“Once upon a time...”
Prince Telmund of Rosenmark loved stories of all kinds, but he had a special fondness for stories that began, so full of promise, with those words.
When a story began with “Once upon a time,” a prince who was the youngest—as Telmund was—could end up having wonderful adventures against fire-breathing dragons, spell-casting witches, even hungry ogres. No catastrophe was too great: Eventually everyone would appreciate him. Strangers would cheer for him in the streets. His parents would realize they had underestimated him. Those older brothers, whom everyone had been counting on, would acknowledge him. (Most stories included two thoroughly disagreeable older brothers, but in Telmund’s case there were three adult brothers, which made them more disinterested than disagreeable. But surely the same rules would apply.) And a distant kingdom’s beautiful princess would swoon for love of him—either a princess who needed rescuing from something or one whose father had set a seemingly impossible test to win her hand.
No matter if that youngest prince was a bit puny, even for his age, or that he appeared to have no special talent, or that no one took him seriously. In any story that began with “Once upon a time,” if there was a youngest prince, you could count on knowing that he would save the day.
Telmund was waiting for his story. His once-upon-a-time. His and then-everyone-acclaimed-the-youngest-prince tale. It was only a matter of time.
And then his mother gave birth to a fifth son.
Suddenly Telmund was not the youngest prince. Nor was he the oldest, who would inherit the kingdom and one day become king. He was just one of the middle sons—perhaps the least special of all his brothers.
Suddenly “Once upon a time” felt impossibly far away.
“Once upon a time...”
Princess Amelia of Pastonia hated stories that began with, “Once upon a time...” She preferred facts to stories, and in any case thought that particular sort was the most useless, especially for the only child of a royal couple. Someday—many, many years in the future, she hoped—she would reign over the lands now ruled by her parents. She needed to be ready, to be able to speak and read and write in as many languages as she could possibly learn so that she could communicate with people of different lands. She needed to be able to do sums as easily as breathing, and to understand history, science, finances, agriculture, and diplomacy. And even—should things ever come to that—warcraft. There was no time for foolishness, or for frittering away her hours caught up in the made-up experiences of made-up people.
She loved her parents, she truly did, but she just could not understand their fondness for make-believe. “Relax, Amelia,” her father would say. “Haven’t you ever heard the story about the man who was always so busy that—”
“I’m in a rush right now, Father,” Amelia would cut him off, even if she wasn’t in any special hurry. She simply wished to avoid having to listen to one of his stories.
“You fret too much,” her mother would tell her. “Things always end up with, ‘And then they lived happily ever after.’”
“Not without a lot of work, Mother,” Amelia would point out, even though her parents did seem to be living a charmed, worry-free life—sort of like the end of a once-upon-a-time story but without having had to go through the middle part with the rampaging giant or the man-eating sea monster or the unwise bargain with a sorcerer.
“Your father has everything under control,” her mother would assure her.
Which Amelia should have taken as a warning.