Aqua Regia by Stephanie Parent
Once in a land far away, a princess lived in a castle fortress that was slowly turning to gold. The castle walls were veined with precious metal that seemed to emerge from inside the stone; the ponds and streams gleamed golden beneath both the sun and moon; the grass outside and the carpets within glittered like the most expensive of metals.
The king, who had ruled alone since his wife died long ago, loved gold. He lined the windows with it, even though it sealed the thick glass so it could never be opened. He instructed his cook to stir gold flakes into soups, without worrying how such sustenance might settle within a human gut. And he gave his daughter, his only child, a perfect, miniature golden globe to wear on a gold chain around her neck, and ordered her never to take it off. It would protect her, he insisted, and show everyone how valuable she was.
The king had intended this necklace for his wife, the princess’s mother; but she had died before she could wear it. The jewelry was, like the dead queen herself, delicate and rare. And that, the princess told herself, was the true nature of gold: a precious gift. But by the time she’d passed fifteen years of age, the chain and globe weighed like a shackle against her golden flesh, beneath the long golden locks of her hair.
Golden, because everything the king touched—including, the princess feared, her own self—would eventually turn to solid, immovable gold. A substance with no will or thoughts of its own.
The princess could not protest her condition, could not argue against anything her father said or did. With that chain around her neck, any challenge she spoke would come out only as a croak. But one day, just after the princess had turned sixteen, her old nursemaid came to visit. Dressed in her simple muslin gown, the nursemaid examined the glimmering fortress with keen dark eyes. She gazed straight at the king with his gold crown and told him:
“Your daughter cannot stay here forever. You must allow suitors; she must wed.”
The yellow-eyed king looked his daughter over from head to toe, as if she was another of the golden statues lining his halls, and said:
“The princess belongs here, with me.”
The nursemaid glanced again at the shining floors and ceilings and chandeliers, the windows with their crosshatched golden bars. “Your wife would be ashamed of you,” she said. “Once, there was softness here. Once—”
“Enough!” the king bellowed. And he ordered the nursemaid thrown out.
But before she left, the nursemaid wrapped the princess in an embrace, her warm arms the opposite of metal, a touch the princess remembered from long, long ago. The nursemaid whispered: “I slipped into your room and left something under your pillow. A vial of aqua regia, if things come to that.”
The princess gulped down a lump heavy as the globe against her throat. Aqua regia must be poison, she supposed, a draught to swallow if she had no other choice.
She shivered and adjusted the gold weight around her neck.
Once the nursemaid was gone, the princess went for a walk on the palace grounds—an indulgence her father allowed, since she could never pass beyond the fortress walls. Once she was out of sight of the castle, she began to run. Her heart rattled like a metal wind-up toy inside her, trying to escape her ribcage. She wanted to fling her body against the gold-flecked walls over and over, until she beat all the gold out of herself. All the places her father had touched her, and would continue to touch her, with too-gentle fingers that turned her into something hard.
But gold made her heavy, made movement a struggle, and too quickly the princess had exhausted herself. She found herself before the sun-gilded pond, on her knees, wondering if the water was deep enough for her to drown.
And before she could stop herself. before she’d even chosen to act. she’d ripped the chain off her neck and hurled the gold ball into the pond.
The princess realized her foolishness instantly, and grabbed for the necklace. But it was already gone.
Fear clutched her heart then, its clasp like hot metal pincers, and she wanted even more to know if the water was deep enough to steal her breath and her heart. Because her father would never forgive her for what she’d done.
The princess knelt before the golden water and flung her face into her hands and sobbed and sobbed. Gold-flecked tears seeped between her fingers and streamed to the jewel-edged grass, where the earth absorbed them all. She wept harder; perhaps she knew, instinctively, that she lived in a world where sorrow and despair could grow into some sort of magic.
Once she’d spent herself, become a hollow vessel with no tears left, she slowly lowered her hands from her face to find that twilight had come.
And then she heard the sound.
A wet, slinking sound, sliding insidiously around the edge of the pond. A sound that instinctively told her, run; but her legs shook and refused to stand her up.
It was coming closer, and she forced her metal limbs to move, when there came a wet, croaking voice:
“My beautiful princess, why do you weep?”
