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Authors: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

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BOOK: Princess Ben
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"Not if their army's scared to cross the mountain!" said one of her assistants, giggling.

The dressmaker's quick scowl shut her up, and the two looked about guiltily. (Such was my status that they did not even glance upward.) Talk shifted to a handsome new chef, and soon enough the dressmaker departed on one of her innumerable trips to the privy, for the woman had a bladder the size of an apricot.

I took advantage of this brief interlude: "What does the Drachensbett army fear?"

As these were the first words I had uttered in ages, the girls jumped like a pair of frogs.

"Please," I pleaded. "Tell me. I beg you."

They eyed each other. "She's got a right, you know," said one. "Besides, remember her mum—how she cured your sister."

"Oh yes," said the other, lighting up. "You should've seen poor Mary, her whole head covered in scabs, big clumps of hair falling out, and pus leaking everywhere—she couldn't sleep lying down, she'd stain the pillow so—"

"What are they afraid of?" I pursued, having no interest in this change of subject.

The girls looked at each other and burst into gleeful laughter. "A dragon!"

"What? Are you saying the Drachensbett soldiers truly believe a dragon lives on Ancienne?"

The first girl—the one without the oozing sister—nodded. "They say that's what did in the king and your ma—"

The girls jerked their attention back to my hemline as the dressmaker reappeared.

Drachensbett blamed my mother's death on a dragon! And not simply country folk whispering stories around a winter fire, but the king himself had the gall to kneel before Queen Sophia on the day after her husband's death—on the afternoon of his interment!—and assert that King Ferdinand had been killed by a fairy-tale creature! Ambush and murder and kidnapping are awful enough, but worse still is veiling such heinous crimes with falsehood. But then, when had Drachensbett ever demonstrated honesty, or nobility? Truly they were an enemy to be despised.

Despised, yes, but also feared. Their awful deeds clearly fit into a grand and cunning scheme to which we in Montagne, the dressmaker not excluded, were patently blind.
Small wonder the queen demanded uniforms for her soldiers and elevated Xavier the Younger to commander, my father's rank. Though it pained me to see the man sporting my father's insignia, now I could understand the reasoning behind it.

Many a night I huddled in my library window, studying the mountain. Where once I had looked for evidence of my father, now I scanned every shadow and ridgeline for enemy movement. Far above my head, I knew, soldiers tramping the parapets watched with as keen an eye, and this knowledge gave me some small comfort. Still, I worried what Drachensbett planned, and why my parents of all people had to suffer their insatiable greed. But I had no one to whom to present my many questions, no one to offer me comfort and reassurance, and so I was left, despondent and alone, to my lessons.


Up to the day of the Badger Tragedy, my hours had been primarily occupied with such rigorous pursuits as poking sticks into holes and covering myself with mud, at both of which I excelled. I knew my letters and numbers of course, and devoured my beloved fairy tales, plodding through more serious work when forced. To be frank, I was young for my age, still playing with dolls when most girls in Montagne had
graduated to more serious pursuits, but then, I was not like most girls preparing for lives managing farms and shops and moldy potatoes. Essential work, I grant you, and glad enough would I have been to learn it, the use of moldy potatoes being one of my mother's specialties. In her efforts to shield me from Sophia, however, I had, for better or worse, been kept from such practical education, with little being placed in its stead.

The queen regent—as she now insisted on being addressed—developed an elaborate curriculum designed, so she explained, to produce a pearl of a princess from even a grain of sand such as myself. Her utter disdain for my abilities was tempered by her limitless faith in her own instructional expertise. The lessons she devised included comportment, dance, languages, history, penmanship, needlework, horsemanship, and music. To this day I cannot begin to identify which of them I despised the most.

Much of each day I passed in the company of Lady Beatrix, a tall and bony woman of unknowable age who never appeared without a wig and a thick spackling of powder, rouge, and lipstick, a mole painted somewhere between her cheekbone and chin depending on the formality of the occasion. As an educator, she was utterly lacking.

