Welcome to the second installment of Cate’s serial Once Upon a Time! If you missed the first one, click here to read it as well. Enjoy!
The Journey Begins
By Cate McDermott
“Good-bye, dearest!” Esther threw her arms around Eliza’s neck and hugged her tight.
“Oh, I wish I were going with you!” her half-sister cried, with a sob in her voice.
“Hush, dear; no, you don’t,” Esther whispered back hastily, glancing over at their four younger brothers and sisters gathered nearby. “You must stay and take care of Meriway in my place, for you are the oldest now. Be brave, for the children’s sakes,” she added, in her sister’s ear.
“And I’ll help you all I can, sister,” Edmund, the next oldest, stepped up beside them, puffing out his chest in an attempt to look as old and responsible as possible. “You can trust us to take the very best care of everything, just as if you were here, Esther,” he added importantly.
Esther smiled at her brother, trying to stifle a sigh at the same time. The days had passed far too quickly since Grandfather had told her of her unexpectedly renewed right of succession to the throne of Tryfort, where she was now headed, to learn how to govern from her aunt and uncle, King Rothbart and Queen Tressine, the haughty monarchs of Tryfort who hadn’t liked Esther’s lower-status mother.
The rest of Esther’s family, who were only related to her through her mother’s second marriage to Grandfather’s son, were not invited to come along with her to Tryfort. However, the three youngest children were coming along with Esther and Grandfather on the first leg of the journey.
“It will be a treat for them; they leave home so rarely, and besides, it will make the parting easier, not to have it all so sudden,” Grandfather had determined, when he and Esther had talked it over.
“Whatever you think best, Grandfather,” Esther had replied. But Eliza and Edmund would remain at the family estate of Meriway, to attend to the housekeeping.
“Goodbye, all. Take good care of your young mistress and master,” Grandfather gave his last instructions to the servants before stepping up into the carriage after Esther. “Come along now, you young ones! Ups-a-daisy!” he caught hold of Emily as Edmund helped her up onto the carriage step, like a true young gentleman. Emily’s twin, Ethelbert, followed, and finally the youngest of all, five-year-old Eudora.
“Good-bye! Good-bye!” Esther leaned out of the window, waving her brand-new lace-trimmed handkerchief in farewell to her sister and brother. Her last glimpse of them came as the carriage rounded the bend: Eliza straining up on her tiptoes to see over the hedge, kissing her hand to them one last time; and Edmund leaping as high in the air as he could, waving both arms above his head and losing his cap in the process.
“They’re such dears,” Esther sighed, drawing her head back in the window and settling herself against the seat cushions. “Wouldn’t you like to sit on sister’s lap, Eudora?” she invited the little one.
“Oh, no, Eudora’s a big girl now,” replied the tot, importantly. But after a moment, the thought seemed to occur to her that this would likely be her last opportunity to sit on her big sister’s lap, and so she accordingly decided to make the most of it and climbed up. She immediately began fidgeting with one of the gold buttons on the purple bodice of Esther’s gown. “Very pretty,” she said approvingly.
“Yes, you really do look like a princess,” Emily sighed half-enviously. She had not yet fully grasped the fact that Esther was really leaving them permanently, and therefore could still manage to appreciate the romantic benefits of her sister’s unexpected rise in station.
Ethelbert understood the situation better than his twin, and accordingly made haste to change the subject from Esther’s newly acquired regal wardrobe. “Have we ever journeyed in this direction before, Grandfather?”
“No, my boy; the Tryfort border is in the opposite direction from the seacoast and the region around the capital, which is where we usually travel,” Grandfather replied.
Ethelbert frowned. He had not wanted Tryfort to be mentioned just yet. He tried again. “Splendid weather for hawking, don’t you think?”
Esther giggled, which relieved her brother’s mind enormously. He and Grandfather plunged into an animated discussion about different kinds of falcons, which lasted until Emily observed, pensively, that hawking was a suitably royal sport to interest Esther. After that, an awkward pause ensued.
Shifting Eudora to her other hip, Esther decided to break the tension by bringing up the delicate subject herself. “About how long will we be on this part of the journey together, Grandfather?”
“It should take us a day and a half, barring trouble, to reach the border, where the royal carriage will be waiting for you,” Grandfather responded, evidently relieved that Esther was handling the situation so coolly. He drew his handkerchief out of his coat pocket and mopped his forehead anxiously. Esther smiled at him and at Ethelbert, who still looked a little annoyed.
