ONE COULD BEGIN THIS STORY with a short but powerful sentence about a dead person, and could continue to emphasize that the certain person was, in fact, dead for two or three paragraphs henceforth. However, we shall start this story with an even more familiar phrase:
Once upon a time, there was a young prince named Destan Gustav Von Diederich. Destan had a very eventful year leading up to this point—a year full of adventure, new friends, and even new enemies. He couldn’t say that he had enjoyed every moment of the past year, but he had learned a lot and had managed to conquer many of his previous apprehensions.
Normally, Rosenstaat was covered in a sparkling blanket of white by this time—the 23rd of December. But—thanks to Destan (it’s a long story)—it was unseasonably warm and not a single flake of snow had fallen from the heavens since his return from Queen Isole’s palace. Although this pleased Destan very much, for he had never relished in the winter season, most of his friends did not share his sentiments.
He often heard Hansel and Gretel Bachmeier complain that it didn’t feel like Christmas without snow. Evie Rosamond—another of Destan’s friends—did not utter a single word of complaint, but he could tell by her occasional sighs and her discreet looks of disappointment that she too missed the frosty, winter weather. Despite his friends’ dissatisfaction, Destan was happy that he would not be subjected to the pain that always accompanied the snow; however, try as he may, he knew he could not escape the hurt of having to face another Christmas without his parents.
Klaus and Kristiane Eisenmann—his mother and father—had been dead for nearly seven years now. Although he knew he should be over it by now, December remained to be one of the most difficult times of year for him. It was true that this Christmas would be much less lonely than the previous years, as he had new friends to share this holiday season with. But, despite this, there was still a gaping hole in his heart that only his parents had been able to fill.
Simply put, Destan didn’t like Christmas. He despised the wretched holiday with its false merriment and supposed ‘good cheer’. It was just an excuse to give and receive presents from people who didn’t necessarily care about each other. Luckily, most of the people who would be celebrating Christmas with him this year were genuine friends and family that he loved. Thank goodness his Uncle Philipp, Aunt Gabriele, and cousin Nicholas had decided to spare them all the discomfort of their presence this December. However, Destan was a bit dismayed at the news that his Uncle Bastian along with his new wife and stepson had chosen to stay in Wulfbach that year—he and Bastian had always gotten along very well.
The only part of the guest list that made him cringe were the Gottschalks—the royal family of Östlichwald. King Lorenz, Queen Annemarie, and Princess Sophia, were not the problem—in fact, they had always been very cordial towards him. It was the youngest princess he couldn’t stand: Klara. Unfortunately Klara Gottschalks was also his betrothed—a fact that she never let him forget.
Unlike his other friends who complained of the lack of snow, Klara was taking full advantage of the fair weather. He often saw her sunning in the back garden wearing a pair of dark lensed spectacles and a summer hat, with a cup of tea in one hand and a fashion book in the other.
Now, as he sat beside a window in the library, he could see Klara lazily fanning herself as she and her older sister, Sophia, listened to the violin music played by one of the servants—Klara had no doubt demanded a performance from the poor man.
Destan would enjoy the sun later. Right now, he had to keep himself focused on his studies—if he didn’t, he ran the risk of that familiar pain taking hold of his heart. After Christmas, all would be well. After Christmas, he could breathe a little easier. After Christmas, it would hurt less…
He set his cheek on his fist as his bright blue eyes trailed away from the window and back to his work. The Latin words on the page seemed to run together into an incomprehensible jumble that was nearly impossible for his strained eyes to make sense of. How long had he been sitting at this table attempting to study? How many subjects had he gone through today? How much information had his desperate mind glossed over in attempts to fend off thoughts of his parents? Although he was well aware that this study time was unproductive, he continued at it—if nothing else, he was a very stubborn boy.
“Ah, there you are,” said a familiar, genteel voice.
Destan glanced up to see Florian Nachtdiener—his grandfather’s head court advisor—strolling towards him. Florian was a handsome man with olive skin—uncommon in those of German descent—and emerald green eyes that glimmered with perpetual amusement. His wavy, dark hair was held back with a ribbon which was tied at the base of his neck.
