Once upon a time….
there was a princess called Lucinda that lived in a big castle. I know, that’s not unusual for princesess but she really didn’t like living there. It was dull and cold and too big. Sometimes she thought her entire family could leave and she wouldn’t even know. The worst thing about that was the fact that it wouldn’t surprise her if they did go. And it was likely they would leave her behind.
The castle had big towers that filled the princess with foreboding although she wasn’t sure why. She just knew that when she was on her way to princess school and she looked back, she shuddered involuntarily when she saw them. There was one at each corner, tall and proud with only the one window at the very top. She didn’t like them any better when the chauffeur drove her back from school and they seemed to stare down at her, one cold dark eye each. It made her skin cold all over.
The school wasn’t much better. It was grey and imposing with the same stark towers on the corners. Perhaps, she mused, they would be frightened into behaving as they were supposed to. It was true that no one seemed to step out of line so maybe it worked. They all trooped into the classroom and sat at their desks and learned the many things that princesses needed to now. Like how to be radiant. Or how to talk down to your subjects. The princess wanted to ask about the towers. Questions like why are they so tall. Questions like what happened at the top with the one eyelike window. Once you got in, she reasoned, you would not get out. But she didn’t ask. It was unspoken that the towers suggested punishment. And they were all good girls really. Even Princess Lucinda.
It was hard enough for Lucinda. She knew she didn’t fit in. The other princesses were pink. They were flouncy. Lacy. Well, so was she. That was the uniform. But she didn’t like it. The dresses got in her way and when she sat down, they could always see her underclothes no matter how careful she was. She had failed that this year. Ladylike posture. It just didn’t come naturally. She looked on with envy as the others stuck their little fingers out when they picked up their cups and when they moved slowly and elegantly across the room in their sharp healed pointy shoes.
Their hair was bouncy. Her hair refused to do that. She had asked to have it cut short but they would not let her. Instead, it tangled itself into knots or unravelled from however it was supposed to be. And she couldn’t stay clean. The other princesses sat and waited for things to be brought to them, for things to happen. She wanted to go and find things. Although most of the time, the only things that she found were dirt and the corners of tables that were intent on ripping skirts and tearing lace.
There was a lot at stake of course. If they didn’t pass all levels of princessing, then they’d never get a prince and go on to have lots of other little princes and princesses. The thought of marrying a prince filled Lucinda with nearly as much horror as the thought of the tower. What a choice! She supposed it would be different with real babies but when they had to practise with the dolls, well, she genuinely couldn’t see the point. All the others cooing and exclaiming and dressing the dolls up. She wasn’t sure what it was but there had to be something better than this.
So that is what they were doing, they were still waiting. For their prince to come. Lucinda sniggered but the others were far too delicate to think such vulgar thoughts. They knew that you had to be to snag a prince and sniggering didn’t really figure in any snagging equation. Probably it gave you wrinkles and that was tragedy beyond measure. They spent long hours shaping their nails and curling or straightening their hair depending on what the fashionistas said. Then there was the rubbing on of creams. She looked at them and thought how they all looked the same.
They all had that careful voice, as well, not too loud, not too quiet. The exact right tone. She couldn’t manage that either. Too loud. When she laughed, not only did it come out in guffaws but her whole body joined in. They tittered carefully behind their hands when that happened although she had no doubt that nasty little thoughts existed behind those careful eyes. She hoped they did. At least that would make them interesting.
The princes were equally boring. All vying for position. All carefully styled, of course. Perfectly clothed. That was the problem. Nothing wrong with them. She was fed up with feeling less than perfect. They talked about themselves constantly. The whine of them contrasted horribly with the giggling from the princesses. They were all handsome and that struck Lucinda as odd. Surely they couldn’t all be. What happened if a less than perfect baby was born. Were they sent to some lesser family where it mattered less if you were beautiful? Another question she would never ask.
It was not like Lucinda to be early. Things eluded her. The things needed for school that day, for example. So often they’d have to turn back and get a servant to run and find some book or other or some homework she had forgotten. Sometimes she’d realise that she had odd shoes on. This morning had gone smoothly. She was the first one into their classroom. Or so she thought.
She was trying to decide what to do with this small piece of freedom when she heard a noise from the cupboard at the back of the classroom. She knew what she was supposed to do. Scream and then run. Alert the nearest male. Lucinda had no intention of behaving in such a princessy way. How very tedious. She wasn’t frightened, she was intrigued. With a delicacy that usually eluded her, she moved quietly towards the cupboard. The noises – rustles and swishes – made her think of a small animal. No threat.
She paused briefly to make sure she was ready and then she yanked the door open. She couldn’t believe her eyes. One of the princes. In there, among their clothes. Lucinda tried to recall his name. She knew she had seen him before. With the others but they came as one mass. They were the princes. She didn’t try to pick them apart. Then she tried to recall what it was that was different about him. He was slim, slight. Probably the smallest of the princes. But it wasn’t that. It was something that she couldn’t quite place. A delicacy perhaps. It was hard to see him rescuing or duelling or any of those things the princes learned about. Lucinda realised that she quite liked that about him. That and the fact he looked more frightened of her than she felt of him.
“What are you doing in there?” She asked with as much authority as she could muster. There was a pause and Lucinda thought the prince might cry. That wasn’t allowed. Boys don’t cry. She was ready to put her arms around him though, if she should need to. But instead he spoke. The same thing that Lucinda couldn’t quite grasp about his body was wrong with his voice. It was smooth and had none of the depth that the other princes aimed for. It was soft like silk. Lucinda felt it rub over her skin.