“Well, that’s longer than I expected, so I shall make the most of it,” she said in a sprightly tone. “And you’ve made all the arrangements, Grandfather? Where will we be meeting the other carriage? At an inn?”
“Yes, the Black Horse Inn.”
“That’s helpful; they’re all called the Black Horse, along carriage routes, it seems,” said Ethelbert, complainingly. “We’ll probably end up at two different inns, and never be able to find the other carriage. And then Esther couldn’t go on any further!” he brightened up considerably.
The others all laughed. “I’m afraid that scheme won’t work, my boy; there’s only one inn on the border. You know the length of the border between Livwel and Tryfort is only ten miles long,” Grandfather explained. Ethelbert subsided, disappointed.
Esther hastily moved on to another, more pleasant aspect of the prospects ahead. “So will you all be staying the half-day after we arrive at the inn with me? We could probably find something fun to do.”
“Oh, yes, most certainly. I know the innkeeper,” said Grandfather, with a wink.
Esther exchanged meaningful smiles with her brother and sisters. Whenever Grandfather said he knew someone, he really meant that he knew they could cook up a grand feast whenever he came to visit them! “Well, only one question more, Grandfather, and then I will have done,” Esther went on. “Will I be traveling the rest of the way alone, in the royal carriage?” She hesitated for a moment before adding, tentatively, “I mean, will King Rothbart and Queen Tressine be there?”
“No, my dear, no,” Grandfather replied, to Esther’s vast relief. “They will have remained at the castle, to receive you in state once you arrive. They will doubtless have sent a couple of other servants along with the coachman to look after your comfort, but I really am not sure, my dear,” he ended, an apologetic note in his voice.
“Oh, well, that’s all right, Grandfather,” Esther said, dismissing the subject. “Look, Eudora, Ethelbert, did you see that?” she cried, gesturing out the window at a perfectly marvelous specimen of the hawk family, sitting on a post alongside the road.
From that point forward, until they arrived at the “Black Horse” Inn, the carriage was filled with merry chatter about the many interesting and attractive displays of scenery and wildlife that sped swiftly by the windows. The object of Esther’s journey was not once again brought up.
They slept in the carriage and traveled on overnight, being in haste to reach their destination (the coachman and footman took turns sleeping and driving the carriage). It was a little past noon on the next day when they arrived at the inn. Everyone clambered out, rather stiff and dusty from the long ride, and very glad to stretch their legs.
“Don’t let Eudora go too far away from you, now!” Esther called anxiously after her brother and sisters, as they ran off eagerly to explore the inn-yard. “Don’t open any gates! There might be bulls!” Emily turned and waved her hand slightly to indicate that she would be personally responsible for her baby sister’s safety, and then the three children disappeared around the corner of the thatch-roofed building, with its weather-beaten sign bearing the legend “The Black Horse” swinging creakily from its metal frame.
Esther put her hand through Grandfather’s arm and squeezed it fondly, glad to be alone with him for a moment. He patted her head absent-mindedly, peering about the courtyard and up and down the road. “We must have arrived first, I see no signs of the other carriage,” he remarked, with a sigh that was half of relief, half of annoyance. “Well, that means that we shall be able to have dinner all by ourselves, then! Come on!” Grandfather turned merrily towards the inn-door, and then stopped, waving Esther forward with playful courtesy: “After you, my lady!”
Esther winked at him saucily, and skipped ahead of him into the dim entrance-hall of the “Black Horse.” She stopped just inside and looked around approvingly. Despite the smoke-stained timbers of the ceiling and the worn flagstones on the floor, the inn-room still exuded an air of being clean and cosy and welcoming. Plump cushions, covered in a bright flower-patterned fabric, were arranged invitingly over the benches along the wall; and the copper pots hanging from the rafters gleamed so pleasantly that you almost couldn’t hold it against them when you knocked your head on them (as Grandfather did).
“What ho, sir!” The innkeeper came forward to meet them from the doorway of the inner room, wiping his hands on his apron. “Dinner is nearly ready; I said to the missus that you’d no doubt be hungry enough to eat as soon as you’d arrived, and she’s got up a fine spread, I dare assure you, sir! Perhaps I am unduly partial, but I do think it bids fair to be the finest feast yet cooked up in any inn along the carriage-route! Yes, sir!” and the innkeeper nodded vigorously. He was a pleasant-faced, portly individual, with twinkling eyes and rusty hair that stuck out in all directions.
