“The Huntsmen”, Part One, by Mari Ness

At first, the twelve do not look much alike.

That soon changes.

The engineers do some of this: dig beneath the skin and change the bone structure, adding a touch of bone to that cheek, removing a sliver of bone from that chin. The skulls, too, must be carefully shaped, the girls kept in painless sedation, their breathing monitored, as their arms and legs and faces are all sculpted to identical perfection.

But the engineers can only do so much. It takes a magicker to convert twelve pairs of eyes to the same odd shade of green, and that, too, must be monitored: magic does odd things to bone, especially healing bone. More than one girl ends up back under the knife after the magicker changes her eyes: really, the eyes should have been changed first, but they do not have much time, and the bone work, and the healing, takes so much of that that the eyes must be adjusted when they can, as they can. The hair is simpler: dye could do, but magic is more permanent, and so the new color is sung or painted into the hair.

And then the flesh over the bones. Every mole, every freckle, must match. That requires more magic, more painting, more singing. She tells herself not to clench her fists. She has time. She has plenty of time. Even if the foot of the tenth girl is still wrong, even if the freckles will not stay on the skin of the third. It will happen. It will happen.

Already she is having problems telling them apart.

It will terrify him, when he sees.

If he sees.

*
“Just like a fairy tale,” he’d told her, placing a finger under her chin. “A wise lion, the charming prince, the lovely princess, the magical kiss…”

She’d felt her face burning. “And what if you turn into a pumpkin?”

His lips touched hers, oh so briefly. “Never,” he whispered. “This is the happy ending.”

*
When the girls come out of treatment, there is still more work to be done. Training first: they must be skilled at sword and bow. They also must learn hunting. Here, the differences are immediately apparent: some of the girls are from the city, and have never been in the woods in their lives; some of the other girls are still weak from the treatments, and have difficulty just lifting the most lightweight swords, let alone pulling the bows. Speed is of the essence now: they train from dawn until dusk, and beyond, until they are exhausted.

Food, too, is carefully monitored. They are all the same weight now, but she knows, from her own life, how easy it to gain or lose a few pounds here and there, and so she watches their diet carefully. They will exercise with her, train with her, sleep with her, and eat with her. No one will be able to detect a single flaw.

No one.

She finds herself forgetting their names – not that these names were important anyway – and instead calls them by numbers: One, Two, Three, Four. She gets those wrong, too, but it hardly matters. She imitates their voices and tells them to imitate hers. She joins them in their training, raising swords with them, pulling bowstrings with them, watching with them as they look for boar and deer and rabbit and bird, until she almost thinks of herself as one of them.

Almost.

“This will all be worth it,” she tells them. “For you as well as me.”

“Yes,” they respond together, in soft voices that she must – she must – get them to deepen.

“I swear it,” she tells them.

“Yes.”

And then it is time to teach the eleven girls – and herself – how to be men.

*
Her dress did not shimmer like the moon, or capture the light of stars. She had never heard a cat talk, or a frog demand a kiss. Her shoes were made of leather, not glass, and when she slept, it was for one night, not a thousand years.

She was not in a fairy tale. She had never been in a fairy tale.

*
She hires actors and jugglers and clowns for this, men who have pretended to be women, women who have pretended to be men. They practice standing, movement, gestures, manners; dance as men; bow as men; hunt as men.

He will think her transformed. He will think them all –

“Highness. More like this.”

She freezes. “How do you know who I am?”

Eleven identical faces shift to look at her.

“Forgive me, Highness. The others are less angry.”

*
But she had kissed him. She had kissed him again, and again, and even allowed his hands to explore further – something a princess must never do, something she had done. She had kissed him, and kissed him, and that should have been her happy ever after. He had promised, and she had believed.

*
“You can still withdraw,” her advisor tells her.

He is a small man, with his face wrinkled from years of pouring over law books and official papers, years of speaking into first her father’s ears, and then hers. He has always advised caution, prudence, restraint. Under his counsel, the kingdom has prospered: it is why the marriage had been proposed at all. The kingdom her father had inherited would never have earned such a prince.

