Summary: Prince Hart is asexual, but his parents and many suitors are having a hard time accepting that. When the trickster Tala decides to come to his aid, chaos naturally ensues in this exuberant story that is a playful response to the all too common romanticization of boundary-crossing behaviors!
Note: This story contains occasional references to sex and sexuality.
Once there was a cisgender queen who desperately wanted a child. She made many attempts to get pregnant, starting by using semen from three different members of her wife’s family. When that didn’t work, she consulted with doctors, midwives, and wise women. To increase her fertility, she took beneficial herbs, avoided strenuous physical activity, and ate generous amounts of eggs, nuts, fruit, berries, and seeds. She even gave up hunting. But still she remained childless.
Then, one hot summer day, the queen decided to go hunting in the forest near her palace, for you see, she was close to giving up her hope for a child. Well, the queen was such a good hunter and pursued the deer so intently that no one in her retinue could keep up with her. At midday, she stopped, looked around, and realized that she was lost.
She was also dripping with sweat and, being a practical woman, she decided to cool herself in a nearby spring. While she was bathing, a frog crawled out of the water and said to her, “Your wish shall be fulfilled. Before the year is out, you shall give birth to a noble and virtuous cisgender son with skin like burnished mahogany and hair as black as jet.”
Just then, the queen’s retinue came bursting through the trees, shouting, “We have found her! The queen is safe!” And in the commotion that followed, the frog vanished.
But sure enough, the frog’s prediction came true, and ten months later, the queen gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The queen and her wife rejoiced, and they named him Prince Hart in the hope that he would grow up to be as strong, handsome, and graceful as the deer of the wood. And to their great joy, he did. He also grew to be patient, kind, honest, hardworking, and generous, and for a while it seemed like Prince Hart was exactly what his mother had hoped for, the perfect prince and heir.
However, when he reached thirteen years of age, it became apparent that there was something a bit different about Prince Hart. All of his friends became curious about sex, but Prince Hart didn’t. That was easy enough to dismiss, though, because, as the saying goes, “Some children grow up faster than others.”
But as Prince Hart grew older, the differences became larger rather than smaller. Prince Hart was mystified by his peers’ fascination with flirtation, he never got the point of sexual jokes, he didn’t understand what the word “sexy” meant, and, worst of all, he decided that he didn’t want to have children of his own. This greatly alarmed his mother the queen, because to her, having heirs meant both the continuation their line and the stability of the kingdom.
The queen was worried. Maybe he is ill or depressed, she thought. So she summoned the five most accomplished healers in all the land and asked them to heal Prince Hart, but none them could find anything wrong with him. “Your son is in perfect health,” they said.
If it isn’t an illness, then maybe Prince Hart has been cursed, the queen thought. So she summoned the five most powerful wise women that she knew and asked them to cure Prince Hart, but they could find nothing wrong with the prince either. “Be joyful,” they said, “for your son has nothing but blessings upon him.”
But the queen was still worried. If it isn’t an illness or a curse, then Prince Hart must confused, she decided. And since knowledge is an excellent remedy for confusion, the queen summoned the five greatest scholars in the world and asked them to teach Prince Hart. Then the queen waited, and as she waited, Prince Hart grew wise and erudite. But though the queen waited many years, Prince Hart did not change in the way that she most wanted.
Now, this whole time, Prince Hart didn’t feel sick or cursed or confused, but all the worrying that his mother did made him feel like there was something wrong with him. So, like a true scholar, Prince Hart tried to fix things by spending a lot of time reading. He hoped that if he understood sex better, then maybe it would interest him. However, sex remained a purely intellectual curiosity, and all of the queen’s anxiety and pressure made it that much less appealing. Sex was just not something Prince Hart wanted to try.
Finally, when Prince Hart was eighteen, one of his teachers slipped him a book on the sexual practices of the southwestern kingdoms. He learned that the people of the southwest considered it normal for some folks to not experience sexual attraction. In fact, all through that region, the people recognized a diverse spectrum of experience that included sexual attraction and asexuality.
When Prince Hart read this, he was overcome with joy. Finally he had a word for his experiences! And at last he knew for sure that there were others, many others, who felt similar things!
So excited was he by these discoveries that he immediately went to his parents and announced, “I have just discovered that I am asexual! What I feel is perfectly natural and, as such, I can now vow that I will never have sex, nor will I ever marry a sexual person.”
Unfortunately, the queen was still obsessed with the idea of continuing their family line, and this news greatly upset her. She refused to accept it, saying, “You are still young. It is too early to make this decision. You just haven’t found what you like yet!”
When Prince Hart insisted that he would never have sex with anyone, the queen slammed her fist down on her throne and said, “Stop being so stubborn and selfish! The kingdom needs you to marry and produce heirs! I will give you until your twenty-first birthday to change your mind. If you have not married a suitable partner by then, I will be forced to choose one for you!”
Well, Prince Hart was pretty sure that the queen would not consider another asexual person to be a “suitable partner,” so he held firm and waited, hoping that with time his mother would come to terms with his asexuality. But though the queen regretted her hasty words, she did not give up her insistence that Prince Hart marry and have children.
So, on Prince Hart’s twenty-first birthday, the queen and her wife invited three suitors to the palace. Because the queen loved her son and wanted him to be happy, she gave Prince Hart three weeks to choose his consort, a length of time considered quite generous by the standards of their court.
Regrettably, because Prince Hart had refused to state any preferences in regard to the suitors, his parents had selected three sexual people, each of a different gender, whose main quality was their determination to win Prince Hart over. As you might imagine, this enthusiasm quickly led to difficulties. The suitors were not good at respecting Prince Hart’s boundaries, and, as a result, he avoided them as much as he could. Predictably, the suitors responded to this by becoming even more aggressive in their attempts to gain his attention.
