"Catch me if you can!" A little girl ran down a cobblestone path in the middle of an immense flower garden. Her golden red hair flew behind her, the ringlets bouncing with each step. Her honey-colored eyes shimmered in the warm sunshine. Her every move breathed royalty, but she had yet to come to the full recognition of her status as princess. All she wanted to do at the moment was play tag for a bit, and then go see if Susanna had the cookies ready yet.
Another girl, a few years older, followed her down the steps. She too was a princess, though much more aware of it. "I refuse to run," she called to her companion, "let's walk instead." Her raven-colored hair was pulled high onto her head by a thick red ribbon, to match her delicate dress. She gazed disapprovingly at a commoner staring at her through the iron-wrought gates. Commoners weren't allowed this close to the castle during the daytime; where were the guards? The other girl's laughter drew her attention, and she daintily made her way into the Place of the Roses, at the heart of the garden. She frowned upon finding her friend with yet another girl. This little girl was more like her companion: a little wild and carefree, but more so. She had the insight of what was to come for her, and had no intention of ever fulfilling her duties. The life of a princess was not for her. It was quite evident by the tear in her yellow dress and her unkempt hair that she was against it full-force. She was instructing her friend on how to make clover chains.
The raven-haired girl sighed and sat down on a nearby bench. She hoped "the wild one" wouldn't implant her ideals into the other one's head. She looked down at her shadow and smiled. It was almost time to go back inside.
"Emmaline, don't you think it's time we retire back to the castle?" Her companion looked up at her.
"Oh Lise, let's wait just a bit more. I want to make clover chains." She turned to her friend. "Please, show me again." The little girl nodded with childlike excitement and began to make another chain. Elise Maria, or Lise as she was called, sighed and tugged gently on Emmaline.
"No, we must go now." Emmaline reluctantly stood up and brushed the lingering grass off her skirt. Lise grimaced at the enormous grass stains but kept silent. It was her job to keep an eye on her sister, not keep her clean. Mother could not possibly expect her to keep Emmaline out of everything she came across; she was much too curious to do that.
Emmaline slipped her hand into her older sister's and glanced back at her friend. The girl was still sitting in the grass, making chains.
"By the way, what is your name?" Emmaline asked her. The girl looked and smiled at her, brushing her brown hair away from her blue eyes.
"Priscilla Katherine LaVoisier."
Lise looked at her for a moment. Which royal family did she belong with? The only way she knew Priscilla was a princess was by the fact that she was in the garden in the first place. There were a few different kingdoms visiting the castle on peace pilgrimages, so she was likely with one of them. It came to Lise as they walked back towards the castle. Her mother had been talking to one of the kingdoms, and one of the children was named Priscilla. She was the daughter of the King of France.
Emmaline chattered happily as they walked back, swinging her arms and gazing at her new "jewelry." Lise smiled down at her.
"What do you think of the princess you met?"
Emmaline stared at her with wide, innocent eyes. "She was really pretty. Her eyes were beautiful."
Lise was silenced by her answer. How did Emmaline know what was beauty and what wasn't? She quickly changed the conversation, and her sister didn't say anything else about Priscilla. That night France and England formed an alliance against the Prussian army. They joined forces to plan an invasion along the French borders and gain new territory. Priscilla, her mother, and her sister and brother stayed at the castle for another week. Priscilla and Emmaline often played together in the rose garden, making up stories with sword fights and balls and fierce wars. Priscilla was always the prince; Emmaline was always the princess. Emmaline was saddened when Priscilla left, but her friend was soon nothing more than a memory as the years began to pass. The friends never made contact with each other, especially after France and England declared war on each other over the new world. Emmaline grew up more rebellious than her sister did, much to her mother's dismay. As her 18th birthday approached, she was still unmarried. Emmaline preferred it that way; she had no interest in the same men as her mother. It was an ongoing struggle between the two of them. Emmaline was determined to make her 18th year the greatest possible.
