Long, long ago—in a kingdom that has been entirely forgotten by those alive today—there lived a young prince by the name of Alrik. The people of Edan loved Alrik, for he was kind, and remarkably beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, it is said his smile alone had once cured a peasant woman of a sickness quite grave. Whether or not that is true, we’ll leave to you. For that is not this story, this story came later.
As Alrik grew, responsibility weighed heavily upon him. One day, he would have to marry, have an heir of his own, and be king. He was not ready for such things, and he feared he never would be—the young Prince knew that his heart could never belong to any woman his family would choose for him.
“Princess Amirah will come to stay with us in a fortnight,” Alrik’s mother—Queen Britta—twittered over dinner one evening.
At the mention of a princess, the world weighed more heavily on Alrik’s shoulders. This would be the one his family wanted him to marry. “Oh? How long do we expect her to stay?” he asked casually.
His father—already deep in his cups—let out a loud, jolly laugh. “Why, until you propose, my boy!”
Alrik’s face paled, his bright green eyes staring down at his plate. He’d been right. With a gulp, he closed his eyes. “And what if I do not propose?” He asked softly, a sinking feeling settled into his stomach, the likes of which he hadn’t known before. He knew the answer, still, he asked.
“What? Of course, you’ll propose,” the king snorted, shaking his head. “Princess Amirah is heralded as the most beautiful woman in all the land, and she’s as good-natured as you, my boy. Your people will never know want with you two as their rulers.”
Noticing the anxiety that settled into her son, his mother reached over to take his pale fingers in her own and give them a gentle squeeze. “You’ll do what’s right for everyone, Alrik. You always do,” she whispered, pride lacing every word.
“Yes, mama,” He whispered back. Expectation — it choked off his air and there seemed to be no escape. His mother was right; he would have to do what was right for the kingdom. There was no other choice.
* * *
The pit of Alrik’s stomach sank lower and lower as the days wore on. He tried to keep himself busy with preparations for the princess, but all that did was remind him of the result. Alrik, Prince of Edan, would have to propose to the beautiful Princess Amirah—regardless of if he loved her or not. Still, he supposed, perhaps he would grow to love her. For hadn’t his parents had an arranged marriage and hadn’t they grown to love each other in time? There was hope—small, but not nonexistent.
Princess Amirah arrived in a gold-laden carriage, with vibrant red accents and two well-kept black horses at the lead. Prince Alrik was there to greet her, as was expected. When the door opened, he moved to help her from the vessel carefully. Upon first sight, he would admit, she was beautiful. Her hair was a deep brown color, her eyes much the same, and her skin sun-kissed in a way one might say was pleasant to look at.
Still, as their hands touched, there were no stirrings of love or even attraction. He felt—well—nothing. The emotion behind the touch was as platonic as if his own sister had taken his hand.
“Thank you, Prince Alrik.” Amirah bowed her head deeply as a soft, pleasant smile, lilted her lips upwards at the corners. Even that, Alrik would only call pretty, nothing more. It was as if he were looking at a subpar piece of art. He appreciated the beauty, but it left him unmoved.
Amirah blinked heavily lashed brown eyes at him, and Alrik shifted, unsure of what he ought to do next. Perhaps she wanted him to kiss her hand? He did not know, so instead, he dropped her hand and offered her a little bow of his own. “Princess Amirah, I’m sure you are tired from your journey. Sonja will see you to your rooms where you may refresh yourself and perhaps take a rest.”
Before there was more awkwardness, the prince turned on his heel to leave Amirah and the maid behind — bewildered.
* * *
Over the next few days, the pair saw little of one another—which was only partly Alrik’s fault. While he was not actively avoiding the princess, he did not go out of his way to see her either. To his credit, she was busy meeting with his various family members, so it did not seem as if he were neglecting his duties.
By the fifth day, he began to think perhaps he might avoid her forever. There was the possibility that they could announce their marriage without ever having to have a real conversation. Or so he thought.
There was a knock at the door, and then, “Your Highness,” Filip—Alrik’s valet—called through it.
“Come in Filip,” Alrik muttered, turning back to gaze out the window at the setting sun.
Filip was a beautiful young man with curly blonde hair, a delicate nose and brilliant aqua eyes. Filip—Alrik thought—was a true piece of art, and the prince found himself very moved by it. Which is why he didn’t look at Filip for long or let the young man dress him. “The Lady Amirah has sent along a note,” Filip announced, bending at the waist before his prince.
Alrik turned to take the offered missive. He opened it while Filip waited — flowing across the paper in a delicate hand were the words:
Meet me in the gardens after supper.
“Will there be a response, my lord,” Filip asked, his bright eyes searching Alrik’s face.
“Please, tell let the lady that I will meet her, as she has requested.” Alrik shrugged, then turned to the window without another word. Yes, he would meet with her, and perhaps he would even give another try at—well, whatever this was.