“Well, if it is Mistress Humbert’s best work, I’ve no doubt of it at all, Humbert, my worthy fellow!” Grandfather responded heartily. “This is my eldest granddaughter, Esther,” he introduced her. “Esther, my dear, this is good Humbert, the innkeeper.”
“How do you do, sir,” Esther greeted politely, extending her hand with as much grace and courtesy as if he had been a courtier rather than an innkeeper. She was not trying to be generous. Esther never even thought about people’s rank when considering how to address them.
The innkeeper took her offered hand respectfully, gazing admiringly at her open, fresh young face. “Well, so this is the lassie that’s to be a princess, is it, my good sir? If looks and manners are any indication, she’s bound to carry off her position well!”
“Thank you, sir,” Esther replied, blushing, as Grandfather beamed with honest pleasure over the compliment to her. The worthy Humbert made her a slightly awkward bow, and then turned to Grandfather again. “But I believe you said that there were more coming with you, sir?” he said, eyebrows raised in mildly anxious inquiry. An innkeeper never likes to have provided for more dinners than he has customers. It’s not so bad as fewer dinners than customers, to be sure, but it still isn’t in the best interests of economy. “I understood your messenger to have said that you would be bringing four of your grandchildren.”
“Oh, yes, so I did; the others are off somewhere in your back yard, scaring your chickens and turkeys and annoying your cows, good Humbert!” Grandfather explained, laughing and clapping him heartily on the back. “We’ll call them in as soon as the meal is ready. But meanwhile, have you any chambers ready where we might freshen up after our long journey?” He glanced sidewise at Esther. “Aren’t you tired, granddaughter?” he inquired solicitously.
“Only a little, Grandfather,” Esther responded, drawing herself up with dignity. “Dinner will rest me quite enough, thank you. But I would like to wash my face and hands, if I may,” she ended, with a glance at the innkeeper.
“To be sure, to be sure,” the innkeeper responded with alacrity, rubbing his hands together satisfactorily. “I have your chamber all in readiness for you, the best in the house! Right up the stairs and to the left, across the hall. Or would you care to have me direct you?” he added, suddenly recollecting that not everyone knew the way around his inn as well as he did.
“Oh, no, thank you; I am sure I can find it just fine,” Esther replied, already poised upon the second stair, her hand resting lightly on the banister. She smiled down at Grandfather over her shoulder, nodded pleasantly to the innkeeper, and made her way up the narrow flight, ducking to avoid knocking her head against the low archway at the top.
Standing in the hall, Esther paused to catch her breath. For a moment, she almost wished that she had accepted the innkeeper’s escort. Did “across the hall to the left” mean the left of the two doors directly in front of her, or the first door down the left-hand corridor? After trying the handles of both the rooms across the landing, and finding them locked, Esther decided in favor of the latter option. She headed down the hall and pushed tentatively against the door.
It yielded immediately to her hand. Esther stepped into a plainly but neatly furnished chamber, almost filled by a four-poster bed covered with a canopy of white fabric patterned with enormous scarlet roses. More roses, real ones, spilled from a china bowl on the sill beneath the diamond-paned window, the glazed panels of which were half-open, allowing a deliciously scented breeze to waft into the room. Beside the window, bathed in sunshine, stood a simple wash-stand, outfitted with pitcher, bowl, and towels. Esther headed towards it.
The door swung closed behind her with a soft click, and an equally soft voice spoke from the other side of the room, behind the enormous bed. “So you have arrived? Might I be of service?”
Esther gasped and spun around, looking about for the source of the voice. Had she come into the wrong room after all? She leaned back against the dresser, one hand on her heart, her breath coming fast.
A slight figure arose from a chair in the corner behind the door, and came towards Esther, with a shy smile. It was the figure of a girl about Esther’s own age, with pale blonde hair and even paler blue eyes. Everything about her was very pale, as a matter of fact, and offered a slight suggestion of pining weariness. She was well dressed, though, and carried herself with a gentle dignity that gave her the appearance of floating rather than walking.
She stopped a few feet away from Esther, who had straightened up by now, her heart having resumed its normal rate, and the two girls stood looking at each other for several seconds. Then the other girl cast her gaze modestly to the floor, and it was Esther who next broke the silence.
“I beg your pardon, but who are you?”
