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First pages

Prologue

‘Once upon a time there were twelve princesses…’

 

‘Excuse me, but you know that is not quite right.’

 

The Master Chronicler raises a long, bony hand to halt his young apprentice in his reading. The face of the master is as pale and creased as the white linen cap upon his head, and it is a vexed looking face, due to my interruption.

‘This is the ordered version,’ he asserts. ‘The first lesson a chronicler must learn is that for history to make sense there must be some order applied, some symmetry of meaning, otherwise all is a lawless jumble of facts!’ He looks to his apprentice for acknowledgment, the young lad nods with enough fervour to cause his own cap to slide down over his eyes. The master lifts a finger of signal, and the reading resumes.

 

Once upon a time there were twelve princesses, each one more beautiful than the last.’

 

‘That part is true,’ I grant.

 

‘But a great mystery surrounded the princesses, for every morning when they awoke, their slippers were found to be worn through. But where they went and how they wore their slippers out, no one knew.’

 

‘That also is correct, but you have left so much out.’

 

‘So the king issued a proclamation that any prince who could solve the mystery would win the hand of the eldest princess, and inherit the crown.’

 

‘What about the part where they would be killed if they failed?’

Weary eyes scowl at me. Eyes as opaque as the vellum parchments he pores over day by day.

 

‘Each prince was given three nights to solve the mystery. But if he failed, he would be executed. A brave young prince came forward and was given a room adjoining the princesses’ bedchamber.’

 

‘Yes – my room,’ I say under my breath.

 

‘But he lay down, and his eyes grew heavy, and he fell asleep. When he awoke, there were the princesses’ slippers all worn through.

‘The same thing happened on the second and the third night, and so the prince was sentenced to execution.

‘Many suitors came forward, but the same fate befell them all.’

 

‘We did feel very sorry for them.’

 

‘One day a soldier happened to pass through the kingdom.’

 

‘They only thought he was a soldier.’

 

‘And meeting with an old woman, she chanced to ask him where he was going.’

 

‘Chance? There was no chance about it!’

 

‘‘Well,’ said the soldier, ‘I hardly know. Perhaps I should try my hand at solving the mystery of where the princesses go at night to dance out their slippers. Who knows, one day I might then be king!’ he said half in jest.

“Well,’ said the old woman, ‘it is not so difficult as you might think. Take this little cloak; it will make you invisible. When the princesses leave at night you can follow them without being seen. But take care – do not drink the wine the princesses give you.”

 

‘Yes. That part is fine.’

 

‘So the soldier went to the royal palace and was given a royal welcome. He was taken to the chamber adjoining the princesses’ bedchamber, and the eldest princess brought him wine.’

 

‘Which, of course, he was too sensible to drink.’

 

‘The soldier pretended to drink the wine and then pretended to fall asleep. The princesses dressed themselves with great gaiety. ‘Another poor fool who has thrown away his life!’ the eldest sister laughed.’

 

‘Now stop there – I take great objection – she does not speak in such a manner!’

The master halts the reading. He glares at me across the horns and stone jars of ink lined up between us on the wide oak table. He snatches the manuscript from his young apprentice and waves it at me.

‘It is representative of the general feeling of the people at that time,’ he insists. ‘It is a necessary tension to the balance of order.’

I stare indignantly in return.

‘Do you care to hear the rest?’

‘Yes. I do care to hear the rest.’

He pushes his reading monocle into his eye socket and wrinkles his pale nose as he finds the place in the manuscript. ‘This is the fantastical part,’ he mutters. ‘Invisible cloaks and magical kingdoms – humph!’

‘You should not be so quick to dismiss things just because you have not seen them yourself,’ I tell him. ‘I have found life to be much more extraordinary than it appears.’

‘Humph! If you want to hear the rest of it – then no more interruptions!’

I can see he is growing most displeased now. ‘Very well,’ I promise. ‘No more interruptions.’

