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Authors: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

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BOOK: Princess Ben
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"I follow Your Majesty's guidance always." I curtsied again.

"We are pleased to hear it. We fear, however, that you yet succumb to primitive urges." She flourished my secret hamper. "Is this not familiar to you?"

Heart hammering, I did my best to project an expression of mild puzzlement. "I do not believe so, Your Majesty."

To my astonishment, the queen merely nodded. "We shall attend to this matter presently. For the time being, you must return to your lessons. We are told your progress is quite remarkable."

"As you wish, Your Majesty," I replied, and plodded back to the ballroom. My unease grew at the conclusion of dance class, when with a scurrying of footmen Sophia herself appeared in the ballroom, flustering Monsieur Grosbouche so completely that for once our fumbling errors were not my fault alone.

"Accompany us, dear Benevolence," she stated as Monsieur Grosbouche nigh toppled over in his passionate bowing. Exiting the ex-ballroom, she gestured to her left. "We shall stroll together to your quarters."

"Your Majesty, if I may be so bold, I believe my suite lies in the direction opposite."

"We shall see" was all she replied. She swept along, artfully moving her skirts with one hand. Yet the northwest corner of the castle held naught but her apartment. Where, pray tell, were we going?

At the entrance to her privy chambers, two footmen bowed stiffly, opening the doors to her gilded ex-room. I could not suppress a shiver: was she intending us to
share
a room?

Inside the queen's private reception room, a servant girl curtsied.

"Is it prepared for us?" Sophia demanded.

"Yes, Your Majesty," the girl squeaked, remaining bent before us—as much to avoid interaction as to demonstrate fealty, I suspected.

The reception room itself could not fail to dazzle me. Lush couches and delicate tables filled every corner, and the walls were draped with the gold-threaded tapestries that
Sophia had brought to Montagne from her native lands. It was whispered that Sophia's grandmother had spun the golden threads from straw itself, though the tale remained shrouded in mystery, the queen refusing to discuss it.

As handsome as these chambers were, however, I preferred my own little rooms with their pale peach curtains and simple library. Little did I know.

The queen strode to a door so diminutive I never would have paid it notice. Opening it, she revealed a space as dark and foreboding as the underworld itself. "Benevolence, we would that you led."

I crept forward. Compared to the richness of the queen's rooms, the narrow closet appeared all the gloomier. Near paralyzed with fear, Sophia's glare upon me, I realized with a start that I was entering not a compartment but a staircase of sorts, built into the castle walls, with sides of rock and treads carved of stone.

With great trepidation I began to ascend, relieved for once to hear the queen behind me, as I did not want to occupy this narrow darkness alone. The wall itself must have been circular, for the staircase bent forever to the left as we climbed the rough steps, the queen staying well back of my errant heels.

At last, feeling as though I were atop Ancienne herself, I struck a barrier of wood.

"You may open it," the queen instructed.

In the dim light I discerned a pallet with a worn coverlet. In truth, it was not much humbler than what I had known as a child, but I noted acutely its contrast to my plush bed several floors below. An empty basin built into the wall and a chamber pot (with cover, thankfully) completed the décor. The stone floor had no carpets to warm it, the walls no tapestries. As we entered, a quick scrabbling—the room, being round, had no corners—revealed the presence of mice. At least, I prayed they were mice. Rats I could not tolerate. Unlike those of the castle below, these stone walls offered little respite from the summer heat, and the atmosphere hung close and sour, for the room clearly had not been aired in many years, and a recent sweeping had filled the air with dust. A cell it was indeed.

The queen stood for a moment, inspecting my new quarters and, I am certain, catching her breath from the climb. "We are pleased," she uttered at last. "We pray the princess shall use this opportunity to reflect on her newfound responsibilities. Would you not agree, Benevolence?"

I longed to ignore her, but the woman's power, as she so
brutally demonstrated, far exceeded my own, and oppressive though the room was, it was not a dungeon. Not yet. "Yes, Your Majesty," I answered without emotion.

"Are you not grateful for this opportunity?"

"Yes, Your Majesty." I dropped into a curtsy to avoid meeting her eyes.

"Beatrix and her staff shall arrive presently to dress you for dinner. In the weeks to come, we shall be delighted to hear of your developments in restraint." With that, Sophia swept from the room. The door closed behind her with an ominous creak, followed by the final sharp click of a lock.