The princess darted her gaze all around, sure it was her father speaking—her father, but with something caught in his throat. But she saw no one, until the voice spoke again:
The princess obeyed, and before her was a slimy, warty green creature. A frog. Its mouth opened, its tongue darted out as if to capture a fly, but instead, the thing spoke. “Tell me why you weep, and perhaps I can help.”
Its phlegmy voice made the princess recoil, but appeased by the creature’s small size, she found her own words tumbling out. “Unless you can dive to the bottom of the pond and retrieve a gold ball bigger than your head, you can’t help.” She fought the impulse to let her head fall back into her hands. “No one can help me now.”
“I can retrieve your gold ball and its chain, Princess,” the frog said. Its own eyes bulged, yellow globes with black slits splitting them apart. Its gaze seemed capable of watching the princess forever without pause. “But I need something in return.”
The princess laughed, sure, now, that she was caught in some nightmare borne of her fear. None of this could possibly be real, and so her words carried no import. “What do you want?” she spat. “Gold? Gold for your frog kingdom. Are you a king like my father? Do you own everything you touch?”
“No, Princess,” the frog said; the princess thought, absurdly, that she detected a hint of melancholy in its tone. “I do not want your precious metals, your endless wealth. I want only for you to love me, and let me live with you and eat from your golden plate, and sleep on your golden bed.”
Now the princess knew she had gone mad. She laughed harder, a sound not so different from the sobbing she’d done moments ago, and said, “Fine, yes, whatever you say. As long as you bring back my gold ball and chain.”
The frog’s eyes sparked, gemlike—it must have been a trick of the dying light—and he leaped an arc five times his height to land in the pond, leaving only a small wake and a few bubbles behind.
And that was that. The king would be looking for her as soon as darkness emerged. She could already feel his hands on her, more amphibious than the frog’s, cold despite the hot fury that would come when he learned what she’d done.
She might as well leap in after the frog and hope she never emerged.
Quiet fell with the twilight, the birds and insects hushing as if fallen into mourning, premature.
But then, a new disturbance in the surface of the pond. The frog reappeared, globed eyes first, and lifted the gold ball in webbed hands that were miniatures of a human’s. Miniatures, made eerie because they were not quite right, holding treasure aloft as the creature kicked back to shore.
The princess snatched the gold orb as if it were a mirage that would fade if she hesitated too long. But it was real and solid in her palms, and her heart stopped rattling in fear and started beating like wings instead. If one miracle had occurred, maybe more could as well.
Maybe she could find a way to escape.
As if her thoughts had conjured him, she heard the king’s voice from far off, a louder, sharper version of the frog’s:
“My beautiful princess, my lovely daughter, where are you?”
The princess threw the wet chain around her neck and turned to run back toward the castle.
“Wait!” She heard a rasping call from behind her. “Take me to live with you, Princess, like you promised.”
But the princess was already gone.
The night passed, and the princess slept with the gold ball and chain around her neck. Even in sleep, her father would not let her take it off—he had come into her room to check, more than once. After all, his delicate wife had died in her sleep, of the wasting sickness, and he would not allow his daughter to suffer the same end.
So the princess slept, with that gold ball and chain close to her throat; but also with the vial of aqua regia under her pillow, its liquid slishing and sloshing through amphibious dreams.
The king spent the next day busy with his advisors, making plans to expand his golden kingdom, while a jeweled acid rain kept the princess inside. By evening the entire fortress was soaked, the way the grass had been after she’d cried the night before. She and her father sat at the long golden table, attended by servants whose gold uniforms faded into the gold walls, and the princess chewed at meat so tough she swore the fowl’s food had been metal itself. She wanted to spit it out, but if she did not swallow it all her father would force her to sit here until she did, long after the food and the night had gone cold.
He would not let his daughter waste away, as his wife had done.
The sound of her father’s fork and knife on his plate echoed—
—through the empty hall. Through the princess’s bones. And then, distantly, came another sound.
A squishy, squirmy sound, vaguely familiar in a way the princess could not place.
Each noise climbed with tiny moist feet up the rungs of her spine. It was coming closer, commanding her attention till she could not taste the meat nor see what was before her eyes, and then—
—the king’s fork and knife fell with a clatter to his plate. The princess choked down the last bite of meat as she heard, from the floor below her chair, a familiar croak:
“Lift me up, my princess dear
Lift me up to your golden chair
And mind the promises you made me,
Dear, last night by the golden pond.”