“Yes, here I am,” the prince mumbled, bowing his head over his work once more. “What is it?”
“Your friends from the village have been here for well over an hour. They wish to know what is keeping their prince,” Florian said, stopping a foot or so short of the table that Destan was seated at. The advisor tilted his head, studying him curiously. “I thought Herr Loewe gave you the week off from your studies. Has he changed his mind?”
Destan shook his head, his disheveled, golden blonde locks brushing against his cheeks. “No. I just thought it would be prudent of me to get a bit of extra work done now that I have the time.”
Florian sighed softly and took a seat across from him. “I thought this year would be different for you. There is no snow to remind you of your parents passing—you saw to that.”
Destan’s brow furrowed, though he did not look up to meet Florian’s gaze. “But there is still Christmas.”
“You mean to say that you would exile that as well?” Florian asked.
The prince’s features hardened as he set down his quill. “If it were in my power, yes. I’d pass over the whole blasted month of December if could. Perhaps next year I shall go somewhere where the people do not celebrate Christmas, then I can go on living as if December doesn’t even exist.”
“You really think that will ease your pain?” Florian said, his tone softening. “You should know better than most that pretending that your heartache is nonexistent, does not make it so. You can run from your pain all you’d like, but eventually it will catch up to you. December isn’t going anywhere, Destan, so I suggest you get used to it.”
Destan gritted his teeth. “I will do no such thing. My parents died during this cursed month and as long as that is true, and I cannot make merry. I will not dishonor them by doing such a callous thing. This month is a solemn time for me, Herr Florian, and that is the way I intend it to stay.”
“But what of Christmas?”
“What of Christmas?”
“Herr Farrell, Sir and Dame Bachmeier, and Dame Rosamond will be celebrating with us this year,” Florian said. “Surely you’ll see to it that your guests have a good time, won’t you?”
Destan’s expression softened at the mention of his friends. “I will do my best, but you well know that Grandfather invited them, not I.”
“Yes. He thought the inclusion of your new friends would lift your spirits a little,” Florian replied. “Though, I see now that his efforts may have been in vain.”
The prince’s eyes flickered up to meet Florian’s. “Oh, I see. Now I’m the difficult one, am I?”
“In a word, yes,” Florian said, the corners of his lips turning up only slightly. “Come now, your highness, are you not at all please by your friends presence? Aren’t you excited to see their faces when they open the gifts you’ve chosen for them?”
Destan crossed his arms over his chest. “Look, I have no intention of avoiding the festivities, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”
“That isn’t what I’m concerned about.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s your attitude toward this holiday,” Florian said, any trace of a smile suddenly disappearing from his face. “You can’t despise Christmas forever just because it happens to be in the same month as your parents’ deaths. You should celebrate the friends and family that are still alive while remembering your parents fondly. You needn’t have a funeral in your mind every time December, or Christmas, or your birthday, or any holiday comes around. This solemn ritual must end, Destan.”
The prince narrowed his eyes, and glanced towards the window once more. “You keep Christmas in your way, and let me keep it in mine.”
“But that’s the point: you don’t keep it, your highness,” Florian said insistently.
“Then so be it!” Destan snapped, standing from his seat and hurriedly collecting his books and parchment. “How I feel about this blasted holiday is no one’s business but my own!”
Florian stood up as well. “Are you going to see your friends, then?”
“No. I’m going to my room where I can be left to study in peace and quiet!” Destan shouted before turning on his heel and stomping out of the library.
“Come on, Herr princey, open up!” Hansel shouted from outside Destan’s door.
“You’ve been avoiding us all day. The least you can do is open up the door and let us see you,” Gretel huffed, sounding extremely irritated.
“I bet he got fat,” Hansel said a little too hopefully. “That’s probably why he doesn’t want us to see him. I knew all of the chocolate was going to do him in—it was just a matter of time.”
“You wish! We saw him just last week, idiot!” Gretel hissed. “Wipe that stupid smile off your face—he’s not fat.”
