A/N2 (written second, put first): I know, I know, Crown of Life is unfinished. But it's crashing my doc app every time I open it, so though I have the next two chapters written, and they've been beta'd, I'm having trouble doing the edits. And since I just got quarantined for 36 hours, I wrote a lot, and here, have a story. :)
A/N: PLEASE READ: This idea began as a phone game, a tumblr prompt, and a friendship. My friend played "Untitled Goose Game," and we'd laugh about the jokes that stemmed from it. Then I read a prompt discussing the lack of imagination in a princess who, once enchanted, flew to mope at a lake while waiting to be rescued. After all, she could have taken advantage of the fact that she is a swan, and gone back to the castle to cause immense damage. My friend then wrote "It's a Lovely Day in the Castle, and You are a Horrible Swan," which can be found here: archiveofourown works/25017817 - I read this particular work of hers and laughed till I had to sit. With her permission I wrote a fanfic of her tale from the perspective of one of the servants, and though it's less funny, I hope you enjoy it. Seriously, GO READ HERS FIRST. It's hilarious. And it'll probably help you understand this one.
Disclaimer: After that extremely lengthy explanation, do I really need to state I own nothing?
With hands shaking with excitement, and a little bit of fear, Ava touched the gold-embroidered tapestry (depicting the King's marriage to the first Queen), trying to persuade herself she could pull it a single tassel's length from the wall and peer into the castle's largest hall.
It was Ava's first banquet. She'd heard the stories older servants told of former banquets. She'd listened wide-eyed and breathless, as they described golden platters full of meat, gowns with jewels sewn in them, and music that never ended till the last candle was blown out. But she'd been conscribed to help for the old Queen's funeral three months before, and the palace housekeeper, Jaana, had liked how Ava never said a word, and had offered her a job as a maid. No one had felt like a banquet after that, not with the kind Queen dead.
But the King had married again. Oh, she was said to be beautiful, the new Queen. Ava didn't know. She'd crept into the smallest corner of the throne room during the wedding, and had been too far away to see more than long black hair beautifully contrasting with a white gown. And Ava really, really wanted to see her.
Enough to leave the safety of her tiny room with its reminders of home, of her five brothers and baby sister who lived there, and creep into an adjacent hallway and draw back the tapestry just that tiny bit.
Ava looked through the gap.
There were candles everywhere, three in front of every plate, more in three lines in front of the tables on the opposite side of the hall, and torches were attached to every pillar, flashing on the gold thread and red material hanging between them.
The chairs, wood sanded smooth, reflected the light. The fire danced off of the jewels that were everywhere, glinting in curled hair, sitting in rings on thick fingers, hung from necks, sewn around the rims of hats, a few even shining from a few sword hilts.
It was more beautiful than Ava ever dreamed, and it overwhelmed her. She let the curtain drop and struggled to breathe.
But she hadn't seen the Queen! And she had to tell her siblings what Her Majesty looked like, the next weekend she trudged back home. They'd want to hear everything.
They always did. It was the closest they got to adventure stories, now that Father-
Ava shrank, pushing that thought away with both hands. She was here, right now, to see the Queen. She lifted her hand to the tapestry again.
Ava snatched her hand back, turning white-faced towards the hall. Ulla, a beautiful, self-possessed maid serving at the banquet, ran around the pillar and grabbed Ava's wrist. "You'll do," she grumped breathlessly.
"I didn't mean-"
"Shut up." Ulla pulled her down the hall and into another one. Ava'd deliberately chosen an empty one, too far from the tables for servants to duck in and out of, but Ulla pulled her into the heart of it, pulling her up beside a line of servants holding heavy silver pitchers. "Mistress Jaana!"
A few steps further down the line a black-clad, stout figure turned, her dreaded duster in hand. "Ava's all I could find," Ulla reported, still breathless from the run.
"She's had no training." Jaana eyed Ava up and down, and Ava pulled her arm back to clutch at her churning stomach.
"No training for what?" she asked in a small voice.
"Then find someone else, she's gone through three servers already, and I don't know of another girl plain-looking enough she'll let her serve," Ulla retorted, ignoring Ava.
Ouch. But Ava was too scared to protest.
"She'll have to do," Jaana sighed. She grabbed a silver pitcher and thrust it into Ava's hands.
"I'm serving?" Ava squeaked.
"The royal table," Jaana affirmed, grabbing the pitcher as it slipped through Ava's fingers in her shock. "Now stop that! I know you're a mouse, but it's not hard. I've seen you pour for the servants who boss you around, don't think I don't know about that. You've a good grip and you're nearly invisible as it is. Now listen up, it's the only table facing a different direction than the rest. Go up to the front of it, stop a man's height away, curtsey, and pour their water. Don't spill the water. Don't drop the pitcher. Don't speak to anyone unless they speak to you."
"And make sure to address the Queen as 'Her Royal Excellency the Queen,' because that's why she sent me away," Ulla put in. "Though I think it's because I was too pretty."
"You are nowhere near as pretty as the Queen, and that's enough," Jaana rebuked her sternly, and Ulla tossed her hair over one shoulder. "Just follow the head usher out, Ava. Go up to the table, curtsey, and pour their water. We'll see if you last." She thrust the pitcher back at Ava again.
Ava gulped. If she refused, Jaana might send her back to her village, and they needed this money, with that many mouths to feed and no income. With trembling hands she took the heavy pitcher, turning toward where the tapestries hung.
She had to go past the line of servants, step after shaking step, though most looked at her sympathetically. Ava stepped behind the head usher, wishing she could just hide behind his black-clad back the entire time. But no, the two pages were pulling back the curtains, and the back in front of her curved down in a bow, and moved forward.
She couldn't go in there. It—the lights, all the people.
"Hurry!" hissed someone from behind her, and a metal pitcher shoved into her back. She stumbled forward, clutching the pitcher like a talisman. She couldn't spill it. That was one of the things Jaana had said. Four things. Curtsy. Pour. Don't spill, and don't speak.
