Beauty and the Exile

Sonya Lano | 07/07/2011

It started when the bird stole his hat. Seemingly an unremarkable incident (other than the fact that hat-snatching isn’t a typical pastime of birds, but we’ll just disregard that because this isn’t a thesis on the peculiar habits of those airborne critters), though in fact the truth was quite the opposite: the incident was rather a monumental one for the man thus robbed, for this wasn’t just any man, nor was his hat just any hat, nor was the thief just any bird.
The man who wasn’t just any man was a king. That said, his hat that wasn’t just any hat was the one he kept his state secrets hidden in (okay, so no one said he was a smart king). And the bird that wasn’t just a bird was a mechanical gadget that everyone recognized as a contraption invented by an eccentric nobleman exiled to an isolated island by that selfsame king.
Upon seeing the silver flash of sunlight reflected off the glittering metal wings of the bird as it soared high into the sky with that condemning hat, out of anyone’s reach, the king threw up his hands and belatedly grabbed his bare head.
“The imp has gotten in the dough again!” he bewailed, hopping to and fro in intense agitation. “Something must be done! Something must be done!”
I suppose I must insert an explanation here that “The imp got in the dough again” was a common saying in that kingdom. It meant that someone with less than well-meaning intentions had meddled in some matter s/he really shouldn’t have and that if something wasn’t done soon, things could get very unpleasant, indeed. Unfortunately this was a commonly used idiom there because people in that kingdom weren’t the most upstanding of individuals and someone was always meddling in something s/he shouldn’t…but let’s put that aside for now because this isn’t a sociological essay, but the tale of someone we haven’t introduced yet.
The king was understandably incredibly vexed at this development, because there was no love lost between him and the exile and the idea of his state secrets in the hands of such a personage was enough to make the king quake in his pointy shoes.
And who was this exile who could make a king quake in his shoes?
Well, he was someone the king had exiled for a reason: he had tried to take over the kingdom. He had raised an army (one may wonder how he raised an army in a kingdom where its subjects were supposedly content, but this isn’t a treatise about the politics of gathering an army, so just keep wondering) and he had marched all across the country and come to the king’s doorstep when harvest time came around and his entire army dispersed to go bring in their crops. It was just bad planning, you see, and you should really pay attention to these kinds of things when you’re taking over a kingdom.
Needless to say, being left abandoned and alone in front of the castle made him quite vulnerable to the king’s guardsmen, so they captured him rather quickly and hustled him off at all speed to an old burned down castle, long uninhabited, on an island far out at sea, where, of course, raising an army proved extremely difficult.
Now being confined to an island with no other human contact had rendered the exile quite bitter. The place was crushingly lonesome, and while for some years he had entertained himself by melting down the suits of armor in the knight’s hall and creating various useful inventions that kept house for him, that is cooked and cleaned and swept the floors, the time had come when he really did want some company and had no idea how to lure someone into his lair. No ships came even within shouting distance because the island was surrounded by deadly reefs hidden just below the surface...and he really didn’t want a sailor, anyway - what would a sailor do on an island? There were no ropes to climb or decks to swab. The guy would be bored to tears.
Nope, no sailors.
But come to think of it, did he really just want someone to talk to? After all, he was a man and as a man he had needs that another man just couldn’t fulfill. And after being deprived for years, he had a real hankering for a woman.
And so, being a man of action, he devised a plan to get what he wanted. The first step had gone smoothly, and once his trusty mechanical bird had filched the king’s state secrets, he sent it back to the king with a message. The message was originally supposed to be short and to the point: “Send me a wife”, but he knew the king’s limited brain capacity too well and realized he might send someone else’s wife, or an old woman, or an ugly one, or even one quite stone-dead. So in the end he had to be rather specific, therefore he wrote: “Send me a young, living, sane, healthy, clever, beautiful single woman. If you don’t, I’ll send copies of your state secrets to all your enemy kingdoms. If I’m satisfied with who you send, I’ll send your state secrets back to you.” He fleetingly considered putting “nice” on the list of traits he desired in a woman, but it really didn’t matter to him one way or the other if she was nice because he wasn’t such a nice guy himself.