“I picked up my sister’s bag by mistake. I was just leaving it for her.” That sounded fair. Lucinda wished she had a brother that would be so helpful but they were all hateful.
“You probably should go.” He nodded his head. After all, the princes were not allowed in here and perhaps, he knew that the towers were for punishment as well. She couldn’t imagine that he found being a prince all that straightforward.
As she watched him leave – his steps were small and dainty – she thought he moved more like one of them. More like a girl. She felt sorry for him. He was as out of place as she was. He turned just before he left. Smiled.
“My name is Sam.” He said. Samuel, thought Lucinda. She would not forget.
“Lucinda.” She hadn’t realised until that moment, how much she had hated her name. It was clunky and awkward. Well, it suited her, you had to agree with that.
Lucinda thought about Sam a lot. She called him the prince of the cupboard. In her head anyway. For once, that lunchtime, she sat with the others while they giggled over their possible future husbands. Some of them had been promised to princes already. Providing they got the right grades at princessing, of course. Quietly, she asked if any of them knew anything about Sam. They seemed surprised to see her and hear her but they soon recovered.
“Trust you,” said Marianna, “To notice a fellow freak.” Lucinda realised that it was true. That was what was so similar about them. They were all wrong for the role. The others all laughed and she moved back to her lone seat. The prince of the cupboard was wrong in all the ways that made him right for her.
Weeks passed and Lucinda made an effort to make it into school early but she never saw the prince of the cupboard in their room again. It disappointed her every time. She began to think that she would never be able to speak to him again. Not that it would matter anyway. Not when she was going to fail her princessing exams. What happened then? No one wanted to say but she felt the presence of the tower whenever they spoke about it. A lot of good it would do her. Sam didn’t look like the rescuing type.
It was soon to be the end of term ball. Lucinda always hated it. They didn’t pick her to dance. Or if they did, they didn’t do so again after she had trodden on them or elbowed them or injured them in some way or another. These days her reputation went before her so she stood on the sidelines and watched them glide effortlessly around the dance floor. She wished she had the grace to do so herself. It was a strange feeling, to want something she so thoroughly hated but it would be easier, fitting in. Easier than standing watching everyone else enjoying their life. Okay so they were thoughtless but maybe that was better.
This time she tried really hard to stay clean and tidy by sitting in one place before they had to leave and even her mother was impressed that she hadn’t managed to mess up her hair. She was wearing her best dress. (The most expensive one not the one she liked the best. She liked none of them but trousers were not allowed.) She wanted Sam to think she was beautiful. She assumed that he would like this perfect version. It was what all the princes wanted. That was the whole point.
So she giggled not sniggered. She wiggled not stomped. She hid her face behind her hand. She was that shy, sweet girl. A couple of the princesses asked if she was feeling okay. She said she was although it was a lie. She had never felt worse. She was pretending to be what they wanted her to be. What he wanted her to be. Not even that. What she thought he wanted her to be. It was difficult but he was the prize. It had to be worth it.
It was the opinion of the princes that the ball was really for the girls. They had to be there and they had to dance but it was not their thing. Jousting and archery and sports that was their thing. But they had to be impressive and to be impressive, you had to be there. So mostly, they came and stood and watched and decided who was the prettiest. They fought to be the one who danced with the prettiest. They looked at Lucinda and sniggered at the way she giggled, at the way she wiggled. She might be trying but she lacked grace. She lacked feminine charm. She was still a little scary. The princes were taught what the princesses would do and that was fine. None of them was really bright enough to work out someone who did not follow the pattern.
Sam watched her carefully. He patted down his own clothes. They would probably suit Lucinda as well. Maybe he should share with her the secret of his success. He supposed it was probably too late. Watching her, trying so hard, it was heart breaking and Sam knew his heart was already soft with feeling for her. He wasn’t sure what he should do.
She was more like him than she realised. He had to find some way of letting her know that. He thought he’d seen recognition in her eyes, that day she had caught him changing his clothes but she had easily bought the lie he told so maybe she was clueless. Maybe she thought him just like all the rest, hence the terrible trying to fit the role.
He couldn’t remember the first time now. Just that it was a long time ago. Long enough that he had abandoned all thoughts of femininity. Even in his own head. Every time though, he felt that small thrill of it being right and proper even though everyone else thought it wrong. He had to be at school early to ensure no one saw him arrive, stay late so he could change again before home. Now, at home, in girl clothes, that was when it was odd and opposite.
“May I have this dance?” Sam looked up and there was Lucinda. His heart pounded unsteadily. She must have grown bored with waiting. Sam had decided that there would be no dancing for him tonight. He was too small and too nervous and he feared whoever he chose would just laugh. He grinned at the way everyone was staring. He hadn’t been concentrating or he would have seen the entire hall come to a stop.
“Of course.” He said, taking her hand. She let her hand sit on Sam’s waist, gently ran her hand over the hip. She noted the curve and nodded.
“You’re just like me.” She said. “Just like me.” She emphasized each word and Sam was glad she had figured it out.
“Do you think we’ll be able to live happily ever after?” She asked. Nobody else seemed to have figured it out and as far as she could tell, no one else wanted either of them. Her own mother would be pleased just to see her married.
“Oh, I think so.” Sam said grinning. They were floating across the dance floor now and much to everyone’s amazement, they moved well. They fitted together. Lucinda grinned as well. She was thinking about the lack of towers in the future and it pleased her immensely.