She followed down the long, long, llllooooonnnng hall, in between rows of candles on either side. She didn't look away from the black back in front of her, but she heard the noise. And none of it was about her, oh, please don't ever let it be about her! It was just snatches of, "married her so soon," "She looks breathtaking, made for a crown, really"—that was a man's voice—"I hope there's dancing," and other things, but no matter how long she walked, thank all sanity, none of them talked about Ava. Maybe she could go unnoticed.
The usher stopped.
Ava stopped. But she couldn't stay here, then everyone would notice!
She had to do this. It was just like pouring for Synnove, who would mock her if a single drop spilled, and tell her to go back to her father, oh wait, he's gone. Ava stepped out from behind the usher and curtsied, keeping her eyes on the stones. The stones wouldn't move. Wouldn't stare at her. She was invisible, just a maid pouring their water.
But she had to look up to see where to walk around, to pour. Eleven people sat before her, but her eyes were drawn to the middle three. The King sat in the middle, golden-crowned, smiling at his new wife. The teenage princess sat beside him, scowling at her plate, red lips moving as she grumbled at something, bouncing a little bit in impatientence. And the Queen—
She was lovely. Dark hair crowned with silver, with piercing expressive eyes, with elegant hands bejeweled with matching silver designs. And she was frowning.
She was frowning at Ava. Ava gulped and nearly dropped the jug; what had she done wrong? Perhaps she was moving too slowly? She hurried around the table.
"You are before royalty, and your curtsey should be lower than that," the Queen's deep, dramatic voice commanded, and Ava turned hastily, water spilling over her hands, and curtsied even more deeply. She'd just offended the Queen.
"I'm so sorry, so very sorry," she whispered, curtsying a third time just to make sure, and feeling her cheeks burn in humiliation as the water spilled over the front of her dress.
"Oh, leave her alone, she's doing her best," Princess Suna snapped, and Ava wished silently the ground would swallow her up. Now the Princess noticed her too?
But the Queen's dark, penetrating eyes left off regarding her and turned to the Princess, rebuking her for disrespect and an unladylike voice, and Ava hurried towards the end of the table in relief. One of the kinder old men asked if she was all right, noticing her dress, and Ava mumbled something and ran away, scared and frustrated. The Queen might be beautiful, but Princess Suna, loud, raucous girl that she was, seemed kinder.
No, Ava did not like Eris, Her Royal Intimidation the Queen. That dislike only grew. She found it harder and harder to curtsey as low as the Queen required as she brought heavier and heavier dishes in (Jaana said she would serve till the Queen dismissed her). The salad course was all right, the bowl light in her hands, but the tray of meat slipped to one side, and some of it nearly ended up on the floor. Ava stood up quickly enough the meat jumped on the tray, and spent the rest of that course imagining (with a churning stomach) what would have happened if she had dropped it, so when she brought the next course (a heavy soup) she was so careful not to tip it one way it nearly went the other.
Ava hated that banquet, hated her sweaty hands slipping on the dishes, hated the noise that she was always afraid would turn into mocking laughter if she fell or made a mistake, hated the candles she had to avoid even as she pictured accidentally knocking them over and setting someone aflame, hated the dresses she would ruin if she spilled on them—hated every good thing about this banquet. But she hated how long it lasted most of all.
During the pudding course her hands shook the ladle, rattling it against the bowl, and the Princess quickly took it from her and served herself, for a few brief seconds Ava wished something magical would happen, just to spoil the entire thing, and let Ava off.
Such thoughts were treason—magic being outlawed in the kingdom for several generations—but Ava remembered her father's stories from neighboring kingdoms and wished, just for a moment, a kindly godmother would take pity on her and do something.
But nothing happened, because magic doesn't often grant wishes right away, and Ava served till dawn came.
She should have known better than to make a wish like that, she reflected bitterly the next morning. She should have known thinking about magic invited it. Because she woke the next morning, in the darkness of her bedroom cupboard, not because she was rested, but because Ulla was shaking her awake.
"We're all being called to the Great Hall!" Ulla hissed, fair hair falling in a messy braid over one shoulder. "Get up!"
Ava hated life at the palace. It wasn't like at home, she grumbled to herself as she rolled out of bed and into the wall, sitting back down with a thump. No, at home her mother would have gently shaken her awake to make breakfast as her mother and her next-in-age brother Nicolas went out to teach themselves how to plow. Ava would spend the day foraging with her siblings in the woods, looking after them, keeping them out of the mud around the lake, and bringing them home with mushrooms, berries, and herbs at the end of the day, to make her mother smile and to help with dinner. Her gut wouldn't be churning, like it did now when she opened the door and joined the stream of servants headed towards the Hall, and she'd be getting hugs, rather than the shove into the wall Synnove made sure to greet her with.
Ava dreamed of going home.
She pretended it, in her tiredness and fear. She pretended she was in her home's small dark kitchen as she drew back to the darkest corner of the Great Hall, almost behind a pillar. She closed her eyes. The hum of worried voices were just her siblings, wondering if there would be enough food to be full today. The many steps were the trees outside shaking in a strong wind. But they wouldn't get in, because home was safe, home where nothing worse than squabbles, fist-fights, and apologies happened. That door would be her Fa-
"Attention, all," a herald's voice boomed, and Ava's eyes immediately opened.
She wasn't at home. Father would never walk in the door again, or likely never. She was at the palace, and she hated it. "Attention!"
The voices went silent, and Ava edged around the pillar. The tables had already been cleared—the morning crew, able to rest the night before, would have been working as soon as they had light to see. It was a few hours after that now, and in its place—that was the captain of the guard, she could tell by his bushy brown beard, and his black uniform with all the large yellow buttons.
