“What do you mean?” she asked. “Ferrand, that can’t be true.”
He coloured. “Well, my mother managed five at once. And it turns out that another was responsible for Adeline’s story and she thought she was an ungrateful wretch. And I’m afraid, one of them was my fault.”
I told you that you shouldn’t ever offend them,” she said, looking up at him. “What did you do?”
He shrugged. “I asked which one of them named you.”
“Oh, you stupid, stupid prince,” she said. “As if that mattered. Besides, I don’t think a flower name would have been me, would it?”
He said, “Still, they might as well have called you Thistle or Thorn and had done with it!”
“But what did she do? Which fairy was it?”
“Peony,” he said. “I’m not sure yet. She wouldn’t tell me.”
He hadn’t seen Briar look that afraid before, even when they’d fought a dragon. It chilled him, then, to see her visibly pale at his words. He wished he’d listened to her and kept his temper, but it had been so satisfying at the time to tell one of those creatures exactly what he thought of them for their treatment of her.
“So something you do will cause the curse to take effect,” she reasoned. “And we don’t know what that might be. They like to feel that people bring these things on themselves. And are you sure it was Godmother Peony?”
He was revolted. “Don’t call her that. And, yes. Quite. Does that make it worse?”
“Oh, yes,” she told him. “She likes to be clever.”
He screwed up his face momentarily. “I’m sorry, Briar. Truly. Still, you had best come and see what they have already done.”
“My godmothers or your family?”
He sighed. “Oh, the fairies. My family have finished for the moment.”
“But I still don’t see how they can have offended all twelve, not unless they were trying.”
Ferrand said, “It shouldn’t surprise you. I shouted at Peony, Father tried to shoot Blossom and Primrose because he hadn’t realised what they were; Mother demanded that Bluebell, Jasmine, Poppy and Rose remove their unwanted decorations. Then Marigold decided that Adeline was downright ungrateful, which I suppose she is. I’m not sure what Elise said to Geranium and Lily, but I think it may have been about fairies playing about with people’s lives when they didn’t know the first thing about living -.”
“That’s still not all of them -.”
“Ah, but I haven’t told you about the incident with the cook, nor have I explained that Emeraude thought one of them was an unusual insect and tried to kill it, which largely accounts for the rest. The cook made his feelings about the changes to the menu more than clear.”
She covered her face with her hands. “Oh, no. And what have they done?”
“You had best come and have a look,” he said, taking her by the hand. “I am relying on you to find a solution.”
The rest of the family, aside from Adeline and Hieron, were all standing out in the courtyard, watching the top of the castle. It took Briar a moment to see why, but then she realised that tile by tile, the roof was disappearing.
“I wasn’t unreasonable,” said the Queen. “All those roses sprouting out of the walls! And ribbons twisted round all the pillars, completely the wrong shade. What else could I have done?”
The King coughed. “I never said you were. That does not alter the situation.”
Briar tried not to stare at the long, green ears the King had abruptly acquired. She did not mention the scaly tail, either. Given what Ferrand had said, it was also likely that Hieron had been returned to his previous state as a frog. She didn’t like to ask about the cook.
“Briar,” said the Queen, spying her. “How can we put a stop to all this? Audric cannot go out in that state and he can hardly hide in the castle when it will eventually no longer be there.”
She thought. “What did they say?”
“Oh, there is some golden key or such we must find,” she returned, “but this is no time for a treasure hunt.”
Briar nodded. “They wouldn’t have you find it just by looking. That would be too simple-.”
At that, Adeline returned and they all stared to see the most particular of the sisters, wet, bedraggled and muddy, her long dark hair hanging loose about her face, which was now tear-stained. “I can’t find him!” she sobbed. “I’ve kissed all the frogs I could find, but none of them was Hieron!”
None of them could quite manage to reply, so instead, Briar promised to at least stop the destruction of the castle and set off in search of Alain the Fool.
“You remember that you said to me that the family were making their own entertainment?” she said. “It was truer than you knew.”
He grinned. “I must have a prophetic streak. What has happened?”
“Between them, they have annoyed all of my fairy godmothers and now I have to put it right before something worse happens. It’s bad enough about poor Hieron, but I won’t have them turning Ferrand into something.”
