Sarah Cross Sarah Cross

Kill Me Softly book cover"Three Nights, Twelve Princesses, One Curse" is a short story set in Beau Rivage, a city where fairy tales come to life, and ancient stories are played out again and again. You can read more about the cursed fairy-tale characters of Beau Rivage in my novels Kill Me Softly and Tear You Apart.

“Three Nights, Twelve Princesses, One Curse"

story by Sarah Cross © 2015

Ray sipped the drugged wine, didn't swallow, then spit it back into the glass once the twelve princesses lost interest in the ruse. They'd poured it for him because that was what tradition demanded, but none had waited around to make sure he lost consciousness.

All twelve girls were in the adjacent bedroom now, door wide open, trying on the shoes they'd wear to the club tonight: designer heels and satin slippers tumbling out of narrow boxes, the rustle of so much tissue paper making it sound like Christmas.

His new tattoo--a single black hash mark on his neck--itched. He'd receive one mark for each night he spent here, and after three, if he hadn't broken the princesses' curse, their father would order an axe or a sword or a guillotine (he didn't know, didn't want to know) to slice through his neck and that would be the end of him.

So why was he doing this?

His mother had asked him that question when he'd confessed his decision to her and his sister, June: Why, Ray? Why would you do this? They'd been angry; accused him of throwing his life away for money or an unknown princess. But that wasn't it. For him, it was a chance to escape his insignificance. His only chance, the way he saw it.

He'd grown up envying the Cursed--the Prince Charmings, the Giant Killers, even the Beasts waiting for their Beauties to love them and set them free. He'd grown up listening to his grandmother Alice's stories about her Juniper Tree curse--how her mother had killed her stepbrother and convinced Alice it was all her fault, then slow-cooked him and served him to the family as barbecue. How Alice had salvaged her stepbrother's bones and buried them under the juniper tree in the backyard. How her stepbrother came back to life as a bird, serenaded the town with the truth of his death, and killed his stepmother by dropping a cinderblock on her head. Then the bird had transformed into the boy he'd once been, alive and whole. Gram Alice still had the red patent-leather shoes the bird had given her moments before he'd crushed her mother with the cinderblock.

“My mother, she killed me, my father, he ate me,” Gram Alice would sing in her rusty smoker's voice. “My sister, Alice, gathered all my bones.”

When Gram Alice came over, they'd take out an old fairy-tale book--the thick, falling-apart kind that every family in Beau Rivage seemed to have--and page through it together, reading the tales and putting curses on Ray's wish list the way other kids might flip through a catalogue to pick presents for an upcoming birthday.

Every year he waited for a fairy to change his life. He made sure to be extra accommodating whenever an elderly person asked him for help, or money, or a drink of water--in case it was a fairy in disguise. You could get scammed a lot in Beau Rivage if you wanted a good curse and were wary of offending a fairy; there were lots of sketchy old folks who'd take advantage of that and bum food and favors off paranoid do-gooders and wannabe heroes. Ray mowed lawns for free, walked arthritic dogs, invited bedraggled old ladies to Thanksgiving dinner, all in the hopes that one of those opportunists was really a fairy who'd curse him once he'd proved himself.

On his birthday, each time he blew out the candles, that was his wish: Please give me a good curse. The curse he hoped for changed regularly, but what he really wanted was to be a hero. To give his all, to save someone.

When Gram Alice died, he was seventeen, and they'd both still believed his time would come.

But it hadn't. He was twenty-two now and his lower back was bare of any fairy's mark. He was too old to get one of the good curses. Maybe if he became a parent, he'd play a role in his kid's curse, but that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to show everyone what he could do, who he could be--or maybe, who he already was. But no one would see it without a curse to shine a light on him.

His former best friend, Ian, had been cursed on his sixteenth birthday. A fairy had appeared to him like an angel in a painting of the Annunciation, touched her wand to the small of his back and marked him with an image of a firebird. Soon after, Ian had encountered a bird whose feathers gave off golden light, and he'd gotten mixed up with a rich collector who demanded he capture the firebird--a man you didn't say no to. Ian started skipping school and eventually dropped out as the various tasks of his curse took up more and more of his time.

And so while Ray was slogging through chemistry and helping old ladies carry their groceries home, Ian was doing things like kidnapping a princess, retrieving the princess's wedding gown from the bottom of the sea, and being boiled alive at the princess's orders . . . while being magically protected, so that instead of killing him the water made him better looking. By the end of it Ian was so handsome that the princess who'd ordered his death decided to marry him. Now Ian was golden. He'd proven he could withstand any trial, he was ridiculously attractive, and he was always interesting to people because of his adventures and his near brushes with death. And, by marrying a princess, he'd entered that privileged club of Royals, the upper echelons of Cursed society.

