The first part is here.
I run down the flights of stairs all a clatter and storm into the kitchen.
“Abigail, there’s riders! Six of them!” I shout.
Abigail gets up from her chair, rubs her hands and says “Ooooooo!”
I head on over to the stable. Joseph will need help with un-tacking and stabling. As soon as I tell him the good news, the riders arrive.
The men are dressed in simple, but expensive garb. Thick wool and double seams, silver clasps and sturdy boots, but what really stands out are the horses. They are beautiful. All of them are strong muscled and lean, but none of them is thin. Their coats are flawless, their gait measured and their eyes clear. Even the steamed breath that escapes their nostrils seems exquisite. I can’t wait to brush them. If ever any horses deserve the name ‘noble steed’, those six do.
Joseph does the talking as the guests dismount. I just take the bridles he holds out to me and lead one horse after the other into the stable. I unbuckle the girders and take off the saddles. They look new. The leather is still thick and supple and not one stich has come loose. I tether the horses in their spots and start combing and brushing. There is almost no dirt on them, so it is fast work. As I take off the bridles, I see that they are made of the same supple leather. But they must be older, because they look ripped and mended in places. I go and clean off the bits. That’s when I notice something peculiar on the bridle of the huge roan. Right there, by the bit chain is a seal coin worked into the bridle. It is a small one. I try to decipher it and then almost fall over backwards. This cannot be!
A cold shiver runs over my back. This is bad news! I look around. Joseph is not here anymore. Nobody else knows. I decide that I do not need to tell anyone and carefully put the clean bridles on their hooks.
The horses are chomping their hay in peace as I leave the stable to head over to the main room.
Margaret sees me coming in.
“Hey, what took you so long? Go get more logs for the fire!”
I grunt and go out back through the kitchen. I get a few logs and bring them back in. The main room is hot and stuffy, so I deposit them by the fireplace. Let Margaret put them in herself if she is such a freeze maiden. Right now she is serving mugs of ale to the strangers while the usual drunks make a ruckus at the bar.
I look the six men at the table over. I still don’t believe what I have seen. But I am not a simpleton. I know the sigil and I know it was there. And there are only two possible explanations for that.
The men are all lords or knights, for sure. They call each other ‘sir’ and know their manners. (For the most part.)
They are also rather young. They haven’t outgrown their boyish faces and peach fuzz yet. Looking at them laughing and drinking I noticed that their hair colors are rather evenly dispersed. Two black haired guys, who look like brothers, two red heads with one of them rather good looking and the other rather not and two brown haired ones with one looking more round and the other more angular.
I sit small beside the fireplace and try to decide which one is the leader of their group.
The good looking red head is the loudest of the group. He tells the most stories and has a ringing laugh. The ugly redhead looks rather tense and on guard. One of the brothers has a lute in a bag with him and his face clouds over whenever Margaret gets near it while serving. The Other brother looks prim and agreeable. The round guy is mainly smiling and nodding along with everyone else, but has no real commanding presence. That leaves angular guy.
He sits at the table with ease and talks every now and then. When he does, everyone else at the table is quiet and paying attention. He smiles readily and shows off a whole bunch of pretty white teeth when he does. Combine this with the leisure at which he picks at his food and you can only come to one conclusion. Whoever he is, this man hasn’t been poor a day in his life. I’m betting on him. I go over to the table to ask if I can clear some plates away and to catch his name.
Armed with dirty dishes and the name Sir Gideon, I return to the kitchen.
Abigail has been nice and fixed me a plate of leftovers that I devour in no time. Who knows when Margaret set to yelling again?
Later that night I go up to the rooms with buckets full of water. I knock on all the doors and ask if anyone needs fresh water for their washing basins.
I’m in luck. Sir Gideon needs some. So I go into his room.
He is standing in front of the bed wearing his white shirt and trousers. Jacket and vest are on the chair. His saddlebags are underneath it.
