by Mari Ness
Edited by Julia Rios
This story contains depictions of non-consensual touching.
The girls line up, one by one, for the kiss.
Some have dressed up for the occasion. True, the kiss has not worked for at least a century, if not more, so dressing up is not, strictly speaking, necessary—but as those girls and their parents will tell you, you never know who may be watching. A few nobles always come by, if only to see if they know anyone in the line, as do theatre managers. One singer who now graces the halls of dukes stood in this very line not too long ago, just humming to herself. Would she have been discovered if she had come in rags? Probably not. For others, this may be the only excuse they have all year to dress up—unless, that is, they can find some way of attending the next festival as patrons, not servers.
Others don’t bother. Some because they have no choice—they own little more than the clothing on their backs, or some other clothing in equally plain or ragged condition. They can and do wash their faces and hands, but even the most fashion- and status-conscious can hardly ask for more than that. Others have no interest in singing, or the theatre, or believe they have little chance of catching anyone’s eye in this crowd in any case; better to save their finery for some other, simpler occasion.
And for some, the entire ceremony is a waste of time, if not worse than that—an attempt by the current regime to maintain a certain control over the population, according to a few fond of hunting for political conspiracies, or an attempt to bring business to two local dressmakers, according to others, intrigued by the idea of more benign conspiracies. In any case, something they will not and cannot dignify with fine clothing. No, their regular work clothing will suffice, even if it is near rags. Others doubt that really, anyone is trying to do anything at all, other than continue a rather dull tradition, and make sure that he hasn’t, well, you know. But no need to dress up for it either. Or even attend.
It’s just the kiss, after all.
That means, of course, that more than one eligible girl is missing. This used to be a problem, in previous days. Now—well, the less said about the reluctance of certain people to obey the current regime, the better.
Besides, this way, it goes faster.
The court officials who have been roped into witnessing this—which these days, more and more, means organizing this—stand ready with water, wine and various delicacies on hand. Even sped up, the ceremony has been known to last for some time, and not all of the girls have the good sense—or the appetite—to eat a decent meal beforehand. They also check for weapons. A few girls, with a flair for the dramatic, have tried to cut him, or even themselves—something about three drops of blood against a pale curse, or snow, or something. The court officials have never bothered to track down the exact words, but they are well aware of what the current regime would think about that. And of course, any girl with a knife could end up causing a scene, or even damage—something the current regime most definitely would not approve of.
So, despite their boredom, the court officials watch carefully as each girl approaches for the kiss.
Not all manage one. He is not exactly dead, of course—indeed, those who do touch him often say, later, that he’s rather unpleasantly warm, and a few mention having the bad luck of bending down just as he expels one of his long, slow, dreaming breaths. Oh, no, his breath smells sweet enough—no one can explain why, no more than anyone can explain why he apparently looks exactly the same as he did a hundred or so years ago, if the sketches and descriptions of that time can be trusted. It is just, well, odd to feel that coming from something that is—well, almost a corpse, is it not?
But even in his not exactly dead state, bending down to kiss him is not exactly pleasant, especially under the eyes of so many watching people—the other girls, the courtiers, the few curious ambassadors, and representatives from the current regime. Indeed, one or two girls have been overheard to confess that they would rather kiss a corpse, because at least they know what that is, while with him—Well. The girls can hardly be blamed if they pause a few inches above his face. After all, even those who do manage to press their lips down upon his warm ones do not linger for long.
Beyond this, they are, after all, rather young. A dictate of the current regime, by most reports, but a sensible one. Not too young, of course—no one wants to think of that—but he himself has never lost his boyish looks, and sending in older girls, even princesses—Well. It would be unseemly. The older girls rarely protest. After all, nearly all of them have already tried, and failed, and the current regime does not allow a second kiss.
What he thinks about it, or even if he can think, in his present state, no one knows. Theories differ. Some claim that he is so fast asleep that he does not even dream; others that he does dream, of his past life or the true princess who will save him. As unlikely as that is—any girl who does marry him would, of course, become a princess by that very act, but the current regime is said to disfavor that law, and no real princess, by birth, has come for years now.
Still others think that he must dream of ordinary things, of the life that he does not, cannot have.
After all, he is under a curse.
Which is why some claim that he is—he must be—aware, even as his eyes remain shut, as his chest slowly rises and falls, as his lips remain closed to all who bend over him. A claim they make in whispers, where the waiting girls cannot hear. They have quiet opinions about the current regime, after all, opinions that are not safe to be spoken too loudly. But they are also people who say that they are certain—certain—that they have seen his fingers twitch after each kiss, his hands start to clench into fists, as if he knows this is not the right kiss.