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Authors: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

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BOOK: Princess Ben
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I knew little of this that first hellish night as I shivered beside my mother's corpse. My mind when it functioned at all dwelt on my own grief and loss, not the details of her injuries or the identity of her vicious killers. Even in my dull pain, however, listening to soldiers prepare the castle for attack, I recognized the murders as an act of war. To name the precise moment when my suspicions fixed upon Drachensbett would be impossible; rather, it came upon me subconsciously, as a subtle noise invades one's dreams until, without
realization, one is awake. Drachensbett had an established history of subterfuge. How great a difference between bribery and assassination, particularly when the ultimate goal is the same? That country knew the anniversary of the Badger's death, having caused it, and knew as well of the traditional visit to his tomb. The murder of King Ferdinand would throw Montagne into disarray; the disappearance of Prince Walter, head of Montagne's army, would double this confusion. Whether my father was kidnapped or murdered I knew not. In optimistic moments, I fancied he had escaped their clutches and was even now guarding or being guarded by Xavier the Elder, preparing their return. At these times I despised Drachensbett more than ever for sowing my confusion with seeds of hope that slowly withered as no word came.

***

This chronicle explains, I pray, my dumbfounded shock over the appearance of a troupe of Drachensbett soldiers at the interment. Judging from the reaction of the folk crowding those two fresh graves, I had not been alone in my suspicions. Whether the foreigners did not perceive the mutters and glares aimed in their direction or chose to ignore them I
could not deduce, and I longed even more for my father, who, I knew, would be able to explain this inexplicable act.

I had been bundled away from the burial service by Frau Lungonaso, a townswoman who often worked for us as housekeeper. The woman had made little effort over the years to withhold her disapproval of my rearing, and I am sure she viewed the present tragedy as retribution for my parents' indulgence of their daughter. Back in our apartment, she stripped me of my sodden garments, muttering under her breath about pneumonia.

Little did I note the woman's complaints. Nigh catatonic with grief, exhaustion, and chill, I offered no resistance to her rough handling, and even consented to a bath, where I sat immune to the warmth. My heartache suppressed even my head cold, it seemed, for my earlier discomfort registered not in the slightest. Outside, the ominous sky pressed down; the hushed voices and quiet steps added to the unease. Dimly I registered a knock at the front door and a hurried conversation.

At once Frau Lungonaso bustled in without consideration of my modesty. "Hurry up now," she snapped. "Quick—it's important."

My heart leapt in its cage. "My father! He has been found?"

"What? No! The queen wishes an audience. Come, come, out of there at once!"

What followed would have the makings of an absurd comedy were it not so horribly real. My best dress—for one only meets the queen in her best even if the queen be one's aunt—was soiled with jam on both front and back, for reasons I could not explain. Frau Lungonaso then attempted to insert me into one of my mother's gowns, but I furiously refused, not because I was a hand's breadth too large (though still quite short) or because my mother's taste in formalwear was outdated by many years, but because I would not wear my mother's clothes without her there to lend them to me. Finally, sensing my obstinacy was devolving to hysteria, the woman consented to my second-best gown, two years old and far too small in every direction. So adorned in mediocrity, I stomped outside.

As we approached the entrance to the castle proper, a sudden blast of trumpets startled me, and, tripping over my feet (my hemline could in no way be held responsible), I flailed my way into a puddle.

I sat there, cold sludge seeping into my dress. I could not burst into tears, not before soldiers I had known since birth, and then face the queen with damp cheeks and swollen eyes.

"Get up now," prodded Frau Lungonaso. "Are you sponge or spine?" Whether uttered from cruelty or concern, the woman's words roused my indignation, and I swore to maintain my composure in front of her.

This pathetic situation interested the guards not in the least. Indeed, their backs were to us, their attention focused on the inner courtyard as their hands reflexively checked the straps on their armor and the points of their pikes. "Back to Devil's Bed with them!" hissed one of the men. Again the trumpets within that sanctuary sounded, followed by a great jangling of horsemen. Hastily I lunged away, only just avoiding the flying hooves and rippling black capes. In the fading twilight I could espy the scarlet dragon emblazoned on their chests. Drachensbett! Small wonder the Montagne soldiers whispered curses and checked their weapons twice and thrice.