Finally, on the day of the Great Market, Prince Hart decided that he’d had enough. Early that morning, he set out as expected, with his retinue of attendants and three suitors in tow. However, as soon as they were in the midst of the market crowds, Prince Hart ducked and weaved until every one of his attendants had lost sight of him. Unfortunately, his suitors proved more persistent, and as the morning crowds were not as thick as the afternoon ones, Prince Hart wasn’t able to stay out of sight long enough to completely escape them.
Fortunately, that same morning, a woman named Tala arrived at the Great Market. Now, Tala was a generous and clever trans woman who was extremely fond of playing tricks on people and took delight in convincing others to do strange things. Because of this, a little bit of chaos followed her everywhere she went, and, of course, as Tala walked through the market that morning, something interesting was already brewing.
Well, it happened that Tala came across the stall of her old friend Yuna, who was in the market selling baskets. “I did not know you had moved to this city!” Tala exclaimed, and the two friends greeted each other enthusiastically.
Then Tala told her friend about a competition being held down by the south well to find the animal with the strangest talent: “There is already a pig that can walk while balancing a spoon on its head, a rabbit that runs up walls like a squirrel, an elephant that plays the harp, and a dog that pisses while doing a handstand on its front paws. And I’ve heard that they are going to bring in a donkey that stomps its hooves in perfect time, a bear that plays the horn, and a chicken that spins, flaps, and bobs every time it hears music. Then they are going to team them up with the elephant to make a spectacular show!”
Yuna was excited about the contest. “I have a goat who can balance on top of an empty jug!” she said.
“You should definitely go get it and join in!” replied Tala.
“Oh, but my baskets are selling really well right now, and I can’t leave my stall unattended,” Yuna said. “I know! Tala, would you watch over my stall while I get my goat and my apprentice? I will be back as soon as I can, and then the two of us can go to the competition together!”
Now, Tala had intended to spread word of the contest to more people, but she was a generous friend who didn’t worry too much about plans, so she agreed.
Not long after, Prince Hart came by Yuna’s stall, and, upon seeing the stacks of large baskets, he said, “I am Prince Hart, and I am being pursued by three suitors who refuse to recognize my asexuality. Please hide me from them!”
Well, Tala didn’t need to be asked twice. Immediately, she ushered Prince Hart into the back of the stall and hid him in a giant basket. Then, just as she got all of the other baskets back into place, along came a woman clad in a green cape who said, “A moment ago, I saw Prince Hart standing by this stall. Please tell me which way he went!”
“You must be one of Prince Hart’s three suitors,” replied Tala.
“Yes, I am!” said the woman. “And it is important that I catch him, because he needs my help. You see, he thinks that he is asexual, but he doesn’t understand that he has a choice. Deep inside, he has the power to choose something different, and I have the skills to help him with that!”
Well, Tala didn’t like the sound of this, so she spotted a person at the north end of the market who was far off in the crowd. “You see that lady in the gold and brown dress?” she asked.
“I think so.”
“Well, she is chasing after Prince Hart too, and she is close to catching him!” said Tala.
“She mustn’t!” shouted the woman. “She doesn’t know how to help him!” Then the woman rushed off so quickly that her green cape flapped through the air behind her.
Just a moment later, a man in an indigo hat approached Tala and said, “I saw you talking to the woman in the green cape; you must know where Prince Hart is.”
“And you must be one of Prince Hart’s three suitors!” replied Tala.
“I am,” said the man. “And I am the only suitor who is right for him, because I know what he is going through. Prince Hart is inexperienced and afraid. He needs a patient guide who can help him, someone who understands his fears. That is why you need to tell me where he has gone!”
Well, Tala didn’t like the sound of this either, so she said, “Then you had better keep following the woman in the green cape toward north end of the market, because she is close to catching him.”
“She can’t!” shouted the man. “I am the only one who can help him!” And the man rushed off so quickly that his indigo hat almost blew off his head.
Not long after, a person wearing red shoes came up to Tala and asked, “Do you know where Prince Hart is?”
“You must be one of Prince Hart’s three suitors,” replied Tala.
“Yes,” ze answered, “and you should know that he and I are fated for each other. In the name of True Love, please tell me where he has gone!”
“Isn’t a relationship with Prince Hart going to be challenging if he is asexual, while you are sexual?” asked Tala.
“Prince Hart isn’t really asexual,” ze replied. “Everyone feels like that sometimes, but I know that if we just get a moment alone together, Prince Hart will feel our special connection and everything will be different.”
Well, Tala really didn’t like the sound of this, so she said, “If you want to catch up to Prince Hart, then you had better hurry. The man in the indigo hat is following right on his heels.”
“Oh, he mustn’t catch my poor darling! Only I am right for Prince Hart!” ze shouted, and then ze rushed away so fast that hir red shoes were a blur.
Once all three suitors were gone, Prince Hart emerged from the basket and said, “Thank you for helping me. Those three have been following me everywhere, and I just want to spend one day away from their well-intentioned, ignorant harassment.”
“That I can understand,” said Tala. “And if you want something fun to do, a contest to determine who has the animal with the strangest talent is being held down by the south well.”
“I’d love to see that!” said Prince Hart. “And afterwards, to thank you for your help, I am personally inviting you to have supper at the palace.”
“I’d be honored,” replied Tala.
And that was when Yuna returned. Naturally, she was most surprised to see Prince Hart standing right there in her stall. But, with Tala’s encouragement, Yuna carried out her plan. She turned her stall over to her apprentice, and then the three of them took her goat down to the south well.
By the time they arrived, it was quite a spectacle. Word of the contest had spread, and the square was jostling with a wide array of animals and their excited owners. A dense crowd of spectators was packed in around them, and there was a cacophony of sound as people made bets, animals showed off their talents, and the newly formed Musical Creature Band practiced. As you might expect, many of the animals couldn’t help but be affected by all of this excitement and, as the three of them watched, an overenthusiastic dog attempted to herd a pair of hissing cats, an escaped pig led a middle-aged couple on merry chase through the crowd, and a monkey stole roasted nuts from a group of distracted children.
