Nidra kept her hands in her lap. Maids bustled around her. They always bustled. The swirl of their skirts was the symphony of her life, the gentle clatter of things being moved and taken away and brought back the percussion, the strings a murmur of concern, and the brass the worried tones of everyone around her. She had to sit, back straight, hands folded in her lap, eyes down, hands covered.
She’d been sick as a child, her parents said. Nidra would lay with her head in her mother’s lap as her mother stroked her long hair, and the queen would tell her about all the nights she stayed up keeping vigil over her daughter’s crib. Her father sent for every doctor, medicine man, and even fairies until someone made her well. They told her she was fragile, that it was dangerous, that she could not spend too long outside, that she could not move about the castle without aide, and the fact that they let her raise her own fork to her mouth or tip her own glass must only be for appearances, because even some things are too ridiculous. Everything was brought to her. Everything was laid out around her. Everything but Nidra was allowed to move.
“It’s almost your birthday,” a maid said beside her, who’d brought in her books. Nidra was not allowed to do embroidery or stitching, nor was she allowed to draw or write, meaning the only ladylike thing left for her to do was read.
“I’ll be sixteen,” she said in a dull voice and wondered why she bothered. “In three days.”
“The king and queen will be relieved after that,” another maid said, and then when all the others gave her a sharp look, she added, “You being of marrying age now.”
Nidra did not think she would ever be allowed to marry. How could she if she’d never even met a prince? If her parents didn’t let her hold a pen, how could she be entrusted with a husband?
“There won’t be a party,” she said. Other princesses had grand balls filled with every prince and princess from all one hundred kingdoms. Nidra was allowed nothing.
The maid laid out a book for her and turned it to the first page. Nidra stared at her.
“Maybe once I’m sixteen I’ll stop being treated like a child,” she said through gritted teeth, and then she swallowed that anger down. Her parents wouldn’t approve. They’d want her to sit there, perfect and quiet, like a doll.
“Your parents do things for a reason,” the maid said, but she left the book where it was.
Nidra did have one cousin who used to visit often, Himmat, who was tall even at seventeen and wore a saber at his side except when he was with her, politely leaving it behind. He lived on the other side of the world to conduct his schooling, and she only saw him on occasion. When he was eight and she was six, he was the only person to attend her birthday, and he’d complained loudly the whole time until her aunt made him apologize. They’d sat in the upper levels of the ballroom at night having snuck out of their room. Himmat did not believe the rules applied to princes and he often suggested they didn’t apply to princesses either. They’d sat on the edge of the railing, their feet hanging over the edge, watching the low lights twinkle against the marbled floor.
“Mother says you’re cursed,” he’d said.
“I’m not!” Nidra leaned back, closing her eyes and holding her hands out in a pose of innocence. “I am blessed. The fairies came to me on my naming day and gave me wishes.”
“Fairies don’t give wishes,” he said with a pout, kicking his legs. “Not without a price.”
“They took away my sickness, and they gave me beauty and grace and charity.”
“Fairies curse people.”
“Well they didn’t curse me!”
Her aunt must have chided him later, because he’d apologized for that as well. But Nidra had developed a habit of sneaking out of her bed at night thanks to her cousin, and she listened to her family discuss her from one of the many servant’s passages that snaked between rooms. Her aunt had been concerned that her parents were lying to her, and her mother and father both insisted she needed to be protected. Nidra had tried to understand what secret they were keeping, but they never said its name.
Nidra had met the fairies that blessed her, three pixies so small they were barely more than points of multi-colored light. She had curtsied to them on her thirteenth birthday and thanked them for protecting her. Their voices had sounded like bells and each one of them had kissed her face, and they’d been warm and smelled like honeysuckle. They’d insisted as well that a proper party for a princess was a dance, but her father said that’s how fairies celebrated everything.
There’d be no fairies this year, and no Himmat, who’d gone east again now that he was courting some princess there, and it would just be her and her parents sitting at the feast table. It’d be boring and dull and she was sixteen, and that wasn’t fair. It wasn’t even proper.
She stayed up at night as moonlight bathed her bed in soft light. She’d grown more and more furious about it as she thought about it. It wasn’t as though she were made of paper. She’d never twisted an ankle or fainted or gotten anything more than a cold. Why was she denied all the pleasures of life just because she’d been sick once?