Ray had been happy for Ian at first. He'd even thought, since the two of them were so similar, that his luck was about to change, too. But gradually he realized he'd just been left behind. That he would stay where he was indefinitely, and watch his old friend rise higher and higher, his light burning as brightly as the firebird, his life utterly transformed.

If you weren't chosen--if you weren't cursed--there wasn't much you could do to distinguish yourself in Beau Rivage. The Twelve Dancing Princesses curse was one of the few opportunities. Anyone could volunteer to break it, and that was what he had done. He'd signed away his life, his future, because he believed he could be a hero.

He had three nights to prove it.

* * *

One of the princesses draped her arms over the back of his couch--his assigned sleeping space and guard post. It was Charleston, the oldest sister, her dress bright green like a palm leaf.

“So I haven't seen your invisibility cloak,” she said. “Invisibility ring? Please tell me you brought something. You're not going to spend all three nights hanging out in here, are you?”

It was the first time any of the princesses had talked to him since dinner, when they'd all been installed around a long banquet table: twelve princesses, their father, and Ray.

“I figured there'd be an old woman,” he said. “Who'd help me once I was here. Maybe a servant or . . .”

She looked like she pitied him already, and that was not how he wanted anyone to look at him. No one had told him he was supposed to come equipped with an invisibility token.

In the fairy tale, countless suitors attempted to solve the mystery of where the twelve princesses went to dance. All drank the drugged wine, slept through the revelry, and after three nights lost their heads. It was a recently discharged soldier who finally discovered the truth. He'd been kind to an old woman he'd met on the road, and in return she'd given him a piece of advice (don't drink the wine, it's drugged) and a cloak that made him invisible so he could follow the princesses in secret.

“Do the volunteers usually come with cloaks?” he asked.

“Well, yeah. How else would they follow us? I don't know where they get them. I think they buy them. Or borrow them from friendly witches--if there is such a thing.”

Another sister came twirling into the room: Musette, her dress fluffy and flamingo pink. “Will you at least let him pretend to be asleep? It's a time-honored tradition.”

And then another: Mazurka, the second eldest sister. She wore a strapless green dress with a gold belt, a surly expression. “I don't know why you talk to them. They all die after three days.”

“You can become very good friends with someone in three days,” Musette said. “Besides, I wasn't talking to him, I was talking to Charlie.”

Mazurka turned her green-and-gold-shadowed eyes on him. “Don't I know you?”

“How would you know me?”

“I think you parked my car once. You're a valet at one of the casinos.”

“Yeah, in case they scratch it. So I can come back and hurt them.”

“You won't have to hurt him,” Musette said. “Daddy will do it in three days.”

“That's nice, Muse,” Charleston said. “Make him feel at home.”

“Do you have to call him 'Daddy'?” Mazurka asked. “'Daddy' makes it sound like you have a Donkey Skin curse and you like it.”

Musette recoiled. “It does not! Why do you always have to say something disgusting?”

“Doesn't it sound like that?” Mazurka asked him.

“No,” Ray said. “It just sounds like princess-speak.”

“Are you an expert on princesses?”

“I park a lot of their cars.”

Mazurka smiled. He was surprised to see it. Almost as surprised as she was to do it, he thought. She wiped two fingers along her lower lip, as if she could rub it out.

There was a creak in the other room, like a lonely cellar door being opened. And then a chill filled the air; a cheer went up.

“Get in line!” a voice called from the bedroom.

“Well, Newbie, it looks like we're leaving without you.” Charleston patted his head, then spun across the room like her life was a Broadway musical. “Better luck next time!”

Musette danced after her sister. “Bye! Don't go through our underwear!”

Mazurka lingered, her hand resting lightly on the back of the couch. She posed, extending one leg behind her, like a ballerina at the barre. He turned so he could see her better.

“What happens if I follow you? Could I come anyway, not-invisible?”

“As our guest?”

“Yeah.”

“Mmm, no.” She frowned. “The guards of the underworld would kill you. Better to live three days up here than five minutes down there.”

She broke from her dance pose, adjusted the heel of her metallic gold slipper, and ran to join her sisters.

Ray followed her as far as the door to the underworld, and stood just inside the threshold while the princesses descended. He watched the shimmering silk of their skirts as they streamed down the staircase, the latticework of silver trees, the jewelry-store sparkle of the realm below.

The door stayed open for a few minutes, tempting him to follow. His task was not to discover where the twelve princesses went to dance--everyone, including the girls' father, knew that. No, to break the curse he had to figure out how to seal the door the princesses used to get there, thereby preventing them from ever going back.

He didn't know yet whether Mazurka had been serious when she said the underworld guards would kill him, but it was better not to risk it. He had two more nights; he only had to be brilliant once. And it was possible that help (in the form of an old woman with an invisibility cloak) would come calling. Later tonight. Tomorrow. . . .