"Servants of the king," the captain began, in a voice like Ava's mother when yet another thing had gone badly wrong, "we need your help." Ava edged around the pillar a bit more. She might not like the queen, but the King—and his former Queen—had been kind and wise, by all accounts, and though people wondered what would happen when the more stubborn Suna took their place, they had still raised her with a good heart, people said, and a good head, the cleverer people added, and Ava wanted to help them.
"The Princess is missing." Gasps echoed in the hall. Princess Suna—loud, kind, and clever— had made the palace echo with her voice and presence. She'd pulled her father into an empty room and yelled at him (loudly enough four different servants and who-knows-how-many-guards heard it) about how quickly he'd married, and then crowned, a woman they knew nothing about, and couldn't he see how he'd changed, how nothing mattered to him but her?
"We also believe magic is involved," the captain continued, and every voice died away.
Magic was illegal. Magic was dangerous. Magic turned princes into beasts, princesses bit apples meant to kill them—and there had been one hideous story where the entire castle, including Ava's great-great aunt, had been sent into a magical sleep while thorns grew up around them. Her relative hadn't felt any more refreshed on waking up after a hundred years, and there had been holes pricked through the hem of her dress, and her parents and two siblings outside the castle were dead. The fairies left gifts on her windowsill in apology, but it wasn't really enough.
Magic had led Ava's father to distant lands, coming back with wondrous tales and more than enough wealth—till magic took him away and he'd never returned, two summers ago.
And now it took the Princess. It had to be magic, the Captain was explaining, due to guards on duty and locked doors and blah, blah, blah. If anyone had any information about fairies looking for children, or other kingdoms hiring mages to kidnap Princesses, they should come forward at once.
Avs shrank back behind the pillar. She'd made that wish last night. Surely—surely—oh, it couldn't have been strong enough to do anything!
No, Ava thought, calming herself. No, that couldn't have done anything. I haven't touched or talked with anything magical. But—but I'd still like to help.
And she tried. All that morning, she checked seldom-used rooms to make sure the Princess wasn't just doing something in them, and to see if anyone had been brewing or magicking or spelling anything, but there was nothing. Everywhere she saw the guards checking all the corners and crannies. (But not the King, and that was odd. Though Ava kept that thought to herself. Only, well, she knew he'd truly loved the Princess, just like he had his former wife. The whole staff knew that.) Still—Suna was Nicolas's age, and just as prone to trouble, if the stories were true. Ava worried the end of one of the tapestries (a moth-bitten one, hidden in an unused tower), winding the thread tightly around her fingers as she tried to think of ways she could help. There weren't any, but she tried.
That afternoon the Queen called the staff, the groundskeepers, the villagers, and everyone who could travel to the palace in one morning to the garden before the palace. (Everyone except the King, apparently, as he wasn't in sight. Ava was growing less impressed, even if he was the King. But—everyone who had served him for a while loved him. Ava must be wrong.)
Ava's family showed up, and Ava ran to her mother, throwing her arms around the broad waist and pressing her face into her mother's neck.
"The Princess is missing," she whispered, and her mother's hand came up to stroke her hair.
"Steady your heart and breathe deep, my oldest," her mother's calm voice commanded, and Ava breathed deep. Her mother smelled like warm sun and a little bit of sweat.
"Ava!" she heard her brothers complain, and at least three hands were tugging at her arms, her hand. "Ava!"
She let herself tremble one more time, breathing deep, and let go. Nicolas had his hand on hers, impatient eyes snapping at her. "Show us the royal family!" His hand grabbed her shoulders, intent on spinning her around, but her other brothers mobbed her for hugs first.
"Trond, I'm here, I'm here, don't make me trip, I'll hug you, just let go of my leg! Aaro, you're already taller! Jakob, get Nicolas off me, you're strong enough—where's Rakel?" She looked around, waiting for his carrying, proclaiming voice.
"He stayed home to mind the horse," Nicolas informed her impatiently, but he let go of her shoulders.
"And Sophia?" Ava asked, twisting to see if her baby sister was holding her skirts in an effort to stand.
"On my back," her mother cut in gently. She placed a hand on her oldest to still her. "Why are we here?"
"Princess Suna was kidnapped, and the guards think it's by magic," Ava returned in a low voice. Her mother frowned thoughtfully.
"The fairies know nothing of this. Gossip carries far and fast, for they forget in a day what they learn of the mortal world, and I would have heard while plowing." Her voice, equally low, was displeased, and Ava looked down. Her mother loved the magic of field and forest as much as her father had loved the magic of spell and mage, and there were many who came to her for advice—not to be shared, of course, as knowing magic was treason—but, well, country folk had to live near the fairies, and if the King wanted that to change, he'd have to take out the fairies. The common folk didn't like to anger them.
"Bet it's a neighbouring kingdom, and a war's about to start," Nicolas said with relish, though he too kept his voice low. "We'd have food enough then, if Rakel and I hired out to the army!"
"And like as not I'd have two bodies to bury," their mother returned sharply. His face fell at her rebuke. "You have your father's heart for adventure, but war is no adventure, however the tale-tellers speak of it," she finished more quietly.
"You're growing up," Ava offered as a consolation, because she hated it when he was sad. "You know enough to listen to mother now."
"And to tell this tale no further," their mother warned, but her hand rested on his shoulder.
"Hush, the speech is starting," Nicolas grumbled, but Ava thought he looked pleased.
Ava looked up to the balcony, where the crowned and robed Queen Eris stood, raising her arms for silence. She got it quickly, for she looked lovely, important, and capable, the sun lighting up her purple robe and golden crown.
She looked, from the tip of the spread fingers to the flashing black hair, like a Queen.
But then she began to speak. She spoke of her sorrow at Suna's disappearance, and Ava gritted her teeth. There had been no love in the looks the Queen gave the Princess last night, nothing like what her mother had given her today. Ava knew love. Her mother, her siblings, even her father before he went missing, gave it with the abundance of those who had nothing else to give. And she knew Queen Eris had not loved the loud, common-sense Princess Suna, and the Princess had not liked her. The speech grated on Ava's heart like scalding water on skin, and Ava looked away, up to the sky.