The kingdom her father had inherited could not have hired such engineers.

“Your efforts need not be wasted,” he tells her. “Keep the girls by all means. Use them as bodyguards, as decoys. Shock the court when they step into it as men, and then later as girls. I can see the use. But this –”

“It’s not just my honor at stake,” she reminds him. “This was an insult to the entire kingdom.”

“Which could be answered in many ways.”

She takes a deep breath. “No.”

“More honorable ways. Less excessive ways.”

Despite his years at court, he is a good man. A loyal man. He means well, she knows.

“My ancestors made women dance in shoes made of red hot iron or glass, forced men to climb slick glass mountains, often falling to their deaths, sent women to sleep for a thousand years, tricked men into believing cats could speak. How is this different?”

It is his turn to take a breath. “It’s more dangerous.”

“Than iron shoes?”

“What do you think he will do?”

“He will believe that he is in a fairy tale.”

*
He spent long nights reading those fairy tales to her, from the old book he claimed had been given to him by his grandmother in his childhood, and given by her grandmother to her. She somehow doubted that: the book did not look that old, though it looked old enough, but she found comfort in the thought, and more comfort in hearing his voice say, “…and they lived happily ever after.”

*
Travelling as men is not difficult. It is everything else – the way servants do not rush to assist her, the way that everyone they meet on the road never hesitates to look her in the face – that is difficult. And the way that they – twelve identical huntsmen in elegant clothing of brown and green – attract eyes wherever they go. She is not unused to looks, of course – she has spent a lifetime gathering looks. But these – these eyes are different.

The other girls are much better at this than she is. Now it is her turn to imitate them. She watches each one, trying to move as they do, trying to pretend that she is an ordinary man, not a princess. By the time they reach his castle, she thinks, she will be just like them. Even they will not always know that she is their leader, that she is the one that has transformed them into this.

Practice. Practice.

She almost has it, she thinks. Already the girls – no, the huntsmen – look uncertain when they stop for rests or for the night, as if they do not know who their leader is. They all have their own bags of royal coin, so that any of them can step forward and offer to pay. At night, she still calls them by numbers, but she never bothers to find out if she is using the right number.

*
As they approach his kingdom, however, one difference is obvious, at least to her: she is increasingly nervous; they are not. They are relishing the journey, the adventures, being men. She can only think of his kingdom and his tales, of the woman – the very lovely woman, by all reports – who may, even now, be sharing his bed.

Each night, she pulls out the old book of tales, its pages filled with princes and princesses, dragons and swans, pain and joy, tales where true love wins out, and ever after follows each kiss, staring at the covers. She will burn it, she tells herself, when this is done, burn it and let its ashes drift on the wind.

*
He had dazzled her with tales of his home: the splendid palaces, the great forests filled with game, the magnificent mountains, and the wonders: jugglers who breathed fire, flowers that changed colors as you watched; dancing lights that some swore – he laughed at this – were actually fairies. And a lion, he swore, that could not only speak, but tell the future when its mane was stroked. The lion that had sent him to her, a marvel that surpassed seven kingdoms.

“We have engineers and magickers of our own,” she had said, almost offended.

He had laughed, and placed a kiss on the top of her head. “Nothing to ours, I assure you.” His eyes glowed. “When you see the lion, you will believe in fairy tales.”

*
“Remember,” she tells them, as the palace appears in the distance. “Here, our names are forgotten. Here, we are nothing but hunters and men.”

They nod. She tells herself that she sees determination in their faces.

*
They had names once, the girls. No. The men. Names. Lives. A place in their own stories.

Then again, she had once been only a part of someone else’s story, not her own.

*
Their arrival, as she had anticipated, creates quite a stir. Their clothing may be simple enough, but their faces are not. It is enough to have them taken immediately to the great hall, with its marble throne. And below that –

A lion.

