Princess Alisa, of the Woodrow Empire, lay on her bed mournfully. It wasn’t that she had things to do; it’s that she didn’t want to do them. That was the problem with being royalty: your whole schedule was planned out by your advisors. Or, should Alisa get really unlucky, her father. She really didn’t want to go to the wine tasting that several different companies had arranged with her family, so she simply called one of her girls into her rooms, stripped her naked and wore her clothes. Being careful to leave the unfortunate maid tied up with a gag on in the closet, she stealthily stole her escape out the side window. It was a short hop to the ground, and besides, the horse grooms had trained her in the art of falling gracefully. She hiked down the road in her tattered brown dress which was several sizes too small, but she walked quickly enough and sure enough so that ignorant thieves might not decide to take her. Sheltered she was, but ignorant she was not. She went down the mud road, passing bread stands, fruit stands and meat stands. People were milling around and she walked quickly through them in the direction of the town to the north, Ravenfell.
Why she left, she still didn’t know. Boredom couldn’t be the entire reason, could it? There had to be something else. For Alisa had everything: a royal family, a royal castle, royal maids and royal marriage prospects. But her problem was that she had never been outside of the castle, save for once when she was a baby and they wanted to parade her around to show the populace that an heiress had been born. Since then, however, Alisa had gained many brothers, so prospects of her ruling were very dim. Also, she was not the murderous type, so killing tended to disgust her. So did wars. She was happy in a way to have brothers, so she wouldn’t have to deal with wars and spies and enemies and who was capable of poisoning your cup of wine. Alisa had started drinking wine when she was ten, and although she always had a maid drink it before she tried it, she wished to be a simple girl herself who didn’t have to worry about such nonsense.
She also had no friends. Well, her girls were her friends, but they weren’t her equal. She overheard them talking about her and about other frippery, but she could never join in, for everyone would start to talk guardedly and measure their words in front of her.
So she left. And now she was on the road to the nearest town which was not under her father’s control.
She had passed the vendors and now walked with wagons at a steady pace down the dusty road. To either side was lush forest, which was even threatening to encroach on the road if they did not get axed soon.
She was passing many wagons at her fast pace, and was already dehydrated. She considered obtaining a coconut from one of the trees and drinking its juice, but that was too much work for too little profit. She instead decided to poke her head into one of the wagons to ask if they could spare some.
“Get out of here, little girl,” said the driver, a pockmarked man who could stand to lose a few pounds. “We don’t deal with ones such as yourself.”
“Aw, can’t we keep her, pops?” said a boy on the verge of manhood who was sitting in the wagon, so Alisa couldn’t see his face. He stuck his head out and his jaw dropped, much to Alisa’s distaste. “Wow, she’s beautiful!” he cried.
“If you like the fact that she’s so muddy she looks like she’s been living with the pigs for the past year,” said his father, spitting on the ground in front of Alisa. Alisa gracefully jumped over that wet spot on the ground and continued to keep pace with the driver and his wagon.
A girl poked her head out where her brother had been before. She looked to be about eight, and she had beautiful blond braids. “I like her, too, Papa, can’t we keep her?” she wept, all the while winking at Alisa with a sly expression.
“I suppose,” the father sighed, all the while making his wagon go faster so Alisa had to run to keep up. After a few seconds, though, he slowed down and jumped down from his seat. He was sweating profusely and he looked nearly as dirty as Alisa was. He stuck out his hand. “Zachary,” he said. “These are my children: Mark, Jessica and Robert. Robert’s on the inside, so you can’t see him. He’s still a baby. We have a very peculiar profession. We are actors. Would you like to become an actress and perform with us?”
Alisa had a feeling that he knew she would say yes, but she said yes anyway.
“Good,” said the man. “Hop in the back, we have to make good time to Greyfell because we have a show there tonight. I hope you don’t weigh much.”
“Papa!” accused the little girl. “That’s not nice!”
“She doesn’t look like she weighs much,” said the boy doubtfully. “Come, sit next to me.”
