Princess Ernestine was not a real princess. She often thought about that fact, backstage in the green room before a show, or giving an interview with an obsequious reporter. A real Princess did not have to work three shows on weekends and seven per work week. A real Princess did not dance until her feet were sore and red and sometimes bled, nor be given a stern lecture for reading too long in the garden, when she could have been rehearsing. But Princess Ernestine was possibly the most convincing not-real Princess you’d ever heard of – in public, her tiny frame was surrounded by bodyguards, fending off her oft-over-enthusiastic adoring public. She had staff who managed what she wore, and ate. Only thirteen years old and already a stage sensation, she knew – as the adults often reminded her – how very lucky she was to be so talented, to be so famous so young.
Lately, before a show, Ernestine would make a very princess-like demand – to be left alone in her tower to meditate. Her tower, of course, was a small yet decadent room full of her clothes and makeup, a stool and a vanity, and a single door between her and the chaos of backstage, her name painted in cheap gold paint on it. But it was a tower enough. In actuality, Ernestine wasn’t even sure what meditation was. But it sounded very grown-up, the adults seemed charmed by it, and she liked that she could be alone for a little bit.
Tonight, as Ernestine sat alone in her room, she went over to her trunk and rummaged around. From the bottom, she took out a small wood case, where a porcelain music box sat protected with cotton fluff wool scraps. Her father had given her the music box as a ninth birthday present, just four years ago but to a thirteen year old, it was like another life. It might as well be, as far as her father was from her now. She ran her fingers along the delicate porcelain lid, gently wound the key at the back, and opened it. Within, a pale pink background faded behind a gorgeous, fragile figurine of a ballerina, en pointe and perfect. The tune that poured forth reminded Ernestine of the sound of the rain on the roof when she was younger, the way it smelled when her bedroom window was opened after the rain, fresh and pure. She began to hum and on a whim, mimicked to posture of the ballerina, en pointe – perfect, perfect as a princess. The music box played and song seemed to grow sorrowful, and Ernestine felt tears running down her face. Just like the ballerina in its box, when the music played, she danced. She danced and danced, a slave to the music as surely as if she were shackled to it. And like the Ballerina, the Princess was nothing more than a beautiful thing to dance, and then be shut away in the dark until the music played again.
Her toes aching, she collapsed, the music box tinkling as it slipped from her hand and hit the ground with a loud crack. Off-key, the music played on as she sobbed over the shattered pieces of the broken ballerina.