There was a long, threatening moment of silence. Then the entire market burst into loud, rapturous applause. People cheered and whistled joyously, celebrating the return of the Lost Princess. But the laughter landed upon deaf ears for the noise resonating in dampened echoes as if I was underwater. My head swam and I floated subconsciously as if I was traveling outside of my own body.
Faintly, I sensed two guards guide me towards an empty litter as the Emperor remained on the stairs to give the audience a few extra words. His voice was strong, and though I could not make sense of the words in my present state, I felt a certain peace settle within my bones. I began to take a step into the litter when there was a sudden shout.
Breaking out of my daze, I turned sharply and saw Boja running towards me, pushing and elbowing his way through the crowd. However, once he reached me the guards blocked him from coming any closer.
“Let me through!” Boja demanded, outraged.
“No one is allowed to speak to the princess,” they replied calmly.
“Nonsense,” I cried before shoving the guards to the side, “Anyone may, especially my best friend.”
Boja gave the guards a glare before grasping my hand. “What’s going on?” He asked. “Is it true – are you her?”
I shook my head. “There must be some mistake,” I replied surely, “I will clear it up with the Emperor and be back before you know it.”
“What if you’re not?” Boja murmured, looking intently into my eyes, “What will I tell the others? What should we do while your gone?”
“Tell them what happened and continue as normal.” I tried to give my first mate a confident smile, but even my assurance was weakening. In a moment of impulse, I lunged forward and clutched Boja in a tight, bear hug. “In case I’m not back for a while,” I whispered in his ear, “Just continue to stake out the Capitol as we planned. Catch every thief and pick-pocket till I return.”
“Promise you will.” Boja pulled away and spit into his hand.
“I promise.” I spat into mine and we shook on it. There was a cough and I looked up to see the guards watching our exchange, each with an expression of confusion mixed with a bit of revulsion.
“Your Highness?” One guard pulled back the curtain to the litter.
“One moment,” I called back, not taking my gaze off of Boja’s face. “Tell my grandparents I love them and will see them soon?” I begged, hot salty tears now pricking at the corners of my eyes. He gave me a weak nod. I let go of his hand with a final squeeze and entered the waiting tram without another look back.
Once settled among silk, plush pillows, the curtains were dropped and I was enveloped in dark shadows. There was a heavy jolt and I had to put out my hands to steady myself as the litter was lifted off the ground.
What would have been a short ride to the palace on horseback, was a terribly drawn out journey as the royal caravan paraded down the main road at a terrible slow pace. The guards, carrying the weight of the heavy trams, faltered along steadily. Alone with my pounding heart, I sat very still with beads of sweat forming on my brow as with each step, we drew ever closer to the palace
Then, at last, we came to a full stop and the litter was lowered. A step sounded on the gravel as someone approached my tram. Through the screen I could make out the tall, dark outline of a man.
Then the curtains were drawn back and bright sunshine seared my eyeballs, blinding me. Squinting, I put up my hand to guard my eyes and saw that the Emperor was standing right in front of me, arm extended and waiting for me to take his hand.
Hesitatingly, I placed my calloused brown hand within His Majesty’s. Closing his fingers around mine, the Emperor gave me a tender smile and then helped me to step out into the world. Immediately I was faced with the view of a crowd filled with many grand personages, all standing at the palace gate to greet the Emperor.
Taking a frightened step backwards, I bumped into the litter behind me and nearly tripped over it. But the Emperor’s hand steadied me, and then slowly, he pulled me gently forward towards the gate. As we approached, everyone within that magnificent crowd fell to his knees and bowed deeply.
In surprise, I gazed down at the many beautiful courtiers kneeling on the ground, their elegant dresses draping out in soft folds about them as they bent their jeweled necks and lowered their braided, adorned heads to me. My face grew hot as I glanced down at my own muddy attire. The Emperor must have sensed my discomfort, for all of a sudden, I was draped in a silk shawl of embroidered gold.
“The Princess Forsythia has returned!” A chancellor called out.
“Hail, Princess Forsythia!” Everyone echoed in reply.
Together, the Emperor and I walked through the crowd till we were through the gate. There waiting for us on the other side, stood an elderly maid. She bowed deeply when we approached her and then rose when the Emperor bid her to.
“Your Highness,” the maid smiled as she addressed me, “My name’s Nalda and I’m to escort you to your chambers.”
“Thank you,” I stammered, grasping the shawl tightly about me with my free hand.
The Emperor let me go reluctantly. “We have much to discuss,” he said softly, “I shall send my chancellor for you this evening. He will bring you to the Palace Hall where I will be waiting.”