“Ha ha! You just can’t bear to think of your perfect prince with a chocolate gut on him!” Hansel laughed loudly.
“Come now you two, keep your voices down. Shouting at him is no way to get him to open the door,” Evie said, her voice much softer than the siblings’. “Destan? We would really like to see you. We’ve been here for most of the day and we’ll be returning home soon, so at least let us say goodbye.”
Destan was hunched over the desk at the back of his chambers, reviewing some overly complicated math problems—he hadn’t gotten very far as mathematics was not his forte. However, finally, after realizing that his friends would not leave without some sort of response from him, he sighed heavily and called back, “You’re coming back tomorrow, so I’ll see you then.”
Hansel groaned. “Look, I’m fine with that. Really, I am. It’s the girls that need to see you—ouch! That hurt, Gretel!”
“Good!” his sister shouted. “Don’t make dumb assumptions. I just want to see him so I can yell at him to his face about ignoring us all day!”
“Gretel, please…” Evie begged softly. “Destan, we know what this is about. We just want you to know that we’re here for you if you need to talk about anything.”
“Gretel and Evie are better listeners than I am, just so you know…” Hansel mumbled.
“Be nice, idiot!” Gretel yelled.
“Ow! Stop hitting me!” Hansel yelled back.
Evie shushed them before going on. “We’re your friends, Destan, and if you need us, we’re here for you, alright? And, if you ever feel like it, I’d love to hear about your parents. From what everyone has told us, they seemed like really lovely people. Sometimes it helps to talk fondly of the people we’ve lost—I know it helps to talk about what little I remember of my father.” There was silence for a moment as if she were waiting for Destan to respond. When he didn’t, she continued. “Just think about what I said, alright?”
Hansel exhaled noisily. “Do you have a pimple, Herr Princey? Is that it? I bet he’s got a huge pimple.”
“Hansel,” Evie said sharply, much to Destan’s surprise. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. You know he’s hurting.”
“Don’t mind him,” Gretel said. “He’s jealous that you and I like Destan so much.”
“Am not!” Hansel protested vigorously. “Look, Destan, whatever the problem is, you better be over it by tomorrow. Evie and Gretel have been looking forward to Christmas all month, and if you ruin it for them by being all dark and brooding, I’ll be forced to knock some holiday cheer into you—got me?”
“Hansel!” Gretel and Evie cried in unison.
“What? I’d say that’s as good a pep talk as any.”
“You can’t threaten a prince, stupid!” Gretel hissed.
“I can if said prince is being a sulky git,” Hansel said, the frustration clear in his gruff tone. “Besides, he deserves a kick in the trousers for avoiding us all day!”
Destan set his forehead on his desk with a soft thunk, blowing out a breath of air. “You all should leave before it gets any darker. You’ve got a long walk back to Gründorf.”
“Well, you could offer us a carriage back,” Hansel called through the door.
“Oh shut it, Hans,” Gretel grumbled. “You need a bit of exercise after all that food you ate at dinner—you act like you’ve never seen filet mignon before.”
“I haven’t and neither have you, so get off your high horse, Greta. I saw you scarfing down those little tea cakes! If anyone needs the exercise, it’s you!”
Destan heard Evie sigh again—it must have been exhausting for her to deal with their bickering all the time. “We’ll see you tomorrow, Destan. I hope you feel better…”
After Evie said that, Destan heard the sound of three pairs of footsteps moving away from his door and down the marble tiled hallway, accompanied by Hansel and Gretel’s whispered bickering. Destan looked up at the clock on the wall above his desk and saw that it was nearly six o’ clock. Where had the day gone?
It was almost completely dark outside now, and Destan vaguely wondered if he should call his friends back and offer to let them stay the night. But then he would be obligated to spend time with them despite his bad mood… He didn’t want them to see him like this. If he let them go now, chances were that he would still have friends in the morning—he could not guarantee that if he asked them to stay.
