Ever After by Incomparable Uranian
....And I got bunnied for fic. Not the fics I'm actually working on at the moment, oh no. What I get is my brain waking me the fuck up from a very pleasant nap to inform me that I really need to write about the similarities between the Gonou/Kanan backstory and the Ramayana. Because clearly I do not spend enough time on canon meta as of late. What emerged, over four hours or so, was a pretty fucked-up story-form analysis thing that I can't quite describe...something halfway between a deconstruction and a comparison, I guess.
It never ends well.
All stories begin with “once upon a time”. Maybe some have princes, and some swineherds, but the inalienable fact of the story is that it is never the giant, never the troll, never the dragon who tells the story. Obviously, this is because the wide-eyed child in everyone’s heart craves the security of the happy endings life never gives them, and everyone knows what happens to the dragons and trolls.
(Perhaps the stories told by the light of dragon fire are different, and whisper of the joy of flight, how best to swoop on the unsuspecting; the terrors of clipped wings, gilded cages and humans with sharp swords, inflated egos and the wrong sort of religion. Who knows?)
Returning to the reasons for the beginnings being the same – ah, that’s because we all want to be the centre of heroic stories, without doing anything to deserve the heroism of it. Wiser heads place it all far, far away in the distant past, on the destinies of princes, half-gods, incarnations, prophets – people they will never be – absolving themselves of the responsibility that present and future press on their shoulders.
There’s a reason fairy tales are never written in first person, hm? Might be wise to remember that.
But our story does begin once upon a time, in a distant land, where…when did it begin? When straining muscles and agonized cries heralded the birth of twins on a humid summer’s day? When first they looked into each others’ eyes, green into green, and awareness of not-self flashed through half-formed infant minds? Perhaps it began, instead, when a small boy stood on the wrong side of an orphanage’s gates, watching a tall back disappear, his sister hidden in his mother’s arms? In the hurrying of her steps when he only cried one name, and that name never hers?
Ah, no matter. Childhood is such an uninteresting part of life anyway; for the storyteller, at least.
This is, after all, a love story, and must begin with joy, as all love stories do.
Once upon a time, in a distant kingdom, there lived a prince with the loveliest green eyes there ever had been. The prince was fair, studious, a skilled fighter – good to his people – but his heart was cold and distant and belonged to no one, although lips curved and eyes twinkled. He was purely self-contained, needing neither family nor friends to live in quiet productivity, and none caught a glimpse beyond what lay behind his eyes – none cared to, for what need of that was there, when he was unexceptionable in every way?
They knew, in the vague way that people know, that the prince was lonely, aching for love. (Don’t all princes, after all?) But whenever they asked him, all he would say was that he was waiting for something, with the smile that said that he would like to be believed, please. And the people did not press further, being posessed of a healthy sense of self-preservation.
But it came to pass, as it usually does with princes, that in his sixteenth year, he went riding to kingdom after kingdom in search of a bride. In the last one he spied a fair young maiden, perhaps as old as he himself was. He looked in her eyes, the same clear green as his own, and in them he saw what he had always wanted. And at last the prince was satisfied, for he had seen himself, and he let himself fall in love with her, and she with him.
But the stories do not like love to be easy. Love which grows through quiet conversation, under disreputable roofs and over endless card games, around broken pasts and in the fullness of time, love that rests in unspoken caring and the affectionate curl of an arm over slender shoulders – that love is after all lesser than those warriors who risk life and limb for their ladies, or women who endure unspeakable torment to be true to their husbands. So the stories say anyway.
And so it was that in the second year of their marriage, the prince and princess found themselves forced into exile for years by the machinations of the court, the king dead with heartbreak even as he kept his unspeakable vow to his wife. The people mourned, the people wept…and then the rains came, there were crops to be transplanted, slightly higher taxes to complain about, and someone slayed a large and bad-tempered boar to the west of the city and promptly became a local hero. And life moved on.
