Chapter 1: The Prince and His Crime
Once upon a time, as so many stories begin, in a kingdom long lost to the world, there was a king. This king had one son, his heir, but his wife had not conceived another child and so this one was precious to him. But when the Crown Prince reached his twentieth year, the queen bore the king another son. He was naught but an afterthought to his family, a gift from God when his mother had thought herself past bearing. This son's name is long lost to the annals of history, but what is known about him was that he was spoiled, vain, and selfish. His brother was practically king when the young prince was born, and had an heir by the time the prince reached his fifth year. He had no worries, and he lived as such a man does.
The prince was not rich, but he had a small castle and duchy in the north of the kingdom. Once he had lived in court, but his behavior was such that his brother, now king, had sent him away. But far from being ashamed, the young prince merely pursued his hobbies there, in the relative secrecy of the empty hills.
The prince was overly fond of drink, and of women. He was quite handsome, and used his looks liberally in seducing any young woman he came into contact with. He was known to be quite cruel, as any time one of his victims was found to be carrying his child, she was put to death. Men cloistered their wives away, women took to wearing veils or disguising their beauty in any way possible. Few escaped his notice, and those who did praised God for His small mercies, and that He would continue to protect them.
When the prince was in his twenty-second year, he stood upon the ramparts of his castle and surveyed the road to the royal city. It was not something he did often- in fact, he thought later, it was as if God had sent him there on that day just so he could see her.
Riding up the road was a beautiful young woman. Her hair, which was blond and curling, hung loose down her back, and even from a distance he could tell her face had delicate, narrow features, and that her figure was full. Surely this maiden was coming to his castle, and, if so, she would grace his bed by the end of a week's time. For quite a while the prince contented himself with watching her ride. She was accompanied by a small party of guards and a carriage which probably held her luggage. Surely she was a traveling noble, or a lady in disgrace sent to her fellow disgraced prince. When she came still closer, the prince left the wall and walked to the courtyard to greet her personally. In nearly four years, she was the first noble visitor he had had.
She was yet more beautiful up close. Her cheeks had a fine, healthy blush to them, and her nose was dusted with pale freckles. Her eyes were an astounding shade of blue that captured his and held them. Her lips were a soft pink-red, and yes, she was even more robust up close.
The prince raised his hand to help her off her horse. She smiled. "Your Highness," a guard from behind her said, presenting a letter. The prince nodded and stuffed the missive into his doublet for later. He smiled at the young lady, and she at him. She was smitten already, he could tell. It was all just as well, for he was truly smitten with her for the first time in his life.
When the lady was escorted to her rooms to settle in, the prince remembered the letter and pulled it out to read it.
My dear brother,
My daughter Imogene has recently found herself in a bit of trouble at our court, and so I send her to your care. I trust you have deserted your former habits and can aid Imogene in turning away from her own.
I know this is a terrible imposition of me, but I trust that you shall find royal company comforting after all these years, and she can fill you in on the happenings at court, and the actions of your former…friends.
I do not know how much news you hear from the capital in the country, but I fear I must give you some bad news. Recently, a plague of epic proportions struck our fair city, taking much of our population with it when it left, including my dear wife Elia and my son and heir Jules. This, of course, would make you my heir. I urge you to keep in mind that any action you perform, you perform as our future king.
I write to you not as your king, but as your brother. Imogene is the only family I have left. Protect her, please.
His Royal Highness
King Rudolf John Aleghieri
The letter was sealed with his brother's seal. The prince had to sit in a chair. He was Crown Prince, and this beautiful woman with whom he had fallen in love was his niece. He was to act responsibly, and that would include not seducing the princess.
He threw the letter into the fire.
He spent his evening wooing the young princess. She knew full well who he was, and he who she was, and still he seduced her, and still she allowed herself to be seduced. As the evening wore on they flirted, talked, and cuddled. At last, the prince escorted the princess to his bedroom, and they spent the night together.
The two continued their romance for nearly a month. Then one morning, the princess brought news to her lover. She had conceived a child.
Immediately the prince's carefree life ended. This mistress he could not execute as he had to those in the past. The enormity of his crime struck him. He had bedded and, further, impregnated his niece knowingly, after his brother had begged him to protect her. Finally the prince realized the import of his position as Crown Prince. A Crown Prince did not cavort with young ladies he was not wedded with, especially not his niece. A Crown Prince, when he discovered a woman pregnant with his child, did not execute her, but married her, if she was a noble, or pay her well to keep her silence and raise her child comfortably, if she was a commoner. As Crown Prince, his first action had been to fail miserably. And now he had to live with the consequences.