As the black-clad visitors raced by, a young man—scarcely older than myself, though his armor and frown added years to his face—glanced down at me crouched against the castle wall. His eyes swept across my soiled gown,
and then he turned away, speaking to one of his companions as they lashed their mounts across the drawbridge into the streets of Market Town.

It was Frau Lungonaso who recovered first. Perhaps her long-standing position as town gossip had hardened her against surprise. "A bunch of heathens they are," she sniffed, snapping the mud from her skirts. "You'd best be posting a second watch tonight."

The nearer guard nodded, too uneasy to question her military directive, and, grunting, helped her pull me to my feet. "And what business have you two in the castle, then?" he asked.

"The queen wants to see Ben," returned Frau Lungonaso as she brushed mud from my gown and face.

A concerned look passed between the guards. The second man, his face carved deep with grief, stepped closer. "You come from strong stock,"he whispered. "Don't you forget it, miss."

"Don't you forget it,
princess
," said the other, and dropped his head in a bow.

"Yes, princess," repeated the second guard, bowing as well. Even Frau Lungonaso, caught up in this impulsive spectacle, dipped into a curtsy.

I had not a single notion how to respond to this unprecedented and utterly unexpected display. Moreover, I feared to speak as I would collapse afresh in tears.

Again, Frau Lungonaso, reverting from attendant to despot, came to my rescue. "Come now," she barked, straightening. "The queen awaits."

As she led me through the grand entrance, the first guard murmured to his partner, "I wish all the fortune in the world to the lass."

"Indeed," said the other sadly. "The poor girl will need every bit."

THREE

If in this narrative I have not yet paid Queen Sophia adequate consideration, particularly given the unrelenting domination the woman would soon claim over every single element of my life, I offer this simple yet honest explanation: for fifteen unbroken years, my mother had toiled to protect me from the woman. It is remarkable, as I reflect upon my childhood, how utterly unaware I was of this situation while it transpired, the truth coming to my notice only in despondent hindsight.

My father and his brother, though raised in the same home by the same loving parents, as adults had selected for wives two women who could not have been less similar. My mother was compassionate, practical, and selfless, devoted to her family and her craft of healing. Her feelings on court intrigue and politics ranged from disinterest to revulsion, and it was at her insistence that our family resided outside
the castle proper in the humble yet cozy soldiers' barracks, far from the pomp and pretense of royal life.

Queen Sophia, on the other hand, had arrived as King Ferdinand's bride from her own country, far to the south, cloaked in a haughty aura that even the dimmest resident of Montagne could not but sense. In the two intervening decades, her attitude appeared to have softened only so much as the manners and circumstances of her adopted nation had, in her opinion, improved. The woman took her position more seriously than any royal figure I have ever met, and not only her position but the stipulated position of each member of society, highborn or low, and she treated this ranking and its enforcement as a divinely ordained responsibility.

Had I been a common-born citizen of Montagne, I would have suffered this arrogance no more or less than her next target, but unfortunately I held a unique and highly unenviable position within the kingdom. Sophia, though fastidious in every detail of her queenly role, had failed in one essential and irrevocable way. Despite twenty years of marriage and the ministrations of countless doctors, sages, midwives, and even my mother (over the course of one maddening month that surely tested the last fiber of their patience), the woman had not produced a child.

Thus, in the autumn of the previous year, my parents had been called to a royal council, so formal that even my mother had fretted for days over her meager wardrobe, to be informed that their daughter was now recognized as sole heir to the throne. Indeed, I was expected to move to the castle at once in order to begin a course of instruction, led by Queen Sophia herself, in preparation for my future position. Returning that evening in high dudgeon, my mother declared to my father—not even attempting to lower her voice, such was her indignation—that whatever the fate of Montagne, that harpy would sink her talons into me only over her dead body.

This, precisely, had at last come to pass.