What? There’s a reason the stories focus so tightly on the heroes.
Contrary to all expectations, the prince and his wife were quite happy in their little home, the ramshackle cottage they’d found on the outskirts of a remote village. He taught, she cleaned, and they discovered that he also had to learn how to cook, in the interest of avoiding truly spectacular indigestion.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a hero in possession of a good life must be in want of a quest. As a result of this, it was perhaps inevitable that when the princess left their little haven in the woods one morning, she was seen by the Demon King, whose lusts and viciousness was unparalleled. When the prince returned from his teaching, with venison and herbs and a tiny packet of sweets clutched in his hands, his house was destroyed and his love was gone, dragged away who knew where.
It was approximately at this point that our little fairy tale went for shit.
There's a reason why heroes are who they are, which is always a little cleaner than their opponents. The storytellers press chivalry and courtesy, courage and godliness upon their chosen heroes, imbue them with all the virtues they can so that the common folk may look upon their idols with awe and reverence and feel just that much better about their own morally unwashed nature. There are, after all, Things Heroes Do Not Do, but it's all right to do them if one's isn't....what, they say, shrugging shoulders and shifty eyes, I can't be that good, what do you take me for, some sort of saint?
It therefore follows that heroes must be good, or better than the villains at least, if only because the storyteller says so, and that any evil they indulge in must have extenuating circumstances, and be brief, mild and doused with liberal and appropriate amounts of regret afterwards. Heaven forbid the hero fall from his pedestal; there's never any lack of helpful hands to tear him apart when he does. The cult of heroism is, after all, the worship of fools by jackals.
Heroes, when they lose their spouses, gather their faithful followers, princes and musicians and thieves and helpful young boys whose mysterious skills prove very helpful in the fiftieth chapter. There may be cross-continent journeys, filled with battles and fraught with peril. Temptations beset them, nobly triumphed over, of course, and villains accost them, all handily equipped with a fatal flaw. Each one another step on the way to the journey, no loose threads, uncertain morality or open endings…everything neatly tied together, in the way that all good stories – all good lives – should be.
Heroes, when they lose their spouses, do not return to the village where they have taught, to find out where their love might have been taken (villagers are poor people – and we all know the poor are ignorant, innocent and not evil; don’t all the stories say so?). Princes who hear that people with cold, beautiful green eyes do not know the tragedies and difficulties of real life do not return home in stunned silence; their hands are meant to close around enchanted swords and god-given bows, not the prosaic practicality of a kitchen knife - the one slender fingers closed around as she laughed and told him she could do this much at least, step aside, now. They are certainly not meant to take that knife and cut and slash and spill blood until every place her lovely feet had set foot on, all the tiny shops they had wandered past, were drenched in blood. Because, as he considered, if the letting of blood purifies the body, wouldn’t spilling it all cleanse the soul as well?
Of course that never happened, because heroes don’t do that sort of thing, do they? Why, they’d almost be real if they did.
The prince set off on a lonely quest across the land, seeking his princess. A dying bird, its eyes plucked out in a most villainous fashion, wings shredded as if by a blade, told him where the Demon King’s palace lay, far to the south of where he was. They had whisked her across the land faster than a penniless prince could walk on his own two feet, but he followed doggedly. Love makes stronger shoes and hardier weapons than the best cobbler or smith, and he trudged over mountains and through dense forests, gathering an army of monkeys and bears to follow him. The Demon King realised that the prince was on his way and sent his minions to stop the prince; but he faced obstacle after obstacle and overcame them all on the way.
(It would be far too prosaic to say that he was alone, and wasn’t regarded as a danger until they found out too late that he was, and that the worst he faced on his journey that he didn’t seek out was the monsoon, and so that isn’t where this story goes, hm? Deal.)
It took him months, but he knew his faithful love, the other half of his twinned soul waited for him – that her love and loyalty were true. The thought, and the hope to have her in his arms again, sustained him through the gut-wrenching fear that gnawed at him, all the possibilities that raced through his unfortunately vivid imagination.
