A Patchwork Fairy Tale: the one with the dancing, the dressing and the royal assignment.
Two extremely talented sisters are called to the royal court to attend to the Queen’s only child and find that even they may not be up to the challenge.
Big thanks to my sensitivity readers Lucien and Andie.
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[Gentle theme music]
Laura: Hi, you can call me Laura, I’m here to tell you a story if you like. If you want to read as well as listen you can find a transcript and mp3 download on patchworkfairytales.wordpress.com. You found one of my Patchwork Fairy Tales. This is the one with the dancing, the dressing, and the royal assignment.
The Dance Mistress and the Master Seamstress
In a time long enough ago to now be remembered in stories, there once lived two sisters who were raised by a kind mother who wanted to see them both well provided for.
“You must each learn a trade that you can do every day and yet have high spirits to spare when you come home at the end of it,” she told her girls. “If you can find such an occupation, you will live well and be happy.”
The girls were very young when they first heard this speech, but they were old enough to agree with it and as they looked about them to find a skill to make their own, their mother thought to herself:
“I must see to it that they learn well, because I have very little that can be divided among them for their inheritance. There is only the house we live in and such a thing cannot be split in two. Whichever of my daughters is the least successful I shall leave the house to, that way I can be sure both of them will be well taken care of.”
The two sisters knew nothing of this, of course, but it wasn’t long before they each found something they wished to learn. The eldest fell in love with the art of dancing and the youngest lost her heart to the calling of the seamstress. Once their minds were made up, there was no changing them, and their mother was pleased to see that with every passing year their skill increased. The two sisters tried, failed, tried and succeeded and while the eldest learned step after step, the youngest learned stitch after stitch, until the people in town began to say that there had never been such an accomplished young dancer or seamstress in all the land.
In such a way the years fairly flew by and in the blink of an eye it seemed the two girls were grown. Their skills had grown with them to such a degree that their mother, when finally taking it upon herself to try and decide whom she should leave the house to, was utterly unable to make up her mind. Her eldest daughter had become so marvellous a dancer that it was said she knew every dance ever danced both forwards and backwards and very likely sideways too. Not only that, she was a truly excellent instructor. Her efforts had made sure that the young people of their little town were the most delightful dancers in all the land and soon people came from far and wide to be taught by her. She was the most skilful of dance mistresses and she could teach any student any dance, even when they came to her with all left feet and neither sense of direction nor rhythm. She really was a remarkable person and well worthy of her fame.
She, it seemed, did not need to inherit the house then.
Her younger sister, however, had become such a crafty seamstress that there was no fabric she could not work with and no stitch she did not know. No garment, be it bodice, jacket, frock or trousers, was too hard for her to make. Such beautiful things she fabricated that when the people of their little town dressed themselves up for a holiday they were surely the most well-dressed crowd in the whole country. People came travelling from the furthest reaches to be dressed by her and everyone agreed that there was no one she could not dress to their advantage. She really was an extraordinary artist and rightfully talked of and admired.
So this daughter, the mother was forced to conclude, did not need to inherit the house either!
“You are both so extraordinary,” she sighed to her children one fine afternoon. “I truly do not know what to do.” And for the first time she told her daughters the plan she had made when they were just little girls.
“Oh, Mother,” the two of them smiled. “You need not choose at all! Neither of us wants to leave this house or this town and we are happiest all three together under one roof.”
And they both kissed their mother on the cheek and so it was cheerfully decided that things should stay as they were. It truly was a happy moment and perhaps they really might have stayed like that forever, if at that very moment there had not happened to be a great uproar in the neighbouring country.
You see, the country where these two talented sisters grew up in had no royals ruling over it, but the country to the left of it was ruled by a beloved Queen who always put her subjects’ best interests first. Even queens like these can get distracted, however, and on that fine afternoon she was very distracted indeed.