Alain said, “I’m sure your wit would be equal to a hundred fairies, my lady.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” said Briar crossly. “What a terrible idea. Twelve are trouble enough.”
They moved on into the throne room and the whole business descended into a many-sided family argument, as these things tended to when his sisters were present. Elise maintained telling the fairies that they had no right to do such things had merely been the truth and his mother maintained that she could hardly be called unreasonable not to want the wedding plans disrupted in a shower of tasteless sentimentality.
Berend was not present, but Ferrand learned that this was not due to his being transformed into anything; merely that he had taken himself off to the kitchen to ensure that no one ate the cook, who was currently experiencing life as a large tureen of soup.
Emeraude complained, as she always did, until he felt moved to tell her that if he had been his parents, he would have given the witch anything she chose to take her away.
His father frowned at him and Emeraude sniffed loudly. Adeline was still thinking of only one thing.
“Perhaps I missed him?” she wondered. “Maybe I should look again? He must be there somewhere and I will get him back.”
The King said, “Perhaps the chap really is a frog and that explains it.”
“Father,” said Adeline, “he’s not a frog; he’s Hieron. And, anyway, you can’t say anything when you have green ears and a tail.”
He was silenced not by that, but by the disturbing fact of the snout that suddenly protruded from his face.
“Audric!” gasped the Queen, widening her blue eyes in horror. “Audric, stop it!”
He glared at her, touching the snout gingerly. “Id’s hardly by doing, by love.”
“Father,” said Elise, paling. “I think you are becoming a dragon!”
“This is no good,” said Ferrand, cutting in. “We’ll only all end as creatures or who knows what this way. I shall go and find Briar and see if she has had any luck. Wait here.”
To his surprise, no one took any notice of him.
“Did you hear me?” he asked, irritated.
The only response he received was his mother’s sudden frown. “Where has Ferrand got to?”
Grief, he thought in sudden realisation. This did not bode well. He moved over, trying to pull at her arm, but he could not touch her. “I’m here!” he shouted, but that had no effect, either.
He ran for Briar.
She was standing in the middle of the courtyard, looking thoughtful. He approached slowly, not wanting to call out to her, because he was unsure what he would do if she could not see him either.
To his huge relief, she turned with a smile. “Ferrand.” Her expression altered as she registered his seriousness. “Is something wrong? I mean, something else?”
“Yes,” he said and caught hold of her, in relief that he could. “You recall that I was unsure what Peony had done to me. Well, now I know. I was rude to my sister Emeraude and suddenly no one else can see me or hear me. I cannot even touch anything.”
He smiled faintly. “Except you, it seems. I wondered, because she did say something about being merciful to Briar.”
Merciful?” said Briar. “Oh, maybe we should kill them all!”
He raised his eyebrows. “I was expecting you to come up with something less bloodthirsty.”
“I don’t mean it,” she said. “But I can’t marry you if you don’t exist.”
He said, “I do still exist, thank you. But I admit it would cause problems with the ceremony.”
“Yes, for the moment,” she said and then caught herself.
He could see that she was trying to keep from alarming him and he made her face him. “For the moment?”
“Fairies don’t really take note of anything that they can’t see – that isn’t now, as it were,” she tried to explain. “The longer this goes on, the more you’ll fade in every way. And I’m not having that!”
He said, “I am sorry for not listening to you, but it’s galling to be taught a lesson by some heartless fairy who thinks this sort of thing is funny.”
“They don’t learn,” she told him. “They don’t change and they don’t learn. Put that idea out of your mind. We must come up with something else.”
He said, “Well, it isn’t fair. Elise is right.”
Briar did not answer. She pulled him down and kissed him.
“It didn’t work,” he told her eventually.
She coloured. “I never supposed it would.”
“Oh,” said Ferrand. “So do we have a plan?”
“I have an idea,” she said. “But you must promise not to interfere, no matter what I say or do.”
He frowned. “That means I won’t like it. Briar, you had better give me some indication -.”
“I can’t,” she said. “That would spoil it. And you cannot stay like this – my imaginary prince.”
He glared at her.
“Promise me,” she ordered.
“Oh, very well. I promise, then, if there is no other choice.”
She smiled at him. “Good. Now, follow me. And I need to borrow your dagger again.”
