Once upon a time, there lived a princess named Devina.
Well…maybe “lived” isn’t the best term.
It’s not that she was a zombie, or some other undead creature roaming the countryside and terrorizing villagers. She didn’t sleep in a coffin either, like vampires do. In fact, her bed was very comfortable. No, she was human. She just never felt very lively.
For most of her life, the princess was known as a cheerful, energetic girl. She was the king and queen’s only child and their pride and joy. She often played with other children in the village and loved to make people laugh.
Then, on the eve of her 15th birthday, she was cursed. That’s what it felt like, anyway. The next day was to be full of gifts, food, and celebration, but she felt no excitement. In fact, she barely felt anything at all. It was as if all of her emotions had disappeared, leaving her with a terrible emptiness inside.
Every day became a struggle to get out of bed. Everything that used to bring her joy—playing, laughing, dancing, painting—suddenly didn’t.
How do I know all this, you ask?
Because I am that princess.
I wish I knew what happened to me to make me feel this way. I wonder, sometimes, if I did something wrong and am being punished. I also wonder if I didn’t do anything to deserve this; maybe Fate simply dealt me a cruel hand. Mostly, I wonder if anyone else feels this way. Does anyone else understand how it feels to feel...nothing?
Tonight, on the eve of my 16th birthday, I lie on my bed, staring at the beautiful tapestry on my ceiling. I’ve looked at it so many times that I’ve memorized every pattern and swirl. Nothing in it—not the prancing unicorns, or dancing satyrs, or colorful fields of flowers—is new to me. That’s how life feels, too—like I’ve seen it all already and have tired of it.
I roll onto my side. Maybe I should try to paint something today. Maybe returning to an old hobby would make me feel better. But I can’t bring myself to move.
I guess I’ll stay in bed.
A sharp knock sounds on my bedchamber door. I raise an eyebrow at the interruption. I am mostly left alone these days, which I am grateful for. I don’t remember the last time I had a visitor.
“Yes?” I say, my own voice unfamiliar to my ears.
“It’s Esme, Your Highness!”
I sigh. Esme is one of my father’s overly-cheerful attendants. She’s probably here to ask if I’ve gone outside today. She’s convinced the sun will cure whatever ails me. All it does is hurt my eyes.
“Come in,” I call reluctantly.
She flings open the door and springs inside. Immediately, she crosses to the window and opens the curtains, making me squint as the sunlight blazes into my dark room.
“You need more sunlight, Your Highness!” she says, beaming at me. Inwardly, I groan. I know she means well.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, Esme?” I ask, practically rolling out of my bed. I’m sure the motion didn’t look very graceful, but Esme just looks happy that I made an effort.
She drops into a curtsy, the voluminous folds of her skirts pooling like water. “You have been summoned,” she says, “by His Majesty.”
That’s certainly a surprise. I haven’t spoken to my father in weeks. Receiving an official summons to see him, rather than him simply coming to my room, means that he has something especially important to say. Years ago, an official summons meant that I would dress in fine clothes, and wash, comb, and plait my hair. Today, I look down at my plain gown, my long, loose hair, and say, “Then please take me to him.”
Esme looks like she’s about to say something, but, thankfully, she doesn’t. She simply smiles and nods.
I have to admit, I’m curious about the summons. I haven’t left my chambers for a while. The rest of the castle buzzes with life and activity. Courtiers, nobles, and visitors dart around the corridors like schools of brightly-colored fish. Sunlight streams through the narrow windows onto the rich, wine-colored rugs. Among all this light and color, I feel particularly out of place in my cream gown and dark hair and eyes. Still, I try my best to greet those who acknowledge my presence with bows and curtsies.
We reach the grand, gilded, double doors that lead into the throne room. Esme raps upon them with her knuckles. “Princess Devina is here to speak with you, Your Majesty,” she says.
“Come in!” my father’s deep voice bellows.
Esme opens the door, and I slip inside.
The whole castle is glorious, but the throne room truly shines. The floor is white marble and reflects the sunlight, or, at night, the glow of candles from chandeliers and candelabra. A plum rug speckled with golden stars runs the length of the room, up to the huge golden thrones. My father and mother sit side by side, their hands clasped, smiling gently at me. I tell my lips to smile back, but they don’t. I can’t remember the last time I smiled. I wonder if they still know how.
“Your majesties,” I murmur, dipping into a curtsy.
“Oh, do get up, sweetheart,” my mother says. Her eyes are as dark as mine but they glimmer along with the smile on her face. In fact, she and my father both look more pleased to see me than usual. What is this about?
“Devina!” my father booms. He gets up from the throne and crosses over to me. He holds me at arms’ length, surveying me. “You look well.”
“You don’t have to lie,” I say gently.
“No, truly, you do!” He kisses me on the cheek, his long beard scratchy against my face, and I almost feel a flicker of something—warmth? Love? Then, just as quickly, it is gone.
“Thank you, father.” I awkwardly smooth the front of my skirts with my hands, now wishing I had brought myself to wash and change. I wish they would get to the point so that I could go hide in my room and try to forget this sudden wave of self-consciousness I feel.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why we’ve summoned you,” my father says, crossing back to stand beside the throne. I nod silently.
“We have exciting news,” my mother says. She grins even wider.
My father nods in agreement. “Our dear Devina,” he says, smiling at me again. They’re doing an awful lot of smiling. “For the past year, you have been struck with a terrible ailment. I cannot begin to imagine how you’ve been feeling. Your mother and I feel nearly powerless to assist you.”
I look down at my feet. I can’t help but feel guilty for feeling the way that I do. Surely, it’s selfish to be so fortunate in life and yet not feel any happiness or gratitude. Are my parents going to lecture me?
“That is why, our dear Devina,” my father continues, “we have hatched a plan.”
This makes me look up, my brow creased in confusion. “What kind of plan?”
“A plan to restore your smile once and for all!” My father’s voice booms through the throne room. “Tomorrow, to celebrate your 16th birthday, we will issue a decree: Anyone who is able to make you smile will win your hand in marriage!”
My jaw drops. I would have preferred a lecture.
“M-marriage?” I stammer. “You want me to be married?”
“No, darling,” my mother says. “We want you to be happy. Surely anyone who is able to make you smile should be your life partner. And they will be rewarded by becoming heir to the throne.”
My head begins to swim, as if it’s full of ocean water. I massage my temples with my fingers, feeling a headache beginning to build. It’s difficult to process what my parents are saying. I can hardly function on a daily basis, and they want me to be someone’s wife? I can scarcely summon any kind of emotion, and they expect someone to make me laugh?
This plan is obviously one born from desperation; they’re running out of ideas. But why this?
“I...I...” The words aren’t coming. I feel like I’m trapped in a nightmare where I scream but no sound comes out.
“We know it sounds far-fetched, sweetheart,” my father says. “But we are confident that a prince will be able to bring joy to your heart once again.”
My emotions take over. “I don’t want some prince to make me happy!” I snap.
My father’s expression darkens, and my mother turns away. I sigh. I didn’t mean to yell. Sometimes, it just feels as though anger is the only emotion I can still feel.
“Our plan will be announced tomorrow, no matter your thoughts on the subject,” my father intones. “You may return to your chambers.”
As Esme escorts me back to my quarters, my feet drag as if made of lead. I feel the people around me staring but am unable to look anyone in the eye. A new sort of dread has settled like a heavy blanket around my shoulders, the weight seeming to increase with each step.
We finally reach my chambers.
“Rest well, Your Highness,” Esme says, her voice filled with tenderness.
I nod and close the door without saying anything, then sink down onto the floor and dissolve into tears.
Happy birthday to me.