Immediately he dashed off a letter to his brother.
Your Majesty, my brother,
Imogene is quite enjoying her stay in the country, and, in fact, that is why I feel prompted to write to you. The quiet here in the countryside is quite different from the bustle of court, and the princess has expressed her wishes to remain until next summer.
Believe me, brother, when I say that it is no imposition at all to have her stay here. She is wonderful company, and her presence is welcome in the too-long-empty halls of my castle. I only hope she will not be too much missed at court during her sojourn here.
Your humble servant and brother.
The letter was sent off hastily and soon a reply came, saying simply that of course the princess could stay as long as she was welcome. Relieved of one small burden, the prince allowed himself to relax slightly. His brother didn't know yet, and didn't suspect, but there were still eight months to survive before the child was born.
Unfortunately, servants gossip, and though uneducated, are far from stupid. Every employee of the castle knew the paternity of the princess's child, and were eager to tell their village friends why the princess from the capital was staying so long in the countryside, empty as it was of royal entertainment. The servants' friends told their friends, and any travelers, willingly, and the word spread to the capital. The king heard, but refused to believe. Surely his brother had changed. Surely his responsibility as Crown Prince had caused him to become more responsible.
"O Lord, who sees and knows all," the king prayed, "tell me my brother has changed. Let this foul rumor not be true. And if it be true, punish them rightly, as You see fit. For Imogene may be my daughter, but this is an unforgivable crime, in my eyes as well as Yours. But before You punish, O Lord, let this rumor not be true!"
Fervently he prayed, but the rumors persisted, until he was all but driven mad by them. All he could do was wait for summer, when, with all luck, his daughter would return.
The child was born on a sunny day in late May. A son, born healthy. Imogene had an easy labor, but was exhausted at the end. The prince had initially intended to send the child away to be raised elsewhere, but once he saw the small, wrinkled red face, he knew he could never give him up. Illegitimate though he was, he was the prince's son, and the prince was a father.
Imogene stirred in her sleep, waking. She looked up at the prince and smiled weakly. He leaned down to her, still holding their child, and kissed her forehead.
A blinding light filled the room. The prince turned and looked to its source. An angel stood before them, glimmering brilliantly with the light of heaven. Imogene screamed. The baby began to wail. The prince could only stare in terror and awe.
"The two of you are guilty of a most heinous sin," the angel said in a voice like thunder, and the pounding of waves on the shore, and like the mad rush of wind through the trees. "Knowingly was this child conceived immorally. The Lord has declared the two of you shall be punished."
In another flash of light the prince and his lover were transformed into hideous beasts, monsters such as the world had never seen except in myth. He let out a great roar of pain and despair, while she merely whimpered softly.
The angel spoke again. "Like beasts did you conceive this child, and therefore like beasts shall you live."
"What-" the prince's voice was a low growl, and he was so surprised that he had to begin his sentence again. "What will happen to our child?"
"The Lord does not blame a child for the sins of its parents. Your child will be taken care of." The angel took the child up from where he had fallen and cradled him gently in his arms. "The Lord, however, is merciful," he continued, almost gently. "He grants you speech, that you may communicate. And He grants you hope. Should either of you find someone to love you for yourself, and should you fall in love with them, truly, then your curse shall be reversed, and you shall be free. However, the Lord grants you only twenty-five years in which to achieve this, or else the curse will become irreversible."
The angel turned as if to leave, then looked back upon the stricken couple. "So that the entire world shall not know your shame," he said, "your household is made unable to spread word of you to the world."
Another flash of light spread throughout the palace, and when it was gone, so was the angel, and the prince's child.
The entire castle staff had been changed to inanimate household objects, related mostly to the jobs they worked. All but one.
She was a pretty young scullery maid, married to one of the gardeners, and pregnant with her first child. She had been sent out to town to purchase fish for the prince's table, and was just returning when the light filled the castle grounds. In the space of the flash, her life was changed, but she alone remained human, but for the hand which had gripped the gate, which was now made entirely of glass.
A/N: Lovely cliffhanger, eh? I'll see how much response I get to this chapter and see if I should bother posting more. So if you like it and want to know what happens next, leave me a review!