Somewhere in the world I have a tiara in a little box. It is not safe for me to wear it. It is not safe for me to know where it is. It is not safe for me even to tell anyone who I really am.
But I know—I have always known. Perhaps Nanny Gratine sang my secret to me in hushed lullabies when I was a tiny, squalling creature. Perhaps Sir Stephen began his weekly visits even in my first months, and whispered into my ear when it was no bigger than an acorn, “You are the true princess. We will protect you. We will keep you safe until the evil ones are vanquished and the truth can be revealed. . . .”
I can almost picture him kneeling before my cradle, his white beard gleaming in the candlelight, his noble face almost completely hidden by the folds of a peasant’s rough, hooded cloak. This is how he always comes to visit us—in disguise.
I am in disguise too. I think if I had not known the truth about myself from the beginning, it would be hard to believe. To everyone else in the village I am just another barefoot girl who carries buckets of water from the village well, hangs her laundry on the bushes, hunts berries and mushrooms and greens in the woods. Nobody knows how I study at night, turning over the thin pages of Latin and Greek, examining the gilded pictures of kings and queens—my ancestors—as if staring could carry me into the pictures too. Sometimes, looking at the pictures, I can almost feel the silk gowns rustling around my ankles, the velvet cloaks wrapped around my shoulders, the gleaming crown perched upon my head. It is good that Nanny Gratine has no mirror in her cottage, because then I would be forced to see that none of that is real. I have patches on my dress, a holey shawl clutched over the dress, a threadbare kerchief tying back my hair. This is strange. This is wrong. What kind of princess wears rags? What kind of kingdom has to keep its own royalty hidden?
I don’t know why, but ever since I turned fourteen, questions like that have been multiplying in my mind, teeming like water bugs in the pond after a strong rain. Last night, as Sir Stephen was giving me my next reading assignment in Duties and Obligations of Royal Personages, a thought occurred to me that was so stunning and bizarre I nearly fell off my stool.
I gasped, and the words were out of my mouth before I had time to remember Rule Three of the Royal Code. (“One must consider one’s utterances carefully, as great importance is attached to every syllable that rolls from a royal’s tongue.”) Even though I know that the Great Zedronian War was started by a king who said, “Dost thou take me for a fool? Art thou a fool thyself?” when he should have hemmed and hawed and waited to speak until he could find a wiser way of expressing himself, I still blurted out without thinking, “Great galleons and grindelsporks! Are you her teacher, too?”
Sir Stephen scratched thoughtfully at his chin, setting off tremors in the lustrous curls of his beard.
“Eh? What’s that?” he said, blinking his wise old eyes at me several times before finally adding, “Whose teacher?”
Sir Stephen is entirely too good at following Rule Three of the Royal Code, even though he’s only a knight, not royalty.
But then I hesitated myself, because I’m always loath to speak the name. I stared down at my hands folded in my lap and whispered, “Desmia’s.”
Desmia is the fake princess, the one who wears my royal gowns, the one who sits on my royal throne—the one who’s saving my royal life.
Sir Stephen did not reply until I gathered the nerve to raise my head and peer back up at him again.
“And why would I be Desmia’s teacher?” he asked, raising one grizzled eyebrow. He wasn’t going to make this any easier for me than conjugating Latin verbs, solving geometry proofs, or memorizing the principle exports of Xeneton.
“Because you know how to train royalty, and—”
“She’s not royalty,” Sir Stephen said patiently.
“But she’s pretending to be, and if she has to keep up appearances, to throw off and confuse the enemy—then doesn’t she have a tutor too?”
I cannot remember when I found out about Desmia, any more than I can remember when I found out about myself. Perhaps, by my cradleside, Sir Stephen also crooned, “And don’t worry that your enemies will ever find you. They won’t even look because we’ve placed a decoy on the throne, a fake, a fraud, an impostor. If the evil ones ever try to harm Desmia, we will find them out; we will roust them. And then we can reveal your existence, and the kingdom will ring with gladness, to have its true princess back, safe and unscathed. . . .”
When I was younger I used to playact the ceremony I planned to have for the girl Desmia when the enemy was gone and the truth came to light. I’d play both roles, out in the cow pasture: kneeling and humble as Desmia, standing on the wooden fence to attain proper royal stature when I switched to playing myself.
“I, Princess Cecilia Aurora Serindia Marie, do hereby proclaim my gratitude to the commoner Desmia, for all the kingdom to see,” I’d intone solemnly, balanced on the fence rails.
Then I’d scramble down and bow low (though keeping a watch out so that neither my knees nor my forehead landed in a cowpat).
“Oh, Princess,” I’d squeak out, as Desmia. “It is I who ought to be thanking you, for allowing me the chance to serve my kingdom, to ensure your safety. I have wanted nothing more than your safe return to the throne.”
Back to the fence rail. Back to my royal proclamation voice.
“It is a fortunate ruler who has such loyal subjects. In honor of your service, I grant you a tenth of the royal treasury,” I’d say. Sometimes the reward was “land on the Calbrenian coast” or “my best knight’s hand in marriage” or “the services of your favorite dressmaker for a year.” But somehow it never sounded right. What was the proper reward for someone who had risked her life to save mine? What was the proper reward for someone who’d already gotten to wear silks and satins while I wore rags, who’d gotten to feast on every delicacy in the kingdom while I ate porridge and gruel, who’d slept in a castle while I slept on a mat on the floor? Wasn’t it reward enough that she’d gotten to live the life that was rightfully mine?
Last night, when I asked Sir Stephen if he was Desmia’s tutor too, he finally shook his head and said, “Of course I’m not Desmia’s tutor. She doesn’t need to learn the same lessons as you.”
It was a perfectly clear answer—straightforward and to the point. But it left me wanting more. Long after Sir Stephen had shifted into a lecture on the Eight Principles of Royal Governance, I was still thinking of more questions. Then who is her tutor? What lessons does she learn? And, most of all, When? When will we trade lives? When will I ever get to use all this nonsense I’m learning?
When will my real life begin?
© 2008 Margaret Peterson Haddix
Palace of Mirrors
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