Ongoing tale I am writing, hoping to make it novel or novella length. Have reached a bit of self-doubt and writer's block so thought I'd post it here and ask for comments. Feel free to comment if you don't like it, though please do say also say why... trying to learn to write better stuff :)

A note from the author

I am Adela Stefania, once Princess Royal of this kingdom. I write this book as an old woman – eighty-four years have passed since my birth, and what great changes have been wrought since then. I have felt the need in recent years to record all my memories, for during the great changes a number of good people died – people I loved and respected, and this book is dedicated to their life and memory.

Chapter 1

There is a twelve-year-old in me who nags and pleads and pouts, and for her I write this chapter. You see, before the Great Change, I lived an ordinary life as a princess, the daughter of King Andrew and Queen Elena. I had two brothers called Francis and Samuel, and when I was twelve, Samuel was sixteen and Francis eighteen.

It is strange to reflect now how many women I have met who confessed their childhood dream to be a princess, because for me, life did not seem luxurious – although it was – nor particularly happy, just full of rules and etiquette, clothes, dinners, engagements...

I did not love my parents. My father was a good ruler – my mother his dutiful wife. But I did not know them. My mother spent half an hour a day with me, telling me of my faults through the day and exhorting me to do better, especially because it was my duty to marry well and bring honour to the kingdom. My father spoke to me even less – usually an abrupt conversation as we accidentally met in the library or the hallways. You must not feel bad for me, of course, for I did have my nurse, Ilsa, whom I loved as much as any daughter ever loved a mother.

And because of Ilsa, I must start my story on the day before my thirteenth birthday, because although this story is about the Great Change and all that followed, in my young mind it seemed that all the upheaval began there, on the fifteenth day of April in the fine palace in the capital.

My day began at seven o'clock. I had acquired a habit of sleeping late. I'm not sure why – as a child I had always been awake and alert when the chamber maid came in to light the morning fire; but my body seemed to be changing at an alarming rate, and perhaps as a consequence the chamber maid frequently had to wake me. The maid who woke me this morning was a mousy girl my own age. Her name was Theresa.

She worked very hard, and she was very skilled. I preferred her work to that of the other chamber maids – her lithe fingers seemed to tame my unruly hair in moments, and although she had not been working at the palace very long, she seemed to know all my preferences – how I liked the curtain draped, how I liked my bed made, and, best of all, the right temperature for my morning bath.

And the first thing I heard that day was Theresa's voice. "Your highness, the sun is up, and I am up, and your morning tea is cooling and will be undrinkable if you sleep any longer."

She had a soft voice, and it sounded respectful, but, as I opened my eyes, I was sure I saw her smirk. Her greeting was hardly the customary one, but she smiled brightly and she knew that I was too sleepy to say anything. I propped myself up and took a few sips of the tea, and felt my heavy eyelids lift slowly to the morning light. I heard her run the bath with cold water and the kettle for hot water that sat above the fire begin to scream as it boiled, and I pulled myself out of bed and gazed out of the window speculatively. I could see the gardens stretched out ahead, and a light mist that would surely lift for a beautiful day. I remembered it was my birthday the next day, and wondered what gift my parents would give me this year.

After my bath, Theresa helped me dress into my day clothes. Perhaps I thought, hungrily, I might be given evening dress – a true sign of adulthood. As Theresa brushed my hair in front of the mirror, I wondered whether she had turned thirteen – so I asked her.

"No, your highness. I'm thirteen tomorrow."

"Oh – then we are the same age then?" I said with surprise.

"No one would think it, your highness," she said. And there was that odd little smile again. I had never seen a servant smirk – I had thought it was something only royalty did. Was she making fun of me? This was odd. Please don't think me stupid or callous, but as a small child I had not even believed that the common folk were people – they seemed to exist only to serve us and to do the tiresome tasks of the day so we royalty – the real people – could deal with more important matters. Ilsa had taught me that all folk thought and felt and laughed and grieved and had all the emotions I had – but Theresa seemed the first truly real chamber maid I had known. Her smirks betrayed her aliveness. There was something weird and dazzling in her face, something that I liked because it made me curious. I wanted to know who she was, what she thought, and even whether she liked me. I'd never thought of that before. My mother would find it all absurd – not that I would tell her.

