Chapter 9

Theresa stepped forward, her face drawn, and curtseyed to my mother. "Your majesty."

I looked at her, hoping to give her some encouragement, but she did not look back. She gazed at her shoes, her head bowed in uncharacteristic deference.

"You know why I have summoned you, do you not?"

"I believe I do, your majesty."

"Be so good as to tell us your misdemeanor, so my daughter may hear."

"I was seen kissing someone behind the stables."

I could have laughed at this. Kissing is not a crime, that I knew. And she had a secret lover of sorts – well, good for her, it sounded romantic. Surely this supposed misdemeanor would be forgotten quickly...

I looked at my mother. Her pale face was set hard, her dark eyes glittering with malice. She was not going to be forgiving. I realised that she had always been waiting for Theresa to make a mistake, and now she was going to make her suffer.

"An odd way to report your crime, girl. You were, according to reports, locked in a passionate embrace with said individual for a minute or more."

"I was not aware of the time, your majesty." I saw the corners of Theresa's mouth twitch, as if she were fighting back a smile. She thought the whole thing ridiculous, as she often did, and this heartened me, a little. She could make everything right, surely she could.

"Clearly not," my mother said. She looked more like the Winter Queen than ever – nothing could melt her heart. "You were well enamoured of this stablehand. Do you understand why this charge is so serious?"

And at this, I saw fire in Theresa's eyes.

"No, your majesty."

"I didn't expect that you would. I would not expect a commoner to have any idea of the social niceties and behaviours expected of the noble classes. However, my daughter saw fit to elevate you, to a position normally held by one much less lowly than yourself."

Theresa's eyes flickered over to me at that – I tried to catch her attention, but she looked away again. Mother continued:

"You are a common little chambermaid, who was fraternising with a common little stablehand, in a manner that would be quite unacceptable of any of the Princess Royal's personal staff, is that understood?"

"Yes, your majesty." And I could see fear beginning to encroach on her calm expression – but she was afraid of nothing, not even my mother... and I realised that my heart was starting to pound, and cold sweat was collecting on my forehead.

Oh, Theresa. I hated this new humility, and that my mother had reduced her to it. I gritted my teeth, and hated my mother more than ever. She couldn't treat my friend like this – she just couldn't. And yet she continued, with that cold, low, dangerous voice.

"If you want to be treated with any leniency for this breach of conduct, you will tell me the name of the young man you were embracing."

And for a moment, Theresa said nothing. The silence seemed to engulf us, punctuated only by the ticking of the clock. I stared at her, willing her to answer, but she seemed unaware of me.

"No, your majesty," Theresa said.

Her tone remained meek, but my mother was not fooled.

Her voice became a little louder, her eyes a littler darker. "Girl, I am ordering you to tell me the name of this stablehand."

"With respect, your majesty, I would rather not tell you."

"This is insolence as well as disobedience," she said, rising from her seat, quivering with rage, walking closer to Theresa like a cat ready to pounce.

"It is loyalty, your majesty," Theresa said quietly.

And with that, my mother slapped her. She struck her forcefully on the cheek, and Theresa reeled for a moment. She looked up in shock, and, involuntarily, clasped her pink cheek. And for a moment, I thought I saw tears in her eyes.

"Mother!" I exclaimed.

I leapt up, and gathered all the courage I could muster. The beating of my heart seemed louder and faster, drumming in my ears. "Please Mother, Theresa did not hurt anyone. She is a good, kind person... She would never put anyone in danger... please... let her go."

"No, Adela," my mother said. For a moment, those eyes blazed at me, and I was dazzled by terror. "No, Adela. I warned you about choosing a commoner for your attendant, and you must see that she is guilty of misconduct and must be punished."

"You've humiliated her enough, Mother," I pleaded. "Please -"

"Not as much as she will humiliate you if allowed to continue. Now, girl, tell me the name of your stablehand."

"I will not, madam."

I didn't know how she could continue to defy my mother. I would have crumbled much before now. I looked at her in awe and terror.

"Do you want to be sent away, without money or prospects?"

"Of course not, madam."

"Then you will tell me."

"I will not, madam."

And so they might have continued, had not Samuel entered unceremoniously at that moment.

He stood tall in the doorway like an avenging angel, arms crossed, eyes bright, nostrils flared.

"Mother, stop this."

And she did stop – she stared at him, and for a split second, her mouth hung open. She did not speak for a moment, as if the words had been caught on her tongue. Theresa turned when she heard his voice, and, when she saw him, looked almost frightened. He was certainly a rather fearsome sight.

But my mother was only speechless for a few precious seconds. "What do you mean by coming here, Samuel? This is none of your concern. None of your concern, do you hear me?"

"I hear you, Mother," he said, smiling slightly. He was a rock, strong against the storm. I loved him so much at that moment. "But you are mistaken, it is very much my concern."