It wasn’t long before Prince Hart was recognized, and, of course, everyone insisted that he act as judge. Soon a makeshift platform was erected, and one by one, each animal was brought forth to perform its talent for the crowd. There were a number of strong contenders, including a lizard that could balance four berries on its head, a cat that always won the shell game, a parrot that perfectly imitated the cry of a baby, a monkey that could knit socks, and a dog that could sequentially catch seven sticks in its mouth without dropping any of them. The pig that balanced spoons, the rabbit that ran up walls, and the pissing dog also put in strong showings.
In the end, Prince Hart pronounced the knitting monkey the winner, gave second place to the shell game cat, and awarded third place to the rabbit. Then, because he had enjoyed himself so much, Prince Hart gave a gold coin to each participant and invited the winners to have supper at the palace.
Meanwhile, Prince Hart’s three suitors spent the whole day chasing each other around the market. They never caught up with Prince Hart, nor did they realize that Tala had lied to them. Instead, they persisted in a fruitless search that only ended when they returned to the palace for supper.
At the palace, Prince Hart introduced Tala to the court as his friend. And, as the winners of the contest performed their talents, Prince Hart had Tala seated in the place of honor at his side, which, not so coincidentally, prevented any of his suitors from claiming that spot. Amusingly, because of this show of friendship, the three suitors all assumed that Tala and Prince Hart were great friends. So, over the course of that evening, each suitor approached Tala to ask for her aid in their pursuit of Prince Hart.
First, the woman clad in the green cape greeted Tala and said, “Now I know why Prince Hart stopped by your stall in the market. It is clear that you two are great friends, and you would be doing your friend a huge service if you gave me the opportunity to speak with him alone. I know that he is hesitant, but I am experienced with herbs, aphrodisiacs, breathing exercises, and meditation. With these skills, I can show Prince Hart the way to grow out of his asexuality. All I need is the opportunity! Please help me do this!”
Well, Tala didn’t like the sound of this, so she said, “In that case, I will let you in on a secret. At midnight tonight, Prince Hart will be taking a walk through the formal gardens. You can expect him to approach from the north; therefore, you should come from the east and intercept him at the arbor by the fountain. But be sure to disguise yourself, or he will recognize you and run away.”
This response delighted the woman in the green cape, and she soon rushed off to prepare for that evening.
Next, the man in the indigo hat took Tala aside and said, “You are Prince Hart’s friend, so you should know that I understand what he is going through. He is ashamed of his true desires. If I could just be alone with him for a few moments, I could talk with him honestly and help him understand this. He needs to learn to accept himself as he truly is! Will you help me?”
Now, Tala didn’t like the sound of this either, so she said, “Well, I will tell you that at midnight tonight, Prince Hart is going to be in the formal gardens. Since he will be coming from the west, you should come from the north and intercept him at the arbor by the fountain. Be sure to disguise yourself, though, or you will have no chance of talking to him.”
Well, the man in the indigo hat was happy to hear this, and he soon left to make his preparations.
Finally, the person wearing red shoes approached Tala and said, “Prince Hart hasn’t found the right person yet, but when he does, that person will awaken him to love and all of its possibilities. I know that if I could just get him alone without interference, he would discover that there is something special between the two of us. In the name of True Love, please help me!”
Naturally, this didn’t sound any better to Tala than what the first two suitors had said, so she told hir that, “Tonight at midnight, Prince Hart is going to be in the formal gardens. He will be arriving from the east, so you should come from the west and intercept him at the arbor by the fountain. And remember, if you want to be sure of catching him, you must wear a disguise.”
The person with red shoes was greatly pleased by this, and soon ze went off to make preparations.
That night, the woman clad in the green cape disguised herself by taking off her dramatic cape and putting on a simple gray one. Then she collected all of the things that she had prepared and went to the garden. There she set up a meditation space in the center of the arbor, with comfortable cushions, covered candles, herbal tea, and a selection of aphrodisiac foods that included pomegranate-glazed salmon, oysters, strawberries, and figs in honey.
At the same time as she was laying out the food, the man in the indigo hat was disguising himself by taking off his dashing indigo hat and putting on a simple gray one. Then he tuned his lute and, carrying it with him, snuck into the formal gardens. There he hid just outside the arbor, staring intently to the west.
And while he was finding the perfect bush to hide behind, the person wearing red shoes disguised hirself by taking off hir fancy red shoes and putting on simple gray ones. Then, right at midnight, ze wrapped hirself in a concealing cloak and took hir dog on a walk through the moonlit garden, coming from the west and looking keenly to the east.
Well, the instant that ze reached the arbor, the man in the gray hat, mistaking hir for Prince Hart, jumped out of the bushes and launched into a tender ballad about self-acceptance. Unsure of how to respond, the person wearing gray shoes froze in place. Meanwhile, the woman in the gray cape peered anxiously out of the arbor, trying to discern what was happening.
Unfortunately, at that very moment, the dog smelled the salmon. Seizing its chance, the dog leapt into the arbor and charged through the middle of the meditation space, scattering tea mugs, oysters, and strawberries in its wake. As the woman in the gray cape jumped to her feet in outrage, the dog started gulping down salmon pieces as fast as it could.
Both the person wearing gray shoes and the man in the gray hat rushed after the dog, but it was the person wearing gray shoes who got to the dog first. Regrettably, just as ze grabbed the dog up into hir arms, ze stumbled over the dish of oysters. One misstep onto a pile of shells later, and both ze and the dog landed with a squelch right on top of the honeyed figs.
The man in the gray hat only avoided colliding with the two of them by running smack into the woman clad in the gray cloak. With a yelp and a thud, the two of them fell over onto the pile of cushions. Flailing feet knocked over the covered candles. Fortunately, the candles went out, but they spread large pools of slick wax on the ground. And in the darkness that followed, there was a great deal of slippery wrestling and angry shouting as more food got squashed, the dog got loose again, and the three suitors finally realized that Prince Hart wasn’t actually there.
