The Princess In The Tower

This is a short story I wrote for my graduate Detective Fiction course. The structure was inspired by the classic parable The Lady or The Tiger:

The Princess in the Tower

by Anna Jones

*

It was an exceptionally rare scenario that had transpired to find the young princess all but alone in one of the rooms of the tower, fully clothed in the middle of the night, curled up on top of a delicately embroidered lace duvet that was spread across one of the 3 plush mauve velvet benches lined in golden braids that lined the room. The room had one curved wall and two straight ones that formed a corner that led upwards to a small lookout platform, although one would either have to use a step ladder or be considerably agile to reach the spot. In a hundred years or so, there would be a spiral staircase (installed for tourists) leading to this small turreted crawl-space, which was little more than a stone lookout spot, designed for a lone archer to shoot arrows at approaching enemies from a point of relatively high range and safety. The corresponding stone window above it was accordingly small and slot like, and though un-paned, was cross-sectioned by two wrought-iron bars embedded in the stone, all in all about a meter high and 30 centimeters wide.

This room was a secret room. There were only two ways in or out. A trap door behind a heavy oak book shelf in the adjoining nursery-room that leads to a stone crawl space with another trap door opposite that that then leads to the dumb-waiter shaft for the east wing of the castle. The dumb waiter, if on the correct floor, has a built-in platform by which one may safely pass from the crawl-space into the secret room without chancing the fall down the shaft, or you can just try to clamber over the opening (not much bigger than a dinner tray) and rely on dexterity alone to shield you from gravity. This approach is easiest for slender adults, as children risk slipping down the shaft and corpulent folk may not fit at all. There is also an attic leading from the ceiling of the nursery that has 2 other trap doors. One trap door, hidden under a chest and a false section of floorboards and locked, in the floor to the East that descends into the secret room, plus an additional trap-door connection to the Nanny’s quarters (if you jump over the buttress support), which sits adjacent to the nursery on the opposite side of an arched stone hallway. The only two ways in or out were, until earlier this afternoon, a secret known only by the Princess and 2 her sisters, Her Majesty the Queen and their Nanny, all of whom, other than the Princess herself, were now or about to be dead.

Even her pink leathern ballet slippers remained on her feet from her lesson that afternoon, when everything had, without her knowledge or that of her ballet instructor, Mademoiselle Alorrie Pointe de Mont, began transpiring not only amongst the gardeners & cooks & handmaids & chambermaids & blacksmiths & butlers within the castle, but amidst all the common working folk all across the whole Kingdom.

*

The princess had found her way back to her chambers thanks to the valiant efforts of Alorrie, and after six long hours in the nursery together, listening to strange screams and shouts and watching the fires that burned the city and grounds below them while constantly billowing smoke near the gabled strain-glass window of the nursery they peered down on the crumbling world from, they made a move.

After about only 30 minutes together, as night began to fall, the Princess’s stress levels had peaked and she had called out that she wanted to go in the secret room. She clapped her hand over her mouth, instantly realizing after the fact that her ballet instructor was not officially a member of the limited circle of people who were permitted to know of the room’s existence (all of whom at that point, as mentioned before and unbeknownst to the Princess herself, were already or about to be dead). The ballet instructor then asked her several times about the room. At first she denied knowing what she was talking about and said she wanted Nanny, playing dumb and crying. Upon persistent questioning, however, she finally told her that she could only tell her where the room was if her life was in danger. At this, the ballet instructor let the subject drop.

The Princess nonetheless hastily let Alorrie into the secret room when, just around midnight, they rushed back to the tower nursery after finding her two younger sisters slaughtered dead in the 3rd floor playroom, chopped up by assassins who, although no longer present, were most likely now specifically looking for the child herself. They had not seen the body of the Nanny, dead now, and did not know that the King and Queen were now in dungeons awaiting a double execution at dawn.

Although in a horrible panic, the Princess managed to hastily remove an ornate silver key from the bottom of a music box on her little white marble and mahogany vanity, pulled open the attic trap door, signaled for Alorrie to follow her up the ladder, closed the attic door, went over to a chest, pushed it aside, pried loose the section of floor boards, unlocked the door, and hopped down into the secret room followed by her astonished ballet instructor. She then moved a small step ladder in the room under the trap door, felt up into the attic for the false floorboard section, pulled it back into place, and then closed and locked the door. The lock was such that one would need a key to get in or out from either side and its strong-looking silver hardware matched the gleam on the Princess’s key. She then placed the key in the front pocket of her pink lace petifore and turned her tear-stained and horrified face to Alorrie and ran to her.