“Quickly, we haven’t got all day,” ordered the father.
Alisa hopped on the back of the wagon and shimmied her way to the front, where the boy and his sister were sitting. “Acting?” she said, a bit imperiously.
“Mark,” said the boy, extending his hand.
Alisa took it after some hesitation. “I apologize,” she said, “I am not instructed in matters of local etiquette. Am I supposed to shake hands with my hand up or down?”
“What, so I can kiss it?” the boy laughed. “I think you worry too much. I wouldn’t worry so much if I was you.”
“He likes you,” said the little girl pointedly. “I’m Jessica. Nice to meet you,” and she extended her hand. Alisa shook it with a faint smile.
“Let’s work on the script,” said Mark.
“Could I please have some water first?” Alisa said in a small voice.
“No problem!” said Zachary. “Mark, give her some water.”
Robert screamed in his cradle.
“Oh, that’s our baby brother, he’s not that important,” said Jessica hastily. “We use him for random scenes that require a baby. Now:” she said in the manner of an instructor, “we will teach you all your lines. We memorize everything.”
“I call her ‘the little director,’” said Mark. “She’s always telling me what to do.”
“And she’s a damned good one, too!” yelled Zachary hoarsely.
They practiced their lines for hours before they came to a stop at Greyfell. Jessica and Mark were inventive, changing the storyline so that Alisa had an important part in the events. They finally stopped at Greyfell and were setting up the stage when Alisa heard a scream: “Alisa!” said the screamer. “What are you doing so far from the palace?” The small crowd gathering for the night’s performance separated to reveal the screamer: a dense middle-aged woman who was wearing a smock nearly as dirty as Alisa’s. At once Alisa identified her as the palace’s chief cook. “What are you doing here?” Alisa stammered. Then, remembering that she was in command, she said, “Why aren’t you back at the castle? My father and I will miss your magnificent cooking!”
The woman put a finger to her lips. “Shhh!” she said. “I left my second in charge, but just for one day! You mustn’t punish me, your grace! I was just scouting for some new spices, and...”
“That is fine,” Alisa sniffed, somewhat expertly after observing others in the same situation thousands of times throughout her life. “No more transgressions, though,” she warned, with her finger in the air for emphasis.
The woman left the crowd and there was a collective sigh from the crowd, which had swelled in size even in the little time that Alisa and the cook were talking.
“Alright, we have ten minutes until we start,” said Zachary. “Everyone remember their lines?”
All four of the children nodded, although the baby was only going to be a prop.
“Good,” the man said. He looked positively radiant, a polar opposite of what Alisa had seen when they saved her life down by the hot, dusty road.
The crowd was getting restless, and Alisa and her companions were getting pelted with eggs and tomatoes from a pair of drunk twins (they looked exactly alike). Then they all bowed to the audience and everyone was instantly quiet. Zachary bent down to the stage floor and gingerly picked up a cracked egg. The crowd cheered as he threw it back at them. Then they began to throw the pieces of the egg amongst themselves. “Popular person,” whispered Alisa at Mark. He smiled at her and nodded.
“I give you,” Zachary said to the audience from the raised stage, “The Three Dimwits!” He started clapping and winked to the audience and they took his cue and also started to clap.
Mark, Jessica and then Alisa all filed onto the stage sheepishly. They all took bows, one at a time and then together. Now apple cores were being thrown. “Why, thank you!” said Jessica in a tinny little voice, catching one of the apples and biting into it. “I hope whomever this apple belongs to is not sick!”
The audience roared with laughter.
“Who wants to be my girlfriend?” said Mark, who had started to march in place, swinging his arms.
“I love you!” screamed a teenage female audience member, throwing a handful of flowers toward the stage.
“No, that couldn’t be me,” remarked Mark. “I have no friends!”
“I don’t care!” screamed the audience-member. “I’ll have you for breakfast, lunch and dinner! I’ll be your friend forever!”