“I am Alyssa, your maid, Your Highness. You were not expecting me?” Alyssa queried, glancing up with a sort of mild—pale it might be called—curiosity.
“No, not exactly,” Esther responded hesitantly. She studied the figure before her again. This young girl was so refined and elegant, almost fairylike in her graceful pallor, and so obviously a product of court breeding, that it was hard for Esther to grasp that she was in her service. Alyssa’s gown was simply trimmed, but clearly made of the highest quality, and she wore it with a far finer and more natural air than Esther did her own new ornamented robes.
And it was odd, too, for Esther to hear herself addressed as “Your Highness,” by someone who actually meant it. Her family had occasionally teased her playfully with calling her that, since she had come into her renewed status; and a couple of the servants back at Meriway had attempted to come to terms with their young mistress’s newly acquired dignity, and stammered about with awkward “Your Highnesses” and “Princesses” and “Your Graces,” but Esther had only laughed at them. This girl appeared to look upon her as belonging to an entirely different order of humanity, since she was royal. Esther felt suddenly uncomfortable, as though she were traveling under false pretenses.
But the girl—her maid, hard as it was for Esther to come to terms with the fact—had also asked her a question, and so Esther pulled herself together with a determined effort and answered it offhandedly. “No, I was not sure who was coming to fetch me. And we didn’t know that your carriage had arrived already; did you drive into the stable?”
“Yes, one of the axles of the Royal Carriage needed repair,” the girl replied softly, but with a definite emphasis on the words “Royal Carriage.” “And I was not sent to fetch you, Your Highness, but to wait upon you in all things as you may direct. Your coachman and grooms wait without.”
“Grooms! How many are there?” Esther asked in amazement.
“Five, Your Highness. There would have been a proper half-dozen, but one fell ill the day before we started, and there was not time to train another of suitable quality. You see that no slight was intended thereby, Your Highness.”
“Oh, no, I am quite sure not,” Esther replied, hiding a smile. The humorous side of the situation was beginning to appeal to her. She decided to play along. “Well, you may pour the water for me, if you wish—I beg your pardon, what did you say your name was again?”
“Alyssa,” the maiden replied quietly, moving over to the washstand and pouring water from the pitcher to the bowl with a sort of deft stateliness. She did not appear to notice Esther’s evident amusement. “Shall I put some rose petals into the water for you, Your Highness? I brought some in my bag.”
“Oh, no, thanks; there’s quite enough rose-perfume in here already,” Esther responded hastily, as another deeply scented gust of wind blew through the room, setting the girls’ hair to stirring. “I mean, unless you think it is necessary,” she added quickly. For all she knew, it might be mandatory court etiquette for Princesses Royal to always bathe their hands and faces in scented waters.
“My duty is to please you, Your Highness,” Alyssa said diffidently.
“Well, what would please me the most, just now, Alyssa, would be if you would kindly stop calling me ‘Your Highness’ in that exalted tone. I’m not used to it yet, and would take it as a great personal favor if you would allow me to become accustomed to these new dignities gradually. It appears to me that their main purpose is to make one feel entirely cut off from the rest of the world,” Esther exclaimed, half laughing and half irritated, as she splashed her hands and face in the bowl and dried them on the towel which Alyssa silently held out to her. “Here I am, a young girl about to enter a new life among utter strangers; and there you are, another young girl who knows all about them and could help me, and yet my position seems to bar you from doing so.”
“Oh, no, indeed!” Alyssa’s pale eyes lit up a shade or two with genuine emotion. “Forgive me if I have made you uncomfortable. I want to be your friend as well as your maid, if you need one. The level of interaction between us is entirely up to your discretion, Your—” she checked herself.
“I don’t mind the Your Highness, but please don’t say it as though it were any more significant a title than ‘dear friend,’” Esther made haste to assure her. “And if you could call me just plain Princess Esther, that would help me enormously. I would grow accustomed to my new station, but I would still feel like me.”
“I did not know your name before, Princess Esther; no one told me,” Alyssa explained shyly. “I will call you whatever you like. I want to help you if I can. I know how difficult life in the palace of Tryfort could prove to be for one in your position.”
Esther’s heart sank at her words. Evidently, King Rothbart and Queen Tressine were going to be just as bad as she had feared. However, she had enough courage to not show her distress openly, but merely said, quietly, “What do you mean?”