I gave a silent nod and followed the maid as she walked through the sandy courtyard towards an enclosed walkway that linked several buildings together. The beams’ arms, which held up the roof covering the path, were interlaced together in many intricate patterns and graceful shapes had been carved into the wood.
As we walked, I noticed that the palace was a series of flat buildings all merged and connected together by marble footpaths similar to the one that we were standing on. With an ever-open terrace, I was able to admire many splendid gardens that we passed by. Each private ground was covered with flowers of every shape and size, with lily ponds filled with white lotuses, the glistening water shadowed by the hanging branches of weeping willows. Butterflies flitted about lightly, as they traveled from one flower petal to another.
The maid turned off of the path and right outside a doorway.
“These are your quarters, Your Highness,” she said with a bob.
I stepped inside and stopped. The room was bigger than my grandparents’ entire house. An enormous oak bed rested in the corner, covered with beaded curtains, a plump quilt, and the head bursting with soft, satin pillows. A washing basin sat on a counter next to the bed. On the other side of the room was a small dining area. A little wooden table, with a tea set resting upon it, sat in the middle of an embroidered rug. At the end of the room, I could make out a dressing area with a heavy wardrobe.
“Here is your bedchamber.” The maid gave a grunt as she squeezed past me to enter the room. “And that,” she gestured over to the table, “Is where I will serve you your meals.”
“I will be eating here?” I asked, picking up one of the cups. It was made of the purest white clay and had delicate pink flowers hand-painted all along its’ slender rim.
“Yes, as long as that is pleasing to Your Highness.” The maid cocked her grey head. “Would you rather eat elsewhere?”
“Oh, no. This is fine,” I protested before murmuring, “It’s just so grand.”
The maid smiled, her cheeks wrinkling. “They told me that you were found in the Capitol, yes?”
“From a well-off family?”
I laughed. “Rich in love, but rather poor in material goods, if that’s what you’re groping for.”
“I apologize, Your Highness, for my impertinence,” the woman bowed her head humbly, “But I wanted to be sure that you had been raised well … that you were cared for during your time in exile.”
I frowned. “That was my home … I’m sure that some terrible mistake has been made. I’m not a princess.”
The woman smiled, her cheeks wrinkling even more and her eyes sparkled kindly. “Your mother would have been proud to hear that.”
“My mother?” I gulped.
The maid nodded and moved towards the dressing area. “Yes, your mother believed that anyone who believed that he was special just because of his royal blood possessed a heart filled with pride. And all too often, this breed turned out to be nothing but slaves to their own self-indulgence.”
“Wait,” I put up my hand, “How do you know my mother? She died when I was a baby.”
“I was her maid ever since the first day when she entered the palace as a young bride.” The maid gazed at me tenderly. ““You look so much like her – almost a mirror image.”
“But if I’m not the princess, then she can’t be my …”
“And if you are then I knew her as I knew you when you were but a wee babe,” interrupted the elderly woman with a huff, “And trust me, I’d recognize that stubborn chin of yours anywhere.”
I was silenced by the woman’s glare as she turned towards the wardrobe. “Your name is Nalda, right?” I asked quietly.
“That’s correct, dear child,” she replied before grasping one of the wardrobe’s carved handles and pulled back. “Take a look at your ‘material goods’.”
My mouth dropped and the old woman chuckled. There, in that treasure chest, hung the most beautiful gowns I had ever seen, each one differing from the other in color and style. Some were simple, dangling in plain, fine folds of fabric. Others were covered with intricate beadwork laced over the bodice and along the sleeves. Still others contained so many layers of petticoats that the hems stood out like fluffy clouds. However, all possessed elegance and had been handsewn of the finest material.
Mesmerized, I reached out to stroke one, but I pulled back when I saw my dirty fingers.
“Why don’t I help you clean up,” Nalda said, her voice tearing my gaze away from the wardrobe.
“Thanks, that would great,” I replied, flushing with embarrassment as I looked down over my muddied front. Nalda led the way, disappearing from the room as she walked through a hidden door that was embedded in the side of the wall. Steam was puffing out in great wisps.
I followed the maid and entered a small compartment that lay adjacent to my bedchamber. A huge wooden tub took up the entire floor. It had been filled with boiling water and was blood red with rose petals.
“Why are there flowers in here,” I asked, dropping a hand into the water to pick up one of the blossoms, before yanking back when my fingers were stung by the heat.
“It gives a nice fragrance to the skin,” Nalda explained as she grabbed a pail of ice and poured it into the tub. The water hissed as the ice melted and mixed within its pools. The old woman then tested the temperature before nodding, signaling me to get in.