The princesses' father had locked the door to their room at eight o'clock; it would be unlocked in the morning. Until then, Ray was alone in the bedroom with its twelve beds, six on each side; the walk-in closet that looked like the backstage chaos of a fashion show (clothes strewn everywhere, yesterday's dresses trampled under last night's sore feet); the bathroom with its six stalls, six showers, and six oval mirrors, its floor dusted with glitter.

He looked at his reflection, squared his shoulders and tried to see a hero in the glass.

* * *

The princesses returned around four A.M., flinging themselves onto their beds and kicking off their worn-out shoes. Ray had turned off most of the lights and fallen asleep on one of the beds without changing or pulling the covers back. It had seemed okay to do it; he'd thought the sunrise would wake him before the princesses arrived. But now he found himself blinking away sleep, trying to speed his brain toward awareness. He felt like a less brazen Goldilocks waking up to the homecoming of the three bears. Mazurka flopped down next to him, not expecting him to be there, then yelped as he pulled his hand out from under her leg.

“If you're going to sleep your drug-induced sleep, you're supposed to do it on the couch,” she said, pointing toward the antechamber. “Don't make me march you to the scaffold early.”

“You have a scaffold?”

“Yes, in the garden.” Then: “No,” when he'd started to believe her. “I don't know how our suitors are killed. King Dad doesn't tell us. I imagine he mixes it up. Guillotine one day, then maybe a bullet to the head . . . Why, do you have a request? I can run it by him.”

Ray pushed himself into a sitting position. “You know, if I do die in three days--”

“It'll be more like two, at this point.”

“Then I think you're evil. If you expect me to live . . . then I think you like me.”

She laughed, kind of an incredulous laugh. “And how do you feel about that?”

“I don't know,” he admitted.

The other girls were swishing around the room, fingers poised on zippers and clasps, waiting for him to leave so they could change. One or two had already thrown off their dresses and were going about their bedtime rituals as if there wasn't a suitor in the room, but a cat.

Mazurka shoved his arm. “Get out of here before my sisters bludgeon you with their shoes.”

He spent the early hours of the morning on the couch, sleeping fitfully, trying to curl up without half of his body falling off, until, at the sound of the key in the lock, he snapped awake. A trio of maids entered the room, opening the blackout curtains and sending the princesses stumbling out of bed, limping toward the bathroom, with the exception of one or two who wrapped themselves in blanket cocoons and fought to sleep while the maids made the beds around them.

Eventually the princesses went down to breakfast, and Ray took the opportunity to shower and shave. He was just drying off when there was a knock on the door: a voice calling to say that the princesses' father was ready for him.

* * *

Twenty minutes later he strode into the office, his neck tender from his second hash-mark tattoo. The princesses' father--the King, as far as Cursed were concerned--sat in a tall leather chair that resembled a throne, behind a massive desk, its surface so neat that Ray was sure no work was ever done here. The whole office, with its dark woods and leathers, was for show, designed to intimidate and impose. Ray could have saved him the trouble. A man who had license to behead you didn't need any help in the intimidation department.

“You look well rested,” the King said. “I take it you've accomplished nothing.”

“Because . . . ?”

“Because that's the pattern, and nothing about you suggests that you're the one who'll break it. Am I wrong?”

“You're wrong,” Ray said.

“I hope you're right. I'm tired of these interviews. Go and get some breakfast, if the girls haven't eaten everything in the house.” The King sighed and glanced at the single sheet of paper on his desk: an invoice from a store called 1001 Shoes. He rubbed his bristly white eyebrows, so roughly that a few of them fell to the desk, standing out against the dark wood like insect legs.

“They burn a lot of calories,” Ray said. “Dancing all night. They're hungry.”

“Just--get out of here.” The King waved his hand, like he could sweep him out the door. “Try to do something different than the others.”

* * *

The problem was, it wasn't clear what the other suitors had done. Only what they'd failed to do.

The princesses spent their afternoon in bed to soothe their aching muscles. They wore pajamas or sweatpants, played with their phones, watched movies or played video games or read--anything that didn't require moving around very much. At first Ray stayed on his couch in the other room, biting his thumbnail and wondering when a helpful old woman would show up, and what he would do if she didn't. But then one of the princesses called out, “You're not in exile over there, you know. Do you want to watch a movie with us?” And he spent the rest of the day lounging on this bed and then that one, watching Marie Antoinette with Musette and Calypso, playing poker with Waltz, Tango, and Foxtrot, and listening to Charleston as she read sports blogs and ranted.

Their feet were bruised, blistered, and chafed, rubbed raw by their pretty, fragile shoes. Bloody dancers' feet. They wore their Band-Aids like badges of honor. Complained that they didn't want to go to the underworld again, they were sick of dancing, they just wanted to lie around and maybe--for once--go to bed before midnight.

“Cinderella is so lucky. She only has to dance for a few hours and then, boom! Curfew. Kick those shoes off--”

“Or just one.”