“I mean that all young ladies of position at court, who have not yet come into their inheritance, are expected to be seen and not heard, and yet to perform every duty that their position demands of them perfectly, without asking questions,” Alyssa replied. “But I’ve learned, in my six years there since my parents died, and I can tell you what you will need to know.”
“Thank you, Alyssa,” Esther replied, greatly relieved to find herself so unexpectedly provided with an ally. “But just now, I think our dinner is ready downstairs. You will eat with us?” she paused in the doorway to issue the invitation.
“Of course.” Alyssa responded so naturally that Esther perceived that she had made a grave blunder in assuming that princesses’ waiting-maids did not generally eat at the same table with them. She managed to nod and smile, and led the way down to the inn dining-room, where Grandfather and the children were waiting for them.
It was a strained meal, despite the jolly service of Humbert the innkeeper and his cheerful, plump wife. Somehow Alyssa’s presence contrived to remind everyone of the reason behind their journey, no matter how silent and unobtrusive she was. Her table manners were perfect, and she took advantage of the occasion to explain some details of required behavior at state banquets to Esther during the meal. Esther appreciated the advice, but she wished Alyssa had waited to deliver it in private.
After the meal, Alyssa quietly disappeared, tactfully aware that Esther would wish some time alone with her loved ones. They all had fun after that, taking a long walk and chatting of unconnected topics in the brilliant autumn woods around the Black Horse Inn. They got back late, and ate their supper cosily and informally around the fire in a private sitting-room that worthy Humbert had reserved for them, and cracked nuts and sang songs afterwards. Alyssa joined them again, but she sat in a back corner and ate primly off of a plate on her lap, and did not intrude upon their merry circle. Esther invited her to come and join in the singing, but Alyssa replied that she did not know their songs of Livwel, and would prefer to simply listen quietly. After a while, she left the room without anyone observing her departure.
“That girl makes me nervous!” Ethelbert proclaimed emphatically, once they had realized that she had gone. “She’s so subtle and mysterious; seems to notice everything and say nothing. I would worry constantly about what she was thinking and doing when my back was turned.”
“Oh, no, I’m quite sure she’s trustworthy, my boy; just a little shy, that’s all,” Grandfather assured him, glancing anxiously at Esther for confirmation.
“Yes; I think she’s just overly concerned about not doing anything unconventional, even though she knows I wouldn’t notice if she did,” Esther replied. “I mean to teach her to have a little fun in life, in return for her teaching me how to get along at court. I shall begin tomorrow, to beguile our carriage journey,” she added, with a twinkle in her eye. The others laughed, and then they all sang a final round, an old hunting-song, and headed quite merrily off to bed.
Alyssa was waiting for Esther in her chamber, having laid out a nightgown and slippers for her already; and she brushed out Esther’s hair and offered to do anything else that was necessary. As there wasn’t anything, she went composedly to sleep on a pallet on the floor at the foot of Esther’s bed. And even though her own resting-place was much more comfortable, Esther had reason to envy her maid’s ability to sleep peacefully that night.
Everyone was up early the next morning, to see Esther off. She had firmly declined to allow Alyssa to serve her breakfast in bed, and that obliging maiden had deferred to her will with the calm remark that it was just as she chose; in Tryfort, she would have a multitude of choices as to when and where she took her breakfast.
As Alyssa packed up her trunk, Esther stood by, watching her and feeling oddly at loose ends, without anything to do. She was used to having to superintend and direct the servants, back at Meriway. But Alyssa didn’t seem to need any guidance or instruction; she knew exactly what to do, and did it better, in fact, than Esther could have done herself. Esther glanced restlessly about the pretty inn-room; she wanted to double-check to make sure she hadn’t forgotten any of her belongings, but she was afraid that that might offend Alyssa.
A knock at the door relieved the tension. Grandfather was standing there. “I wanted a last word with you alone, my granddaughter,” he said, making an effort to speak cheerfully. “You may go down now, Maiden Alyssa; and would you be so kind as to send up one of the grooms to carry down Esther’s trunk?”
“Of course,” Alyssa replied softly, and glided out of the room like a graceful dove.
“Pretty girl, that! But melancholy; I do hope you succeed in your cheering-up plans for her, my dear,” Grandfather remarked, shutting the door.
“I hope so too; otherwise I shall grow old and somber before my time!” Esther laughed, taking advantage of the opportunity to pull open all the drawers of the dresser and look under the bed one last time. “But she’s very nice, though; and I think she likes me, in her own way. It will be nice to have a friend already, when I arrive at the palace in Tryfort. Quite considerate of King Rothbart and Queen Tressine to send her!”
