an indoor garden full of flowers and stars. Vines of morning glories trailed from the bed’s canopy, and roses bloomed in vases on every surface. Moving to smell a rose, Kate realized that it was made of painted paper. “Your room is amazing.”
Matilda smiled as she transferred herself onto her bed. “I can hardly ever leave it. I decided if I was to see the same things every day, at least I’d get to see something beautiful. Changing the decorations gives me something to do.”
Kate couldn’t even count all the flowers and stars—never mind the menagerie of paper animals prancing across a windowsill, or the fleets of paper ships battling inside a diorama. “You folded all of these?”
Matilda managed an answering smile. “When I can keep my eyes open long enough. I’ll set goals, like folding a hundred stars in a day, or ten swans before lunchtime. It’s better than sitting around thinking about all the things being under a curse prevents me from achieving. At least I can get something done, you know?”
Kate just nodded. Even though she still resented Matilda for stopping their correspondence, she admired the other girl’s will to take control of her circumstances. She wasn’t quite sure how to feel about her.
Kate heard footsteps in the hallway outside. It sounded like someone walking with a cane. Matilda must have heard it too, because her eyes widened. “Quick, hide behind my dressing screen. That’s the wizard Alexander. If he sees you here, he’ll think you’re getting inside advice on how to break the curse. He’ll be furious, and he might even kill you.”
Kate was confident in her magic, but fighting a real wizard? That sounded like a terrible idea. At once she leapt behind the screen, pulling some dresses over her head. The gauzy, lacy fabric smelled like coffee and pain medicine, but beneath it all, there were sweet notes of almond and peach.
“You lazy girl. What are you doing still in bed? Get up!” a deep voice shouted.
“Please, Alexander. You know I can’t. My legs hurt so much when I try to walk, and my knees hurt even more.”
Kate heard a cry and a thump. She peeked through a hole in a screen. Alexander, a tall white man with curly dark hair, was pulling the blankets off and throwing them across the room.
He crossed his arms, and the embroidered sleeves of his silken robe concealed his long fingers. “Even if you’re in bed, you could still do some schoolwork. If you keep being so indolent, you’ll give this kingdom a bad reputation.”
“I’m sorry, but my head hurts too badly,” Matilda whispered, audibly close to tears.
He let out a loud, aggravated sigh. “You know, I think you’re just making this up. You’re only in pain because you stay in bed all day complaining. If you just got some fresh air, you’d feel fine!” He stuck his arms under her armpits and dragged her out of bed to stand on her feet. She toppled over with a yell of pain, lying there like a broken doll.
Heedless of the consequences, boiling with anger like a whistling teakettle, Kate shoved the screen over and ran out to stand between them. “You pile of pig droppings,” she yelled, striking Alexander in the chest. “Wouldn’t you want someone to show you sympathy if you were sick? Just because you can’t see the curse doesn’t mean it’s not real. I have half a mind to curse YOU to hurt that badly, only I won’t, because unlike you, I can show mercy! I don’t care if you think I’m spying on you—I don’t care if you’re mad at me. Bad leg or no bad leg, acorn or no acorn, I’ll fight you with magic, fists, swords, whatever you want! But I want you to apologize to the Princess Matilda RIGHT NOW!”
She stared right into Alexander’s eyes, daring him to back down. He stared back, cool and untroubled. Then, to her surprise, he broke into an enormous smile. Both he and Matilda began to laugh openly.
“Well done! You passed the test,” Alexander said, steadying himself on his staff.
“What test?” Kate asked.
Matilda pulled herself back into her bed and held up a hand: wait a moment. She had to catch her breath. “I don’t want to be married to someone cruel or cowardly. Alexander and I put on our show so that anyone who agrees with Alexander, or doesn’t report him to my father, will be encouraged to leave before they can figure out how to break the curse. We’ve passed people who told me afterwards that he was being nasty, people who wrote him a strongly worded letter, and so forth. But no one else has ever been that brave.”
“Impulsive, mostly, “ Kate said, ducking her head so Matilda wouldn’t see her blush.
“In fact, you almost remind me of someone I once…never mind. Anyway, I hereby grant you my approval to marry me if you break the curse. But I must warn you,” Matilda said, “that I love another. Or at least I did when the contest first started. Now I’m not sure, but I warn people anyway. One can never quite get over a girl like that.”
Kate’s heart did not skip a beat—she was far too sensible for that—but it certainly stumbled. “What was her name?”
“Katherine. Katherine with an E.”
Luckily, her squint hid the way her eyes widened. “That’s a pretty name. How did you know her?”