The princess froze; she was a statue and her large, metallic eyes glared down at the small slit ones looking up at her. Those eyes pinned her into place as her father rose to loom above her chair, his breath hot in her ear. He pointed down at the frog, its head tilted and tongue hanging out. “Did you, my daughter,” he asked, “make a promise to, to…” The princess had never heard her father struggle so for words. “…to this thing?”
With the gold ball and chain around her neck, the princess could not lie. “Yes, Father.” She looked down at the specks of fowl flesh on her plate, because it was better than looking at the frog she could glimpse from the corner of her eye. The creature with its green skin so out of place amid the gold.
“That frog saved my necklace when it had fallen into the pond, and in return I told it… I told it I would let it eat off my plate.” She held back the rest of the truth by biting her tongue till she tasted metal-tainted blood.
“I see.” The king cleared his throat and placed his hands on the princess’s shoulders—hands heavy as loaded weights, on a scale meant for measuring gold. “Well, daughter, as you have given your word you must keep it.” He pressed down, till the princess had no choice but to lower her own hand all the way to the golden floor and open her clenched fist so the frog could crawl on. Its slime against her flesh made her a statue again, till her father reminded her: “This frog asked you to lift him to your chair.”
As if she were a puppet and her father held the strings, the princess lifted her hand up to her chair, but the frog did not crawl off. “You said,” it croaked in a distinguished voice, “that you’d let me eat from your golden plate.”
The king’s hands, so cold and bloodless even through the princess’s gold dress, pressed harder into her shoulders. “You,” he nodded to one of the servants against the wall, “procure another slice of meat for our… guest.”
The servant left and returned with a rubbery, steaming slice of meat that landed on the princess’s plate like a punch to the gut. She lifted her puppet hand to the table, and placed the frog beside her plate, and watched it hop off with a nonchalance that reminded her of her father. Both moved as if they had the right to penetrate whatever realms they pleased.
But the slab of meat was bigger than the frog. The creature looked up at the princess with its black-slitted eyes, till her father broke in: “Cut the meat into tiny pieces, so that this reptile may eat.”
The error in the king’s words made the princess pause; he leaned over her and grabbed the gold-handled knife, and forced it into her hand. In the gleam of the blade, she thought she saw her father’s eyes—but they were slitted like the frog’s. She hesitated, till her father clutched her wrist and guided it along.
The meat sliced open the way the princess’s body did, sometimes, in the most secret hours of the night.
The frog hopped onto the princess’s plate and unlatched its green maw, its tongue emerging to pluck up the meat like each morsel was a fly. When it was finished, it turned its shiny green head toward her, a fleck of golden meat still resting beside its wide, wide mouth, and croaked: “Now I am tired; carry me upstairs, and put me into your bed.”
The king’s hands slid past the fabric of the princess’s dress and into the bare hollows where her shoulders met her neck. “What”—his fingers played with and pulled on the gold chain—“exactly, did you promise this frog?” His quiet voice echoed in the empty grandeur of the hall.
“I— I said it could sleep on my bed.” She bit harder on her tongue, till blood flooded her mouth, and managed to hold back the worst of the truth—the part where she’d agreed to love the frog.
The princess expected the king’s fingernails to dig into her flesh, and so the absence of his touch was an almost worse shock. “Well.” Her father cleared his croaky throat. The princess kept her gaze down but sensed the sinister fury of his smile, heard it in his voice. “In this kingdom—in this family—one’s word is as solid as gold.”
He did not have to elaborate for the princess to understand. She reached her shaking hand toward her plate, and the frog hopped on as if it belonged there, and remained there as she stood. Her footsteps in her gold slippers echoed up the silent hall, the silent stairs, as her father’s gaze burned into her back and forced her along.
The princess had two golden pillows on her king-sized bed, and the frog croaked out its demand to be set upon the one opposite hers.
She did not think she could sleep, with the frog’s marble eyes watching her like two stars that had crept down from the heavens in the dark. But at last she slipped into hazy dreams where her father was holding her, swearing to protect her, to keep her from wasting away as her mother had done. Yet his hands were too small and too green, too slick and cold-blooded. Fingers shaped like a human’s, but not quite right. His eyes, gazing into hers, bulged so round they might burst, and when he opened his mouth his tongue slunk out, too thin and too long.
Whenever the princess’s body spasmed with the horror of it all—the urge to run, but how could she run from her own self?—she sensed the tiny vial her nursemaid had left. The aqua regia, the poison, rocking back and forth like a tiny lullaby beneath her head. Your word is gold, your word is gold, it said.