“Well, I sincerely hope that it was due to consideration, and not just keeping up of appearances,” Grandfather replied devoutly. “But what I wanted to talk to you about, my dear, was this: you know that your safety and happiness are of greater concern to me than anything else in the world?”
“Yes, of course I do, Grandfather,” Esther replied wonderingly.
“And you also know that we don’t have much reason to suppose that King Rothbart and Queen Tressine see quite eye to eye with me on that. Accordingly, I wanted to give you this,” and Grandfather handed Esther a bulky little bundle.
“Why, what . . .” Esther opened it. It contained a tangle of pale pink ribbons, edged with gilt and worn with age.
“Those belonged to your mother. Do you remember, how she used to use them to tie up letters?” Grandfather asked.
“Yes,” Esther responded quietly, looking down so that Grandfather wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes. She fingered the ribbons’ fraying edges fondly.
“Well, I was thinking that we might dedicate them to a worthy purpose, that of secret communication,” Grandfather shifted his weight from one foot to another and began to explain. “If anything were ever to be going wrong, Esther, and you needed me to come and visit you secretly to help you out, just send me a letter tied with one of those ribbons, and I will know what you mean. That way, you wouldn’t have to write it in the letter and risk having anyone else see it. But no one would suspect anything from the ribbons that you used.”
“All right, Grandfather,” Esther said, feeling the same mixture of terror and excitement that she had so often felt when contemplating the challenges ahead of her in Tryfort. She opened the heavy locket she wore around her neck, and placed the ribbons behind her mother’s picture inside. “I’ll keep them in here, where they’ll be safe. And for my usual correspondence, I’ll always use plain pink ribbons; then no one will even notice a difference in color when I do send a secret message!”
“You think of everything, my dear,” said Grandfather approvingly. “I know I can count on you.”
Esther giggled. “And Ethelbert thinks Alyssa is mysterious! She’s an amateur compared to us! My, wouldn’t she be shocked if she knew about all this furtive midnight maneuvering of ours!”
“Bless me, don’t tell her, my dear,” Grandfather begged anxiously, hopping back onto his other foot.
“Oh, of course I wouldn’t dream of it. This is our little secret. Do the children know?”
“Yes; just in case a danger-signal missive came while I was away. Then they’d know to send a servant at least. Oh, this is an operation of the utmost refinement, my dear,” Grandfather ended with a wink.
Esther grinned back at him, but there was no time to say more. A knock at the door heralded the arrival of one of the five grooms, come for Esther’s trunk. And Emily and Ethelbert and Eudora came crowding in behind him, anxious not to miss their chances of saying goodbye.
After a round of farewell hugs and kisses, they made their way down together to the front inn-yard. Alyssa was standing quietly beside the royal carriage, waiting patiently until Esther should be ready to depart.
Grandfather helped Esther in, pressing her hand firmly, and touched his neck and raised his eyebrows significantly as a final message. Esther touched her locket in response, to show that she had understood, waved to the children, and climbed into the carriage. One of the grooms helped Alyssa in, bowed, and closed the door upon them. He and his fellows would ride atop the carriage, on the flat roof.
The coachman cracked his whip, and the royal carriage started off. “Good-bye! Good-bye, Grandfather!” Esther cried, waving frantically out the window. Grandfather waved back and shouted. Eudora set up a thin wail of protest, now that it was too late for her to do anything; and Emily had her face hidden in her handkerchief. Ethelbert, who despised sentimentality, stepped in front of his crying sisters and endeavored to drown them out with a torrent of shouted last-minute advice and brotherly good wishes and above-all-don’t-forget-to-writes, interspersed with annoyed comments, delivered over his shoulder, that they shouldn’t make Esther feel worse about going, if they pleased! So Esther couldn’t help laughing as they went. What a dear, bossy little brother he was! “Good-bye, everyone!”
As the grand carriage—bright white, just like the six splendid stallions harnessed to it, and decorated with lavish red and gold replicas of the Tryfort coat of arms—rattled out of the inn-yard, Esther glanced at Alyssa, who had seated herself delicately across from her, as cool and collected as a spring evening, and grinned impishly. She had an idea.
