Before I had time to grasp the idea that I might have died, a voice echoed into the alley. “Princess! Princess Emeline, where did you go?” My heart hammered as I realized it was Borin.
“Your Grace, I don’t think the princess is here. Why would she associate with the urchins?” An unfamiliar voice floated towards us and I saw the boy’s eyes flash dangerously.
“I saw her run this way,” Borin insisted, “although why she would flee is a mystery…” he grumbled, and I stifled a laugh. Suddenly they turned the corner and spotted me. “Princess! There you are!” Borin noticed the boy standing next to me, his hand still on my arm where it had landed to keep me from falling. “You, boy! Step away from the princess!” To my shock, Borin pulled out a sword. “You’ll find no easy robbery here, filth.” The boy’s eyes hardened once more and he pushed me behind him.
“As if you could recognize filth through the stench of your sweat!” He spat in a venomous voice. Borin’s face reddened and he sputtered for words. Finally he raised his sword, eyes cold.
“I should cut you down here and now for such insolence!” Borin stepped forward and poked the boy’s chest with the tip of the sword. “Now stand down before I put you down!” He roared. My blood chilled and I took a step back. Borin, oblivious, continued his advance, but the boy turned, and I thought I saw concern flash across his face before it went mischievous.
“Well, that’s enough for me for one day. You win, good sir, adieu.” He turned and ran, but never let go of my arm, and dragged me along with him. I heard Borin yell after us, but we’d left him behind soon enough.
“Where are we going?” I managed to pant out between breaths as we ran. He turned, and his face was lively and bright as he smiled and laughed.
“You’ll see! Don’t worry; you’ll be safe.” We rounded a few more corners, coming to a crumbling building. I could hear the guards still on our trail when suddenly the boy stopped. “You’ll be safe here when the guards find you. Tell them I was begging for food or some lie, and that you didn’t want them to hurt me which is why you ran. That way they’ll still let you out of the castle and not come after me.”
“Where are you going?” I seized his arm in a panic, but he simply smiled reassuringly.
“Back to where I live. The guards could care less about me, but they won’t stop until they find you. If you want to find me, meet me here, tonight. That shall give me time to see if I have any more information for you.”
“But how will I find this place? I don’t know anything about here; I don’t even know where I was when I met you!” he frowned for a moment before speaking.
“Alright...in the castle, there are three sections, each with a set of walls. There is the inner palace, the palace of the court, and the servants chambers. There is only one door connecting the palace of the court to the inner palace; it’s the most protected part of the castle and it’s where your rooms are. Just past that door along the corridor there is an old statue, worn to anonymity. The castlefolk call it simply the Protector. Pull on his sword and a passageway opens. Follow it to the right until the second fork, when you go down. Follow that until the cavern where I’ll be waiting.” He smiled again and slipped his hand out of mine and turned to go.
I could hear the guards closing, but I couldn’t resist one last question. “Wait!” I called. He turned, slightly impatient. “What’s your name?” He grinned quickly and called it over his shoulder before he slipped into the shadows.
I was still standing there, blinking, when Borin and the guards rushed around the corner. “Princess! Are you alright? Did he harm you?” Borin blubbered at me, rushing forward. I came to my senses and lifted my hand before he could touch me. Trying to summon a regal air, I spoke.
“I am fine, Borin. Simply shaken up.” He opened his mouth to insult Ashren, but I cut him off. “Shaken up that you would treat one of my people that way! He was being perfectly kind; I tripped and he caught me so I wouldn’t fall and I was in the middle of thanking him when you showed up, raging like a wild animal!” I knew I was probably pushing it; most monarchs I’d read about didn’t care this much about their citizens, but I couldn’t help it. The idea of treating someone as lesser because of how much money they had made my blood boil, as did the fact that it was still an issue in my time. I had power here, and I intended to use it.
“I-I’m sorry, Princess. I thought he was a streetboy, that he was trying to rob you…” Borin trailed off, his face still red and his jaw flapping as he struggled to find the words to appease me.
“And what, Borin, made you think that?” I spoke sharply, intentionally dropping his title. I could see he noticed as his eyes flashed with indignation for a moment before settling back into contrition.
“His clothes, Your Grace. He was dressed like a street urchin. More often than not, his kind are the ones the guard send to the stockades. Cutpurses and the like.” With his explanation, Borin began to look pleased with himself again.
