A/N- This is a reupload of an older one. I put it back up though, because I'm still quite fond of it.
Sorry about the awkward formatting. FP makes for some very inelegant scene changes.
The Pretend Prince
Prince Middle was a muddle. A child halfway to being a princess, but two quarters on the way back to being a prince, give or take a tenth. Only one calculation was certain—it was eight eighths of added confusion.
The facts are this; at midnight exact on a night that narrowly escaped Tuesday and was not quite Wednesday, on a night that was almost cloudy and nearly clear, a child called Middle was born.
Red-faced and panting, the King burst into the Queen's chambers where a vibrant cry struck out; a greeting, a hello! The midwives cheered; "It's a boy!"
The King beamed in pleasure. "Prince Asbel!" he announced.
Hesitation. A falter. The young midwife blushed.
"Apologies your grace—a girl."
A girl. The King's smile faded. He quickly redrew it. A girl! A healthy girl! That was almost as good.
"Princess Astel!" he said. Weakly, the Queen smiled.
But the midwives' silence was unnatural, almost sheepish. They crowded round the infant, craning to get a good look. The King pushed past them impatiently and knelt down. His eyes widened.
"Is she alright?" the Queen called anxiously. "Is she sick? Is she breathing?"
The King straightened up slowly, inhaling deeply to steady himself. "She's breathing, Madam," he said to his wife. "But then, she is also a he."
And so, after mixed beginnings, Middle's life continued in this fashion. The royal dressers didn't know how to dress the child, the priest how to name him, nor did the King or Queen even know how to title him.
"So is it the Prince or the Princess?" the King snapped. The Queen did not look up from her embroidery, but her stitches were tense and jagged. They had continued this quarrel all week.
"She's a girl. Her face has a feminine edge." She made a mistake and unpicked it angrily.
"You only say he's a girl because you want a daughter," the King retorted.
"You only say she's a boy because you want a son."
No one considered that they get rid of the problem. Despite the confusion, there were very few who would wish the child harm. Prince or Princess, Middle was a beautiful baby. He had porcelain white skin. She had lovely eyes, graded to the softest green. He had the softest cheeks. She had the finest, silkiest blond hair.
He or she, the whole castle was in love with Middle.
Another fact from this muddle; Middle was never officially named. At the christening ceremony there was an uncomfortable silence filled finally, gratefully, but inadequately by, "the royal child." The King stomped about upstairs, fretting and fuming.
Meanwhile, Middle's name crept in quietly round the back. The cook teased him with it, fondly petting the wisps of hair now long enough to curl. The nursemaid rocked him to sleep with it, purring what a big strong boy (or girl) he was growing into. The Queen shouted at him with it, for getting his fine clothes dirty in the pond. And the King praised him with it, for excelling at his swordsmanship, telling him what a fine, fine ruler he will be…
But let us now, briefly, take a closer look at this muddled picture. If you just shift slightly closer, right there, until you can see—
…Until we find Prince Middle, aged eight, sitting across from his father, praised. After years of switching from gown to britches he's now firmly in trousers. His father has won and he's a he and the half princess is a whole prince—in theory, at least. (Because everyone in the castle, in his bubble, haven and kingdom knows that sometimes he will go to the Queen's rooms to tie a blue ribbon in his hair. That he will be a she, and both she, mother and maids will sigh at the loveliness of it.)
"You'll make a fine King," his father says, and Middle nods, though only half his heart agrees with that statement…
…And it's his tenth summer, and he's packing away the last of his dresses and skirts, because his father has caught him in his mother's shoes again and he's put his foot down. Bang. On the ground. And Middle's aware he's supposed to be feeling shameful, and he hangs his head, but somehow the feeling passes him by…
…And now he's twelve and his body's started changing and unwelcome to the bubble, unease has slipped through. Because he's out playing tennis on the lawn, and although he's a prince, who could disguise, under the light cotton gauze of his shirt, those mutinous, blossoming breasts?
And the foreign child Duchess is unnerved, because she does not belong in Middle's world, who for his father is a son and for her mother is a daughter. Who is all things swirled up in one; night and day, land and sea, and who stands, perilously, in the middle.
To which the Duchess asks, innocently, "What are you?" And for the first time, Middle is not so sure. Sot that his bubble stretches—
Till Middle snapped up from his doze, wrenched from his dreams, startled, to find to find dancing girls twirling and dancing boys swirling, a great banquet laid out for his sixteenth birthday.
The touch of tragedy had added an extra dimension to his face, still as beautiful as it was sixteen years, minus a day, before. A peculiar beauty; unconventional, but a beauty nonetheless. Too pretty to be a boy- his skin too soft, the angles of his face too feminine- but not a girl; much too tall, shoulders too wide, the first trace of golden stubble on his chin.
