Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower – Tamsyn Muir

WHAT HAD HAPPENED WAS that the witch put Princess Floralinda in a tower forty flights high, but said it wasn’t personal. She told her to cheer up. “Princes will be flocking from near and far to rescue you,” she said. “I’ve covered all my bases. There’s a golden sword at the gates for a prize, if the prince doesn’t care overmuch for princesses, and once he battles his way up thirty-nine flights you’re free to go. I don’t really mind what happens from this point in.” “ I d o think you might ask for a ransom from my mother and father instead,” said Floralinda, still dabbing at her eyes. “That’s quite normal these days,” (for she did not want to be rude and suggest the tower was déclassé). The witch shrieked with laughter. “You! No!” she said. “You have butter-coloured curls and eyes as blue as sapphires. The moment I saw you, I knew a tower was crucial. Witches are all slaves to instinct. This is a really commonplace cruelty for a thing like me,” she finished, modestly. “But I think a tower so restrictive,” poor Floralinda persisted.

“Why don’t you trade me to foreign kings, or sell me to a sorcerer?” The witch accused her of having a low mind. “I am doing this for the art of the thing,” she said. “I’m certainly making nothing off this endeavour. Nothing about it is economical. The bottom flight is guarded by a dragon with diamond-encrusted scales. They say it’s a bad idea to put the most expensive one at the bottom, but I like to let princes know I mean business.” “It sounds very difficult for the prince,” said Floralinda. “Oh, horribly; I never skimp where monsters are concerned. There’s a different kind on each floor and I have picked them specially for abhorrence. I had difficulties with my princes-per-month rate the last time; I’ll be interested to see if I’ve corrected it.

Now, Princess, no more questions—you wait patiently, and lock the door and don’t go down the stairs, because the flight below this one is filled with goblins (a sort of digestif, you understand) and they’ll tear you to pieces. I have left you a flask of water, a flask of milk, a wheaten loaf and a white, and an orange; and there’s a knife to peel the orange and cut the bread. That’s more than enough to be going on with. Be a good girl, and I imagine a prince will be along presently.” With that the witch exited from the window, in the common way, and Princess Floralinda was left by herself. At first, it was quite a nice experience; like going away for a seaside holiday, with strange rooms and unusual things to eat. The tower room was very clean and comfortable, with a wash-stand and chair and table and so on, and the bed had silver hangings and feather pillows, the latter of which Floralinda did not really like. There was a dear enamel hearth that was there for ornamental purposes, with a grate filled up with painted pine-cones, and a set of the sorts of things you might poke a fire with, only you wouldn’t want to get such a lovely little hearth dirty. There were a great many books that had most likely been picked to be on subjects princesses might like, such as Monarchic Positions on Economic Models and Feudal Estatehood, and a hoop you could embroider upon with a pattern and needle-and-thread and the tiniest pair of silver sewing-scissors. The pattern was of calla lilies and buttercups, and the buttercups had been embroidered already.

Floralinda could look out the window and see the forest spread like a nice dark green cloak upon the land: forest as far as the eye could see, unrelieved by chimneys, or houses, or canals. The water in the flask was always cold, and the milk in the flask never curdled and always had nice fresh yellow cream on the top, the sort that one only gets as a treat when convalescing. The wheaten loaf and white were always warm, and the orange perfectly sweet, with not too much pith. The witch had really been very careful. The flasks and the loaves and the orange would renew themselves obligingly once eaten or drank. Floralinda thought it humorous to see the orange-peel zipping itself back up when the last segment was gone, and bulging out again with fruit, like a balloon-skin being breathed into. By sunset, no prince had come to fight the diamond-encrusted dragon and take her home. Floralinda was obliged to spend the night, then the next night, then the night after that. She had investigated her quarters thoroughly by then, and had begun to find peculiar things. The furniture, for instance, while pretty on first glance, showed that it had all been put in damask covers with stained ones beneath; the wooden furnishings were old and dented beneath their fresh coats of paint and varnish.

It was long past the time when your mother and father looked at it and said, This ought to go into the nursery; and even past the time when the nursery-maid looked at it and said, This ought to go on the scrapheap. The thriftiest housewife alive would not bother to freshen up such rag-tag objects. There being no bath, Floralinda had to sponge her face and her hands with water from the cold-water flask, which was indeed extraordinarily cold and made Floralinda’s face come out in red patches, and did not show her very well in the old mirror with the silvergilt peeling off behind. Nearly a sennight had she stayed in these peculiar quarters, when suddenly—princes! They came one by one, at first. The moment Floralinda heard horses’ hoofs she sat very shyly inside and did not peek out the window. She sat down on the bed and busied herself with Monarchic Positions on Economic Models and finishing a calla lily on the hoop, being a patient girl, and very well-brought-up. It would not be quite nice, either for the prince or oneself, if the prince made it all the way up the tower simply because he liked the look of one’s face. But—and this was dreadful—he never made it up the thirty-nine flights to her, nor did he ever come out. There was a lot of noise from the bottom, and a faint sound Floralinda was horribly afraid was a dragon crunching him up. Her fingers were still plugged into her ears as she watched his horse shake free from the tether and plunge off into the forest.

