Many, many years ago, there were no stars. The sky was - well, blank. Oh, the moon was there, lonely in her solitary glory, and the other planets of course; but there were no twinkling pieces of fiery ice for us to wonder at, for poetry to be written about, for songs to be sung to, for stories to be scribbled down in wonder... and for couples to stand under, hand in hand - with stars in their eyes.
This is how stars came to be.
They were born, as one would expect, from a fairytale.
Once upon a time, in a land whose borders have long since moved beyond memory, there lived a young princess called Asta. She was in fact rather more than just a princess; she was the Crown Princess, and when her father died (which with great good luck, would not be for many years yet), the country would be hers to rule. This pleased the people greatly, as she was generous, and kind, and known for her wit and humour. Was she a great beauty? Not really; but she had an indefinable something which made her more attractive to the young princes in those parts than all the classic sharp-cheekboned goddesses soulfully mooning around the court.
She was certainly in no hurry to take on the role of Queen. Since her mother's death, she and her father had been very close, and the thought of his not being around, a pack of large slobbery dogs at his shabby heels, was almost too much to bear.
We all know however, that life isn't kind, or fair, and that sometimes great pain has to come before great happiness. And this, sadly, was closer than anyone could have anticipated.
The entire country had been humming with excitement for weeks, because it was both the 30th anniversary of the King's ascension to the throne, and Asta's 21st birthday. Preparations for an enormous ball had been occupying the court, with neighbouring nations sending emissaries and envoys - not to mention hopeful royal suitors. Unfortunately, not all of those who had to be invited were friends... some, as the King had taught Asta carefully, were strategic guests.
One of them was Queen Ondska.
She was incredibly beautiful, it was true. She was also incredibly ambitious, and had made no secret of her desire to marry the widowed King. It was whispered that she had magic in her blood, but only the brave (or perhaps the foolhardy) dared to voice their suspicions aloud, for those who did had a nasty habit of disappearing.
Ondska arrived with her usual pomp and ceremony, a large retinue, and an even larger mirror, which glittered strangely and made the servants uncomfortable. Asta disliked her intensely, but was too well mannered to let it show - and of course she would never let her father down by being less than courteous to any guest.
The night of the ball arrived. Asta had noticed that her father had looked quite pale all day, but he assured her he was well, just preoccupied with making sure all of their guests were taken care of. And she was, admittedly, a little too excited to notice the extent of his pallor and shaking hands.
As she and the King descended the stairs into the palace ballroom, the assembled crowd bowed low. Even Ondska, although it was with gritted teeth. As they straightened up, Asta noticed a young man she had never before seen looking straight at her. He had a look of wildness, and fearlessness, and adventure, and life.
Then he grinned, and Asta's hitherto untouched heart was lost. Her worries over her father, her nagging concern over Ondska and her magic - all were gone. All she saw was a tall figure with laughing eyes making his way towards her, hand held out, asking her to dance.
His name was Prince Fin, and he had been at sea, heading his father's navy. He had been sent to the celebrations because his brother the Crown Prince and his wife were about to have their first child, and could not leave home. He explained this to Asta as they danced, saying with a grin that 'as the spare, I am used to being the last minute substitute for diplomatic missions. I must say in this case, it is no hardship at all.'
'In fact, I am not sure I am likely to ever return to sea - unless I were to have a new executive officer, who just happened to be a princess.'
Asta blushed. And grinned back. And Fin felt his heart turn over.
Suddenly there was a commotion near the throne dais. Asta looked up, and her world collapsed. The King was lying on the ground. He was horribly, terribly still; and she saw the Lord Chamberlain shake his head, search the crowd, and through the whirling white noise in her head, as Fin held her up, heard the words she had thought would be years away:
The King is dead... Long live the Queen!
She hid her face for a moment against Fin's chest, then straightened up and walked towards her people.
She did not see the look of malevolence and triumph on Ondska's face.
In the Queen's rooms meanwhile, a maidservant ran in fear as the mirror spoke. Unfortunately, she tripped and broke her neck, which of course everyone dismissed as clumsiness, so she was never able to say whose voice she had heard.
