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Authors: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

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BOOK: Princess Ben
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***

Lord Frederick and I slowly traveled the castle corridors. The gentleman in all honesty was frail, and our pace thus deliberate at best.

"My dearest child, words cannot convey my heartbreak at
your tragedy. Your mother's loss will be mourned throughout this valley." Saying this, the man wiped a tear from his wizened cheek.

I nodded, too overcome to speak. Lord Frederick had been a stalwart member of the Montagne court since at least the time of my grandfather; this I knew. Even more, he had the marvelous ability to pull peppermint drops from my ears, which used to entertain me for hours.

He patted my hand. "Tell me. How may I assist you, Ben?"

I almost wept to hear my name, my real name, spoken within these cold walls. "I'm so confused!" I wailed.

"I understand. As the queen—now queen regent—indicated, the path ahead is shrouded in darkness. The fate of your father, the specter of war..."

I grasped the one bit of information that had penetrated my consciousness. "I am really supposed to
marry?"

"That is the fate of all princesses, my dear. Every storybook teaches it. If it is any consolation, I have heard that such unions may be more than pleasant, even tender."

"But why—why must I live here?" I gestured to the tapestries, the thick stone walls with their deep windowsills.

"The queen would see to your safety. And to your education as well."

"I don't want to be educated!" I stamped my foot.

Lord Frederick spun me about with impressive strength. With a practiced eye he scanned the corridors, then pulled me close. "Your fate, my child, is no longer in your control. You are the embodiment of this kingdom, and if it is to survive the calamities that lie ahead, you must also."

I must have retained an aura of petulance, for he shook me.

"Princess! We hover on the brink of war. Should you have any feelings whatsoever for the people who reside without these walls, accept your lot and consent to Her Majesty's instructions. She knows better than any of us what will be demanded of a queen."

"But I don't want to marry anyone."

"That is not a demand that I, or any of your supporters, would ever make of you."

My head rose. I had supporters?

"However," the old man continued, "you must play this game as the cards are dealt. Bend like the sapling you are. With time we shall find your oaken core."

A sour-faced footman appeared, striding toward us.

Lord Frederick stepped away from me and gestured to the nearest tapestry. "And here, my dear, you see a depiction
of your great-, great-, ah, great-grandfather in the War of Three Septembers. The Drachensbett catapults are depicted with remarkable clarity, are they not?"

The lord beamed at me so fiercely that I had no choice but to smile in return. He squeezed my arm.

"Ah," I gulped. "Yes. And the flaming arrows..."

His grip relaxed and his face melted into a smile: "I know you will manage brilliantly."

The footman coughed. "My lord, Her Majesty requests your presence."

"Yes, yes. I shall be there presently. Now, my dear, know you the location of your privy chambers? The Peach Rooms, I believe..."

So it was that my life passed from the joyous realm of heaven to the choking and inescapable tortures of hell.

FOUR

My privy chambers were without fault. Dubbed the Peach Rooms for the peach-tinted silk of the draperies and walls, they had every accouterment that a young woman of royal blood could possibly desire. The bedroom overlooked the castle's beautiful inner courtyard, Market Town, and on clear days even the far hamlet of Piccolo in the southern foothills. A receiving room, should that young woman wish to entertain guests privately, comprised a balcony roomy enough for three to occupy at their leisure. The library held volumes of novels and etiquette guides, while the dressing room, lined with wardrobes and mirrors, contained more shelves and drawers and storage space than my father's armory, and included an adjoining bath with deep tub. Even the ex—Peach Room connecting the Peach Rooms to the main corridor sported rosebuds and a cozy pink hedgehog.

Once again, I fear, I must interject into the meat of this
narrative some stale crumbs of fact, for the
ex-rooms
would soon occupy—and I pray I do not reveal too much by this intimation—a not insubstantial role in my life. The long-standing legend that giants erected Chateau de Montagne doubtless originated from the truth that the castle walls were thicker than several men standing abreast. Even windows facing the safety of the valley included seats deep enough for a roomy bed, or balconies without need of protrusion from the building's face, so spacious the sill itself.