“Come, Alyssa, over here on this side. We’re going to wave until we can’t see the other carriage any more,” she ordered peremptorily, turning around and getting up on her knees so she could see through the back window of the carriage. Grandfather’s carriage was trundling away in the opposite direction on the road back to Meriway, and Esther could see a flurry of white handkerchiefs flailing back and forth in its rear window. She waved hers madly in response, calling good-bye again even though she knew they couldn’t hear her, and then glanced back over her shoulder at Alyssa.
She was still sitting stiffly on the other seat, her pale eyebrows raised into astonished arches, clutching her own handkerchief as she stared blankly at her unorthodox new mistress. But upon Esther’s looking at her, Alyssa got up, driven by her sense of duty, stronger than her sense of the conventions, and knelt on the seat next to her, waving her own handkerchief as daintily as a floating feather. For her part, Esther waved so energetically that she created quite a breeze inside the carriage, until her family’s carriage disappeared around a bend.
Esther heaved a sigh, and slid back down around onto the seat, slumping a little as she wondered if she would ever see any of them again. She touched her handkerchief quickly to her eyes while Alyssa wasn’t looking. That decorous maiden, visibly shaken, was climbing back into her own seat, endeavoring to straighten her bunched-up skirts, which were now hopelessly wrinkled.
“I am sure that no one will expect us to be looking as though we had just stepped out of band-boxes, when we arrive after our long journey,” Esther observed moralistically, sitting up straight again.
“I hope not! Oh, dear me, Princess Esther, your hair is all falling out of your comb!” Alyssa exclaimed in anguished tones. Esther was pleased to observe that she really could talk above a modulated whisper, when it was necessary.
“Oh, I can fix that easily,” and Esther pulled her comb right out, letting her hair fall down around her shoulders, and packed the ornament away in her reticule, a little embroidered bag attached to her waistband. Alyssa gasped.
“Your Highness! What will you ever do at court! One cannot be merry or comfortable there!”
“You mean, dares not.” Esther snapped her bag shut and looked firmly across at Alyssa. “But I am not afraid to have an innocent good time, there or anywhere else. Of course, it would be easier if I could count on some assistance in this endeavor . . .” she allowed her voice to trail off.
“Well, I didn’t mean that we could never have good times, Princess Esther,” Alyssa said, hastily correcting herself. She understood what Esther meant. “But we mustn’t draw notice to ourselves doing so.”
“Now, Alyssa, you may as well tell me,” Esther spoke with authority, looking directly into the other girl’s eyes. “What exactly is in store for me at this torture-hall of the Royal House of Tryfort, that you fear my high spirits will get me into trouble?”
Alyssa hesitated. “The King and Queen are already jealous of you, knowing that you will take the kingdom after them. For you to enjoy the privileges of royalty more than they do themselves, would be gall and wormwood to them. If they suspected you of having too much leisure, they would take it upon themselves to burden you with the most exhausting tasks of purposeless ceremony and dull lessons. They already have a tutor engaged for you.”
“Well, I call that highly thoughtful of them! I love lessons!” Esther cried, in mock rapture. “What will I be learning? One can never learn too much.”
“I don’t know about that,” the other returned, doubtfully. “You will be expected to study court etiquette and the history of Tryfort, that much I know, and other subjects if you don’t come up to their expectations in them. And you’ll have to attend all the court ceremonies. Other than that, I don’t believe that their Majesties intend to bother about you all that much, provided you stay out of their way,” she added with extreme emphasis. “Most of the ladies of the castle sit together and work at our spinning and weaving and embroidery during the larger part of the day. There we can have fun and chat and take tea together. And we can walk in the gardens; the King and Queen are not much addicted to outdoor exercise. Just make sure they don’t notice you, and everything will be fine. We cannot be vocal about our pleasures in life, not at the court of Tryfort,” she said earnestly.
“Well, I’ve a good mind to change all that,” said Esther mutinously. “Just little by little,” she added quickly, as she saw the look of alarm in the other’s eyes. “A little fun couldn’t do my aunt and uncle themselves any harm, either.”
“They wouldn’t be able to appreciate it; you don’t know them,” Alyssa said despairingly. “I beg of you, Princess Esther, not to do anything rash.”
Esther reached over and patted the other girl’s hand encouragingly. “I’ll be guided by your advice, Alyssa; you know the court and their ways better than I do,” she said appreciatively. “But we can enjoy ourselves on this carriage ride, at least! The coachman and grooms won’t tell on us, will they?”