Then the palace guard arrived and attempted to sort everything out. Happily, no one had been hurt, but there was a giant mess. The center of the arbor was covered in debris, grimy paw prints were everywhere, and all three of the suitors were coated with wax, honey, and mashed fruit.
Oblivious to their own roles in the disaster, each suitor blamed the others.
“You scared Prince Hart off!”
“How dare you! I am his One True Love! You two are the ones following him around like hungry tigers!”
“You’re the hungry tiger with all of that True Love nonsense! I am the only one who can help Prince Hart!”
They were so contentious that the guard had to separate them. The next morning, they were brought before the queen. Deeply embarrassed by the situation, the queen summoned Prince Hart. She said, “Your refusal to select a suitor has led to this! You have humiliated yourself, these three suitors, the kingdom, and our great royal line. It grieves me to have to do this, but since you refuse to choose from among the suitors presented to you, one will be chosen for you!”
Then the queen summoned her chancellor and the royal scribes, and she announced, “I hereby decree that in three days’ time, a poetry contest will be held. The winner will receive Prince Hart’s hand in marriage!”
As you might expect, Prince Hart was terribly upset by this. Not only was he being blamed for the actions of others, but in three days’ time he was going to be forced to marry someone who, in all probability, had a completely false idea of who he was. So Prince Hart resolved to take the only action that he felt was left to him—to leave his family and kingdom behind and go out into the world. Therefore, Prince Hart put on simple clothing, packed a knapsack, wrapped himself in a concealing cloak, and snuck out of the palace.
He walked through the bustling city streets with a heavy heart. Then, just by chance, he bumped into Tala in a crowded market. Well, Tala saw his long face and asked him why he was so gloomy. Prince Hart sighed and told her what had happened, to which Tala replied, “If that’s all there is to it, then I can help you. Go back to the palace and let me take care of everything!”
As soon as Prince Hart was gone, Tala went to a large bookshop and searched until she found an obscure book with terrible prose but the most beautiful poems she’d ever read. Then, once Tala had the poems memorized, she used ink mixed with grease and wax to draw lines on her face. Next, she combed ash into her hair and wrapped herself in a threadbare shawl.
Now, disguised as an old woman, Tala went to the market and found a spot next to a popular food cart where she could sit on a stone and recite her poems for the line of waiting people. As expected, the lovely poems were well received. Tala earned a hearty meal, and that evening, a middle-aged woman paid Tala three gold coins for her most beautiful poem. The next day, Tala did the same thing, and she was approached individually by a young man and a young woman who each begged her to teach them her most wonderful poem. The third day, she was even more successful, as no less than five people cajoled Tala into giving them her most extraordinary poem.
Meanwhile, the three original suitors prepared themselves for the contest. They were all deeply unhappy about having to compete with so many others, but they each had ample determination to carry them forward. Naturally, each suitor composed their own poem around their misguided beliefs about Prince Hart’s “true problem” in an attempt to finally get their message through to the prince. So the woman clad in the green cape, now convinced that Prince Hart was hiding from sexuality because he had been scarred by a bad experience, composed her poem about growth and self-knowledge, while the man in the indigo hat fixated on Prince Hart’s amazing attractiveness, which to him proved that Prince Hart was not truly asexual deep down. His poem ended with Prince Hart letting go of fear and embracing his “true self.” At the same time, the person wearing red shoes constructed hir poem around the belief that Prince Hart couldn’t really know that he was asexual without trying sex first. As you might expect, this poem ended with Prince Hart falling in love with “the right person,” which magically changed everything.
During this time, Prince Hart waited anxiously. And while three days isn’t very long for a prince dreading a forced marriage, it was plenty of time for a horde of suitors, encouraged by the queen, to shower Prince Hart with gifts. Of course, there was the expected fruit, wine, chocolate, rare spices, perfume, incense, jewelry, books, and love poems. But there was also a painting of a cisgender male suitor’s genitals, a stack of love letters that was slipped into Prince Hart’s bed, a necklace made out of a female suitor’s hair, a stuffed crocodile head, a bucket of oysters, a naked drawing of Prince Hart himself, and a silk nightshirt with the words, “I want it all over me,” elegantly embroidered on its front.
Finally, the day of the contest arrived. The contest began at noon with all of the participants gathered together into an antechamber. Then, one by one, each participant was brought forth to the great hall, where they recited their poem for the court. First, the three original suitors each recited their middling poems about their unique and erroneous romantic beliefs. Next came two noblewomen, who delivered two equally undistinguished love poems. They were followed by a prosperous merchant who delivered a nice little poem about the joys of summer. Then the seventh participant took the stage. She, a humble villager, recited the most heart-achingly beautiful poem about love and the changing seasons of life that anyone had ever heard!
The whole court expected this humble villager to win…that is, until the tenth participant stepped onto the stage and delivered the exact same poem. As the contest progressed, things rapidly degenerated from shocking to farcical. To the dismay of the court, more identical poems were recited. By the end, five people had recited the exact same winning poem, while another three had recited the second-best poem. It was such a travesty that there was no way for the queen to determine a winner.
Instead the queen declared, “Since this test of intellect and expression has been met with a disgraceful show of deceit and trickery, I now decree that it shall be a deed of heroism that determines the winner. This contest will resume in two days’ time, and upon that day, the person who captures the unicorn that has been rampaging through the palace wood will receive Prince Hart’s hand in marriage!”
Well, as you might expect, Prince Hart was greatly discouraged by this. Things aren’t getting any better, he thought. Leaving my family and home really is my only option!
However, just as Prince Hart started repacking his knapsack, Tala appeared. “I see that you are losing heart again,” she said. “But there is no need to worry—I’ll take care of everything!”
Then Tala went to the public house located among the farms that bordered the palace wood. As she had suspected, everyone there was downcast because, as bad as the unicorn was, a hundred people all trying to catch it on the same day was sure to be worse.