 

‘So that night the princesses dressed with great gaiety as before. But the youngest princess said, ‘I have a strange feeling tonight something is going to happen.’

“Don’t be a silly goose’, the eldest princess scolded her, ‘did not the simpleton in there drink the wine and fall asleep like all the others? He will suffer the same fate as the rest of them.’ They all peeked in at the soldier one more time, and he looked to be fast asleep.

‘So the eldest princess struck the end of her bed and a door in the ground opened. All the princesses followed her down a stairway through the door. The soldier jumped out of bed, wrapped the invisible cloak around him, and quickly followed. On the way down he stepped on the gown of the youngest princess. She cried out in alarm, ‘Someone stood on my dress!’

“Don’t be ridiculous,’ said the eldest princess, ‘you must have caught it on something.’

‘They passed through an avenue of trees. The trees were of gleaming silver. The soldier thought to himself – no one will believe me about this, I had better take some evidence. So he broke off a small branch from one of the silver trees and hid it under his cloak. The branch made a cracking sound as it broke, and the youngest princess cried out in alarm – ‘Did you hear that? There was a strange noise!’

“Don’t be absurd,’ said the eldest princess, ‘that is just the sound of the timbrels striking up for us to dance.’

‘They passed on into an avenue where the trees were of shining gold. I had better take some evidence of this, the soldier thought to himself, and he broke off a small branch from one of the golden trees and hid it under his cloak.

“Did you hear that?’ cried the youngest princess, ‘there was another strange noise!’

“Don’t be foolish,’ ridiculed the eldest princess, ‘that is just the sound of the lutes striking up for us to dance.’

‘They passed through a third avenue where the trees were of diamonds. Again the soldier broke off a branch, and again the youngest sister cried out in alarm.

“Don’t be stupid,’ said the eldest princess, ‘that is just the sound of the pipes striking up for us to dance.’

‘They reached a lake where twelve boats rowed by twelve handsome princes waited for them. The princesses climbed into the boats and the soldier got into the boat with the youngest princess.

“How heavy this boat seems tonight,’ said the prince as he rowed them across the lake.

‘The princes rowed to a castle on an island. There they all danced and danced to the music of pipes and lutes and timbrels. They drank wine when they grew thirsty and danced until they could dance no more. When the princes rowed the princesses back across the lake the soldier sat in the boat of the eldest princess.

“How heavy this boat seems tonight,’ said the prince.

“It must be because you are tired from dancing,’ replied the eldest princess.

‘When the boats reached the lakeside the princesses said farewell to their princes and promised to come again the next night. The soldier ran ahead. When they returned to their bedchamber they peeked in at him and saw him lying in bed fast asleep. The princesses laughed at him and put their worn out slippers under their beds and slept till midday.

‘The next day the soldier said nothing, for he was not sure it was not all a dream. But the danced out slippers and the branches of gold and silver and diamonds showed him it must have been more than just a dream, and so he wanted to see it all again.

‘On the second and third night the soldier followed the princesses again. On the third night he took one of the golden goblets they drank wine from, and hid it beneath his cloak.

‘On the morning following the third night the soldier was brought before the king.

“Well then?’ asked the king. ‘Have you solved the mystery? Can you tell me where the princesses go each night to dance out their slippers?’

“Yes, Your Majesty,’ replied the soldier, ‘they go to an underground world where there are trees of gold and trees of silver and trees of diamonds. They cross a crystal lake to a castle of black opal where they dance with twelve princes and drink wine from golden goblets.’ And the soldier showed the king the branches and the goblet as proof.

‘The king asked the princesses if this was the truth, and they could not deny it. And so the soldier claimed the eldest princess, married her and inherited the crown.’

 

‘That is not how it ended, as well you know!’