When I had finished dressing, I went downstairs for breakfast. That morning we had grilled smoked bacon and large flat mushrooms, with scrambled eggs. I ate with my brothers, who argued as we ate. I am not quite sure what it was about that morning, but usually it was either about hunting, or about war. Francis was a pragmatic sort – calm, sensible, intelligent. He read a lot and devoured vast books on tactics and warfare. We had a quiet friendship based on our love of reading and his feeling of responsibility for me. Francis considered himself deeply moral – and believed that justice was best served with strength and force. He always wanted to punish the offender – he praised the stocks, and the public hangings that served as a warning to the public. I do not mean that he took pleasure in the pain of others, for he was always the first to suggest that we defend our neighbours, and that the widows and orphans be protected.

Samuel was not like Francis. He was always the first to encourage me to flout the rules and he hated pointless ceremony. He was a passionate person, but he didn't share Francis's views on justice or war. He wanted to live peacefully, and be a royal sponsor for art and music. He said he believed that if the country was a warm and beautiful place, people would be good to each other. Francis frowned so hard whenever he said this that I was sure he would get permanent lines on his forehead. He thought Samuel's views were dangerously soft – Samuel believed in the redemption of thieves and that killers should be imprisoned but treated decently, with full rations and books to study and learn the error of their ways.

I often thought that Francis would be a good king if we were at war. But if we were at peace, the kingdom would be better off with Samuel. There was often something very bleak about Francis's ideas.

After breakfast, I had lessons. History was first, which I usually enjoyed, although my teacher would insist that I sit straight, and he criticised my handwriting. He also had no patience with boredom, which meant that this morning, as he talked about the history of wheat exports, I had to fix my eyes on him and nod knowingly, pretending I was listening to his every word. I wasn't even listening to one in ten.

And after History, Literature. My teacher for this was called Edith Smeek, and I had known her since I was a little child and she had taught me to read. Madam Smeek seemed to believe me to be a delicate little flower, and read me saccharine poems about little goatherds frolicking on the mountains. Today's poem was particularly awful, if I remember correctly. It was a verse about a good little boy who had helped an injured fawn and then, by a singular coincidence, had jam for tea, and then a bad little boy who ignored an injured fawn (there seemed to be lot of accidents involving fawns in those parts). The bad little boy lost his shiny penny. I knew that Madam Smeek was terribly hurt, or at least pretended to be, when I didn't take the poem seriously, so I made a great show of reading it and telling her the symbolic meaning of jam.

After Literature, I went to lunch, which was venison cold cuts and paté, with toast. I ate with Francis and Samuel again, but the meal was silent. Either they were both worn out from the morning's fencing, or perhaps they were no longer talking since the morning's argument. I didn't want to talk to either of them if they were in a bad mood, so I ate silently too, and then went for a walk in the gardens.

I didn't stay on the main paths. I rarely did that. I wandered to the herb garden, where there were neat rows of plants and interesting things growing up canes. And no people, apart from the old deaf gardener, who would not even offer me a cursory "Your highness". I was feeling oddly sad, and wanted to be alone. As you may have noticed, my life was not terribly full of playmates anyway – twice a week my trained companions, Viola and Hyacinth, came to talk and to embroider with me, but I never quite shook the feeling that they were far better friends with each other than me.

I was starting to wonder about my future. My mother said things about marriage, possibly to foreign princes. I spoke a few languages formally, but I certainly wouldn't have been able to have a conversation with any foreign prince. Perhaps that would be better – certainly my mother and father rarely spoke to each other. Recently Ilsa had told me of the extraordinary and intimate way that people made children, and certainly, though I could hardly believe it, my parents had done that three times (more, perhaps – Ilsa said it didn't always work). But it apparently didn't mean that they felt they should be intimate elsewhere

Ilsa and Madam Smeek had always had a few things to say about love. Madam Smeek's poetry had birds that mated for life or the lonely goatherd longing for a maiden. She also sometimes read folk tales when she sensed I was restless, and they usually had some prince who fought a beast for the love of a lady, or a princess who was awakened from endless sleep because an enamored prince had kissed her. Ilsa's stories could be stranger, with men who deceived women with potions or beastlike men who longed for a woman who could see their good heart... But they both seemed to think that marriage should be a beautiful thing borne of love... yet my mother's speeches never included love, only duty and privilege.

I was used to being on my own, but that didn't mean I didn't get lonely. Francis seemed to think I was a little child, intelligent but naïve – and Samuel seemed to think I was far too serious, and didn't know how to have fun. Madam Smeek had found me one of the more passionate of her insipid love poems a few days before, and it had said something about lives forever entwined, two people become one... It sounded weird, mystifying, beautiful if stifling. And impossible. Could I ever meet a prince who loved not just my kingdom or my manners or my elocution, but everything about me?