Alyssa surprised Esther by giggling. Her cheeks flushed a delicate pink, and she actually looked almost cheerful. “No, I guess they wouldn’t at that.” She looked at Esther admiringly. “You really are quite brave, Your Highness. And sensible. There is no point in taking precautions when there is no danger, now is there?”
“Precisely. Oh, I know we are going to be great friends, Alyssa! But tell me more about my tutor. Do you know him? What sort of a man is he?” Esther queried.
“Oh, he is splendid! You will like Master Youngford. He is very clever, and knows more about court diplomacy than anyone else in the kingdom. He served under King Rothbart’s grandfather; that is how old he is. But he is very kind, and will help you learn without overwhelming you. Just don’t let the King and Queen know . . .” Alyssa began again.
“. . . that I like him, or they will find me someone else more disagreeable!” Esther finished.
“If they can. Most of the servants in the castle—and tutors come under that heading, at least at the court of Tryfort—are predisposed in your favor, Princess Esther. Some of them remember your mother and father, and they all liked them, and grieve their loss. Furthermore, it would be very hard for King Rothbart and Queen Tressine to replace Master Youngford. They don’t like him; he is too popular with the common people to win their favor, but they know that they cannot do without him. That is why they engaged him to teach you.”
“I am quite eager to meet him!” Esther turned and drummed absently on the window. “Oh, look, Alyssa, did you see that!” she cried, pointing as two deer rushed away into the bushes alongside the road. “The scenery here in Tryfort is lovely. How long of a journey have we to travel?”
“Ten days,” Alyssa replied. “That is, if we stop at inns for the night, which I think we should. We traveled straight through to reach you, which only took six days, but it was very tiring. King Rothbart and Queen Tressine will expect you to travel more leisurely, as befits your royal station, Princess Esther.”
“Well, of course I wouldn’t want to be a disappointment to them, right at the very beginning, now would I?” Esther queried, a twinkle in her eye. Both girls laughed, and from that time on both their tongues ran on eagerly on girlish topics of interest, while they enjoyed the passing scenery and tried to figure out how to do needlework in a jolting carriage.
And so the first four days of travel passed pleasantly by. Esther was beginning to grow accustomed to having Alyssa wait upon her, and her company kept her from missing her siblings too much. And she was finding out all kinds of important things to prepare herself for life at the court of Tryfort when she arrived. Alyssa knew everything.
“You see, everything runs on an extremely hierarchal system,” she was explaining on the afternoon of the fifth day, carefully separating a strand of purple thread from Esther’s skein of embroidery floss. “There you are, Your Highness. What was I saying? Oh, yes; you wouldn’t be able to ask the chambermaid, for example, if she could clean your sitting room an hour earlier on a day when you wanted to have a couple of friends over for tea. You’d have to send me to find a footman, and he’d have to talk to the housekeeper, and she’d send her assistant for a messenger, who would carry the message to the head chambermaid, and she would tell your chambermaid. You probably won’t be able to find out so much as her name, even though you’ll see her in your room every day.”
“Gracious, it sounds just like a game of musical chairs,” Esther remarked, shaking her head. “And like a game, I can either win or lose at it. And I’m going to win, Alyssa!”
Her maid looked serious, her face a shade paler than usual. “Well, you shall have my assistance in any way you require it, Princess Esther.” Esther nodded, her own face stern and determined.
But neither girl’s face in the carriage was half so serious as were those of the two men seated on horseback at the bottom of the hill, watching the approach of the carriage from where they were screened from view by overhanging bushes. They were men of rough and rugged appearance, dressed in full cloaks and leather gloves and hats pulled low over their eyes. One of them even wore a mask.
“You see where it comes, chief?” said one of them, in a low voice. He was younger than the other.
“I do,” was the terse response.
“And you are sure it is the right one?”
“None other of the royal carriages was bound to pass this way. Besides, I recognize the coachman as the same one that we passed before, and Lorenzo heard him say he was going to fetch the Princess of Tryfort.” The masked chief snorted. “Princess of Tryfort, indeed! We shall see! Be ready to give the signal to our men behind us.”
“As you say, chief.” The two men fell silent, and watched intently as the carriage drew on, its passengers happily unconscious of danger, ever nearer to where they lay in ambush. The riders’ horses champed impatiently at their bits, waiting, waiting . . .
To Be Continued
To find out what happens, come back to Once Upon a Time next month!