Because it happened to be so that this Queen had a child, a princess who was the apple of her mother’s eye. This princess was about to turn sixteen years old, a very momentous occasion that had filled the royal palace with bakers and drapers and jewellers and all kinds of people to make the royal birthday party the loveliest event of the year. The Queen also hired no less than seven dancing tutors for her daughter, because of course there was to be a ball, but here was the rub. The princess could not dance. No matter how she was taught or what dance she was shown, her dancing was absolutely atrocious.
The queen was encouraging, patient and helpful and so were the tutors, because they were selected to be so, but eventually they all came to tell the Queen the same thing:
“The Princess cannot dance.”
Now perhaps the seventh of them did not quite say the same, perhaps he said the princess wouldn’t dance. But by then the Queen was already so high in her despair she did not hear the difference.
“What are we to do?” she wailed. “The Princess simply must open the royal ball and we have been unable to teach her even the simplest dance! It is utterly hopeless.”
When she said this, however, one of the courtiers’ faces lit up. “Your Majesty,” they said. “There is talk of a dance mistress from a foreign town who has never failed to teach a pupil and knows every dance forwards as well as backwards.”
The Queen rose out of her hopelessness at once and immediately sent a message to the eldest sister that she must come to the court to teach the princess. In her haste she did not make it a very nice message, however, and the dance mistress did not feel like going at all. When the Queen heard this she became very upset and said some very silly things about having her thrown in the dungeons, because Queens sometimes imagine they can do such things, but when she had calmed down she sent another message, considerably more polite than the first.
This time she begged the dance mistress for her help, explaining that it was of the utmost importance that the royal heir would be able to dance on her sixteenth birthday, and moreover promising that her sister could come to court as well, to make the princess her birthday gown.
Because pretty faces there were thirteen in a dozen at the court and fine talkers were ten a penny, but people with a proper masterful skill can be very hard to come by and the Queen was not above apologizing.
This time the dance mistress was more inclined to be helpful and she showed the royal message to her mother and sister. Her sister was very curious to see the fashions at court and their mother told them both that she very well remembered how hard it was to raise a child on her own, so they had better forgive the Queen for her earlier rudeness and go and help her.
The two sisters agreed and off they went, leaving the people of their town buzzing with pride at the thought that their very own dance mistress and master seamstress were going away for a royal assignment. Because since they had no King or Queen of their own, this was all the more glamorous to them.
The court meanwhile was all aflutter with the thought of these two talented women coming for an audience with the Queen. At least five of the courtiers tripped over their dainty, gleaming shoes when the two sisters finally arrived and no less than fourteen of them tried to listen at the door when they spoke to the Queen.
The Queen welcomed the two sisters very kindly and explained to them both that if it was true what the people said, and the dance mistress could teach her child to dance, then her sister could make her the royal outfit, and both of them would be paid their weight in gold.
“Do not worry, your majesty,” the eldest sister smiled. “I will teach the princess how to dance.” And she took her sister by the hand and waltzed through the throne room with such ease and elegance that the tired Queen almost wept.
So the dance mistress was brought to the princess at once and after the introduction she made the most elegant of bows and said:
“If you’ll allow me, your Highness, I will teach you to dance.”
“If you must,” the princess replied with stiff politeness, but the dance mistress wasn’t worried.
Many of her pupils were nervous to begin, especially those that had been trying for a long time and feeling that they failed. So, looking at the quiet, serious princess, she started with the pavane, full of hope and self-confidence.
This was short-lived, however. Goodness gracious, this Princess could not dance. The dance mistress had never seen such a thing. When her feet went left her ankles still seemed to want to go right and no matter how gorgeous the music, the dancing was always the same.
Seven long, gruelling days the dance mistress and the princess studied the pavane and all that was accomplished was that neither of them could stand to listen to the rhythm even a second longer.
“Never mind,” the dance mistress said. “We shall try another.”
This time she danced the sarabande and it looked so pretty that even the princess’ grave face seemed to light up for a moment. When the dance mistress tried to teach her the steps, however, all this changed. Gone was the joy, gone was the grace, and no matter what the dance mistress did to help, it did not work.
Another seven days passed by and the Queen was beginning to grow restless again, but the dance mistress promised her it was all part of the process and began the next week with the minuet.