As I was thinking about all these things, I heard some steps along the path. I knew they couldn't be the gardener, because he had a distinctive shuffle and these steps were much more purposeful and confident. I got up to hide, but it was only Samuel.

"Hiding?" he asked, bluntly, grinning.

"No," I said, offended.

"It didn't work anyway," he said. "You should find a less obvious place."

He was smiling down at me – he seemed to have grown considerably in the last few months.

"I was thinking," I muttered.

He looked at me thoughtfully.

"Come riding."

"What?"

"Come riding," he repeated, as if I simply hadn't heard.

"I'm not allowed without an escort... neither are you..." But we'd done this before. Telling him it was against the rules only seemed to encourage him.

"We'll escort each other. You're good enough at riding, aren't you?"

Yes, I was. I was proud of it too. And arguing seemed ridiculous now. Looking back, I still can't decide if it was Samuel's persistence that won me over, or the nagging thought that I had my elocution lesson that afternoon.

The ride blew away all my melancholy wonderings – between the breathtaking speed (I had not been allowed to gallop properly previously) and the worry that my mother would find out, I could hardly focus on my own loneliness. Samuel had a gift for making me smile, and when we arrived back, laughing and gasping for breath, everything seemed right with the world. That is, until I discovered that it was a quarter to six and I had fifteen minutes to be ready for dinner. When I was sure no one was watching, I tore up the stairs and back to my room, where Theresa was waiting with a slight glint in her eye. I had to change my clothes, and the wind had tangled my hair again. And perhaps because I'd kept her waiting, Theresa seemed to work slower than usual, but she could say nothing, for she was only permitted to speak when spoken to – except for when waking me, of course.

When I arrived at dinner, Samuel was already there, looking rather as he had when we had both returned, but then my mother and father were used to that. I did notice my mother quirk a disapproving eyebrow as I entered.

"Excuse me," I said, and sat down at my place, where my food had already been served. It was cold. I wondered if someone had been making a point, and ate without comment. My father passed pleasantries and remarks on the news of the day, and my brothers responded accordingly, but I sensed I was in disgrace and stayed silent for the third meal of the day. At the end of dinner, my mother called me aside, and spoke in the most acid of tones.

"You were late for dinner, Adela. Why?"

"I'm sorry, Mother."

She was unmoved. "Apologies can wait, Adela. I asked for an explanation."

My mind raced. It felt wrong to tell the truth, as it would only get Samuel into trouble – though it had been his idea.

"I was reading, and I lost track of the time. It won't happen again."

My mother's eyes narrowed. She was a beautiful woman, not very much like me, unfortunately – I had inherited my father's squinting eyes and thin lips. I could easily imagine her as the Winter Queen as she spoke her next rebuke.

"And I heard you missed your elocution lesson."

I looked down, in somewhat false humility.

"I believe I was confused. I thought it was Monday."

My mother's reply was stern and sad. "And to think you are to be thirteen tomorrow! It is time for responsibility, Adela. We have mollycoddled you long enough. You should not be filling your mind with useless information, dropping facts like birds dropping their waste on any unfortunate soul who is passing. We have fine tutors who can assist you in learning properly."

"Father goes to the library," I said, before I could help myself.

"Your father has been educated," she said, sternly. "And you would be too if you did not shirk your lessons for books. If you want to marry well..."

And I knew this part of the speech – she did it at least once a week. I allowed my attention to wander, and muttered "Yes Mother" and "No Mother" automatically as I looked forward to my time with Ilsa.

Ilsa had looked after me since I was born, and even now it was her responsibility to keep me occupied until I went to bed. She was in her seventies, a soft, fat woman with grey hair. When my mother eventually finished her infernal speech, I left and hurried as much as I dared, and went straight to the nursery. The nursery was a large room next to my bedroom which had a fire, large comfortable chairs, and all the dolls and stuffed animals I had ever owned. When I arrived, Ilsa was sitting on the great settee, wrapped in a shawl, her eyes alight as she watched the flames dancing in the fire. When she saw me, she smiled, and all her wrinkles seemed to smile with her – she was the only person I knew who could smile with her whole face. I went to sit next to her, and wrapped my arms around her and she wrapped me up in her own arms, enveloping me in the most unconditional love I had ever known.

