Prince Jack had not been given a good name (otherwise he would have been called something like Bumblesmutch, Evergard, or Floyd), but he was taught the value of hard work, which was surprising given that such knowledge was generally considered inappropriate for princes in the mode. Thus, when it came time for him to choose a bride, which is always in that nebulous age range between eighteen and decaying-father’s-pending-death, Prince Jack found himself watching the red-carpet runway with an eye for some spunk. He knew how to pick a winning racehorse. She would be lean, sleek, prancing with barely contained energy, holding her head high. Unfortunately, the princesses parading before him who exhibited such characteristics tended to trip over their gowns and/or passing courtiers. The resulting pile of squealing invalids pleased the court physician, but left poor Prince Jack wanting someone a bit sturdier.
So, he mounted his own steed, a freshly retired racehorse named Hipwiggle, and set out in search of princesses from kingdoms far farther away. He guessed that the “Eligible Prince” memo had been lost in royal spam boxes due to the mass emailing his father had sent out, so he thought he’d let people know in person. Jack’s mother (who obviously had a name, but no one knew it because she was just “the queen” and “Her Majesty) kissed him farewell, wished him luck, and tucked a spare grooming kit in his saddlebag for Hipwiggle, who was very vain for a horse.
Jack rode in and out of days—which was a navigational nightmare, owing to Hipwiggle’s penchant for left-hand turns—until he reached a quiet but expansive castle with impressively manicured shrubberies. “Someone here works hard. Hopefully that reflects the noble work ethic of the reigning monarchs and any feminine offspring of marriageable age who might live and rule here.”
Hipwiggle shook his mane and began chewing a hole in a frighteningly spherical rhododendron bush.
Jack jerked the reins. “I’ll never make a good impression if you eat their ornamental plants. Let’s go.” They galloped across the drawbridge, which he noted was merely for decoration since the moat consisted of a shallow trench filled with assorted perennials in pink and gold. “Not fearsome, but efficient,” he observed.
Hipwiggle snorted in agreement and came to an abrupt halt, pitching Jack headlong into the great wooden doors of the castle.
Jack managed to remain conscious, but glared at his horse. “That wasn’t funny. How can I make a good impression with a giant lump on my forehead?”
At that very moment, the door swung inward to reveal an abnormally lanky butler. “I beg your pardon?” He frowned down at Jack who had not yet regained his feet. “Did you knock, sir?”
Standing, Jack rubbed the bump on his head. “In a manner of speaking, yes.” He puffed his chest out and took on his most princely stance. “I am Prince Jack. I have traveled far and wide in search of—”
“Up two flights, fourth door on the right.” The butler heaved the door wider. “You may park the horse around back, or I can call someone to do it for you.”
“Valet parking. Very nice. That will be fine, thank you. But how do you know why I’m here? I didn’t get a chance to—”
“You’re the forty-seventh prince to call on Princess Asnora this year, Your Majesty. I hope you don’t mind that I made an assumption.”
“Princess…Asnora…” Jack scratched his neck absently. He spun around to take in the view of the front entry way. Very grand. Very ornate. Very polished despite the inaccessibility of the various objects to any human polisher. “Nice place you have here. Either your cleaning staff can fly, or you’ve magically banished dust.”
Without looking upward at the gleaming gargoyles, the butler droned, “Yes.”
Jack blinked. “Yes, flying staff, or—?”
“Two flights up, four doors down to your right.” The butler departed, his upper body motionless while his spindly legs folded and flapped in a silent display of gracelessness.
Jack found the room in question despite the lack of an escort. The entire castle seemed bereft of life, yet impeccably clean. Glancing down at his attire, he smiled with satisfaction at the anti-grime-and-dishevelment suit his mother had bought him. A lazy luxury, yes, but even hard workers hate doing laundry. It never ends, after all.
A young woman sat dutifully outside the door, perched on a stool in such a way that Jack suspected the voluminous folds of her dress hid core muscles of steel. As he approached, she jumped off and drew in a breath, extending her stature to its full capacity (which was not very capacious). “How may I help you, sir?” Something in her eyes implored him sincerely, as if this was not a courtesy request.
“I…” He paused, watching her bounce ever so slightly on her heels. “Are you all right, miss?”
“Yes, sir. Just eager to help, sir. Anything at all.” She spoke rapidly and moved energetically, as if she had breakfasted on a Triple Grande Double Dutch Chocolate with Extra Cream and Two Pumps of Sugar with a Cinnamon Twist cup of over-priced coffee.
“Well, I understand there’s a Princess…”
“Asnora, yes. Have you come to kiss her?”
