Long ago and far away in a magical kingdom (which will remain nameless) lived the most beautiful princess in the world. One day, this young lady's fairy godmother decided to cut short a ten-year vacation in the Bahamas to pay a visit: the stories of Priscilla's beauty had made it all the way to the Caribbean. The fairy, Fanny by name, wasn't disappointed in her godchild. With her hair of spun gold, her soft cheek with just the right blush, her eyes the color of sapphires -- as well as a figure men referred to as "stacked" -- Priscilla was everything one could want in a princess.
"Why, my dear! You've grown into quite a beauty!" the fairy exclaimed.
Priscilla looked up from the royal accounts, irritation passing over her fair features. "So I hear."
This response didn't exactly throw the fairy godmother into fits of rapture. She planted plump hands on plump hips and surveyed the princess critically. "Now what kind of an answer is that?"
Priscilla shrugged. "Well, I do hear it. Seems to be the only thing anyone can agree on about me." Under her breath she added, "And the only thing anyone cares about."
The fairy crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Where are your manners, girl? You may be beautiful, but you're not supposed to admit it!"
"Oh, don't be so tiresome, Fanny." Priscilla looked away to gaze out the window above her desk at the purple mountains to the east.
"You're not even supposed to know it!"
"How can I possibly avoid knowing it? All anyone ever talks about is my famed beauty."
Fanny wrung her hands. "Oh, why didn't I stay and look after your education?"
"Thank God for small favors," the princess murmured.
"What was that, young lady?"
Priscilla closed her account books and got up from her desk, the only plain piece of furniture in the room. "Nothing you need to know," she said, her voice as hard as her curves were soft.
Fanny gazed hopelessly at the perfect rosebud mouth, now pressed flat. "What kind of an education have you had, anyway?"
"The best money could buy," Priscilla said with a lilt suspiciously like irony. "I know French and Italian and German and Russian, and even some Latin and Greek, although those two are a complete waste of time."
"Yes, yes." Fanny paced the floor. "Languages are all fine and good, but decorum, decorum! Everyone will say you're stuck-up!"
Priscilla looked at her fairy godmother, her sapphire eyes hard. "I doubt it. I'm the princess, after all."
"What were your parents thinking? Don't they have eyes in their heads? --Oh, damn!" One of her wings had collided with a beautiful blue and gold carved oak chest.
"Fairy Godmama!" Priscilla cried, choking off a laugh.
"We fairy people are human too, you know. Sort of." Fanny sniffed. "Here you've gotten me all in a state, and to add to that, my wing feathers are bent. We've got to do something!"
Priscilla smiled openly. "Shall I call the castle physician for you?"
"My wing will mend on its own. About you, child, about you!" Fanny sat on the edge of the bed and put her chin in her fist. "I have to consult with your father."
"He won't make me do anything I don't want to do," Priscilla said, her voice firm.
"We'll see about that."
Fanny paced the royal audience chamber, her wings tucked tightly together behind her back. "We'll hold a trial for her hand in marriage."
King Rupert looked glum. "Priscilla won't like it." He sank down in his gilt throne, resting his bearded chin on his chest and hiding behind his protruding belly.
"What if a prince wins her hand and ends up making her miserable?"
"Stop whining, Rupert. She'll get used to it. And it will teach her a lesson. She's quite insufferable now."
The king pulled on his lower lip. "Do you really think so?" He sat up a little straighter. "But she's very intelligent and more than willing to help run the kingdom. I've been sadly overworked since her mother died."
Fanny paced, back and forth, back and forth. "She doesn't need to run a kingdom. She needs to marry and produce an heir. That's her function!"
"Why does she have to produce an heir? My cousin Denny can always take over the kingdom."
The fairy stopped in front of the throne. "Denny? Are you serious?"
"He is very good-natured," the king offered tentatively.
She snorted. "Indolent, you mean. And stupid."
"Well, yes, that too."
"Denny as king is not an option. You need a male heir."