I open the window and pour out the dirty water. I turn and see him in profile. I can’t make out any resemblance, but hey, a copper is a rather small coin to begin with.
My hands are shaking as I pour fresh water into the empty pitcher.
“Sir,” I say.
“What’s the matter?” he says. And then “What’s your name?”
“Stump, on account of me being so short.” I reply.
“Well Stump, go on.”
“Sir, I have made an observation,” I begin. But then my courage leaves me and I start shaking like crazy.
“An observation? That’s a big word for a little Stump, is it not?”
He is making fun of me. That gets me good and angry and ready to go on.
“No, it’s not. I am no simpleton. I am only wondering if I should address you as your majesty, or as a thief.”
He steps back. Two full steps.
“How on earth?” He circles around me. “Out with it, what did you see?”
I am not saying a peep and he is scrunching his face in wrinkles.
“I am sorry,” he says. “I think I underestimated you. I am no thief.”
“So you are prince Peter then?” I ask.
He sighs. “I didn’t want to hear those words on my travels. Tell me, does anyone else know, or was I just stumped by you?”
He likes his wordplay this one. Still, he is my monarch. I curtsy and bow.
He shakes his head.
“I think it’s only me, who figured it out,” I say. “Please don’t kill me.”
For that I get to see his perfect teeth again. The bright smile.
“Nobody is going to kill you. Just tell me why you came here and told me.”
“Well, I figured you were the prince, because, on the whole, thieves are more careful and less happy.”
This makes prince Peter laugh.
“I still don’t know how you figured it out.”
I un-tacked your horse and even though you took the royal seal off the front of the bridle, there was still one left on the side of the bit, right by the chain. So I thought you were either a thief, who stole the prince’s horse, or you were the prince himself. And I decided you were the latter. So I came here to warn you. It does give you away on the spot.”
The prince is shaking his head again.
“After all the work and all the fuss, such a little thing.”
He comes closer to me and opens his purse.
“Here, have a Taler and promise me to tell nobody ever what you found out.”
“I promise,” I say. “But I can’t take that Taler.”
His face clouds over. “Why not?”
“First off, I have nobody to tell it to. If I tell anyone, they will tell my sister Margaret and then she will go after me for not telling her sooner and will give me a thrashing and should she find the Taler, she will take it from me and give me another trashing to boot. So no, I can’t take it.”
“Is Margaret the wench downstairs?” the prince asks.
“Yes, the keeper of the inn, the barmaid and my older sister, all rolled into one.”
“It doesn’t sound like she is very nice to you.”
I don’t say a thing and stare at the floor.
The prince rummages in his purse again. He takes my hand and puts several coppers into it.
“Here you go. They may be less conspicuous.”
I look at all the riches in my hand and smile. He smiles back.
“As for the promise, I will just go ahead and trust you. What is your real name, so that we can have a gentlemen handshake?”
I stifle a laugh. “My real name is Susanna,” I say.
That’s the second time the prince takes a step back and then another.
“You’re a girl?”
He comes back, hand extended. “Well Susanna let’s have a handshake on your promise then.”
“Yes, your majesty, sorry, sir,” I say and wipe my hand on my shirt before I shake.
His grip is strong, but warm and soft. His rather blue eyes are still crinkled in amusement.
“I have to say, Susanna, you are much more observant than I.”
I pick up the buckets and head to the door.
“Good night, sir.”
“Good night Stump.”
I close the door.
Downstairs is still a rousing drinking feast in full progress. Margaret is dancing on a table and all the dirty drunks are clapping and singing. I help Abigail to get the kitchen closed down. As I bring the last scraps to the pig pen I see Sir Gideon who I know is Prince Peter coming back from the stable. He throws a little thing in the air and grins at me. I have a pretty good inclination about what that little thing was.
I wake up and see Abigail’s concerned face above me.
“Get down and be quick. She is in a right state and Joseph is fit to kill.”
“What happened?” I ask as I hastily put my clothes in order.
“She fell asleep on top of the miller behind the bar.”
