The Runaway Princess | Vantor's Swoon Club | Gorba's Reading
Ballad of the Runaway Princess | Half the Kingdom

Kate Coombs

People often ask me where I get my ideas. The Runaway Princess was inspired partly by M.M. Kaye's book, The Ordinary Princess, partly by author Terry Pratchett's sense of humor, and also by this story, which I had written a few years earlier. Note that the intended audience for "Half the Kingdom" is a bit older than the audience for The Runaway Princess. For example, Princess Dalia has already graduated from college. (You'll find I went all out with the anachronisms in this story!)

King Osgood harumphed. "Don't interrupt me again, Asmalia," he told his lady wife. His courtiers exchanged uneasy glances.

The queen looked down her nose, one well-designed for looking down. "I see," she said coldly, and the courtiers squirmed. The king held himself still with a mighty effort and looked back at her, but his hands clenched around his day-planner. Queen Asmalia rose and stalked from the room like a cat who's been given dry food instead of meat bathed in gravy. The door shut grimly, and everyone breathed again.

"Now then," the king continued a little too jovially, "Whatsoever prince can accomplish the aforementioned tasks will be given my daughter's hand in marriage, as well as the traditional half the kingdom. Period. His Majesty, etc."

The scribe nodded as he finished typing and saved the document on his laptop.

"Only princes?" asked Sir Norbert. "What about dukes and dons and barons and counts and viscounts?"

"That would include your son Franklin, now wouldn't it?" Lord Egmund muttered. Sir Norbert shot him a look.

The king peered about sternly. But relented. "Oh, very well. In light of the rather short list of princes of the appropriate age, add the phrase 'or other qualified nobleman.'"

"Ahem." Elderly Duke Hasbin cleared his throat phlegmatically. "'Of the appropriate age?' What age is considered appropriate?" The assembled men stared narrowly at the duke.

"Also," young Quickheart asked, "which half?"

"Pardon?" the king said.

"Of the kingdom. The northern half? The southern half? The good half? The bad half? That bit with the rocky fastness can hardly be considered good." Quickheart paused. "Your majesty," he added.

King Osgood scowled. "Add a clause stating that all details and clarifications will be the jurisdiction of the king, His Majesty, etc."

Count Congol raised his hand. King Osgood pretended not to see. "Meeting," said the king, "adjourned."

"You've got to be kidding!" Her Royal Highness the Princess Dalia said dramatically. "He what?"

"Your father intends to auction you off to the best bungee-jumping fool he can find," the queen repeated.

Dalia stared out the window. Her eyes took on, not the traditional forlorn-maiden-in-the-tower gaze, but the look of a woman who has wrestled with a griffin and won, a woman who has taken hairpin curves at outrageous speeds in a miniscule sportscar, a woman who has successfully rejected the advances of countless sodden frat boys.

"Tell me," Dalia said, "the list."

"First, demonstrated ability to behave in a princely manner and treat the populace reasonably well."

"I should certainly hope so," Dalia said.

"Second, conquer the dragon of the eastern hills.

Third, empty the swamp of both swampness and eldritch entities.

Fourth, rebuild the rotting ruins and break the curse on the forest in which they lie.

Fifth, rescue the princess from the glass tower.

Sixth, bring a goblet of water from the fountain of life or the golden apple of youth," her mother ticked off the tasks on her fingers. "I don't think anyone will manage the sixth one, actually."

Dalia frowned. "What was number five again?"

But the king's men were already at the door to her chambers, and the conversation was interrupted.

The princess covered the translucent floor and walls with cloth-of-silver right away so she could change in peace, without peasant boys creeping hopefully about the base of the tower. She wondered whether her would-be suitors were attempting the tasks in order, since they showed up all too soon to scrabble ineffectually at the glass and then slink away. Dalia was mildly entertained to watch them—princes and counts and enterprising merchants, mostly young and handsome but sometimes horribly old. If anyone awful were to climb up, she could always bonk their knuckles and gasp "oops" as they fell to the sort-of soft bushes below. But after a while they came less often. Dalia tried to keep herself busy, but she took to staring out the window for long stretches, wondering how she'd let this happen.

Months passed. Then late one afternoon while the princess was tidying up the tower, she heard someone yell, "Hey, you!"

Dalia stuck her beautiful head out the window and looked down into the twilight. "What?"

"The swamp's been drained. The forest is fine. The ruins are rebuilt. The dragon's defeated."

"Dead?" Dalia asked, shocked.

"No, it's in a menagerie attached to the Museum of Natural History."

"And?" Dalia said. "What do you want? Tried slithering unsuccessfully up the tower yet?"

The young man laughed. "I could come up rather easily, actually."

Dalia raised her brows, unconvinced. "Did you do all that? The swamp and the dragon and everything?"



She could hear the smile in his voice. "I brought in a crew to drain the swamp and witches to cart off the eldritch entities. Talked the dragon into being admired by all and plied with fresh goats, guaranteed safety from pesky knights. When I rebuilt the ruins, I found the source of the curse."

"Which was?"

"An old woman whose children never visited. I moved her from her noxious hut into the Shady Oaks Retirement Community, where she cheered right up playing canasta."

