This comes from my short story, “Twelve Sisters”, published in Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent’s anthology, The Underwater Ballroom Society. It’s a sequel to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale about the Twelve Dancing Princesses.
It was the bleak heart of winter, the snows were deep, and our father, the King, was dying. Within a few days or weeks, Anya’s husband would become king – all according to the proclamation made in order to solve the mystery of our worn-out dancing shoes.
For such were the lives of princesses: every pirouette need be accounted for.
Anya’s soldier had not seemed monstrous, a dozen years ago. Surly, yes. Arrogant, certainly. We had not liked him, but neither had we feared him. Three nights in a row, Anya gave him the sleeping draught in the antechamber of our bedroom and we watched as he “drank” it, rivulets of mulled wine trickling down his chin. We hid our smiles, thought him merely greedy and clumsy. We hadn’t seen the sponge concealed within his untrimmed beard, didn’t realize he was only feigning sleep.
When he put on the cloak of invisibility and followed us down the enchanted stairway, I felt his tread catch the hem of my gown, the heat of his breath on the back of my neck. I was alarmed. But I was the youngest, a child of twelve, with a habit of obedience. Anya insisted that all would be well. I set aside my instincts. Later, in the ballroom, I saw invisible hands lift my wine goblet, watched unseen lips drain it, repeatedly. I didn’t realize he enjoyed my terror.
After Anya was wed, there remained eleven of us. In order of birth, each a year younger than the previous: Bunmi, Chanda, Damla, Esther, Fatima, Genevieve, Hasnaa, Isolde, Johanna, Keiko – and I, Ling. The glories of our dancing nights became common gossip. Courtiers and diplomats never asked outright, but all wanted to know what else we’d done in the nether world besides dance. Were we certain we’d only allowed the princes to row us in those enchanted boats? Had we only dined in the castle – and all together, always? And what of the cut of our ballgowns? Did we truly expect them to believe…? The King cursed, he threatened, he trebled our dowries. After that, my sisters found spouses.
Now, the King’s bedchamber would be crowded. Anya and I lived here, at the castle, but our ten sisters and their families were expected on the morrow. Tomorrow was not only the beginning of our deathbed vigil; it was the first time the twelve of us would be reunited since the scandal.