"What on earth do you mean?"

"Theresa is my friend and I would rather she stay."

He was the best brother I could have, I thought, and he remained confident and tall, even as my mother stalked towards him.

"Nonsense," she said, in a low, venomous voice. "You were always soft. This little girl has been fraternising with stablehands. I have several witnesses who saw her embracing the unknown man this morning. And now she refuses to give me his name."

"Knowing that you would most likely humiliate the fool just as much as you've humiliated her. I call that bravery."

"Call it what you will," she said, in a tone that could grind glass. "She is insolent and disobedient, and will be punished."

"Please Mother..." I said.

"Silence, Adela." I was silent.

Samuel took a deep breath. "Is there nothing that will persuade you to pardon her?"

"Not without that man's name," my mother said.

Samuel frowned for a moment, but Theresa, though she remained silent, looked urgently over to him, shaking her head.

"Theresa," Samuel said, gently. "You can tell her."

"No," she said, tears starting to run down her face. "It's no good."

And there was silence, for a moment no longer than a breath, and my mother and I both realised – Theresa hadn't said 'your highness'. Mother looked at my brother sharply, and I stared at Theresa, suddenly realising there was more afoot than I had thought.

"Do you mean to say you know his name, Samuel?"

"I do, Mother," he said quietly. "As it's the one you christened me with."

I could see the truth dawning on my mother's face, even as I began to comprehend Samuel's words, and saw disgust start to distort my mother's lips. "Samuel, you didn't... not a common little chambermaid!"

Samuel's face became stony, his voice angry and proud. "No, Mother. A most uncommon attendant."

Mother turned to Theresa again, to find that she had straightened from her humble posture, and was looking her in the eye. I started forward, afraid that she would slap Theresa again, but she stepped back, unnerved. She turned back to Samuel, making one last appeal for whatever she thought was reason.

"You were caught in carnal embrace with this girl..."

"No, Mother, just kissing," he said.

"Who knows what it might have led to?"

"More kissing, I expect," he said.

"You are a prince and heir presumptive to the throne of Arbony," my mother said. "This is a shameful way to behave. Soon you will be betrothed..."

"I'll marry Theresa," he said, impulsively. "We'll wait until we're both old enough and then get married."

"Nonsense," my mother said.

"Why? I love her, Mother," he said.

And with that, I thought that my mother was going to slap him, but Theresa's voice cut through like a finely honed blade. "No, Samuel."

He looked at her. "Theresa..."

She patted his arm affectionately. I could barely believe my eyes. When she spoke, her voice was calm and tender, a tone I had thought she reserved for foolish young princesses in her care. "No, Samuel, this is madness. Perhaps in a few years we might have decided to marry, but it shouldn't happen like this. You're only young, and in a little while you might resent being so impulsive, just to save me from your mother. And perhaps, I would resent not having the choice. You are very kind, but this is not the way."

He looked at her sadly. "She'll send you away."

"I'll be all right," she said. "I always am."

And my mother actually smiled.

"How very touching. Samuel, I trust you have learned your lesson." She turned to me. "And Adela, I hope you have learned yours. As for you-" here she rounded on Theresa again. "I expect you to be gone from the palace by nightfall."

"But Mother," Samuel said urgently. "Where will she go?"

"That is not your concern," she said. "In any case, your unlikely paramour believes she will manage, so we should trust that she will." She turned to Theresa. "You are dismissed."

Theresa made a deeply ironic curtsey. She turned to Samuel, taking in the sight of him for one last time. "I'm sorry it had to turn out this way."

She turned to me. "Your highness," she said – and with those words, she turned on her heel and left.

Those last two words haunted me for a very long time.

***

My mother spoke to me after that, but I must admit I wasn't really listening. She certainly said that I must write to either Viola or Hyacinth to ask them to take up Theresa's role and, most importantly, to be my attendant during the Grand Summer Ball. I did not even want to think of that. Once upon a time, I had been looking forward to attending... I was to wear a sky blue dress in the finest silk, embroidered with organza flowers in cream and scattering of pearls. I had a soft wrap of lamb's wool, and delicate cream dancing shoes, and a tiara. And of course, I would have been accompanied by my personal attendant and closest friend.

It had promised to be beautiful, and now I didn't want it. In fact, I didn't want anything to happen ever again. My stomach was churning angrily, and a poisonous cocktail of emotions were running through my veins. I was afraid for Theresa and angry at my mother, and angry at Theresa, disgusted with Samuel, and so afraid of being alone. It seemed my brother had betrayed me – without him, she would not have been sent away. It seemed Theresa had betrayed me – I had trusted her with so many things, but she had not trusted me with this. All this time, they had been keeping secrets, and I was just a silly little girl, not old enough to know.