She tried harder than she had had to do with any pupil and the princess, for all her stiffness and aloof politeness, truly tried as well. But it was no use. There was such annoyance in her movements and such weariness on her face that one would cry to look at her and the dance mistress very nearly did.
“It is not your fault,” the princess finally said wearily. “I will not let my mother punish you. Just leave me be, I am tired and I never want to dance another step.” And with those words she left the room.
The dance mistress had already been very close to tears, but such kind, sober words spoken by a pupil so young she could not bear hearing. With tears of exhaustion washing down her face she ran through the palace hallways until she had found her sister. She buried her face in her sister’s shoulder and sobbed with sadness and frustration, because she had never had to give up on a pupil and being a dancer herself, it was her opinion that everyone should be allowed to dance.
“Oh Sister,” the seamstress murmured. “Dry your tears. There is no one that teaches dancing half as well as you. Does the Princess not want to learn how to dance perhaps?”
“I do not know,” the dance mistress sighed, drying her eyes on her sleeve. “All I know is that I cannot teach her.”
“Why don’t you send the princess to me tomorrow,” her sister said. “We can buy a little time while I design her gown with her. Perhaps she just needs to rest.”
The dance mistress agreed and the next morning, instead of starting another lesson, she took the princess to her sister.
The princess was just as stiff and polite with this sister as she had been with the dance mistress, only even graver still. The seamstress had high enough spirits for both though and she happily showed the Princess all the many different gowns she could make for her.
To her horror, however, there was not a single gown that the princess liked. No matter what the seamstress designed, whatever fine fabric she showed off, nothing charmed her. Neither lovely patterns nor darling buttons or sweet sashes. The princess absolutely hated them all and even worse, they did not look good on her. Because she looked so miserable in every single one of them that the brightest colours seemed to fade to grey and even the finest silk seemed to roughen to burlap.
Now the seamstress began to worry just as her sister had done. The harder she tried the more silent and grave the Princess grew. She dutifully tried on whatever the seamstress suggested, but by the end of the day she scarcely opened her lips anymore and the poor seamstress was at her wits’ end.
“Please, your Highness,” she finally begged in desperation. “Why won’t you tell me what you want?”
And finally the princess spoke up, her grave eyes fixing on the seamstress with tired composure:
“Because you never asked me.”
The seamstress’ eyes went very wide for a second and her cheeks burned red with embarrassment.
“Forgive me, your Highness,” she replied instantly. “Please, tell me what you want. Choose whatever style, whatever cut, whatever fabric. Whatever you ask for you shall have. The only reason I am here is to make something you’ll be proud to wear.”
There was silence for one moment longer and then the young royal finally spoke:
“You will make me anything I ask for?”
“Anything at all, your Highness,” the seamstress vowed.
“Then make me a suit.”
For a moment the seamstress looked on in wonder and then her whole face lit up. A suit. “Yes,” she said readily. “Yes, of course, your Highness!” And she smiled through her own shame, because for all her craft she had been unable to see that she had been trying to fit her young customer with the wrong kind of clothes.
It was aside with the gowns and out came the waistcoats, coats and trousers. And the seamstress talked and asked and listened, until she understood that she was not dealing with a princess, but that she had to dress a prince. Once this was understood, everything was easy. Because suddenly the Prince was no longer silent. No, no, now he was talking of cuts and styles and fabrics with such passion that the seamstress felt her own heart sing with joy.
She had barely put the Prince in the first linen mock-up of what was to be his suit and already he looked more comfortable than she had ever seen him do. The sudden smile on his face was the most charming thing about him and the seamstress’ spirits rose so high again that she dared to suggest calling her sister in to see their progress.
“Very well,” the prince agreed and the seamstress immediately asked one of the footmen to fetch her sister.
As soon as the dance mistress entered the room and saw her royal pupil standing straight-backed in the midst of her sister’s patterns and fabrics, she threw up her hands and nearly burst into tears all over again.
“Shame on me,” she scolded. “A fine tutor I am, trying to teach you the wrong part.”
“If you like, you two can try again,” the seamstress beamed. “While I recut the pattern of this coat.”