I stripped and settled in the tub, immediately sighing contentedly as I felt my muscles relax. I let my fingers drift lazily on the water’s surface. Nalda handed a sponge over my shoulder.
“Rub down your arms and face,” she ordered, “I’ll do your back.” Right away I felt a cold, wet slushiness against the back of my shoulder-blades. I gave a yelp of surprise.
“Sorry, Your Highness,” Nalda said, but I could hear her voice crackling with a smile.
I got to work and began to scrub all the dirt off my skin. “What was she like?” I asked softly, rubbing the sponge along my arm.
The sponge on my back paused. “She was full of energy,” Nalda answered, her voice rasping a little, “I see much of her spirit in you. The eagerness to experience new things – the curiosity that lights up your eyes.” She coughed. “Step out now, child.”
I obeyed and Nalda helped me into some clean undergarments before pulling a simple gown over my head. “Sit down,” she commanded, beckoning me over to a stool. I sat, facing away from her, and felt her bring a comb through my hair, gently untangling the snarls of knots.
“Nalda?” I asked. The maid grunted, preoccupied with the challenge of tugging out a stubborn snarl.
“Were you around when I was born?” I studied down at the wrinkly folds on my fingers. The comb stopped.
“Yes,” she said, the comb resuming down its path. “Your mother would not let you out of her arms, not even to let me dress you. I had to sneak you away when she fell asleep in order to properly clean you up.” Nalda suddenly chuckled. “What a spirited, reckless child you were, always getting into scrapes. You practically drove the nursery maids crazy by constantly disappearing.” She tugged at another knot. “And it made no difference how severely you were scolded – the next day you were sure to be missing again!”
I grinned, thinking how Grandma would vouch for me being a troublemaker still.
“But your mother …” Nalda paused and sighed. “She never worried about you. I personally believe that she encouraged your antics by playing hide and seek with you whenever she could!”
I turned to face the old maid. “I wished I could remember her,” I said softly.
“You don’t remember a thing, child?” She asked.
I shook my head slowly.
The maid touched my shoulder lightly with her wrinkled hand. “Then every time you take a glance in the looking-glass, tell your mother hello. You are her very image.”
I frowned. “But I still can’t believe that I am the ‘Lost Princess’,” I told her, “What if this is all a big mistake? It feels too much like a dream. The Emperor – my Father?”
“Do not doubt it,” Nalda reassured me, gathering my hair into a braid and giving it a firm tug, “I’m sure that His Majesty can recognize his own offspring.”
I looked down at my feet, fears plaguing at the back of my mind. My hands became cold and clammy. “I know nothing about palace life,” I murmured.
Nalda became very still. She turned me around, took my hands and gave them a comforting pat. “Depend upon me, child,” she said, “I shall be your guide.”
I smiled gratefully, thinking of how alike Nalda was to Grandma. Then another question prodded itself against my mind’s door. I bit my lip, afraid to ask, but needing to know.
“How did my mother die?”
Nalda started at the abrupt question, then turned sadly to look out into the distance. “I don’t know,” she replied in a hushed tone, “No one knows.”
“How can that be?” I was confused.
“One day the Queen was alive and the picture of health,” Nalda explained, choking down her words as tears streaked silently across her wrinkled cheek. “I even remember her last words to me. She had been very pleased with how I had done her hair that morning. It looked very much like yours – falling down in soft, brown waves.” The old woman stroked the top of my head with a watery smile at the memory. Then her hand stopped. “But I didn’t get to do her hair ever again. The next day she was lying in the ground.”
“How?” I whispered.
“I don’t know,” Nalda replied desperately, her face full of sorrow and confusion. “I didn’t even get to see her buried. No one had – except the Emperor and a few choice councillors. It had all been done in private at night.”
My heart squeezed painfully.
“Then you disappeared,” she continued, “Child, I’m surprised that it didn’t kill him after losing both wife and daughter.” The old woman suddenly grasped my hands and held them tightly. “But now you turn up, and the Emperor is smiling again. I’ve never seen His Majesty look so happy!”
I smiled weakly, feeling as if the entire world had been put upon my shoulders
“Well …” Nalda brushed some dust off my shoulder, “You’re all ready now.”
“Ready for what?” I asked.
“You have an audience with the Emperor this evening, remember?”
“Right. I’d forgotten.” I got up off the stool hastily.
“If you still have any doubts about being His Majesty’s daughter, talk to him,” Nalda said, “He is the only one who knows everything.”
I nodded, but my hands grew clammy and beads of water started to form across my brow.