The interior walls, too, possessed this unique and inexplicable depth. What in another building would be doorway was here broad enough to constitute its own room, with its own name: the "ex-library," "ex-ballroom," "ex—wool storage," "ex-bakery," known by the room to which it led. It took three steps—men's steps, grown men—to pass through an ex-room, and more time still to open and close the doors at each end, such was the walls' thickness.

My father claimed the entire arrangement of ex-rooms stemmed from a need to keep the footmen occupied, which it certainly did, for by tradition the ex-room doors remained closed. Father also pointed out that the ex-rooms constituted a veritable family history, their walls inevitably decorated with variants of the Montagne hedgehog.

As a child, I had always dashed through the ex-rooms, fearful I would accidentally be locked within. This once had happened, or I believed it had, though my mother swore it was only a nightmare, the dim memory clouding my perception. On one visit to the castle, feeling my sweaty grip as we passed from banquet room to corridor, she pulled me aside. "See, Ben? These doors don't even lock—you can open them whenever you want."

"It wasn't these doors," I replied stubbornly. "It was the ex-library."

She smiled. "The ex-library doors don't lock, either. And that was the cabinet, remember?"

I had once managed to lock myself in one of the library's map chests and was ensnared there for some time until an elderly scholar heard my screams. That I had trapped myself while holding a treacle tart only made matters worse, for the maps I did not damage with my frantic kicking I managed to cover in crumbs. Surely I would have suffered some ghastly fate at the hands of Queen Sophia had I not been a blood relation of her husband. As it was, her glare terrified me enough.

However busy the multiple doors kept the footmen, the purpose of the ex-rooms escaped me completely. Only the thickness of the walls could justify their existence, and only
giants could explain the wall thickness itself. I knew better than to point this out to my mother, who believed, correctly, that such talk only fed my too active imagination. But my father indulged me by agreeing. Together we invented tales of the giants, who would someday return to the castle from the cloud-veiled reaches of Ancienne.

How frequently did I now dwell on these memories each time I passed through an ex-room to the main corridor, and every reminiscence drove another nail through my heart. The endearing pink hedgehog of my own Peach Rooms pained me most of all; I recognized too well that, for all its charms and the beauty of my new suite, I would have abandoned the entire ensemble without a breath of regret for my own home above the soldiers' barracks.

Yet I could not. I was not permitted even to leave the castle proper for my old residence. This tragedy I learned several days following my arrival, when I managed to slip away from the servants now dressing and feeding and escorting me and made my own way to the castle gates. To my great relief, I recognized the guard Paolo, who had often teased me when I played jacks in the dust of the parade ground.

"And where might you be off to, Your Highness?" he asked, barring my way with a kind look.

"Don't 'Your Highness' me. It's Ben."

"Yes, Your Highness. And what help can we be to you this fine day?"

"I just want to walk about a bit. There are some books I'd like, and ... little things." I nodded at the barracks.

"You just tell me what you want, now, and I'll bring it back for you, safe and sound," Paolo said in his grandfatherly way.

"You mean that I can't even visit my own home?"

Paolo patted my arm. "It's a job for soldiers now, not fragile young things like yourself. Get back to the castle now, to your own people."

Somehow I held my tears in check until I returned to the privacy of my room, or rather my
rooms,
my new rooms. Then I collapsed. How could Paolo think the queen and her ilk were my people? I had no more relation to them than a pigeon does to a flock of swans—or a vortex of vultures, which the castle's denizens better resembled in both attire and attitude. The ladies in waiting had revealed themselves to be as gossipy and cruel as their reputation, and I avoided them utterly. As for the queen, I had no more interest in her company than in plunging my face into a nest of hornets.