"Priscilla won't want to give up her independence," Rupert said, looking abject.
"Priscilla needs to learn a little humility so she'll make a gracious regent. She has to marry."
The king settled back into the red velvet upholstery, heaving a sigh as shuddering as it was long. "If you say so."
"I have no desire to marry," Priscilla said.
King Rupert sank into his throne. "Oh, I knew it."
"Sit up, Rupert," Fanny said. The king blinked and did as he was told.
The fairy rounded on her godchild with the full force of her hundred and sixty short pounds. "Do you know what will happen if you don't?" The princess shook her head and curls of spun gold bounced enticingly. She had the most accomplished hairdresser in the kingdom, with a French accent to boot.
Fanny paused deliberately for dramatic effect. "'King Denny,'" she pronounced.
The princess's sapphire blue eyes widened.
"You're so proud of your brains," Fanny said acidly. "You mean it didn't occur to you?"
"You can't be serious," Priscilla said.
"Who else is there?"
"Denny isn't that bad," the king complained.
Fanny turned on Rupert. "You would think that, seeing as you're--"
Priscilla grabbed her godmother's arm. "Don't you dare."
King Rupert looked from one woman to the other, his blue eyes innocent.
The princess released Fanny and turned away. "Okay, hold your stupid trial. But I'm not guaranteeing anything."
The fairy smiled. "You are a princess, child. A princess's function is to marry a prince. You will see."
The news spread quickly of a trial for the hand of Princess Priscilla -- as well as half the nameless kingdom. Even before the invitations for the ball were sent, all the younger sons from all the neighboring countries were determined to make a stab at it, and some older sons as well. To stay at the princess's castle for two weeks hardly deserved to be called a "trial" -- she was the most beautiful princess in the world, after all. All the lucky prince had to do was convince her to publicly proclaim the words "form follows function," and kingdom and babe would be his. Nobody knew precisely what those three odd words were supposed to mean, but how hard could it be to get Princess Priscilla to utter them?
After reading about the trial in a local broadside, Priscilla cornered her fairy godmother in the royal kitchens where she was instructing the cook on how to make a superior goose liver pâté. "You're out to humiliate me," she said, waving the broadside in the air. "If you really want me to marry, this is the single stupidest thing you could do."
Fanny shrugged and her wing feathers fluttered. "What is there to object to in a harmless trial?"
"'Form follows function,' huh?"
The fairy smiled serenely at her goddaughter. "It's a phrase from architectural theory, my dear. I don't see how that could possibly offend you."
"Oh, yes you do. I know perfectly well where 'form follows function' comes from, and I also know perfectly well what you meant. If you think just because I'm female, all I'm good for is marrying and producing babies, then you've got another think coming."
"Just remember Denny."
Priscilla stormed out of the kitchen, her greatest visible attributes jiggling provocatively.
And thus a ball was given, and all the princes and princesses from all the neighboring lands came. It was very lavish and very imposing, a grueling display of majestic splendor. And none of the princesses was as beautiful as Priscilla and none was as bored.
"Shouldn't we have invited fewer princesses?" the king asked the fairy godmother.
"Priscilla outshines them all." Her goddaughter, stunning in silver and sapphire, stood alone next to the refreshments. Fanny regarded her with satisfaction.
The king's gaze followed Fanny's, his expression troubled. "Do you really think this will do the trick?"
"Absolutely," Fanny replied. "She's going along with it, isn't she?"
"I don't know," Rupert said, pulling on his lower lip.
Alone in her corner, Priscilla nibbled lobster hors d'oeuvres and watched the dancers. The last handsome prince she had talked to told her at length about his most recent dragon hunt (unsuccessful -- they always were), and when she interrupted him with questions about whether he'd ever actually seen a dragon, he excused himself and went to talk to a princess less beautiful than Priscilla. He hadn't been the only one. At least the less beautiful princesses looked up at the princes with glowing eyes and hung on their every word and asked them breathlessly, "Were you scared?" Not Priscilla. So Priscilla ended up in the corner alone.