Emmaline brushed her long hair and contemplated how she should fix it. She'd been waiting for this day for as long as she could remember: she was 18 today. The only thing her mother had to say about it was the fact that she wasn't married.
"Elise Maria had two children by the time she was 18," Josephine complained, giving her younger daughter a mournful look, "you don't want to be an old maid for your life, do you Emmaline?"
It was the same argument everyday, her mother pressing her to marry and Emmaline resisting her. She had yet to meet a prince she was interested in; they were all the same, narrow-minded and utterly boring. Emmaline stood and crossed her spacious room to once more gaze at her recently finished gown. The soft green silk had been imported from far away in Russia, arriving just in time for the birthday festivities. She truly felt like royalty whenever she fingered the bell sleeves and full skirt. Silk was a special treat for her, seeing as there hadn't been any since the beginning of the war. Her father claimed that victory was near. The French were losing more battles than they were winning, with many casualties. They couldn't hold out much longer.
Emmaline took one more loving look at her new gown, then dressed in a pale peach everyday dress. She decided to skip a fight with her hair and plaited it into two simple braids. She descended the servants' staircase, in hopes that her mother wouldn't see her slip out the door, but no such luck. Her mother was already hard at work in the kitchen, seeing to it that all the preparations for the parties were on schedule. Josephine spotted Emmaline immediately.
"Ah! You've finally awoke. Come, sample this soup for tonight. Delicious, isn't it?" Emmaline agreed and headed for the door. "Emmaline Elizabeth, where on earth do you think you're going? On your birthday, you're going to romp in the forest? You'll never find a suitable husband out there! That's why we're holding the ball—to find you a match. Everyone will be there, Darling, you absolutely must look your best."
Emmaline sighed and looked her mother square in the eye. "You know perfectly well how I feel about the nitwits you want me to marry. I'm telling you for the last time, I'm not marrying any of the men you find to be suitable. I will marry when I see the need."
Josephine narrowed her eyes, a sure sign that this discussion was far from over. "You will do as I say, Emmaline Elizabeth Christina, for I am your mother and I know what's best. You can't possibly know anything at the mere age of 18, anything necessary anyway. I will tell you how to behave and what to say, and you shall listen."
Emmaline went livid. How dare she say that? How dare she? Emmaline opened the door and slammed it with all her might. She ran as fast as she could, holding up her dress as she went, as far from the castle as possible. She finally slowed upon entering the thick forest at the edge of the property. This was her sanctuary from royal life, a place where she could simply be herself and say what she wanted to say without having to worry about anyone hearing her. She slowed her pace and breathed in the woodsy scent of the ancient trees, feeling her pulse slow and her blood cool. Her mother's angry words faded away to nothing and Emmaline felt at peace again.
All of the sudden something heavy hit Emmaline on the head. She jumped in shock and immediately looked up. She saw nothing, heard nothing, but the half-eaten apple core lying at her feet told her something above her was being playful. She searched the tree limbs for a few minutes, straining to find something out of the ordinary, and almost got hit again. This time she saw where the apple had originated and turned to look. She finally saw the culprit, grabbed an apple from the ground and hurled it back at them. She hit them square in the forehead and received a startled grunt. The person dropped from their perch and immediately looked Emmaline in the eye. Deep, almost violet blue eyes penetrated golden honey for almost a minute.
"What the hell was that for?"
Emmaline cracked a grin. "You threw one at me first, so I retaliated. Turnabout is fair play, you know." She was taken aback by the intensity of the stranger's gaze. "Who are you, anyway? I don't recognize you." The stranger sighed and leaned back against a thick tree trunk. Emmaline nonchalantly looked at them; she was unable to tell if this handsome stranger was male or female. The person was wearing a long gray tunic over very loose work pants. A hat kept Emmaline from seeing how long their hair was. Luckily the person crossed their arms, revealing that she was indeed female.
"I was here once. Up at the castle, I mean. My family stayed there for a week or two. That's how I know about these woods. Don't believe me? Well, my father was the king of France."