“--and relax.”

“What 'Cinderella' are you reading? She doesn't relax; she lies down in a pile of ashes so no one will know she went out.”

“Yeah, but she has bird helpers. Bird helpers!”“I need my own room.”

And on, and on. Even when some of them wanted to sleep, or begged for quiet, they could never all be silent. There were twelve of them, and what they wanted at any given time was never the same.

By evening the girls were done recuperating. They padded on tender feet to the bathroom, the walk-in closet, and began to get ready for tonight's trip to the underworld. Mazurka brought a hand mirror and her makeup bag over to Ray's couch. Still in her sweat pants, she sat down next to him and started to brush plum-colored shadow onto her lids.

“Looking forward to some quiet time by yourself?” she asked.

“No. I want to break the curse. You've been dancing there--”

“Every night for three months.”

“So you must know something about how to break the curse.”

“You think I know how to break it and I'm keeping it to myself? Because I like seeing guys get their heads chopped off?”

“I just meant maybe you have a piece of the puzzle. Something that could get me started.”

She stuffed the eyeshadow compact in her bag. “I really don't know anything. We spend the whole time dancing, and we don't talk about breaking the curse while we dance because it's rude. Our princes want us to stay there, marry them. And it's complicated, because . . .”

“You want to stay?”

“No, we . . .” She sighed. “Later tonight, you'll see it. When it's almost time for the door to open, we change. We get so excited . . . we can't wait to see our princes and be in the underworld again. And it's good at first. Best-night-of-your-life amazing. But after a while, the sheen starts to wear off. And we feel trapped. There's nowhere to go, no way to leave, no way to even make ourselves stop dancing. We want to cry, or scream, and sometimes we do. Then suddenly we'll start to have fun again--some of us--even though the rest of us are crying. We go back and forth like that all night.”

“So you want to go. At first.”

“It feels like we do. But I don't know what's real. What's real and what's just . . .”

“The curse.”

“Tonight, I really want to stay here and watch TV.”

“That's funny. I really want to go to the underworld and break your curse. Maybe we could trade places. Do you think your prince would notice?”

“If you went down there in my dress?” She laughed, then flexed her feet: purple nails and Spider-Man Band-Aids. “I don't think you could fit into my shoes.”

“The fatal flaw in our operation.”

“Yeah, the only flaw. That and the kiss hello.”

“Well.” He shrugged. There was a moment when the lightness between them seemed to tilt. Mazurka's expression turned serious, sort of troubled, and she said,

“I feel bad. About what I said earlier. Joking about you dying. I mean, it wasn't a joke, it's probably going to happen. It's happened to everyone else. . . . But it's not--it's not nice to throw it in your face. When you--it's not like you don't know.”

“I didn't volunteer with the intention of dying. I don't look at it like a foregone conclusion.”

“You'll have to excuse me for being less optimistic than you are. It's not easy to watch it happen over and over and still think it'll be any different when someone new shows up. Especially when you don't have any way of even going there.”

“I need an invisibility cloak. Are you sure you don't know a witch who might be able to . . . ?”

Mazurka shook her head. “No. I don't. There's nothing any of us can do, except make things worse. If we knew how to break the curse it would be broken already. I don't know why people volunteer. You want my dad's money that badly? Rob a bank. There's probably less risk involved.”

“It's not about the money,” Ray said. “I want to be someone. I want to have done something that--that people talk about. I want to be a hero. Not just--”

“They'll talk about you. They'll talk about your meaningless sacrifice and the stupid way you died.” She got up from the couch, angry now.

“What just happened?”

“It's all right. It's not like I'll be upset for very long. There'll be another guy walking through that door in a few days. In the end, you all blend together.”

She went into the bedroom, and he didn't follow. Soon the youngest princess, Calypso, poked her head out the door and crept over to him. “Did you guys break up?” she asked.

“What?”

“You and Maz were talking a lot. We were trying to give you some privacy in case there was a love connection, but I guess Maz was too tough for you.”

“No, we were just . . .” What had changed? He'd felt like they were getting along, and then . . .

Calypso dug through Mazurka's abandoned makeup bag and tried on her older sister's purple lipstick.

“I don't have germs,” she informed him.

“I'm not the lipstick police.”

“Okay, good,” she said, making kissy faces at Mazurka's mirror. She disappeared for a minute and reappeared with a camera in hand. “Can you take a picture of me? I'm cataloguing my outfits. And make sure you get my shoes. I only get to wear these once so I want to be able to remember them.”

He stepped back to make sure he got all of her in the shot. Then he took a close-up of her shoes: black ballet flats with silver embroidery.

“I love buying new shoes, but I hate ruining them,” Calypso said. “You probably think it's dumb, but look at these, they're like, a thing of beauty and I'm going to dance them to death.”