“I…what?” Jack had taken Charming classes and was certain that Princess-kissing etiquette required at least one waltz before lips could be locked in any kind of nuptially binding way.
Instead of answering, the maid pushed open the door. “Follow me. I’ll make sure she’s ready.”
“No guards to announce? Don’t you want to know who I am?”
The young woman waved away his concern with a breezy laugh and led him to a latticed screen. “Wait here.” She continued beyond, talking as she went. “If Butler let you in, you must be a prince, so there’s always a chance, isn’t there?”
“I’m just applying the lipstick,” called the maid. “You can come back now.”
“She won’t mind. Do you need a breath mint?”
Jack’s brow knit so tightly that he couldn’t see for a moment. “I’m sorry, what are you talking about?” He peeked around the screen expecting to see some kind of reception room, or throne room, or tea party, or anything but the huge, four-post bed draped with lacy gauze. His mouth flopped open in a stupor.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” chirped the maid, popping something into his mouth and lifting his chin back into position. She beamed up at him. “Go ahead as soon as it dissolves. She’s quite ready.”
Jack looked at the bed, squinting to make sure he wasn’t imagining things. He looked down at the maid, who again bounced on her heels with gleeful suppressed excitement. He looked back at the bed and swallowed the mint whole. There was definitely someone lying on the bed. A girl-shaped someone. A very still, girl-shaped someone.
He looked back at the maid. “Look, Miss…”
“Espressa.” Her eyes shone.
“Right. Miss Espressa, is it just me, or is she—?”
“Very beautiful. Oh yes, that’s what they all say!”
“I was going to say ‘asleep’, actually.”
“Well, of course she is!” Espressa flicked away an invisible fleck of dust from his shoulder. “Are you ready?”
“Either the customs in this kingdom are very different, or you were promoted to maid-in-waiting prematurely. This seems like a terrible breach of protocol…”
Espressa let out a giggle like sunshine. “I’m not a maid-in-waiting! The maids-in-waiting couldn’t wait any longer. They all got married and have families of their own. Two of them are grandmothers now.”
Jack leaned against the screen, very nearly toppling it. “I must be dreaming. None of this makes sense.”
Espressa tugged at his wrist, her soft little hands strong despite their size. “Well that’s just the point, isn’t it? You’re going to wake her from her dream.”
“I wouldn’t dare. Most people I know are terribly irritable when woken from a…” He consulted the grandfather clock on the wall. “Late morning nap.”
“She won’t mind,” insisted Espressa. “Go ahead. Kiss her.”
“But she doesn’t even know me. I don’t even know her.”
Espressa tilted her head and rested her fists on her tiny waist. “Do you know all the people you’re connected to on social media?”
“Kiss her already so I can move on from this guarding gig to something with some action!” This last bit came out with an alarmingly shrill tone which instantly evaporated into a petulant pout.
Jack raised a finger to begin a rebuttal, but thought better of it. “Right. Kiss Asnora.” He shook his head. “Asnora? Really? Didn’t her mother like her? That’s a terrible name.”
“It’s my understanding that she was a very sleepy baby.” Espressa gestured fondly at the princess. “I suppose all that beauty rest paid off.”
Jack gently pulled aside the gauze and took a good look at the Princess Asnora, snug in her bed, lovely and fully primped by her doting maid-on-a-stool-guard person. “She is very beautiful.”
Espressa clapped her hands in a little flutter. “Go on. Kiss her.”
“Well, I suppose that would wake her up.” Shrugging, he leaned over and placed a polite kiss on her forehead.
“No, no, no! Not like that. Kiss her properly. On the lips. Why do you think I put on the lipstick?”
Jack was still staring at the princess, bewildered that she had not yet moved with all the talking and movement around her. “Are you sure?”
“Give her a good, big kiss!”
Not enjoying this quest as much as he would have imagined, Jack tried harder. He kissed the Princess Asnora on the lips and then took a step back.
“Wait for it.” Espressa clawed at the air as if trying to pull the princess out of slumber. Gritting her teeth, she muttered, “Come on … Wake up …”
“Wow, she’s a really sound sleeper.” Jack shook his head. “I’ll give it one more try, and then I probably need to move on.” He knelt beside Princess Asnora, brushed a strand of her hair from her cheek and planted a movie-style kiss on her lips.
“Well, that was a singular waste of time.” Espressa’s whole body sagged with disappointment. “I really thought you might be the one.”
Prince Jack stood up, frowning. “I didn’t realize I was that bad at kissing.”
“You looked like you were doing it right from where I was standing.”
He shuffled uncomfortably away from Asnora. “It’s kind of hard to get into it when she doesn’t kiss back, you know.”