‘As I have said,’ replies the master with a heavy sigh, ‘history has to be arranged in a rational way or it makes no pattern of logic. We cannot retell gross subversions of order – logic has four corners, linear lines – not great meandering tangents and sudden turnabouts. Even such unusual accounts as this have to be squared and organized for posterity or I may as well be a peasant folk-teller as a royal chronicler!’

‘But what about the truth? Should we not preserve and retell things as they are?’

‘Truth is subjective. Order must reign supreme. This is the formal version!’

‘Well then, if that is how it must be – give me that sheaf of new-pressed paper and a sharp quill,’ I order the young apprentice. ‘I see I must write down the in-formal version myself.’

‘Now. Where to begin…?’

 

Once upon a time…

I was born…

 

‘Yes. That is where it all began. At least, that is where it all began for me.’

 

I was born a thirteenth princess…

Chapter One

I was born a thirteenth princess.

Which is the same thing as saying I am an inconvenience.

 

For in our kingdom – the glorious kingdom of Cataluna, celebrated throughout the known world as The Jewel of The Realms – in our kingdom whose borders reach up to the mountain lands of the east and stretch as far as the forest lands of the west, extending down to the coast lands of the south – in our beautiful kingdom of Cataluna – symmetry is everything.

Symmetry is Beauty and Beauty is Symmetry. Everyone understands this law, it is literally carved into the palace keystones and lintels: ‘La bellesa es la simetria i la simetria es la bellesa’ were the first words we were ever taught to read, write and embroider (how I hated embroidery lessons).

You cannot have good taste without symmetry. You cannot have order without perfect proportion. Our palace is arranged by symmetry. The rooms are perfectly square, or perfectly rectangular, or, as in the Great Ballroom, perfectly octagonal. Every chamber, every wing, every door, window, chimney and turret is arranged in perfect regularity. No Catalunan architect would dream of drawing their plans otherwise.

And it is not just the architecture that must conform – the number of tapestries on any one wall, the items of furniture, the place settings, the ornamental flower borders, the servants waiting at table, the candles in the chandeliers, even the rows of ribbon on one’s nightgown – all must be regular, precise, orderly, uniform.

Now when there are twelve daughters born to a family, all is well. Twelve is a good number – twelve can be divided by six and four, by three and two – twelve is an excellent number. Twelve carved bedsteads with twelve cloth-of-silver canopies stand beautifully six to a wall in a royal grand bed-chamber, but what does one do when a thirteenth daughter is unexpectedly born – where does her canopied bed stand? Twelve daughters can divide very well four to a golden carriage pulled by four beautifully matched white horses. But where does one fit in a thirteenth?

And so it is. I am a misfit. An appendage. An anomaly.

 

Apparently the news of my birth was greeted with confident hopes that my mother would have another child, a fourteenth to round up our family again nicely – but alas – Mother died shortly after my birth, and so there was no fourteenth.

Apparently it was much hoped my father would remarry and have more royal children, most especially it was hoped he would have a son, for not only was my order of birth something of a concern, but yet another daughter born to a king without a male heir was a bitter disappointment. But alas again – my father died within a year of his queen’s tragic demise. It was said with great reverence he died of grief, so greatly had he loved my mother.

And so it came to pass that Uncle came to sit upon our father’s throne, for the law of the kingdom declared that only the son of a king may rule, a son by birth or a son by marriage, so until our eldest sister could marry and provide a royal son-in-law to take the crown, Uncle was to rule as the Honorary Temporal King by Crown Proxy.

Uncle very much liked to be given titles such as: The Magnificent Monarch, The Incomparable Ruler, The Supreme Sovereign, The Divine Defender of the Realm, and other such grand appellations. The Lord High Chancellor did try to remind Uncle that he was only the Honorary Temporal King by Crown Proxy, but it made little difference to Uncle. Uncle was not one for listening to people if he did not like what they were saying. And he especially did not like listening to government ministers, for he always suspected they were out to trick him into signing some new law to remove him.

And so it came to pass that I was born into such a family: one ambitious Uncle and twelve beautiful, talented sisters.