There’s a reason, you see, that the wives and lovers and loves of heroes are left nameless in many a tale. Heroes are named, the better to worship them with, my dear, and the heroines are nameless, for an entirely different reason. Their hearts are described with the same flowery words and inscribed with the same bland virtues as all the others – it is a sad truth of fairytales that all virtuous heroes are different, and all virtuous heroines exactly alike. Look a little deeper, and you’ll realise exactly why. Storytellers don’t want their women to be distinguishable, oh no, and they paint them in pretty colours and arrange their personalities in identical boxes, so that the audience can feel they’re worth saving without looking at them.
Because when you look, you might think too deeply about what it feels like to to walk over knives and tear out your voice for your prince, only for him to marry another; to fall from a tower where you were imprisoned for no fault of your own, and the stab of the thorns that rip and tear and blind; to be poisoned by the only mother you ever knew; to lie in a coffin as if dead for years and years, fully conscious, every scream building in your mind trapped in your throat; the terror of cringing back from naked lust in your own father’s eyes as he brings you dresses that glow like the sun and the stars.
Stories aren’t meant to make you feel. And it’s easy not to feel for the nameless, isn’t it?
As a result, we will not dwell upon what happened to the princess while her prince journeyed to save her. There will be no further mention here of ripping cloth and sobs of pain, of violation and bleeding and the absolute denial of dignity. The way she clutched shreds of cloth to hide bite marks on her breasts and bleeding scratches on her thighs as if they were the remnants of her sanity, shielding her battered soul; or, for that matter, the way her cursed belly quickened with life she hated in a matter of weeks, as it had not in all the years she had spent with her one true love.
The important thing here is the quest. Don’t get distracted, it’s impolite.
So the prince came at last to the Demon King’s castle with his ragtag army, set as it was in an unassailable position. The only way in was the way most guarded – the gates – and he, a prince, with such lovely green eyes, could not hope for a moment to pass for demon, saturated in their blood though he was. Still, thoughts of finding his love and ending their pain drove him on, and his courage and skill held true. He fought nobly and true, steel against steel, skill against strength; though the Demon King sent the best of his fighters against him, he fought them off, one by one.
First came a storm of crows, and he plucked them from the sky with glowing arrows, sending them crashing to the ground like meteors. Then the slumbering giant of the castle was roused, and he left with much fanfare to battle the prince. Though wounded by the giant’s irresistible strength, the prince fought back with stubborn determination, and when the giant fell, the sound his body made when it hit the ground was thunder in the ears of the fighters. The sons of the Demon King were felled one by one even as they attempted to distract and mislead him with their foul magic, and the king himself fell last.
Naturally, in the stories, when the king falls, that marks the end of the battle as troops surrender, demoralised. There’s nothing in the stories about princes slaughtering civilians as they flee jade-eyed death, screaming as the monsters of their nightmares comes to life and strips them of theirs. Nor is there anything about the ghastly silence of the bowels of the castle as the prince makes his way through them to where his love waits, to the background static of rain that falls and falls and falls and won’t ever stop no matter how he hushes it with the roar of his pulse in his ears and the wheeze of his difficult breaths as he takes one painful step after another.
And here we come to the last problem in this story. Foreasmuch as it is an accepted fact of life when women are kidnapped by lustful creatures, society and the logic of stories frowns upon them actually losing their virtue in the process, even if forced. It is, after all, the prime reason princes love them and abductors want them and epics have them; once they’ve lost it, they really need to just give up. And the princess, who’d read her share of stories, knew this as well as any woman who’d had the fact bequeathed to her at birth and first blood, and who would have begged and begged and begged to be freed from her pain long before her monthly blood even stopped flowing, if she’d thought anyone would have given her that mercy. But plot devices don’t require special treatment; and so she waited in a cell, alone and terrified, her mind as shattered as her life had been, and when her lover came to her at last, all she could see was the look in his eyes, and all she craved was the knife by his side–
The prince found his love waiting in a room fit for a queen, where the Demon King had repeatedly pressed his suit. Unlike his richly bejeweled concubines, she wore the simplest clothes of mourning, hair loose from the flower-decked braids he had always seen her adorn herself with.