***

As I had climbed the stone staircase more than half convinced I was en route to my execution, my initial reaction involved a fair measure of relief, for a sliver of pie is better than naught. The blankets on the pallet, worn though they were, appeared at least clean. With effort I released the corroded window latch, and the tumble of warm fresh air reminded me that all was not lost.

As I dwelled upon the matter, however, I began to understand the true wretchedness of my situation. My farsighted ancestors had erected Chateau de Montagne at the seam, as
it were, where Ancienne's gentle eastern slopes meet its vertical northern cliffs. The Peach Rooms I had been given upon my arrival to the castle overlooked lovely Montagne, and the mysterious and imposing richness of Ancienne, her skirts patterned with crofters' cottages, apple orchards, grain fields, and the snowy sheep that produce our noted woolens. This new room, however—and I am most generous in my use of the term "room," for it was much closer to a cell—had one window, of smallish dimensions, that faced north. Instead of fertile valley, I could see only the torrent of the Great River, the switchbacks built into the cliff far below, and the distant foreign mountains. I occupied, in fact, the castle's tallest tower, which explained the stifling heat that radiated from the cell's southwestern walls.

I mulled on the tower-bound princess whose lover employed her hair as rope. My own curly locks—one of my better features, I will admit,
better
being a relative term—hung just past my shoulders, and barely draped over the windowsill. At this height, I would require leagues of hair and a scalp like a pachyderm's to support it. Besides, I reflected, scowling, I did not want a man coming to
me
.I instead required a means of departure.

But that would be impossible. The queen now controlled
my every move; I would eat, and dress, and depart this cell at her pleasure. Not one soul in the kingdom, certainly not the timid servant girl who cringed before Sophia, would have courage enough to find this cell and slip me food. Any illusions I retained that my life might be my own were gone forever.

In the weeks that followed I suffered greatly, though some kind souls did extend small offerings. At dinner one night I found a raisin roll hidden in my napkin. Discreet as I sought to be, Queen Sophia must have sensed my delight, and by the following night she replaced the dining staff. Occasionally I would discover a sweet tucked inside my writing book, or on taking the hand of a footman I would find a small wedge of chocolate in my own. But all in all, her noose grew ever tighter.

The situation collapsed completely at dinner one September evening. Perhaps it was the full moon that drove me to madness, or the gnawing, relentless emptiness of my heart. Whatever the trigger, the powder had been well packed, and my explosion, though shocking, was not altogether unexpected.

As always, the queen and Lady Beatrix prattled. The queen dined in a gown of poppy red silk laced with gold, the
fabric's unearthly shimmer reflecting the queen's own serpentine nature. Intent on eating with sufficient restraint that my portion not be further reduced, I ignored my companions as best I could, speaking only when addressed directly. As the second course, a bland pork loin baked in pastry, was laid before us, my stomach rumbled.

Lady Beatrix tittered. "Forgive me, Your Majesty. I am unused to this earthiness."

"We do better to rise above such vulgarity," the queen admonished her lady while I seethed. How dare they describe me as vulgar, as if my belly's grumbling were within my control! Yet I set my jaw, determined not to reveal my aggravation.

At last the queen nodded for our plates to be cleared. Lady Beatrix, I could not but notice, had barely touched her food. "Your Majesty," I spoke, "forgive me, but I worry at the distress the chef must experience to see his labor slighted so."

The queen glared at me. "How often each night must we instruct you that we do not dwell on food?"

"Well," I retorted, the devil at last possessing me completely, "some of us do!" With that, I leaned across the table, snatched up Lady Beatrix's tart, and stuffed it into my mouth.

My efforts at mastication aside, time appeared to stop,
though when I finally swallowed—the pork, being tough as well as bland, required no minor amount of exertion—I could discern the ticking of the great clock behind me. Beatrix, and the staff as well, observed me with silent horror.

Again the queen sighed. "For some time we have anticipated such a transgression from those who were never taught to control their basest instincts. Arise, Benevolence."

Still swallowing bits of tart, I did so. Sophia motioned to a footman. "Hold her right hand steady. We would not have her flinching."