That being done, all he could do was wait.
Meanwhile, back in the kingdom, the people were in an uproar. The young women didn’t want to go. Their beaus were indignant, their parents horrified. It was clear that no one was willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the kingdom (really, there were no self-sacrificing people there; they were all pretty selfish). The king tried in vain to impress the importance of the situation on them: “If the state secrets are revealed,” he railed, “then invading armies will come and take away ALL the young women! We must sacrifice at least one to protect the others!”
But the people of his kingdom weren’t much smarter than he was, and they were even more mule-headed.
And then his advisors, who were slightly further along the line of evolution than he was, suggested the king announce an election. That way, the people themselves would choose who went. It was the perfect plan, since they would all vote for the person they hated the most – although she had to meet all the exile’s requirements.
This suggestion was received with enthusiasm and everyone immediately went out to condemn their most beautiful enemy to exile. With what relish they wrote down their choices and handed them over to the king’s representatives!
In fact, this stunt even increased the king’s popularity. An interesting phenomenon—
But I digress.
In the end, the vote was nearly unanimous. There was one girl who was young, living, sane, healthy, clever, beautiful and single, a truly beautiful girl with long gleaming red hair and flashing green eyes, who wasn’t at all popular with the local folk. In fact, she was quite despised by them. They had been subjected too often to her sharp tongue, scathing sarcasm and overbearing self-importance (Let’s just say she hardly had a sunny disposition). The truth was that she actually had an impossibly high opinion of herself and a reciprocally low one of everyone else and as a result no one wanted her around. So it wasn’t really surprising when everyone voted for her to be the one to go.
It only surprised her.
When the king’s men came to her house and ordered her to accompany them, she refused outright, inserting a prodigious number of insults and a generous dollop of contempt into her reply. They responded by attempting to seize her and carry her bodily from the house. She retaliated in the same vein and beat quite a few of them up before they finally subdued her and forced her kicking and screaming down the city streets and onto the ship that would take her to the island. Scratched, battered and bruised, they were quite happy to be rid of her.
The captain, having seen the violence done to the palace guards, realized right off that he would have to lash her to the mast to keep her from flinging herself overboard and escaping. He and several burly sailors did so without delay, though she managed to give two of them a black eye, one a busted mouth and broke another’s arm before they got her tied securely. Then she shrieked at the top of her lungs until some brave soul gagged her…leaving her with nothing to do but fume silently and send murderous looks at anyone glancing her way.
She had truly seen herself in a better situation than this. She was meant for grand things, not for being the wife of some nobody living out in the middle of nowhere. Where was the justice in that?
And what was the deal with everyone voting against her? Was she not gorgeous? Of course she was. Was she not desired? Evidently she wasn't.
Well, she would just have to endure this exiled nobody for a while and then somehow arrange his timely demise. A slip on a slick cliff edge…some bad fish…
There were ways, even on an island.
And as she plotted her escape before even seeing her prison, the sky grew ever wilder. Storm clouds gathered and the wind picked up. Thunder rumbled and the waves became choppy and restless. White froth and salt water spilled over onto the decks, soaking her shoes and the hem of her dress, though that hardly mattered because soon the heavens opened and released a torrent of rain that drenched her in an instant. The ship rolled on wild white crests and creaked and groaned in protest. Tied to the mast, she swayed back and forth with it, her stomach growing queasy and her lips turning pale with the strain of keeping her last meal down. Then she stopped trying to hold it back. After all, if the exile received her in such a smelly, soiled state, he’d probably send her right back home.
Unfortunately it didn’t help. As soon as she wretched something up, the rain washed it away, until she was as clean as a spring fish.