Something white was flying there, landing—landing on the palace behind the Queen. The Queen, now reassuring the people (her people) that she would be a good, kind ruler, was interrupted by a loud animal noise, as if someone had taken a trumpet and given it to a donkey. Ava hadn't heard such a sound before. The Queen turned, looking behind her, then with royal regality turned back around and began speaking again.
The noise came again. The Queen frowned, opening her mouth to speak, and the noise came again, as if the Queen herself were braying. Nicolas and Aaro were openly laughing, Ava began shaking, looking down, and even mother's frown began to curl up at the edges.
It kept happening, and the Queen was at least smart enough to know not to continue, for the crowd below were all beginning to chuckle, and she dismissed them with a wave of her arm. The laughter faded, as the people discussed their Princess missing, but most shrugged with the philosophy of farmers, and went back to their waiting fields. Ava hugged her family, nodded at her mother's serious injunction to be careful and to come back home if things at the palace got more out of hand, and went back inside through the kitchen gardens.
The white bird Ava had seen was a swan, and it was the same loud honking animal who had interrupted the Queen. Ulla described seeing it flying for the roof after the speech, and one of the guards courting Ulla had seen them before in some of the lakes.
"I don't know what it's doing in the castle," he finished dubiously, "but it was right funny to see Her Royal Excellency the Queen shut up by something with no more brains than a babe, that it was."
"Hush," Jaana commanded. The guard cast an anxious glance at the door and said no more.
Whatever the swan was doing in the castle, Queen Eris did not like it. She set her guards, and as many servants as were within earshot, the task of capturing it for dinner. Ava felt sorry for it, but didn't think any more of it, not till she came down to breakfast the next morning to find Synnove flushed, panting, and covered in mud.
"That, that, that swan!" she burst out furiously. "Her Royalness sent me to get some of those purple roses she likes for her room, and the swan's snipped the heads off every one of them!"
Ava sat with a quiet thump, no longer feeling sorry for the swan. She liked the palace gardens.
"I got her some of the common pink roses, do you think that will work?" Synnove asked Jaana anxiously.
"The swan left those alone?" Jaana asked abruptly, and Synnove nodded.
"It didn't hurt a thing but the purple flowers. Should I just take her these?"
"Set them on her table and see if she notices. And leave, quick-like, after your explanation if she does. The Queen ordered roasted swan last night and didn't get it, and I've no confidence in her mercy." Synnove looked over at Ava, and Jaana added sharply, "And you'll take them yourself, it's your task." Synnove pouted but got up. Jaana waited till she was out of the kitchen, then looked at the rest of them. "Now listen here," she said—needlessly, Ava thought, since everyone was looking at her anyway. "I doubt the swan's going anywhere, and I doubt Her Majesty's dislike will change. If she orders you to chase the bird, you do it, you hear? But if the Queen is called to somewhere else, and your chores are waiting—make your own judgements. She won't be any happier with unfinished chores than with the bird." She looked at the guards, the Captain sitting at a table by himself, at the servants. The Captain met her eyes steadily, and most nodded. "Be off to your work, then. And finish your breakfast, if you haven't had it!" she ordered testily, and Ava hastily sat back down to eat the porridge, scooping up a few pieces of bread for later.
For the first time that week, Ava enjoyed her chores. She'd been given the task of cleaning up the beheaded roses—and the bird was surprisingly thorough, she'd realised, it'd gotten every single purple rose, and not a single other flower! She wondered if perhaps the fairies had liked the Princess too, and sent a bird to retaliate for the Queen's attitude towards her, now that the Princess couldn't fight for herself. She smiled at the idea.
But the most enjoyable part of her morning came when the Queen visited.
It should have been terrible. That awful frown, the disapproving, piercing eyes, would have been fully directed towards Ava as she cleaned up the shredded, muddied flower heads, and Ava would have thrown up from nerves.
But the swan came to the garden too. And it followed the Queen. Every time Eris spoke it honked, drowning out her arrogant orders. It'd leave for a few minutes, the Queen regaining her composure, only to appear from nowhere and jump out at her, making the Queen shriek and jump back. Then, as the no-longer regal Queen began screaming, the swan even threw dirt on her!
The guards did their best to shoot it—Ava watched with her heart in her mouth—but the swan was surprisingly smart, ducking under arrows, jumping just as one released, and swooping down over the Queen till the guardsmen couldn't shoot without risking hitting their charge.
And then it disappeared, just like magic, and Ava couldn't help but smile. She immediately bent down, pretending to pick up another petal, but she could still hear the Queen shrieking about her guards' incompetence, and then about the dirt on her shoes, and Ava just smiled wider.
The Queen went back inside, and Ava picked up the last of the petals, sighed, stretched her back, and began walking slowly towards the palace. But she paused, because she spotted something white. A small white head, attached to a long neck, was poking out from behind a hedge. The whole body soon followed, waddling a bit as it walked back towards the purple-rose-plants. It bent, seeming to examine them closely, and Ava watched with a half smile before sticking her hand into her pocket. She took out the bread from breakfast and set it on the ground, just away from the path. She hoped the swan found it.
It was a little enough in return for an amusing morning.
More mornings like it followed. Ulla—who Jaana kept well away from the Queen, as the outspoken, beautiful girl seemed to grate on Eris—had seen the swan actually splash mucky pond water all over the Queen's favourite dress. Ulla helped chase the swan, getting it away from the Queen, but it'd just returned a few hours later, dropping mud on the Queen's dark hair. "Just as if it knew who it was targeting, and how to get away!" Ulla finished, the kitchen ringing with laughter. Jaana hushed the merriment quickly, frowning at everyone, but the story sounded like something Father would have told, and it warmed Ava. She told it to her siblings when she went home for the weekend, and her mother listened with a spark in her eyes that had been missing for far too long.
"Bring us back more stories next week," her mother requested, and Ava happily agreed.