As they approached two of the fairies, she turned. “Remember what I said: no matter what I do, you must not interfere. They will still see you, for now, anyway. And you must simply keep quiet and trust me.”
“I think I’ve decided to stay invisible,” he responded darkly. “I refuse to go any further until you at least explain why you need my dagger.”
She glanced up at him. “You’ve already promised. Stop complaining and let me see if I can save you. Oh, and I’m afraid that I might sound terribly sentimental.”
“None of this making me feel any more reassured,” he hissed. Then he put his hand to her shoulder, facing her. “However, I have no other plan and you need not fear in one respect at least: I do trust you.”
Briar led the way, out into the forest where Peony and two of the other fairies had gathered. All three turned to watch them. They remained silent, but their coloured eyes were bright with curiosity.
“Godmother,” said Briar, curtseying to Peony. Ferrand was already finding it difficult not to say something, but since he had got himself into this by opening his mouth unwisely, he thought the least he could do was to do as she asked and keep quiet this time.
The fairy was hovering in front of the princess, watching her out of wide, mottled-blue eyes, pupils dark slits like a cat. “What has been done has been done.”
“He’s sorry,” said Briar. “You are sorry, aren’t you, Ferrand?”
He could recognise a prompt. “I am. I had no right to be so rude to you and I apologise most profoundly.”
“You see?” She tried again. “And you are ruining my story.”
She made a careless movement of her wings; the nearest a fairy could manage to a shrug. “I have spared you.”
“But how can he live like this?” said Briar. She had the dagger in her hand, he noted and he found that he was tensing. He wished he knew what she had in mind. This time he could not guess. “Please. You must lift the curse.”
The fairy rose an inch or two into the air. “Poor Briar! But there are rules, you know that.”
“Yes,” she agreed and tightened her hold on the knife. “I understand that and I am willing to give my life in exchange for his.”
She couldn’t mean that, could she? “No!” he said, unable to catch himself in time.
Briar twisted her head round to give him a look. Reluctantly, he fell back and said no more – for the moment. He had promised and he did trust her, but it was hard work. She was sensible enough to know that this was not an answer, wasn’t she?
It was hard to believe that, looking at her now. She was kneeling on the ground, screwing up her face in concentration, both hands to the hilt -. He readied himself to move forward and stop her, if she really went through with this awful act.
However, the fairy moved before he could, pulling Briar to her feet lightly, before shrinking to the size of a butterfly, her words hanging in the air behind her: “Very well, Briar. For you, it is done!”
As Peony disappeared, and the other two flitted away after her, Ferrand turned to the girl still standing there.
“It worked,” she said and handed him back his dagger.
“That is what you intended all along, isn’t it?” he had to ask. “You were tricking the fairy.”
“You were right. I didn’t like it, but as long as you didn’t truly mean it -.”
She raised her brown eyes to meet his. “Oh, I had to mean it, or it wouldn’t have worked. She could see what I had in mind, so I had to make myself -.”
She said, “You wouldn’t have let me, though, would you?”
“No, not for a thousand promises.”
She smiled at him. “Well, then. There was no need to fear.”
After he had paused to think about that for a moment, he said, “Marrying you is going to be hard work, I can see. Someone will surely want to kill you before long.”
Briar took his hand. “We must return to the castle, discover the whereabouts of the key and put everything else to rights.”
“Oh, of course. I’m sure that will present you with no difficulty.”
She said, “I have set Alain to finding the key. I think for something like that, a little music and flattery will be all that is needed. They are always granting gifts to musicians.”
“So he is to ask for the key?”
“You’re uncanny,” he said. “Notwithstanding the fact that you have saved me from becoming a living spectre.”
She flushed. “I’m not. I spent fifteen years living with them. It isn’t in the least bit clever. I told you. I know what they’re like – and they don’t change.”
“But what of the rest?”
She sighed. “I have another idea you will not like, but hopefully -.”
“I might have known,” he said. Then he kissed her.
Briar paused. “No, really, it’s definitely worked. There’s no need for that.”
“I take it back,” Ferrand said reflectively. “I shall certainly have to kill you myself.”
Everyone was in the throne room, barring the still-absent Hieron, listening to Briar explain her solution.