Her notion of history centered on genealogy, emphasizing Queen Sophia's superior bloodlines. Though she spoke several languages, her vocabulary consisted of fashion and dining terms and fawning, useless phrases. Because she insisted on teaching me three tongues at once, I eventually uttered such nonsense as "the draperies in this hall are lovely," but in a tangle of languages and grammar that not even she could unravel. Penmanship I found equally wretched, for I had far less interest in the appearance of my words than in their substance, a concept that held no meaning for my teacher. Gladly would I have returned to my task of recipe transcription, but such practical work was now denied me.

My friends from Market Town, on learning the queen forbade their visits, set about corresponding instead. As these letters were presented in the presence of Lady Beatrix, she insisted that my replies employ "the palace tongue," as she phrased it. She would, moreover, dictate my responses so that I might familiarize myself with the ornate and gauzy drivel of formal court communication. Needless to say, my correspondents' interest soon faded as their heartfelt questions and familiar anecdotes were answered with simpering generalities.

Needlework—oh, hateful needlework! How many
loathsome hours did I spend embroidering handkerchiefs with ridiculous flowers and illegible initials, only for Beatrix to reject them. "Someday," she would simper, "a prince himself will request your handkerchief as token. This would be shameful to present."

"I don't care about tokens!" I snapped. "I don't care about princes, either!" I found it effortless to talk back to her, but ultimately unsatisfying, as she ignored me utterly.

"Remember, Benevolence," she would say, handing me another square of linen, " 'Tis a needle, not a lance. Gentle stitches."

Dance and music were taught by stout little Monsieur Grosbouche, whose hands were as cold and damp as freshly caught fish. He, too, believed that the promise of well-born bachelors should inspire my greatest exertions. As he dragged me through each minuet, polonaise, and gavotte, puffing the beat with odiferous breath, I entertained myself by stepping on the wide bows of his high-heeled dance slippers, then sweetly awaiting his stumble.

Astoundingly, he never identified my role in the unruliness of his laces. As with Lady Beatrix, who sat at the harpsichord banging through the same handful of songs, he
believed my inherent clumsiness, not my wits, left him with aching ankles at the end of every class.

I shall not describe my attempts at violin.

Horsemanship, such as it was, consisted of being led sidesaddle around the inner courtyard. However longingly I gazed through the gates, I could never pass to Market Town and the countryside beyond, for the guards kept me under close watch and I had not skill to bribe or bully my way past them. Chateau de Montagne held me as tightly as an acorn holds its nut.

Of all these dreadful lessons, comportment may have been the worst. This vague title included not only the most graceful ways to curtsy and walk (versus my routine stumbling, particularly on stairs) but also table manners. A Montagne breakfast consists of a simple soft roll with hot chocolate, or hot cider for adults. Yet I ripped my roll like a savage, slurped my drink, dribbled jam, shed crumbs ... No matter how sincere my efforts, the litany droned on without respite. Eventually I surrendered all effort and returned to my baser instincts.

Unless the queen was occupied with state business, she demanded I accompany her to dinner, ostensibly to honor my position but in reality to watch my every gesture and
mention its fault. Lady Beatrix, though we outranked her, often joined us so that the two women could demonstrate with each other the most fitting conversation and eating habits.

I resented every moment of these meals. What was the point of dainty bites, feigning lack of hunger when actually famished, or delight in food that lacked all seasoning? And, worst of all, why was I never permitted to eat my fill? I spent the evenings in a misery of starvation, my stomach stating what my mouth could not, and watching longingly as footmen removed Beatrix's half-touched meal.

"A queen does not concern herself with the trivialities of nourishment," Sophia would state, hearing my belly's growl. "Her attention need be focused elsewhere. My dear Lady Beatrix, does your plate suit you?"

"By all means, Your Majesty," Beatrix groveled. "And may I praise this most excellent menu. The items so complement each other."

I stared miserably down at my dish, watching the beets mingle with an unidentifiable green sauce that covered the small, overcooked lamb chop. Ghastly it looked, and ghastly it tasted as well, but such was my hunger that I consumed every morsel.