And saving up the stories became very, very easy, for the swan somehow found its way inside the castle, and mayhem followed.
It hid under the Queen's bed. Ulla's most faithful swain told them the tale the morning after Ava got back, choking on his laughter, and Jaana shut the door and let the laughter grow as loud as it wanted.
"Her Royal Messiness the Queen 'ad been sleeping soundly, is our guess, and we're outside her doors, minding our own business, quiet-like, because she'd yell the castle awake if we disturbed her sleep, so not even a conversation to pass the time, an' just as we're just seeing who can throw bread-crumbs from dinner the most accurately behind the tapestry, we hear this yell. Louder than a banshee's scream, it was, and we ran into the room, and the Queen's screaming, hair like a mess o' vines, and there's something white flying in the night, and we're looking for enemy soldiers, a manticore, anything, and this swan just lands on the Queen's beauty stuff and begins knocking over the bottles, calm as you please! Perfume bottles, they were! And I'm standing there choking, trying to breathe, and the Queen's still screaming, and Mikko tries to shut her up, and jabs at the swan with his spear-" Ulla frowned at him, and he held his hands up. "Not me! I know better than to touch that bird, you like it too much! And anyway, it got its own back, 'cause it dodges the spear, and bites Mikko's foot! And he yells and begins hopping around, and the swan flies out, and the Queen's still screaming, and this bird decides it'll scream too, and up and down it races, honking and making these high-pitched shrieks, and waking the whole castle up!"
"That it did," Jaana muttered, though Ava only heard her because Jaana was sitting close. "And I'd bet my position it won't be the last night of interrupted sleep we get."
Ava glanced at her, for though the words were grumpy, the tone was resigned.
"Better interrupted sleep than a Queen like that," she whispered, and Jaana glanced at her.
"Keep thoughts like that quiet, girl." She took a drink of her tea. "However right they may be, they're best left unsaid. We're not powerful enough to be taking sides." She shook her head, and then lowered her voice further. "I'm betting on the swan." She got up and began ordering people back to their chores, and the kitchen crowd quickly dispersed, most servants wondering what the swan would cause that day.
It caused unstoppable mayhem.
Not mayhem for the servants. The swan never attacked them, never even honked at them, and the ones who were kind to it found a voiceless friend. Ulla talked to it every time her chores led her near it, complaining about how beautiful the Queen thought herself, how she thought herself better than anyone—and if Ulla dropped hints as to where the Queen would be that day, and the swan took off immediately afterwards, well, only a sharp few noticed.
Ava noticed. The swan was magical; it was too intelligent and too much like a person to be anything else. In a battle between the Queen and a magical creature, Ava was siding with magic. Treason or not, whoever sent the swan was in the right.
Even if it turned into a thief.
Because that was the Swan's next move. (And yes, it deserved a capital S.) It became a thief.
Not of the servants' things. Oh, it made their lives a bit harder when it swooped into the hallway and tore down the tapestry right onto where Eris walked, knocking her and her guards onto the floor, and once it tore down some drapes in her room and wrapped them around her. Of course, the servants had to mend everything, but oh, it was worth it to see the Queen's hair sticking up in all directions, swaddled in the fabric and unable to move!
Then it started stealing quills. Quills. All the laws Eris was forcing into place halted, as none could be written down, none announced. The Swan had this great gift for getting around the castle and finding each and every quill.
And if Ava noticed and left the doors open into the study, after glancing to make sure no one saw, then no one could prove it.
The Swan hid the quills so well they only found three. Two ruined in chamber pots, and one on top of Queen Eris' pillow.
Ulla managed to snap that last one when the Queen wasn't looking.
Ava went home, told stories to her family, and began laughing when her brothers—especially Nicolas and Trond—began predicting what the Swan would do next. Nicolas thought it would steal the Queen's dresses, and Trond thought it would just hit her with its wings.
It did neither. No, it began stealing all of Eris's jewelry. And leaving it just out of reach, on windowsills, the castle roof, or in the castle fountains. It even hung one of her bracelets around a statue's wrist, too tall for anyone to get down.
It took her shoes, her delicate dancing slippers, and left them in the dunghill behind the stables. It took her comfortable black shoes and filled them with ink, and no one knew until the Queen took her feet out of them.
Ava loved telling the story of that particular reaction to her brothers, watching how they doubled over, laughing as if laughter was food. She asked what they thought it'd do next. Having been wrong, neither boy predicted the Swan's next move, but Rakel bet it would be even more dramatic.
Ava came back and found Jaana smiling. Jaana. Smiling. She sidled up to her and looked a question.
"Her Royalness can't find her keys this morning," Jaana muttered. Ava's eyes went wide. That meant the empty jewelry box, the locked wardrobe, the bureau, the safe no one ever got a glimpse into-
"I've hidden the spare set in your room and told Her Majesty the swan took those too." Jaana wasn't looking at her. "Be a good girl and make sure no one finds them. Servants' cupboards are the last place they'll look, and you won't tell a soul." She raised her voice. "Oi, Albin, careful with that!" Ava jumped and looked over in time to see Albin—the guard, Ulla's storytelling swain—sheepishly smile and start stirring the breakfast porridge more slowly. Ava blinked.
"Where's his uniform? Why is he stirring porridge like a kitchen serf?" she asked timidly.
"He quit once the Queen threatened to behead him," Jaana said shortly. Ava blinked again. She looked around. Wait, there was Mikko, in a gardener's outfit, and another guard there, there, there, and there. Seven guards—wait, no, former guards—were working in the kitchen in various uniforms.
If this went on much longer, there wouldn't be anyone to guard the Queen, and Ava wished the Swan good luck when that happened.
She wasn't a fan of murder, mind, but maybe the King would finally see what a harridan his wife was and do something.
Because the King seemed strangely oblivious.