Nidra became aware someone was singing. She lifted her head up and looked around. Sometimes she could hear the maids humming in the passageways, but it was far too late for that. The castle would all be in bed. The melody carried, someone singing, not with words, just a melody that carried through the walls. She put her feet on the cool stone floor and walked to the wall beside her bdl. Yes, it was coming from within. She pressed her hands across the stone until she found the door there.
The passageway was dark. A few lanterns still cast a dim glow on the dark stone, but shadows rose around them. The singing was louder, and Nidra held out her hands to feel the wall around her as she descended down below. The stairs were slippery and slick and cold against her bare feet. The lights became further and further apart, and there were moments it felt she passed through pure darkness, and she held her breath as she walked through it. The stairs were much longer than she’d remembered, or maybe she hadn’t been to this part of the castle before. They kept going down and down and down.
And then there was a door. It was wooden and plain, framed by two lanterns and nothing else. There was not another hallway or a branching path. The stairs only led here. The singing remained, an older woman’s voice. It was honey, or an aged wine, warm and rich, not without its sweetness. Nidra pressed her hand against the handle of the door and glanced back where she’d come from. Then she pushed open the door.
It was not a room she’d ever seen. All around the floor were broken pieces of spinning wheels and distaffs and notsepinne. Splintered wood lay in scattered piles, some burned, some just smashed. The room was vast and filled with this carnage, and in the center of the room, on a chair, an old woman sat, her head down so that her white-streaked hair fell over her face, a spindle in her lap as she twisted the unspent fiber into thread. She sang as she worked her wrinkled hands moving deftly, the fabric she pulled a rich gold. She stopped as Nidra entered the room and looked up. Her skin was pale, pale white, her dark eyes sharp and alive, wrinkles sagging her skin, and a long modest dress draped over her form. She smiled as she saw the princess.
“We do not often have visitors,” she said. “Welcome.”
Nidra stepped carefully past the debris. “What is this?”
“A graveyard.” The woman continued her work. The thread glittered in her hands. “Hope. Desperation.”
“Who are you?”
“I am the spinner.” She held up the thread to the light. “I spin many things. Thread, gold, stories. You, little princess, are not supposed to be here.”
Her fingers twisted in her hair. “I can be wherever I like.”
The woman smiled, and she set the spindle down. “I suppose you can. But no one is supposed to be here. An edict from the king.”
She looked around. “My father did this?”
“As I said, desperation. All the spinning wheels and all the spindles in all the land were taken away, burned and broken, so that the little princess could live a long and happy life.”
Nidra opened her mouth to tell her that was silly, but she reconsidered. “Is that what the fairies told him?”
Her dark eyes sparkled at her. “What does a little girl like you know about fairies?”
“I know all about them! They’re my godmothers! They made me well!”
“From what? What was your sickness?”
Her mouth snapped shut. Her parents hadn’t known, hadn’t been able to find out. That’s why they went to the fairies. But no one had ever told her the symptoms, or if she coughed or bled. The fairies had cured her. That was all.
“What do you know about it?” she insisted.
The woman only laughed and returned to her spindle. “Your time has almost come, child. Return to me again tomorrow, and I will tell you what I know.”
Nidra considered shouting at her. Demanding. That’s what princesses did. But instead she turned around, followed the staircase back up to her bedroom, and curled beneath her covers, where she slept fitfully until dawn.
Mother was out in the gardens in the afternoon, and Nidra walked along the pathway, her trail of handmaidens a few feet behind her. They didn’t have roses or flowering quince, and as a child she’d never been allowed outside. Her mother’s face still showed concern when Nidra found her among the zinnia, but she extended a hand to greet her daughter.
“You’ll be sixteen soon,” she said, looking at her daughter’s face. “I’ll be so happy to see the day.”
“Mother,” she said, pulling away from her embrace, “I was wondering about something.”
She glanced back at the attendants, who kept a respectable distance but were still omnipresent. Her mother didn’t seem to notice. She took her daughter’s hand.
“I was–someone had asked me–” Nidra sucked in a breath. “–about my illness. What it was. What was it?”
Her mother’s expression became stone. “Who was asking?”
Nidra lowered her eyes. “It–it’s not important. But you never did tell me.”