Ray rubbed his tattooed throat. One more night. It was hitting him finally: the reality, the futility of what he had done. He pictured his head separated from his body, lying on the floor by a pile of tattered shoes.

This time when the door to the underworld opened, and the princesses hurried down the stone staircase, he stood and watched them until the door closed on its own. He watched their procession of black and white dresses, watched as the twelve met up with their princes at the shore of a silver lake, and jumped into their arms, kissed, laughed, and were spun around. When the door closed he felt a surge of panic. If he couldn't find a way to get down there and explore, then he'd condemned himself to an early grave and three very depressing final days.

He did something he hadn't done in years: he called Ian.

Golden boy. Ex-friend. The only hero in his contacts.

Ian didn't answer, so he left a message. He'd swallowed his pride before he called; now he was swallowing it again. “Ian . . . it's Ray. I'm in some trouble and could use your help. I volunteered to break the Twelve Dancing Princesses curse. I'm two days in, and . . . it's not going well. I need an invisibility cloak. Thought you might be able to get one. Even if you can't . . . call me back, okay? Thanks.”

He hung up. The sense of time running out flooded back. He paced for a while, searched the girls' closet and tried on all the cloaks, capes, hats; none made him invisible. He sat and looked out the windows, which didn't open. He thought about breaking the glass and jumping, leaving before his three days were up, but he didn't know if he could do it without breaking an arm or a leg. Even if he escaped, dragged his body over the iron fence like a P.O.W., they'd find him. The Cursed in Beau Rivage took deals and promises seriously; someone would turn him in. And while he wanted people to talk about him, he didn't want to be known as the coward who ran away.

Ian would call back. He'd know something.

Once he had a cloak, he could follow the princesses, eavesdrop on the princes, search the underworld. One night was cutting it close, but he'd figure it out. If he didn't think he could do it, he wouldn't be here.

He walked past each of the princesses' beds, glanced at the things they'd left behind: wrinkled pajamas, hair ties, coils of jewelry. He opened their bedside drawers, ate a handful of truffles that came from a chocolatier downtown. There was a card in the box that said Something sweet for the sweetest of the 12. From: Your Future Husband. Someone had crossed out the signature with a smear of chocolate. So much for that guy, he thought.

So much for this guy.

* * *

This time when the princesses returned, Ray was on his couch. He half expected them to notice he'd been messing with their stuff and exclaim, Someone's been sleeping in my bed! Someone ate my truffles!, but they just went about discarding their shoes, changing their clothes, telling each other to shut up, hurry up, move, I'm tired, I need the sink, as if he wasn't there.

Was he supposed to bring chocolates?

Was he supposed to know to bring his own cloak?

It would have helped if the King had offered a supply list when he came to volunteer. Before you start work you'll need: a cloak, some presents, a sponge to tie under your chin so you can pretend to drink the drugged wine (that was how the soldier did it in the fairy tale), and soft-soled shoes so you can sneak around in the underworld without alerting anyone. The King had provided him with a tuxedo to wear to the underworld, but it was still hanging up, untouched.

Ian hadn't called him back.

Ray had even joined his hands and prayed, in case fairies heard prayers. He believed that you had to put yourself in the way of destiny in order for destiny to choose you; but maybe this was destiny's way of showing him that it didn't need him, that it had better, more heroic options waiting in the wings.

The bedroom quieted down, the princesses snapping at each other less and less, until finally their agitation gave way to sleep, wheezy snores, the occasional drunken shuffle to the bathroom. Ray slept. He dreamed he had a cloak, and crept through the underworld at the back of the line of princesses, who bobbed along like helium balloons, their feet not touching the ground. In the dream everything sparkled; the silver arms of the trees arched over them, forming a tunnel. The air in the underworld was cold, and when he saw Mazurka shiver, he thought to enfold her in his cloak, but he stayed behind, watched from a distance, a spectator to the end. The princesses danced with their princes, waltzed in a candlelit room. He hid behind a velvet curtain and watched. Then: a voice in his ear, a breath on his neck. The secret is, it said--

And he woke up. To Mazurka sitting on the floor beside him, her arm resting on the couch cushion. Her fingertips grazed his hand.

“Light sleeper,” she whispered.

“I was dreaming.”

“About?”

“Breaking the curse. Not dying.”

“I should let you get back to it.”

“No . . . stay,” he said.

“Okay. But only because I don't want to walk back to my room.”

“Feet hurt?”

“If you dance long enough to wear out your shoes . . .”

“Yeah, I guess they would.”

“Come down here,” she said, patting the rug next to her. He did, wondering what he looked like right now. Eyes droopy from dreams, pillow creases on the side of his face. Mazurka looked like she hadn't gone to bed yet. Her hair was held back with a headband and her eyes looked smaller, softer, without all the makeup.

“We forgot to give you your drugged wine tonight. I don't want you to miss out on the full experience. You want me to pour you some?”