*

Alorrie’s mother had been a popular courtier who, luckily for her only child, had been barely scandalous enough to garner attention. She had sent the 15 year old Alorrie to study ballet in Paris only 5 short months after the Princess’s conception to prepare her to become an instructor from which she returned 3 years later, ready to impart all the discipline and beauty of proper classical ballet technique, all just in time for the Princess to learn how to walk.

All of her time away from the court of Versailles, despite being filled with cruel ballet masters who painfully swatted her into correct posture with wooden switches, had nonetheless caused her to adopt an uncommonly open mind and free-thinking spirit. Her acquired humanitarian outlook was ahead of her time, and it was not without her own reservations of suspicion and anger and doubt about her own sanity, but she suddenly could not help but view everyone as, in all truth, regardless of politics, essentially on the same level and equal in the eyes of God.

She had first had this idea flash across her mind while observing, in a passing moment, a regular street rat, the type of person whom, in court, she had been taught to fear, revile and pity. This person was picking through a pile of rotting vegetables on the road-side as she, the fine young courtier’s daughter being educated to teach ballet to the royal girl-children of mother France, rode past in her horse-drawn open carriage. The girl was horribly dirty and rag-clad and was clearly approaching the verge of starvation, but her blonde hair had shined so purely and her piercing blue eyes burned so clearly as she raised them to lock with Alorrie’s eyes, darker but also blue, that something happened inside the shocked and sheltered woman. There was a moment, a flash of insight, when they recognized one another as equal and the world seemed to melt away and was back just as quickly but now completely changed. The carriage had already moved on, but Alorrie had, with her good breeding and comparatively extensive education, immediately recognized the phenomenon as well as her new frame of mind as first, true, and second, dangerous.

*

She was now perched atop the stoop in the tower turret, looking out the little window that was still billowing smoke into the secret room from time to time in between cold drafts of mid-Autumn night air, although aside from this fact, very little could be ascertained about the situation in the castle and Kingdom below through this method of investigation. The princess, after weeping in her ballet instructor’s arms for the better part of an hour, had finally exhausted herself and fallen asleep on one of the couches and was resting there now.

Alorrie, who really was a kind-hearted and virtuously unmarried woman of 26, aside from all royal service obligations, had a true affection for what she knew was, all birth-rights and coronations aside, not more than an innocent and essentially helpless little girl. Because she had been the girl’s ballet instructor for the past seven years, she knew the girl (and her younger twin sisters to a lesser extent) rather well. The fact that the girl (the Princess, dammit, she thought to herself. She kept trying to force her mind to think of her as the Princess, not just the girl) showed some actual talent, curiosity and progress in her dancing only caused Alorrie to further confuse this regal blessing (if only inside her head) who looked, acted and spoke almost like a regular girl, with an actual regular girl. But a princess, any princess, is supposedly, by definition, not a regular girl and Alorrie knew this all too well.

She felt it was truly a shame that such a regular girl had unwittingly been born into a title that would cause her to be, in some sense, a prisoner of the court for her entire life. She held this belief, discovered that fateful day on the street in Paris and bolstered by her subsequent exposure to the revolutionaries in the city, very close to her heart and did not speak of it ever to anyone. She knew that it was an uncommon and punishable affectation to consider herself on the same level as the Princess or the Princess as equal to her in some or really any way, despite their many differences. She felt a deep sympathetic sorrow and horror at the murder of the two younger princesses and knew the girl must be suffering a great deal due to having seen such a sight. She was also re-evaluating the angry rumors of revolution that had been circulating around the castle grounds for many months now and realizing that what had happened that night must be related to those frustrated whisperings. In Alorrie’s heart, it was neither her nor the Princess’s fault that their courtly affairs had been so abruptly waylaid by the demands of bread.

She looked down at the sleeping Princess from the perch and reconciled the contradictory thoughts now brewing in the depths of her soul. Should she, the trusted ballet instructor, vow to protect this little Princess, this little girl? It was the natural and maternal thing to do. She had doubtless already been responsible for the Princess’s survival up to this point, having chaperoned her to the nursery the moment a castle guard had discretely taken her aside with a whispered warning to ‘hide the Princess and presently’ that afternoon as the sun had started to set. She had called the girl over and said they must return to the nursery from the royal ballet studio and wait there until the Queen joined them. Not unaccustomed to orders, the girl had obeyed. The screams and shouts had not started but a few minutes after they arrived and had not been drowned out until they had hidden themselves in the secret room after seeing the bodies. So protecting the Princess, possibly now the only remaining heir to the throne still alive, did indeed seem like the most obvious path to take.