And the Prince, who had never in his life been excited to dance, readily agreed.
This time the dance mistress knew what she was about and now he was being taught the right steps and without a skirt swishing around his ankles, the prince suddenly moved across the floor in a way he had never done before. He was not quite a dancer yet, but he moved with such grace and potential that the eldest sister simply could not stop smiling.
So cheerful were the two sisters’ voices and so loudly did the prince end up laughing, that the sound of it echoed down the halls of the royal palace in such a way that it startled the Queen all the way in her private chambers. It was very late at night already, but she came wandering down the corridors in her dressing gown all the same, certain that she had heard her child laughing.
She wandered all the way to the royal dressing rooms, where she was amazing to hear the unmistakable sound of dancing feet. Her own feet were bare, so no one heard her when she opened the door and stood there on the threshold, watching with wide eyes.
The prince turned around just in time to see his mother’s face fill with joy and confusion and he stopped in the middle of his dance. The smile had not yet faded from his face and it did not need to, because the next moment his mother was trying to apologize for one thing and he for another and they were both talking at once.
The two sisters silently slipped away, their hands firmly clasped together and their hearts still shaking with the tension of it all. But first thing next morning both of them were summoned to the royal throne room, where the Queen and the Prince were sitting side by side, both looking like they did not have a lot of sleep last night, but also a great deal happier than they had looked before.
Two royal hairdressers were arguing with each other in the corner, but the Prince told them to be quiet for a moment and said to the two sisters that he would very much like to continue his dancing lessons and that if it was possible, he’d like more than one new suit.
The sisters smiled and bowed. The dance mistress suggested a waltz next and the seamstress assured him that as soon as she’d finished this suit they could look into what else he wanted.
And so, when it was time for the royal birthday ball, the ball was triumphantly opened by the Prince himself. He was all dark silks and shimmering brocades and danced so beautifully and grinned so widely that every single courtier came to tell the Queen how handsome he was, and it may have been the very first time at a royal ball that the compliments spoken weren’t just idle flattery.
The two sisters attended the celebrations, of course, both clad in dresses that the seamstress had made and frequently being spoken to by noble guests who also wanted to be dressed by the master seamstress who had dressed the crown prince.
The Queen was so gloriously happy that when they left she sent both the sisters home with twice their weight in gold, which meant they had to be escorted by servants to carry it and guards to guard them. They did not leave, however, before the Prince had extorted a promise from the seamstress that she would come back when he had grown out of his current wardrobe.
So with that promise made and being rewarded in gold and endless compliments, the two sisters returned home. There they were celebrated by all the proud citizens of their town, but the dance mistress and the master seamstress merely smiled and shook their heads, because they had both been reminded that no matter how talented they were, they would have saved themselves a lot of hardship if they hadn’t presumed to know best without asking. They said as much to their mother when they were finally home again, who simply nodded while she put the kettle on the boil, because that is something parents usually have to learn even sooner than others.
She was glad to have her daughters safely back at home again, the eldest with the tunes of courtly music on her lips and the youngest with her head full of royal fashion. So after all the splendour of the court, it was a very happy homecoming. And a very happy thought for all three of them, that somewhere in a palace in a neighbouring country, a mother and son were discussing fashion, and tapping their feet to their favourite music.
Laura: And with that last word stitching up the very last sentence, this story has its proper end.
Thank you so much for listening, lovely of you to stop by. You can follow this podcast on podcatchers like Spotify, iTunes, or Stitcher, but for an MP3 download, transcripts, themed thags and summaries, you can check out patchworkfairytales.wordpress.com, where you can also contact me and find out about my other projects, like my book Coffee and Faerie Cakes and my webcomic The Fisherman’s Favour. You can also find me at laurasimonsdaughter.tumblr.com which is full of folklore and urban fantasy, or you can follow @patchworktale on twitter.
There’s another tale to tell some other Wednesday but until then…
Wash your feet in the river, pick only the wild roses, and be safe~
Copyright Laura Simons, please do not copy my stories without my permission, lest you insult the fae.