“We used to write to each other every day. But when I became so ill…I didn’t want her to know how worn and tired I was, and then I didn’t have the energy to write back, and then my wrists became so sore I couldn’t even hold a quill. I kept meaning to write and explain, but I always fell asleep in the middle of dictating a letter. After a while, she stopped writing to me. I think she must have been upset with me, because she’s never even written to my father or Alexander to ask for an explanation.”
Kate swallowed. She had never thought that something might have prevented Matilda from writing back to her. Sometimes the way she charged ahead without considering options lead her to stand up for others and make daring escapes. But this time, it had almost lead her to lose one of the most important people in her life. She wanted to kneel at Matilda’s feet and beg forgiveness, but the disguise made her cheeks sting, and she remembered the danger. “I’m sure she’d forgive you if she knew.”
A gentle smile crossed her wan face. “That’s sweet of you to say, Acorn Kate. Perhaps I’ll write to her when I’m better—if you don’t mind?”
“I think you should be free to love whoever your heart desires,” Kate murmured. She felt like she’d swallowed a beehive.
“Well?” the king asked at their meeting that night, twisting a quill pen until it broke. “Do you still wish to break the curse?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Kate didn’t understand why he looked so apprehensive.
“Most of the people who’ve gotten this far, and then tried to break the curse, have never come back.” He sighed, and Kate could tell that the burden of each death weighed heavily upon his shoulders. “The rest lose their magic and their memories, and walk the world like frightened ghosts.”
I’m not frightened of anything, she thought…except failure. She nodded solemnly. “It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
She guessed what he was thinking as he looked at her: Poor girl. Hardly older than my own child. “I know I can’t stop you,” he said. “Stay in the palace and rest up, and tomorrow night, if you still want to risk your life, you can stay overnight in Matilda’s rooms and try to break the curse.”
The next evening, Kate went to visit her sister in the gardens. Of course, she loved the gardens at her own palace: the roses as full as tutus and the bold orange lilies. But this garden? She wanted to roll in its untameable greenness. Mint sprang up wherever it pleased. Dandelion seeds danced and drifted in the wind amongst an herbal wildflower blend. There were butterflies everywhere she looked, and Katy, even with her donkey head, looked beautifully content as she carefully pruned vibrant yellow marigolds.
“Kate!” Katy laid down her basket and rushed to hug her sister. “I’m so glad to see you—isn’t it lovely here? It’s a combination of a permaculture and medicinal garden. You have to try the chamomile, I’ve never had anything so sweet—especially with wildflower honey! Oh, no, I’ve gotten dirt all over your dress…” She tried to take off her gardening gloves, but the dew had made them too slippery. Laughing, she tugged them off with her donkey teeth.
Kate felt an incredible sense of relief at seeing her sister safe and content. It was like she could breathe again for the first time since their midnight escape. But at the same time, she couldn’t join in her easy happiness. She wanted to look her in the eyes, but settled for taking her hands.
“Katy, if I die trying to break the curse…will you be all right?”
It was a big question, and Katy took a while to consider it. “I think so. I don’t want you to worry about me.”
“Are you sure? Even with a donkey’s head?”
“I like working in the garden—it’s so peaceful—and everyone is kind to me, especially the wizard Alexander. This morning I happened to mention I was getting bored of carrots and apples, so he found me a parsnip. I’ve never had parsnips before, but they’re not bad. The donkey head really likes them.” Pulling away, she plucked a dandelion, twirled its stem between her fingers. “Kate…do what you think is right. I don’t want to lose you, but I don’t want to stop you, either.” She blew the seeds into the wind, and Kate watched them drift away. When Katy turned back, she was doing her best to smile—even with the donkey head, even with the danger that loomed over them both. “Do you want to see how we take the honey out of the beehives? I can find you a spare beekeeper’s suit.”
Kate had never liked bees. She still said yes.
“You’ll be spending the night in my room, then?” Matilda said, opening the door for Kate. “There’s a spare bed you can use.”
“I plan on not sleeping a wink in your room,” Kate said intently.
Matilda, staggering the few steps back to her bed, stifled a laugh. “If only I didn’t have to be under a curse to get women to say that to me.”
Kate laughed, but felt bittersweet. It was the first time in ages she’d seen Matilda’s sense of humor shine forth; the curse had taken away so much of her spirit.
Two nurses helped Matilda brush her long blonde curls and change into a nightdress.
“If I was well enough to only need one of you,” Kate heard Matilda muse, “would you prefer to work on alternate days, or would one of you like to work with very ill patients elsewhere?”
“I’m glad to see you have hope for improving, Princess,” one nurse said. “I’ll have to think about that.”
