Clara stretched and sat up slowly. She was not quite fully awake, and her first thoughts were that she was going to be late and the horses must have been positively starving. Then she began to register the rich room around her, and her eyes widened in awe.
The bed was a beautiful four-poster, and the covers were a deep, rich purple with gold embroidery. The canopy was of a similar make, though the fabric was more transparent. There were many small gold throw pillows scattered about with the kingdom's royal crest stamped on them in a violent purple. Clara had at least three gold pillows beneath her head as well.
She crawled to the end of the bed to see the room better. It was a beautiful sight. There were large, stained-glass windows that made the room full of lovely warm sunlight, and Clara saw curtains to cover them when necessary. There was a window seat, padded with golden cushions, and several more of the gold pillows with the crest. I wonder...
Next, she saw the wardrobe. As tall as her and at least twice as wide and deep as she, Clara could only begin to imagine the gowns it held. Next to the wardrobe was a screen. On the screen, there were paintings of women gallivanting about in the streets with parasols and long, trailing dresses.
Clara got out of bed to examine the screen more closely, and in doing so she realized that she was not in her threadbare nightgown that barely reached her shins, but a silky, white, and royal nightgown that tickled her bare toes.
She walked slowly to the screen, savoring the feeling of smooth, polished wood on her feet. Behind the screen, there was a wooden washtub large enough for Clara to stretch her legs in, and several towels. As she turned around, she saw that there were many pairs of shoes neatly lined up at the foot of her bed, on top of a flat wooden trunk. She wondered again where she was.
It could not be...Clara pushed the thought from her mind. No way! That just is not possible! Or is it...
Clara tried to continue examining the room. There was also a dresser and another large chest, but Clara did not bother to look at what was inside. She suddenly had to know, without a doubt, where she was!
There was only one way to find out. Clara slowly walked to the window and tentatively peeked out. The sight she saw was a beautiful thing.
There was a bustling courtyard, with stalls and merchants, and someone in the stocks. Clara watched, fascinated, for a few moments, shuddering every time a rotten vegetable hit its mark. There was-she squealed in delight-a gigantic stable forming the north corner, and along the rest of the walls were servants, almost in synchronization, running back and forth with their charges' things. In the very center, there was a huge fountain, and there were peasants from the city washing their clothes in it.
Beyond the courtyard was the moat, and just beyond that a small town. Along the outskirts of the town-Clara's breath caught in her throat. There was a forest, and she recognized it. There was a very rare tree that only grew in that forest, distinctive for its star-shaped top. The forest was the Forest of Feyaldene, and it bordered Clara's village as well as the castle. There were stories at the village that the forest led all the way to the city, but Clara had always dismissed them as rumors. To think that all those "rumors" were true! She must have been at the castle. There was no other explanation for the things she was seeing.
Clara did not even realize that she had climbed up, kneeling, barely on the edge of the window seat in an effort to better absorb everything, until she heard the door creak open behind her. She whipped around, and in her haste, fell flat on her behind on the hard ground.
Colin stared at the door. What if she is not awake yet? Will I wake her? What if she is...dressing? He winced. I hope not. Should I knock? No, best just to walk in. That way, if she is still asleep I will not wake her.
He contorted his face into what he hoped was a confident look. Goodness knows he had seen James make that same face countless times!
Colin meant to open the door purposefully, but wound up opening it slowly, not wanting to startle the poor girl. He leaned his head into the room just in time to see her turn her head at the noise of the door opening and slip off of the window seat, fall on the floor, and look at him with wide eyes from where she was, upside-down on her back. Colin winced again.
Colin walked over to her quickly to make sure she was all right. She rolled over on to her stomach and then sat up and looked at him. She gave him a funny look that said, as clearly as if she had spoken, Have we met? You look familiar.
He squatted down on the floor next to her. Then he shook his head and said aloud, "I don't believe that we've met before."
Her shocked look and quick scooting backwards a few paces told him that she had not expected him to say that. She spoke hesitantly. "H-how did you do that?"
Perplexed, Colin answered her in the only way he could. "Do what?"
"Read my mind, of course! It is almost as if you could hear my very thoughts!" she said, her voice getting stronger with indignation.
