Hero Day

The bells in the towers rang out through the kingdom on the first anniversary of evil vanquished. From behind reinforced palace walls dripping with spikes and arrow slots, the queen heard music drift up from the town.

“The townspeople celebrate our success,” she said offhandedly as her dresser laid out the day’s finery.

“Yes ma’am. They celebrate someone’s success.”

“Whose?” the queen asked, watching her head dresser from the mirror as the woman drew her lips tight. “Whose success do they celebrate, Madge?”

“They celebrate our hero, today.”

“Their hero… The many men and women who fought to free this kingdom from evil, you mean?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m sure that’s what I mean.”

But the queen was not an idiot and she did not come to power by ignoring the signs when she was being put off. She went to the dark cabinet in her dressing room, the one where her previous life was locked away. The cabinet was dark wood the color of a forest burned by fire. The brass lock was kept oiled, the filigree dusted. From the outside, it looked like any other fine cabinet in the palace. The musk of old lavender and cedar chips trapped too long assaulted her face as she opened the door. This was her life before. The life she lived in exile. The lessons lived with her even though she was careful not to let them show.

She slipped into her previous identity more easily than letting down her hair. The guise of a young man sat on her shoulders, his face covered by desert cloth, his boots and gauntlets fine but built for utility rather than artifice. She slipped from the window before there were questions among the staff and joined the crowd into the city proper.

Food stalls, pickpockets, and more than a few pretty youths who wanted to dance lined the way. At the center of town, a statue had been erected. The hero of her people. He wore baggy shorts and a floppy green hat. That asshole was their hero?

Incandescent rage bounced through her limbs. Not the soldiers who gave their lives. Not the knights of the realm or the Sheikah who guarded the royal family. But that goofy face. She had trained her entire life to save her kingdom, to save her people, and he had fallen onto every weapon, every artifact he wielded, with pure dumb luck.

Smells of cheap beer and roasting meat twisted around her angry stomach. When she was ten, she told the nobles sheltering her that she wanted to be a city guard when she grew up. They were brave people, ubiquitous in her life. But she wanted drink the piss-colored beer she saw them drinking and feel like an adult. That earned her a slap and another lecture on her rightful place in this world. Princesses in exile were still princesses, after all, and they mustn’t talk like that. She would be a queen or she would be nothing.

A young woman grabbed her disguised waist and pulled her into the dance. The queen joined before she realized what she’d done. She hadn’t danced like this since she was a girl, before evil crept into the world. Before her father was lost. Before she put aside childish things to train with horse, arrow, and blade. Her feet knew the steps. It wasn’t a courtly dance, but she hadn’t lived a courtly life. The queen was just a girl when her father, the rightful king, was murdered. In that moment, her kingdom was taken from her. The proper life was taken from her. She was squirreled away from the palace and shuttled from one village to another.

“You aren’t from around here, are you?” the young woman asked. Her hair streamed behind her as a cloud of red when they spun. The queen could have fallen into her seafoam eyes for the rest of the day.

“I’m not from anywhere.” She’d learned to slip in and out of an identity the way she could slip in and out of the dance.

She stepped back now to catch her breath and her pretty partner moved on to the next handsome face.

When she was fourteen, the usurper sent a marriage offer along with several treaties and agreements. They debated all night whether or not to kill the rider who’d found them hidden in the mountains. The camp wasn’t safe, they said. The princess must be moved. Such a thing could never be borne. She grew sad because she quite liked the caves nearby and the guard Greta had winked and laughed when she said the princess was growing into a fine woman who’d have marriage offers soon. Marriage was clearly something to be feared, along with wild animals, riders in the night, men in dark cloaks, and the glint of sharp blades. The list of things to fear was enormous and ever growing. The princess wondered if Greta would be killed, too, for suggesting such a terrible future.

Beside her, a small child in a green costume matching the hero squealed for candy and was shushed by her parents. The man on her other side scratched his chest and belched without excusing himself. A young couple pushed past her without a word to join the dance. Life went on around her.

When the princess turned eighteen and was eligible to wear the crown in her own right, the campaign to retake the kingdom began in earnest. By then, blades were no longer to be feared. The princess wore them like an extension of her own body. She did not remove the blades when she removed the disguise. They were a part of her, as surely as her blood and her rightful place in the world.

But there was much to do. Magic ran deep through the new king and there were artifacts to find, sages to awaken. She could not be everywhere and they found a young man eager to prove himself and willing to go into the deep dungeons where a princess was not allowed to tread.

“He used to break my pottery when he needed money,” the man next to her sniffed, lost in his own memories. “There always seemed to be more money when he was here. Always seemed to be enough to go around.”

“He used to threaten my chickens. Never saw a bird hate anyone more than they hated that guy.”

“I miss him.”

“I know. Me too.”

“What?” the queen-in-disguise rounded on the two men. “He stole from you. He destroyed your property. How could you possibly miss someone like that?”

“Sure. But he was one of us,” the first man said.

“Yeah, one of us. He may have lied. And cheated. And he stole from us. He destroyed things. And he hardly ever listened to a word anyone had to say. But he was there with us when the princess and her court fled.”

“Nobles. Bah.”

The two wandered off to find someone who’d agree with them.

And so the story went. The hero fought evil where it lurked and the princess waited. They spoke of her in hushed voices laced with nostalgia for brighter days and better harvests. They wondered where she was. They asked why she’d abandoned them. And the hero fought in her stead. Nostalgia soured. Presence and deed and story mattered more than blood, position, or birth.

The part of the story not often told is that the princess fought in secret and in disguise alongside the hero. She with binding magic and he with his sword. Even the hero never saw her face. Never knew that royalty fought alongside him. She opened the ways for him. She stood toe to toe with evil and she never flinched.

Not until the night before the big attack. They would retake her father’s castle or they would die trying. There was no way she would rebuild an army large enough to try again if they failed that day. She went to the young man helping them. He was a civilian, a young man with no ties to the kingdom, and she meant to release him from following them into the castle. It was not his fight.

She went in disguise, to avoid the impropriety of a princess visiting his tent. Just an old friend, a fellow warrior. He had to know who she was if he was to follow her into battle in the morning.

But when she threw off her disguise, it was not the reaction she hoped for. He kept his distance as the sun cleared the mountains in the morning. He led the charge while the princess held the way open for them. And when they took the throne room, the evil king’s blood still on the hero’s sword, he had won their freedom. Because princesses were princesses and not warriors.

The princess left the dance well before it was over. It wouldn’t end until the sun set and she had no patience left for this day. She wasn’t one of them. She returned to her palace and ignored the bells when they rang again the next year. She could be a queen or she could be nothing. She could never be their hero.

Dianne Williams lives in Lawrence, Kansas. She grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries and classic science fiction. She once dreamed of being an astronaut. Or maybe a lawyer. Or an artist. She settled for being as many of them as she could all at once through fiction writing.

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