Matilda shrugged. “Not hope, exactly…but this woman…I believe in her.”
Kate vowed that she would do anything to be worthy of that belief. No matter the danger, she would do her best to break this curse.
Matilda slept, propped up on pillows, and Kate crouched under the bed. She had a hunch that the true nature of the curse would reveal itself under moonlight. For several hours, the only sound was the princess’s uneven breathing. Sometimes she would stop breathing entirely for several seconds, then tense and gasp for air, and every gasp made Kate practically jump.
Then the door cracked open, and a face peered inside.
Uh oh, Kate thought. Faeries. And not the kind that left gold under the doorstep of kind people in poverty. The kind that stole horses, kidnapped innocent babies into a life of servitude, and forced musicians to play until they died.
With his metallic gold and silver skin and enormous faceted eyes, the faerie looked deeply inhuman. He gestured with his three bony fingers, then opened the door wider. Five more faeries, each half Kate’s height, trooped inside. At another gesture from the first faerie, a shimmer of magic filled the room, and an ornate wooden door opened in midair. Working together, like ants stealing fruit, they lifted the princess. Stifling giggles, they carried her through the door.
Kate crawled out from under the bed and silently crept after them. With their ability to tap into people’s emotions and fears, faeries could be one of the most powerful forces for good magic—or the worst blight on the unsuspecting. She’d found the latter.
The faeries bore their prisoner down and down a spiral stone staircase that felt endless. Kate tried to breathe quietly and stay close to the wall. When they finally reached the bottom of the staircase, the lead faerie pulled another door open.
They stood on an island of platinum and diamond sand surrounded by indigo water. Kate sniffed the air: cinnamon sugar and jasmine, but under that? It smelled metallic, like biting your cheek. This beautiful place isn’t real. It’s made of evil magic.
The faeries loaded Matilda into a golden rowboat, and Kate crept into the water to follow them. The water felt cold, but not wet, as if she moved through a thickened breeze. The sounds of lyre music and high-pitched laughter heralded their arrival on another island. Faeries fluttered about the space—laughing, mingling. The sky had no stars.
I suppose even evil has parties, Kate thought, sneaking from tree to tree to follow the faeries carrying her crush. Golden birdcages hanging from the trees held people frozen in time, expressions of fear or anger on every face. The mages who went missing!
A faerie in an especially extravagantly embroidered coat sprung onto a silver stage. “And now it’s time for our entertainment. Back by popular demand—yet again—the Princess Matilda!”
A band of tiny silver-purple faeries with green hair struck up a haunting music-box tune on their crystal windchimes. As if sleepwalking, Matilda drifted onto the stage and began to perform.
In her letters, Matilda had always talked about how much she loved dancing, but her steps before this inhuman throng were frenetic and feverish. She darted about the stage as if trying to escape. After a particularly strenuous sequence of twirls, she sagged, trying to catch her breath.
“Keep dancing, or we’ll kill the white kitten with the blue eyes!” a faerie called, and she pulled herself upright.
The next time she faltered, it was: “Keep dancing, or we’ll kill your father the king!”
And then: “Keep dancing, or we’ll kill your new friend Acorn Kate!”
Kate had learned about them from watching and listening. She jumped out of her hiding spot. “Here I am! Are any of you brave enough to raise a hand against me?”
The faerie with the green-blue hair, presumably the host, waved a companion over. “This one seems strong. We won’t be able to drain her or wipe her memories.”
“She might not even have any fears for us to use against her.”
Another faerie rubbed her little purple hands together nervously. “Quick, get a cage! If we all work together, we’ll be able to keep her inside until—”
But no one heard the end of what she said, because Kate had laughed at them.
“If you were truly powerful, you wouldn’t need to hide in a pavilion of illusions and play at being important. If you were truly powerful, you’d be able to kill these magicians, not just freeze the stronger ones in cages. If you were truly powerful, I would have heard of you!” She stalked towards him, and no one made a move to stop her. “You have no strength except what a tired, confused girl’s fear gives you. You prey on the weak because you know YOU’RE weak. I bet none of you would dare take me on in the light of day.”
The host, taken aback, whirled around to face the partygoers. “Guests! Get her at once and I’ll bring out the good champagne!”
Twelve fairies leapt at her, their pointy little teeth shining in the moonlight, and Kate struck each one down with a blast of magic. She powered one blast with the memory of almond-and-peach perfume and another with that of finding her hated stepfather leaning over her beloved sister’s bed, and how he’d turned tail and fled the moment he’d faced consequences for his lusty leering. She powered another blast with the thought of jeweled buttons and dried flowers, and another with the thought of seeing her sister’s human smile again.
