“It happened like this,” Nora said. “A huge party was thrown for his third birthday. So all the nobility from the four corners of the country were invited, and everyone was hoping for fine weather.”
“Well, sure, who wants to have a party in the rain?”
“It was more than that, I’m afraid.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “ The prince was fixed.”
“Oh.” She imagined a large royal toddler having a royal temper tantrum while his minuscule mother and nannies looked on helpless from under a cluster of umbrellas.
“Such a pity. No offense.”
Was she offended? No, but they way they said "fixed" made it sound like a curse.
“They were hoping for just the right weather to be able to conceal it. Not too rainy, and certainly not a bright sunny day, either.”
“Exactly. However, in the end, the weather was the least of their worries.”
“Were you there?”
“No, I hadn’t yet been presented at court as a member of the Bonvent family, so even as Ben’s betrothed I couldn’t go. I’m from a much less ancient family. But Ben and Gaétane—Lord and Lady Bonvent—were to attend. I helped Gaétane trim her dress, of course. We had to make two, one in case of rain and another for sun. How she fidgeted! She’s never liked the pomp of dressing up for parties—she’d rather be off riding her horse in trousers. But here I go rambling. Where was I?”
“The prince’s party?”
“Right. Now such a little boy couldn’t attend the whole dinner and the ball to follow, so he was only to make an appearance for the cake-cutting. He was to walk through the assembly on the red carpet, make a thank-you speech and cut the cake. He would also have to eat his piece with his fork, properly. Even non-royal children do this at their third birthday, though not to such so large an audience. But,” said Nora, letting her bobbins rest momentarily on the bolster and looking wide-eyed at Rosalyn, “when the time came, the prince had simply vanished.”
“Even with all his nannies and servants around?” Didn’t royal children have nannies and undernannies waiting on them around the clock? Not to mention footmen and butlers and parlourmaids and who knows who else opening doors and dusting vases? Celebrity magazines and British TV series showed no secrets could be hidden in the households of the very rich.
“Yes, he was gone.” Nora picked up her bobbins again, brow furrowed. “So awful for the royal parents. Just dreadful.”
Rosalyn felt her heart constrict. Her own parents must be beside themselves, unless this place was like Narnia where time didn’t go by at the same rate as in our world. She didn’t know what would be worse, her parents sick with worry, vainly searching, or blissfully unaware, going about their afternoon without the smallest suspicion that anything was wrong. She decided it would be better if they were worried. Why should she be the only one stressing? The unknowns rushed at her again: where was Jason? Was he as anxious for her as she was for him? Was he even—no she couldn’t allow herself to think that.
Nora voice broke through her thoughts “…Instead of a birthday, a renewal of the search. All the nobles gather to pledge to search for him and fresh search parties are sent out. Many people will stay the night in town—we’ve heard there’s not a room to be had. Lucky for us, my old school-mate is cook at the palace and lets us stay with her. It was through her, in fact, that we found out the prince was fixed. Sworn to secrecy of course. She’s a fount of gossip. But I’m talking far too much. My fingers are moving too slowly and I’ll never finish if I keep prattling on. I’ll have to send you off to explore this old house, or see if one of the others could use a hand.”
Rosalyn got up regretfully. With Nora she felt more relaxed than with the others. This room felt the least forlorn and forbidding of all the ones she had been in, like a warm, buzzing hive of creativity. However, she didn’t want to argue with the one person she cared most about pleasing.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Oh no, it’s my own fault for nattering on.”
“I can explore?” Rosalyn wanted to make sure she really had permission before opening the forbidding closed doors.
“Make yourself at home.”
Rosalyn let herself out into the cool hallway and closed the door behind her. It was very still and her slippered feet moved silently along the threadbare carpet. The stillness and the closed doors in the upper gallery that wrapped around the entrance hall with its grand staircase made her feel uncomfortable. There was too much space. She felt dizzy looking down at the checkered floor below. The walls were hung with portraits, many of them darkened with age, and one in particular, a woman with black straight eyebrows, her head turned slightly to the left, highlighting a strong jawline seemed to be looking malevolently out of the corner of her eye. Definitely an ancestor of Gaétane.
So instead of exploring, Rosalyn retreated into her room, and saw that her hot pink backpack, a garish beacon of familiarity, had been placed at the foot of the bed. Perched high on the bed, she unzipped the main compartment. One by one, she pulled out the contents and laid them in a semi-circle around her, books, pencil case, lunch bag.
Opening the front pouch, she took out her strawberry lip balm, hand sanitizer, folding hair brush and her precious iPod with its white earbuds wrapped around it. Had it run out of juice yet? No, it was still charged at 86%. She checked the icons at the top of the screen, but not surprisingly, there was no wi-fi. There weren’t even outlets in this old house. She’d have to be careful about saving the battery. She switched it to airplane mode. Not that she had her charger anyway. It was in a glass vase on her desk where she kept all her odds and ends. She put in her earbuds and scrolled through her music list. A familiar melody and driving rhythm started and she exhaled a huge, pent-up breath. She leaned back on the pillows and scrolled through the photo gallery. Lisa and Marie at the park, Jason making weird faces, family photos taken at Niagara Falls three weeks ago, the neighbour’s adorable cat, as close to a pet as she’d ever have. No pets, insisted her father with one of his dad jokes. “I don’t need pets for my pets.” Anyway, Jason wanted a dog and even though she just wanted a nice, simple cat who did its thing in the litter box and didn’t need to be walked, Jason always wanted something complicated and so her reasonable request would get nixed as well.
She yawned. It wasn’t even lunch time but she was tired already. All this sitting around in the musty air. She stared up at the plaster rosette on the ceiling and turned up the music, tapping her feet and mouthing the words. The song ended and faded into a slower one. Suddenly, Rosalyn felt she couldn’t lie there any longer. There had to be something she could do to get ready for tomorrow. She sat up abruptly and began to sort what she would need, what could be useful. Math textbook, no, agenda, maybe—the paper could come in handy for writing notes, pencil case, yes, novel, no, lip balm, hand sanitizer, brush, of course, water bottle—hello, survival—lunch bag no, banana, ew, granola bar, yes.
She stacked the discards at the foot of the bed and zipped the backpack closed. Her clothes were the only other thing she absolutely needed. Marcella had probably dried them by now. Down in the basement, she found them hanging in the servants’ dining room, dry enough to wear or pack for tomorrow. She couldn't imagine wearing this dress again.
Marcella was peeling two carrots at the short end of the work counter. They looked enormous in her small hands. “Twice as much work for half as much food,” she grumbled when she saw Rosalyn.
“I was checking to see if my clothes were dry. I’m getting all packed for tomorrow. Is there anything I can do for you to help you get ready? How early do you think we’ll leave?”
“Hold your horses. Depends on how long it takes us to grandify. But I should think an hour before sunrise.”