“Margaret and the miller?”
I know my sister. The miller is below her aspirations. Abigail shrugs.
“Joseph found them this morning. Margaret said she just fell asleep. Joseph carried her to the pump and splashed her off. That got her awake and screaming.”
“Oh my lord!” If Margaret got humiliated like that and has a hangover on top of that, I will have to get ready for some pummeling. It doesn’t matter what I do or don’t do. She won’t care.
Abigail and I are clattering down the stairs now.
“What happened to the miller?” I ask.
“He got a swift kick in the behind and an armload of threats,” says Abigail.
In the kitchen we work to get breakfast ready. She gets the fresh baked bread out of the oven and I put butter and jam from the crocks into small bowls to carry out.
Margaret walks through the kitchen once, but doesn’t say a word.
Soon the lords come down into the main room and talk about leaving.
“Stump!” Margaret hollers.
“Get the horses ready. The gentlemen want to be off!”
“On my way,” I say.
Did I just see the prince winking at me? He better not. Extra attention is the last thing I need right now. I hurry over to the stables.
In there I see Joseph cleaning saddles with grease. He is working it in with three times as much power as it needs. I know better than to say anything. I just go in with the pretty horses and get them ready.
“So them fancy lords are leaving already?” Joseph grunts.
“Yep.” I say.
“I’ll take those reigns,” he says.
I know why he is doing it. Usually the first guy coming out from the stables gets a copper or two. Joseph knows that it is common courtesy toward the stable boys and that he, the owner of the inn, should be above that. But he needs to buy his tobacco with something and he considers me Margaret’s responsibility when it comes to money. So I follow him and keep my head down.
The handsome red head does give Joseph two coppers when he mounts. But then the prince calls me over and gives me three. “For taking such good care of the horses,” he says.
I can feel the other seven coppers he gave spaced out in my boots. Now I have ten coppers. I have to be all kinds of careful right now. The lords ride off. Joseph holds out his hand. I run off.
Two weeks later a lone merchant comes along. He is selling pots and pans, yarn and needles, hooks and pails. Margaret talks him out of some wares for staying the night. The merchant is savvy to her outrageous price, but gives her a benevolent smile. He might have better kept his mouth closed. Those teeth look like they are made of rotten wood. His whole appearance is rather frumpy. Dirty, longish blond hair frames an old face that sits atop a rotund body. His clothes are somewhere in color between greenish yellow and brownish green. But the man is in good spirits and gives us much-needed tools, so I like him.
In the evening, while everyone else is busy drinking in the main room, he comes over to the stable. I am closing down for the night and he comes right over to me.
“Hey Stump. You’re Stump, right?”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
“Can you read?” he asks.
What a strange thing to ask of a stable kid. Why would he want to know? I mean, as fortune has it, I can read a bit. My mother’s younger brother was a musician and he learned to read both music and words from his teacher. He did try to teach me both. The words stuck. The music fell right out of my head again. It is said that he got lost on some shipwreck somewhere. He is supposed to be dead. I am not sure I believe that. But yes, thanks to Will, I can read.
“What’s it to you?” I ask.
He grins and punches me slightly in the arm.
“That’s a good answer kid.”
He pulls out a parchment from his vest. It is sealed.
“This here is from a certain Sir Gideon for you.”
He waves the parchment slightly.
“My name is Hob and I’m in his employ. You can trust me Stump, or should I say Susanna?”
“I can read just fine,” I say.
He hands over the parchment and I look at the seal. I have to smile. He took the bridle coin for it. I rip the seal and read.
if you are still bent on leaving the Inn, go run off with my good friend Hob. He will bring you to the place where I live. I have a proposition for you that I would rather discuss with you in person. I can offer you a better life. All you need is a little bit of courage.
“What does ‘proposition’ mean?” I ask.
“It means an offer,” says Hob.
“Do you know what’s written here?”
“Yes, I was there when he wrote it.”
“Is he serious?”