She had, as her father had reminded her, given her word to love the frog.
Love was a golden poison, liquid and mutable, insidious and deadly. Poison slished and sloshed the princess toward the dawn.
Two more nights passed, with the frog eating from the princess’s plate and sleeping beside her for each one. She feared the golden hue of her flesh was taking on a verdant tinge, only visible in a certain light. The third morning at breakfast, her father looked down on her green-veined wrist with eyes that appeared to hold pain, and the shadow of loss. Then he shook his head, and his gaze regained its metallic edge.
The princess wondered if her mother’s skin had turned this same sickly green, as she wasted away, as her body poisoned itself from the inside out. Or maybe she’d become so wan she was yellow, almost gold.
“Where is your little pet, my daughter?” the king cut into her thoughts.
“I… I do not know, my king.” Every morning the frog hopped off her bed and out her open door, and it only reappeared at dinnertime, when it hopped into the dining hall with the tap, tap, plash, plash, that creeped and crawled up her backbone.
Every evening, the princess hoped that this time, the frog would not reappear; but on this third evening, not only did the amphibian make its usual entrance, but it brought a guest.
A huffing, protesting guest who plowed her way through the servants doing their best to keep her out.
It was the princess’s nursemaid again, and only the weight of the gold chain against her neck kept the princess from running right to the old woman and clutching on to her. Her old caretaker, the one soft, warm-blooded thing in this kingdom of green and gold.
“You!” The king threw his fork and knife onto his plate and rose from his chair. “I told you to leave and never come back!”
“The frogs were taking over my garden,” the nursemaid said. “They hopped into my dreams.” She looked ahead of her, where the frog waited by the princess’s chair. “I see they are here as well.”
Just one. The princess could not speak the words, any words, aloud.
The nursemaid looked up and into the king’s eyes. “I will join you for dinner,” she said.
The king threw up his arms. “We already have reptiles to share our meals”—once more he had the species wrong—“why not a crude woman who does not know her place?”
The nursemaid did not wait for the king to choose a seat for her; she stood between the king and his daughter, and harrumphed, until a servant scurried to bring her a golden chair.
The clink-clank of forks and knives soon rang out, but the nursemaid only cut her food and did not eat. She watched the frog on the edge of the princess’s plate, the creature darting its tongue out and curling the slimy pink tip around each tiny piece of meat, the princess only swallowing a bite herself when her father looked her way.
Finally, the nursemaid clanged her fork against the edge of her plate like a bell, or a call to arms. “My king,” she cleared her throat, “I implore you, you must see what is happening here. What would your wife say, were she alive to witness this?” The king’s hands clenched around his utensils, fists rigid, solidifying, but the nursemaid went on. “You must send your daughter away from this fortress. This prison. She. Must. Wed.”
The frog spoke, then, for the first time since the nursemaid had arrived:
“The princess will marry me,” it croaked. “She promised to love me, the evening we met.”
The king lunged across the table then, silverware still in his hands, knife point and fork prong only millimeters from the frog’s eye. “Freak!” he thundered. “Monstrosity! I have tolerated your presence here long enough, but you go too far. If the princess marries anyone, it will be me she weds!”
All the air left the room at once, sucked into the lungs of those who heard such words. Even the servants against the walls, trained to fade into the alcoves as if they did not exist, could not contain their cries.
The nursemaid stood and threw her golden napkin onto her plate, and pointed her wrinkled fingers toward the king. “You have allowed your gold and your grief to poison you,” she said. “You have gone mad.” At the same time the frog croaked, “Take me up to your pillow, Princess; it is time for bed.”
And the princess herself sat as if welded to her chair, while the others talked over and about her, and did not notice her becoming one with the furniture, metal-limbed.
This time, the servants had to grab the nursemaid by the arms and drag her out, while the king watched like a golden statue, and the frog smacked its gullet down on one last morsel of flesh.
“Remember, my princess, my dear,” the nursemaid called as she was yanked out of the room, “remember…”
The word stretched long as the leap of a frog, and the princess pictured the vial under her pillow, till her protector disappeared.