At last, all the fairies had limped off cradling their injuries, and it was just her and the host. “Well?” she said, squaring off. “How about it?”
He snarled at her, and snuck back into the reeking shadows.
The deep blue water lapped at the golden pavilion, and the emerald trees swayed in a sudden clean breeze. Kate took the silver keys from the faeries’ belts and unlocked the golden cages; no one knew who Kate was or how they had gotten there, but they seemed very glad to be free. Matilda, overwrought, had fallen unconscious at the stage, and Kate carried her to one of the empty golden rowboats and pushed off into the water. The revived mages took the twelve other boats, and before long they were back at the castle moat.
In the morning, everyone waited anxiously by Matilda’s door. Would this be the day the curse was broken, or had it claimed another victim?
Then the hidden door in the hallway swung open. “Hello!” Kate called. It was a strange sight: the girl with the acorn on her nose carrying their sleeping princess, and behind her, twelve wizards and witches in tattered clothes with cobwebs in their tangled hair.
“I remember everything,” Matilda explained when she was back in her own bed again. Alexander had fetched her a cup of hot cocoa; still shivering, she clutched it tightly. “The faerie banquet, the man with the gold-and-garnet crown, the guests with sharp little teeth. I couldn’t sleep even when I was away from there—not properly, at least—because I was so afraid of falling asleep when I was dancing, and the fear never truly left me.”
“You’re safe now. They’ll never trouble you again.” Kate laid a comforting hand on her arm, and Matilda leaned into the touch with a sigh of relief.
“I feel like I could sleep for a hundred years. And I’m starving! No wonder I’m all skin and bones—I was dancing for hours at the festivals without being permitted even a bite of anything, and then when they erased my memories every night I would forget how hungry I was.”
“Well, you’ll have to wake up for our wedding,” Kate teased, “but you can sleep as much as you want until then. And I promise there will be plenty of food at the wedding feast. You’ll look like your old self again before you know it. And the day after the wedding, I’ll help you read all of Katherine’s letters, and write back to her.”
The wedding was a truly splendid event, especially because it was Princess Matilda’s first public appearance at a party in years. Her wedding dress looked like an ivory-and-cream rose spangled with diamonds instead of dewdrops. Kate peered out at the crowd; it seemed like the entire kingdom had packed into the main hall, cheering and waving flags.
Matilda looked so beautiful, Kate wasn’t sure if she wanted to burst into tears or run outside and scream. Luckily, her skin was too olive to turn crazy apple red, and even though she saw Matilda’s smile through a haze of tears, she managed to avoid outright sobbing during her part in the ceremony.
“If anyone knows of any impediments to the joining of these two, speak now or be silent,” said the rabbi. He was mostly rushing through this part; probably, like everyone else, anticipating the opulent wedding feast.
Matilda glanced out to the audience—a quick glance, but full of unconcealed hope.
Oh, right! Kate thought. I’m still disguised.
Magic pooled in the air from everyone’s excitement. Kate pulled it close and twisted it like wool. “I have an impediment,” she said in a loud, clear voice.
“Oh, dear,” Matilda whispered, ripping a petal from her bouquet and tearing it into little rosy shreds.
“I have not been fully honest with my bride to be. I am not Acorn Kate, the girl with an acorn on her nose. I am Katherine-with-an-E, sorcerer-princess of Peran!” She dropped the illusion as if tossing aside a cloak, and a cloud of silver sparkles and opal butterflies revealed her normal, ordinary face.
Matilda was so overcome with joy that she fainted (but luckily, didn’t hit her head). When she awoke, there was much embracing, as well as tears and laughter. Everyone said it was the happiest wedding they had ever seen, and that it had the most beautiful kiss.
Kathryn-with-a-Y, now certain her sister could protect her, asked for the donkey head to be removed; and Alexander, who had already fallen in love with how gentle she was when repotting marigolds, and how careful she was with the bees, fell even harder. (In fact, they were married two years later to the very day.)
Their stepfather heard that Kate was marrying a wealthy princess, and he thought perhaps he could blackmail them. But on the way, he was set upon by the twelve witches and wizards Kate had rescued, who used illusions to trick him into confessing his foul intentions. They turned him into a slug so that his outside could be as slimy as his inside, and he was never seen again.
Kayla Bashe is a binational lesbian currently attending Sarah Lawrence College. Her poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons, Liminality Magazine, and various zines, and her short fiction has appeared in the Outliers of Science Fiction anthology, as well as Solarpunk Press, Mirror Dance edited by Megan Arkenberg, and The Future Fire. She is also the author of several queer romance/speculative fiction novellas.