Or, of course, what it had said.
In the days that followed, everyone said with what dignity the young Queen comported herself. Or, it should be said, the Queen to be, for she was yet to be crowned. Asta insisted on the correct mourning period being observed for her father before any kind of celebration be held, and that included her own coronation. This only added to how dearly her people loved her, for it showed her grief and respect.
Fin did not leave her side. Asta found herself reaching for him without thinking, and it was only his steadiness which saved her from retreating to her room and staying there. But this she couldn't do, for she had seen the way Ondska was watching.
Watching... and waiting.
The Queen claimed to be staying 'for Asta's solace'. And her standing was too great, her own country too powerful for Asta to say 'please leave'. But the servants were growing ever more nervous, to the point where after dark they would not go to her quarters, claiming there were voices coming from the mirror.
Finally, the day of the coronation approached. Asta realised that for the sake of her people, she had to see it as a happy occasion. If she was brutally honest with herself, in some ways she was happy, for she knew she would rule well and wisely - and of course there was Fin.
He was nervous. Petrified in fact, because today was the day he was going to ask Asta to marry him - and he had to do it before she was crowned, so that she understood it was for her that he asked, not her country. He took a deep breath, and got ready to see her. Just as he was about to set off to her rooms, Queen Ondska called out to him.
'Prince Fin. If I may? I would very much appreciate your counsel.'
Fin turned. He had no desire whatsoever to be anywhere near the Queen, but as he looked at her, she snapped her fingers in front of his face, and he felt his will being drained. She smiled.
It was not a nice smile.
'If you will, Prince Fin... just stand in front of the mirror. Just for a moment.'
With the last of his strength, he tried to avert his gaze. But the mirror pulled at him, and with mounting horror he looked into its depths.
And saw the King, and hundreds of others behind him, sorrow in their eyes.
And he felt his own death upon him.
Asta had expected Fin to escort her to the throne room, and when he didn't appear, decided to find him. She had felt an uneasy tickling in the back of her mind for a while, and it seemed to be growing the closer she got - why, it was the closer she got to Queen Ondska's rooms! She knocked at the door. There was no answer, but she heard a low cry - and she pushed on the latch. It opened, and she ran inside.
She saw Fin lying still and white on the floor in front of the mirror, and the Queen looking as though she had just finished a wonderful meal.
'What... what has happened here?' she whispered.
Ondska looked at her, her eyes glazed with power and evil.
'Oh my dear. I am afraid there has been a tragic accident. Your dear Prince has died. There was nothing to be done. I am so very sorry for you!'
'Fin - no! It can't - '
'But yes. As you can see, he is clearly not coming back. I think it is best you immediately call off the coronation and go into mourning. Perhaps you should consider appointing a regent? Someone older, more capable. Trustworthy.'
Ondska's voice had taken on a hypnotic hissing quality. For a moment, Asta was mesmerised.
And then she looked in the mirror.
And saw Fin and her father looking back, shaking their heads.
The clouds in her mind dissolved.
Asta screamed. It came from deep - so deep - inside her, and sounded like the agonised cry of a seabird. It was a scream of agony, and loss, and love, and a breaking heart.
The mirror shattered, the pieces flying, whirling outwards in a glittering, lethal diamond cloud - towards Ondska. There was a sudden blur, a snarling roar of defeat, a babble of triumphant voices - and then, like a shining tornado, the source of the Queen's power and her death headed for the skies.
And all that was left of Ondska was a pool of puddled velvet... and a rapidly blackening crown.
There was a low whisper.
She whirled around, the colour coming back to her face.
It was Fin. He was back... and beside him, her father.
The joy in the castle was overwhelming.
That night, a strange phenomenon was observed in the sky. Glittering points of light had started to shine - faintly, it was true, but they shone nevertheless. Over the course of the next few decades, they grew stronger and stronger, until people could not remember a time when there were not shimmering ribbons of unreality above.
And what did they call them?
In the common tongue, they called them 'stars'... but those who knew and loved her best remembered who they were named after.