Despite the nursemaid’s intrusion, the night proceeded like the previous ones. The princess placed the frog on her pillow, and blew out the candles and tried to sleep. She sensed the cold glass of the vial beneath her pillow, the liquid inside splashing and swirling, as real as the chain around her neck. At last she fell into a tortured, watery sleep, and dreamed of her father’s hands—the frog’s hands, its feet—crawling across her flesh, up the inside of her arm, over her shoulders and under the chain, up her neck to her jaw and then higher, to sit on her closed mouth, reaching for her eyes.
Oh, how she wanted to wake from this nightmare, but if she opened her eyes she would encounter slimy skin; if she opened her mouth she would taste frog flesh, slimy and foul. Oh, how she wanted to scream, I do not love you; I will never love you; get away from me, monstrous thing.
But she had promised, hadn’t she—she had told this creature yes, whatever you say—and her word was solid, her word was gold—
The princess flung her head back and forth on her pillow in her sleep, and frog fingers pinched her skin, a parasite desperate to hold on.
She had said she would love the frog; and after all, how could a girl not love the creature who had saved her; how could a daughter not love her father, a father not love his daughter, however monstrous—
Frog feet niggled at her lips like pliers, prying them apart. The princess awoke then, all the way, and grabbed for the green creature and closed her fist tight around warty flesh that brought bile to her tongue. She yanked the frog away from her face, stunned to find that, after all, her hand was stronger than the monster. And in the gold room obliterated by darkness, she opened her eyes.
The princess forced her metal limbs up, till she was sitting tall. With the same shaking arm she’d used to fling the gold ball and chain into the pond, she hurled the frog away from her, all the way to her bedroom wall.
The frog exploded against the gold-veined stone, and in a brief flash, it made its own sort of luminescence. Enough for the princess to see green guts sliding down the surface and then wavering, reforming in the shape of a man, like one of those fairy stories of beastly princes her nursemaid had read—
She glimpsed the outline of human fingers, and above them a brocaded golden sleeve. A broad, capable set of shoulders covered in a gold-tasseled coat. The set of a strong jaw, barely visible now as the light died. The frog, transformed into a stranger, no longer a monster.
For a moment, the princess allowed herself to hope.
And then, in the growing darkness, came the flash of the man’s gaze. Yellow-gold she recognized. Despite the black, amphibious slits in their centers, they were her father’s eyes.
The princess’s father took one step toward her bed, then another. She sensed him coming closer though she could see only the light of his eyes, hear only the sound of his footsteps that tap, tap, plash, plashed across the floor as if he waded his way through a pond. The chain burned heavy against her chest, and she fumbled behind her, found the vial beneath her pillow and plucked it up. Clasped it tight against her heart. Uncorked it and smelled something acidic and sharp, something she imagined would eat her from the inside out.
“My daughter,” she heard, a voice that was half king and half frog. “You’ve grown up to look exactly like your mother.”
Her heart beating like a bellows, the princess brought the liquid to her mouth. Her lips parted. She began, with trembling fingers, to tip the vial—
But she couldn’t stop herself from looking into her father’s eyes one more time. She expected to find gold, solid as the ball resting against her throat.
Yet she saw only yellow, sickly, poisoned. Brimming with moisture like the last rays of sunlight fighting the onset of a storm.
Her father had poisoned himself with grief and gold. Gold was poison. That was its true nature. Poison like the aqua regia she clutched tight in her hand.
The princess tipped the vial further, opened her mouth wider, choosing, in this last possible moment, to take the better fate for herself—
And as her father stepped closer still, just close enough, she catapulted the vial away from her, so it splashed out over her father’s face, his gold-clothed form, eating away at his mouth, his skin, his limbs. His entire self.
Poison for poison. The princess welcomed the wrenching in her heart, the pity for the monster as his clothes and flesh dissolved, and charred golden bones fell with a clatter to the floor.
That wrenching, that pity, meant that after all, the princess had not been poisoned. She had not become solid gold.
The princess reached for the chain around her neck, ready, at last, to cast it off for good. But it no longer burned against her touch, no longer weighed her down. It was a shackle no more, simply a memory of the mother she’d never known.
The princess stood, light-limbed. The golden globe tap, tapped against her chest like the beat of a heart as she stepped over the pile of bones, toward the way out.
Stephanie Parent is a writer of horror, magical realism, and more. Her debut gothic horror novel, The Briars, is forthcoming in May 2023 from Cemetery Gates Media. Her debut poetry collection, Every Poem a Potion, Every Song a Spell, launched in August 2022 via Querencia Press. Follow her on Twitter.