“Good morning!” a chipper voice cried out loudly, breaking me out of my fitful slumber. Lifting my head, I made out the figure of Nalda coming in with a breakfast tray. Putting it down on the table, she went to the window and threw open the curtains. Instantly, blinding bright light filled the room, causing me to cower in fear and retreat to safety under my covers.
“It’s time to get up and start the day,” Nalda announced.
“Why so early?” I asked with a muffled groan.
“Princess Pulsa has requested to meet you,” she replied, “you will be dining with her this afternoon. So, we must have you ready.”
“The princess!?” I shot out from beneath the sheets and stared at the maid. “Now?” I asked, preparing to jump out of bed in haste to get dressed.
“No, not at this minute. The princess will have an audience with you in her own quarters later this afternoon.”
“Oh, that’s good,” I said, yawning and leaning back against my pillows with a contented sigh.
“But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to get ready,” Nalda said, giving my braid a hard yank, “Being a princess and looking the part are two very different things. Centuries ago, a princess would spend weeks preparing for her first coming out.”
I gave her a distracted, sleepy nod. Then the old woman grabbed the blankets, and with a strong heave, pulled them off the bed entirely. A rush of cold air breezed its icy hand across my bare legs.
“I’m up! I’m up!” I yelped, sitting up and rubbing my eyes.
Satisfied, Nalda strolled across the room and approached the wardrobe. Picking out a dress she held it up for me. It shone of the softest silk and was dyed the shade of rose petals.
“Lift your arms, child,” she commanded. I did so and she draped the hem of the dress up and over my head. Once pulled down, it fell in perfect folds
I reached out my hand and stroked the fabric tenderly. “It’s beautiful,” I whispered, “I’ve never worn anything so grand.”
“Get used to it,” Nalda said, turning me around briskly so she could start on my hair, “you are a princess now and will have to wear dresses like this every day.”
“Every day?” I gulped.
“Hmm,” the old woman gave a grunt of assent, a pin stuck in her mouth as she gave my braid a last twist before placing the golden flower pin firmly on one side of my head, keeping some rebellious strands in place. “There,” she sighed with satisfaction, stepping back to admire her work, “very pretty. But, I’m not sure it will hold all day.”
“My hair always escapes,” I chuckled, “no matter how tight the braid. I never bothered and Grandma was always having trouble with it.”
“Well, hopefully it will hold during your meeting with the Princess,” Nalda stated grimly, and I could feel her eyes glaring at the mischievous strands, just daring them to unravel and face her wrath.
“What’s she like?” I asked eagerly.
“Well, what have you heard child?”
“Only that she was adopted by the Emperor when she was a little girl, and that she is very beautiful.”
“Oh, she’s a rare beauty,” agreed Nalda, “men practically fall in love with the princess the moment they lay eyes on her. They surround her like bees.” She paused. “I sometimes wonder what it must feel like. Irritating?”
“Perhaps,” I smirked.
“Why are you grinning?”
I shrugged. “I just didn’t know you thought of such things.”
Nalda smacked my arm. “Well, I was young once too.”
“You must have been pretty,” I said, examining her structured face and still chiseled cheeks.
“I had good bones,” she admitted.
I raised a brow and tilted my head curiously. “Did you have many suitors?”
“Stop such nonsense,” Nalda scoffed, scowling severely at me. But a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“Okay – tell me more about the Princess.”
“Her father, the Emperor’s brother, was wounded in battle and died before Princess Pulsa was born,” Nalda said sadly, “Lonely and having no family of her own, her mother, Leomong, then came to live at the palace. But then Leomong died within a few years after your disappearance. Orphaned at such a young age, the princess was all alone in the world. So, the Emperor adopted her as his own child and cared for her as a daughter.”
“That was kind of him,” I murmured, pangs of jealousy beginning to tug at the strings of my heart.
