Roses in hints of dusky pink climb the turrets, a blush of soft red like faded blood, some deepening into that shadow, others only the barest hint of coral like the reflection of sunrise in pure clouds. Still, below their trembling small flower, each thorn is sharp and precise. There is no malice in it. A rose is merely a rose. But they know their tempting nature, know how easily such soft petals can bruise. And so they carry swords.
Each leaf is a jagged imprint. The breath of wind rustles the entwined bower. Every prince before has been strangled and pierced, and he knows the dangers. But he has dreamed, dreams of a sleeping maiden waiting inside the constricted spell.
And the roses fall back before his hands, as though heeding his footsteps. And with each heady step he takes he realizes he is not being cast out, and the path between them becomes crushed with the fragrance of petals, laying themselves before his feet. He hears a voice, sees a glimmer, in the reflections of the broken pavement; in that untouched air he feels an indrawn breath.
He climbs to her bed, leans down, and presses one trembling kiss to her lips, and she wakes.
“Oh, my prince,” she says, with a soft smile. “I knew you’d find me.”
He can feel her smile lighting an answering one of his own, and their fingers reach for each other as though trying to hold tightly in a shaking world. If all went as it should, the flowers would be falling, the spell broken. But there is still such a deathly hush to the place, and he realizes that she is not saved. She is not getting out.
“I’m sorry,” she says, quietly, into the crook of his arm.
“I’m sorry. I was so selfish. So lonely. I needed someone with me, I kept searching…for someone to answer. And you…”
Her hand hovers at the skin of his wrists and the palms of his hands, scratched by thorns. “You’ve braved much just to join me in solitude.”
“With you,” he says, “it is not solitude. Don’t you think I would have turned back, if I meant to? I don’t regret it—not any of it—”
“Shh,” she answers, pressing one finger to his mouth, and crying. “Shh. Not yet. But you will someday, you will wish you had left me when you had the chance.”
“No,” he says, calm and certain. “I won’t.”
The light turns on. “Peter! What the hell are you doing in there! Oh my god…”
“We were just talking! Bri was scared and we wanted to—”
He’s dragged out by one shoulder into the hall. His toes scuff uneasily at the carpet while he hears his parents talking to Bri. “Are you all right?”
He peeks in through the door. Bri’s hunched over, the way she does when she gets worried, and hugging her stuffed rabbit. One hand is pulling fretfully at its ear. “Please don’t get mad,” she says, all at once, quietly. “It was dark and… it was dark and I… I just I…” her eyes close and her hands make fists. She’s not looking at anyone anymore. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,”
“Brianna, you didn’t do anything wrong. We’re not mad at you, honey. It’s just… it’s not appropriate to be with Peter at night. Okay? Do you understand?”
Some time later, Bri nods, sniffling. When his parents leave the room he’s already crawled back to his own bedroom and pulled the covers over his head as though maybe they’ll think he’s asleep. It doesn’t work.
They’re not half so doting as they are to Brianna.
“That was wrong. You know why that was wrong, right?”
“I told you we were just talking, I don’t understand what’s wrong. Bri doesn’t like it here, she says the house makes noises at night and she says at the orphanage there was always someone nearby…”
They sigh. “Peter, we understand you were just trying to help. But you can’t do this, or we’re going to have to have her stay at another home. Do you understand?”
Peter freezes. Finally, at last, he nods. His heart is in his throat, and he feels like if he speaks at all, he will scream—and if he screams, Bri is gone forever.
At last he manages a shaking, “Yes. Yes, I understand.”
The door closes behind them. And he lies awake thinking about Bri crying in her own bed. And what is he supposed to say? That since the first time they saw each other, they knew? A memory that was more than a memory… it had ended in tragedy once, and he knows that he is incapable of fighting fate. Even as a hero.
As a child, he can do less. He curses whatever it was that told his parents where they were. He feels sick, knowing that he’s never been able to do anything more for Bri than be with her in her misery, and now not even that.
