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The Twelfth Dancing Prince

Chapter 1

He was not the youngest. He was not the oldest. He was not the best dancer, nor was he the worst. He was not a porteño but he wasn't a gringo either. In fact there was nothing at all special about him, except that he was himself.

That was very special.

Special enough to merit a whole fairy tale.

Once upon a time....

A long, long time ago, in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a common Gardener.

She had heard tales of the fine balls at the palace, attended by the loveliest ladies and the most gallant gentlemen. She imagined the glow of a thousand candelabra, the gay waltzes, and the white gloved hands clasping ladies' silken waists. “One day,” she daydreamed, “I will go to the ball. And I will sit on one side of the ballroom and see all that finery for myself.”

The Gardener watered her flowers and raked her dirt and daydreamed. “One day,” she daydreamed, “I will go to the ball. And I will waltz with all the most gallant gentlemen. Every one of them will fight to dance with me, because I will dance like all of their dreams come true at once.”

The Gardener pulled her weeds and pruned her fruit trees and daydreamed. “One day,” she daydreamed, “I will go to the ball. And I will be the most beautiful lady at that or indeed at any other ball that has ever been, and I will dance like everyone's dreams come true at once, and all the most gallant gentlemen will want to dance with me, and I will turn them all down because I will have something even more wonderful: one special gallant gentleman whom I like better than all the others and who feels the same way about me, and we will share a beautiful dance, and neither of us will want for anything else, and we will have a quietly imperfect perfect evening and be happy.”

The Gardener was a daydreamer.

But if she had not been such a daydreamer, she might have been paying more attention to her plants instead of gazing off into the road when the King's Messenger rode by on her palfry, scratching furiously at her hand.

The Gardener stepped into the road and stopped the Messenger. “Pardon me, ma'am, but I couldn't help noticing you scratching your hand there. I know a bit about medicinal plants. —Mind if I have a look?”

The Messenger took off her red leather riding glove and extended her hand. Red welts rose up along the back of it. The Gardener knew at once what it was.

“Urticaria, milady,” she said. “Itches something awful, doesn't it?” The Messenger said it did. “Well I have a little salve here that will do the trick.” She handed over a leather pouch full of an all-purpose ointment she'd made to protect herself against stinging nettles and poison oak and whatever else she got on her hands in the course of an average work day. “Here—it's mostly aloe, but there's some special herbs in there too that are my own recipe.”

The Messenger rubbed some into her hands. “Why, that's much better already!” she smiled with relief. “What do I owe you?”

“Oh, no, it's a gift. We working women have to stick together.”

The Messenger smiled again. She leaned down from her palfry. “Listen, Miss Gardener, I was on my way into town to post this Message from the King. He's looking for a new Botanical Specialist.”

“You mean a Gardener.”

“Of course, but don't tell the King that. He told me he only wanted someone from one of the fanciest firms in town, but I like you and I think you could bring a lot to the palace. Come with me. I'll pull a few strings and you will be the new Royal Botanical Specialist.”

The Gardener thrilled to her toes. She was to go to the palace? Where the beautiful dancing was? She finished watering her marigolds, then set down her spade, hopped onto the back of the palfry behind the Messenger, and they headed back to the palace and were there in twenty minutes.

The Messenger and the Gardener walked into a white marble receiving hall the size of three cricket fields. The Gardener turned red as she heard her wooden sabots clomping on the polished floor with each step. How could someone like her ever fit in in such a grand place? She suspected hers were the only wooden sabots ever to walk across this floor. But she pulled herself together in time to bow to the King.

“This is the new Royal Botanical Specialist, Sire,” said the Messenger. “She comes with the highest qualifications. She is also a Botanical Healer and saved me from Extreme Discomfort.”

“We can always use someone like that around the place,” said the King, who was a sensible man. “Show her to her quarters.”

The Messenger hurried the Gardener along a side corridor that opened onto a thriving vegetable garden, and handed her keys to a modest room at the end. “You have a special job,” she said. “You are here to work for the king's twelve sons.”

“Not...the twelve dancing princes?” the Gardener said. Whom amongst the townsfolk had not heard countless tales of these famous roués, who broke hearts like hickory nuts? Each more devilishly handsome and more formidably brilliant than the last. Each more sparkling, more magnetic, and more charismatic than the last. Each danced more divinely than the last, and...the ladies whispered in confidence to their chamber maids, who then shared the gossip at full volume in the town square...each knew how to embrace a lady more intimately than any other man in the whole world. The Gardener knew about the twelve dancing princes...and her heart was afraid.

Fortunately she did not know how to dance. She was safe. For now.

“Yes, the same. As you know, every night—“ “—Every single night? That seems like a lot of nights, especially back-to-back,” (the Gardener interrupted in her mind.) “—The twelve dancing princes attend a magnificent ball. They wear their finest kid shoes. They wear their sharpest striped trousers. But they don't feel complete unless they are all wearing different blends of botanical essences. Every night each prince has to have a different one from every other prince. Every night each essence has to match each prince's character perfectly. And every night each prince has to have a different one from any one he ever had before.”

“So I'm to be a Faustian perfumier,” the Gardener said. “What a diabolical task. It is impossible. Nobody could do it, not even if they had a thousand helpful lackeys, and I don't even have one lackey.”

“I knew you would enjoy it,” said the Messenger, smiling.

The Gardener laughed and slapped her on the back. “I see we are the same. Well, show me the gardens I have to work with, and introduce me to the princes! If I am to be their olfactory portraitist, I need to get to know them right away.”

The Messenger led her into a vast field of crimson roses. “We'll start here with the flowers and herbs. But I'm afraid I can't introduce you to the princes. They like to get to know their perfumiers in their own ways, on their own times. And nobody really knows what goes on in the minds of princes. They will come to you, gradually, or all at once, or not at all. You'll never quite know when they're coming. And you'll never quite know how much a prince will feel like sharing about himself. But you will still have to produce twelve distinct essences every evening, to be delivered no later than tea-time.”

The Gardener sighed. But she liked a challenge.

They spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the miles of flower and herb gardens devoted to the princes' perfumes. Sandalwood, orange blossoms, tuberose, neroli, tiger lily, mint, balsam...the Gardener was entranced, and her nose had never enjoyed such a feast in her life.

She took the job.