“They’re going to trample our crops right into the ground,” said one farmer dolefully.
“There will be nothing for us to eat this winter,” added a second farmer.
“If only there was some way to keep the unicorn and those contestants out of our fields,” sighed a third farmer.
“The only way to do that would be to stop the contest from happening in the first place,” responded a fourth farmer.
“And it is not like any of those contestants can make the unicorn come to them,” commiserated Tala. “There is going to have to be a massive search.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” replied the first farmer. “My grandmother always said that unicorns love sweet clover. I bet if someone took an armful of fresh-cut clover out to the wood, the unicorn would appear quick as a flash.”
“That may well be,” said Tala, “but unicorns are dangerous. I’ve heard that the moment a unicorn spots someone, it lowers its head and charges right at them, trying to gore them with its horn.”
“That’s easy enough to deal with if you have a group,” responded the second farmer. “Unicorns go after movement, so if you keep everyone moving, then it won’t be able to focus on anyone.”
“Well, sure,” said Tala, “but then how do you catch it?”
“Easy,” said the third farmer. “Get it to charge into a trap!”
“A fluttering flag in front of a big tree trunk should do the trick,” added the fourth farmer. “If it charges hard enough, that unicorn’s horn will get stuck so deep in the wood that it won’t be able to pull itself free. Then all you have to do is tie it up and cut the horn loose.”
“Still, it would be very dangerous,” said Tala. “The queen would surely punish anyone who defied her by catching the unicorn before her contest had started.”
“You have to be caught to be punished,” said a fifth farmer. “And there are ways of getting in and out of that wood with no one being the wiser.”
By the time Tala left the public house, the farmers had made their plan. The following day, secret preparations were carried out, and that night, strange sounds were heard coming from the wood. The next morning, the first light of dawn revealed the silvery unicorn hobbled and staked out in the big clearing in front of the palace.
Of course, the queen was furious, but she could not discover who had done it. So, seething with frustration, the queen declared a new contest for the very next day. This time the queen was determined that, regardless of circumstance, there would be one clear winner, so she announced, “The contest for Prince Hart’s hand will resume at noon tomorrow as a race! Starting in the clearing in front of the palace, contestants will run down the old road to the river and back. In addition, each person will carry with them an empty pitcher, which they will fill from the river to prove that they made it all the way to the water’s edge.”
Well, Prince Hart had no idea how he was going to get out of this one, but this time he went straight to Tala for help. And as before, she replied, “Don’t worry! I’ll take care of everything!”
Happy to create another spectacle, Tala began immediately by going out into the city and spreading the news of the exciting race as far and wide as possible. Along the way, she invited all of the food cart vendors, a large troupe of acrobats, two jugglers, a family of dancers, the Musical Creature Band, and all of the strangest animal talent contestants. Next Tala went to the market and bought a basketful each of rope, lettuce, carrots, squash, bananas, and fresh fish. She then hired a horse and cart and loaded up everything she had bought.
Early the next day, Tala drove the cart out to the clearing in front of the palace and hid it in a ditch that ran along the edge of the field. There she sat and waited, and while she waited, Tala tied half a dozen bananas to a rope, starting with one on the very end and working her way upward so that they looked like beads on a string. Then she pulled out a second rope and did the same for the carrots. She repeated this process for every type of food that she had and finished by tying all of the ropes to the cart.
Meanwhile, the food vendors arrived, eager to stake out their places. Soon after, the first spectators turned up, claiming their spots for viewing the race. By noon, the field was so packed with a chaotic mixture of runners, spectators, carts, and performers that it looked like a festival ground.
Anticipation grew as the runners, jugs in hand, took their positions on the starting line. Unfortunately, even though the starting line was half the width of the field, there were so many runners that they could not all fit. Therefore, the queen gave members of the nobility, including the three original suitors, the privileged positions on the starting line. Behind them was a second line of merchants and artisans. In the back was a third and fourth line of farmers and laborers.
The tension mounted as the runners crouched at the ready. Then, suddenly, the sharp blast of a horn signaled the start of the race.
As the runners sped off, the eager crowd of spectators pressed in, dangerously narrowing the path. Despite this, the race got off to a good start, or at least it appeared to. Once the runners reached the river, however, the problems became clear. First, there was a great deal of slipping and sliding on the algae-covered rocks at the water’s edge. Several pitchers were smashed, and, worse still, once the runners started their return, they discovered that the path was now too narrow to accommodate so many people going in both directions. It wasn’t long before two people crashed right into each other, and a runner ended up on the ground with her full pitcher overturned.
“You did that on purpose!” she shouted.
“Get out of my way!” came the reply.
“How dare you!”
More accidents happened, and soon fights erupted all up and down the road. To make matters worse, the crowd was so thick that no one could clearly see what was happening.
The queen, however, was quick to respond. She summoned her guards and directed them to move the spectators back, starting with the all-important finish line. In short order, a large section of the field had been cleared and a banner had been erected to clearly mark the end of the race. Next the queen ordered a group of guards to move down the road, widening it by shifting the onlookers back.
Everything seemed set for the remainder of the race to go smoothly, but what the queen didn’t know was that she had just made things ready for the final stage of Tala’s plan. Indeed, at that very moment, Tala wrapped herself in a concealing cloak, jumped onto the cart, and drove it up the side of the ditch and right out into the clearing. There she careened around the field, passing right next to the packed crowd of spectators, animals, and performers. And as she swept by, Tala tossed each rope of food to a different animal, with the lettuce going to the donkey, the carrots to the elephant, the squash to the pig, the bananas to the monkey, and the fish to the bear.
Then, as the cart continued forward, it inexorably dragged the ropes with it, pulling them out of each animal’s grasp. Well, that is more than even a well-behaved animal can stand, and the animals broke free of their handlers to chase after the treats. Now, with the animals in pursuit, Tala drove the cart straight at the finish line.
