This time, Nadea didn't wake up on the floor with a circle of faces staring down at her. Instead, she woke up on a bed in a luxurious chamber whose door, she promptly discovered, was locked.
"Oh, don't bother trying," said a voice. Nadea whirled and blinked at the girl sitting in a chair in the corner. How could she have missed her? The girl's flame-red hair was anything but nondescript, and she was wearing the most beautiful dress Nadea had ever laid eyes on: silk and velvet and lace and ribbon, all in a palette of green and gold that made the girl's hair even brighter.
"Who are you?" Nadea blurted.
"Arita Salentai. It's keyed to only open to people who have been written into an unlocking spell." When Nadea just stared at her, she clarified, "The door." She rose and placed the book she'd been holding on her former seat. "I'm supposed to wait on you as a lady's maid, Your Highness." She curtsied slightly.
"Oh, no," Nadea said, shaking her head. "I'm not a princess."
"I know." Arita began a slow circuit of the room, running her fingertips over the walls, furniture, and art, though she gave Nadea herself a wide berth. "But I have to pretend that I don't know, and you have to act like a princess. Specifically, you need to act like Princess Kaelani."
"But I've never—"
"Heard of her. Met her. I know. But I have. I'll help you. All you have to do is not ask questions about the real Kaelani. She is, by the way, Adair's fiancee."
All Nadea could do was stare. "I'm not Kaelani," she said slowly. "I'm not a princess. I can't marry a prince! Why does he want me? I'm just—"
"Stop!" Arita held up a hand. "I don't want to know. I don't want to know anything about you. Not your name, not where you came from, not what you did or how you got here. Other people might want to know that, but I don't. My job is to turn you into Princess Kaelani, and I can do that best if I only know you as her."
Nadea slowly stepped back to sit on the edge of the bed, staring at Arita in confusion. "How old are you?" she finally asked.
"Seventeen? But you're…you're…"
"Far ahead of you, that's certain, even if you are older than me. How old are you, anyway? Twenty?"
"I see. Well, unlike you, I can organize a party and script a thank-you note, curtsy and dance and address anyone of any rank properly in three languages. I can manage an estate, pry information from a reluctant man by doing nothing more than batting my eyelashes, and accept or reject a proposal without offending anyone involved. You, luckily, will only have to do a fraction of that, but you will have to do it flawlessly."
"I still don't understand." Nadea flopped back on the bed, staring up at the canopy. "Why me?"
"Because you look like Kaelani and you speak Islandic, I imagine. With some polishing, you'll be able to play the part. To anyone who's never met the Princess, you're a perfect match."
"But surely someone will realize I'm a fake!"
"They would, if they were ever allowed to meet you. But I suspect you are going to live a very lonely life. Many empresses do, and they don't share your…unique circumstances." Arita sat on the bed next to Nadea and lay back so there was a scant inch between their hands. "Just play the part, bear an heir, and don't cause a stir. And look on the bright side: you get to be a princess, and someday an empress!"
"Is that what you want?"
"Oh, I'll be a princess someday, too, and though I might not rule an entire empire, I'll have my place. I'm to be the Queen of Altorah in the future."
Nadea could picture that perfectly. Arita had that sort of jaunty, confident air about her that would compel people to obey her. "Altorah's very far away," Nadea finally said. "All the way at the western edge of the Empire."
"Oh, it's not too bad. My family has lands there, so I'm very used to the area. And, of course, I've been spending my summers in Levan with Alex—that's my fiance, Prince Alexandre—since I was, oh, five? It's almost as 'home' to me as Arylia is. I've never even actually seen Sarel, which is where my family is actually from."
Arita chattered on and on about her fairytale life as Nadea closed her eyes and tried to think about her own future. She had come here from a murder, hoping to gain a new identity and papers which would allow her to escape into a new life—perhaps even return to the Isles where she had spent her first few years. Now, she was trapped inside the most beautiful room she'd ever seen with the most beautiful girl she'd ever seen, and she was going to become a princess.
"I'm a murderer," Nadea said, interrupting Arita's stream of babble. "I killed a woman today. She beat me, and I fought back, and I killed her." She slowly turned her head to take in Arita's stunned expression.