***

Stumbling now behind Frau Lungonaso across the courtyard, I was presented with yet another flourish of trumpets (the blast sending me fluttering like a barnyard goose) at the castle's great front door.

"Her Royal Highness, the princess," announced Frau Lungonaso, squirreling away every detail for later recounting to any willing set of ears.

The guards, their castle uniforms marked with the black
plumage of mourning, bowed deeply. "Her Royal Highness, the princess," repeated a well-outfitted gentleman (a butler, I later learned) as the great doors swung open. "We shall see to her custody henceforth. Come, Your Highness."

Nose in the air, studiously averting his gaze from my sorry appearance, the man led me down a lengthy corridor, footmen at each closed doorway. The march ended at the entrance to the grand throne room. As we approached, two footmen clothed in black drew open the immense doors. Almost immediately the inner set of doors swung inward.

With a shiver that I could not attribute merely to my soggy skirts, I crept toward the mass of people gathered within. The candelabras, draped with black bunting, hung unlit in reverence for the late king. Black silk covered the queen's throne and the empty king's throne beside it. Sophia sat, her knuckles gleaming white as she gripped her armrests. Two angry red splotches throbbed on her cheeks, contrasting with the purple smudges under her eyes and the pinched white of her mouth. Behind her stood the Privy Council: the counts of our three small counties, the masters of the various guilds, the mayor of Market Town, and sundry lords and ladies in waiting. All wore black, as well as a uniform expression of grim foreboding.

A most awkward silence followed, and with a blush of shame I realized I had not curtsied. Hastily, I did so. I wished now that I had consented to wear my mother's clothing; I felt as ugly as a crust of bread, my shame made all the worse by the queen's visible ire.

Queen Sophia shifted, adjusting her black fur wrap, for though Montagne woolens are celebrated for their velvet hand and gentle drape, she claimed them irritating. "We greet you, Princess Benevolence," she stated emotionlessly, "and offer our condolences for the passing of your mother."

"Thank you," I strangled out.

"We shall, Benevolence, speak with painful frankness, as the situation demands nothing less. Given our recent communication with our neighbor, Drachensbett, we cannot but conclude that this most tragic"—here she, perhaps too dramatically, composed herself—"circumstance, these heinous acts, can be only an act of war."

She paused. The stone-faced solemnity of the men and women arrayed behind her provided no enlightenment or comfort.

"With that in mind, our foremost duty is to protect the throne for the return of Prince—that is,
King
Walter, which he now be. Therefore we shall hold you in our protection to
be tutored at long last in the myriad responsibilities and arts of royalty. Should your father not return—a possibility, though tragic, that cannot be discounted—we shall through your alliance of marriage protect Montagne from her voracious foe."

Judging from her expression and those worn by the people behind her, I was expected to speak. But I would need many hours, and an unclouded heart, to decipher this barrage.

Sophia turned to the elderly man at her side. "Is this not true, Lord Frederick?"

"By all means, my lady," he murmured. "I could not have phrased it better."

"Have you any questions of us, Princess?" The queen offered me this as a great favor; with time I would learn how infrequently she solicited my opinion.

"No, Your Majesty," I managed.

"Then you are dismissed, for we have pressing matters of state to which to attend."

As I curtsied, my gown, to my mortification, gave way at last, and the sound of ripping seams reverberated through the hushed room.

The elderly Lord Frederick cleared his throat. "Your Majesty, if I might have leave to escort the princess to her suite..."

Queen Sophia frowned. "We consent. But return at once, as we require your counsel."

"By all means, Your Majesty." He stepped forward and offered me his arm.

I am shamed to write that I was too overwhelmed even to accept, so that he was left standing awkwardly, arm ajar, as a lady in waiting tittered.

"Forgive me," he continued, the embodiment of graciousness. "You are too considerate, taking into account the infirmities of an old man. You shall be
my
escort." He slipped his hand around my elbow and led me backwards from the throne room, honoring the queen while shielding my shredded gown from the crowd.

BOOK: Princess Ben
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