“Because it’s not important. You’re better now.”
“But shouldn’t I know?”
She shook her head. “There’s no reason to think on it anymore. The fairies healed you. There’s nothing else to know.”
“You’ll be sixteen in just a few days, dear. Do you really want to dwell on this?”
“I guess not.” Nidra pulled her hands away.
“Good. Come along. The cook is making your birthday cake. Let’s go have a taste.”
Nidra spent the day preparing for her birthday, and when night fell she hurried to sleep, pulling the covers over her head, and waiting. The sounds of the castle quieted, the servants went to bed, the moon rose high, and a song started. She threw off her covers and pulled open the door, running down the stairs. The old woman was sitting in the room again, spinning thread. Nidra sat at her feet.
“You said you would tell me,” she said breathlessly. “What the fairies cured me of. Why they treat me like this.”
The woman smiled, her bone fingers working on the spindle. “They cured you of nothing at all.”
Nidra’s fingers grasped the air. “What?”
“You were never sick, my dear. And what they tried to cure you of, they never could.”
“What does that mean?”
“You were cursed. On your naming day, you were cursed to die, and they tried to save you.”
Nidra stared at her. “N-No. They would have told me.”
“Would they?” The woman set her spindle down. “Do you wonder why they don’t let you touch anything? Why you have a pack of handmaidens who pick up your forks and turn your pages? They are scared. They think you’re too fragile, that with one prick you will shatter.”
“But the fairies cured me,” she said. “Everyone says. The fairies cured me.”
“They tried. They did everything they could to break the spell. But they were never able to remove it completely. You’ll turn sixteen after tomorrow. That’s how they’ll know you survived the curse.”
“Because I’m sixteen?”
“Because you will have lived that long.”
Nidra twisted her fingers in her hair. “You’re lying.”
“Why would I lie?” the old woman asked.
“Why would you be down here at all?” She jumped to her feet. “Why would you bring me here? To trick me! To tell me lies! Who are you?”
She grabbed the old woman by the shoulders, but the woman only smiled. Her eyes were dark, the white scraggly hair wisping around her face.
“You don’t have to worry about me, child,” she said. “It’s your birthday.”
Nidra gave a frustrated cry and turned away, pushing open the door again. She climbed back into her bed, but she couldn’t go back to sleep. Why would the old woman tell her that? Why would she lie?
The castle was busy the next day, so busy Nidra couldn’t find a moment to speak to anyone. The handmaidens flitted around, constantly shifting roles, and her parents were consumed by planning. Nidra sat in the garden, not by herself, but alone. Tomorrow she would be sixteen. Tomorrow her curse would be lifted, or it would consume her, or it won’t happen at all, because a lying old woman told her a story.
Night came. Nidra lay awake, eyes on the ceiling, letting the moonlight wash over her. She was unsurprised when she heard the singing. She was surprised when she felt the urge to follow. Nidra sat up in her bed, sitting for a moment as she considered what to do next, and then she pushed open the door and followed the stairs down.
The old woman wasn’t there. Little light came in, and the carnage of the broken spinning wheels sat like jagged monuments to hopelessness. The woman’s chair still rocked back and forth, the spindle sitting in its seat.
“I’m not cursed!” she shouted into the empty room, and her voice bounced off the walls. “I’m not going to die!”
She walked up to the chair and looked at the spindle. What had the woman been working on this whole time? She picked up the spindle and turned it over in her hands.
“I’m not cursed,” she whispered and squeezed the spindle. And gasped as it pierced the skin of her finger.
Nidra dropped the spindle and raised her hand. The light in the room seemed to change as a dizziness overcame her. A bright bead of red blood formed on the surface, and she looked up. The old woman was standing in front of her, but she was no longer an old woman. A light shone through her skin, making it new and shiny, and her dark eyes were wide gleaming in the light. She placed a hand against Nidra’s cheek and kissed her forehead.
“You won’t die,” she said in a voice like honey. “The fairies saw to that. But you won’t ever see your family again.”
Nidra’s vision went black around the edges. She spun, gave a shuddering gasp, reached a hand out, pitched forward. The woman laughed, and then she was gone. Nidra grabbed desperately for anything, calling out for anyone, and then she crumpled to the ground.