I study Hob’s face. He studies mine right back. That makes me laugh.
“All right then,” I say. “How do we do this?”
Hob takes the parchment back and gives me details.
I do my chores for the night. I go to sleep. I wake up in the morning and go down to the kitchen to do my morning chores. But between sweeping the fireplace and getting new logs inside, I put all my belongings in an empty flour sack and I put that flour sack into Hob’s cart.
He winks at me during his breakfast. I have to do the serving, because Margaret is in a drunken stupor and Joseph can’t be bothered.
I go back to the kitchen. I pack a lunch for Hob and me. Of course I say it is only for Hob and that he is paying for it. (Which he is.)
Abigail is peeling potatoes. I watch her for a short while. I am almost tempted to say good-bye to her, but I know I can’t.
Vanishing in an unexpected accident doesn’t seem quite so unexpected if you have given sad faced farewells that very morning.
I do feel grateful to her. She is the only one who gives a damn if I am fed or hungry, warm, or freezing, well or sick. So I thank her for the bread she gives me. That is fine. I do that each morning. Only today it means more than just the slice she puts into my hand.
Hob takes off a short while later and I clean the main room.
Then I go upstairs and take the sheets off four beds. I put them in a basket and go downstairs.
Joseph comes inside just as I make my way out.
“What are you up to?”
“There’s creepy crawlies in the merchant’s bed this morning. I took everything off and grabbed the stuff from the rooms closest to him too.”
“Dirty bugger,” says Joseph. ‘See that you wash them through and through and don’t come back until they’re all good.”
I nod and head out.
I even grab the pail with the big soap and the brush before I make my way into the woods. On the way to the stream I turn around several times. It is a rather strange feeling to really leave. Part of me could jump for joy and whoop for good measure. Part of me doesn’t really believe it is happening. And part of me is scared shitless. I’m freezing, my stomach is doing some kind of somersaults and my knees are weak. But I walk on. I put the basket and the pail down by the brook and start to wash the first linen. Halfway through, I just let go. It is a shame to waste perfectly good linen in the water, but the folk should have reason to think I drowned.
I get up, take a deep breath and start running. The first few paces I shiver all over, but then I calm down inside. It is done. I am off. I follow the forest trail all the way until it reaches the road where Hob is waiting for me.
“What took you so long?” he asks in greeting.
“I couldn’t just let my chores go undone,” I reply.
“Smart girl,” he says.
I get on the cart beside him. He starts the horses on a lively walk and soon trots them. I guess he wants to be miles away before people start looking for me. I think this is a good idea.
I have never been to De Konigen so I don’t know how long the trip will take. So I ask.
“It’ll be three weeks, if we make good time,” says Hob.
“And from now on, you’re junior. My son. Is that understood?”
“Yes, father,” I say.
Hob grins. “Never had family that quick.”
We get along fine, Hob and I. Three days in to our travels, I get the courage up to ask him what’s been on my mind all the time.
“Why me?” I ask. “What does he want with me?”
Hob looks sideways. The road is windy and dusty and I can only see his eyes from between the slits in his shawl.
“He noticed you. I have no inkling why, but you impressed him.”
I sit up straighter and I get all warm inside.
“And what does he need me for?”
“Haven’t the faintest. He just sent me to fetch you. I don’t have no say in royal matters, you know?”
He claps his hand in front of his mouth. “Good thing nobody heard that. We better not mention the whole thing again.”
I nod. Getting dust and sand blown in my mouth is not really making me keep up a conversation anyhow.
Hob’s wares are highly sought after. In a little hamlet a woman is so in need of a new cooking pot that she offers him a goat for payment. Hob waives his hands about and says: “No, no, good woman, that is too much,” a lot. But she says that she doesn’t have coppers or other goods. I ask her where the local smith went and she just shrugs. Hob notes the name of the places and gives her a pot. So now we have a goat tied to our cart.
“Want to name that goat?” asks Hob.