“No thanks. It was memorable enough the first time.”

He pulled his knees up, rested his arms on them. Stared at the locked door instead of her.

“I called someone for help,” he said. “Well, tried to.”

“To break you out of here?”

“No . . . to get a cloak. I have a friend who's a hero. We haven't talked in a long time, but--we grew up together. He's pretty well connected. So I thought . . .” He didn't finish; it was obvious what he'd thought. “But he didn't answer. And he hasn't called back.”

“Heroes don't save everyone. Just pretty princesses. Or princes.”

“Do you think I'm stupid?” he asked. “For doing this? I know you've said that I am, but do you really?”

Mazurka shrugged. “The whole thing is stupid. It makes me angry--all this wasted life. I want the curse to be broken, but I don't like the cost. And when I see someone throw away everything, for--for such a small chance at success, I don't understand it. I don't want it to be happening. And it's worse when they're totally unprepared, when they're counting on luck, like you are.”

“I thought the way would open up once I got here. Because I wanted it so bad.”

She was a quiet awhile. Then: “It hasn't ended well for the guys who came prepared, either.”

“I was thinking about going down tomorrow night. Even without a cloak. I might be able to do something. I have to try. If I don't--”

“They'll kill you.”

“Your father will kill me if do nothing. And you'll still be cursed.”

“I saw one of our suitors get killed once. He had an invisibility cloak, but it didn't matter. We knew where he was. We could hear his footsteps. His breathing.

“He'd been harassing some of my sisters--telling them he was going to keep them up all night once he broke the curse. He kept saying, 'Mambo, I'm gonna teach you the horizontal mambo,' and none of my sisters is even named Mambo. We couldn't see him, which was disturbing, because he definitely groped Rumba on the way down the stairs. And we weren't looking forward to the morning when we'd be asleep and he'd be locked in the room with us, creeping around doing god-knows-what.

“Like I said, we knew exactly where he was . . . and when we went to greet the princes I whispered that there was a suitor following us. I think my prince was surprised I said anything, because normally when there's a guy tailing us we keep it to ourselves. He signaled to the guards and the suitor started to run. The door to our bedroom was still open, and he was trying to make it there. But the guards caught him before he got anywhere near it. They stabbed him five times, ran their swords all the way through his body. And then they cut off his head.”

Ray was silent.

“I don't want that to happen to you,” she said. “And if they know you're there, it will. If you're not invisible, you'll be dead in five minutes. And even if you are invisible, it's not safe. They've caught other suitors, killed them. It just never happened right in front of us. I think if you were invisible, you'd have a shot. But without that . . . I'd rather give you twelve more hours.”

“What time will your father summon me? That last morning.”

“Early. He likes to get the old suitor out so he can get a new one in, if there's another volunteer lined up.”

“So checkout's at eleven?”

“If you're lucky. He's a little stingier than your average hotel.”

“I still think I should try to do something,” Ray said.

“I don't want you to.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. Her hand gripped his wrist and a tear slid down her cheek. For a moment, stunned, he didn't breathe. And then her hand relaxed; she lifted her head, wiped her face. “Sorry,” she said. “I'm just tired. I'm really tired.”

* * *

The final night, Ray took the tuxedo from its hanger. He put it on, and the princesses paid him a slew of compliments, as if they could make his last night a little easier. All except for Mazurka, who just said, “All dressed up with no place to go.”

His third hash-mark tattoo was lined up beside the others. Three strikes.

He took a picture of Calypso's outfit, another close-up of her shoes: pale pink satin with pearls. Calypso told him they'd based tonight's dresses off their favorite desserts. Calypso's dress was scented; she smelled like rosewater and strawberries.

“It was my idea,” she said. “Not everyone went for it. Waltz was worried about attracting bees, but there are no bees in the underworld. And Chacha said she was going to order a dress that smelled like bacon, but she didn't actually do that, she was just making fun of me. Do you have a sister?”

“One,” he said, thinking how odd it was that she was asking about his family, when they had less than a day left to get to know each other.

“Do you guys get along?” Calypso asked.

“Not currently. She was pretty mad that I signed on to do this.”

“Oh.” Calypso bit her lip. “That's right. So you won't--you probably won't see her again.”

He shrugged. “The night's not over yet, right?”

She perked up then. “Right!”

Mazurka poured the glass of wine for him, spilled some powder into it and stirred it with her finger. She held it out to him: an order, not a suggestion. He took the glass and set it on the table.

“You sure?” she said. “It's a good vintage.”

“Maybe in the morning,” he said. And her eyes half-closed, her face tensed like she had a headache and she walked away from him. He watched her join the line of princesses at the door. Twelve girls in shades of pastels and chocolate. The princesses were in a state of anticipation; they were practicing dance moves, scaled-back versions of what they'd do in the underworld. They talked over and under each other, like a song sung in rounds. All except for Mazurka.

