Just got back the copy-edited story today! I'll still need to go over the story, proofread the entire thing, but expect to release it next week. Will send out a newsletter as soon as it's published live :) Meanwhile, here's another excerpt:
Prince Ralph and Princess Valeria sat on the balcony, comfortably ensconced in padded easy chairs, a laden table propped between the two of them. Sunshine poured into the platform, making the golden rims on the china cups and saucers gleam. Nice weather was hard to come by, as well as free time being alone together. Ralph, being heir to the throne of the largest kingdom on the Continent, was frequently occupied with state affairs, international trade and diplomacy. An exceptionally handsome man in his mid-twenties, also accomplished in sports and fighting, he was long regarded the exemplar of the Rivieran Royal Family. Except for Elaine. She respected her eldest brother, but his squeaky-clean, no-nonsense character often bored her. Valeria, on the other hand, was as plump as the chubby snowmen they built in winter. Still, she possessed a certain charm with her merry eyes, rosy cheeks and dimples that showed every time she smiled. While many Rivierans questioned the crown prince’s choice, Elaine took a liking to Valeria instantly and defended her sister-in-law whenever needed. In her opinion, Ralph was the lucky one.
When Winifred and Elaine arrived, they found Valeria in the challenging task of persuading her husband to try out a new snack.
“Peanut butter might seem a weird choice, but it balances the cloying sweetness of jelly quite well,” Valeria said, holding out a sandwich.
Ralph eyed the sandwich as though it might explode.
“Come on, dear. It won’t hurt to try new flavors. Trust me.”
Elaine watched, amused as her elder brother gave in to Valeria’s coaxing. Winifred coughed–not loudly, but enough to gain Valeria’s attention.
“Winifred?” Seeing that the maid didn’t return her smile, Valeria sensed something was wrong. “Is there a problem you wish to discuss with us?”
Ralph also glanced at them. Little Elaine had her hands clasped behind her back, her eyes on the ground.
“What is it this time?” he asked, rubbing his forehead.
Briefly, Winifred related Elaine’s prank. “Your Highness, Lady Wesley sent me to inform you that Princess Elaine had behaved in a disrespectful manner and ought to let you know.” She produced the jack-in-the-cosmetics-box. “Elaine tried to plant this in Lady Wesley’s room after she got in by picking the lock on the door.”
At sight of the flamboyant clown waving in the air, Valeria stifled a laugh. Even Ralph’s lip twitched.
“Explain,” Ralph commanded, his voice stern.
“I...” Elaine kept her eyes on the ground. “I don’t like Lady Wesley’s lessons. I think it’s boring to learn how to pour a cup of tea or where I ought to put my hands and feet when sitting down. And besides...”
“Yes?” Ralph prompted.
“She insulted Valeria,” Elaine said in a small voice. “She said it was ridiculous that Riviera should have a fat queen from a lesser country.”
Ralph’s jaw tightened. “I must have a word with Father. Lady Wesley must be removed.”
“Don’t be too harsh on her,” Valeria said, laying a hand on his arm. “Remember, she is your mother’s friend.”
Ralph shook his head. “We need a new governess for Elaine, even if this is the ninth governess she’s had.”
“Why must I be educated?” Elaine said, scuffing her foot on the ground. “I’m tired of learning how a lady ought to behave. It’s boring.”
“What about the Academy?” Ralph asked. “Better direct your energy in discipline than wasting it in mischief.”
The Academy was the Royal Rivieran School of Fighting Arts. It used to be exclusively male, with the aim of training boys to be fine warriors, but forty years ago, Lady Matilda of Linderall disguised herself as a man and won the title of the Academy champion three years in a row. Eventually the rules changed. Now, princesses over the world were opting to train as a warrior instead.
“No.” Elaine looked revolted at the very idea. “I hate lifting weights and running around the lake.”
“So do I,” Valeria winked. She was once an Academy pupil. “But honestly, Ralph, there are other alternatives we could consider. Not every girl has to be a court lady or a warrior. I can let Elaine come to the kitchen and see if she’d like to learn more about culinary skills. She helped Pat bake a wonderful blueberry pie the other day.”
“Er...” Elaine preferred to eat ready-made desserts rather than rolling up her sleeves. Baking once in a while was fun, but she had no interest in doing it every day.
Just then, the door leading to the balcony was flung open. A distressed maid with a mop of curly blond hair rushed towards Princess Valeria. Her name was Effie. Like Winifred, she also waited on Elaine, though during the day she helped out in other places.
“Your Highness!” she panted. “Do come quick, we’ve been trying to pacify Baby Charles, but he won’t stop screaming!”
“Oh dear, that always happens when he wakes up from a nap and doesn’t see me.” Valeria sighed and rose from her chair. “I’d better go. Elaine, dear, I know you won’t like it, but do take the time and have a honest discussion with Ralph. We only want the best for you.”
When Valeria left, Ralph and Elaine looked at each other. Both were rather reluctant to talk now that Valeria wasn’t present to exert a moderating influence on them.
