By Linda McMullen
I was the thirteenth princess of my line, and the only one to come to grief.
My parents, the King and Queen, taught my sisters and me to be true and kind, to ask questions, and to venerate the spirits of the sky.
Father advised us to use our talents wisely.
Mother arranged respectable marriages for my eleven eldest sisters, adorning their fair heads with flowers, launching a veritable parade of nobility toward the altar. The holy men humbly implored the spirits to bless the weddings – not even daring to invoke their names. Mother wept into her nosegay for eleven successive ceremonies.
The final blossoms in her bouquet were my sister Marja and me.
One of Mother’s prayers received an answer at the New Year’s ball: a duke from a far-off realm asked Marja to dance. She replied, “Hm?” – imperfectly comprehending why anyone should wish to flail about the room. Mother pinched her elbow. My sister allowed the Duke to lead her out to the floor – although, by that time, the Duke appeared ready to dispense with his own invitation.
In a family of thirteen daughters, each had found it necessary to distinguish herself. Kaisa, the eldest, embraced duty; Noora, the second, her beauty; Taika, the third, adored music…Marja had a narrowly brilliant scientific talent. Nevertheless, there was no governess in the kingdom to equal her intelligence. Father invited the learned dons from the university to superintend her education. She delighted in their conversation, and became infatuated with their notion that the same magic that caused iron rocks to attract also caused out night skies to paint themselves in vanadian hues.
“It gives her pleasure,” I heard Father say to Mother, shrugging.
“It will bring our family to a bad end,” Mother replied.
It brought Marja into contact with Mikael Virtanen, a young university professor. Marja addressed me because eleven superior confidantes had departed.
“I love him,” she said.
“I see,” I replied.
“I shall marry him.”
Her prophecy remained unrealized for a year and more. Father harrumphed. Mother chastised Marja for tossing away her lineage.
“Science says noble heritage is bunkum, Mother –”
She failed to win the argument. But Mikael remained patient and Marja determined, and – as one minor mismatch could hardly upset her otherwise impeccable record – Mother at last gave grudging approval.
Their wedding failed to match the grand style of the others. The groom’s family had arranged what Mother deemed a shabby little affair, as the bride was obliged to forsake her title. We attended, therefore, a small fête in a converted rehearsal room at the opera house.
My toes crushed in the insufficient ballroom, I stepped out into the endless January night, desperate for air – and, though I didn’t know it –
Leaving behind my mundane life
Conjuring, in my mind, a mate, a lover, a companion, a master – one with intelligence, grace, and wonder, extraordinary as I could wish –
I saw him –
A pale vulpine flame against the night.
I called his name:
My voice did not rise above the faint wind caressing the snow, but he halted – as if struck. His opaline fur glimmered like moonlight, bristling slightly. He turned, larger than a lion.
Even in dreams I had never seen eyes that sparkled at such depths; his seemed azure shading to black, twin skies and their dark galaxies beyond. I should have been frozen to the marrow, should have prostrated myself, should have been struck with terror. Instead, I was filled with a thrumming joy, a nearly unbearable desire to bury my face in his fur…
“Woman,” he intoned, his voice terrible, magnificent, “you are unworthy to address one such as I.”
“And yet,” replied I, smiling, “you stopped at my call, and address me now as an equal.”
He had not anticipated a rebuttal; his arrogant whiskers twitched. My neck tingled. “I must take you before the Mage,” he declared.
My jaw fell open. To have addressed the magical messenger was display of the worst human hubris. I had compounded that error with my cheek. And now, I was destined to appear before the ancient, mystical Fox Queen, the rumored Mistress of All to answer for my insolence…
…I longed to approach him.
He dipped his shoulder and allowed my graceless human self to clamber onto his back. His fur, warmer than any cape or cloak, enveloped me.
No sooner had I settled myself than he sprang forward, into the deepening night.