Four sets of triplets.

And me.

 

Producing four sets of triplets is undoubtedly remarkable, and requires especial mention, but my mother did have a little help – what some people would call ‘a little faery help’. She has never called herself a faery, but she says there is no other word in our language that describes exactly what she is, so faery will have to do.

She has told me she is among the last of her kind in this part of the world, for her kind belongs to an older age. Faeries are rarer than an un-oiled emerald, as the saying goes. I am told it was once usual for royal children to have faery guardians, it used to be expected, but that was in the old days. Why my mother was one of the remaining few to have one is a question I have never been able to receive a satisfactory answer to, but the happy fact is she did.

No one else knew mother had a faery guardian, if people knew where a faery was to be found those who did believe would be pestering them night and day for love potions, anti-ageing ointments, or magic beans and suchlike. I doubt few people in Cataluna would believe in a faery even if they met one, for the notion of faeries is not acceptable, it is not rational, not reasonable, and faeries do not work on the level of ordinary logic.

The faery tales of old record quite accurately that it is traditional for them to give special blessings at births and weddings (bringing about weddings of the happy kind is a particular ministry of faeries). I have been reliably informed that on the eve of my mother’s wedding her faery guardian asked her what she would most like to be blessed with. My mother replied that she had only one desire in the world – to have children – lots and lots of children. Lots of healthy, beautiful, good, kind children, each with their own especial gifting. Oh, and may they be good dancers too. Next to children Mother loved dancing best of all.

Now, to most people lots of children means any high multiple of two. So while two children are not lots, and four children is a good number, but not lots, six is the minimum that would be considered lots of children, while eight is comfortably a lot of children and ten is the ideal definition of lots of children. Nobody wants an odd number of offspring, of course, symmetry is everything.

But Mother’s faery guardian must have saved up all her wedding and birth blessings for the one given to my mother that auspicious eve, for a year after mother married she gave birth to triplets. Three daughters at once is rather unusual, though not unheard of, and was a very exciting event in the kingdom, although it was a little overshadowed by anxiety because of the odd number, but very happily, just one year later, mother produced a second set of triplets which made a perfectly acceptable number of six daughters.

For each daughter born to him the king sent out adventurers to the ends of the known earth to discover and bring back precious stones, some never seen before. Each daughter was given a grand naming ceremony – the celebrated Great Lapido himself fashioned the newfound precious stones into jewels in honour of each princess, and then bestowed their respective names upon them.

But the blessings did not end there.

 

One year later Mother had a third set of triplets, three more healthy, beautiful daughters. The king was astonished, the people of Cataluna were astounded, and there were further grand celebrations, and more new jewels to fill the royal jewel house, and three additional naming ceremonies, with each new princess bearing the name of her precious stone.

After the third set of triplets were born there were whispers, not only of wonder, but also of concern, that after nine children there was not yet one prince born who would be heir to the king. And when one year later Mother had her fourth and final set of triplets the king and the kingdom were dumbfounded. Never had such a super-abundance of offspring been witnessed before, and through all the celebrations and naming ceremonies the people rejoiced that the king and queen had a perfectly symmetrical number of daughters, each one more beautiful than the last.

Yet there were also whispers of worry that still there was no young prince.

 

Twelve healthy children in four years was a wondrous accomplishment, and until the month before she died Mother had to sit with the king in the monthly public petitions, for dozens of childless women would queue all night outside the palace gates to request she touch them, that some of her great fertility might transfer to them. The Lord High Chancellor was quite perturbed by this for it was most irrational, and there was talk of passing a law to forbid such illogical behaviour, but my father persuaded the chancellor to restraint, for after all, he reminded him – a happy mother makes a happy kingdom, as the saying goes.

But a most surprising result was that a great many of those women would return the next year to show my mother their new babies.

