A line of girls walked through the town their steps, in perfect time. They each wore the same simple, white dress and the same charming smile. At the head of the line was a young woman, her posture superior even to her students behind her. Her dark hair was pulled off her face in tidy curls, and her beige dress was spotless – Isla Wallis was the image of elegance.
Each time a person ran up to them, arm outstretched with a flyer or a hat in need of a few coins, the group responded in a sweet chorus of, "No, thank you". Pleas for mercy and offers of discounts off dressmakers were all rejected with vicious politeness. This ritual was carried out every Tuesday afternoon, just before afternoon tea. In four years, not once had any answer but, "No, thank you," been given, but nonetheless every day they were swamped with similar demands.
Isla Wallis wished it could be different. Had she been alone, she might have taken a second glance at those discounts – her purse was growing lighter each day, and tailored dresses were not cheap. But she was a lady, and the girls behind her were paying to become ladies too. It was not ladylike to talk to strangers.
"Fancy a trip to Kirry-Kaily, miss?"
"No, thank you."
Usually at the first rebuff they would go away, but the elderly woman scurrying alongside Isla now was more persistent. She waved the poster in her hand in front of Isla's face, shouting her offers louder.
"Go on, miss! Have a go! I'm sure you wouldn't mind some time locked up with a few handsome princes. The pay's good too."
"No, thank you."
"I'm sure a lady like you could teach them how to be kings!"
Baffled by what the woman was saying and tired of being embarrassed in front of her students, Isla quickly snatched the poster away, and with a hissed, "Thank you", increased her pace.
The sun was hot and afternoon lessons seemed longer than usual. When finally the girls had been collected by their mothers, Isla plonked herself down in a chair – there was no need to be ladylike when on one's own – and looked at the poster. It had been issued by the nearbykingdomofKirry-Kaily. Their king, it said, was growing ill, and a tutor was needed to teach his three sons how a king should behave. Isla laughed at the thought of the princes running wild. And then she saw the pay.
It was high. Very high. With that money, she could afford for her sister Ellette to go away to school – she could get her into high society. She could pay off the debts her parents had left her with. She could do a lot with that money.
And if there was one thing Isla knew about, it was behaviour. She had read about royalty in books, and how much difference could there really be between the manners of young ladies and the manners of young kings?
That evening, Isla was lost in thought. Her sister watched her over a silent supper – Ellette was a shy girl, small for her sixteen years, and she found it difficult to ask even her sister personal questions. Eventually, however, she worked up the courage.
"Isla, is something the matter?"
"Hmm?" said her sister sleepily, as if she had just woken up. "Oh. It's nothing, Ellie – nothing to worry about."
"Are you sure?"
Isla paused. She was still unsure about her plans – but then she pictured Ellette, in new clothes, attending a fine school and meeting people who could lead her into a better life. All Isla could offer he sister now was the same future as hers: running a little school for spoilt girls. It was not a life she would have gladly chosen.
"I'm going to apply for a new job," she said. "A teacher to three princes."
"Princes?" said Estelle, her grey eyes wide. "But Queen Clarral has only a daughter."
"Not here. The princes of Kirry-Kaily. I would have to leave Tushtag."
Both sides fell silent. Travelling between the kingdoms was rare, except for the very rich and the very poor, who needed to move away to find work. The Wallis family had taken a lot of blows in the past few years, but they still didn't fit into the latter category – they had never been part of the former.
"I think," Ellette said hesitantly, "that you should go."
Isla looked up from her empty plate – now it was her turn to be surprised. For years Ellette had clung to her sister desperately, and now she was willing to part with her. She wasn't a little girl anymore. She could see how Isla was grasping for every penny she could these days.
"I'll write to you at least once a week, Ellette. More if I can. I'll tell you everything."
The sisters smiled at each other. Somehow, from the calm streets of Tushtag, they had found an adventure.
Isla wrote to Kirry-Kaily immediately. She spent the next few days running home every day there was a break in her day to check for a response – on the third day, she received one. The advisors of King Orry were impressed with her past record and would like to offer her the position.
"Already?" Ellette exclaimed upon hearing the news. "I'd have thought they'd at least want to interview you. They must be desperate."
"The king must be very ill – and the princes very much out of hand," Isla said. "They're sending a carriage on Sunday."