Emmaline did a double take. There was no way…
Couldn't be. There's no way that's Priscilla. Why on earth would she be here, anyway? From France? She's so different…
The stranger was staring off into space. She shook her head and sighed again. "Anyway, what's your name? I'm Priss."
Now Emmaline knew it was true. It was Priscilla, her friend from long ago. "I'm Emmaline."
Priss' head whipped around. "What did you say?"
Emmaline gave her a tiny smile. "Emmaline. My name is Emmaline."
Priss simply stared at her. It had been so many years since she'd last seen her that she'd forgotten what Emmaline had looked like. Now it came rushing back—the honey eyes, the red hair—and she kicked herself for not remembering. She let her eyes take in the woman before her, and was amazed at how much Emmaline had changed. She was no longer the innocent child of their youth; she was far more mature than Priss could imagine. Her eyes traveled along every curve of her body, taking in every change. This was not the Emmaline she remembered, but she had feeling she could get used to it.
Emmaline bit her lip and rocked on her heels. "Um, may I ask what you're doing here? Why aren't you in France?"
An angry look passed over Priss' face. "It's in the past. No sense in reliving it now. As long as they don't find me, I'm safe." She removed her hat and shook her head, letting her thick brown hair fall from its prison. She looked down at her clothes and sighed. "I think these rags are about dead now."
Emmaline smiled. "My brother Henry might have some clothes that fit you. Shall I go and see?" she asked, trying her best to contain her eagerness. Mentally she slapped herself. What was she doing, getting so giddy over such a meaningless task?
Priss nodded in agreement. "I would appreciate it, m'lady." She leaned back against the tree and looked around. The forest was familiar to her, a lot like the ones she'd called home through her travels. She'd been to the Americas and back, loving every minute of freedom she could devour. However, loneliness was starting to take its toll and she found herself wishing for a companion. She had no idea why she had felt compelled to travel to England—a rainy, dismal weather most of the time and rich English aristocrats snubbing her—but she always trusted her instincts fully.
Emmaline's gentle voice brought her back to reality. "I'll go and see if Henry will oblige. I shall return shortly." Priss nodded again and sat down to wait.
Emmaline scurried into the castle. She nearly ran over three servants in her haste to find her brother. Henry was sitting at his desk, penning a letter to his future bride, when Emmaline burst in.
"Brother, I need your clothes!"
Henry looked down at his red tunic, then up at his expectant sister. "Can you wait a moment? I'm wearing the currently."
Emmaline shook her head. "No no, dear brother, I need to borrow a set of clothing."
Henry put his quill in the inkwell and looked at her quizzically. "For you? Dear god, they'd never fit."
Emmaline sighed deeply. "Sweet Jesus, Henry. For a friend."
Henry's blue eyes twinkled. "It's a man, isn't it?"
"It's just a friend," Emmaline replied immediately.
"You've got a man friend, don't you?" Henry chuckled, "don't worry dear Emmaline, I'll never tell."
"Just a friend, Henry," Emmaline protested irritably.
"Well, I shall see what I can do for this man friend of yours…and will you, dear sister, be ever so kind as to write to my dear Catherine and explain the ink blot." He held up his paper, revealing a large blot of ink in the middle of his letter. "Come now, to my wardrobe."
Emmaline sighed. "Just a friend," she muttered as she followed Henry to his adjoining wardrobe Henry swung the door open and began flipping through his clothes.
"Now, Emmaline, what's his favorite color? Because I have red, red, blue, green, black, black, more black, aaaaaannd…" he pulled out one with flourish "…white."
Emmaline smiled. Like herself, Henry had a love for clothing. She pictured Priss' intense blue eyes and dark hair before answering Henry.
"White. It will look nice with dark hair and deep eyes."
Henry raised his eyebrow. "Are you in love with this mystery man? Shall I tell our dear mother you're in love? Ooh, a commoner per chance? What scandal!"
Emmaline placed a hand over her eyes. "Oh Henry, how your mind runs away with you! For the last time, a friend needs to borrow a pair of your clothes."