The old woman glanced sideways at me. “Yes, it was,” she replied quietly, “Some foolish people said that the Emperor was so heartbroken when you were taken away, that he needed a replacement to fill the hollow leftover.” She pursed her lips. “However, I know that he was only honoring a dead woman’s final wish.”
“On her deathbed,“ Nalda explained in a hushed whisper, “Leomong sent for the Emperor and begged him to take Princess Pulsa – make her his daughter. And so, he did.”
Something in Nalda’s tone startled me. It sounded almost fierce, but was not directed at the Emperor.
“Is something wrong?” I asked hesitantly.
“Oh, it’s nothing child,” the old woman sighed heavily, “only some silly nonsense of my own making.”
“Would it ease your mind to talk about it?”
Nalda looked at me and frowned thoughtfully. “I suppose it is best for you to know,” she said, taking a seat. I sat beside her and waited for her to begin. “I did not like Princess Pulsa’s mother,” the old woman confessed, “she was an ambitious woman and very mysterious. No one ever discovered where she’d come from or who her family were. The prince had married her quiet suddenly, leaving many to wonder if Leomong was some sort of witch and had cast a spell on him. Then after he died and she came here to live, that woman always kept to herself. And she had these eyes …” Nalda shuddered.
A chill swept through my own bones, making me shiver.
“But the Princess is nothing like her mother,” Nalda hastily added, “she is very kind and no one ever finds any fault in her.”
“Why did you tell me?” I asked in a low voice.
“I don’t understand you, child,” Nalda said, confused, “about what?”
“You didn’t want to tell me about Leomong at first,” I replied, “why?”
She looked me directly in the eyes, and said seriously, “I felt the need to put you on your guard.”
“Of Princess Pulsa?” I frowned, confused.
“Heavens child! No.” Nalda laughed. “The Princess is a harmless creature. She is so delicate that I think she is incapable of harming a fly. I just wanted to warn you.” To my astonishment, I saw tears welling up in the old woman’s eyes. She lifted a hand and patted my cheek gently. “You are an honest, sweet child. Though I know life has been hard on you, I’m afraid that it will get even harder. But, life at the palace is full of intrigue and deception,” she muttered, “and a person can never be too careful. It may appear pleasant, full of comfort, pleasure and gaiety. But one can lose his life by trusting the wrong people.”
I smiled cheerfully. “I’ll be alright. I’ve survived this long.”
The old woman nodded solemnly. “Perhaps it’s just my old bones,” she said quietly, “but I feel that, now you are here, something will happen. Something extraordinary.”
I was escorted to the Princess’ quarters with so many maids trailing behind that I felt as if I was part of a parade. Since the Princess lodged in a very public section, we happened to meet many courtiers on the way. Though extremely polite, I could sense a coldness in their address to me and could feel they eyes remaining on my back long after we’d passed by. I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally reached the Princess’ chambers.
“Princess Forsythia has come to greet you, Your Highness,” the maids announced outside of the wooden doors.
“Let her come in,” a soft voice replied.
The maids pulled open the doors and I was admitted into splendor. Veils of pure, untainted silk filled the room, hanging from rafters, around poles and over furniture. As the sun shone through the window, colors of purples, reds and pinks danced off the walls, decorating them with intricate designs. The scent of heavy perfume floated up my nostrils, making me cough slightly as I carefully stepped through. Lighted candles covered every surface, their flames flickering slightly, casting shadows and giving the room a rather unearthly glow.
Then I came face to face with the Princess. There, lying on a sofa among satin pillows, was a delicate maiden of fae complexion. Her hair was of flaxen gold, spun into a fine braid that draped over one slender pale shoulder left bare by a dress that covered the rest of her arms with sheer sleeves of satin. Though her face shaped with bewitching childlike innocence, the princess’ eyes were of icy blue that contained power and control.
I had never seen such beauty.
Stopping in my tracks, I remained standing in the entrance, transfixed as if in a trance. The vision before me sat up and smiled in welcome.
Momentarily remembering my manners, I bowed deeply and stammered out, “Thank you … for having me, Your Highness.”