But she didn't mind standing by herself eating lobster and watching the colorful array of pomp and circumstance. Princes weren't all they were cracked up to be. They were actually very tiresome, just as she had always suspected. The princes all wanted to talk about themselves all the time, and Priscilla didn't particularly care for that arrangement.
"Impressive, isn't it," a deep voice said at her shoulder.
Priscilla turned to face a prince with long hair the color of a lake at midnight and a back as straight as a broomstick. "You weren't here for the briefing this afternoon," she said, surprised.
He shook his head. "My gallant steed let me down. He went lame ten miles from anywhere, and I didn't arrive until just before the ball started."
"Too bad. You missed the meat market."
The prince looked out at all the princes and princesses on the dance floor. "Really? I had the impression that's precisely what we're witnessing."
Priscilla laughed in surprise and looked at him more closely. "So aren't you going to tell me about your most recent dragon hunt now?"
"Dragons?" The prince let out a bark of laughter that sent shivers down the princess's spine and made the nearest party guests look up in wonder. It was a sound more like a boisterous country fair than a lake at midnight. Fanny's gaze shot over to them and her eyes narrowed.
"Is that what they've been inflicting on you?" he asked.
"No wonder you're standing here alone." He looked down at her with a light in his eyes that made her draw in her breath. "It doesn't make any sense otherwise."
Priscilla gazed back at him and wished he hadn't come.
After the princes had ignored her at the ball, Priscilla hoped they'd all give up and go home. But the next day, the line to the royal audience chamber went all the way out into the courtyard. She looked out her bedroom window at the hopeful candidates for bridegroom, her long, golden curls trailing over one delicate shoulder and perfect breast. "I don't believe this. Not one of these jerks paid more than five minutes attention to me last night." Then she saw the prince with hair the color of a lake at midnight. "Well, okay, one."
She lifted the train of her satin dress, sapphire-blue to match her eyes, and rushed down to her father's audience chamber.
The king was nearly in tears when she arrived. "Ah, my dear!" he said when he saw Priscilla. "You must help us. We have more princes than we know what to do with!"
"Send them home," Priscilla said. Fanny shot her a murderous look.
"We can't do that," the king said. "We've already promised them a trial."
"Oh, I'll give them a trial, all right."
"I'm sure you will," Fanny muttered.
Priscilla paced slowly over to the line of hopefuls, stopping in front of a prince who had been very particular in his attentions to some duke's daughter the night before. "We'll just have to select which princes get to participate," she said, staring straight into his watery blue eyes. He blinked and swallowed.
"Not you, young lady!" Fanny said.
"Why not? We're talking about my future husband here."
The king stepped between them, clearing his throat nervously. "Why don't we each pick five candidates who will have a chance to win the princess's heart?"
"Teach her some manners, you mean," the fairy grumbled.
Priscilla grinned. "Won't happen."
The king looked at his daughter like a puppy begging. "But will you choose five princes?"
"Certainly." Priscilla went down the line selecting the wimpiest-looking young men she could find, starting with him of the watery eyes. As Fanny's expression grew stonier, her own mood grew better. She'd show the old bag. She was damned if she'd say "form follows function" to any of these fortune hunters.
She didn't even stop when she came to the prince with hair the color of a lake at midnight, although her steps did falter and she did look away.
Her father chose five elder sons, starting with those whose kingdoms bordered on his own.
But Fanny chose only one prince -- the prince with hair the color of a lake at midnight.
The other princes were sent away, and the chosen eleven lined up for their instructions. Fanny paced in front of them while Priscilla stood to the side, fuming.
"You will have two weeks here in the castle with the princess," the fairy said. "In that time, you must convince her that 'form follows function.' Every day, four of you will be granted a private audience of one hour with Priscilla in which to practice your powers of persuasion. If at any time during the two weeks you can get her to publicly say these three words, she is yours."