"I told you I didn't want to know," Arita whispered when the silence became oppressive.
"But now you do know."
The silence once again seemed to stretch forever before Arita said, "Well, then, you'd better hope Adair completes your betrothal before he finds out. A murderer dies in Arylia, but a princess is untouchable." Arita stood up and strode to the door, which clicked open at her touch even though it had been firmly locked for Nadea. "I'll go tell him you've agreed."
Nadea sat up, mouth open in shock. "But I just told you I killed someone! You want to help me?"
"Because, unlike you, I know what happened to the real Kaelani, and I won't want you to share her fate." Arita slipped out the door and closed it behind her. When Nadea went to it, it was once again locked.
The next person to visit her wasn't Arita, but Prince Derion. When Nadea saw him, she scrambled off the bed and attempted to curtsy. From the grin that broke out on his face, she didn't exactly succeed. "Your Highness," she mumbled.
"How are your scratches doing? Are you still lightheaded? I know the stress of the day's events might have been a bit much for you." He sat in the chair Arita had occupied earlier in the day, flipping through the book she had left behind. "Were you reading this?"
"Lady Arita was, Your Highness," she muttered in response. "I can't read."
"You can't read?"
"No, Your Highness."
"Stop with that. We're going to spending a lot of time together, and you're a princess now, soon to be my sister-in-law, so you shall call me Derion. And I will call you—"
"Kaelani?" She couldn't help breaking in, even though it must be illegal to interrupt a prince, because she had to know. Was she expected to become Kaelani, not just pretend to be her? Or would she retain some semblance of herself?
"No. Everyone else will call you Kaelani until your coronation. I'll—"
"Yes, of course. It won't be for a while; at least a few years, most likely. But when the Emperor dies, Adair will be given his crown and you will be the Empress of the Arylian Empire. When that happens, you'll be expected to take a properly 'imperial' name. Adair's name is fine as it is, as he was named with the expectation of eventually taking the throne, but I'm afraid 'Nadea' just won't do. It's not regal enough. You'll have to take another."
"What about Kaelani? That's a princess name, isn't it? Since it belonged to a princess?"
"Well…yes, but it's too foreign. You'll need some regal and, perhaps more importantly, Arylian. But don't worry about it now; you have years to think it over. Until then, most people will call you Kaelani, but I think I shall call you Nadea." He gave her a dazzling white smile. "I'm the only one here who knows your real name, so I think I might as well use it, don't you?" Without waiting for an answer, he crossed to her and grabbed her arm, examining the skin. "Hm, not bad, but you'll need that salve." He plunged a hand into the pocket of his over-robe and yanked out the small glass jar. "Here, rub this over your cuts to prevent scars."
Nadea didn't get a chance to apply the salve herself, because Derion opened the jar and smeared it on her arm with his own hands.
"Why are you helping me?" she asked, trying to ignore the fat that the son of an emperor was fixing up her cuts and bruises.
"You're part of my life now. While you're to marry my brother, I'll be seeing much more of you than he will be in the near future. He has to deal with politics, negotiations, and placating the people, while I have found myself at loose ends since finishing my studies in the Isles. My new task, Adair has informed me, is to help Arita turn you into a princess fit for the public eye." He held her arm up, squinting at it to examine the distribution of his ointment, and then nodded. "Very good. Here, you can do the rest of yourself." He pressed the jar into her hand and released her arm.
Nadea looked at the jar, at herself, and then back at him. Was he expecting her to take her dress off to treat her shredded skin with him in the room? Her other arm she could tend to easily enough, but as for her legs and body… "Ah…"
"Oh! Yes, of course." He strode to the wall opposite the bed and rapped on a panel that was engraved, unlike the rest of the wall. It swung open, revealing a bathing room beyond. "You can go in there. Actually, stay in there for a bit. Arita should be here any minute with something new for you to wear."