Maybe he did read her thoughts. But the only way he could do that would be if...
"Do you have magic?" Colin asked softly.
Her expression told him volumes without her even speaking. Her face turned from surprised, to confused, to carefully guarded.
"I'll take that as a yes, then," Colin muttered under his breath.
Her eyes widened until Colin almost feared they would pop right out of her head. "You knew? How-what-you-" She spluttered incoherently for a moment before organizing her thoughts and saying very calmly, "How did you know I have-well, you know-magic?" She whispered the last word, looking around furtively as if to make sure they were not being overheard.
"It was quite simple, really," Colin began to reply.
"Shhh!" She shushed him with her hand, flapping it in his face for emphasis. They both immediately went quiet and still. Her shoulders tensed. She paused for a moment, listening to something Colin could not hear, when her shoulders relaxed again and she waved her hand at him imperiously. "Continue!"
He rolled his eyes before doing as she asked. "It was easy to tell because of your expression. At first, you were surprised, but then you looked like you were hiding something. That's how I knew you were going to try and omit the true answer to my question."
Her brows drew together as she contemplated Colin's explanation. After a moment's thought, she asked, "What does 'omit' mean?"
"It means to leave something out," he said. Then he finally remembered why he was there and stood up. "Where are my manners? My name is Colin, and I'm here to help you regarding this rather odd experience," Colin said.
He stood and held out his hand to her on the floor. She reached out to put her hand in his, but drew back. "How do I know I can trust you?"
"You don't, and I don't know that I can trust you either," he said honestly. "You just have to."
She looked at him, an unfathomable emotion in her eyes. Then she smiled up at him breathtakingly, and took his hand.
"Okay. You have my trust. But I need to know just one thing." She halted between her words, and Colin knew that whatever it was she was about to ask, it would be big. "You have magic too." It was not a question. She knew, and it was rather obvious, the way he read her thoughts so carelessly. But she was practically screaming her thoughts at him, and- He was jerked away from his thoughts by that smile, sneaking across her face as she tilted her chin upwards in defiance and crossed her arms. "Show me."
Colin's mind was utterly blank. Then he thought of a spell he could show her. "Nacìlb," he intoned into his palm.
He then waved his hand through the air, leaving trails of shimmering sparkles in its wake. Her eyes gleamed, and she seemed speechless. All she could say was, "That is..." She paused, at a loss for words. "...That is amazing."
Colin closed his hand quickly after his little demonstration, mumbling something about "someone else...yeah, I should go get him...he will know..." before nearly crashing into the door as he left. He had been looking down at his feet and rubbing his chin like some elderly scholar.
Clara smirked at him as he, eventually, successfully navigated the door, but as soon as he was gone, she unfolded her arms and rubbed her sore bottom. The window seat was not very high, but it still hurt falling off it. He is an interesting fellow, but I definitely don't trust him fully, even if I told him that I did, Clara thought. He would be interesting to talk to more sometime.
However, Clara had more pressing matters to think about. For instance, the sparkles that suddenly appeared from his hand! That was utterly spectacular! She wondered if she said the word, if sparkles would flow from her fingertips like water in a stream. The idea frightened her because of the power involved. The sparkles themselves would make lovely additions to just about anything.
Also, whom was Colin getting? He did mention something as he left that sounded sort of like he would retrieve someone else to help make sense of this whole ordeal, so maybe he was bringing the person who caused all of this. Yes, Clara decided. That was it.
And finally, though it was with much chagrin that Clara placed this at the bottom of her priorities that moment, how was Lady doing? How was Dante? How was Dawn, and had she foaled yet? It had only been a day since Dante's birth, but then again, when Clara had moved the small-framed mare, she looked about ready to burst!
I need to check on them. I wonder if I could reach their minds from here, Clara thought. She stretched her thoughts as far as she could, but she only was able to reach to a small clearing in the forest before her eyes started to burn and the beginning of a headache throbbed gently in her forehead.
A knock on the door surprised Clara out of her thoughts, and she called out in as strong a voice as she could muster, "Come in?"
Her voice rose at the end, making it a question. Evidently, whoever was knocking took the weak answer as an affirmative and stepped right in.