A group of guards rushed at Tala, trying to cut her off. But they were too late! By the time they reached her, Tala was already at the finish line. Desperate to regain control, the guards grabbed at Tala’s horse, frightening it into leaping sideways right into the network of ropes and stakes that was holding up the banner. Further alarmed, the horse tried to bolt, smashing the cart into the ropes.
The guards finally caught the horse, but only as the cart toppled over, ripping down the banner and spilling the baskets of fish and produce all over the ground. Immediately, the donkey, elephant, pig, monkey, and bear all descended upon the food, trampling the banner into the ground as they each devoured their favorite treats.
Now the road was blocked and the finish line out of sight. Ever quick to respond, the queen sent in more guards, ordering them to “Clear the road at once!” But that was easier said than done. The animals were in front of and on top of everything, and they refused to move. Since the guards were ineffective, the queen then sent in the animals’ owners. However, even for an experienced person, it isn’t easy to pull an excited animal away from a pile of food, and it’s much less so while tripping over ropes, baskets, and guards.
Tala, meanwhile, had leapt out of the cart just in time to avoid the guards, and now, in the midst of this chaos, she found it easy to discard her cloak and slip away unnoticed. However, Tala couldn’t resist getting a good view of the end of the race, so she made further use of the distraction to join Prince Hart on the canopied platform where the royal family was sitting.
She got there just in time to see the first three runners enter the clearing. Well, when the runners saw a giant mess where the finish line should be, they had no idea what to do. One tried to circle around, while the other two attempted to push through. There was a great deal of tripping and spilled water. No one knew who the winner was, and what’s more, few people cared. The spectators laughed uproariously at the comic spectacle of it all. In fact, several of the better-natured guards and runners were laughing too.
“It is going to be hard to judge a winner without a finish line,” observed Prince Hart.
Unsurprisingly, the queen was fuming. She was actually on the verge of appointing a spouse for Prince Hart right then when her wife said, “My dear, I think that we need to admit that we aren’t going to win this.”
“But Prince Hart needs to continue our noble line!” growled the queen.
“A marriage is no guarantee of that,” said the queen’s wife. “Is it not better to give that up than to lose the love of our son?”
“Has anyone considered a magical solution?” interrupted Tala.
“What do you mean?” demanded the queen.
“Well,” said Tala, “certain fairies have been known to grant children to childless people.”
“I’ve never been able to find one of them,” the queen replied bitterly.
“Wishing and praying often does the job, too,” said Tala. “Especially if it is a strange wish!”
“That is unreliable, half the children produced end up cursed, and it requires the people involved to actually be having sex,” replied the queen.
“Does it?” asked Tala.
The queen glared at her.
“Well, then,” Tala said, “you’re just going to have to get one of those powerful objects that grants wishes.”
“Like what?” asked Prince Hart.
“For one, the Wishing Dildo is said to have the power to grant any wish relating to sexuality or fertility, as long as that wish is consensual,” replied Tala.
“And where is this Wishing Dildo?” demanded the queen skeptically.
“It is said to be in a tall tower located where the Errant River meets the Stormy Sea,” replied Tala.
“Well, that does sound like the perfect solution to our problem,” Prince Hart said.
“Such things are never as easy as they sound,” the queen replied harshly.
This statement was followed by a long, awkward pause.
Ever a woman of action, the queen resolved this awkwardness by turning her attention to sorting out the chaos on the field.
Well, by now it should be clear that, while the queen was a decisive and accomplished leader, she struggled with listening and change. It isn’t easy to let go of an illusion you’ve held for years, but that night, the queen and her wife talked it over, and the queen finally admitted that her son was asexual and that he wouldn’t be having heirs in the way she wanted.
The next day, the queen went to Prince Hart and said, “It was wrong of me to try to force you to marry. I was upset, and instead of working with you to find a solution, I tried to force my solution on you. That damaged our relationship, and I am sorry. Will you forgive me?”
To this, Prince Hart replied, “I need you to promise to accept my asexuality.”
“I promise,” replied the queen.
“Then I forgive you,” said Prince Hart.
Thus it was that Prince Hart’s family finally came to terms with his asexuality, and both his family and the suitors learned the hard lesson that it is essential to accept people for who they are, not who you want them to be. Prince Hart was overjoyed at this change, and, together with Tala and his parents, he held a great celebration and invited the racers, the poets, the farmers, the guards, the vendors, the performers, the Musical Creature Band, all of the strangest animal contestants, and even the three original suitors. Whomever attended did not go home with an empty stomach. And if they have not stopped, then they are probably still celebrating today.
Because my discussions have been getting a bit long, I’ve decided to break them into different sections to make it easier to navigate and digest. This discussion has three sections: Overarching Themes, Choices About Language, and Interesting Details and Their Sources.
Perhaps the biggest theme of this story is a response to the all too common romanticization of boundary-crossing behaviors. These behaviors are often abusive and center on a disregard for the boundaries of the romantic object, who is usually a woman. They include forced kisses, harassment, stalking, possessiveness, violent expressions of jealousy, and forcing people to do things “for their own good.” In a disturbing number of books and movies some or all of these behaviors are portrayed as signs of deep love and devotion. Frequently this goes along with the idea that when it is “true love” it is okay for someone to engage in these behaviors, witch would otherwise be bad, because true love is so powerful that it makes people do inappropriate things that they would not otherwise do. This idea is particularly worrying because it is a ready-made excuse for just about any harmful behavior. Rather than teaching that love means respecting the boundaries of those we love, this idea teaches people that love justifies anything, including harming those we profess to love. This really creeps me out and as someone who really enjoys romances, I find the prevalence of this deeply frustrating.
In response, I channeled all of my frustration about this issue into this story. Here I used humor to highlight how unpleasant and toxic these boundary-violating behaviors are. They aren’t appealing or romantic; instead they show a deep lack of empathy with the person who is the focus of these behaviors.