“Not at all,” she replied, her voice tinkling like the sound of little chiming bells, “won’t you have a seat?”
I bowed again before sitting down on one of the pillows on the other end of the sofa.
“I must admit,” the princess said once I had settled, “I have been longing to see you.”
“Really?” I asked, startled.
“Oh yes,” she replied, “tell me – do you find me much changed?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Remember what?” I asked, very confused. Just then a maid came over and whispered in the princess’ ear.
“Oh, I didn’t know,” she exclaimed after the maid had departed, “you’re unable to recall anything from your childhood?”
“I’m sad to hear it,” the princess sighed, “we used to play together as children.”
“Oh yes,” she replied eagerly, “we were great friends. It’s a shame you can’t remember – we used to have the best of times.” Then the princess laughed lightly. “No matter, we shall just have to make use of this opportunity to get reacquainted. When we part, it shall be as the best of friends, just as we used to be.”
I smiled gratefully.
“Tea?” she asked, lifting up a teapot and tilting it over the two small cups sitting on the table before the sofa.
I nodded my head and watched as tinted green water poured out of the teapot’s white spout. The princess then handed me one of the cups and I bowed before taking the cup from her in both hands.
“Now,” the princess said after taking a sip of her tea, “do you mind if I become quite forthcoming?”
I shook my head. “Not at all.”
“Then I shall ask you all sorts of weird questions,” she replied with a smile and a tilt of her fair head, “but I’m afraid I shall scare you off. I will limit myself to three. Is that alright?”
I nodded quickly.
“Great. First question – what are you thinking at this moment?”
I blushed. “Are you sure you wish to hear them, Your Highness? You may find them a bit impertinent.”
“Now I want to hear them more than ever,” she giggled eagerly.
“I was thinking,” I replied slowly, “of how beautiful you are and how I now understand why you have so many suitors.”
The Princess was silent for a moment. “Who told you that I have many suitors?” she asked quietly.
“Please don’t take me seriously, Your Highness,” I said hurriedly, “I am a very foolish girl and have no manners. Forgive me if I have given offence.”
“You sweet thing,” she exclaimed, “you have not offended me in the slightest. Indeed, I am quite flattered.”
I sighed with relief.
“Please,” the princess placed her hand lightly over my own, “there is no need to feel nervous around me.”
“I thank you, Your Highness,” I replied with a bow.
“And call me Pulsa.”
“If that would please you, Your … Pulsa.”
“Next question,” the princess tapped her chin with a finger, “what did you do while you lived in the Capitol?”
“Lots of things,” I smiled happily as memories flooded through my mind, “mostly I helped my Grandparents around the house. I also attended my Grandma as her assistant. She’s a Healer.”
“Sounds fascinating,” Pulsa said, though she sounded slightly bored. I almost wanted to tell her about my adventures with Boja and the rest of the gang. But somehow, I felt that my escapades as the ‘Protector’ were not something to be shared within the Palace walls. Besides, such gory stories might shock a princess.
“My final question for today,” the princess’ eyes twinkled mischievously at me, “have you ever fallen in love?”
Her question startled me so much that I threw back my head and laughed loudly. “No, I’ve never been in love.”
“How disappointing,” Pulsa sighed dramatically, “I do love gossip of that nature. Oh well, it can’t be helped. Now, it’s your turn.”
“To ask your share of questions about me,” she smiled invitingly, “ask me anything.”
“But, how can I,” I objected, “I am only . . .”
“Princess Forsythia,” the princess interjected, “you are the daughter to the Emperor and my cousin. Be at ease.”
I swallowed. “What is your life here like?”
“Pretty boring actually,” she sighed, her fingers trailing across a pillow’s fringe, “I’ve spent most of my childhood learning palace etiquette, ancient proverbs, lessons in history, memorizing courtiers’ names and dancing.” The princess then leaned closer to me and whispered confidentially, “I hate learning the courtiers by name. There always seems to be ten more every month. It is quite tiresome.”