The first few years are beautiful. The eternal afternoon light that filters through the stone under the gabled roof makes patterns on the dusty floor, and they chase circles through corridors that have long since become mausoleums. At each cavernous hall she has another story: “Here is where my mother used to host the circle of her confidantes, and of the fine dresses they would wear, shimmering jewels and perfumes, it was like being in a painting…. Here my father would sit in state, and the dour ambassadors would glower down at their scrolls…. My brothers would cheat at swordcraft, throwing sand in each other’s eyes and wrestling in the mud, if ever their tutors stepped away for even a moment…”
Now each place holds only silence. Still, her voice is almost enough to call those ghostly images forth, as she spins around and swings her careless hands.
It is never dark. But it isn’t possible for anyone to stay awake forever.
In that same everlasting afternoon, when the hours wear down, and she has pinched her arms red and bruised and can no longer stay awake, they fall asleep in whatever random corner they’ve found. Never in her bed. Never in that room. And every time, she is terrified.
“What if I don’t wake up,” she says, her voice a shaking whisper, a rising hiss. “What if you’re not here when I do. What if I’m alone again.”
“You’re not alone,” he says.
And he holds her in his arms and feels the rapid-fire pulse of her heart against his, and kisses her chastely while he tries to ignore the terror in her eyes. What can he do for her but be there, when her hands grip his own and her tears stain the brocade of his tunic? What can he ever do to make things right?
The castle has doors, and every one of them is stopped up with roses. The scent, powerful and cloying, follows him into his dreams.
Peter knows metalcraft still, though swordmaking is an art no longer. Instead, he works on old airship engines at the corner shop. It’s a calming act, knowing he’s putting something back into the sky, honing it into something that it’s meant to be. Bri follows him when she can. “What are you working on today?” he’ll ask, sometimes.
“Weapons manifests,” she’ll answer. Sometimes, rarely, a spark will enter her eyes when she does. “Thirty million new z-guns, parts from the hinterlands. A new stock of plutonium was found.”
“That’s good, yeah?” Peter will say.
And Bri will laugh. “As good as it gets.” But her voice is cynical. He wishes, desperately, that he could remember the sound of her voice when she still knew innocence; that he had thought to fold it in his pocket with the mementos of another life.
“We’ll get away from all this soon enough,” Peter promises. He flashes her a smile he hopes is convincing; and if it fails, she will not call him on it. “Just a few more years…an airship of our own…”
“And we’ll be off,” Bri will say. “Just floating above the clouds, far away from all of it…” she’ll lean toward him and he’ll catch her lazy tilt before she can sprawl across greasy rivets and spoil her blue dress, and she’ll smirk at him lazily.
“Come with me…just give it all up…steal a ship and we can leave now.”
“You’re an ass. And such criminal tendencies you have, Bri. If I didn’t know you were a princess I’d think—”
“Don’t.” She’ll sit up and hunch in on herself, and he’ll curse his stupid tongue for talking, for being less careful than it should. “Don’t. Peter, I can’t…”
“I’m sorry,” he’ll say, and she’ll laugh shakily, wiping one hand across her forehead.
“No. Damn it, I always overreact, I should…it shouldn’t be so…” her voice fails her. His will too. And then, even while outside they will hear the sirens and automobiles and drones, and the constant beeping of the docking bays opening and closing, he will feel something uncanny, like a brush of that late afternoon in the stone silence.
“We had some good times then,” he’ll say, at last. “Didn’t we?” And it will hurt more that the question needs to be asked at all.
“Of course we did,” Bri will answer. Her fingers finding his. Her fingernails pressing a crescent bloom into his untouched skin. The moment where she can’t look at him. The moment where he turns away, and picks up his screwdriver again.
She will leave in silence.
Everything wears on you eventually. And though he never tires of her, he tires enough of the walls to scratch numbers into them, like a prisoner’s dying, prideful plea. He sticks his hands into the roses and they come away bloody and scarred. They do not open for him anymore. There has never been a way out.
He sees her, watching, from the other end of the courtyard, in the shadow of a laughing statue, its curls and the folds of its endless drapery and its frozen flesh. When he walks toward her, she vanishes down one of the halls, and he doesn’t see her for hours after that.
