Behind the Story

“What a lovely surprise! I was sure you’d be asleep after all the work you did today.”

I slid a book back on the shelf before I turned to face the queen. “I wanted to see the library before I went to bed if that’s alright.”

She smiled. “Of course it is! I told you the library was open to you.”

“Right.” I bowed my head. “Well, I should probably go.”

She stopped me as a passed by her, placing her hand on my arm. “Zinnia, is there something wrong?”

I forced a yawn. “No, no, I’m just tired is all.”

Alexandra took my hand. “If this is about that guard, I can arrange for his apology-”

I put my hands up. “No, don’t! It’s alright, really. I’m used to it.”

She gestured to two chairs next to the staircase leading to the second level of the library. “Do you mind if we talk?”

I opened my mouth to protest, but I shook my head instead, following her. We sat down as silence hung in the air, and she broke it first.

“You said the same thing when I first met you.”

I nodded. “You can get used to almost anything given enough time.”

“You deserve much better. I hope you know you never have to withstand that kind of treatment here.”

I hung my head, refusing to look at her. “Thank you, but I’ll be alright. If I just keep to myself and my work, I shouldn’t have any trouble, right?”

“Zinnia, you shouldn’t have to isolate yourself. I want you to feel welcome here.”

“I do! Believe me, this can’t get much better.”

Her eyebrows quirked, and she placed her hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have to do that.”

“Do what?”

“Put up a front. You’re safe here, and I want you to feel like you can talk to someone.”

Tears welled up in my eyes, and I took her hand. “Thank you, your highness.”

“Zinnia.”

“Oh, right, right! Alexandra.”

She laughed. “Much better, now, if you’re not too tired, how about we pick out something to read?”

I looked around the library, eyeing the upper level. “Do you have a favorite?”

“Well, as long as you can keep a secret…” She leaned in close. “I love fairytales. I can’t help it, the happy endings get to me.”

“I thought I saw some on the second level. Do you try to hide them?”

She looked between me and the door. “Yes. See, if someone comes in unannounced, I have time to put it away before they notice I’m reading it.”

“Clever thinking, but why hide it?”

“A queen who still reads fairytales? Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Why not? You’re so young, I mean, who could blame you for still wanting to be a child at heart?”

She shook her head. “It’s not what the people need, an immature ruler.”

“The world could use more people with the child-like capacity to be human.”

She froze. That’s… very wise of you. Thank you, Zinnia.”

I smiled, leading her to the staircase. “Of course! Besides, you still have to show me a favorite.”

She led the way up. “Right, let me think.” She clapped her hands together when we reached the top. “Oh, I think I’ve got one!”

She took to the corner, pulling out the last book on the second shelf. Handing it over, she crouched down reaching for a few more. I flipped through a few pages once I got passed the cover with a vial of purple potion. Pictures of a cauldron littered each page as a witch tried to make herself beautiful.

“I like the look of it. Do you mind if we read it together?”

“Of course not. I’d love to!”

I handed the book over, sitting on the floor next to the shelf. “Would you read it to me?” Heat rose in my cheeks as I propped my head in my hands. “I, uh, don’t know how to read. At least, not that well.”

She nodded, flipping to the first page. “There’s always time to learn.” Tracing the first words, she began. “Once upon a time…”

I lost myself in the tale of a witch who wanted to be beautiful like she’d once been. Before being cursed with magic that sent her into isolation, she’d been a normal girl who dreamed of marrying and having a home, a family of her own. Who could get passed her appearance let alone take the risk of living with someone who used magic? Over time, however, she discovered she could win the people’s hearts by using her power to heal. After so many failed beauty potions, she’d given up the notion, deciding to disguise herself as a traveling healer.

The people of the village adored her, and it wasn’t long before the royals summoned her to cure their daughter of a mysterious sickness. The witch befriended the sickly princess as she worked to find a remedy, but her condition worsened. On the princess’ last day, she called her friend into her chambers to say goodbye, and the witch decided to reveal who she really was. The princess smiled and told her she’d known for some time, that she’d waited for the witch to reveal the truth on her own terms. The witch was overcome with joy, and she cried as the dying princess smiled.

She kissed her forehead and promised to reveal all her secrets if the princess would only live another day. By some miracle, the princess survived the night with the witch at her side. The pair talked well into the night, and the princess’ condition seemed to improve. By the next morning, she could once again visit the garden! As the days passed, the witch revealed her deepest secrets down to her desire to be beautiful. The princess bent down and pluck a rose from the garden, handing it to the witch.

“If we judge a rose by its thorns, we’d never see the beauty in the flower.”

I hummed as the queen closed the book and held it to her chest. “That was a lovely story. I can see why you love it so much.”

She handed the book over. “What do you think healed the princess?”

I thumbed through the pages, glancing at the pictures. “I don’t know for sure. Since it wasn’t potions, it couldn’t have been the witch’s company. Or maybe the truth.”

“I think you’re right. The truth is powerful indeed.” She stood and led the way down the stairs. “Why don’t you take that with you tonight and keep it in your room to practise reading?”

“I couldn’t. It’s your favorite.”

She turned back to me before she left for the night. “Exactly, that way you’ll think of me when you read it.”

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