“Well, you certainly have charisma,” Mark said, and produced a handful of flowers from nowhere that he tossed at his betrothed. “Now I am taken, alas!” he cried to the audience. “We shall do the deed after the show!”
“How about now?” jeered a middle-aged man with a mustache and potbelly that he eagerly displayed to the embarrassment of everyone else.
“And here we start our story,” Zachary said, to the relief of most of the crowd members. “What befalls our three dimwits as they walk along the road to Greyfell?”
“War!” cried out the potbellied man, who was quickly pounded into unconsciousness by his fellow audience-members.
“Pestilence!” said a young girl near the front.
“Plague!” said her friend.
“That’s the same thing as pestilence, my dear,” commented Zachary with a smile. As he was saying these words, Mark, Jessica and Alisa were flailing about with their bodies on the hardwood floor of the stage, pretending to suffer from some horrible illness.
“Kingdom! Knighthood!” said a little boy near the edge of the crowd.
“My oh my, young sir, does your voice carry! Do you also play the trumpet?” Zachary said.
“No, but I would love to play the strumpet!” he cried.
“In his spare time, yes, he does play the trumpet, don’t you, little one?” his mother cooed. “He’s saying big words like ‘strumpet’ and ‘trumpet’ and he’s only seven! What a prince!”
“I’m a real prince,” blurted out Alisa to her own dismay. But she had to run with it now. “Look at my beautiful skirt!” and she turned around so the audience could see her from all directions.
“More like a pretty vagrant,” said the seven-year-old. “Look at all that mud on her dress! Why don’t you fetch me some hot water so I can bathe, girl!” he finished.
The audience burst into laughter, even the women.
Alisa did another good piece of improvisation as she picked up one of the tomatoes on the stage and hurled it at the boy. They boy jumped to catch it and then tossed it back at her.
“Hey, Alisa,” said Jessica, picking up Robert from the corner of the stage and holding him out to her. “Will you take my baby child and groom him for me?”
“Groom? Me?” said Alisa. They were again operating purely on improvisation. Zachary watched them closely as they begun to spin their tale.
“Yes, you, vagrant girl. You should learn how to clean babies, as you are my servant and I shall tell you whatever it is I want. For I am the Emperor! I will take all your money and leave you with only vagrant girls to do your bidding!”
“Ooh!” said the crowd. Alisa could see Zachary scratching his head, and then shrugging. Things were still going well, so he had no reason to intervene.
“Hey, isn’t the King of Woodrow’s daughter named Alisa?” shouted one of the women from the crowd.
“Yes, I was named for her,” said Alisa in a bout of quick thinking. The audience heaved another collective sigh.
“And I was the one who named her!” Zachary jumped in, walking in between the Vagrant Girl and the princess. He took The Baby from the Princess and held him above his head. The Baby started to cry. “I hereby proclaim this baby...” Zachary paused, savoring the dramatic moment--”The Chosen One!”
The audience gasped, and then erupted in hilarious laughter, as the most secret part of their religion was taken to task. “The peasant is that girl Alisa!” shrieked a man with a bad haircut and a bad shave who was holding a giant staff. “And I can be the Magician Protector!”
“I apologize, Goodman,” said Zachary from the stage, “but that position is already taken--by me.”
“I can be your assistant!” shrieked the man. His friends started to beat him up.
“Thank you,” Zachary said cooly. Then he saw something and cursed. “Soldiers,” Zachary muttered. “We need to hide. Now.” Then he addressed the audience: “Sorry, show canceled.” A great groan rose up among the audience, until they began to be attacked by Imperial soldiers wielding batons. And five of them were headed directly toward the stage.
Zachary led his children and Alisa away from the stage and toward the village. They went into a house’s front door seemingly at random, and then down a staircase that was behind a bookshelf. Alisa was scared, for almost the first time in her life. “Don’t worry,” said Mark, his arm protectively around her shoulder as his father led them down a dark passageway. “We’re safe now.”