Although fairy tale romances are less detailed, there is still a lot of non-consensual romance portrayed in the Grimms Brothers’ fairy tales (kidnapping in #6 “Faithful Johannes,” forced marriage in #52 “King Thrushbeard”). The most prevalent pattern of this involves a contest for marriage to a princess that a commoner man wins. Because he is a commoner (or at least the princess thinks he is), the princess does not want to marry him, so attempts are made to be rid of him, often including the creation more obstacles or marriage tests which the man then overcomes. Examples of this are #17 “The White Snake,” #20 “The Brave Little Tailor,” #71 “How Six Made Their Way in the World,” and #54 “The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn.” Occasionally a woman is shown as being justified in her concerns over an unwanted suitor (#40 “The Robber Bridegroom,” #46 “Fitcher’s Bird”), but most of the time it is portrayed as a class issue, with the woman being prideful and needing to get over her pride and accept the man’s attentions. Clearly this is deeply unhealthy and pushing back against this pattern is a major reason for my choice to use a contest for marriage as a major feature for this story about unwanted suitors engaging in boundary-crossing behaviors.
Online texts of Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales can be found at: Tales Collected by the Brothers Grimm and The Grimm Brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales. Note that story names vary because they are translations from German.
Another common sexist pattern in fairy tales that goes right along with marriage contests is the use of women as rewards. This clearly takes away women’s agency and makes them into objects. I first addressed this pattern in a small way in “Tala and Godmother Death” where the second godchild imagines being rewarded with the prince’s hand in marriage for saving his life (in the original Grimms’ version of this story, the king promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to the person who heals her). In “Tala and Godmother Death” a different concrete reward is offered to the second godchild (a prestigious governmental position) and marriage as a reward is only ever something that the godchild inappropriately wished for.
In “Tala and Prince Hart” I delve much deeper into this pattern. Here I portray how unhealthy this pattern is by illustrating how ridiculous it becomes, how it encourages inappropriate behaviors from suitors (the creepy gifts), and the way it is destructive of family bonds. Even though this story is pushing back against this sexist pattern, because I am partially enacting the pattern to illustrate its flaws I felt it was important to avoid having an objectified female character at the story’s center. By centering the story on a male character I avoided reinforcing sexism with a portrayal of yet one more woman as passive and needing rescuing (I still tried to show Prince Hart taking agency in small ways, though, and we will see Prince Hart taking on even more agency in the next story). Another part of opposing this pattern was choosing to have no marriages take place at the end of this story. Instead, an alternative solution is presented and the queen realizes that she was wrong.
You may notice that in this story I am stepping away from the idea of good and evil that is so common in fairy tales. This is because I believe that this concept, which has a significant place in modern USA culture, creates a lot of dynamics which further oppression. The biggest problem with good vs. evil is that it is so binary, one or the other. It has been used to justify wars and I believe it is this either/or mindset plays a role in the dehumanization process that goes along with hate crimes. When people leave the “good” category they are seen as no longer deserving of rights or protection. Violence is seen as justified against those who are in the “evil” category. Fairy tales are a great example of this, because it is crystal clear that once someone leaves the “good” category, the violence perpetrated against them is justified, in fact that violence becomes part of the happy ending.
In addition to justifying violence, the good/evil dichotomy fails us because it doesn’t make room for the real complexity that people live with. I believe that this is an important reason why so many people refuse to recognize that someone who is a charismatic community member who contributes to important things community projects could also be an abuser. People using the binary model of good/evil that permeates our culture think of this person as “good,” and because of that find it impossible to believe that that same person could be doing something they would think of as “evil” (abusing others). The truth is that most abusers were themselves abused in the past. They may also have abilities that they want to contribute to our communities, but none of that erases the harm they are also causing. Reality is messy and complex like this and I believe that we won’t be able to fully address abuse in our communities until we leave behind this either/or model and embrace complexity.
Because I feel the good/evil binary is so destructive, I aim for much greater moral complexity in my stories (one more reason why I choose to have three godchildren in “Tala and Godmother Death”). In addition to a small number of villainous characters who I portray in a more humanized way, my stories have situations with no villains (“Tala and Death’s Embrace”), characters that seem villainous until you know their story (some of these my in-progress novel), and many people who take on the role of villain temporarily who later get the opportunity to grow and change. My goal is to capture a spectrum of moral complexity that is broad enough that readers will start to wonder if there is more to the story of those characters who I do portray as unredeemed villains. This is a reflection of the level moral complexity that people face in their everyday lives. After all, fairy tales can provide powerful metaphors and symbols that help us process the obstacles in our lives, and having endings that tackle morally complex situations and include a realistic healing and reconciliation process can be particularly meaningful for those times in our lives when our “villain” is a community member, a friend, a family member, or part of ourselves.
In this story my temporary villain is the queen. A big challenge with writing her was that I wanted to portray her concerns with enough realism for readers to understand why she becomes so fixated on getting Prince Hart to marry, while at the same time having it be clear that her fixation on one particular (unrealistic) solution to the problem of royal continuity was blocking her from finding a better (workable) solution.
This is a very real dynamic that has happened in my own life. It can be surprisingly easy to get hooked on one possible solution to a problem and then focus on the task of making that solution happen. When I do this, I find that I am unintentionally redefining my problem as implementing my desired solution. Sometimes this works out okay, but conflicts can happen if I run into a situation where my chosen solution is not a realistic possibility, particularly when it involves wanting another person to do something that seems reasonable or easy to me, but is not actually workable for them. This can lead to an intractable conflict. However, if instead pursuing my chosen solution, I let go of it and unravel the situation down to what the real problem actually is, suddenly multiple solutions present themselves and I can work with the other person to discover which one will fit best.
In addition to showing a real conflict dynamic, I made an effort to add small details, such as the queen regretting her hasty words and backs off from her initial intention to simply appoint a spouse for Prince Hart, to show that in her own flawed way the queen cares about her son and is trying. This also shows that she is capable of change, which is important to leave room for the final reconciliation.