It was Colin, and he came with two other people. One was a young man, who appeared to be not much older than Colin but at least two years Clara's senior. He had short blond hair, blue eyes, and a height of at least eighteen hand spans.
Colin looked very bashful, but otherwise exactly the same. He and the other male could have been brothers, what with the way they interacted and their matching sets of piercing blue eyes. The differences were that Colin had hair around the same color as Clara's that covered his ears and looked as though it could not decide whether to be curly or straight, and his companion's hair was blond, shorter, and very straight. Also, Colin was dressed in what Clara then realized was a servant's uniform, while the other wore demure but rich clothing.
Clara did not see the girl at first, because she was somewhat hiding behind the first stranger. She had lovely, fair skin and hair that was a combination of the stranger's hair and Clara's dark brown locks. She was gorgeous, yet timid. Clara wished she had shown herself at once. At least, that is what Clara would have done.
As fascinating as these two strangers (well, three, but Clara was counting Colin as an ally in her situation, even though she barely knew him) in her room were, Clara was getting more confused by the moment. Who are they? What do they want? Above all, WHY ARE THEY HERE?!
As she calmed herself down, the blond one began to speak.
"Hello. You must be pretty confused right about now," he said. He seemed to be trying to soothe Clara. Well, it sort of worked; if it was in fact soothing he was going for.
"Yes," Clara said with a small, awkward, and much unexpected giggle. "I am extremely confused about- about- well, everything, I suppose."
"Of course. That is to be expected," he said to her. Then he turned and muttered to Colin angrily, "Did you explain anything, or do I have to everything by myself, as usual?" Colin shook his head to say that no, he had not explained anything. The stranger heaved a huge sigh.
Meanwhile, the girl had come over to greet Clara. They both sat down on the bed. "Well," she said. "Your resemblance to Melanie...with your long, wavy hair, your pale skin, just...everything! - Is simply striking! Er, quite extraordinary." She finished quietly, self-consciously.
Clara smiled in an effort to be polite, while inside, her mind roiled, trying to make sense of anything. Her smile came off as more of a grimace. "Thank you," she said.
The two boys were arguing when Clara cleared her throat. "Is anyone going to tell me anything, or...?" She let the sentence trail off.
The stranger looked at her and said, "Of course."
"So then why haven't you?" Clara said rather petulantly. She probably should have been more respectful, but she was getting fed up with this pretty fast. What did it matter if these were her captors? She wanted answers, and she would get them.
"I will! Right now, in fact," he said, and with one last glare at Colin, the stranger began.
"I should start by introducing myself. My name is Prince James of Theorden. You are in the royal castle."
Clara broke in. "I knew it! I knew that's where I was!" Everyone in the room stared at her. Uncomfortable with the attention, she blushed and motioned for the prince to go on.
"Now that you know who I am, you need to know about Lady Melanie. She was the King's surrogate daughter."
"I'm really, really sorry to interrupt again, but what does Melanie have to do with all this? She-" Clara pointed to the strange girl, "-said that I look like her, but who is she?" Clara was getting very muddled, but she was smart and she knew that they would not be able to get anywhere if they were unable to address the basic facts.
He nodded, indicating that he was getting to that. "Melanie is simply the one who you must pretend to be. The three of us are some of the few who Melanie considered friends. She was treated like a princess her whole life, since she moved into the palace when she was four."
Clara interrupted again, a bit more quietly this time. "Is she my age?" She could guess where this was going.
"Yes," he responded. "In fact-I was going to leave this for later, but-she is your twin sister."
That was when Clara fainted.
Now, she prided herself in not being too much of a practically-perfectly-pompous-and-poufy kind of girl. She had fainted before, but that was when she stood up too fast in front of someone she was enamored of. It is a long story. But you try being told by the crown prince of your kingdom that you are related to the princess- her identical twin! -and you try not to faint.
When Clara came to, everyone was standing over her, staring at her in a way that made her quite uncomfortable.
"Uh, sorry," Clara stammered out. "That-all of this-just came as-uh-a bit of a shock."
The prince nodded. "That is to be expected. Now, I'm a bit pressed for time, so if I could finish my explanation without you fainting again, that would be great." He looked like he thought he was being polite, but he sounded annoyed.