“Nope. That is not my goat.” I say. “I name her, I am responsible. I don’t think so.”
“Heeeeeyyyyyy,” says the goat.
After eleven days I notice a change in the air. First off, the wind is strong and cold. I mean so cold that it goes into your shirt and out of your breeches and leaves everything in between freezing and shaking. Secondly, it smells a lot fresher.
“You need a coat,” Hob states.
I agree with him but I don’t have one. He pulls a blanket from somewhere in his cart and gives it to me. I swear that cart is a miracle in itself. There is always more stuff to find in it.
Two days later we approach the ring of villages and homesteads that surround the castle. Well, the castle is some ways up the hill and looks as big as a mountain. The homes of the villagers are much closer and look much more inviting. It also helps that everyone here knows Hob. He keeps smiling and greeting left and right. After a while he complains that his arm hurts from all the waiving. I take the reigns and he leans back. As night falls and all the clutter and noises of the village die down, I hear an unfamiliar rumbling.
“What’s that sound?”
Hob listens into the night.
“That low rumbling sound. It’s kind of swishing.”
“Oh, you mean the sea.”
“Dear kiddo. We approached De Koenigen from landside. But on the other side of this mountain is the far wide sea. On the seaside bottom of the castle is the harbor.”
“You mean behind that rock is all water?”
Hob chuckles and stops the cart with a soothing “Whoa”.
“You’ll see tomorrow. For now we need rest.”
As promised, we make our way up to the castle the next day. It’s a long winding road to get up there. Back and forth around narrow curves it goes.
“Why doesn’t the road lead straight up?” I ask.
“Because that would be much too steep,” says Hob.
I can understand that, but I want to get there already. I’m all kinds of excited.
I’m going to see the castle and all the mighty lords and ladies and Prince Peter and the sea. I don’t even know what I should be excited about first.
I’ve never been to the sea and it didn’t hold a high regard in my family after Will, but I have heard men at the Inn tell so many grand stories about it, that I have decided long ago that it must be simply wonderful.
By midday we’re sweating and take a lunch break underneath a tree. It shades us some but the sun is getting to us still. Hob is eating like he never wants to stop.
“Could you just sit still for a moment? I’ve never seen anyone fidgety like that.”
“Go pack up the lunch and then you walk the rest of the way. And take the goat.”
I do as he says. I guess Hob really doesn’t want his meals interrupted. Come to think of it, who does?
At the outer castle gate we stop. Two guards are standing within the shade of the wall. One of them raises his hand in greeting.
“Hey Ho Hob. How was your journey? And who is this?” He points at me.
Hob slows down and points at me too.
“That’s Guy. Good kid. Knows a lot about life stock.”
I nod and pull the goat along. The goat thankfully comes without much resistance.
“So I’m not junior anymore?” I ask.
“Nope. Everyone knows me here.”
“I just hope I can keep all my new names straight.”
Hob is laughing and patting me on the back. “You will, kiddo, you will.”
We arrive at the inner gate and get through just the same. Inside the inner gate are the castle grounds and I stop to stare at everything in awe. There are the proper caste buildings, made out of sky-high stone walls. Broad halls and high towers and turrets and domes. But beneath and beside those are small houses and stalls, stables and huts. It looks like a walled in village, only much bigger. People are running to and fro. Pigs are squealing in a pen and chickens are puckering around. I can hear hammering and sawing and banging and shouting and water splashing. Hob carefully drives the cart to the stables. This is a very busy place.
A young guy comes out of the stables and greets Hob. Hob pats him on the back. The young guy is also stout and has longish blonde hair. His smile is a whole lot cleaner though.
“That’s my nephew, Hob Two,” Hob says.
Hob Two nods and unhooks the horses from the cart.
An older woman appears. “And that’s my sister Minnie.”
“Good evening, mam,” I say.
She smiles at me and shows teeth just as bad as Hob’s. This must run in the family.
“Nobody’s been calling me mam in a long time. Come in kid, we’ll take care of you.”