"'Form follows function'?" repeated the prince with the watery eyes. "What does that mean?"
"I don't get it either," King Rupert muttered miserably to his daughter. "How does Fanny come up with these things?"
"She wants to teach me a lesson," Priscilla said. "According to her, I'm stacked because my function is to marry a prince and produce heirs."
The king looked at his daughter, his blue eyes confused. "But isn't that all turned around? You would be a princess no matter what you looked like."
Priscilla gave her sire a big kiss on the cheek. "Oh, Papa, I do love you so."
Priscilla dispatched the first couple of princes quite easily, beginning with the prince with the watery eyes.
"You're not going to get those three words out of my mouth, so you might as well go home, Norman," she told him during their first audience together. "Why waste your time here when you could be wooing Angela?" Angela was the duke's daughter he'd been drooling over at the ball. "I bet Prince Aubrey is there right now. He was pretty attentive to her too, you know."
"Was he?" Norman stared at her, and she placed a pair of round spectacles on her perfect nose and stared back. She had already taken the precaution of wearing a high-necked gown so the princes couldn't be distracted by her cleavage. Men were very simple animals when it came right down to it.
"Oh, absolutely," she said. "Do you really want him to have a head start on you? Varium et mutabile semper femina."
"What does that mean?"
"The race is to the quickest, my friend."
Prince Norman took her word for it and raced out of the palace. "Here's to fickle women," Priscilla murmured with a smile as she watched him go.
For the next prince, she left her glasses on, giving him quite a fright when he entered the room. He had a plan of attack all laid out, and it had nothing to do with architectural theory. But when he saw Priscilla behind a desk, buttoned up to her chin, with her sapphire blue eyes framed by spectacles, he paused.
"All right, Kyle," she said in her most businesslike voice. "Where should we start? Have you read any of the works of Walter Gropius or Louis Sullivan?"
"Louis Sullivan?" He stared at her, wondering what had happened to the delectable morsel of the ball. Then his gaze slid down to what he could still see of her curves, and he smiled slowly. He just had to keep things in the right perspective.
"Of course Louis Sullivan," the princess said. "You're supposed to be convincing me of the validity of his theories."
Kyle graced her with his best lady-killer smile. Scores of noble maidens had been felled by that look, but Priscilla didn't even blink. He let his gaze drop back down to her well-buttoned chest.
"Sit," Priscilla commanded. Kyle sat.
"Let's begin with the article in Lippincott's." She shoved some papers across the desk at him.
He nodded without looking up. He had to keep staring at her chest or he'd lose his nerve.
"Quo usque abutere patientia nostra?" Priscilla said with a sigh.
Kyle blinked. "What?"
"Then may we start?"
He had the sneaking suspicion that wasn't what she'd said at all. He crossed his muscled arms in front of his muscled chest and leaned back in the chair. "Who cares about architectural theory?"
"I do," Priscilla said, staring at him owlishly. "I take all my studies very seriously. Do you speak any foreign languages, Kyle?"
"Some French," he muttered.
"Abiit, excessit, evasit."
Kyle fled with gratifying speed.
"Departed, withdrawn, gone away!" she crowed, her sapphire blue eyes glittering.
When the royal guests gathered for dinner that evening, Priscilla could barely refrain from clapping her hands together like a child. Only nine princes left. Rupert looked relieved but Fanny glowered.
"Your methods are very effective, I see." It was Lance, the prince with hair the color of a lake at midnight. She wondered who he had bribed to get the seat next to her at dinner. "What are you doing to them?"
"Latin?" He let out his barking laugh, and Priscilla couldn't help smiling.
She nodded. "I used to think it was a complete waste of time, but I'm starting to reconsider."
"Latin," he repeated, shaking his head. "I can't wait to see what strategy you use on me."
Priscilla looked at him, the perfect rosebud pursed.
Fanny passed behind Priscilla's chair and leaned over her shoulder. "Don't forget Denny," she hissed.