Clara nodded, sitting up from where she had fallen on the bed.
"So, the whole history with you and Melanie is quite a bit complicated. She moved into the castle when she was four, when her widower 'father' died. Her-well, your-mother died giving birth to her...and you.
"She moved in with her real father, King Woden, but didn't realize he was her father. He treated her like a daughter and she treated him like a father. Little did she know that her actions reflected their real relationship. She was the illegitimate daughter of the King.
"She grew up here, like a sister to me. You were the lucky one."
"How?" Clara asked. Where was her castle, her coins? Maybe that was a bit vain, but being a princess is better than being a common farm girl any day. "And...why was I not raised with Melanie? Why was I sent away?"
"When your mother was alive, she had many friends but trusted few of them. One of them was her midwife. The midwife believed that, to give the two of you your best chance, you should be separated. You were given to the midwife at her request, and she gave you a mother's care the Melanie never received," the prince continued. At least something was finally making sense. Clara had known that Margaret had worked as a midwife in the castle for a little while, until she gave birth to Clara, and then Lydia shortly thereafter. Only now Clara knew that Margaret had adopted her since she was there as a wet nurse, and could only give up her job to become a mother. Clara had never made the connection before now, but how could she? She was missing the pieces of the puzzle.
"Melanie was passed off to your true mother's husband Harald, a military leader who never even knew you existed and died soon after you were born," James continued.
"Four years later, to be exact," Colin added
Oh, that is awful! That means that I was born...out of wedlock! And they all know! The shame was immense and horrible. The girl patted Clara's arm sympathetically at her pained look.
"Melanie never really liked the King, since she thought it was his fault Harald, who she thought was her father, died. In a way, it was."
"What happened?" Clara asked. Prince James gave her a pointed look, which she returned in kind. He might have been the prince, but he was also her brother, and she would treat him as such! Besides, it was simply a reflex from living with four younger siblings.
His glare turned into an amused smile, and he said, "King Woden was in battle that day as well, and was supposed to meet up with Harald's forces, but never did. I am of the opinion that the King was otherwise engaged, and that is the reason why he could not meet Harald's legion in their time of need. Melanie thinks that the King was so selfish that he was trying to save his own neck." The prince gave a much-undignified snort of disgust. Colin and the girl (whose name Clara still hadn't learned) nodded, like they had heard the story many times before, as, Clara later reflected, they probably had.
Prince James continued with the briefing. "So, basically Melanie hates the King, trusts no one but herself and her maid-" Here he paused briefly to gesture towards the strange maiden beside Clara on the bed-"-and is your identical twin. Is that all?" he said, turning away from her and looking towards Colin.
Colin shrugged. Prince James sighed, and then turned back towards Clara. "Eve?" he asked. "Have I got everything?" Clara detected a sort of softness in his tone and his expression when he looked at the serving girl, and then a detached but still somewhat playful demeanor that came over him when he was talking to Colin. All Clara perceived when he talked to her, however, was caution and distrust.
Eve gave the prince a confused look. "Not exactly, your highness," she said. She stood and whispered something in his ear. Colin went over and crowded around them, speaking in a low tone. Clara thought she caught her name a few times, but she could not make much else out. She decided to sift through the new information instead of trying to listen. At last, they straightened up and Eve turned to Clara. "You will be acting as the Lady Melanie for...well, we're not quite sure how long. But it will probably be for a fairly long time. By the way, my name is Genevieve, but everyone calls me Eve."
Clara nodded mutely, now processing the new idea. Eve patted Clara's hand and then got up and proceeded to the wardrobe, from which she attained several dresses of a very fine make.
Clara's jaw must have fallen open, for while she was sitting there like a simpleton, staring at her finery, Prince James left and Colin remained. Clara realized that she had a question and asked Colin rather than the prince.
"If you three were the only ones Melanie trusted...were you still the ones to take her away? And if you did, isn't that betraying her trust, making you no better than she?"
Colin squirmed uncomfortably. "Well...no, not exactly." Clara gave him a skeptically confused sort of look. He grinned uncertainly and continued. "Yes. James already told you that we took her. But she trusted us, and we had to use that to our advantage. You do remember who this is, don't you?" Colin's big blue eyes widened, compelling Clara to trust him. Her brain suddenly stopped working, leaving her feeling hypnotized by Colin's eyes.