Ellette immediately burst into an anxious frenzy. They would need all sorts of supplies, especially clothes, and there were only two days to get them all! Isla managed to convince her to wait until the morning to start the shopping, instead of demanding Mrs Chittick open her shop so late in the evening for an "emergency case".
The next two days flew by. Shops were hurriedly visited, and Isla left IOUs all over Tushtag. Any other spare time was spent teaching Ellette everything she would need to know to carry on theWallisSchoolfor Young Ladies in her sister's absence. They had only just managed to tie up any last loose ends when the carriage pulled up.
It was made of a dark, reddish wood, and had the king's symbol of a golden bear etched ornately on the door. Even in the beautiful city ofTushtag, Isla had never seen anything so grand, and she was somewhat taken aback at the sight of it. Ellette, however, frowned.
"What's wrong?" Isla asked.
"Nothing," Ellette replied quietly. "It just seems odd."
Isla would have questioned her further had she had more time, but she was only allowed a moment for her goodbyes – the carriage was on a tight schedule. She hugged Ellette, handed her bag to the coachman with a smile, and stepped into the carriage.
There was one other person there – a young man, well built with light brown hair. His scruffy clothes suggested he was a labourer of some kind, and his rosy complexion suggested an outdoor occupation. He seemed nervous, clutching a leather satchel to his chest like a child would cling to a comfort blanket. The satchel was held closed by a wooden clasp in the shape of a stalk of wheat; this was the symbol of Thalloo, the most rural kingdom.
"Good morning," Isla said. He did not reply, but gave a jolty bow of his head.
For a long time, no more was said between the two. Isla tried to avoid his gaze, but could not help but notice that the man was staring at her. If there was one thing Isla could not abide, it was poor manners – it was in her nature to put them straight.
"Is something the matter?" she snapped, her sharp tone of voice and cheerful expression clashing terribly. The young man jumped at the sudden breaking of the silence.
"S-Sorry, milady," he stammered. "I didn't mean – I – I'm sorry! Milday, I didn't mean to be rude, I've just never been in the presence of a p-princess, milady."
At this Isla could not help but laugh. The man's already pink cheeks grew redder.
"I'm so sorry," Isla said. "There appears to have been an awful misjudgement. I am not a princess. Not at all."
"But – but I thought that –"
"I'm the princes' new governess," she explained. "As far as I am aware, there is no princess in Kirry-Kaily."
The young man blinked a few times and scratched his head. After a few moments of recalculating the situation, he roared with laughter for several minutes straight. Isla was quite at a loss as to what to do.
"I must look like a complete idiot," the man said when he could finally speak again. "You're just the finest dressed lady I've ever seen, and so I thought – but never mind. My name is Ferrin. Ferrin of Thalloo. I've been handpicked to rear King Orry's new foals – the best horseman in Thalloo, I am."
He was beaming with pride, and though Isla would usually have frowned on such gloating, she couldn't help but smile and the boyishness of his boasts.
From then on, it was impossible to get Ferrin to stop talking. He talked about fields and horses and all sorts of nonsense that Isla could barely follow. Occasionally Isla attempted a word or two, but it seemed that Ferrin would have been content having a similar conversation on his own. His enthusiasm and mirth were refreshing, but Isla still felt relieved when she saw the palace in the distance.
Even Ferrin was speechless. It was a magnificent rectangular structure, all atop a mountain in the centre of the city. Rising out from the middle of it was a huge, round tower, which made Isla grow cold just by looking at it. As they approached, a set of iron doors opened and they grow into a large courtyard, surrounded by the palace on all sides. Here were the little cottages of all the people who worked for the king – a whole village inside the palace.
A stern woman hurried Isla out of the carriage and through the cottages. She only had a moment to see Ferrin being led in a different direction by a gruff looking man. As they walked, the woman complained profusely about the lateness of the carriage – it was already getting dark, and these were perilous times. Fortunately, they quickly arrived at Isla's new home.
The woman did not stay long, and soon Isla found herself alone, looking around her cottage. The rooms were small but cosy and well decorated, and the bed was comfortable. Very comfortable. It wasn't long at all before the exhausted Isla was drifting off to sleep, half-wondering what the woman had meant by perilous times.