At least it had accomplished one thing: she was no longer gagged; that useless wad of cloth hadn’t stood a chance against her breakfast. With her mouth once again free, she screamed into the storm for a while, realizing while doing so that it was divinely cathartic.
She was feeling fairly good by the time the rain started to let up.
The squall didn’t abate fully until they were almost at the island, when she heard the sailors discussing amongst themselves which of them was going to row her ashore, since the ship couldn’t get close enough to dock.
At that, she very vocally and very astringently declared that no rowboat would hold her and no sailor would control her, whereafter the captain clapped his hands and smacked his lips and said, “That’s that, then. End of discussion.”
And, pivoting, he motioned to his men and whispered something in their ears. Now what person likes being whispered about? She certainly didn’t. And she especially didn’t like the conspiratorial look of that little group of sailors huddled together so excitedly. She didn’t like it one bit – and she was right to worry, because they came over with pitiless expressions, untied her and unceremoniously dumped her overboard.
While she sputtered and cursed (really, as no woman should curse) and swam madly round the ship looking for a rope ladder or anything else she could use to climb up, the crew rapidly turned the ship around and left her floundering in the middle of the ocean. She could hear them singing sea shanties and composing new ones to celebrate her good riddance.
She considered taking her chances swimming out to sea, but she wasn’t stupid (“clever” being one of the exile’s requirements) and she still believed she was meant for better things, so at long last she angled toward the island.
She was gasping like a beached fish by the time she finally reached the shoreline (and in a way she was a beached fish, just without the fins and scales and all that) and had to lie on the sand and catch her breath for a while before standing up to examine her surroundings.
There wasn’t much to see: sand, the occasional seashell and some trees further inland. And a path, she noticed. How very serendipitous. And so, with the sea at her back and long stretches of sand to either side and not much else to do but follow the trail, she set off on her dubious adventure.
The path took her up and through a small forest before rudely spitting her out in full sunlight.
Ah, she must have arrived, she thought with an internal wince, because beyond a field of yellow flowers loomed a scorched castle with blackened walls. That must be where the exile lived.
Apparently her living standard was about to take a blow.
Sighing, she started wending her way across the field…until a sudden hiss stopped her in her tracks.
She looked down—straight into the yellow eyes of a snake in the grass.
“Oh, great. NOW you decide to spare me the exile’s unsavory attentions,” she muttered and tried to back away very, very slowly.
The snake was having none of that. No getaways today. It lunged. She screamed—and was thrown aside by something—or someone—who leaped in front of her, stamped on the snake’s neck, scooped it up and mercilessly twisted it until it hissed no more.
Sprawled on the ground where her dubious hero had flung her, she looked up at a tall, slender man dressed in green and brown attire and standing over her with the dead snake dangling from his hands. He had black hair and green eyes and was looking down at her in obvious amusement, a small smile tugging at his lips.
Quite disgruntled, she pushed herself up and hypothesized dryly, “The exile, I presume.”
He sketched a little bow. “My wife, I presume?” he rejoined, making her flinch and go on the offense.
“Is attacking and killing innocent snakes a hobby of yours?”
He shrugged. “A forced hobby. There’s not much else to eat here besides snakes and fish and bread and cheese.” He grinned. “Welcome home, honey.”
She opened her mouth to respond and sneezed instead, then started to shiver, yet drenched from her swim in the sea and chilled in the biting wind sweeping across the headland.
His grin vanished and he tucked the snake into his belt to reach down and help her up. When she blatantly ignored his outstretched hand and climbed to her feet by herself, the corners of his eyes crinkled in laughter. Dropping his hand to his side, he eyed her up and down curiously. His prolonged scrutiny made her impatient and not a little nervous.
“Have you looked your fill?” she demanded finally. “Or should I start charging you by the minute?”
His grin widened. “I can’t believe the king actually managed to meet my requirements.”