"Indeed they do, Lady Beatrix, and we commend your keen eye. We have always enjoyed the gracious balance of color on a plate."

Never once, in all the years I knew her, did the queen employ the first-person singular. Oh, how I raged at her pompous assumption that she could speak for the entire kingdom, in particular for
.She had no idea what passed through my head; the fact that it remains attached to my neck proves this. Every time she opened her mouth, I would reflexively stiffen in anticipation of her next pompous assertion.


My frustration with my situation deepened as the summer progressed. In the tumult following the Badger Tragedy, the queen often mentioned my father, and took pains to emphasize that as regent she held the throne solely in expectation of his return. But as no word or sign of him came, her shrewdly worded declarations grew more infrequent, her silence quieting the entire court, until it was as if he had never existed. The throne of the king of Montagne she ordered fitted with a black tasseled shroud, and this embellishment declared as effectively as a proclamation that she expected no
man ever to replace or even to join her. Though I ached to see my father alive, as the cycle of planting and harvest passed outside the castle walls, I would have been grateful even for word of tragedy, so long as some word arrived. But none did.

In those first miserable months, my sole source of joy came from a hamper of food I would find hidden beneath my bed. Nestled inside would be raisin buns wrapped in warm napkins, a fruit tart, a steaming pitcher of chocolate. Who delivered it, I never learned, but I cannot begin to describe the comfort it provided, the knowledge that someone in that stony edifice took the time and risk to provide me this glorious consolation.

I wept as I huddled in my nightdress, gulping down these treats. The food brought back almost unbearable memories of a happier time, and its warmth provided a physical comfort that the soft July evenings could not begin to supply. Sated at last, I would conceal the basket again, careful to gather every incriminating crumb.

At times the hamper appeared nightly; at other periods, not for several days. But the knowledge of this secret preserved me from the queen's endless and tasteless dinners, and her bullying as well.


This, in a nutshell, was my life following my father's disappearance and my mother's death. Any sane and compassionate soul would define such an existence as intolerable. So, too, did I recognize that some modification had to occur, and soon, to change this cheerless state of affairs.

The situation did change. It got worse.


My downfall, inevitably, was triggered by food. Please understand that in those first months, however dire my situation might appear, I never approached starvation. The traditional three meals were served me each day, supplemented by tea with Monsieur Grosbouche at the conclusion of every dance lesson, and at times a small cake or other delicacy for infrequent state events.

But never once, excepting my secret hamper, did I eat to the point of satiation, a sensation I had experienced constantly in my former life and that I missed almost as profoundly as my mother's embrace. Within my first hours in Chateau de Montagne, Queen Sophia made clear her feelings on my appearance. "We are not beggars at banquet," she announced, observing me at our first dinner together. Often she would order the footmen to serve me a half-portion, demanding I
finish no sooner than did she, and the woman ate at the pace of a dripping icicle. "A princess," she would proclaim, "requires a graceful and willowy carriage, not the appetite of a swineherd."

Yet however restricted my servings, I never thinned, this truth made all the more obvious when my dresses, prepared on the expectation that I would soon fit them, continued to rip seams and pop buttons. The queen watched my every forkful with a hawk's eye, calculating how such paltry servings could maintain me. I am sure my smug acceptance of her restrictions only increased her suspicions. She was a cunning adversary, and had I been wiser I would have known to present an abject façade. Alas, I did not.

So it came to pass that one afternoon I was summoned from dance class. Delighted as I was to escape clam-fisted Monsieur Grosbouche, I knew Sophia's demand for my presence could only bode ill. I dawdled my way to the throne room, then curtsied before her.

"Dear Benevolence," the queen began, with a measured tone I had learned could mask any emotion, "we grow concerned that you have not sufficient regard for your position." A version of this statement I endured almost daily; she could be speaking of any number of infractions. "Your childish passions, while unchecked under others' care, must within these walls be controlled, or the nation shall suffer."

With effort I unclenched my fists at her insult of my mother.

"Tell us, dear Benevolence, do you yet indulge in unnecessary foodstuffs?"

BOOK: Princess Ben
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