No, not a lion – not a living lion, at least: a statue, gleaming with gold, but a statue. Nothing more than that.

Her heart is pounding. He will know, she tells herself. Surely he will know. Even in their male garb, he will know her face. Their faces. Twelve faces, identical to hers. She must breathe. She must breathe. This must be a test.

The other huntsmen stand silently around her. If their breathing troubles them, she doesn’t hear.

And they wait.

An eternity later, he arrives, the new princess on his arm. His eyes move from face to face, with nothing there but mild curiosity.

The princess – his princess now, as she is not, claps her hands gently. “Oh, do hire them,” she coos. “Twelve huntsman like this? It will be the talk of twelve kingdoms, at least.”

He laughs and drops a kiss on her head. “As you command, my bride. That is, if my lion agrees.”

The other huntsmen exchange quick glances. Her eyes remain on him as he saunters to the statue, placing a hand upon its head. As he touches it, she can hear the grinding sound of gears.

And then the metal jaw drops, and the lion roars.

That is all she hears at least – a roar – but the prince, it seems, hears something else. An answer, or a command. He turns to them, laughter in his voice. “My bride is to be indulged, I see. Take yourselves to the kennels, and begin.”

The twelve huntsmen bow. It conceals the shaking in her chest.

*
In her court, she never had to wait for him: one ring of her bell, one whisper to a maid, and he was there, bowing, ready to serve, he told her. Did she wish to go hunting? Sing? Read poetry? Visit the nearby town, perhaps? Or have the town come to her? A puppet show was visiting – not royal entertainment perhaps, but something she might find amusing. Whatever she desired. It was her happy ever after.

*
They begin the following day. The prince does not stint on accommodations or equipment: everything is of the best. She, trained to be a bit more parsimonious, cannot help shuddering at the number of crossbows he has ordered, the size of the still empty kennels, the number of perches for falcons and hawks. They will begin to purchase and train hounds immediately, the huntsmen are told. The prince will also need trained hawks and falcons, and fresh meat daily for the table: venison and boar are preferred, though partridge and other game meats might substitute. And they are to escort the princess whenever she wishes to go hunting, which turns out to be a rare event. But even without that, they are kept busy, busy, and she, looking just like the others, is treated just as one of them. And she does have other purposes here: tasks that keep her watching, judging, counting, watching again: how many magickers, how many engineers, how many manors and farms, how much gold. Even with the training she had taken, she is unused to it. He body slumps with exhaustion.

Indeed, she is so tired that on one trip to the palace, following three others to speak with the steward in the great hall, she finds herself stumbling in fatigue – and falling on the lion.

*
The lion roars. It is so abrupt, and so loud, that it shakes her from her fatigue, sending her stumbling back into one of the other huntsmen, who firmly grabs her by the arms and hisses, “Remember.” She straightens. She and the other huntsmen look at one another.

She gives them a tiny nod; they nod back.

But it is too late. Others have heard, and come rushing forward, to see what has caused the lion’s roar. They look at the lion, still shaking back and forth from its roar, and the huntsman. And at the prince and princess, now coming to the entrance. They walk with their usual dignity, in only a slight rush, but she can see the eagerness in his face.

“The lion. Who touched it?”

Trembling fingers point towards the huntsmen.

The prince looks at them, then walks up to the lion, placing one finger on its steel head. “Lion,” he says, clearly.

“Women!” roars the lion.

The princess giggles.

The prince does not. He gives the huntsmen a long look. A considered look.

And then his eyes light up, and a smile breaks across his face.

She is not going to shake. She is not.

huntsmensmall

Continued in Truancy 3!


mariness

 

Mari Ness lives in central Florida. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, and many other publications. She can be followed on Twitter at mari_ness

 

 

Illustration by Akira Lee. Akira is a Universiti Malaya student by day, geek and manga enthusiast by night. Drawing and writing by the moonlight. Accepting commissions at motesandshadows AT gmail.com

Truancy 2, March 2016

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