The boundary that I had always suspected divided humanity from a superior plane vanished. Star song filled my ears and Aatto’s luminescence clung to me, lending me a fleeting enchantment. My blood absorbed the rhythm of his otherworldly pulse as we flew through the glittering night.
He described his nightly voyages across the sky, bearing messages of desperate beauty. I spoke briefly of myself – my joy in reading, the transports of imagination, my attempts to render an outwardly mundane existence something meaningful. I, after all, had nothing but the vagaries of my mind to recommend me. He turned, but said nothing.
And landed, lightly as a shadow.
I descended into mist, borne aloft by an incomprehensible magic, and found myself at the entrance to a labyrinthine palace in the hollow of a nimbus cloud. I looked to Aatto amidst swarming sensations; consciousness of my own inferiority, wonder, and – it must be confessed – an ungovernable yearning whenever my eyes met his.
“Come,” he said, descending into the blue.
We passed through the wondrously illumined hall, where bewitching music emanated from the walls.
At the entryway, he stopped, and I followed suit.
“What is your name?”
“Princess Ansa.” He curled my name around his tongue. “I cannot pretend that you are not in grave danger. The Mage is ancient, and wise, and – firm in her notion that our world must remain divided from yours. I did you an unforgivable disservice by allowing you to see me.”
His tone had become markedly different from that of his earlier pronouncements. He added – majestically, but with a hint of diffidence:
“You are not like the others.”
And then his eyes penetrated mine, searing my soul; I was ravished and possessed; I was compelled; I buried my face in his proud shoulder…and he wrapped himself around me. I could imagine no higher heaven.
“Let me speak first,” he said at last; we unraveled ourselves, and proceeded into the throne room.
The Mage sat upon a darkling throne, poring over a glowing grimoire. Her fur was snowy, with the grace of age and the acquisition of ancient knowledge. Her gaze hovered between moderately interested and baleful.
“Aatto,” she murmured. “What have you brought?”
“Your eminence,” he said, bowing his proud head, “I have the honor to present the Princess Ansa. I behaved – carelessly, and –”
“Carelessly.” The word was a cutlass. “You, who faultlessly carry my word – my precious word – on the four winds…” The phrase hung in the air like a descending sword.
The fur on his neck rose. She laughed, deep in her throat.
“Speak truth, or not at all.”
He responded in a voice so low that I could barely seize his meaning. “I could not credit it – it surpassed even my understanding – but her soul…spoke to mine.”
“I ask –” He bowed. “I beg – I implore you, to transform her, that I might make her my bride.”
Pure joy suffused my face.
The Mage beckoned me to approach, and I obeyed. I looked up into her undimmed grey eyes.
I was a pool, and she a droplet of black dye; her magic diffused in me and through me, seeping into my pores, my veins, my mind. I could do nothing, hide nothing; I could only stand, transfixed…
Seconds – hours? – later, I blinked, and returned to myself, and the hallowed room.
“She is not unworthy,” said the Mage, with the barest hint of disappointment. “She is made of a finer weave than most of her ilk.” I would have felt even this faint praise a source of infinite pleasure, had her expression betrayed anything but steel. “But Lilja is destined to be your bride.”
Lilja was the vixen of legend, the heavenly benefactress of womankind, offering skills, grace, diplomacy. And she was – or so the stories said – the heiress apparent to the Mage herself.
Aatto opened his mouth – the Mage cut through him. “I have spoken, Aatto. Say your farewells, then return to my side.”
In a twinkling we were returned to the garden outside the dusky opera house. I stood before my love, tears turning to icicles.
“I cannot say goodbye,” I whispered. “I shall always love you.”
“And I you,” he returned. “I cannot disobey the Mage…but –” He leaned his proud head toward mine, and murmured, “– when I race across the night, I shall set it alight, for you – for all the world to see – for all eternity.”
Now, when darkness falls, I lift my wet eyes to the memory of love, written in aurorae across the skies.