In fact, Ava started trying to catch glimpses of him. He hadn't made any move against the Swan, but, Ava thought as she watched him while re-hanging draperies in one of the Queen's favorite rooms, that might be because he didn't seem aware of the Swan except as something his wife screamed about.
And that was also odd.
All the stories of the King, told by palace servants, that is, were of a wise, kind, and patient man (his daughter required a good deal of patience, but he'd loved her dearly). This man did not mourn his daughter, did not notice the ink stains, downed drapes, shredded documents, and angry council debating all around him. He was looking besottedly at one thing.
If she looked like she had the night of that terrifying banquet, Ava might understand it; beauty did that to men. It was hard to miss how many suitors Ulla had—especially the one night she'd pointed out she had more than Synnove (Ava had stayed in an empty room all night to hide, trembling, from that fallout)—but the Queen just didn't look like that anymore. Dark circles swallowed all of her cheeks, it seemed, her mouth was more often open in a scream than regally frowning, and her eyes reminded Ava of the rabid bear her father had shot with a magic bow, when no one else would try. There wasn't any beauty left.
And the King looked at her just the same, like a dog at a moldy bagel everyone else could see was trash, but the dog thought was the world's greatest treasure.
That almost seemed...magical. Even love wasn't that blind.
But Ava kept her mouth shut, left the room, and took the strawberries in Eris's room and put them on the windowsill where the Swan could see them.
Albin came in just as she was doing it, and she froze, fingers suddenly trembling, because she was dead, the Queen would have her beheaded, and her family would have one more person who messed with something magic and didn't come back, and-
"Oh, good, I was just coming to do that!" Albin said cheerfully, turning around to head back out. "And Jaana says you're to clean the North Tower!" he called over his shoulder, and Ava nearly sank to the floor.
She'd been careless, very careless. Careless people didn't last long. She had to be more careful. She went to clean the North Tower, far apart from everyone else. It didn't leave her many stories to take home that next weekend, but it kept her safe, and that was good.
She stayed out of it the next week as well, though she collected stories by sitting quietly in the kitchen, because all the servants were on the Swan's side now, helping it along. Braver than Ava, Natalia had dropped the Queen's breakfast in the hallway and said the Swan did it. Ulla wasn't about to be outdone, and the next morning she'd broken the mirror in the Queen's chamber and said she'd seen the Swan hit it, and Albin, always one for a good joke, spent two hours pretending to look for the Queen's hairbrush and quietly moving it anytime someone else got close to finding it. Even the guards who kept their posts joined in, shouting as loudly as possible at the Swan every time it appeared when they guarded the Queen's doors at night. The Swan had the entire castle in revolt.
And Ava, daring to smile since Jaana was, sat eating breakfast by the window and listened, listened until another noise drew her attention.
It came through the window, and was a quieter, calmer version of those loud honks that drowned at the Queen, and Ava looked out and realised the Swan was listening. And was laughing.
Laughing till the whole white body shook. Laughing because it understood them. Laughing like a Princess had once laughed, and Ava's hand flew to her mouth.
Magic. There were other stories, stories of witches who wanted to be Queens, who spelled kings to fall in love. Who got rid of heirs by transforming them into animals.
The King's besotted looks. The missing Princess. The clever Swan.
Jaana had been right all along, Ava thought with a gulp, this was no battle for a servant to be involved in!
Her mother disagreed. Ava begged the day off and went home with the stories the servants had told, and then, with a shivering glance at the door, told her family what she thought had happened. And her mother's expression hardened into a one of ice.
"She and those like her are the reason a good thing is now treason, and she has done the unforgivable to a child." Her mother took Sophia gently onto her lap, hugging her. "She is the ruin of kingdoms. The Swan has done much to harry her, but it is the work of all good people to do more." She looked directly at Ava. "If you can help her, do so."
"But the Queen's a witch," Ava implored. "She'll turn me into a swan too!"
"A mouse is much more likely," her mother said in amusement, though she took Ava's head in both her hands. "It might teach you courage, my dear one, to have the worst happen and see that it is not the worst. But courage or not, you must help this swan where you can. The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good people stand by and do nothing.* Would you have the Queen triumph and the Princess fail, because none would help her?"
Ava thought about that—about the way Princess Suna had drawn the Queen's attention away at the banquet, the white head poking out of the hedge, the way she listened to all the servants who spoke to her, even as a swan. And she thought of Her Royal Excellency the Queen telling her to curtsey more deeply with a pitcher of water in her hands.
"No," Ava admitted reluctantly. "I don't want the Queen to win."
"And you will help the Swan, my eldest?" Ava nodded, her mother's hands still framing her face, and her mother smiled. "You have the goodness of your father," and Ava ached with the sadness in her mother's smile.
Ava's mother, who knew very well what the worst could be. Ava lunged forward and hugged her, her mother's hand falling from her face to wrap around her. "And be careful," her mother murmured, and Ava agreed.
Ava went back to the back to the castle with a firm determination to help where she could. But she found, to her growing dread, that her resolution might have come too late.
The first morning she got back, she went down to the kitchen to find it quiet. She picked up her porridge, nodded at Jaana, and ignored Synnove's comments about running home to family—and she ignored Synnove telling her to take Synnove's dishes over and wash them, too. The unpleasant maid seemed like such a small power compared to the Queen.
And the Queen, after all, was being defeated by a Swan.
And it helped that Jaana caught her eye and smiled approvingly, even as Synnove ranted about "knowing her place," and "the newest maids always did these chores." Ava didn't move.
But she did feel that the kitchen, even with Synnove's rants, was quiet. No stories, no laughter, no tales of the Swan. Just a low hum of conversation.
The guards about to go to bed yawned. "The bird didn't show last night," one remarked to the kitchen at large, and Jaana's smile fell away so quickly Ava blinked.
"Did it honk outside the Queen's window?" Jaana asked them, and they looked at each other.
"Not that I heard. You?"
"Nah. Quietest night I've had in a month."
Ava snuck a look at Jaana, and felt her stomach clench. Jaana wasn't happy with the news.