When at last she dismissed me, I found Samuel waiting for me outside. I strode past him, pretending to be oblivious, but he caught up with me.

"I'm sorry, Adela."

I quickened my pace. He quickened his. His legs were longer than mine.

"Sorry won't bring her back."

"I did what I could."

"You shouldn't have done it in the first place."

"It wasn't just me..."

"I don't care."

I marched ever faster, and so did he.

"I loved her, Adela," he said.

And I stopped. Stared at him. Gave him my best version of our mother's death glare, although it didn't seem to wither him to dust, as I had hoped.

"I loved her too, Samuel. She was my best friend, but you had secrets with her and stole her away, and now she's gone forever and it's all your fault."

I started crying then. In fact, I crumpled to the floor and made a scene that any toddler would have been proud of. Red face, tears like rivers, sobs like thunderclaps. My mother had sent my closest friend away. I would never see her again.

"Adela..."

"Go away!"

And eventually, he left. And I stayed, curled up and crying, beyond reconciliation. I don't know how long I was there, but when I made it back to my rooms, dinner was over, and no one had come to find me. There was no one left to care about me.

***

After that I rather tired of the Northern Palace. There seemed to be nothing I could do to ease the boredom of the days. I wrote Veronica a letter, and she sent me a polite one back. I think I appeared just a silly child to her, so I did not write again. I wrote to Hyacinth and asked her to be my attendant. I arranged for the dressmaker in the capital to deal with her, hoping it would delay her for a few days. I did not speak to Samuel at all, although Francis and I had occasional careful exchanges in the library.

For a little while, actually, it was nice to see Hyacinth. She was a chatty girl with brown curls and an infectious laugh. But she wasn't really my friend. I had had a glimpse of the real thing, and I knew that she was not it. And certainly, she wasn't quite as chatty after a few days, missing her family and Viola, and being bored of going about with me – she didn't like books, and we had nothing to talk about. She rather resented the idea that she was my servant, which was, I suppose, understandable, and I asked Cecilia to take over some of Theresa's old duties.

In quiet moments, of which there were many, I wondered if I had mistreated Theresa – for Hyacinth did seem very miserable in her old role. Brooding in the small hours, I asked myself if that was why Theresa had left, because she did not really think her position worth fighting for. And yet I had loved her so – I thought she had cared about me, not just because I was a princess, but because I was her friend.

I cursed myself for never telling my mother of how she had saved me that day that we were attacked – replaying the day she had left over and over in my head, I wished I had fought harder for her, and made my mother see how much I needed her. But it was too late, and now I could never set it right.

The day of the Grand Summer Ball eventually rolled around. This was one thing Hyacinth was excited about – she had said how much she was looking forward to seeing all the foreign princes and princesses, as well as the various nobles of Northern Arbony. She was as tired of my ennui as I was, and was getting worse and worse at hiding it. And on the day of the ball, she left me without even a cursory excuse, but went to get ready without me. I didn't mind – I didn't care. I summoned Cecilia and got ready in silence.

It seemed to take an age to sort out all the accoutrements to that beautiful dress, and afterwards, my hair needed to be pinned. It was unruly as usual and had grown longer that summer. Cecilia seemed to spend quite a time teasing out the knots. Her fingers were not quite as lithe as Theresa's, but she was more gentle.

In the mirror, I saw both our faces – what a miserable pair we appeared. For the first time, I wondered how Cecilia felt... I remembered guiltily Theresa saying that she was a fine confidante, but of course I would never know. Protocol prohibited me from knowing.

"I'm not looking forward to this," I said.

Her tone was careful, as always. "I'm sorry to hear that, your highness."

And the truth spilled out, as it so often does. "I miss Theresa so much."

"I know," she said, softly, her eyes looking wistfully away. "I miss her too."

***

But at last I was ready, sky-blue gown and all, pearled tiara resting atop my carefully tamed hair. Hyacinth reappeared at the last moment, in a gorgeous pink, skirts swishing and her face glowing. I smiled in spite of myself.

"You look lovely, Hyacinth, truly."

"So do you," she said. "That dress is just glorious – are those real pearls?"

"Of course they are," I laughed.

"You look almost happy," she observed. "Perhaps you'll be betrothed to a prince this evening."

"Oh, I hope not!" I said, and she giggled at my alarm.

"You are quite odd, Adela," she said. "I would love to be betrothed to a prince."

"Perhaps you will be," I said.

She giggled again. "Oh, stranger things have happened!"

I could hear the music playing as we got nearer to the ball room. In spite of myself, I could feel my anticipation growing and something like excitement started to quicken my blood. She was right – this could be the night my life changed forever. The night the last remains of my childhood were put to bed.

And I was right. This night did change my life, and everything else, forever.