Dazed, Nadea wandered into the bathing room, though she practically jumped out of her skin when the door banged shut behind her. She put the jar on a long counter before a mirror and sat down on a ridiculously-bright pink thing that might have been a round footrest, if there had been a chair associated with it. As it was, it seemed out of place in a room that was meant for washing. She eyed the pit in the center of the room; it had to be a bath, but where did the water come from? There wasn't a pump in the room to fetch water, nor a fire on which to heat it. She'd heard that in some of the richer homes in Arylia, there was a system of pipes and heaters below the house which brought hot water up to chambers like this, but there were no pipes to be seen at all. "Useless," she muttered, turning and resting her arms on the counter and laying her head on them.
She only rested for a few moments, however, before she confronted the reflection taunting her out of the corner of her eye. She sat up and glared at the girl in the mirror. Dirty, limp hair, dirty skin, and tired eyes were that girl's defining features—nothing at all princess-like. So how had she ended up in this situation? There wasn't going to be any turning that girl into a princess. Nadea turned her back on her reflection. If she was going to become part of Arylia's imperial court, Arita was going to have to work a veritable miracle. There was no way a filthy, illiterate girl like Nadea, who couldn't even remember wearing shoes, could pass as a princess.
Arita, however, apparently begged to differ, because she burst into the room carrying what appeared to be a mountain of fabric. "I'm back!" she panted, dropping the cloth onto the counter and closing the door. "I had to convince Adair that you were suited for the job, since I'm not sure your little fainting spell earlier did much to reassure him, but he must have decided you're worth a try, because he said he'll finalize the betrothal as soon as we're back in Arylia. His grandfather has to preside over the ceremony, of course, which means it can't be done here. Anyway, I got you some clothes, and I saw Derion in there; did he tell you about our agenda?"
Nadea backed away slightly. "Agenda?"
"Yes, of course! Your transformation agenda! I'm afraid it's going to be a little more difficult than I thought, since Derion just informed me that you can't read. We'll have to add that to the list. You'll need to be able to read and write neatly in both Arylian and Islandic. Luckily, Derion is fluent in both, so he'll teach you that. I'm supposed to tackle dress, grooming, dance, deportment, and all of the hard stuff." Arita rolled her eyes in such an extravagant motion that Nadea was surprised they didn't pop out of her head. "But first, you need a bath." She crossed to the pit and ran her fingers over a series of clear stones set into the edge. Water began to pour from a thin slit around the perimeter of the bath. "We won't be able to do a real grooming session until we're in Arylia, because no one is supposed to know you're here, so just a normal bath will have to do for now. Soap is in that drawer, and here's a towel and a robe to put on when you're done. Just give the door a knock and I'll come in to get you dressed." Arita vanished back out into the bedroom in a whirl of skirts, leaving Nadea to deal with the bath on her own.
She hadn't had a proper bath in years. Normally, she just scrubbed in the bakery's small yard with a bucket of water she hauled from the pump in the kitchen. Now, faced with the opportunity to get truly clean, she hurriedly shed her dirty, ripped dress and stepped down into the bath. The water almost burned at first, but her body quickly adjusted and she sank down with a sigh of bliss—until she realized the brown swirls around her were dirt coming off her skin. With a shriek of disgust—she hadn't realized she was that dirty!—she grabbed a sponge from the edge of the bath, lathered up a bar of soap, and set about scrubbing.
When she was clean, she abandoned the bath, dried herself, and pulled on the robe Arita had laid out. It was silk, the most luxurious fabric to ever touch Nadea's skin, and covered with Islandic embroidery much like Derion's robe had been. Cherry blossom trees shed their petals as dragons coiled about her limbs. She yanked the belt tight to keep the robe closed, and knocked on the door to let Arita in.
Scant minutes later, she found herself dressed like a maid. "A maid?" she asked incredulously, looking in the mirror. "I thought I was supposed to be a princess."
"You will be, but like I said, no one knows you're here. Everyone thinks Princess Kaelani is still in the Element Isles. When we get to Arylia, you'll be introduced as her, and then your life as a real princess will begin. For now, simple clothes will keep you unnoticed while we tutor you."
"People won't think it's strange that you're associating with a maid?"
"Of course not." Arita waved a hand in dismissal. "No one pays attention to me or Derion when Adair is around. He's a presence, and we're not. Everyone will think that Derion's taken with you because you're from the Isles, and he misses them, and that I think you're exotic. Now come on, and we'll get started."
