The crowds watch him running after the fleeing girl. The girls titter, giggle, eyes alight, lips behind hands, their sex hidden and mysterious, caught behind fans and gloved hands.
He ignores them, as he had all night. This is a boy who has tiptoed into manhood, just barely put his toes in the water, then felt the chill and pulled back. He’s tried not to dance with any of the girls, these stupid, bewigged and over-dressed girls, who had been so much more fun when they were younger.
So he danced with the one girl he didn’t recognize, and who had run off just as the party was getting started. He’d seen his Father the King poke one of his Sergeants at Arms, who’d come over and gave him the royal degree – go after the girl, find her, fuck her. And when Charming hesitated, he said: You like girls, don’t you? And then he amended: Go after her, find her – Marry her. And that was from the King.
The wheezing old guard was behind him when he found the slipper on the palace steps, no sign of the girl. Grab the slipper, get the girl, marry her, follow the script, and all will be fine.
And what if this boy does not follow the script? What if he says, I will not pick up that glass slipper, or better yet, I will smash it with a well-polished boot, fairytale gone and waterfalled, in pieces, shards spilling all down the steps.
The thought of denial, refusal, it is poised above him, a possibility. I will grow old, he thinks, or I will not marry a princess of this ball; I will rush out to the woods, scoop up the first peasant girl I see, and in the way of great lords everywhere, I will ravish her. Or I will ride out to the next kingdom, kill a dragon and marry that land’s princess and leave my father and his promises, just hanging. Or I will ride out to another kingdom, kill the Princesses’ Father, and marry that Princess. All these things have been done before and much, much more, by Princes who made their own way and followed their own path. Defiance is considered, and rejected. The Prince picks up glass slipper and examines it. It is small, a child’s slipper, really. The girl he danced with was young, and that is perhaps why he did not recognize her. It is enough that she is unknown, not a member of a family whose favor is curried by his father or a family who curries his father’s favor. He decides he will pursue this girl, and this one small act of defiance will be what he does, and will be define him.
He does not love her; he hardly knows her. She danced clumsily, using steps popular with children about ten or so years ago. It is enough that she had no chaperone; part of him hopes that she is a daughter from one of his father’s rival kingdoms, a spy sent to entrap or poison him. He is still young, just hitting his 18th year, and death still seems like a reasonable out for him from the pressure from his Father and the responsibilities of this princely life: he had considered taking sword to his own breast when this whole great debacle began. And like the young, he does not see beyond the moment where he finds himself: the now is all. He, Charming, does not want to marry just yet. What he wants to do, what he really wants to do, is be with his boyhood friends – who are now all on the cusp adulthood but not quite there yet, as he is: to attend and participate in jousts, hunt boar and stag and spend his days in the front of the great hall fireplace drinking ale and boasting of conquests soon to be and maidens to be won. All he wants is to avoid the stern eyes and harsh words of his father, who calls him “wastrel” and “unfit to rule the kingdom”, and mutters that “the lash is too good for him”. It is unfair, Charming things, damned unfair; his Father never really speaks to him except to admonish him and complain that he knows nothing – his Father, the King, who never had time to teach the hows and whys and ways of ruling and had just left him with ascetic tutors: thin, wheezing old men who harped on the ways of war. Charming’s mother the first Queen had died in childbirth, and neither the King, nor his subsequent Queens had time for him in the days and years that followed: Charming was raised by fat peasant nursemaids who sang him songs in foreign tongues and told him stories of the babies that had been ripped from their arms so that they could nurse and coddle this child of a long line of kings. They did love him, or so he thought: he had felt their love in their fleshy arms and ample bosoms.
And now there was this woman-child, this girl, from somewhere unknown; and maybe, just maybe, she would be the one to love him. He would try and find her, and then it would be done: be it death or marriage, he was thinking that this might free him from his Father, and this was a good thing.