* * *
Princess Amirah really was pretty, Alrik thought as he approached her in the gardens after their late supper. The sun had set now, and the grounds were lit with the twinkling of fairy lights and torches alone. In this light, Alrik could see how one might even call the Princess Amirah lovely—if one were to use such a word.
“Is there something I can do for you, My Lady?” Alrik asked, bowing politely when he reached her. “Has your stay not been going well?”
“Oh no, nothing like that,” Amirah responded with an easy smile. “I simply wished to get to know my gracious host better. You ran off so quickly the other day, and I’ve scarcely seen you since.”
Alrik’s lips pressed into a firm line as he tried to think of a good lie. It would not do for her to return to his father and say that the prince had neglected her. Not to mention what sort of ghastly affair it might cause between their kingdoms.
“You have been busy, I’m sure. Running a kingdom is hard work,” Amirah supplied for him, perhaps out of kindness.
He nodded, grateful for the out. “Yes, My Lady, it is. But I have time now, let us walk awhile.” He held his arm out to her, and she took it before he guided her at a leisurely pace through the glowing gardens. They were silent for a while, her chaperone lingering further back than Alrik would have liked. Expectation—there it was again—she expected more of him and had told her chaperone to give them space.
“Have you been enjoying your stay?” he asked when naught else struck him to make conversation.
“Yes, I have. Your sisters are tremendously good company.” She offered him a smile.
The pair lapsed into silence once more. How long they remained so, Alrik lost track. He led her deeper into the garden until, at some point, he looked back to realize her chaperone had disappeared altogether. “We should head back,” Alrik muttered, turned towards the castle again.
Fingers clasped his wrist. Amirah’s hand pulled him to a stop and turned him to face her. “My prince,” she whispered, biting her full lower lip. Then she seemed to decide something, before she leaned in to kiss his lips boldly.
Alrik froze out of sheer terror—his eyes wide open—unsure of what to do. This didn’t seem to stop Amirah. She squeezed her eyes shut, moved onto her toes, and kissed him harder. His hands settled reflexively at her waist, for lack of somewhere better to put them, and he squeezed his eyes shut. He should try, he told himself. After a moment, he tried, but it was like a strange mashing of mouths with nothing behind it. No love. No lust. Just pressure.
His hands lifted from her waist to push her away gently. “I’m sorry,” Alrik gasped, horror twisting in his gut. Would he have to do that again? He couldn’t do that again! “I’m sorry,” he repeated. Then he turned on his heel and ran. He ran like a banshee was chasing him. His feet took him to the stables, where he shouted to one of the stable boys, “Ready my horse!”
When the boy seemed to take too long, Alrik saddled the steed himself, then he set off at a breakneck speed. His trek took him far outside the gates of the castle and the kingdom of Edan. Into the deep dark woods that lay beyond. Alrik didn’t stop until he and his horse were standing in front of a lop-sided looking shack with glittering smoke steadily puffing from its chimney.
Before he knocked, the door flung inward to reveal a fine-boned person—man or woman, Alrik wasn’t sure—decked in scarves and silks the likes of which Alrik had never seen.
They jingled with beads as they tilted their head to one side, seeming to inspect him curiously. “Prince Alrik of Edan?”
Alrik swallowed and nodded. “Are you the witch, Gwydion?”
Bright golden eyes lined heavily in thick kohl narrowed on the prince for a moment. Gwydion nodded and moved to let him into the tiny hut. “What do I owe the pleasure?” The witch’s lyrical voice floated through the air around Alrik like a song.
With a deep breath, the prince decided that the best method was directness. “I am soon to be married.” The words left him in a rush—the crushing inevitability of them causing his shoulders to sag. Even if he hadn’t proposed yet, that was the direction they were headed. Especially after that kiss.
“Then I offer my congratulations.” The witch smiled, flopping down into a thick wingback chair before the fire. “But I sense that it is not congratulations you seek,” Gwydion intoned after a moment, quirking one perfectly plucked red eyebrow.
“N-N-No,” Alrik stuttered, irritated with how his words left him roughly.
A heavy sigh ruffled the witch’s many scarves, Gwydion gestured to the seat across from them. “Tell Auntie Gwydion your troubles, and I’ll do my best to solve them.”
Dust puffed up from the cushion when the prince settled into the offered chair. Alrik thought on his words, pressing his tongue to the roof of his mouth. He had only given this thought when his mind ran away from him and had never once spoken it aloud. Alrik didn’t know how people would receive such a thing, least of all by the witch. But if he wanted help, he would have to explain. “I find myself,” he paused. “Unaffected by women.”
Gwydion did not seem shocked at all by this admission. The witch’s red-painted lips quirked up at the corners when they asked, “And the problem with that is?”