“We’re going to have the fairy tale wedding,” she said.
Ferrand interrupted. “No, not that. I’m not having people think I suddenly decided to marry someone else.”
“Pink ribbons,” said his mother.
Alain coughed. “I think you should hear the lady out.”
They all looked to Briar again.
“We’ll have a fairy wedding,” she said, “and then, once they have finished and left us in peace, we shall have the real one. Just us – all of us – and the priest here in the castle.”
He could not argue with that, although the thought of confusing everyone in the kingdom as to who he was marrying still irked him. “Still, I don’t see why they should get away with this -.”
“It’s up to us to behave better,” she told him, as another argument broke out between Adeline and Emeraude. “It’s no good expecting it of them. They’re not human and the most they can manage to feel for anyone is fondness. You should feel sorry for them, if anything. They don’t change and they don’t learn and all you do by shouting at them is make them turn spiteful.”
He took her hand. “I know. You said.”
“Pink ribbons,” sighed his mother again, almost tearful. “Your aunt will think it was my idea.”
Ferrand glanced down at Briar. “As many weddings as you wish, my lady.”
“Oh, two is quite nonsensical enough,” she returned.
He said in an undertone, “I’m still not kissing you when you look like that, mind.”
“You don’t have to,” she said. “But considering your sister Adeline is happy to kiss all the frogs in the kingdom -.”
He shook his head. “That’s not it. Or not entirely. If I’d gone through with it that first time, you’d have stayed that way, wouldn’t you? I’m learning, and that’s how these things work, isn’t it? And, given all you’ve told me about those creatures, what would that have meant for you?”
For once Briar had nothing to say.
“So you see, Elise is right, and so am I. They’re not kind and they don’t mean well.”
“Maybe,” said Briar.
He paused. “And what about Adeline? Hieron can’t stay as a frog.”
“Adeline has the right answer,” she said with a quick smile. “I think they will have been quite satisfied with her behaviour.”
He said, “That’s no help, if she can’t find the poor fellow.”
“I don’t think she’s looked in her room yet.”
“There’s one thing,” said Elise, before they could all move away again. “There don’t seem to have been any consequences from my words.”
With true fairy timing, Primrose appeared in front of them. “Princess,” she greeted Elise. “We have considered your request and the decision is yours. Simply give them word and we will remove ourselves completely from your life. Do you wish to truly be without us?”
Everyone turned, taken aback at this abrupt, possible solution to all their problems.
Ferrand thought about her question in that moment of silence and it chilled him, as he saw what was meant. He turned to Elise, standing only a short distance away. “Say no!”
She paused for a long moment and he wondered what she would do. She did not usually take much notice of him, being the eldest and he the youngest, but at least she was not Emeraude or Adeline who would have done the opposite merely to annoy him. He closed his eyes. “Elise. It has to be no.”
Elise gave a funny little smile and then inclined her head. “No, thank you,” she said, careful to be polite. “I think we had better deal with matters as they are.”
“Then it is to be a fairy wedding,” she said witha bright, inhuman smile and vanished again. “Let the bells ring out!”
“What was that about?” demanded the King as his snout, ears and tail disappeared.
Elise only smiled again. “Ask Ferrand.”
“They’d have taken Briar at the very least,” he said. “Probably anything else they felt their kind had a hand in. And we’d never have even known.”
The king frowned. “Eh?” he said and to his queen, “Did you understand that?”
"I'm learning," said Ferrand.
“They really meant it about bells, didn’t they?” complained the king. “What is that awful din?”
But the queen merely pressed her lips together and refrained from saying anything further about pink ribbons.
And so Sleeping Beauty married her prince. The bells rang out, blue birds sang, flowers sprang up everywhere about the kingdom (especially pink roses) and the people rejoiced. The air itself seemed to sparkle and fairies were everywhere.
Then, after the fairies had gone and the royal family had finished complaining about how to get flowers out of inconvenient places, disposed of ribbons and mourned the loss of the ‘real’ food for the frivolous cakes and whatnot they’d been given in its place (at least, so the King kept saying), Briar married Ferrand in castle chapel in the quietest royal wedding the kingdom had ever seen.
Whether everyone lived happily ever after is another question and, as fairies don’t truly understand happiness, it can be no concern of theirs.