I have been told that Mother did ask her faery guardian if perhaps she had some faery power herself, for so many women seemed to have been blessed. Her faery guardian told her perhaps she did, or it may be the women had such faith in Mother’s touch that their seed of faith had been enough to work a little miracle in their lives. It is not so hard to make your own blessings, Mother’s faery guardian has often told me. And it is not so hard to make your own curses also.

And so Mother was known as Good Queen Pearl, The Abundant Mother, and every woman in the kingdom wept at her death and brought flowers and fruit and laid them at the palace gates when she died. And the women of Cataluna made such a persistent petition to the Lord High Chancellor that he agreed to use government money to commission a statue of the queen, carved in marble and mounted on a plinth covered in mother-of-pearl. And so it stands in the city square this day. There has never been a queen in the history of our kingdom so beloved as our mother.

After my sisters were born there was much speculation as to whether there would be any more royal children, and most importantly, whether next would come the dearly longed for royal son and heir.

But I do not know why Mother’s faery blessing did not seem to extend to me, and why I was not one third of a set of triplets, nor even one half of a pair of twins, and certainly not the dearly desired royal son and heir. I was just…me. A thirteenth daughter.

And there were no grand celebrations for my birth, for my mother fell ill immediately afterwards. And in my father’s grief there were no adventurers sent out to seek jewels in my honour. And there was no naming ceremony conducted by The Great Lapido for me.

Mother’s faery guardian promised her on her deathbed she would watch over her daughters until they were married. So Mother’s faery guardian is still with us, though it cannot be known there is a faery among us. Only I know that.

So. Thirteen sisters are we.

No mother. No father.

But one faery guardian watching over us.

Chapter Two

I do not know how it was that I alone knew Beryl was extra-ordinary. I believe I first realised it when I was in my fourth year, on the day I hurt myself following a squirrel up a tree.

The branches of the tree began very low to the ground and I scrambled to quite some height, but the branches were not sturdy and I well recall the loud crack and my sudden rude crashing to the ground. My howls of pain brought one of the gardeners hurrying to me. I remember Old Greenjade’s worried face leaning over me, his sun-browned arms struggling to scoop me up, his staggering gait as he carried me through the gardens. Beryl materialised from behind the raspberry canes as if out of nowhere, which was generally how Beryl appeared whenever my sisters or I were in trouble.

‘She’s gone and broke it,’ gasped Old Greenjade putting me down on a mossy seat. He was pointing to my leg, ‘Snapped it like a young branch!’ he said above my wails of misery.

‘I will take care of it,’ said Beryl.

‘She’s gone and broke it, I’ll fetch the barber,’ and Greenjade hurried off as fast as his aged legs would carry him.

Beryl laid her hands on my leg, which hurt so angrily I was sure I could see the pain like a hot red haze all around it. She closed her eyes and looked as though she were concentrating very hard. And then a strange thing happened.

The hot red haze began to change to a warm sunset orange colour, and then the sunset orange haze became golden as a kingcup flower, and finally, the golden haze grew green as early summer grass after a shower. And then all the pain was gone.

My leg looked as straight and pink and white as it always did, and the cut and graze on the knee of my other leg was gone, and even the bunches of grape-coloured bruises my legs always bore from my boisterous adventurings were gone. And then Beryl sat down next to me and looked a little tired.

‘There we are,’ she said in a wearied voice. ‘All better now.’

I jumped up and ran round the stone seat in circles – my legs had never felt so strong and I felt I had never run so fast before. I flung my arms round Beryl’s ample middle and told her, ‘Pickoo rasbry!’ Which meant, ‘I’ll pick you some raspberries’ (I was only in my fourth summer, recall, and a little slow in speech).

So there we sat, side by side on the mossy stone seat, eating a handful of squishy raspberries while I swung my legs hard, much to the surprise of Old Greenjade, who came up huffing and puffing, with the barber trailing behind, waving his iron implements to set my broken bone.

‘Not broken,’ Beryl told them, ‘just a bang.’