Espressa nodded sympathetically. “I’m sure you meant well.”
Jack scowled a little. “I’m pretty sure my kissing isn’t that boring. I’ve never had anyone complain before.”
“Of course not. Don’t feel bad. It happens all the time.”
“Not to me, it doesn’t!” Jack impulsively took Espressa into his arms and gave her a passionate kiss, which she kindly reciprocated, thus re-establishing in his mind his capacity to smooch effectively. He let go of her, feeling flushed.
“Wow!” she swooned, and promptly passed out.
“You might try the Princess Peablossom, just three hills over,” said Butler. “I understand she never sleeps at all.”
Jack shrugged from atop his mount. “Well, that’ll be fine as long as she doesn’t talk every hour she’s awake or insist on playing Candy Crush the whole time.”
“I wouldn’t know, sir.” The butler bowed graciously and firmly closed the door behind him.
“Lead on, Hipwiggle. I forgot to ask which hills, so, you know, sniff her out, or something?”
The horse snorted, but took to a steady trot heading roughly eastward towards a wooded slope.
“Wake me when we get there, hey buddy? All that kissing wore me out.”
Hipwiggle was careful to steer clear of the low-lying branches lest his master be unseated in his slumber, but when a gaggle of man-eating spiky bindles crowded the path, he took off at a full gallop.
Jack awoke to a smack on the cheek by a wayward twig and managed to lean forward into the saddle, grasping the reins for dear life as his horse showed off his signature speed. Unfortunately, he also showed off his signature running pattern, looping them back around to the left in a quarter-mile turn until they came upon the spiky bindles anew.
“Hipwiggle, I swear you’re trying to get me killed.”
This time, the vicious creatures swarmed, taking to the air around Jack in a swirling snarl of fangs and pointy bits that showed a complete disregard for all respectable laws of physics.
Jack abandoned his decorum (and some of his hair) as he urged Hipwiggle straight forward with a sustained squeal and flailing limbs. By the time they broke clear of the tree line, only two spiky bindles remained attached—one to Hipwiggle’s half-eaten tail, and the other to Jack’s left boot. No amount of kicking loosened its grip, but when his horse swooshed his tail wildly around his flank, the spiky bindle munching there was thrown free. It knocked into Jack’s foot, in turn dislodging the last attacker’s teeth. Jack and his mount raced onward, now able to adapt the more classic Prince-on-Galloping-Steed pose, though some of the effect was lost in profile because both man and horse had lost a lot of hair. Jack smoothed his palm over a stubbly patch on the top of his head and pondered whether or not the Buff Guy Extra Body Shampoo had saved his life by giving his “locks a life of their own,” as per the advertisement. Perhaps his hair had been a decoy for the fleshier bits of his being.
At last they slowed to a lazy trot and took stock of the damage. The saddlebags were gone, but the anti-grime-and-dishevelment suit had done its job. As long as no one noticed the bad hair…
Jack hung his head in despair. “What does a prince have but his smile and his hair to capture a fair maiden’s heart?” He silently cursed the shallowness of women and wished they would appreciate his personality and sparkling sense of humor instead of his looks. Spurring his horse back up to a canter, he groaned, “Come on, Hipwiggle. Try not to do anything else stupid until after I find a princess to marry.”
The young woman who answered the door would have been beautiful if the bags under her eyes weren’t large enough for toting groceries. She peered into the night’s darkness behind Jack and frowned. “If you’re here at this hour, I can only assume you’ve come about the bed. This way.”
She turned and began marching up a flight of marble stairs with palpable weariness.
Jack decided introductions could wait until the morning and gladly followed the maid up to the guest quarters. He couldn’t bring himself to be offended by the lack of fanfare because it was very late, after all.
As they climbed another two switchbacks of steep steps, Jack studied the half-asleep woman in front of him. She was remarkably well-dressed for a servant and the entrepreneurial side of him quickly surmised that a kingdom that could afford to dress its night servants in such finery was worth pursuing as an ally. Yes, a matrimonial merger could be very profitable. Unless the princess—assuming there really was a princess—had a really terrible flaw, he had found his fiscal true love.
Hopefully she wouldn’t notice the hair.
The woman stopped in front of a double door and leaned into both sides, pushing them wide open to reveal a gloriously elegant bedroom. Every detail showed refinement of taste. Every detail except the actual bed.
The bed seemed out of place.
Jack supposed this was because it was at least forty feet tall and surrounded by elaborate scaffolding. Propped on various platforms were mattresses of varying thickness and hue.
“Well, come on. What are you waiting for?” The woman to one of the ladders and started to climb.