But doubt had seeped into the prince’s mind, and he accosted her with angry words, asking her if she’d given in to the Demon King’s lustful attentions in the time they’d been apart. And the princess, who had not, after all, been exposed to them (this being a proper epic tale and all), recoiled from him in shock and tears. He was instantly contrite, and begged for her forgiveness, but she told him that she wished to prove her chastity. She built for herself a pyre, implored the gods of fire to preserve her, should she be true to her husband, and leapt into it.
But you may wish to consider what would have happened if the prince had found her in the cell after all, and not thought about who might have had her or what they might have done. Perhaps those thoughts would have come as her belly swelled with child; or when the fruit of her womb had red hair and red eyes. His hate was true and deep and she could smell it on him, for she reeked of it herself. In that hate and despair, she did not consider that his hate was fueled by his love, as her love was fueled by her hate. And she bid him goodbye, and the knife plunged through a child not yet born and a mother waiting to die, life’s blood spilling on the floor, painting the futility of his life on the floor of her cell in deep, dark, rich red–
And the princess emerged unscathed from the fire that should have burned her to ashes, and a voice was heard to say that she had been true to him in heart and body for all the days of her life. He rejoiced, and took her in his arms, and together they returned, triumphant, to his kingdom – for the term of their exile had ended the day he freed her from her imprisonment. And he was crowned king, and ruled justly and gloriously for all the days of his life, at least until the rumours got going at his doubts again, his wife got pregnant and he abandoned her in the forest, was reunited ifteen years later with his twin sons, discovered she had never been unfaithful, and she committed suicide rather than return to his insecure ass – after which he died of despair.
Not a very impressive ending, is that?
Maybe you think it is, maybe you think it isn’t. Maybe you think it’s out of character, maybe you forgive the “most righteous ruler who ever lived” his treatment of his wife because he was a hero, and heroes are virtuous, because the author says so. He certainly had more style than to collapse in a pool of blood on a muddy road, after all; he never owed his life to a drinking, smoking gambler considered shoving his guts back in him with his bare hands to be appropriate first aid. One must be careful to whom one owes life debts, after all. He was certainly more virtuous than a mass-murderer who gave up everything for a love he’d lost even before his sacrifice, or the boy who looked into a face so like his own and entrusted his heart to her because he thought he was only giving it to himself, or the child who screamed her name until he was hoarse as he watched her disappear into the distance, never knowing she was crying too badly to even speak.
Where’s the happy ending, you ask? This is a story, after all, and all stories come equipped with one…
He’d have been happy enough to die that rain- and blood-soaked night, in her arms, the poetic end of a lovers’ suicide. Happy enough, even, to die after, with a smile on his lips at the ignominy of sharing his last breath with a stranger with hair that flowed like heart’s blood. Certainly, that would fulfill the demands of a happy ending.
Dying at the end of a divine trial, on his knees, cuffs around his wrists, and the dispassionate gaze of the gods, with the priest who’d argued and cursed in his name while he’d stood there silently awaiting judgment….not nearly as dramatic, no. And yet, that’s an ending. One that might make the thousand he’d slaughtered, and all the families he’d broken happy. So it was that two princes died, and one lived again; not a prince, not a teacher, and certainly not a hero by any description of the term.
If there’s a lesson you crave from this story, you’ll have to look harder than this; and any lesson there is to be found is likely just you wanting to find it, isn’t it? Life doesn’t come in neat bow-tied packages, beginnings and ends all neatly wrapped together, everything logical and linear.
Neither does any story worth its salt.
Not that I can stop you, anyway.
…you’re not seriously waiting for an ending line after all I've said, are you?