"All right, along with all of you!" the housekeeper yelled, picking up the duster she hadn't held in weeks and hitting slow people over the head with it. Ava got her own wallop as she lingered at the window to see if the Swan was outside, but at least Synnove got one too when she opened her mouth to mock Ava. "Out! Out and to your chores!"
Ava went to her chores—still the North Tower—but kept an eye out for the Swan all day.
She didn't see anything. No white feathers, no torn paper, fallen drapes, or smashed bottles. There were no sounds, either, no shouts, screams, honks, no...nothing. It was a normal day.
It was anything but a normal day after the Swan came, and Ava was worried sick. Surely the Queen hadn't caught her and killed her? Or spelled her? Or, or, or anything horrible?
Surely the Swan would be back tomorrow?
She met looked at Jaana over supper, and saw the lines on the housekeeper's face. Jaana wasn't happy about this. But it would be all right tomorrow. It had to be. Ava had just come back to help.
It was not all right tomorrow. The Queen, with two nights of unbroken sleep and the bare necessities of cosmetics, began to make herself look regal again, or at least less like a player with the part of a hag. Her commands, no longer screamed, were less about repairing damage and catching swans, and much more about how the servants had to wait on her every whim, and bow lower, and never, ever laugh. Laughter was disrespectful, and two servants were permanently dismissed because of it.
Jaana quietly asked the head gardener to hire them, but warned the rest against laughing.
Dinner that night was quiet, everyone a little on edge about their jobs, and each wondering, deep down, where the Swan had gone. But Jaana shut up anyone who asked, though everyone was speculating inside.
The third day, Ava felt herself praying it would show up. The Queen had opened the wardrobes she'd ordered nailed shut (if she couldn't get in, neither could the swan), and was wearing regal clothing again, head up, hair flowing down her back, and it was easy to see she thought she'd won. Ava, scrubbing the floor on the bottom floor, had accidentally upset a bucket of water when the Queen strode through, and it nearly splashed Her Majesty's shoes. The Queen had looked like she was contemplating different ways to incinerate Ava and have her for dinner that night, and the maid had nearly cried as she apologised. It had been an accident, and she hated accidents, and she hated the Queen made her feel, and suddenly she hated life at the palace again.
This is what happens when good people do nothing, she thought to herself as she scrubbed harder than ever, a few tears falling onto the wet floor. But this wasn't what I wanted. I came back to stop this. Why was I too late?
The fourth day passed, and the fifth day. Ava felt herself falling back into her mouse-like habits, and would have gone to the stables in Synnove's place if Jaana hadn't been glaring at Ava.
The sixth day the Queen called for a grand meeting, of all the important, powerful people, a council to confirm her power and prestige, and Ava, listening, felt like this was her last chance to do something.
She tried. She quietly loosened the tapestry behind the thrones, hoping it would fall, and when she scrubbed the floors she deliberately waxed the floor Her Royal Excellency the Wicked Witch would walk on, hoping she would fall, and desperately tried to think of anything else she could do (or that Nicolas would do, as it made it easier to think of things), but she came up short. And Her Majesty emerged from a side door as the King came in on the other, so the only people who slipped were a few fat merchants, and the tapestry wasn't loose enough, or someone had fixed it, because it stayed put, and the council began, and Ava shrank back against the back wall at the very rear of the servants, and felt like she failed her father all over again.
As all the important people greeted their Majesties, Ava let herself lean against the wall. This was it. This was life from now on. And she could take that, she could. She'd never been someone who hoped for much. But she found herself returning again and again to the Swan, to the Princess trapped and now missing again. It was all right for Ava, nothing really awful had happened, but she found herself aching for the Swan who'd lost everything once, and fought so hard to get it back, and then lost again. It just wasn't fair.
Introductions at last were over, and Ava stood straight and pretended to pay attention.
Suddenly Ulla hissed. Jaana reached back without looking and swatted her with the duster, but Ulla grabbed it, and Jaana looked back. As slowly and carefully as possible, Ulla pointed. Ava peered that direction. She seemed to be pointing past the Queen, who stood on the edge of the dais dramatically giving her speech, and towards the thrones, where the King sat in one, almost drooling, and the empty throne—
No, there was a large white bird nestled in its cushions, and Ava's face lit up with the widest smile she'd felt herself give. She glanced quickly towards the guards, wondering if they'd try to catch it, to kill it, but no! Most of them were grinning, or blankly pretending they didn't see it, and Ava remembered how the Swan had brought the whole castle to the point of revolt.
The revolt was happening now, here, just when the Queen meant to win, and Ava grinned in anticipation. This would be a story to tell her siblings!
The Queen's voice was rising, arms spread, and behind her in a perfect mockery the Swan spread her own wings and gave its loudest, strongest, most annoying honk.
The Queen froze. The merchants, who had heard rumors but probably hadn't believed them, froze as well. The guild members. The guards had twitching faces but made no sound, and around Ava a quiet ripple of laughter passed through the servants.
Ava had missed this. But she was watching the Queen, aware the battle wasn't over, and so she caught the slow turn, back as stiff as a castle spire, as Eris turned to look at the Swan.
The Queen screamed, and drew back her hand in its dramatic robe, and hurled magic at the Swan. Ava caught her breath, terrified, elated, the Queen guilty of treason, but what of Princess Suna?
Wait, the Swan was flying! Up, she'd avoided the magic! The Queen was screaming now, too far away for Ava to make out the words, but hurling bolts of magic at the white bird, and Ava held out her arms, helpless, trying to gesture for the Swan, the Princess, to come their way. The audience was yelling, tripping, dodging bits of tapestries and chandeliers broken to pieces by the Queen's magic.
"Arrest the witch!" Ava heard Jaana command, and the guards stiffened, drawing swords and making their way to the dias. Ava kept her eyes on the swan, still dodging magic, flying around the ceiling, till the magic ceased coming, and Ava realised the witch was now fighting the guards.