"I..." Clara began.
Sparing Clara from herself, Eve came over and joined them after she had taken the gowns behind the screen and hung them up. She then told Colin that she was very sorry but had to steal Clara for a little while and to come back at two.
"What are you going to do with me now that Colin's not here?" Clara asked, mildly suspicious, as Eve helped her up and steered her towards the screen.
"First," she replied, "I'm going to get you clean."
Clara gave her an expression of shock. "You mean to say I'm not already clean enough?"
They both were behind the screen at that point. Eve planted her hands on her hips and said to Clara, "You're plenty clean for a farm girl, but not nearly clean enough for a princess."
Clara rolled her eyes and held out her arms. "Well," she moaned," Let's get on with it then."
Eve filled up the tub with water from a kettle she seemed to have produced out of thin air. Clara then was asked to undress and hop in. Clara did so reluctantly, but the water was warm and very comfortable. The tub was large, too, so she stretched out her legs and relaxed.
Eve poured some sort of oil into the water, which produced a heavenly scent and a copious amount of lavender bubbles. Clara started playing with them, sculpting them into little piles or just watching them pop.
After Clara had spent a little time soaking, Eve poured something cold and wet on her head and began massaging it into her scalp. "What is that?" Clara asked.
"A potion to keep your hair thick and shiny," she responded. "I used it on Melanie all the time. It will help you smell like her too." At Clara's slightly disgusted expression, Eve added, "We have to address this from all angles! If even one small thing is different then everything will fall apart."
Eve finished with Clara's hair and instructed her to wait and let the potion set while she went and got something else. When Eve returned, she was carrying a basin and a pitcher full of water. Eve rinsed the potion out of Clara's hair and into the basin. Clara got out of the tub at Eve's instruction, though she would have gotten out anyway as the water was getting cold, and wrapped a nearby towel around her.
Once Clara was dry, Eve helped her pick out a gown and get dressed. The dress they decided on was simply magnificent.
It was made of a material Eve called satin, and it was a deep blue. The sleeves went down to Clara's elbows and were made of light green - chiffon, Eve said. It had a drop-waist, and the bodice had several thin gold stripes embroidered on it, winding around from the waist to the bust. It was beautiful.
After Clara was dressed, Eve began to teach her. First, she taught Clara about how to sound like a princess. That meant that there were several hours of learning about numbers and big words whose definitions Clara almost instantly forgot. At the end of all of these sessions, Eve would administer a test to Clara. Eve would say something along the lines of, "What does 'educe' mean?" And Clara would have to respond in kind. "It means to draw out, as in potential."
Eventually Colin returned and together the two of them taught Clara about how to look and act like a princess or, more accurately, how to look and act like Melanie.
Clara had to learn how to keep perfect posture at all times by balancing one of her thick learning tomes on her head and walking around the room without allowing it to fall. She had to learn how to talk like Melanie; with a slight Dilaean accent, since she was born near the border. Clara had to learn the complex Theordenian curtsy. She had to learn about different types of dresses, and hairstyles, and necklaces. She had to learn the difference between a birth ring and a marriage band. She had to learn the symbolisms of different flowers and gems.
At the end of the very long first day, Clara flopped onto her back on the bed and asked Eve, "How am I supposed to remember all this?"
Eve shrugged, sitting down next to Clara. "Practice, I guess."
Clara released a huge, prolonged sigh and sat up. "Ugh! Are we going to do this every day?"
Eve nodded. "Every day until you can even do it in your sleep," she announced cheerfully.
Clara let out a groan and fell onto her back again.
This was the pattern of her days. Occasionally Clara would meet Colin and they would practice spells or blocking their thoughts from attacks together. Clara could not ride, which maddened her tremendously. All those horses, just sitting there, anxious to be exercised...it was more than she could bear. Colin, the prince, and Eve had given Clara a set of rules to follow in order to uphold the elaborate charade they called "The Princess Switch." The story was that on a ride with her maid, bandits had attacked Lady Melanie. They kidnapped her and she was lost in the forest somewhere, waiting to be found.