"That's it? What about the other princes?" Dalia had been wondering what happened to them.

"They all went home. I waited for the rush to die down, to tell you the truth."

"They just gave up?" Dalia asked, offended.

"Sure. They decided they could meet a nice sorority girl without all this bother. And everyone believes task six is impossible, anyway."

Dalia smiled. "They do, do they? So what are you doing here?"

"I smelled a scam. I wanted to ask you about it."

"A scam?" Dalia's delicate brows arched again.

"Sure. Get a bunch of young fools to solve the king's problems for him, with no real intention of delivering either the princess or half the kingdom."

"How dare you speak ill of my father!" Dalia snapped.

"Not him," came the voice from the shadows below her. "You."


"I went to school with you, after all."

"You did?"

"Even had a few classes together. I was an Urban Studies major, too."

She said nothing.

"So I figure this whole 'win the princess' deal is a clever plan you hatched up with your kingly father. Sort of a public works program."

Another long silence.

"The impossible sixth task is a dead giveaway."

The princess spoke icily. "If your wild hypothesis were correct, why would I choose to be locked up here, bored out of my mind?"

"Bored? I'll bet you've got books, cable TV, maybe even the Internet running in your little nest. Once the fuss dies down, once the manageable tasks are completed and we've all given up on the unmanageable ones, you can slip home to carry on your life as usual."

"If you feel that way about it, Mr. Conspiracy Theory, why did you complete the tasks?"

"They needed doing. Your father could have just hired my firm, though. Things must be pretty tight up at the castle. As it was, I rounded up some investors and contacted a few foundations. 'Save the Dragon' type of thing."

Dalia made a face to herself.

"Come on, Dalia," the voice went on. "I figure you're pretty bored by now, Internet or no Internet. I can get to the top all right, but I doubt I can get you back down if you don't want to go."

Dalia tinked her fingers on the curved glass of the sill. "What's your name?" she asked finally.

"Erec. We had Urban Renewal together junior year."

Dalia vaguely remembered a friendly grin and warm brown eyes. "Didn't you do the project on renovating abandoned factories?"

"Yeah. You remember?"

"It was good," she admitted.

"Yours was about community cooperation, wasn't it?" he said meaningfully. "Also good."

"Thank you." She paused. "So why do you care whether I come down, if the sixth task is impossible?"

"I thought we could go out for pizza. Sort of celebrate the swamp draining."

Dalia smiled. "Okay," she said. She heard a strange sucking noise, as if a giant were kissing his way up the tower. Erec's head appeared at the window, and she helped him climb through. She was right about the eyes and the grin. Erec pulled the suction-cups off his hands and feet and dropped a heavy loop of rope on the floor.

"Clever," Dalia commented.

"I minored in engineering." Erec looked around the tower at her bookshelves, easel, Stairmaster, big-screen TV, well-stocked fridge, and a state-of-the-art computer with excellent speakers. "You do have Internet." He looked back at her accusingly. "Don't you feel guilty about toying with all those guys?"

"It was their choice to take the challenge," Dalia said. She noted that Erec did not consider himself one of those who had been toyed with. "I needed some time alone, anyway."

Now Erec raised his brows.

"To finish my dissertation."

He laughed. "Please don't tell me you wrote about your suitors."

"No," she said, flushing. "That would have been a bit much. I'm working on redevelopment." She looked around almost wistfully.

"Ready to go?"

"Yes," she said. "Just let me get my laptop."

"Princess Dalia and her rescuer, Prince Erec of Vantor," the herald announced.

Queen Asmalia stared regally at Erec and then favored him with a small smile. King Osgood glanced down at his clipboard. "Dragon?"


"Swamp and evil denizens?"


"Ruins and cursed forest?"


"Rescuing princess from glass tower?" Here the king gave his daughter an appraising look.

"Check." Erec smiled over at Dalia.

"Water from the fountain of life or the golden apple of youth?"

"Actually, no."

"Oh," the king said, unsurprised. "Well, run along then. Thanks and all that."

"We're going out for pizza," Dalia said. "Be back later."

The king waved them away. "Fine, fine. Tomorrow you can look at some figures for a new subdivision. Business is booming."

"Yes, Dad." The two strode out.

The pizza was very good, and so was the company. Dalia began spending a lot of time with Erec, who hired her to free-lance for his firm.

"I don't suppose you'd be able to marry me without the water of life?" he asked her wistfully the next spring. Dalia shook her head, but her eyes twinkled. "Still think it's impossible, do you?" she asked.

Erec shrugged, smiling. Dalia leaned over and kissed him on the nose. Then she pulled a small flask out of her purse. The liquid inside it swirled with unearthly colors and sidhe promises. "For you."

Erec accepted the flask, entranced. "How?"

Dalia gave her beloved the look of a woman who has wrestled with a griffin and won, a woman who has taken hairpin curves at outrageous speeds in a miniscule sportscar, a woman who has successfully rejected the advances of countless sodden frat boys. Among other things.

Erec swallowed. Then he grinned at her. "Would you like to become a partner in my firm?"

"Of course," Dalia said, taking his hand. "Let's go find my father."

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