I follow her. She goes through the stables to a two story annex that is wedged between the stables and a castle wall. Inside, she gives me a bowl of soup and a heel of bread.
“Here, eat your fill and then get some rest. Remy will take you where you need to be tomorrow.”
The soup is heavenly. If Abigail could cook like this, the Inn would be overflowing.
“Who is Remy?” I ask.
“Remy’s my husband. Also, it would be best if you stayed inside. We don’t want people to take notice of you.”
“Them’s the orders,” Minnie says and goes off to prepare a cot.
I eat, I wash, I sleep like a baby.
I wake up and hear voices close by.
“Why should I go with him? I don’t want to leave. I am perfectly happy here.”
That sounds like a young voice.
“You’re supposed to go for protection. It’s a long journey to go all alone.”
That was a darker, older voice.
“Besides, you need me to help you in the stables. Your back is not the best anymore.”
“I can manage just fine.”
“I just don’t see why I should protect a guy I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Don’t you have eyes in your head?” That’s Minnie’s voice, I remember it. “That is not a guy. That is a girl.”
Shit, they’re talking about me. I decide to get up and join them.
“Good morning,” I say as I come to the kitchen table.
“Good morning,” Minnie replies. “You’ve met my son Hob two and that over there is Remy.”
Hob Two blushes and doesn’t know where to look. Remy gets up and shakes my hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
I sit down and a plate with bacon, bread and jam is set before me in seconds.
“So I am to go on a big journey then?” I ask.
“You might, you might not,” says Remy. “All I know is that I should consider the possibility of sending Hob Two with you. Oh and you should be in the stable in about an hour.”
Hob Two ogles me. “Are you really a girl?”
“Yes,” I say. “But I can defend myself. Don’t worry.”
He let’s out a sigh and his mother scolds him.
An hour later I stand with Hob Two beside two saddled horses, a black and a roan stallion. We saddled them and talk a bit about the life of a stable boy. Hob Two is still not all convinced that I’m a girl and I don’t mind.
We share a laugh as Prince Peter walks into the stable.
He is dressed in fine leathers and wears a bemused smile.
I curtsy and say “Good morning your majesty.”
Now he’s not smiling anymore. He is shaking his head and waving his hands.
“No, no. Please don’t. None of that bowing and your majesty stuff. Just treat me like you did at the Inn.”
I hold out my hand. “Good morning then,” I say.
The smile is back and he shakes my hand.
Hob Two stands beside me with his mouth wide open.
“So you came,” says Prince Peter.
“It was an easy decision.”
“Can you ride?”
Now that is a strange question to ask someone who has been around horses their whole life. My face must have shown that, because he continues.
“Of course you can. Let’s get out of here.”
He grabs the reigns of the roan, so I take the black.
The stallion is skittish. He has heat in his heart and and will of his own. He has a mind to throw me. But he is not the first unwieldy horse I’ve been on and it only takes a few small circles and a bit of backing up to make him follow my rules.
Prince Peter is already passing through the inner gate. I follow him and ride behind him until we pass through the outer gate and the village. He sets off on a trail that leads into the forest and he is by no means going slowly.
I keep up with him, just one nose length behind. He rides up a hill and gallops full speed through a meadow. On its end he slows down apruptly. I do the same. Good thing too, because that meadow ends in a cliff. From up here I see the sea. It is vast, it is moving, it is magnificent.
Prince Peter dismounts and comes over to me.
“You’re not afraid of anything, are you?”
I smile at him and dismount as well.
He leads the horses to a tree and sits down beneath it. There you have it. A Prince, a royal born with so much more power than most of his underlings can fathom, sitting on the ground in the grass. I think he is the fearless one.
“This is a beautiful spot,” I say.
He pats the ground beside him. I sit down.
“Don’t you want to know why I asked you here?”
“Yes I do. I figured you would tell me when you’re good and ready.”
He laughs. I like it when he throws his head back just a little while he does that.