And the King was shaking his head, blinking, and looking around the room. He looked awake.
Oh, please, let him remember his daughter. Let him get a prince, that's how the stories went, to kiss the swan and make Princess Suna come back, Ava pleaded inside. The Princess seemed safe for now, still flying on the ceiling, but what if the King thought she was magic and had her killed?
"Stop!" the King bellowed, lungs surpassing even Jaana's, and the room fell silent. Ava looked at him, suddenly glad to see him, and then back up at the Swan.
The Swan was landing; it was coming near her, and it settled itself on the floor a little bit behind her legs.
It was so small, this close, and Ava again remembered Princess Suna was as young as Nicolas. She bent down and scooped the swan up—oof, she was heavier than Ava expected—and slipped closer to the door.
Just in case.
"Someone tell me just exactly what is happening here?" That was the King, his voice echoing everywhere, stern and capable, and Ava trusted him a little bit more. He sounded too much like Mother to hurt the innocent.
Of course, everyone tried to answer his questions at once, Ulla shouting about the swan, Albin from the front explaining they weren't attacking the Queen, well yes they were, but she was a witch, and Jaana just...rolling her eyes. Ava didn't say a word.
The King made a sharp cutting gesture, and everyone fell silent once more. He looked around, assessing, and then his eyes fell on Ava. Ava, and the swan she had tucked against her chest. He motioned her forward.
This is better than the banquet, Ava reminded herself as she walked forward. I have to tell him about Princess Suna. I have to. Now I can. But she felt the eyes on her, everyone was noticing her now, and she tried to make her way past debris and important people and unimportant people, and stopped just in front of the dais on the opposite side of the Queen. The King gestured for her to speak.
She had to get it all out before he stopped listening. "Your Majesty, I believe you've been enchanted by a witch so she could be queen, and that she turned your daughter into this swan." Oh, wait, I'm supposed—he's the King! Ava quickly curtsied, trying not to think about how the Swan was heavier than any banquet dish had been. "Begging Your Majesty's pardon!"
"That is my daughter?" He wasn't laughing, at least, and he'd asked it slowly, as if he could be convinced, and maybe Ava should-
Only the Swan was nodding so vigorously now that Ava nearly dropped her, and had to rapidly adjust her hold. Princess Suna stopped quickly.
The King looked over at Eris, seeing her as she was, Ava could tell, and Ava breathed again. Good people were doing things, for the King was good, and now he was King again. "You," he spoke to Eris, "are no longer my queen. You will fix my daughter," and oh, Ava was happy to hear him say that! "And then you will spend the rest of your life in a cell to pay for your crimes."
Eris began to answer, but Ava paid absolutely no attention, because the Swan in her arms quite suddenly and unexpectedly became a girl. Ava dropped her hands from the Princess's arms hurriedly and took a step back.
Just in time to watch the Princess roll her shoulders, shake her hands, and crack her neck one way and the other. "Oh, that's a much better way back than true love's kiss or whatever. Not sure what did it, but I'll take it."
And Ava couldn't help smiling, since everyone was watching the Princess and no one would mind. There couldn't be a greater contrast to Eris' manner, and it made Ava quite happy.
Of course the happy ending worked itself out after that, with the King hugging his daughter and Eris locked up, and Princess Suna, who had quite enjoyed the strawberries Ava had left out, sharing them with all the servants, and laughing and talking with Ulla, and smiling at everyone who had been her friend while being a swan.
And Ava went back to the North Tower with a contented heart.
Well, mostly contented.
No, no, she was quite happy, really, so very happy the adventure was over, and there was no more danger, or evil to fight, or witches to fear. She was at her happiest scrubbing floors, not guarding Swans.
And a part of her knew it was true, that she liked the peaceful life, but another part of her remembered her mother's saying, evil triumphs when good people do nothing, and she couldn't help feeling there was at least one other adventure out there for her. One she wouldn't regret, because, like this one, there was someone to be rescued. Helped.
"You've grown a bit in the last month," a voice commented from the doorway, and Ava yelped and spilled her bucket again. She closed her eyes. Perhaps she didn't want adventures after all.
She looked up at Jaana. "You could have told me you were there," she accused, a bit braver than she'd been, mainly because the stout housekeeper had been kind.
"I could have." Jaana was looking at her. "Are you staying, Ava?"
Ava shrugged, putting her brush in the bucket and standing to shake out her skirts. "Where would I go?"
"Two kingdoms over, to the forest of Algerher," Jaana responded, and Ava stared at her. "There's a wolf there, who is said to stop every girl your age and peer into their faces as if looking for something, ignoring the basket of food they carry, and sometimes when he pants after running from hunters, people swear they hear a list of names on his tongue." Ava, a knot growing in her stomach, noticed suddenly that Jaana's eyes looked old. Very, very old, far older than Ava had ever seen. "That's where your father was last seen, you know."
"Hunting for the Wolf," Ava croaked, more frightened than she'd ever been by Eris. Eris against Jaana would have been a snail fighting a dragon.
"Looking for the Wolf. I thought you would have realised the distinction." Jaana turned and left. "I'll see you around, then. Or not?"
Ava stared after her, heart pounding, looking from her bucket to the door. From safety to adventure; from her kingdom to a world she had never known and never wanted to; from doing nothing to possibly dying.
Which one should she choose?
*This line is paraphrase of a quote that is attributed sometimes to Edmund Burke, but others say the original was said by John Stuart Mill: "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." I'm not sure who it belongs to truly, but I tried to give credit where it is due.
A/N: a part of me really likes the idea of this being the story that keeps going forward, so I have no idea if anyone is interested, but if they wanted to write Jaana's story, or Ulla's, or a guild member's, or a neighboring kingdom who heard it—or if you wanted to continue the story, or tell the story of Ava's father—I don't know, I just like the idea of it being a story that keeps going, with a different teller for each chapter. If someone feels like it. Let me know if you do, please?