But although she wept a little, and felt very badly over it, she did not have time to mourn him overmuch. A short time after the unfortunate first prince, two princes turned up; she knew they were both princes, for she had peeked out of the window and seen the glimmer of what must be coronets. They had a cordial discussion Floralinda could not hear, being as they were forty flights down and she forty flights up, but they were moving about each other in that unmistakable ‘You first, of course’ and that ‘No no, I insist’ as though standing before revolving doors at the hotel. She was too high up to tell if they looked young and strong and handsome, and could only conclusively say that they were polite and good at queueing, but oh dear! whatever the case, they didn’t fare much better than the prince of before: the first prince was inside for hours, and then came that dreadful sound again, and then the second prince waited a few minutes for show before going in himself. There was no dreadful sound after that, which was hopeful, but—nobody came up, and nobody went out. And hours after tha t came the sound of diamond-tipped dragon teeth dutifully crunching up princes (quite unfairly loud considering it was fully forty flights down from Floralinda), owing to the dragon taking a break and not wanting to risk indigestion, maybe. But there was indigestion in its future. The tower became inundated with princes of all kinds. This high up it was impossible to distinguish tall ones from short ones, or brown ones from pink ones or other common colours of prince, but there was certainly a hubbub of them, and probably even some archdukes and earls. On the worst day they all crowded around before going inside, and after a bit of squinting Floralinda concluded that they were drawing lots.

Each in his turn went in, and none came back out. Figures came in and out of the forest to take the abandoned horses. Floralinda did not stand out on the balcony and wave her handkerchief at them—she was simply not that type of princess— but she watched through a crack in the curtains. It is dreadful to think that a prince has been crunched up by a dragon all in the name of rescuing you; but when fully twenty-four princes are crunched up by a dragon while trying to rescue you, it is another thing altogether. Princess Floralinda was deeply embarrassed. But by the time she had gathered up the courage required to stand on the balcony and say things like, “Oh, please don’t,” or, “Could somebody send for a ladder instead,”—the princes stopped coming, and she never got a chance to say them. For if one prince being crunched up by a dragon is inspirational, twenty-four princes being crunched up by a dragon is cautionary. By the time Floralinda had become used to feather pillows and had read all of Monarchic Positions, which was easily over eight hundred pages in small type, and had grown sick of milk and wheaten loaf and white, and oranges, the princes had dried up. She had waited quite as patiently and meekly as any Griselda, and perhaps it had been a good thing that she had never emerged to greet her saviours, because her petticoats were extremely tired and her butter-coloured curls were growing limp. This was not the only issue, though it was the most distressing.

Once the princes stopped coming, something had begun to make an appalling noise. A low, bubbling howl sounded continually from the first floor of the tower, rattling through each rock and stair before it abruptly stopped. Then it would begin again, and every so often after that, and each time the noise grew more maddened and plaintive. Floralinda thought it must be the dragon with the diamond scales. During the day, it made her feel very pensive. When it came at night, she began to feel afraid. It made all the other sounds of the night-time strange and unfriendly, in the way that an ordinary conversation, heard through a wall, can sound not like language at all; and at times it sounded as though it were happening right outside her door. Floralinda went to the door and turned the big, heavy key, and opened it just a crack, to hear: there was a flight of stairs, and down the stairs was a very empty, gnawing sort of darkness. The silence in that staircase was complete. But then there came a scraping sound—like a cat wanting to be let in—far off, but not too far off; and having spent all her courage, Floralinda pulled the door closed and locked it all in a hurry.

She did not sleep easy that night on the feather pillows or the musty sheets. The discovery of the diary came as a total surprise. She had looked nearly everywhere, but not in the first place she should have looked, which was down the back of the armchair. If you have ever tried to find a good hiding-place in a sitting room, you would have known to check there; but Floralinda, it must be said, suffered a little too much from being good. The diary had been forced nearly to the bottom of the seat, which was her only excuse. Its contents were written in a pretty, careful hand much like Floralinda’s own pretty, careful hand. The first pages after the fly-leaf were nothing but charts—Floralinda puzzled over these; afterwards, a series of tallymarks. The diary part started a few pages after this, and at first the entries were disappointingly nondescript, such as “Day twenty-two: cluster of godwits flying south” and on “day twenty-nine,” a sketch of a great many points on a grid. On day thirty— A prince has come. I saw him quite plainly and waved to him from the balcony (Shocking! thought Floralinda) and his man held the destrier.

I thought I saw the sword glint in the sunshine. And at the end of the page: Now it is sunset and he has not yet come out. Day thirty-two— He did not come out. Day thirty-three— He did not come out. The sword glimmers at the gate. Why does it shine still, with such cheer? Floralinda pored over the pages until there was really no daylight to read by, hastening past entries such as “I sicken of oranges,” and squinted her way to “Day seventy,”— I was mistaken. The stars here are so different from my stars that I might be at the end of the earth. The prince will not come out. I am killed by bread. The golden sword at the gate has no heart.

Each night the diamond-encrusted dragon howls its head off and nobody will shut it up, will nobody hear and come to shut it up And then the entries stopped being dated; and the last entry read— He did not come out. I shall go out the window. Remember me to my parents as their loving Princess Mellarose, good-bye. Floralinda’s heart beat quite fast, and she had to lie down for a while.

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