Another deep inhale-exhale and Alrik continued. “I fear that it will make me rather ill-fitting to be the husband of Princess Amirah.” He didn’t add that he was sure it would horrify his parents to find that their son was not attracted to women at all, but in fact, found himself very much affected by the nicely fitting trousers of his valet. Alrik was—to put it bluntly—disgusted by the mere thought.
“I suppose it will. Why not find yourself a prince then? If that is your preference?” Gwydion asked as if it were the simplest thing in all the world.
Wide green eyes blinked at the witch in utter shock. “I am not—that would not—that is to say,” the prince sputtered. Not for the first time, fear and loathing rolled within him. This was why he had kept his distance from Filip.
The witch stared at him through glowing golden eyes, unfazed by his shame. “If you are not attracted to princesses and you do not wish to marry a prince, then what—pray tell—are you attracted to?”
Filip, his mind supplied, but he refused to voice the word. “It doesn’t matter. Can you cure me?” Alrik pressed on.
Gwydion’s golden eyes turned sympathetic. The witch sighed before shaking their head. “I’m afraid there is no cure for such a thing, dear prince. We love who we love, and that is the end of that. No magic can change it, not even mine. Nor would I want it to.”
“There must be something,” the prince insisted, his eyes going manic, fear gripping his chest. He stood from his seat and began to pace the small length of the fireplace. “A love potion, perhaps. Or a curse. I’ll take a curse any day over this. There has to be a way to fix me,” he pleaded. “Gwydion, I can’t go back to Edan like this,” he whispered desperately.
“Then don’t.” The witch shrugged. “Run away. Go live your life elsewhere. Find your own happiness. You have a younger brother, let him take the throne.” Gwydion rose from their chair to usher the prince to the door. Once there, they stopped, pressing one ringed hand to the prince’s chest. “Learn to love yourself,” the witch pleaded. “A man as kind as yourself deserves at least that.”
Alrik allowed the witch to push him into the awaiting night. All the while, hopelessness sunk into his belly like a lead weight. If the witch could not help him, then what hope did he have? None. He was an embarrassment to his family and his people. He would never be the man or king they deserved. It would be better if he died; at least then, they would never know his shame. “Then I have no choice,” he whispered to himself, pulling a dagger from his belt.
Gwydion’s brows rose in alarm, and before the prince did any damage to himself, the witch acted. Gwydion did the only thing that came to mind. In a vortex of glittering golden magic, Alrik screamed and thrashed. His black hair grew long. Scruff sprouted along his jaw and then spread until it joined the lengths of his hair, covering his face in black fur. His green eyes glowed brighter, the irises narrowing to slits. He opened his mouth to scream again, but no sound escaped, and instead, his short blunt teeth lengthened and sharpened to a point. All the while, his bones rearranged painfully, and he shrunk smaller and smaller until he felt he could shrink no more.
When the magic cleared, there in place of Prince Alrik of Edan, stood a small, demure all-black cat. The cat’s head twisted this way and that inspecting itself, tail twitching. “What in the gods’ names did you do?” The cat hissed in Alrik’s voice as he narrowed his glowing eyes on the witch.
Gwydion bent to meet the cat’s eyes. “I did what I always do—precisely what you needed, my dear prince. A cat you are now, and a cat, you shall stay until you can learn to love yourself.” The witch sighed, then reached one hand forward—jingling with bangles—to pet Alrik’s furry black head.
Alrik hissed and swiped at them, leaving an angry red scratch behind. “Senseless old hag! Turn me back this instant,” he demanded self-righteously, lifting his furry black chin.
“I’m sorry, my prince, but I cannot.” Gwydion shook their head, tutting softly. “The spell is cast, and only you can break it.”
Something within the prince broke, realization hitting him all at once. He sunk to the cold, damp earth, laying his head on it with a deep sigh. “I cannot be a cat forever,” Alrik whimpered. “What will become of my mother and father? What of my kingdom? Who will take care of them?”
Gwydion sighed, shaking their head. “I do not know, my prince.”
“How long will I be like this?” he asked pitifully.
“I do not know that, either. You will live as a cat for as long as it takes. If that be a day, then so be it. If it be a year, so be that.” Gwydion watched the cat with sad golden eyes. There was a hint of remorse in the witch’s tone, but still, they could not undo what they had done. Curses must be broken, not un-cast.
“And what if it takes a lifetime?”
The witch settled onto the ground before him, holding out their hand again to provide comfort. Long fingers stroked between the cat’s pressed back ears. “If it takes three lifetimes, you will still be a cat. You’ll be immortal until you break the curse.”
The cat-prince yowled in agony. He leaped to his feet, having had enough of such nonsense, and trotted off into the night. He vowed to do whatever it took to fix this. However long it took. In the meantime, Alrik left behind his family, his kingdom and that silly witch forever.