Priscilla continued to look at Lance, the fairy's words lingering in her ear. She couldn't forget Denny. But perhaps there was a third way.
A self-satisfied grin spread over Lance's face at her continued attention. Priscilla grinned back, self-satisfied as well.
"Six down and five to go," Priscilla announced. "Already past the halfway mark."
"Heading for the home stretch," her maid agreed with a nod.
"Two a day, Agnes!"
"Pretty impressive," Agnes said. "So you're quite sure you don't want to marry any of them?"
"Quite sure." Priscilla stared out her window at the purple mountains to the east. "They all want to marry my father's kingdom, and I'd much rather have that to myself." If there was just a tad bit of yearning in her voice, Agnes was wise enough to ignore it.
"Seven down and four to go."
"Nine down and two to go."
"Ten down and one to go!"
The last one left, with a whole week at his disposal, was the prince with hair the color of a lake at midnight. He would be the toughest, she knew. He had a sense of humor.
"I have a proposal to make," the prince said when they were alone at dinner together. Alone, that is, except for the servants hovering around them fulfilling their every wish. Servants didn't count.
She leaned her elbows on the table and propped her chin on her hands. "Shoot."
"You know and I know that this 'form follows function' business is rot. It's not as if you were built to order." Priscilla shook her head, grinning, and Lance pressed ahead. "So why don't you just go out there and say the words and we can start having a good time?"
"What makes you think we'd have a good time?"
He smiled. "Oh, I'm sure we could figure something out."
Priscilla inspected the wine in her goblet. "You haven't convinced me of anything yet, let alone that marrying you would be worth the humiliation of allowing Fanny to win."
"You do have a point there."
She glanced at him in surprise.
"You mean you didn't think I'd be able to figure out what your charming fairy godmother is trying to do to you?" he asked.
"It would be a first."
"You probably didn't even give the others a chance to think about it."
Priscilla smiled. "No, I don't think I did."
"Then as I see it, I have a week to convince you that what I have to offer is worth the price of a little humiliation."
After dinner they went for a walk in the royal gardens, the royal chaperon ten paces behind. "How can I be sure you don't want me for my father's kingdom?" Priscilla asked.
Lance shrugged. "You can't. I'm a younger son, and the truth is, I came here for the trial. I could spend the rest of the week trying to assure you that as soon as I spoke with you at the ball I would have set out to win you, trial or no trial. But would you believe me? No."
"You should have left."
"What, and leave you alone with all those other princes? I had to at least keep an eye on you." He picked a rose of the same shade as her lips and presented it to her with a flourish.
She carefully accepted the rose, avoiding the thorns. "I didn't pick you. You must have noticed that."
The prince gave a wry grin. "Oh, I certainly did."
"Fanny picked you," Priscilla said with a trace of bitterness.
"And for that reason you're going to cut off that lovely nose of yours?"
Priscilla planted perfect hands on perfect hips and looked at Lance mutinously. "You're not being very charming, you know."
A bark of laughter escaped him. "Haven't you had enough empty blandishments for two weeks?"
She couldn't help smiling. "True enough."
By far the most charming method of persuasion which Lance used was to buy off the chaperons and drag Priscilla into the garden, out of sight of the castle. Several of the more attractive princes had kissed her before she outwitted them out of her life, but none had kissed her the way Lance did, long and sweet and tender, leaving an ache in the back of her throat and in the pit of her stomach.
She came up for air. "This isn't going to change anything, you know," she said, panting a little.
"That's what you think."
"It's what I know. I won't let Fanny win."
"What do you say we start making better use of those private audiences I have every day?" Lance murmured in her ear.
Priscilla closed her eyes and nodded.
He laughed loudly and she opened her eyes. "Veni, vidi, vici?" he asked.
"Vincere scis, victoria uti nescis," Priscilla said. "We will see who knows how to use the victory."
After the two weeks were over, Fanny approached Priscilla and Lance with an air of triumph, the king in tow.
"Well," she began, "did you learn anything over the last few days, Priscilla?"