“That was the last one they didn’t know about,” said Zachary. “I would definitely not use this tunnel again; they’re likely to raze the entire village after this encounter. Why else would they bring that many soldiers? I think I counted fifty out there.”
“Well, so long to Greyfell,” mourned the eight year old, Jessica. Even Robert, normally buoyant and cheerful, seemed sad.
“Where will we go next, dad?” said Mark.
“Well, we need to drop Alisa off, because if they find out we have her then they will double the price on our heads,” Zachary said.
“What do you mean?” said Alisa with too much innocence.
“I know you’re princess of Woodrow,” said Zachary bluntly. “However you escaped there is not my affair, but I need to get you back there as soon as possible.”
“Why now?” demanded Alisa as they went further down the tunnel, brushing the cobwebs from their faces. “Why not before, when I asked your help?”
“Well, I thought it was the safest thing for you to come with us, rather than being picked up my someone far more dangerous,” said Zachary, sounding angry. “I realize now I shouldn’t have done that; everyone, and I mean everyone, knows your face inside and out. It’s even minted on the royal coin!”
“It’s your responsibility to take care of me now,” said Alisa, “and you really can’t take me back home: the Imperial forces will catch me on the way. They will hold me for bounty, as they are technically at war with Greyfell.”
“Hmmm,” Zachary contemplated, “I guess we’ll have to keep you, then.”
“We? What do you mean, we?”
“Oh, me and the children, of course,” Zachary said brightly.
“You know we love you,” said Mark, who had been sitting and listening to the conversation.
“Don’t speak over your father,” Zachary said. “So,” he said, “we might as well go toward the Empire, as we know they’ll be looking for you hardest in the areas that are outside its borders. But we still need a disguise. We obviously can’t be the Merry Little Players anymore, as they are an affront to the Empire’s dignity. And you, Alisa, cannot look like you look right now: you’ll be spotted instantly and you’ll be returned to your family for ransom from the Empire, even though they are technically in alliance with your parents. Unless that’s what you want...
Alisa shook her head vigorously to the negative.
“Thank you very much for keeping my secret,” she said.
“And you know how to butter me up, too,” said Zachary. “Very well, then. We will need to disguise you as well as ourselves.”
“With what?” piped up Jessica. “Are you going to turn me into a boy?”
“No,” Zachary said meanly. “But we will do that to Alisa.”
“Wait,” Alisa said, scared of being identified as one of those grimy creatures who made their wages in fights to the death with other little grimy creatures. “Boys are disgusting. I would never want to become one.”
“Nevertheless,” Zachary pointed out,”--”
“I know,” Alisa said. “It’s the only way to protect me. But what if...” her mind searched for the answer. “What if I turned into a ghost?”
“Is this girl serviceable?” Zachary asked Mark. Alisa took this to mean that he was asking Mark if she was crazy.
“Why do you always steal my thoughts, girl?” Zachary growled at Alisa. “You are a witch, are you not? Do you expect me to believe this fiction?”
“And you are a magician,” said Alisa, upping the ante. “Who cares what we call ourselves, my suggestion will work!”
“Daddy, you’re a magician?” Jessica said irritably. “I thought you said all magicians are evil!”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that, honey darling,” Zachary stated. “Why aren’t we on the road yet? We’ll take the Northeast road to Redstone. Who’s driving?”
When he said “who’s driving” that usually meant Mark was driving. Mark sighed and went up to the open air to take the reins of their two horses.
As they started to roll along the wide dusty road, Zachary said, “I’m tired. I need to get some sleep.” Then he pointed at Alisa: “We’ll settle this tomorrow,” he noted, and fell instantly on his pillow into a deep sleep.
Alisa carefully looked at Jessica, who was sitting opposite her, and Robert, whose head was on Jessica’s shoulder. “Looks like he slept through our argument,” she said sweetly.
“Yeah, she usually goes to sleep when Father is talking,” Mark’s voice came from the front.
“Shhh, I’m sleeping now,” Alisa said. And she slept till the morrow.