‘I could’ve sworn it were broke!’ Old Greenjade pulled off his straw hat and fanned his face. ‘It were all sticking out funny. Could’ve sworn it were broke!’ He told the barber, scratching his head.

And that was the very first time I recall Beryl healing one of us.

 

Over the years our childhood illnesses cleared up as soon as Beryl came into our nursery and took over from the palace physician. Nasty cuts closed up remarkably when Beryl pressed her handkerchief to them; fevers and headaches vanished under her large, warm hands, and we were pronounced the most fortunate maidens in all the kingdom when not one of us was left with a single scar from the terrible pox epidemic that swept through Cataluna, leaving pock-marks on the faces of high and low-born throughout the land, from the Lord High Chancellor’s mother to the youngest scullery maid in the palace kitchens.

Why no one else noticed these things I could not understand, when it was as clear as sunlight to me. But then, as Beryl often says, miracles happen all around us every day and most people do not notice.

When I found injured birds in the gardens, and rescued baby rabbits from the clutches of the stable cats, I would bring them to Beryl. ‘Akem ber, Bel,’ I would insist, or, ‘Make them better, Beryl,’ when I could speak in proper sentences.

Beryl would say, ‘what can I do? I am not the apothecary.’ But I would not move until she took the proffered creature. She would put her big, warm hands over it, and the red haze would become a sunset orange glow, and then the orange glow would shine golden as a kingcup, and then the gold would melt into a green like early summer grass after a shower. The creature would be wriggling or fluttering as if it were bursting to run or hop or fly as it had never run or hopped or flown before. Then Beryl would sit down looking a little tired and I would hurry away to release my rescue. Beryl was good at other things when we were growing up, little things only I noticed, for example, if any of my sisters lost anything, Beryl could always find it no matter how obscure its hiding place.

Beryl never told me of all the ways in which my sisters and I were helped, she never said they were of her doing, and I never asked. I did not need to. That was the way it had always been with Beryl and me – we just knew things without having to say them.

Chapter Three

I was only in my first year when Uncle ascended the throne following Father’s death. For sixteen years Uncle had ruled the kingdom by crown proxy, but in recent years the Lord High Chancellor had become increasingly impatient because of my sisters and their lack of marriages – or rather, the lack of any opportunities for marriage.

I knew the chancellor was impatient, though he was too scared of Uncle to say it outright, I knew he suspected Uncle of keeping away all suitors from us. How was it I was privy to such knowledge? Because sometimes I would secretly listen in on their private meetings.

Now, I know listening in on conversations when you should not be present is known as eavesdropping, snooping, prying and is most unseemly behavior – but it was the most pressing of circumstances – something underhand was going on, and my sisters were suffering for it.

Our education had given us some understanding of most subjects – its undisguised purpose to make us into accomplished, interesting wives – to be fitting partners to a highborn spouse. No other future was even thought of (except by me. I wanted to be an adventurer – an explorer – a navigator of new worlds! But I was alone in this). My sisters were all longing for marriage, each of them existing in varying degrees of yearning, from a mild wishful hopefulness from the youngest triplets, to the distracting near despair of my eldest sisters who had been eligible for courtship the past five years.

My eldest three sisters had then just passed twenty-one years, which is considered long past the ripe age for matrimony. Diamond suffered most, being the firstborn, for she must be the first to marry. By this time her handsome, noble, dashing princely husband (that is how she pictured him) should be wearing the crown of our father, and she should be rounding up her family to a good even number, perhaps as much as four, by now. And so she felt it very hard that none of these anticipated events had come to pass.

‘It is not that I am too ugly to attract a suitor, is it?’ she would ask as her maid brushed out her long chestnut waves before the looking glass. And we all murmured of course she was not. And she was not, for all my sisters are quite beautiful.

‘And it is not that I am too dull to make an interesting companion to a potential husband, is it?’ she would ask wistfully. And we would shake our heads. For she was not. All of my sisters are talented. Diamond’s especial gifting being Mathematics.