“That dotty monarch of ours? Ha!” she snorted. “He didn’t. The people voted me out.”
“The people?” He frowned. “I take it their opinion of you was pretty low.”
“Their opinion was skewed. Basically everyone in my hometown needs serious psychotherapy.”
She sneezed again and a cunning idea started to dawn on her. As an experiment, she managed a sick-sounding cough and felt a rush of victory when the exile’s forehead creased in a concerned frown.
Without any more ado he ushered her across the field and into his ratty tatty castle. She glimpsed moldering tapestries and scrunched her nose at the omnipresent musty smell of the place. The floors and walls were all of stone and were singed in places from the fire that had raged through it. The tapestries must have been put up after the fire, she guessed, or else they were non-inflammatory tapestries.
The exile wrapped her in a fur cape and settled her in a comfy chair by the hearth, ordering his inventions to bring tea and food. She had noticed them at once: small metal contraptions that emitted soft clicks and whirrs and toddled around on stubby legs sweeping the floor or stoking the fire or adding wood to it. They were quick things, too, bringing a goblet of wine (for the exile), a cup of tea (for her) and a tray of bread and cheese (for both) in remarkably good time.
Likely they made that bread and cheese, too, and if they were making cheese, that must mean there were cows or goats around here somewhere that his inventions probably milked, as well. And no doubt they churned the butter and whipped the cream…
What diligent contraptions they were! Every household should have them.
But she wasn’t interested in their housewifeliness: she was wondering if she could get them all to rise up and overthrow the exile’s tyranny. Unfortunately, though, they didn’t seem very capable of independent thought.
What a pity. All those little slaves to the exile’s whim and no way to turn them.
With that a dead end, she returned to her original plan and as the evening passed and the exile explained how things were run on the island (she was right: those suppressed gadgets did do all the work), she put her plan into action, gradually escalating her coughing fits until it looked as if she’d developed a terrible cold. She was proud of her acting ability as she tossed and turned in bed for several days after that, apparently with a high fever, although at the same time she couldn’t believe he’d actually bought the trick. Really, what did he think she was? A piece of fluff to be puffed to the brink of death by a short dip in the sea? Although to give him credit, she could think of several girls offhand who would be so easy to eliminate…that is, ALL of her acquaintances back home. Ditsy creatures.
Meanwhile, the exile had his own thoughts on the matter.
“She’d better come out of this,” he thought irritably to himself. He didn’t want to go to the trouble of obtaining another woman. After all, the king only had so many hats that he kept state secrets in and there was also the off chance that he might actually learn from past mistakes and stop hiding them there (though the exile really doubted that would ever happen).
Moreover, he was growing fond of the girl. There was something charming about the way she snapped at him whenever he wrapped an arm around her to help her sit up but she still let him do it, anyway, only scrunching her face into a grudging little pout that wanted to become a scowl but never quite did. He secretly thought she found him handsome and his almost-embraces thrilling, but he was smart enough not to speak the thought aloud.
He did, however, like to test how far he could go: how shamelessly he could talk before she shushed him, how long she would let him leave his arm around her before she shook it off, how close she would let him get to her mouth before she averted her head.
As for her part, she liked to test him to see to what extremes he would go to get close to her. Her insults, though, seemed only to amuse him and he even seemed skeptical of her attested loathing of him. And she hated to admit it to herself, but she actually liked it when he was near…probably because no man had ever dared get close to her before and the experience was a novelty. Of course she only let HIM get close because she had to maintain this silly facade of helplessness. If she were strong enough to push him away, he would wonder how ill she really was.
Plus, he didn’t annoy her as much as everyone else back home. His intellect was sharp and his witty remarks always kept her on her toes, making her feel as if she were actually thinking for the first time in her life.
But all the while as they played their game, she kept her master plan in mind, and one day when she felt she was looking particularly ill, she beckoned him close (in the manner of the grim reaper, she hoped, and not in the manner of a seductress).