“I’m still not sure just how I should tell you,” he says.
Now that is making me nervous.
He sits up straight. “Let’s begin at the beginning. When I met you at the Inn, I noticed two things about you. One is that you are very observant. The other is that you will stand up for yourself. I appreciate both of these attributes very much in a person. Another thing I like about you is that you have no reason to betray me. “
He turns to me. “You like what you’re hearing so far?”
He puts a blade of grass between his teeth.
“Well, here comes the nasty part. I want to use that. I want to use you. I want you to work for me at the court.”
“What? Why?” I say. I feel like a bumbling idiot.
“Do you know about the political situation in De konigen? Do you know the challenges I’m facing?”
“No, sorry I don’t.” I say. Yep, I’m a complete idiot.
He shrugs. “Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Most people don’t really care about who rules them as long as they are left alone and get their harvest in.”
He faces me again. “But for you to understand why I need you, you need to get a little background. So, indulge me. Who is king right now?”
“That would be king Gregory, but he went away a while ago.”
“Yes, my father went a-questing two years ago, after my mother died. So who is reigning right now?”
“Your uncle Theodore.”
“Yes, Prince Theodore and his lovely wife Theresa. Now who should be crowned, should king Gregory not return from his quest?”
“That’s right. Me. If I live to see the day. So far I had enough supporters in the king’s council and Theodore likes me well enough. But old men get replaced by new ones and there are rumors now getting louder that the king went missing. Nobody has seen him for a long time.”
“That is reason for worry,” I say. “But what does that have to do with me?”
He takes my hand.
“I have friends who hear all the things in Theodore’s surroundings. But I don’t have one trustworthy ally in the Lady’s court.”
“So you want me to be a Lady’s maid and keep my ears open?”
He shakes his head. “No, no, no. I want to make a Lady out of you.”
“You what?” I jump up and stagger a few steps backward. It is not nice of him to make fun of me like that. I might just be a simple stable kid, but I don’t deserve to be toyed with.
He gets up as well. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you or make you angry.”
I cross my arms in front of me.
“Let me explain,” he says. “My great aunt Esmeralda will be coming to court within a year’s time. She is my biggest ally and she suggested I should send her a girl to train and introduce as one of her many grandchildren. Specifically, this girl would take the place of her granddaughter Emmeline, who is considered dead or lost.”
I search his eyes. “So you want me to impersonate a noble born?”
“Yes, that’s basically it.”
“You do know that I get burned alive, should anyone find out?”
He flinches. “Yes. It comes with risk. But you are smart and courageous and nobody will be able to place you.”
I am not convinced. I don’t think he thought this through. So I come up to him. “Look at my hands. Do you think these are the hands of a lady?”
He takes them into his own hands. He looks at mine, tanned, with freckles and calluses and all, resting in his, white and smooth.
“You have a year to fix them. Esmeralda will help you.”
He keeps holding my hands. “Please?”
What in the world are you supposed to do when your monarch pleads with you? I say “Yes”. Of course I say it. He could order me. He could throw me in jail. He could do whatever he wants to. But he pleads instead. I dare you to say No to that.
He gives me that wide smile of his. Then he leans in and gives me a peck on the cheek. I stand there dumbstruck. He is already off to his horse. Did the Prince just kiss me? I touch my cheek. Did my mind just make that up?
He gives me the reigns of the black stallion.
“You’ll be sailing to Lady Esmeralda tomorrow. Hob two will accompany you. I’m sorry, I won’t be able to see you off.”
I come back to my senses.
“Hob Two doesn’t want to go.”
“Hob Two does what I tell him to do. He can take the next ship home, once you arrived at Esmeralda’s door unscathed.”
Now I know how Prince Peter looks when he is in reigning mood.
“So I will cross the whole wide sea and will come back in a year?” I ask.
The smile returns. “Only a small part of the whole wide sea. But yes, you will be back in a year. Are you scared?”
I give him a grin. “It’s going to be a grand adventure.”