They’ll be fine, he thought dully to himself as he picked up his quill and began to work on his assignment once more. Just one more day and I’ll be back to myself. One more day and I’ll be able to spend time with them like I normally do. I just don’t want them to see me like this. I don’t want to infect them with my misery…
In only six hours the dreaded day would be upon him: Christmas Eve. That was when he—along with the rest of Germany—traditionally celebrated the Christmas holiday. There was dancing, singing, tree lighting ceremonies, gift exchanges, and an overabundance of joy. For the past few years, Destan had chosen a quiet spot in which to sit and watch the festivities from afar. He preferred it that way. Perhaps things would be different if his parents were still alive—no. Things would be different if his parents were alive. Without Klaus and Kristiane, Christmas felt terribly lonely—it mattered not how many people had come to partake in the festivities at Rosenstaat palace.
Despite how grim the thought was, Destan knew that even if his friends were present this Christmas, his loneliness and sadness would remain. Nothing would change. No one could help him feel any differently. December would forever be marred by the tragic events of his past.
Destan flinched at the harsh sound of the clock’s chime.
The clock sounded again and Destan’s eyes flickered open. He realized then that he’d fallen asleep at his desk. As he lifted his head, he felt a piece of paper sticking to his cheek. He peeled it off his face and stretched his arms above his head, reaching for the ceiling with a groan of discomfort.
The prince scowled upon hearing the sound of the clock chiming again. Since when did he have a chiming clock anyway?
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked up at the wall clock. It was midnight on the dot—the 24th had arrived.
The clock struck again as he was staring at it, only then did he realize that the chiming hadn’t come from that clock at all. Now that he was slightly more awake, he realized that the chiming sound seemed to be coming from the room itself.
The prince stood up, his eyes flickering to every dark corner of his chambers as he tried to figure out where that blasted noise was coming from. Surely if he didn’t find the chiming’s source and stop it soon, it would wake the entire castle up.
It sounded even louder this time. Destan hurried through the darkness of his chambers, tripping over chairs, tables, and strewn aside clothing, desperately searching for whatever was making that terribly loud chiming.
Destan stubbed his toe on his bed post and cursed to himself beneath his breath. “Will you shut up already?” he grumbled between gritted teeth.
As if in reply, the phantom clock answered, “Ding-dong!”
He stumbled over a chest and looked back towards the fireplace where a fire—that he didn’t start—already blazed. It was the only light in the room and he decided to move towards it to collect his bearings—the dark had a way of disorienting minds that were already discombobulated with drowsiness.
The clock sounded again just as he managed to stumble into the yellowish light of the fire. The light made his shadow long and gangly, like some sort of monster with arms and legs that looked as if they had been stretched too far. The air suddenly turned cold despite the flames that danced in the fireplace.
Destan covered his ears, trying to drown out the chime, the resonance from which made the entire room tremble. What was going on?
His hands did little to drown out the thunderous chime that surely woke up all the residents of the palace. The fire was suddenly extinguished and Destan was left to stand alone in the darkness of his room without even so much as a candle to comfort him.
He waited for another chime, but the room was silent and deathly still—it was disconcerting for the prince to say the very least. Slowly, he lowered his hands from his ears, his eyes straining to see through the darkness as his gaze darted about the dark masses of furniture that were spread out across his room. At least, he hoped those black masses were all just furniture.
He snatched up an iron poker from beside the fireplace and gripped it tightly in his sweaty palms. It was so cold—as cold as the winters in Rosenstaat used to be. Where had the draft come from?
Destan cautiously looked towards his drapes and saw that they were waving slightly in some phantom breeze. He had not opened the window, he was certain of that. Perhaps one of the servants lit the fire and opened the window while I was asleep. Yes. That must be it! Although his mind was confident that this had to be the case, his body trembled like a leaf in the wind. He had not been this frightened in quite a long time—not even the mirror shard spirit had frightened him to the point of shaking.
He swallowed the lump in his throat before calling out into the darkness, “Hello?”
“Hello, Destan,” came the sound of male voice. The voice was echoy and had a sort of distant quality to it, but it wasn’t unpleasant or frightening. On the contrary, the voice he’d heard was warm, unlike the icy air that now coursed through the room.