“Well,” Ralph cleared his throat. “You cannot grow up doing nothing but playing pranks, Elaine. You’re already twelve.”
“Sign me up for the School of Mischief and Mayhem.” Elaine let out a huge, dramatic sigh. “What a pity that such a school doesn’t exist! I’d promise not to miss a single class.”
Ralph gave her a stern look. “It seems we cannot reach a mutual agreement. I shall have to take the matter to Father and Mother. Meanwhile, before we find you a new governess, try not to infuriate Lady Wesley. However traditional-minded she may be, she volunteered to tutor you.”
A brave thing to do, since eight governesses had given up tutoring the little princess. But Ralph did not say that.
Elaine nodded, but in her mind she fretted that she should have deposited a mouse in Lady Wesley’s hat instead. Clearly, the jack-in-the-cosmetics-box was not enough to dismiss the governess.
“Effie, have you seen the little princess? She wasn’t at breakfast this morning.”
“Oh, she’s still in bed,” Effie said, waving a hand at a small mound on the princess’s bed. “Should I have woken her, Winifred? Should I bring in a breakfast tray? D’ you think she’s ill?”
“I highly doubt it. Of the several years we’ve known her, she’s as strong as a small horse. And as wily as a fox.”
“But...” Effie faltered. The princess was the prettiest child she had ever seen. “Everyone calls her a little angel.”
“Because they don’t know her true nature.” Winifred strode to the bed and pulled off the blankets in one swift motion, much to the other maid’s astonishment.
Effie gasped. Two pillows and a cushion sat on the spread. There was no trace of a human child.
Winifred sighed. “Another of her usual tricks.”
Hanging by the window was a curious-looking rope formed by bundling blankets together. Effie hurried to the window and let out a second gasp. The rope led to a tree growing right beneath the window. Princess Elaine must have used the rope to reach the tree and shimmied down the trunk to the ground.
“The little monkey. Always trying to escape her lessons.” Winifred shook her head. “You’d do well to sharpen up around the princess. One never knows what she’s up to.”
Elaine headed towards the Academy, nibbling on a piece of warm rye bread still fresh from the oven. She had sneaked into the royal kitchens earlier and stole her breakfast by using a toy crossbow with a string tied to the arrow.
It was deceptively simple–she didn’t even have to enter the kitchens. All she had to do was crouch behind a window, aim at the loaf and fire. She used to have a long skewer for nicking food, but soon learned that the crossbow was easier to handle and more efficient.
Something hard fell on her head. Rubbing the sore spot, Elaine found an apple on the grass. A few days earlier, she had asked Lady Wesley, “Why do apples fall on the ground? Why don’t they fly into the air?”
“Don’t ask ridiculous questions,” Lady Wesley had snapped. “Now, show me the difference between a curtsey for the king and the one for a ballroom partner.”
Elaine shrugged. It was one major reason she couldn’t stand her governesses. They couldn’t answer her questions and often admonished her for asking about 'trivial matters'.
The princess picked up the apple. It was bright, glossy, and felt solid and smooth in her hand. She took a big bite—sweet, tangy juice filled her mouth. Just the thing after consuming that dry loaf of bread. So nice it was to eat in large bites sans fork and knife, and so lovely it was to begin the morning free of princess lessons. Lady Wesley had announced that she was attending a fashion exhibition held at the second largest city of Riviera–Port Hammond down in the south–and Elaine took it as an excuse that the noble lady was still displeased with her prank. Before leaving, she assigned a load of homework: three new songs on the piano, a sketch of the tree outside her bedroom and two new chapters on The Book of Etiquette.
A brief pang of guilt struck her when she set up the pillows on her bed and slithered down the tree, but she just couldn’t do her homework this morning. The Grand Tournament of the Royal Rivieran Academy of Fighting Arts was scheduled today, the day when the knights-in-training would be tested and determined if they were worthy of receiving the shield.
Now, Elaine normally didn’t bother going to the Academy. She didn’t like fighting either–one thing that she and her governess actually had in common, but the Grand Tournament meant that her other brother, James, would be there. Princess Arianna of Linderall was slated to get her shield; James would certainly be present to see the lady of his dreams. It had been a year since Elaine had seen her brother, for he was working at Linderall, a distant kingdom home to many wild beasts, including ferocious dragons and griffins. And she’d love to see him. There were few in the palace she truly regarded as her friends and most of them were too busy. Valeria had her duties in the kitchen, and more recently, taking care of Baby Charles. Before Bran went off to the University, they spent lots of time pranking in the palace grounds and trying to outdo each other in terms of mischief. He was the only person close to her age that she enjoyed being around with.
Elaine sauntered into the Academy, whistling cheerfully. The Tournament was held in a huge field, where the knights-to-be would display their skills in a series of archery contests, hand combat duels and sword battles. Stands were erected around the field where spectators could sit and observe and cheer for their favored warrior.
“Hullo, Kay!” Elaine called to a young man hurrying past. “Have you seen James?”