The first night of Nadea's new life left her utterly exhausted. Arita made her wear shoes, which Nadea had thought she'd enjoy, but they actually pinched her toes and impeded her movement. She kept accidentally kicking things, not sure exactly where the shoe ended. When Derion fetched dinner, he returned with a massive cart of food that he and Arita arranged artfully on the table along with such a variety of eating implements that Nadea couldn't comprehend ever needing all of them. When she sat at the table, Arita slapped her elbows to get them off the tabletop and then tied Nadea's shoulders to the back of the chair. "Sit up straight. You must have pristine posture," she ordered.
Arita and Derion began eating as soon as they sat, serving themselves without spilling a drop. Nadea barely managed to do the same, restrained as she was, but she managed to select the exact same foods as Arita and not make a mess while loading her plate. But every time she reached for a fork or spoon, Arita kicked her in the shin.
"What is it?" Nadea finally snapped.
"You have to use the right utensils," Arita declared. "See, the soup spoon for the soup, the salad fork for the salad… It's all simple. You just follow the names."
"But I don't know the names! They all look the same to me! And what's this thing for?" She picked up a slender metal tube and waved it.
"It's for sucking the seeds from pomegranates imported from the south. They're quite the delicacy at the court." Arita went back to eating.
Nadea only figured out which utensils to use a few minutes before Derion began to clear the plates away, and consequently hardly managed to eat more than a few bites. When Arita released the kerchiefs binding Nadea to the chair, she sagged forward, rubbing her aching shoulders. "But I'm still hungry," she said.
"Too bad. When you learn the proper utensils, then you can eat."
Afterward, she was faced with a flurry of other lessons. She had to dance with Derion, though she tread on his feet terribly, and attempted to mimic Arita's curtsies, which left her calves and ankles sore and trembling. She tried to converse in the language of the fan, only to send Derion into a fit of laughter when she gravely insulted Arita through a misplaced turn of the wrist. Arita set her to flirting with Derion without making any commitments, and she managed to say several things which Arita insisted construed her as a loose woman and country bumpkin, all at the same time.
"Why are you doing this?" Nadea finally asked, collapsing into a chair. "Why are you teaching me this? There must be people employed to teach this sort of thing, and surely you two have better things to do."
Arita and Derion looked at each other, and then shrugged. "Not really," Derion said. "As I said before, I have found myslef at loose ends after returning from the Isles. I'm sure Adair will soon find something for me to do in some far-flung province so he doesn't have to look at me, but until then, my time is yours."
"I'm here specifically for you," Arita said. "Adair's had me tagging along just in case we found a suitable girl. Otherwise, I would be in Arylia or Levan."
"Why would you be in Arylia? You already have a fiance. Why not just go to Levan?"
"Because all young, unmarried ladies stay at court. It's just what's done. That might change when my brother finishes his schooling in the capital and goes back to Altorah, but until then I might as well stay in the capital."
"You have a brother?"
"Yes, a twin." Arita peered into the mirror on Nadea's wall and fixed a tendril of hair. "His name is Davien. He's studying history, military tactics, and ward magic at the university there. Magic is meant to be taught in Vale, strictly speaking, but exceptions are made in cases like Davien's."
"What's so special about Davien?"
"He has to learn so many other things that it doesn't make sense for him to travel between three different schools, and he's on a tight schedule. Our head guard is speaking of retiring in a few years, and he needs to be ready to take over the position in case we can't find a new head of security immediately."
"Arita's family owns the Citadel," Derion said in answer the question written on Nadea's face. She paled at the answer. Everyone in the Empire and the Isles knew of the Citadel. It was Arylia's most-feared prison, not because of the way prisoners were treated, but because anyone sent to the Citadel never came out. It was a life sentence at the very least. Only mages disappeared into the mountain prison, but that could change at any moment if the emperor so decreed. It would be the perfect place to keep, say, a failed pretend princess.
"You should get some sleep," Arita said, turning away from the mirror. "Bathe again, and there's a nightdress laid out for you already. I'll wake you bright and early to get a start on tomorrow's lessons. We'll take you out for a bit, as well, so the maids can clean in here without seeing you."
"Why aren't the maids allowed to see me? I'm dressed as one of them, aren't I?"