In truth, Lady Melanie had been kidnapped, but not by bandits. It was actually Eve. She and Lady Melanie went on a picnic, and Eve drugged the food so that Lady Melanie fell into a deep sleep. The potion she used was such that the victim needed no food or water and remained asleep for some amount of time. The exact amount was uncertain, since nobody had any idea how much she ingested with the food. Eve tied her up and left her somewhere in the forest. Apparently, nobody trusted Clara enough yet to tell her exactly where - that and she would have no idea where that was in relation to anything anyway. Clara never did like going very far into the woods, especially off the path.
Prince James had volunteered to lead the searches for Melanie so he could lead everyone to the wrong places, since he knew exactly where she was hidden. Colin told Clara in confidence that after Eve had hidden Melanie originally, he had gone and hidden her somewhere that was harder for her to be found and harder for her to escape from once she woke up.
Clara was not allowed to leave her room because if she was to be the Lady Melanie, and if she was seen before she finished her training then it would alert everyone to the lie. If Clara had not finished her princess lessons by then she would not be a passable enough version of Melanie to fool the kingdom.
Nobody would tell Clara why they had switched the two of them in the first place. Clara knew the information they had given her was lacking, but she knew better than to ask about it before they trusted her more. From what little she could piece together, she figured that Melanie had discovered her true parentage and either wanted to get revenge on the King for lying to her and getting her fake father Harald killed or for trying to suppress her magic. Everyone knew that Lady Melanie was rebellious. There had been a scandal about a year back when she had run off and was found a few miles away from the Mescian battlefield days later. Given Melanie's apparent temperament coupled with the fact that Clara now knew she had magic, Clara thought she had a pretty good idea of why Melanie needed to be removed from the castle.
Clara really missed any form of animal contact, though. Eventually, she decided to try to contact Lady. She had been at the castle for maybe a week.
She reached with her mind, stretched it to its very limit. Clara could almost feel her horse's presence when her mind snapped back to where it belonged and she put her head down on the table with a groan, breathing heavily. It was stupid to even try, but...
Clara's chest heaved with the effort of breathing. She had just almost separated her mind from her body, and all she felt was a somewhat numb, prickling pain.
"Clara?" It was Colin. She had not heard him enter her chambers.
She jerked her head up. "Colin? What are you doing here?"
"I-" He stopped speaking, and Clara could practically see his mind whirring, trying to think up what to say next. "Well, whatever you're doing, I'm sure you'll succeed." He turned and began to leave.
"Wait!" Clara called out. "How did you know that I was trying to do something?" Realization dawned on her. "Colin! I told you never to probe my mind!"
"But I didn't! Your mind was stretched as far as it could go, very open and unprotected, and it touched my mind! That is all! Besides," he said, with an air of someone knowing they have won, "I don't know what it is that you're doing, just that your mind almost snapped."
Clara sighed. He was right, of course. "Why did you open your mind so far?" he asked.
"I-" Embarrassed to even continue, she ducked her head.
"Come on, Clara. I can just reach a li-tt-le-" He made sure to over-emphasize "little" " -tendril of thought into your head, and find out what it was. You wouldn't even notice."
Clara shook her head vehemently. "You will need to show me how to do that, though. The undetected thought brush thing."
"Well, then? What was it?"
"I was trying to reach my horse," Clara mumbled into her hair. Colin still heard her, though.
"Really? That's a nearly a day's hard ride from here. Ha!"
She knew he would laugh at her.
"Come on, let's go!" he said joyfully.
"What?" Clara was confused, and curious enough to raise her head and attempt to stifle her blush.
"You heard me! Let's go!"
"Where are we going?" Clara asked suspiciously.
"To your horse, silly!"
"But we can't! I'll be seen!"
"We'll only go a little ways into the woods, enough that you can reach your horse with your mind but not so far that we'll be seen by your old villagers. What's more," He grinned. "I know a back way to the stables, which connect directly to the forest. The distance is the problem, and if we can fix that then we should. Now let's go!" he said for the third time, beckoning over his shoulder as he ran from the room.
Well, I have got nothing - Clara stopped and corrected herself. Ah, almost nothing to lose. Only an entire kingdom's welfare. Now smiling at her own wit, Clara got up and ran after him.