Palace of Lies
Somebody has to go to Fridesia for the treaty signing,” Cecilia announced at our Princesses Council meeting. “I’ll do it.”
“No—” I gasped, and instantly cut myself off, because I knew better than to react like that, without thinking. But Cecilia was the sister-princess I came the closest to trusting. Back when she still thought I was a decoy princess, she’d come to the palace partially to rescue me. That had to be worth something.
How could she leave?
All the other princesses stared at me from around the vast wooden table we used for our council meetings. The ministers and advisers we allowed to sit along the wall behind us stared too. For a moment all that registered was the sheer number of widened, stunned eyes peering at me. Then I automatically started searching for guile and craftiness in those eyes.
Why couldn’t I tell who was scheming what?
We were in a formal meeting, requiring a strict code of conduct, but Cecilia playfully bumped her shoulder against mine. She had to twist herself halfway out of her heavy wooden chair to do it.
“Aww,” she cooed. “Are you saying you’d miss me? How sweet.”
She grinned, the tiny gap between her two front teeth making her smile seem whimsical and cute, as always. And oblivious.
Doesn’t she understand the danger of leaving? I wondered. The way she’d lose power being away for weeks, just when the rest of us are forming alliances, jockeying for position . . .
It had been one week since our coronation. Already we’d signed the ceasefire and hammered out details of a peace treaty that Jed assured us the Fridesian royal family would be willing to agree to. The thirteen of us had approved it unanimously.
But I still couldn’t shake my feeling of impending doom.
Was this the first true sign of trouble? Would the ministers and advisers and counselors who might be plotting against us see this as their opportunity? Not that it would be that much easier to strike against twelve princesses than thirteen, but . . . this was Cecilia. For all her whimsy, she was the most formidable of the new princesses.
Wouldn’t our enemies see that?
I swallowed hard, barely managing to keep the action from sounding like a gulp.
“I only meant . . . regardless of my fondness for you, of course, Cecilia . . . the problem is that while you are in Fridesia, that will leave only twelve of us on the Princesses Council,” I said. I hoped my solemn tone conveyed that I was back to speaking thoughtfully.
Several of the other girls kept staring blankly. But Lydia nodded knowingly.
“We can’t have an even number on our council, because that could lead to tie votes,” she agreed. “Desmia is correct.”
I could tell that she wanted to sound solemn and thoughtful and learned too. But Lydia had a faceful of freckles, which gave her a comical air. She always tried too hard to be taken seriously. It usually backfired.
I heard giggles around me.
Cecilia just waved away the complaints.
“Well, that’s an easy problem to solve,” she said, shrugging. (Did I have to mention that royalty should never ever shrug?) “I could have one other princess go with me. Or three or five . . . Heck, in this kingdom, we could have ten princesses off signing treaties, and still have more rulers left behind to govern than in any other kingdom around us!”
I expected her to grin again and let someone else take up the argument. Instead, Cecilia hit me in the shoulder once more—this time with a playful fist—and asked, “So, Desmia, how about it? Want to come?”
I froze. I could feel the counselors and ministers and advisers behind me watching even more intently. They
probably didn’t actually narrow their eyes—they were too crafty to be so blatant—but they’d undoubtedly narrowed their focus. They were probably already doing calculations in their head: With both Cecilia and Desmia gone . . .
I couldn’t go to Fridesia. Not now. Probably not ever.
“No, thank you,” I said. I was trying for my kindest princess voice—letting Cecilia down gently. But like Lydia, I was a little off. Even to my own ears I sounded too stiff and prim.
Cecilia shrugged again. But the motion wasn’t so carefree this time.
Is she actually . . . hurt? I wondered. Offended? Did she truly want me along?
“Your loss,” she said. “I was thinking we could time the trip so we sign the treaty and go to Jed and Ella’s wedding. You know they’ve invited us all. Come on, girls—a wedding! Who wouldn’t want to go to that? Who’s with me? Desmia, don’t you want to reconsider?”
I was the first to shake my head and gently murmur, “Sorry.” But the other eleven girls did the same, one after the other.
Do they understand after all? I wondered, glancing around. Are they plotting now too?
All eleven of them were shame-faced and peering down at the table. And then I remembered how Cecilia was different from all the other sister-princesses. Back before any of us knew the truth about ourselves, Cecilia had come to the palace to find me and meet her fate on her own—or,
actually, with her friend, Harper—but still, without any adults.
The other eleven had been captured and imprisoned by Lord Throckmorton’s forces. They’d spent time in the dungeon. They’d had to rely on their knights—and, indirectly, Cecilia and Ella and me—to rescue them.
They were all terrified of going to Fridesia. They were terrified of stepping foot in a kingdom whose subjects had been killing Sualans for longer than any of us had been alive.
Did Cecilia think I was just being a coward like all the others?
Cecilia’s gaze swept the room.
“All right, then,” she said, and I could tell she was trying to sound nonchalant and unaffected. “All of you will be missing out. Don’t worry—I’ll sign the treaty with my fanciest script. No blots! I’ll make us all proud. And I’ll write down what everyone is wearing at the wedding. I’ll even try to draw sketches of Ella’s dress.” This was directed at Porfinia, the sister-princess who was both the best at drawing and also the most interested in fashion. If she had her way, all of our proclamations would be about clothes.
“But . . . it wouldn’t be proper for you to travel all that way by yourself,” Florencia said, sounding shocked. “You’re a young maiden, and now a princess, too. . . . It simply isn’t done. And it’s not as though we have dozens of extra
servants on retainer we could afford to send along with you. Remember, even the palace budget has its limits. . . .”
Florencia was the prissiest of the sister-princesses. She was also obsessed with the palace budget.
“Don’t worry,” Cecilia said, brushing aside Florencia’s concerns. “I’ll only need to take a few servants with me. And Harper’s going too. I’ve already asked him.”
She said this almost defiantly, as if daring Florencia to object. Florencia’s face did go pale, but she didn’t get a chance to declare how scandalized she was that Cecilia would take along a boy—and a commoner at that—of uncertain relationship. Sophia spoke up first.
“You and Harper walked most of the way across Suala on your own, before. I’m sure you’ll be fine,” she said, as if trying to butter up Cecilia with her praise. “But the notion of tie votes in your absence is a concern. Is there one of us you’d like to designate as your proxy while you’re away? That is, someone you would trust to vote on your behalf?”
She fluttered her eyelashes in a way that I’m sure she thought was engaging.
“Good idea!” Cecilia agreed. “I want my—what’s it called? Proxy?—to be . . . Desmia.”
Sophia’s face fell. Clearly she’d thought it would be her, since it had been her idea. Everyone turned to me again. I could count the number of disgruntled expressions around me: Eleven, just among the princesses. I couldn’t see all the advisers and counselors without turning around—which I
wasn’t going to do—but the mirrors on the wall before me showed that at least several of them looked disturbed too.
Was Cecilia trying to make the others hate me, giving me two votes to everyone else’s one?
Or was she maybe . . . possibly . . . conceivably . . . treating me like a friend?