A smoky white figure materialized out of the darkness. It was the figure of a man who was young and strong. Although he was transparent, Destan could see clearly the handsome features of someone he knew very well.
The prince’s eyes widened and the iron poker slipped from his grasps, clattering to the wooden floor below. “Father…?”
Klaus smiled and nodded once. “Yes, Destan. It is I.”
The prince stared wide-eyed at his long dead father, before an uncertain chuckle escaped his lips. “Ah, I see. This is a dream…”
“Do you think so?” His father asked pleasantly.
“It must be! That’s the only way this scenario makes any sense at all,” Destan cried. “You’re in my head and I’m asleep. I was thinking about you before I nodded off, so it’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.”
It was Klaus’s turn to chuckle. “Oh, Destan, you of all people should know that things cannot always be explained away with logic and reason.”
“But you can!” Destan insisted. “You’re merely some food induced hallucination! That cheese I had earlier did taste a little funny now that I think of it…”
Klaus shrugged. “If you say so. And here I thought you’d be happy to see me again, though it seems you’re all but too ready to chalk my presence down to some bad cheese.”
Destan shivered, pulling his court coat more tightly around himself—he had yet to change into his pyjamas. He wanted to run to his father and embrace him, but from the translucent look of Klaus, he would probably fall right through him. Thus he stayed where he was, trembling from the bitter cold air. “Wh-what are you doing here?”
“I’ve come because you need my help—our help,” Klaus replied simply, taking a few steps forward, walking right through the couch. His copper coloured eyes sparkled dimly in the darkness and his expression was kind—not at all intimidating. “You have forsaken this happy holiday for too long, my son. If you do not change your way of thinking I fear that you will have a very lonely future. Christmas is not a time to mourn, but to celebrate life and cherish those whom we hold dear.”
Destan could not help but frown. “I would be heartless to celebrate on the anniversary of yours and mother’s death. I’ve dedicated this month to memorializing you!”
“And has that made you any happier?”
“Well, no, but that’s not the—”
“It is exactly the point, Destan,” Klaus said sternly. “What point is there in remembering those you’ve lost if you only dwell on the negative? The time for mourning has passed. Think of your mother and me fondly, but enjoy Christmas with your friends and family like a boy your age should.”
Destan shut his eyes and dismally shook his head. “I … I can’t. I don’t know how to let go of you and mother. The day of your funeral is permanently burned into my mind. There is no way I will ever be able to enjoy this month or Christmas ever again.”
Klaus lifted his chin, looking down upon his son with a strangely serious expression. “Then so be it. If you cannot see the chains you are creating for yourself, we will have to show you.”
Destan furrowed his brow, tilting his head to the side. “We? Who are you talking about?”
“You shall be visited by three spirits. Listen to what they say and learn from them, for if you do not, you may be doomed to a future full of misery and loneliness,” Klaus said in a gravely solemn tone.
Destan scoffed. “I’m being punished just because I don’t like Christmas? Father, even you must admit that this is nonsense! I don’t deserve to be haunted by one spirit let alone three.”
A grim smile spread across Klaus’s face. “Without these spirits, it is unlikely that you will change your sombre ways in time for you to improve your future. Change, Destan, or your misery will only grow.” His father’s image began to fade away. “Expect the first ghost when the bell tolls one!”
With those foreboding words hanging in the air the apparition disappeared completely. The fire reignited by itself, and instantly began eating away at the bitter cold. Destan’s heart beat wildly against his chest, and, for a moment, he was paralyzed in place.
After taking a deep, calming breath, Destan decided to forget what he had seen—or at least try to pretend it had merely been a waking dream. He’d been overworking himself with his studies, so he supposed the idea of a ‘day-dream’ was plausible.
He lit a few candles to put himself more at ease, pulled on his pyjamas, and climbed into bed. He shut all the bed drapes tightly and crawled beneath the covers, trying to rid his mind of any and all thoughts of ghosts. Soon his heavy lids shut over his eyes, and he fell into a restless sleep.
Artwork by: Enrica Eren Angiolini (my illustrator)