Henry leaned close and gave her an understanding look. "Don't worry, my sweet petite sœur, your secret is safe."
"It's a little big, but thank god for clean clothing. Ugh. Emmaline, burn those rancid rags." Priss shifted in Henry's oversized tunic and pants. "And was it necessary to bring a codpiece too? I mean…"
Emmaline laughed, a clear, bell-like sound that Priss found pleasant. "I'm sorry but I had Henry convinced that I was stealing his clothes for a male friend."
Priss looked lost in thought for a moment. "Did you say there was a place to bathe? In the East they're so clean, I almost didn't want to come home. Now I want to bathe all the time."
"There's a stream if you follow that path straight. I can almost guarantee it will be cold."
Priss shrugged. "As long as it's wet."
Emmaline gestured towards a steep hill leading to a deep stream. Priss tipped her hat in thanks and headed down the dusty, weed-choked path. Emmaline turned and walked back towards the castle. Halfway she remembered the argument she'd had with her mother. She grimaced at the thought of facing her again so soon. Emmaline glanced back at the path; she could skirt down along the stream and head for where it met the forest. She walked quickly, following the gentle trickling sound until she came to a large clearing. Her eyes widened when she saw what was before her and quickly moved behind the security of a thick tree.
Priss let out a relieved sigh as she entered the water. Though it barely came to her stomach, it was refreshingly cold and wet. Priss scooped the water up into her hands and let it trail down her long, muscular arms. She ducked her head under the water and came flying up, flipping her hair back. The water droplets made her creamy skin glisten with every move. The muscles in her back rippled as she reached down again. She splashed the handfuls up at her face and shivered. She slicked her wet bangs back as she waded out, revealing bulging thighs and nicely toned calves. She shook off like a dog and laughed at herself, then suddenly looked up in Emmaline's direction, her wet locks clinging to her face in gorgeous haphazard patterns. Her one visible, intense eye held Emmaline's gaze for a moment. The girl held her breath, hoping that Priss had not seen her, and then exhaled as she looked away.
Emmaline took a step back in relieved giddiness and watched Priss dress. Another step produced a loud crack as her foot made contact with a stick.
Priss' head snapped up and her sword flashed in a glittering arc. She took a cautious step in Emmaline's direction. Emmaline took a deep breath and stepped out of the shadows.
Priss instantly relaxed and sheathed her sword. "Hello, Emmaline." There was a long pause, but it wasn't awkward. Both women smiled at each other for a moment.
"My 18th birthday celebration begins today," Emmaline ventured, "if I can get Henry to let you borrow proper garments, would you like to attend the festivities?"
Priss was silent as she weighed her options. There was the obvious chance of being recognized by one of her father's many delegates, though the French and English hadn't been on good terms for quite some time. There was a very slight chance that one of Emmaline's siblings might remember her from many years ago—she had remembered Emmaline after hearing her name—but if done correctly she could disguise her identity. On the bright side, Emmaline was presenting her with the opportunity of a real meal and possibly a real bed. Priss couldn't remember the last time she'd had either luxury. The offer of food made up her mind.
"I would be honored, if this Henry will comply with clothing. I can't go around in everyday clothing at the celebration for a princess." She smiled down at Emmaline, then turned around and headed for the forest. Emmaline watched her retreating back with a small smile. It was good to see Priss again; it had been too long. She turned around and came face to face with a masked man. Emmaline gasped and took a step back, gaining Priss' attention. She immediately recognized what was going on. Her hand strayed cautiously to her sword hilt.
"Who are you?"
The man made no reply; he simply advanced on Emmaline, his beady, liquid black eyes never losing their hungry gaze. Priss jumped forward and shielded Emmaline from his stare.
"I said, who are you?"
"That is none of your concern!" the man yelled brashly and swung at Priss' head with a dirty blade. Priss ducked and drew her glittering sabre, facing him bravely.
"I'm a master swordsman, sir. I wouldn't duel with me if I were you."