She pretended to be too enfeebled to be heard from a great distance and waited to speak until he helped her sit up and supported her with his arm. And a manly arm it was, too, she thought with annoying irrelevance.
Focus! she rebuked herself sharply.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” she whispered in a pitiable, hoarse voice, making sure he could feel her tremble weakly. “I’m only a burden on you… Send me home so I can perish at my mother’s house…”
He raised his eyebrows inquiringly. “You don’t really think I’m going to fall for that, do you?”
She stiffened. He couldn’t know that her mother liked her even less than everyone else, could he? She summoned up a pain-contorted expression and went limp again. “I don’t know what you mean,” she whispered and fluttered her eyelids as if she were about to faint.
He wrapped his arm more firmly around her and pulled her against his chest. And what a manly chest it was, too, she thought, but then she felt his warm breath on her lips and her eyes flew open. She spied the blatant intention in his eyes at once and survival instinct kicked in and spurred her to action. She shoved him away and flew off the side of the bed, dashing over the window and snatching up a small stool perched there.
“You were going to kiss me!” she accused him incredulously.
“Yes,” he said, rising easily to his feet. “That’s how women are usually cured from their pretend ailments and curses. It certainly miraculously brought you running back from the dead.” He circled around the bed. “Put the stool down. It’s just an innocent bystander.”
She brandished the aforementioned innocent bystander. “Don’t come any closer!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped, though he obeyed and stopped stalking her, not wanting the innocent bystander to become an unwilling instrument of violence to his person. “You came here to be my wife; that means I’m going to be getting pretty close to you sooner or later.”
“Ha! What makes you think I’d ever be your wife? I never agreed to this madness. They forced me on the ship. They threw me overboard. Only my sense of self-preservation drove me to swim into your lair.”
“I saved you from a snake,” he pointed out with maddening reason, crossing his arms. “I nursed you back to health. You owe me.”
“Are you telling me that stomping your foot in the right place at the right time and having your handy little inventions brew me a few piddly cups of tea for a feigned sickness entitles you to my person?”
“It does when that well-placed stomp saved your life and that timely-brewed tea kept you strong. You’re twice in my debt now. In my estimation that means you owe me two lifetimes of marital servitude. But I’m feeling magnanimous today so I’ll make it one; you’ll just have to work twice as hard to make up for the other.”
“Your arrogance knows no bounds,” she snorted and shook the stool threateningly. “I’m going to knock it out of you.”
He spread his arms wide. “You’re welcome to try,” he invited generously, “though I rather think you’d fail. My arrogance has a fairly stable foundation that a mere footstool couldn’t shake.” He took a step closer. “Stop this madness. Let the stool go.”
She glared and the stool didn’t lower an inch.
“Come now,” he cajoled with a radiant, winning smile that very nearly won her over. “You know you can’t stay on your guard forever.” He narrowed his eyes and seemed to be staring at something on the floor behind her legs, then he raised his head and gifted her with another smile, this one triumphant.
She heard the click and the whirr too late. Even as she spun around, a meddlesome invention rammed into her calf, knocking her off balance. She dropped the stool and flailed her arms to regain her balance, and in an instant the exile had her in his embrace.
“Come and kiss me,” he murmured persuasively. “I know you want to.”
“Ha! What makes you think—” But she got no more out because he was already kissing her quite thoroughly. And worse, she was quite thoroughly enjoying it.
What happened next you can probably guess. She became his wife, consoling herself that at least he was intelligent and attractive, and she was actually quite happy with him, although she still had difficulty resigning herself to living on an island. Wasn’t she meant for better things?
And then he sent out dozens of little mechanical birds with messages urging the people to insurrection and managed to take over the kingdom from afar, thereby making himself a king and his wife a queen.
At which point she knew that she really had been destined for better things…

Moral of the story? If you believe you’re meant for better things, then you probably are.

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