"Because they would question why a maid is housed in quarters clearly intended for a noble, and they would question who you are. Servants always know each other, and they're terrible gossips."
"And nobles aren't?"
"Oh, we are," Derion said, leaning against the door. "But we also know the price of gossiping about things that are meant to be kept silent. Affairs and scandals are one thing; potential treason is another." He pushed himself away from the door and turned to open it. "Arita, we should be going."
Arita nodded and the two left, whispering conspiratorially to each other. Nadea watched until the door swung closed behind them, and then collapsed on the bed, too exhausted to bathe and too tired to care.
Day after day, Nadea awoke before dawn, even earlier than she had risen when she worked for Mistress Clopper. She had to bathe, more times than she ever had to before, and then she was forced through hours upon hours of lessons. She had to speak Islandic to Derion and Common to Arita, often at the same time to perfect her accent in both, and then she had to learn Arylian. It was a language completely foreign to her tongue, used only by the Arylian nobility, but it was of absolute necessity that she learn it because Princess Kaelani would have known it; she would have been taught to speak it as a child in preparation for marrying a noble of the Empire. After speaking, or sometimes coinciding with it, was writing in all three languages. Never having written anything before, Nadea's penmanship was terrible, and her fingers cramped from holding an Arylian quill or an Islandic brush after just a few minutes. After speaking and writing, the physical lessons of dancing and behavior started. Table etiquette took place not only at the table, but at intensive sessions where Arita drilled her on the names and uses of countless eating implements. Riding lessons were soon incorporated and Nadea, who had never even been near a horse before, had to master riding sidesaddle. Embroidery, considered to be a "womanly" skill, was only slightly less difficult; Nadea knew some basic sewing, having been forced to mend her own clothes while she was in Mistress Clopper's service, but her stitches were large, sloppy, and uneven, and her fingers couldn't seem to grasp the complicated patterns that Arita crafted so easily. And all the while, if she slouched, used common slang, or hinted at her origins, Arita would kick her in the shin or pinch the tender skin inside her elbow.
By the end of Prince Adair's stay in Delore, Nadea was a bruised, aching, exhausted mess. All she could do upon returning to her room was collapse on the bed fully-clothed. She was in just such a position the night before their scheduled departure. The next morning, Adair would continue on his tour of the empire, and Nadea would leave as part of his entourage. However, she would not see the next city on his agenda; rather, she, Arita, and Derion, along with a small escort, would break away from the party on the road and return to Arylia, where Nadea could enter her life as a proper princess. Despite her exhaustion, her mind wouldn't stop racing over the details and allow her to sleep. Consequently, she was simply staring at the canopy above her bed when Derion entered.
She listlessly turned her head to look at him as he quietly shut the door behind him. "May I sit next to you?" he asked. She gave a slight nod, and he perched on the edge of the bed. "I'm sure you're sore," he said.
"I ache all over," she muttered. "My shins and my arms in particular. Arita takes her enforcement seriously."
"Of course she does. If she fails in this, she shares your fate. But perhaps I can help for now." He pulled her leg into his lap and pushed her skirt up to bare her shin. He lightly ran his fingers down her leg, trailing his healing light behind them. Nadea couldn't suppress a little sigh of relief as the pain faded. "She does it for your own good, you know," he said as he moved on to her other leg.
"What happens to me if I fail? If I can't be the princess Adair wants?"
"That's not for me to say."
"But he's your brother. You must know what he would do."
"I can only guess, but I won't tell you my suspicions."
"Does your grandfather know of this?"
He was quiet for a long, long moment. "I doubt the emperor has been informed of the situation," he finally said. "He never met Kaelani. He entrusted the marriage negotiations to my brother and I."
"What went wrong?"
"I can't tell you that, Nadea. Please don't ask again." He finished healing her bruises in silence, and then produced another small jar. "I know other parts of you must be aching. Rub this onto the sore spots, and it will help soothe your muscles." He rose, leaving the jar on the bed beside her. "Try to sleep. We leave early tomorrow."
"I know," Nadea said as he left the room. "I know." The door clicked shut, trapping her for the night. The next time it opened, she would really leave behind the life she had known forever.