‘So why does no one come to woo us?’ she would lament. And all my sisters would shrug and sigh with great empathy and be unable to answer the question they were all pondering.

And so I determined, even though I had no interest whatsoever in being wooed or wed, even if I were as beautiful and talented as my twelve sisters, yet for their sakes and for the sake of the peace and harmony within our chamber walls, I would find out why it was no eligible royal bachelors ever came seeking my sisters’ hands. For we knew very well that in all the kingdoms about us there were princely bachelors aplenty who would be pleased to win a beautiful, talented princess for a bride, and in Diamond’s case, a kingly crown also.

We all suspected Uncle was at the root of this problem, but how to find out? I knew I would need to observe and listen to him unseen to discover the truth. That would an exceeding difficult task for most people, but it did not pose too much difficulty to me. I knew exactly how it could be done. I would simply make use of the invisible cloak Beryl kept in the little ebony box in her chamber.

 

I discovered the cloak by accident, or rather by curiosity, when I was nine (I have always had the most terrible curiosity). Beryl’s chamber, though very small, was a source of wonder to me. In Beryl’s chamber was a small bedstead, neatly made up with a colourful embroidered cover and a plump feather cushion. A washstand, with basin and pitcher; a wooden chair with a carved back and a cushion; a tiny fireplace, always swept clean; a little table with a candlestick, hand mirror and comb, and a small trunk at the end of the bed which held Beryl’s clothes.

None of those items in Beryl’s chamber was remarkable. But there was one other item. Against one wall stood a large trunk of glossy wood, bound with thick straps and shiny buckles. A most imposing trunk, very like the kind Uncle would use for his many outfits and articles in the days when he used to make annual progresses throughout the kingdom. He had ceased from them from the time my eldest sisters came of age, no doubt because he did not care to hear the people calling out for the longed for marriage of Princess Diamond.

I went looking for Beryl on that particular afternoon. She was not in the jewel house where she was often to be found. She was not chatting with the cooks in the kitchens or getting a breath of air in the herb gardens, so I went up to her chamber. Beryl’s chamber was in the wing of the palace that housed our chambers, for her role had been of Royal Nurse to us in our youth. Her door was unlocked, but she was not within. I reasoned she must be returning soon to have left her door unlocked, and so I sat and waited.

I did not realise at that young age that Beryl had no need to secure anything in the conventional manner of keys and locks. No man-made lock could keep Beryl from opening what she desired to open, and no mere man could open with any key what Beryl determined to stay shut. And so with the hindsight of years I realise I was somehow permitted to enter Beryl’s chamber that day. Perhaps it was a test of my honesty. If so, then I certainly failed.

I perched carefully on the wooden chair. I dared not move or touch anything. Beryl was very particular about neatness, and not touching what did not belong to you. I sat a while, at first enjoying the quietness, for when you are one of thirteen sisters living in a great palace surrounded by bustling servants and hustling courtiers, quietness is not something to be often experienced.

After a time I grew restless of the wait. My eyes were continually drawn to the great chest that filled almost the full width of the end wall of the chamber – the great chest bound with broad woven straps and gleaming, shiny buckles.

I slid off the chair to examine it more closely. At first I kept my hands behind my back so I would not be tempted to touch what I knew I ought not to. But I could not resist extending just one single finger to stroke the polished golden bands encircling the trunk.

And then my hand was running over the wide straps, which were of a bright crimson colour.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

When she’s not writing stories or thinking up stories or reading other people’s stories Nina likes to paint pictures, get taken for long walks by her adorable dogs, and cook all things plant-based. She lives in rural Cornwall, England with her non-literary and non-vegan canine and human family.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I was fascinated by the fairy-tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses as a child. It stirred my imagination, but it left me with so many unanswered questions. Now I have answered those plot questions myself, and have had great fun doing so!

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