“You hate me,” she says, when he finds her, sitting on the bed in her room. The embroidery is gold, and tarnished. The curtains are heavy with dust. Shackles of stitched roses seem to engulf her legs. “I told you you would.”
“I don’t,” he says. “It’s just that sometimes I need to move, I need to try and I…” He doesn’t say I can’t stay here, because he can, and he will, and he does, and he promised. But it lingers on his tongue like the taste of blood. “But I don’t hate you. I never could.”
“Even though I brought you here?”
“Even though you called me in my dreams?” he counters, stepping forward, tugging her elbow, pulling her out of her careful, back-turned slouch, and she unfolds warily, like a trap. “When will you really get it in your head that this wasn’t your fault? You didn’t ask to be put under a spell and you didn’t know your dreams would call out to mine. And for the record?” he gives her a challenging grin. “Even if you had, and I had known, I would still have come. So stop…” for a moment, it is hard to breathe, and he finds his smile sliding away. “Stop acting like it means I can’t love you more than anything else in the world…”
She presses her hands to her eyes, and her voice shakes. “I just wish,” she says, “that I could give you anything more than this.”
Someday soon it won’t be enough.
Perhaps it already isn’t.
But what can they do about it now?
He lies beside her on the thick monstrosity, watching the motes of light fall, and stand, and fall.
It will not always be easy, when they are young. Peter promises to stay, but when they graduate, they have a falling-out, and he leaves for a tour not knowing if he will come back dead. He sends her postcards full of blacked-out words telling her where he is, how much he loves her, how much he is sorry. He never speaks of them.
Bri boasts about her conquests, when he returns for a few meager days; she wears her shirt unbuttoned dangerously low, and watches his eyes stray. “Trying to break more men’s hearts than you did in our past life?” he says, only once, in an unguarded moment of cruelty. And the blood leaves her face. And he remembers how many bones he had passed, trying to get in.
You’re like a vortex, he wants to scream. You’re a damned curse.
“I hate you,” Bri says, her voice shaking. “You were supposed to be here.”
“Maybe I’m a liar,” he says, like he’s trying it on for size. She stares at him like she wonders if he believes it. He laughs, and it sounds bitter. Rank. He hates that he can’t recognize himself and yet everything about her is still so brilliant it cuts him. He hates that he’ll fall back toward her the moment he’s given a chance. How could he ever choose an entire, empty world without her in it?
“I’m sorry,” Bri says, at last, “that I made you a liar.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” he says.
“Yeah,” Bri says, sardonically. “I believe you.”
And someday he will get enough money to buy that airship, and they’ll pack their few things and take off, and the plume of scree will shoot out behind them and the gears will crank into oiled life from their hidden, weightless slumber and he will smell something like flames and something like roses.
He won’t ask her if she sabotaged the engine, because there’s no one else that could have done. He’ll watch the skyline below while the dark smoke trails in a wake behind them, and he’ll know that up in the clouds, it feels like fog, and rain, and darkness, and there is nowhere beyond the limits of the world, not for them.
At the rail, he’ll see her eyes turn to his, and he’ll smile. She’ll put one hand on the greened bronze and he’ll take it, and kiss the back as though he is meeting her for the first time, if their first time in another life had been formal and full of ceremony the way it should have been, and not rushed and full of regrets. If they had been able to stand before the courtiers and dance the night away under a pendulum of stars. In the west, the sun sets with molten sharpness, a thorny cut into the softness of the sky. Every night it slips away again.
The deck will shudder under their feet, and it will become close, the mirage of a furnace making the air waver. “Sorry it couldn’t… have been different,” Bri will say, and her eyes will be the color of soot, hidden and then revealed by the swirl of her dark hair. “Just once.”
Her finger trembles on his lip, and he takes a breath.
Like a halo, an arc of flame behind her.
Fairy Tale Poetry Prompt
“Brianna” is a science fiction story that re-imagines the classic “Sleeping Beauty” tale.
Write a poem that features a classic fairy tale, but give it a different direction from the original tale. You could choose a different beginning, ending, setting, or cast of characters. Explore the possibilities!
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