"Sire, would you like to dance?" A young woman with dark braids fluttered her eyelashes at him, scooting her chair closer. Another Queenly candidate, Middle suspected, set up by his father. But those big dark eyes and silky skin would do nothing for him, no matter how hard he willed them to. It was too familiar. When she cast her eyes up at him seductively, he only remembered copying his mother. Turning his eyes up at the palace guards, laughing as they choked and blushed. When the young woman thrust forward her chest as if brandishing a weapon, the dangerously deadly low cleavage, Middle only thought of his own appendages, kept in check by makeshift bandages, still detached from his essence… Gazing at himself in the mirror, perplexed. Every so often the woman would touch her hair, checking it was in place, smooth the creases out of her dress. Middle knew it fondly; wanting to look pretty. Just seeing it all played in front of him, as if he himself was a real man, it made him want to… it tried to burst out of him, that feeling… the urge to-
Middle held the mirth back behind his gums, the defensible wall of his teeth. But he couldn't hold the line. It seeped from between his lips; a giggle, a guffaw, until he threw his head back and roared with laughter, banging on the table with his fist. Offended, the girl stomped off, and the whole court stared as the young prince laughed like a madman.
What they didn't understand was this—it's the laughter of joy. Middle understood. They understood; they'd be okay. Prince Asbel agreed, and Princess Astel concurred. And Middle, mediator, nodded.
Whatever he kept in his breast pocket; cricket ball, coins or dagger, it would always lie next to that blue ribbon, close to his heart.
Twenty, and unmarried! A prince unmarried at twenty! Who had heard of such a thing?
The King and Queen had, and his name was Middle. The King didn't understand what was wrong with the boy; he'd brought noble beauties from all over the kingdom, from over the world. But the King was aging; the clock of unstoppable time was ticking— tick, tock, tick, tock- louder…- tick, tock- deafening!- TICK, TOCK, TICK. Like the crumbling sound a kingdom, a kingdom that might end with Middle, without an heir.
And a small voice in the back of his head asked what if the Queen was right, and Middle was a girl? And if he wanted a husband, rather than a wife? And the Queen was fuming, because she knew she'd been right all along, that they'd brought their daughter up as a son. And the King never listened to her…
Middle strode through the double doors into the hall, flushed from hunting, beaming joyously; back from deer, antelope, boors, to tell his father all about the monster he's caught. Resplendent in his buttoned cream vest and britches, tousled golden hair on his shoulders, loose and seraphic.
The King led Middle silently to the table, where portraits he'd commissioned were laid out like treats in a shop window. Middle leant down and inspected them.
"This one," the King said, "is the princess of the Southern Cities."
"She's very beautiful," Middle replied sincerely, and King looked up at him in eagerness. But when the Prince saw the expectation in his father's face he laughed heartily, slapping the old King on the back. The Queen danced him away, patting the seat beside her. She petted his hair, his face, tutted over her daughter's dirty boots.
Ignore him, she whispered to Middle. Suggested he doesn't need a wife. Gently recalled the visiting Count from yesterday. What did her dear daughter think of him?
But Middle only laughed harder. It's a laugh that had a million different components; of amusement, of knowing, a tiny piece of sadness, and, half forgotten, the merest touch of loneliness. Of confidence and self-assurance, but above all-and primarily- merriment. Middle loved to laugh. He found the world- and himself- ludicrous. What else was there to do but laugh?
"The situation isn't funny, Middle," the King said. He stood across the table as Middle bellowed with laughter. He's too old to be unwed, he told him. He needs a wife to ascend the throne, he told him. Middle kept on laughing.
"You mean she needs a husband to ascend the throne," the Queen interrupted. And they quarrelled; Oh no she doesn't, Oh yes he does. A gender confused Punch and Judy, as you've never heard them before.
Abruptly, they realised Middle had stopped laughing. He'd laughed so hard that there were tears in his eyes.
"I don't want a husband or a wife," he said, as though it were obvious.
"Well, you must have one," his mother said in exasperation. The Queen told Middle it was The Law, capital letter and all. Told him until the Princess held the Prince's hand in hers, and swore him hers, Middle cannot be Queen.
"King," the King mouthed, petulantly.
"But I've already got one," Middle said. Innocent. Puzzled by the uproar around him. The King and Queen stared, trying to take this confession on.
"You mean you've found a bride?"
"I've told you already, I'm not getting married." Spread across his face, the slight trace of a smug smile.
"What are you talking about?" The King stamped his foot impatiently. "Where do you think you're going to get a Princess from, if you're not going to marry her?"
"You mean a Prince," the Queen insisted.
"I've got both of those things already," and Middle spread his arms wide. Speaking from a podium, to a crowd hushed with anticipation. "I expect you haven't noticed, because you've spent all my life squabbling, but I'm a hermaphrodite. I'm a Prince and a Princess. I don't need to marry anyone else. I'll rule as King, and as Queen myself."
And Middle's parents gaped, because there was no logic that could deny it. So their daughter, and their son, the Prince and the Princess, the courageous future King and the beautiful future Queen did the only thing he and she could; Middle laughed at the indignation on his parents' faces, because they'd just realised after twenty years, that neither of them had ever got it right.
And they lived happily ever after