“I can't wait to see Jet.”

“There's going to be a lot of kissing going on tonight.”

“You have no idea how much I miss this boy. I had this dream that we--”

“No one wants to hear your dreams.”

“Especially not your sex dreams.”

“How do you know it was--”

“Smell my dress!”

“Is that your deodorant?”

“No, my dress is scented. Remember? I said we should all--”

As the door to the underworld opened, and the princesses began to descend in slow, decorous steps, Ray took his place in line behind Calypso and followed them down.

The underworld spread before him: a canvas of night painted with soft gold lanterns and silver trees; stone staircases that vanished into darkness; the silver lake with its row of gondolas; the lakeshore with its row of black-haired princes, heads tipped back to admire the sisters, eyes going wide as they noticed him. If he could get past them, evade them, the secret to breaking the curse could be his. If he could find it before morning--

The princesses turned to see what their princes were looking at. Calypso gasped, “Your cloak!” as if he'd forgotten it. Musette covered her mouth in horror. Minuet and Lindy stood frozen. Salsa sang “Heads Will Roll”--a little too enthusiastically. Mazurka pushed past her sisters and put her hands on Ray's chest to force him back through the door.

“What are you doing?” she hissed. “Don't answer that; don't talk to me.”

She walked him backward up the top three steps and shoved him into the sanctuary of their bedroom. He could see the princes hesitating on the lower steps. They were't allowed to come up here, he realized; they couldn't pursue him into the princesses' room.

“Now I have to explain why I didn't let them kill you,” Mazurka whispered, “and I have no idea what I'm going to say.”

She spun away from him, hurrying down the staircase to soothe her prince with explanations, her hands on the prince's chest, so close to the way she'd touched Ray, but a universe apart. Down there, she was placating. Ray stood in the doorway and watched the underworld prince watch him--his eyes narrowed thin as knives--until the door closed and they were truly a world apart.

Ray smashed his fist into the door. Swore at it, at himself, at this last night of his life.

He'd wanted to pull her through the door with him. Hold her until the wall was just a wall and there were no princes, no other princesses. But he didn't know what would happen, whether it would be a violation of her curse, whether there would be retribution for her if she didn't go. The princesses were compelled to dance, and if they didn't want to, then the curse made them want it, filled them with excitement just before the door opened. Mazurka hadn't been excited; she'd seemed different tonight, something was changing. He didn't know what would have happened if he'd held on to her, and now he would never know.

* * *

He took a picture of himself with Calypso's camera. Evidence that he was here, for a short time. He'd lasted only a little longer than a pair of the princesses' shoes. The wine waited for him on the table, promising a temporary oblivion, but he didn't want to go drugged to the slaughter, didn't want confusion to be the last thing he ever felt.

Thus passed the slowest, yet swiftest, emptiest hours of his life.

Drinking water from the tap. Writing letters and then tearing them up. To his mother, his sister, his friends. There was no way to explain why he'd risked everything; no one but him would ever understand. And right now, on the eve of his failure, he was having trouble explaining it even to himself. It was one of those things that would have seemed perfect if he'd succeeded. Everyone cheers the bold, brave victor. But trying and failing was somehow worse than not trying at all. He'd thought the opposite once--that not trying was like giving up, living a shadow life. It was hard not to long for that shadow life now.

When the princesses returned he was still in his tuxedo. There was the usual commotion, the ritual trashing of shoes, the rush to claim a shower stall, but they were strangely subdued. He wondered if it was a third-night thing; if it bothered them to know that the guy they'd been living with would be dead tomorrow. Or if it was just tonight: the leftover shock of seeing him on the stairs, the awkward moments when Mazurka had had to make excuses, when they all had, to keep from seeming like traitors who preferred an interloper to their beloved cursed princes.

It was almost five when Mazurka came to see him. In the bedroom, the princesses still murmured in their beds. Maybe they'd stay up all night, in a show of solidarity. He certainly wouldn't be able to sleep. Not these last hours. He'd have the rest of eternity for that.

He sat down on the rug, Mazurka's preferred place to sit. She lowered herself slowly, carefully, as the ache of the night's dancing settled in her feet, her arms, her bones.

Ray's voice came out low and tired. “Did he give you a hard time? Your prince?”

“Yes. They're extremely paranoid. They ask us all the time to stay in the underworld and be their brides. And since we say no, they assume we all have someone up here, or a new someone every three nights. So yes. He asked if we were lovers. Because what difference would it make if they killed you, unless you meant something to me? I'd asked him to kill a suitor before.”

“I'm sorry. I didn't mean for that to happen. I just thought--”

“You don't have to apologize; your life is almost over.”

Her brusqueness caught him off guard--even though he was used to it by now. It was her way of keeping her emotions at bay. He wished he had a technique for that. He'd failed to justify himself in all the torn-up letters to his family and friends; it looked so stupid when he wrote it down. But he needed to explain himself to someone. To be understood.