In the quiet of the evening, I could tell her all the events of the day – Theresa and her smirks, the argument at breakfast, the dull History lesson, Madam Smeek's injured fawns, the silence at lunch, Samuel taking me riding, being in disgrace with Mother again... and she took it all with her usual tenderness. She had the gift of allowing me to be a child, not belittling even my most childish of concerns, but she also trusted me with adult things. Her stories did not always have happy endings, and they were certainly different from Madam Smeek's. Tonight she told me one about a girl who had been made a slave by her family, and had escaped to marry a prince – Madam Smeek had a similar tale, of course, but her tale had not seemed nearly so bittersweet, with the girl deceiving the prince so he would imprison the family... And Ilsa left the story with the hint that perhaps the girl and the prince were not happy together after all, and yet I still wondered if the girl could have had any better means of escaping. It was a serious matter, and I pondered it aloud – could it really be that there was sometimes no choice but either suffering or dishonesty?

Ilsa saw me frown and she said, tenderly, "Perhaps that is a little too serious. Stories can deal with our problems, but they should also let us escape. How about a happy story before bedtime?"

She started an old and familiar, well-loved and humorous story. But strange – tonight her heart wasn't in it, and usually she loved making me laugh. She muddled a few lines, and when I looked up in surprise, I saw a tear run down her cheek. I had never seen her cry, and the experience was new and distressing.

"Ilsa? Ilsa? Tell me what's wrong," I begged, my own eyes pricking with tears.

"Oh, young Adela," she said, and shook her head. "I'm sorry. I've been a great coward."

"What? What do you mean?" I said, gazing up into her grief-stricken face.

She sighed. "Tomorrow you turn thirteen. And the king and queen have told me that I am to retire, for you will be too old for a nurse."

I stared at her, incredulous. "But you've been my nurse since I was a baby. You can't go."

"I'm afraid I must, my Adela. Your parents have decreed it and would not take kindly to a refusal." Her face looked sad – and for a moment, fragile. I had not seen that before. "I wanted to tell you earlier, but... I had to indulge myself. I wanted one last happy night together, and no grieving."

She held me close, and we both cried, great sobs shaking us both. And then I found the courage to say something I had felt for years, but never said.

"I love you Ilsa. More than anyone."

She looked at me, and knew I meant it. "I love you too, Adela. These thirteen years have been some of my happiest, thanks to you. Promise me you'll remember a few of the tales."

"All of the tales," I promised rashly. "And I'll tell them to my children, and their children."

"Bless you," she said. "Don't forget me."

"Never," I said – the mere idea seemed foreign, absurd. But would I ever see her again?

***

"Your highness, your fourteenth year is starting – you'd better wake up."

It wasn't one of Theresa's best remarks, and I stirred and sat up grumpily. Yes, the day was really here. Rain was pouring outside, rattling against the window, and even with the fire, the room looked dull and cold. Theresa poured my tea for me, and looked at me expectantly, and – was that a slight hint of concern?

"Never has a birthday dawned so grimly," I remarked.

"April is a rainy month, but prettier than November," was her enigmatic response.

She went to run my bath, and I sat upright, sipping my tea which was somehow rich in colour but more tasteless than water. Ilsa was gone. I can hardly express how alone I felt, except that there suddenly seemed to be a great cavernous emptiness in my life. Who could I tell my day to? Who would tell me the things everyone else thought I was too young, too naïve, too stupid for? Who was there left to understand me?

The kettle whistled, and Theresa collected the bath salts, and I sat in the water until it was cold, shivering but not really wanting to get out. Theresa looked around the door, and saw me sitting there, hugging my knees. She got one of the warm towels from the rail and held it out to me, wordlessly, as someone might hold a hand out to someone who was drowning. I got out and dried off, and Theresa helped me dress, and brushed my hair. She braided it carefully, and pinned it back with seemingly hundreds of pins. When she saw me frowning, she smiled and said lightly, "It will keep out of your face if you go riding."

And I smiled – I couldn't help it.

When I was ready, I dismissed her as usual, and she bobbed her curtsey, "Your highness" and turned to go, when I remembered.

"Theresa, wait."

"Your highness?"

She turned and I looked at her, almost shyly. "Happy birthday," I said.

Her mouth dropped in surprise, but she closed it hastily. And smiled – not a polite servant smile. A real one.

"Thank you."