At this point I’d like to mention that it actually took me some time (and multiple discussions with others, both in-person and online) to decide on this story’s exact ending. I knew that wanted to oppose the forced marriage and spouse as object patterns, and I wanted a happy ending for Prince Hart. There were also a lot of things I wanted to do with Prince Hart that were not fitting well into the end of this story (like showing him developing happy, healthy romantic relationships). It wasn’t until I realized that I would need to write a follow-up story, “Tala, Prince Hart, and the Wishing Dildo,” where Prince Hart gets to do all of those things, that I was able to create an ending that actually fit this story well. Once I decided that it became clear to me that the most important thing for the ending of this story was not validating the marriage contest and pressure to marry with a marriage of any kind. In addition, I wanted to present three key things: the idea that there were other solutions to the queen’s problem that could have been pursued if she was problem solving with Prince Hart rather than deciding for him, a meaningful apology from the queen, and a family restoration process where changes are required for people to move forward.
Another big theme of this story connects right into this family dynamic, and that is the experience of having a trait which your family and/or society teach you is wrong. This is often followed by a process of self-discovery which results in the claiming of an identity. It also can include a coming out process, conflicts with family of origin, and interacting with people who use various strategies for denying the reality of the identity, as is shown for Prince Hart. This experience can happen around a lot of different identities, particularly those which are only discovered as a child grows up, such as being asexual, queer, trans, gender non-binary, polyamorous, and neurodiverse. It is a really common experience for people in my community and, as such, it felt like a really good fit for a story pushing back against unhealthy visions of romance. Both are situations where people are focusing on who they imagine a person is, rather than accepting them for who they are.
The end of this story has an important resolution of these conflicts around identity. In the real world, repairing a family after such an intense conflict isn’t always possible, but in many cases resolutions at least are attempted. This is something that a lot of queer and trans people in my community struggle with, and particularly because nonviolent resolutions are rarely shown in fairy tales, I wanted to do it in this story.
I made several choices in my portrayal of this resolution. The first was for the queen and her wife to spend time processing this issue on their own, an important process for parents (or other family members) coming to terms with the fact that the ideas they had about who their child was doesn’t match who their child really is. Secondly I chose for the queen to make full, genuine apology to Prince Hart. Often apologies are skipped in portrayals of family conflict, but I feel that genuine apologies can be very important way to aid the healing process by publicly recognizing harm that was done. As discussed for “Tala and Godmother Death,” in USA culture, when shown, apologies are often treated as a way of erasing what happened. However, there are models for fuller versions of apologies that include both recognition of the harm done and a plan for positive action that the person will take to prevent it from happening again (A Better Way to Say Sorry). While I was following a model for a fuller apology, I did also make the queen’s apology a little awkward and it is Prince Hart, not his mother, who suggests a concrete change that he wants as part of repairing their relationship. I did that because, I wanted it to be clear that this is challenging for the queen and she is far from perfect at it. After all, if she was really good at this, things never would have escalated as they did in the first place. Therefore I wanted to show her struggling with this process, just as I’ve seen many people in the real world struggle with this. The other benefit of this choice is that it gives Prince Hart a chance to take some power in this reconciliation process. Reconciliation is not automatic or guaranteed and he gets to determine for himself what he need for a true reconciliation. For Prince Hart, lasting change is what he needs in order for the reconciliation to work.
In the follow-up story, “Tala, Prince Hart, and the Wishing Dildo,” I intend to show that this resolution is the beginning, not the end, of the healing for Prince Hart and his family. I have a lot of friends and community members who have ongoing struggles with family, even as things improve. Growth and healing can take a while. Therefore, in “Tala, Prince Hart, and the Wishing Dildo”, I intend give some space to further delve into the dynamics of a family healing and growing in their ability to accept an oppressed identity.
This story is also about asexuality, a sexual orientation (for lack of a better term) that is often ignored and invisibilized (asexuality can be thought of as the sexual orientation where a person is not sexually attracted to anyone). One of the reasons I chose asexuality to be central to the conflict in this story is that it is so often ignored and I wanted represent it in detail. In addition, having an asexual main character who is uninterested in sex works well for this story because Prince Hart’s lack of sexual interest provides a blank slate onto which the other characters project their own misconceptions. There are a lot of myths about asexuality, many of which are very similar to myths about other sexual orientations (I found lists of these on multiple websites and forums, the majority of them can be found on this list from Asexuality Archive). In fact, there are commonalities in the myths about many stigmatized human traits, particularly those traits which only become apparent as a person grows up (being queer, trans, gender non-binary, neurodiverse, etc). This commonality allowed me to capture a broader experience of growing up to be something your society tells you is wrong along with a more specific asexual experience.
I had a lot of fun weaving myths about asexuality into the queen’s behavior and the obnoxious behaviors of the suitors. Since one myth about asexuality actually is that there is no such thing as asexual men (presumably because masculinity is associated with hypersexuality), just having a male main character busts this myth wide open. In addition, I gave each suitor a distinct strategy for denying identity. Combining this with comic exaggeration was a great way to push back against some of the really frustrating things that can happen to asexual people and entertainingly illustrate the ways that these myths are often paired with boundary-crossing behaviors.
There are a few important things I did want to mention about asexuality, while I’m on this topic. The first is that “asexuality,” like all identity terms, means different things to the different people who identify as asexual. There is no one monolithic right way to define it. Also, the experiences of asexual people are highly varied. Prince Hart is one specific character with his own specific experiences. He is not meant to represent the experiences of all asexual people. For example, there is nothing about asexuality that means that all asexual people will choose to never have sex. Some asexual people enjoy sex. It is simply that the character Prince Hart does not want to do have sex. I do intend to introduce more asexual characters, each with different perspectives and experiences, in future stories. To read more on asexual experiences you can go to the Asexuality Archive. There are also a lot of information and active forums at AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network).
Choices About Language, and Interesting Details and Their Sources