“And is dressing a certain way a crime in this kingdom now?” I asked, folding my arms. “You may have thought he looked like others you had arrested in the past, but he did nothing wrong, yet still you threatened his life and accused him falsely. What would your punishment have been had he been of equal rank to you?” I wasn’t sure there would be a punishment, but based on the pride I’d seen so far, my guess was another duke would raise hell if he were accused of being a peasant.
Borin’s shameful face and next words proved me right, and I breathed a sigh of relief. “There would be a duel, Your Highness. To restore honor.”
“Then perhaps I should order a duel between you and the boy who saved me?” I pretended to contemplate the idea, and disgust brushed his features.
“But, Your Highness… the boy is not a member of the court; he has not been shamed.”
“Yet you still accused him falsely. Do you claim that because of his status he has no honor to restore? No sense of pride?” My blood was boiling, and I could tell I was confusing the guardsmen behind Borin; I was making too big a deal of it.
“A duel won’t be necessary, but remember that those around you still command a certain amount of decency and respect; no matter their clothes.” I swept away, praying that I’d somehow be able to find my way back to the castle. I wasn’t going to spend another moment with Borin; whatever her reasons had been, Emeline had the right idea about rejecting him.
For once today, luck was on my side as I managed to find my way back to the gardens. I wandered around for a while, admiring the plants and thinking about what I’d learned. My body might not need a soul. What did that mean? Was I dead? In a coma? What even happened? I couldn’t remember anything out of the ordinary before waking up in Emeline’s body.
And what had happened to Emeline’s soul? She couldn’t be dead; she didn’t have children yet, so if she died, I would never be born. That was a paradox I wasn’t willing to get into. And according to Ashren, that had to mean that she had either switched places with me or was being held somewhere. A twig snapped and I whipped my head around, startled. Sir Ayden raised his hand in surrender.
“Forgive me, Princess. I didn’t mean to scare you.” His voice held a note of laughter, and I felt myself relax instantly.
“No, don’t worry about it. You just surprised me is all.” I said. His brow furrowed, and I realized I’d been using modern prasings. Mentally cursing myself, I changed the subject. “Is everything alright with the people?” I asked.
“What do you mean, Highness?” Ayden asked, now even more confused.
“Earlier, Borin called you away because there was a fight in the city. Is everything alright now?” I clarified. Ayden’s face cleared and he laughed.
’Yes, everything is fine. Duke Borin’s fight was simply a drunken brawl between two tavern goers over a barmaid. It hardly needed the guard’s intervention; the sots were too drunk to land a swing.” I laughed along with him at the mental image.
“So then why did Borin call you away?” I asked. I wanted to know how much Ayden knew and saw.
“I suspect he didn’t want me spending time with you, Princess.” His eyes held a deep intensity that almost took my breath away.
“Why is that?” I was almost whispering, staring into his eyes and longing to close the feet between us, not caring that this boy was Ayden, not Aaron. He took a step forward and opened his mouth to reply when a serving girl darted around the corner behind him and scampered quickly past us. Ayden stepped back several steps and seemed to compose himself. The moment was gone, and I was sorely disappointed.
“Forgive me, Princess. You’ve made your feelings clear on this matter.” His voice was even and measured, but carried a hint of pain; my heart broke as I realized that Emeline must have done to him what Aaron had done to me a week ago and centuries later. I opened my mouth to speak, not really knowing what I would say, but Ayden fled the gardens before I could.
I sank to a bench nearby and processed the new information. For the first time that the day, I wondered what it would be like to stay in this world. I was a princess here, surrounded by adoration. I could have love here. Back in my time, I had nothing but pain. Would it be such a bad thing to stay? Doing so would relieve more than just my pain; Ayden would have what he wanted as well. Ashren could teach me what i was supposed to already know. I could pull it off.
But you’d be stealing her life. A small voice within me whispered. If I took over Emeline’s life, she was either dead, captured, or in my body. The only situation where taking over her life would be ethical is if she had died. If she were captured, I’d be sentencing her to an existence in limbo; not to mention I had no idea if she would be able to sense the passage of time without a body. And if we had switched bodies, I’d be sentencing her to a life in a world she knew nothing about and couldn’t comprehend. Either way, I’d be making a huge choice that affected her entirely on my own. Could I really prioritize my happiness above my morals?