"I flinch at nothing!" I proclaimed, remembering my brave soldier father. I resolved to do him honor, wherever he might be, and I boldly flourished my hand.

The queen's eyebrows rose, but she said nothing. Instead, standing, she pulled from some hidden pocket a short leather strap, and, setting her jaw, began at once to beat my palm.

The pain was extraordinary. It took every fiber of my being not to snatch my hand away, cram my burning fingers into my mouth, and run sobbing from the room. I bit my lip, trying to think of my mother, of summer days, of soft kittens and fairy tales.

Finally she halted. With a heartfelt sigh, I commenced to sit.

"We are not finished, Princess. Turn your hand, if you please."

Again, with control I did not know I possessed, I held out my hand, palm down. Immediately as the lashes fell welts began to form. My fingers, swollen already, grew pink and then deep red. When after a seeming eternity the beating ended, I did not move, so desperate was I to deny that this inflamed and agonizing appendage was actually attached to my person.

Readjusting the train to her gown, the queen settled herself. "How courteous of you, Benevolence," she said, lifting her wineglass, "to await those of higher rank."

I eased into my chair. For a moment my fury blocked the anguish. Soon as I moved, however, the pain returned in force.

The meal continued. For some time no one conversed, as Sophia's focus was elsewhere and no one, of course, may speak before the queen.

Determined not to display any suffering, I struggled as best I could with knife and fork. The queen, I noticed, consumed three glasses of wine rather than her usual one. Occasionally a true emotion would cross her face, escaping that icy façade. And the emotion I saw most frequently—or
that I chose to so interpret—was disappointment. I had not been broken.

This realization gave me the strength to survive that interminable dinner.

At last the footmen cleared the roast and presented each of us a small cake, frosted and gilded until it resembled a precious porcelain ornament. From experience I knew that however lovely the exterior, the center would be as dry and tasteless as old wood, and that the entire dessert could better serve as doorstop than victuals. But beggars cannot select their sauces, and well did I recognize that my next meal would not come for many hours. Taking the daintiest, gentlest (for breaking this crust was no mean feat) forkful that I could manage, I began to eat.

Across the table, the queen and Lady Beatrix continued their useless dialogue. The queen, I noticed, had two bright circles of color in her cheeks, and Beatrix, following her mistress's lead on wine consumption as on all matters, spoke more piercingly than usual.

Sophia turned to me. "Benevolence, you must join us. Insignificant as our conversation may seem, a queen's greatest responsibility is to learn the art of speaking well while saying nothing."

"Forgive me, Your Majesty," I replied docilely. "But I was taught that a queen's greatest responsibility is to bear her husband a child."

A veritable broadsword of silence crashed down upon the room.

Queen Sophia folded her napkin and placed it at her side. "Your left hand, please."

By the time this strapping ended, we were both of us visibly wheezing, mightily as we tried to hide it. The effort of eliciting a cry—unsuccessful, I am proud to relate—had raised beads of perspiration on Sophia's upper lip. I myself bit my cheek so strongly that I tasted blood. Finished, we returned to our seats, dabbing our mouths with our napkins as though attending to a drop of gravy. As no one else survives to bear witness, allow me to aver that I was as ladylike in this gesture as Queen Sophia herself.

Finally, following ices and cordials, the queen rose. Lady Beatrix and I obediently followed. Without a word the queen left the banquet hall. As had become our practice, I accompanied her, for she alone could admit me to my "room."

Normally as we walked the corridors together, the queen would point out the failures she had not had opportunity to mention during the meal itself: I clinked my water glass
against my wine; I thanked the footmen too heartily; and, always, I did not join the conversation. Tonight, however, she did not speak once. Word of our struggle—of my beating, to be frank—must have galloped through the castle, for footmen stood frozen to hear every word. Alas, there was none.

Within the queen's apartment, her young maid cowered, acutely aware of the unearned scolding she would doubtless soon receive. Unable to open the stairwell door with my swollen hands, I had to wait, curtsying, for the queen. She flung it open and preceded me up the stairs, puffing visibly. Moonlight flooded my cell, and in the light I could observe Sophia's chest heaving with effort. Normally she wished me good night, though with enough coldness to cancel the courtesy. Tonight, however, she did not speak but only slammed shut the door with a resounding clang.

BOOK: Princess Ben
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