I chuckled. “What is your favorite thing to do?”
“Is that your second question?” Pulsa asked, reclining once more among the pillows.
I gave her a nod.
“Dancing,” she answered, “I love to dance. I never tired of it and would bother my instructor to teach me more routines every day. However, eventually she ran out of dances that were fitting for a princess to perform.” The princess paused and scoffed. “At least that was her excuse. She claimed that any other dance would be below my station and full of impropriety. But I wouldn’t hear of it. So, guess what I did.”
I leaned forward eagerly.
“I hired a Geisha to teach me,” she whispered.
My eyes widened in astonishment. I could hardly believe that the princess would be that desperate as to hire a girl from a pleasure house. True, the best and most popular of such brothels managed to attain a degree of class and distinction with dancing often a major asset.
Pulsa watched my struggle with much amusement. “That Geisha was the best teacher I had ever had,” she stated, “I learned all I could until her knowledge was spent and I had bested her in comparison.” She chuckled. “I don’t think she liked that very much. No Geisha likes to find herself bettered by another. But then I was the princess, so she never said anything.” She turned to look at me. “Last question.”
I bit my lip, thinking. “Would . . .” I began hesitantly.
The Princess nodded for me to continue.
“Would you like to be friends?” I rushed out.
“Yes, of course,” she took my hands and squeezed them, “I’ve always longed for a friend.”
“I would have thought you had a great many,” I said surprised.
“No,” she replied with a sad, lingering sigh, “I only have servants. And everyone else at court are only in competition.” She turned away from me, and her face grew dark. “They each try to get in my good graces simply to elevate their rank,” she hissed.
I didn’t know what to say. On one hand, I was surprised to find that the princess was a lot like me. I never had many friends either – girls that is. But it must be terrible to live with people who only pretend to like you.
“I’m sorry,” I said, frowning, “that must be awful.”
The Princess didn’t answer.
Still no answer. The princess remained sitting very still, staring off into the distance. Her fists were clenched and a horrid look had crossed over her sweet features. Her eyes became clouded, like that of a storm. She seemed to forgotten that I was even in the room. Cautiously, I rose and passed in front of her – twice. She didn’t seem to notice.
I timidly reached out my hand to touch her. The moment my hand met her shoulder, the princess faced me with a dazed look, as if she had seen something or been somewhere far away.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized, pressing a hand to her forehead, “what were we talking about?”
“I no longer remember,” I replied weakly.
Pulsa laughed shakily. “I fear I spaced out,” she murmured, a panicked expression streaking across her face. Suddenly, she grabbed at my hands. “I hope I did not frighten you. You see, I possess poor health and a rare condition that occasionally causes me to slip out of my mind,” she hastened to explain, “I simply forget where I am and who I’m with.”
“Do not worry on my account,” I reassured her, “I have seen many similar cases while helping my Grandmother. It’s not as rare as you may think. Some such conditions are brought on by fever. Others have been afflicted since birth. And a few have endured terrible events, which ended up building stress in the mind, causing it to blank out occasionally.”
“But sometimes I behave strangely,” Pulsa giggled nervously, “however, I never have any memory of it afterwards. I hope I didn’t do or say anything … strange?”
“No, no, not at all,” I said hastily, “you only stared at that canopy over there.”
I pointed at the spot and her eyes followed my finger to look. Then her face suddenly grew very pale.
“Ah yes,” she whispered faintly, “that makes sense.”
I didn’t know if she was talking to me. So, I kept silent.
The Princess suddenly shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. “Isn’t it drafty in here?” she asked, “let us go outside and warm ourselves in the sun.”
She led the way to the balcony and there we sat, talking a while longer. The Princess joked and laughed, prattling on about how ridiculous some of the nobility could be. Some of the princess’ stories were so outrageous that I was left clutching my stomach in stitches.
When I finally left, we both were in good spirits.
I had found a friend.