Impressed by her stamina but confused by her intent, Jack just stared. “Ummm….”
The woman reached a platform and slumped onto it, her eyes barely open. “Are you going to help me, or not?”
“Help you what, miss? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
She closed her eyes, but Jack could tell she was rolling them, too. He looked at the floor sheepishly and raked his remaining hair over the missing patch. “Too bad the spiky bindles ate the mane toupee,” he thought.
“You aren’t here to help me get more mattresses on top?” She yawned.
“I don’t think so.” He shook his head. “Perhaps I’ve come to the wrong palace?”
The woman rubbed the bridge of her nose and yawned again. “It is so hard to find good help nowadays. Where did you think you were going?”
Suddenly self-conscious, Jack decided cranking up his charming grin was his only chance. “I’ve come to seek the hand of the fair princess who dwells here.”
The woman blinked at him very slowly. “Isn’t that ironic? And all she wants is a hand getting a few more mattresses on the bed.”
Jack’s smile faltered. “Wait…what?”
Resuming her climb with an indignant sniff, the woman mumbled, “Lumpiest bed on the planet. Feels like I’m sleeping on boulders and broomsticks.”
“You’re the princess?”
“Princess Peablossom.” She hefted up one corner of a mattress. “Do you have a name, or should I just call you Mr. Useless Scrufflenoggin?”
The princess! And she’d noticed the hair! “I’m sorry. I must have the wrong castle.”
He backed out of the room, but not before he heard her grumble, “Stupid pizza delivery boys. Why don’t they use a GPS on their bridles? Dumb fool probably got lost in the spiky bindle forest.”
Jack stepped outside and into a fresh pile of horse droppings. The boot which had been punctured by the spiky bindle did not resist the ooze.
Staring at his steed, Jack growled, “Valet parking or no, it is not polite to poop on princesses’ porches. Everyone knows that.”
The horse snorted and plodded off, his nose high in the air.
Jack looked after him. “Hipwiggle, you’re fired!”
Jack made it home on foot two weeks later, having enjoyed the solitary exertion. Of course, he avoided the spiky bindle forest on his route, but managed to make a bow and arrow and fell a momphibrak buck. The local village roasted it for him and sent him home with left-overs in a Tupperware satchel.
His mother kissed him on the cheek. “Welcome home, dear. Happy hunting?”
“In a manner, yes.”
“Find a wife?”
“Not one that could stay awake.”
“I’m sorry, dear.” The queen frowned sympathetically. “Perhaps it isn’t too late to take up an idle lifestyle? Then perhaps it wouldn’t bother you so much if you had a sleepy bride?”
From the desk by the window, the king pointed eagerly at the computer screen. “Wait, Jack! Here’s one! It was a recurring tweet, so I’ve ignored it until now, but it looks like there’s a Princess Asnora that’s been available for…seventy-two years now. All right, so there’s a bit of an age gap there, but she’s full heir to the throne now that everyone else in her family died…”
Jack shook his head. “I think I’ll pass on that one, Dad.”
The king sighed. “Very well. Make yourself useful and go interview the girl waiting in the hall. She wants a job, but I don’t know where to put her to work.”
“There’s a girl in the hall?” He poked his head out of the room to see a familiar figure perched atop a stool, bouncing ever so slightly on her seat.
“Oh, is this your castle?” She sprang to the ground with even more energy.
“Yes, but whatever are you doing here?”
“I quit my job.”
“What? Why? Were they mean to you?”
“What do you mean ‘they’? It was just the butler and me, and I’m pretty sure he can handle the job of guarding the princess while she sleeps.”
She blushed. “I really thought you might be the one.”
Jack beamed at her and took her hand. “I’m quite sure you’re the one.”
“You have work for me?”
“We can find a reason for you to stay,” he said with a flirtatious lilt. “What are your specialties besides guarding sleeping princesses?”
“I could start by fixing your hair. Looks like spiky bindle spit there by your ear. Been there, done that. No worries.” She pulled a pair of scissors from her apron pocket. “I’ll have you looking dashing again in no time.”
“Dashing? Again?” Jack’s heart leapt and skipped and generally misbehaved. “Was I dashing the first time? I thought I put you to sleep.”
Espressa giggled. “Don’t let go this time, and I won’t fall down when my knees go weak.”
“I’ll be sure to hold on tight.” Fortunately, his Charming training kicked in, and he managed to maneuver her into his arms without seeming the least bit forward about it. While he kissed her most invigoratingly, she trimmed his hair to perfection with her eyes closed. (Her capacity to multi-task had been disgracefully underused in her last assignment.)
They were married the next day and lived happily, charmingly, and actively ever after.