"Yes," the princess replied. "Form--" But just as her fairy godmother was sending an exultant glance in the king's direction, Priscilla continued, "can be based on function, but that doesn't mean function has to follow form. Your logic is off, and I have no intention at present of marrying a prince."
She stole a look at the prince. He didn't deign to return her look, and his smile was a bit on the sour side.
Disgruntled, Prince Lance left them the same day. Priscilla watched him go, an ache in the back of her throat and in the pit of her stomach.
"I really didn't believe you'd be such a fool, young lady," her fairy godmother scolded. She promptly left for a resort in the Bahamas. But they did very well without her, thank you. Priscilla continued to be a helpful, if opinionated, adviser to her father, and nine months after the prince trials, she even produced an heir to the throne, a handsome young prince with hair the color of a lake at midnight.
A year later, King Rupert died. Priscilla took over ruling the kingdom and outlawed dragon hunts and the teaching of Latin, saying they were both a complete waste of time. Her hand was sought repeatedly, but she refused to marry. None of these princes had a barking laugh that sounded like freedom -- and there was no word from the prince who did. She told herself she was glad he hadn't taken advantage of the situation and sought her out, demanding his rightful place as prince regent. But she couldn't quite get over staring out the window at the purple mountains to the east.
One day, Priscilla was going over some petitions in the garden, her dark-haired toddler playing at her feet, when a large cloud of fairy dust made her sneeze violently.
"So this is what you have come to!" Fanny scolded. "An unwed mother!"
Priscilla recovered from her sneezing fit and stared at her fairy godmother in shock. Fanny was clad in a minimal amount of shiny purple fabric, leaving her plump arms and legs bare, and she had dark glasses of the same hue perched on her nose.
After a moment of silence, Priscilla started to chuckle. The small prince looked from his mother to the strange vision in purple and joined her with a loud bark of laughter.
The former princess, now regent, stopped laughing and looked down at her small son, an ache at the back of her throat and in the pit of her stomach.
As soon as Fanny disappeared in a huff, Priscilla sent for one of her royal messengers.
Not too long thereafter, a prince with hair the color of a lake at midnight lightly laced with frost arrived from the east. He entered the royal audience chamber and looked from the little king to his mother. "Thanks for finally informing me officially," he said with a wry grin.
Priscilla looked nervously from the window to her son to her visitor. "It was the least I could do."
"Took you a while to learn that particular lesson. Like, a couple of years?"
"Well, I never heard anything from you."
Lance's grin began to change from wry to something a bit more promising. "You made it patently obvious I wasn't worth the price of a little humiliation, remember?"
"I know. I'm sorry."
He cocked his head to one side. "Is this the princess I knew and loved? Making an apology?"
Priscilla's heart sank at the use of the past tense. "Hard to believe, isn't it? I may not have learned the lesson Fanny wanted to teach me, but I do know that sending you away just to spite her was one of the dumbest things I've ever done."
"The dumbest thing."
"Okay then, the dumbest thing. On the other hand, at least I'm ruling the kingdom now and not you."
He let out a bark of laughter that filled the audience chamber and made the little king look up with a grin. "Ah, Priscilla."
"Well, I am."
"We could have been ruling together."
Her heart jumped back up out of the bog. The boisterous sound of Lance's laughter still ringing in her ears, she took a deep breath and looked down at the small, dark-haired toddler. "We could rule together now. At least until this little guy grows up."
Lance nodded thoughtfully. "But first I have to tell you -- I think outlawing the teaching of Latin was a major mistake. It can be quite useful at times, don't you agree?"
Priscilla smiled and her prince smiled back.
"Princes and Priscilla," by Ruth Nestvold, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
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Ruth Nestvold lives and works in Germany, where she translates and tests computer programs and documentation. She spent several years in academia, but decided to write speculative fiction instead of literary criticism. "Latency Time" appeared in Asimov's in 2001, and her hypertext fiction can be accessed from her Web site.