The man made no move to heed her warning. "Such big talk for such a small man!" he replied and swung again.
Priss took several nimble steps and worked her way behind him. He spun slowly, so slowly that his shoulder and chin were caught by the edge of Priss' blade. Priss felt the jarring impact of the blade and she stumbled backwards, her once-glimmering blade stained angry red. She could hear rage in the attacker's breathing as he descended upon her.
"The throne will be mine!" he roared, driving his own dirty blade into Priss' flesh. She let out a cry of extreme pain, trying to keep her eyes focused as her body was racked with torment. In instinct her hand grasped the handle of the short dagger she kept tucked in her belt. She drew in a quick, painful breath and drove the short blade straight up, ignoring the fountain of hot, sticky blood that soaked her arms and face. Priss pushed the heavy body off her own and collapsed, gasping for air and weakly crying for help.
Emmaline, who'd been paralyzed by fear throughout the fight, sprang into action. She ran to the top of the hill and looked desperately for someone—anyone—close by. After what seemed like an hour, she spotted one of her maidservants and quickly flagged her down.
"Amelia! Run to the castle and tell the healer that one of my personal guests has been wounded. Have him bring his men to carry this gentleman to my extra quarter. I will care for him there. Hurry, make haste! There isn't a moment to lose!" she said, looking the young girl straight in the eye. Amelia curtsied and ran to the castle while Emmaline dashed back into the forest.
Priss was lying on her side, her breath shallow, her blood beginning to pool around her weakened body. Her eyes shifted upwards as a shadow crossed her face. A warm touch encased her bloody hands and a soft voice filled her ears.
"You're going to be fine. Oh, please don't die."
Priss closed her heavy eyes and gave in to the darkness that lurked inside her mind.
A sharp light filled her existence. Priss turned her head, but it refused to go away. After being in darkness for so long, she needed time to get used to such a drastic change. A small moan escaped from her mouth as she brought her head up again.
"Thank goodness, you're awake."
Priss slowly opened her eyes and was nearly blinded by the bright sunshine. A few moments later someone drew the curtains, shutting the light down to a soft dim. As Priss' eyes began to focus she took a look at her surroundings. She was certain she was in the castle, but she couldn't tell by the décor in which region she resided. She closed her eyes once more and placed a hand over her face, not surprised to find her forehead damp from sweat.
"Here, let me get that." Priss murmured in pleasure as a warm cloth came in contact with her skin. Upon opening her eyes once more, she saw a jolly-looking woman smiling down at her. The woman removed the cloth and plunged it into the ceramic bowl sitting on a wooden table in the middle of the spacious room. She looked at Priss with obvious relief in her eyes.
"We were afraid we'd lost you," she said, a thick commoner's accent peeking out from under her words, "a few more minutes and you'd a been done for." She scurried over to the bed and smoothed the cloth over Priss' face. "The princess has been by everyday, checkin' to see how you're fairin'. She should be here within the hour, I 'spects." She put the cloth down and wiped her hands on her crisp white apron. "Now, would you be wantin' anythin'? Some broth pr'aps?"
Priss smiled and nodded her head. The woman smiled back. She picked up the bowl and headed for the door. "Oh, 'fore I forget, if you need anythin' from me, just ask. Name's Mary." She opened the door and nearly ran into Emmaline. "Oh, blessed be! Must be careful, Miss Emma." Mary clicked her tongue and continued out, saying, "I'll be back in a minute. Keep a good eye on th' patient, Miss Emma."
Emmaline nodded and went inside. She sighed with relief when she saw Priss' open eyes. "You've awakened. We were very worried."
Priss smiled at her. She began to sit up, but a sharp pain in her side made her wince. Emmaline immediately came forward.
"Careful! You've barely begun to heal," she chided gently, setting a few pillows behind Priss' back. She stepped back as Priss lay down against the down-filled cloth. Priss looked up at her with a smile.
"How long have I been here?"
Emmaline sighed and looked a little weary. "Almost a week.