My old life proved just as frustrating. Three friends from
Market Town, girls I had known all my days and who had survived countless scrapes and reprimands with me, trekked up to the castle in their Sunday best to pay their respects to the princess. With trepidation they entered my private receiving room, and their jaws dropped at the sight of plump little Ben now adorned in silken robes, my curls clean and styled. I longed to giggle at their amazement and hug them tight. Soon as I caught sight of them, however, I began to sob with homesickness, and the girls were promptly hustled from my chambers. Learning of this incident, Queen Sophia forbade all further visits, declaring such exhibitions of emotion as highly unsuitable to a girl of my rank. I raged at her cruelty, but the woman's word was law.

In her vigilance, or malice, or cold-heartedness—term it what you will—she barred me even from visiting my mother's grave. "The living require your attention more than the dead," she intoned. "We shall have time aplenty to attend our departed once they are laid properly to rest." As if in compensation, she ordered the masons to present me their plans for my mother's tomb. The block of rose-colored Ancienne stone they had chosen was lovely but anonymous, and the inscription far too grand for such an unpretentious, selfless woman. Even the title crushed me: "Princess Prudence."
Her name was Mother, or Pence; no one spoke of her otherwise. The formality of
Princess
and
Prudence,
the harsh and salivary double
P,
had no relation to the woman who had kissed my tears, assuaged my fears, and through her busy life provided me an unconfined childhood. I had lost my mother in life, and now it appeared I would lose her in death also.

***

No news, good or ill, came of my father. No Drachensbett messenger arrived bearing ransom note, no woodsman raced to the castle gates with news of a discovery. Every dawn found me pressed to my library window, scrutinizing Ancienne for some sign of him. Soon as the morning rays illuminated the castle courtyard, I moved to the bedroom window, watching for the messenger who would surely arrive with news. More than once I saw my father stumble through the gates, gaunt or injured but beaming in joy at our imminent reunion; when I awoke from these dreams, my heart broke anew.

Whenever possible I would catch the eye of Lord Frederick, imploring him for information, but he routinely turned away. At first I was devastated by these rebuffs, but I soon perceived that the gesture was made not for me but
for Sophia. Caution dictated that he display his loyalties to her and her alone, at least in public. When I encountered him in an unguarded corridor, however, he would murmur, "Nothing, I fear," or some such words that at once calmed and broke my heart.

By keeping my tongue still and head low, I overheard many a conversation not meant for my ears, and so learned many facts and tales about the Badger Tragedy, as it was now called, and the fiendish role of Drachensbett. That no man had ever traversed Ancienne did not mean no man
could;
assassins trained in mountaineering might cross in only a few days, lie in wait for their prey, and retrace their route to escape. Indeed, in meeting with the queen after the interment ceremony, the king of Drachensbett had more or less confessed to the crime. Unfortunately I knew no details, for this conversation had apparently been so insulting that the queen forbade all discussion of it.

Learning that the queen's white-lipped anger had little relation to me was some comfort, but still I burned to know how the king had managed to offend so thoroughly my nemesis. Revelation came at last during one of my interminable fittings. When I first moved into the palace, the
queen had not bothered to send for my wardrobe (employing that term in its most generous sense) of sturdy wool skirts, stained pinafores, and the thick-soled shoes favored by the mountain people: clothes meant for hard play and great adventures, neither of which was expected of me now. Instead she put her dressmaker to work on gowns suitable for a princess. Gleaming silks, lush brocades, fine laces, and delicate linens went under the blade in my name, though such fabrics had no place on a person of my temperament.

The dressmaker, a sour-faced woman with a mouth forever pinched from years of holding pins, had as little interest in this assignment as did I, but as a loyal servant she diligently attempted to transform a kettle into a cake. Accompanying her were two girls from Market Town who found her bossy impatience a small price to pay for the glamour of castle life. Standing glumly before them, I learned that immobility best prevented pinpricks and chidings, and also that the women soon forgot this dressmaker's dummy had ears of her own.

So it was today. The dressmaker arrived in a particularly foul mood because, I soon ascertained, the queen expected
her,
an artist, a genius with drape and line, the acclaim of every state event, to finish soldiers' uniforms.

"One would think we were going to be attacked tomorrow," the woman sniffed, as though she had unique access to Drachensbett's tacticians.

BOOK: Princess Ben
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