*

But what of the other half of her thoughts? She herself believed there to be no difference between paupers and princes. She herself had been exposed and subject to the hierarchical attitudes of violence and competition that had threatened the peace of mind of everyone in France in the recent years. She herself recognized her position of unique privilege and opportunity she had held in the court, and try as she might to deny it, knew that she deserved it just as much as she deserved to be a starving homeless waif or the King himself. She had tried to ignore the coming insurrection to no avail and now was alone with the final target whom many of her brothers and sisters in Paris and across the country were doubtlessly calling for the symbolic and literal death of as soon as possible. She had under her care this pivotal figure, however diminutive in stature and years she may be, and this person trusted her, if not entirely, then by a kind of innocent and circumstantial default.

But what would become of them? Should either of them escape from this stake-out in the secret room, what would transpire in the masses upon their emergence? Surely, there would be a great deal of scorn and doubt in the public arena about the role she had unwittingly taken upon herself as the protector of the oldest daughter of the King. Surely, the Princess, however sweet and young, would not be allowed to live if discovered. Perhaps there might be some way to allow her escape to a border if there were some able-bodied helpers still loyal to the throne around to smuggle her, probably in disguise, to a border or other safe-house where the situation could be re-assessed, but there was no guarantee that this was a real possibility and no way of finding out without exposing their hiding place.

Peering down from the ledge by the window, Alorrie solemnly decided what she must do…

*

Alorrie hopped nimbly down from the ledge and observed the room. She opened the dumb-waiter shaft and looked down into its receding abyss. She reached through and opened the trap door on the opposite side of the shaft and peered into the darkness of the crawl-space she had not yet been inside. She walked across the room to a small wooden chest, found a candle and matches inside, lit the candle and returned to the dumb-waiter. She illuminated what she could of the crawl-space but could not see the other trap-door leading out from that recess back to the nursery. She then blew out the candle, replaced it on the desk, pulled the step ladder from under the ledge back to under the locked trap door and climbed up to inspect it.

Right at that moment, cannon-fire shook the castle, the Princess awoke with a scream, and Alorrie fell off the step ladder. Another hit rocked the castle menacingly and the distinct sound of crumbling bricks could be heard as the Princess called for Alorrie and the latter, regaining her composure, found the little girl amidst the falling bits of plaster and shielded her with her arms. A third blast followed closely and then a fourth and fifth, causing the whole room to shake as if in an earthquake before the curved wall of the room (the outside wall of the tower) slumped and began to tumble. The two females crouched together in the corner, the elder over the younger, as large and long-sedentary stones shifted away from the weak point of the tiny window, ripping the iron bars out of place and leaving a significantly larger hole than had been there before. It was clear the structural integrity of the tower had been compromised and the wooden floorboards had separated weirdly in most of the room. Looking up between blasts, the Princess cried pitifully to her trusted ballet instructor:

“Oh dear, what is to become of us? Whatever shall we do?”

Alorrie, steadfast in her earlier intention, then proceeded to scoop the little Princess up in her able arms. She looked soothingly into the child’s eyes as she stood up and strode several paces across the room to the now agape and crumbling cornices of the turret and hugged the girl tightly to her breast for a brief but significant moment, cradling her small gangly body and stroking her hair like she was her own child. She looked down at the face of the Princess and murmured, almost lovingly:

“What’s all this ‘we’ business, my dear little Princess?”

And with that, she flung the Princess out of the window and into the night.

*

So, in spite of everything, in spite of the revolution, in spite of philosophy, in spite of history and religion, and in spite of the inalienable truth of equality, the question remains; Why did the ballet instructor throw the princess out the window? We may think we understand, knowing what we know about the young woman. We may think of her in turn as a hero or a murderer, a revolutionary and a barbarian, or a confused hypocrite of the highest order. We may sympathize with the innocent girl. We may balk at the simplicity of a thousand-year sovereignty finally toppling, however surreptitiously, with the defenestration of an un-officiated 10 year old sovereign. We may even laugh at the implications such a tale holds for the institutions of government, family, politics, resources and other such keystones of our understanding of reality. We may examine what we would have done in her place and resolve within ourselves that we might have done the same or acted differently.

But can we clearly answer this simple question: Why?

Answer this, dear reader, and please let me know of the answer when you find it, should I still live and breathe when this moment comes to pass. Should I be dead already, write the answer on a slip of paper and throw it out a high window. I am sure to understand it equally as well either way…

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