[Starting a few pages into the first chapter. Upon being informed that the local lord, Peter, had come to visit, Elise has hurriedly put on her best clothes to see him.]
Elise followed her mother to the closed parlour door. Behind it, a man, presumably Lord Peter, was saying, ‘So the other six should be safe for the present, not that they’ll hear anything about it.’ Her father’s voice murmured an answer, and Lord Peter said, ‘I don’t know any more than you do. Less, maybe.’
‘Mother,’ Elise whispered, ‘what does Lord Peter want with me?’
‘I’m sorry, Elise.’ She drew Elise into her arms. ‘I wanted to tell you, but we couldn’t. I’m sorry.’
‘Tell me what?’ asked Elise, but her mother opened the door.
In the parlour, two guards, as stiff as their sabres, stood behind the chair where a large, grey-haired man with lace cuffs and collars sat comfortably waiting. He smiled at Elise.
‘How do you do?’ said Elise; she and her mother courtesied.
‘Elisabeth, I presume?’ Lord Peter said warmly. ‘I am Lord Peter of Piria, privy councillor to her Majesty Queen Lucy the Queen Mother of Mendacia. I have been entrusted with a message from the Queen Mother for you.’
Elise wanted to say, Not for Father? For me? But she kept her mouth shut and waited.
‘So, William, how much have you told her of the matter?’
‘Not much,’ said Elise’s father.
‘We said she was Will’s brother’s orphan,’ Elise’s mother added. ‘Because she could have been.’ She answered Elise’s puzzled look with an anxious smile.
‘I see I’ll have to give a little history lesson. Oh, sit down,’ he added.
Elise caught herself from dropping onto the chair and instead seated herself as delicately as she could; her father and mother hovered behind her. The sun on Lord Peter’s gold buttons flashed into her eyes, so she looked down at his pointed shoes.
‘Elisabeth, you have no doubt heard that fifteen years ago, shortly after the birth of her first and only child, our Queen Theodosia unexpectedly and unfortunately died. At this time, King Thomas was about to leave for Constantinople to help the Emperor in his wars against the Turks. Wanting to keep his daughter safe, he found six orphaned infants of the same age and entrusted the seven girls to seven families throughout the kingdom.’
Elise nodded; everyone knew the story of the hidden Princess Theodosia.
‘After several years in the East, King Thomas returned to Mendacia and found his kingdom beset by its own wars and dangers. He therefore left the girls with the families to whom they had been entrusted, intending to send for the princess as soon as it seemed safe to do so, but before then, it became necessary for him to go to Constantinople again. Now at last, King Thomas is about to return to Mendacia, and in preparation, the Queen Mother has given orders that the seven girls appear at once in the palace in Caelia.’ He paused. ‘As you may have guessed, Elisabeth, you are one of these girls.’
‘Oh!’ Elise cried. ‘Must I go?’ Then she blushed and fidgeted and said, ‘I’m very sorry, sir; I didn’t mean to speak, only I was startled. Please go on.’
Lord Peter smiled. ‘I’m afraid so, my dear. Caelia is a few hours away, so if we leave this afternoon, we’ll be there in time for dinner. The Queen Mother will have suitable clothes made for you when you arrive, so you needn’t worry about that. A trunk will be provided for whatever else you may wish to bring: mind you, one trunk and what fits in it, and no more. Have you any questions?’
‘Safe from what, sir?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Why did the King want to keep us safe? Is there some danger?’
‘I am not at liberty to say more than that Princess Theodosia is his only child and heir and as such must be protected for the continued welfare of Mendacia.’
‘But surely I’m not the princess, am I?’
‘I don’t know and couldn’t guess. The King’s not here, and the Queen Mother and the Archbishop won’t say a word about it; and if anyone else knows, I haven’t been told. Of course, even if you are not the princess, the King will settle a generous dowry on you and, if you wish, arrange a marriage into one of the most noble families of the kingdom, so you needn’t worry about your future. Your estate will not be conferred officially until the princess is revealed, but until then, you are to be known provisionally as Lady Elisabeth.’ He slapped his wide hands onto his knees and leaned forward to get up. ‘Well, Lady Elisabeth, if that is all—’ The chair creaked as he stood. ‘William, Edith, thank you for your service yet again. Don’t worry a moment about her; the Queen Mother and Lady Agatha will look after her, and when King Thomas has returned, we’ll provide a royal escort for you and your family to visit her in the palace, if you like.’
‘Thanks,’ said Elise’s father.
Elise opened the inner door of the parlour and found clustered around it Agnes, all six of her brothers, the cook, and even a few neighbours. Agnes nearly fell into the room, likely because she had been pressing her ear to the door. The neighbours, looking sheepish, started on down the passage with remarks on the warm weather, trying to look as if they had just been strolling by.
‘We couldn’t help hearing—’ her eldest brother began, but Agnes clung to Elise’s legs and cried, ‘They’re taking you away, they’re taking you away!’
‘Now, now, Agnes.’ Their mother peeled Agnes off Elise. ‘Let the poor girl have a moment to think. Off with you now, boys. Agnes, go find out whether Cook’s bread is risen yet. Yes, Jacksy, here’s mama again! Mama was just in the parlour. She didn’t leave her baby, no, she didn’t.’
The others dispersed, and Elise ran back to her room in great confusion and excitement. She was going away to the palace. She was a lady; she might be a princess. She was someone else’s child. She hardly knew what to think.