It all came pouring out of him.

“I screwed up,” he said. “I did everything wrong. I didn't know how it worked before I came here. I trusted in--in good fortune. Because I thought this was something I deserved. I thought that if I set out with the right intentions, a fairy would help me. Choose me. Finally. But fairies don't choose everyone. And no one deserves a happy ending. You'd think I would've learned that from living here.”

“You'd think I would know not to talk to you, when you all die after three days.”

“Maybe you believed in me,” he said.

“I didn't! I didn't even let myself hope you could do it. I tried not to think about it at all.” Mazurka wrapped her arms around herself and hunched forward, like she was going to be sick. How many deaths had there been? How many murders did she have to forget?

“Then . . . we won't think about it,” Ray said. “We won't. Let's pretend we do have tomorrow. And just . . . talk like the morning doesn't matter. Like nothing's going to change.”

“Do you think we can do that?”

“Yeah,” he said. “We'll talk about everything else. Anything else.”

It was, of course, impossible to forget he was going to die in a few hours. Nervous sweat ran down his sides, and the tension in his body built with each passing hour. And as he became aware, through the progress of the clock, that beyond those blackout curtains a new day was dawning, he found it hard to swallow, and he touched his throat gently, hoping she wouldn't notice that his hands were shaking, or that he was running his fingers over the three tattooed marks.

But--

It wasn't all he thought about. His death, his failure, couldn't be his entire focus, not while he was still so focused on living, on making this a little easier for both of them.

He told her about his grandmother and “The Juniper Tree.” He told her about the rude guests at the casino where he worked, condescending Royals he nodded and smiled for, and how he'd gotten through it by telling himself that one of them was really a fairy, waiting to see how he'd respond to her abuse. He told her about all the ridiculous things he'd done, how he was basically a one-boy chore-and-favor service growing up, and how mad his mom would get when he'd beg off doing housework because he'd already promised to scrub out Mrs. Miller's algae-ridden pool or clean Ms. Compson's garage.

She told him about the pecking order among her sisters, how their places and alliances were somewhat determined by who their mothers were (twelve sisters, ten different mothers); how they used to angle to be their dad's favorite, but didn't really bother anymore, since he was fed up with all of them. She told him how she'd made herself into the mean sister when she was thirteen, to make the others think twice about mocking her mother, who tended to make scenes at family parties when all ten mothers were present: drunk, crying, railing against the unfairness of life. Mazurka didn't want her sisters to be able to upset her as easily as people upset her mother; she wanted to be invulnerable, more prickly and dangerous than soft. And sometimes the weight of it--of staying on the offensive--was too much, and her armor threatened to fall apart.

They'd barely begun to know each other when there was a knock on the door: fist falling with the force of a royal proclamation. Mazurka gripped Ray's arm as the key moved in the lock. He turned his head toward the sound and her kiss missed his mouth, caught his cheek. He turned back in surprise and the door swung open.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the King dressed in his execution-day best.

In the bedroom: sounds of the princesses rousing, rolling over, sitting up in confusion.

“Don't think about it,” Mazurka said quickly. “It's just another morning.”

He touched his cheek instead of his tattooed neck--the spot where her lips had touched.

“Think about--”

His eyes closed a second after hers did. They'd talked about everything but this. He put his hands on either side of her face as she kissed him, not a nice kiss but a desperate kiss, a sad, running-out-of-time kiss, too short to be savored--but long enough to be remembered.

The King cleared his throat; security came forward to collect Ray. And as he stood and let them pull him backward toward the door, he kept his eyes on Mazurka's, until she couldn't take it anymore and she picked up the glass of wine he'd left untouched. She drank it while he watched, choked it down as the King and his minions guided Ray into the hall. He knew she couldn't bear to think about it; now she wouldn't have to. She'd wake up in the evening, disoriented, just as her sisters were lifting her off the rug to make room for their new suitor, who'd be looking for a place to put his things, fresh and full of hope--three nights! Of course that would be enough!--and the last suitor, who'd disappeared without a trace, would start to feel like a dream.

He hadn't even left behind a box of chocolates. Just a picture on Calypso's camera, easy enough to erase.

The next time Ray closed his eyes, it was to keep from seeing the flash of the blade.

Eyes closed, anticipating. Like blowing out birthday candles:

Please give me a good curse.

Eyes closed, the instant before a kiss.

He could hear the creak of leather boots as the King's axe man stepped toward him, but he didn't think of that, he thought of her. The cool touch of metal at the back of his neck . . . that wasn't the axe man lining up his stroke, that was a silver branch brushing his neck, because he'd done it, he'd made it to the underworld unseen, and now he was going to break the curse, save everyone, save himself.

Don't think about it.

Think about--

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