Authors: Margaret Peterson Haddix
With thanks to Linda Gerber, Erin MacLellan, Jenny Patton, Nancy Roe Pimm, Amjed Qamar, and Linda Stanek, for their advice about starting this book.
Thirteen crowns glistened in the
torchlight of the throne room. Twelve were newly forged, ready to be placed on the heads of the Sualan princesses whose identities had been kept secret their entire lives until now.
The thirteenth crown was mine.
I was the princess everybody knew about. The one who'd grown up in the palace, the one who stood on the balcony every day at noon and waved to the commoners crowded into the courtyard below.
The one who had always lived in danger.
Cecilia, beside me, jostled my arm in a completely unregal way, countering the effect of her satin dress and ornately upswept brown hair.
“This is so exciting!” she practically squealed in my ear. “I've been dreaming about this day forever! It's exactly like I always imagined it! Only, you knowânot.”
What she'd always imagined was replacing me.
For almost all of her fourteen years, she'd believed that she was the one true princess of Suala. But she had to remain hidden because her parents, the king and queen, had been assassinated, and the evildoers were still abroad in the land. Her own life was still at risk. And so, to protect her, there was a decoy princess on the throne, a mere commoner whose life didn't actually matter.
She believed that I, Princess Desmia, was an impostor.
Every single one of the eleven other newly discovered princessesâAdoriana, Elzbethl, Fidelia, Florencia, Ganelia, Lucia, Lydia, Marindia, Porfinia, Sophia, and Rosemaryâhad grown up believing some version of that story herself. Each one thought that she (Adoriana, Elzbethl, Fidelia, etc., etc.) was the true princess; I was the disposable fake.
They had all been lied to.
But then, so had I.
I had always believed that I was the one and only true princess. I knew nothing of the others' stories. I knew no tales of decoys and secret royal bloodlines. I knew only to fear assassins and pretenders and impostors who might show up with fake claims to my throne.
In one sense, it had turned out that all of us were impostors.
In another sense, every single one of us was right: We were all true princesses. Just not the way any of us had believed.
At least, we're all going to be true princesses now,
I thought grimly as all thirteen of us fanned out across the back of the
throne room, ready to step forward for the official coronation.
Was that right? Was that fair? Would the others all have been safer staying in hiding? Orâgoing back to it?
Of course they would
, I thought, and for a moment my heart pounded as if I were the one stepping out into unfamiliar terrors and demands for the very first time.
“Psst, Desmia,” Elzbethl hissed behind me. “How do you do that thing with your feet, where it looks like you're gliding when you walk? How do you keep from tripping over your dress?”
“I don't know, Elzbethl. It justÂ .Â .Â .” If I said,
It just comes naturally
, that would be cruel, because nothing involving grace or coordination seemed to come naturally to Elzbethl. But I had learned how to walk like a princess so long ago I didn't remember it. I was probably taught with my very first steps. Elzbethl should have learned too. “I guess you kind of slide your feet. Don't lift your knees too high.”
“Thank you,” Elzbethl said, too loudly for the solemnity of the room ahead of us. “Thank you so much.”
Her eyes were wide and awed, just like Cecilia's, just like all the other girls'. I could hear whispers down the line: “Did you think our crowns would be so
?” “I can't believe I'm wearing a silk dress. Silk!” “Oooo, is that courtier over there winking at you or me?”
They might as well have all been blind. They were like little kittens that didn't have their eyes open yet. They peered
into the throne room, and all they could see was glitter and gold. They looked at the assembled crowd in their own silks and satins, their own velvets and gold-threaded brocade, and the only things my new sister-princesses saw were beauty and adoration and pride. They didn't see any of the scheming or conniving or greed. They didn't see any more lies.
They thought all the danger was past.
The royal trumpeters sent out a series of blasts on their horns. It was the same royal refrain that had announced Sualan royalty for generations. I had been hearing it all my life, but the others gasped and gaped.
“Hear ye, hear ye,” the royal herald announced from the front of the room, from beside the newly arranged lineup of thirteen thrones. “PresentingÂ .Â .Â . the thirteen princesses of Suala.”
The other girls around me stood frozen, overcome. It would be unroyal and undignified for me to poke Cecilia in the back and hiss,
But for a long moment I feared that I would have to resort to that. Finally Adoriana, in the lead, stepped forward and began stumbling toward the thrones. After only a brief pause, Cecilia bounded up behind her. I waited a decent interval, then followed along.
“I still don't get how she does that gliding thing,” Elzbethl whispered behind me, probably to Fidelia.
I resisted the urge to turn around and see how Elzbethl would fare strolling (or, more likely, galumphing) down the long purple carpet leading to our thrones. Faces leered out of
the crowd at me, and I catalogued the expressions behind their expressions.
Was that man secretly working for Lord Throckmorton all along?
I wondered, my gaze lingering on a particularly pompous, preening face.
Should we have arrested him, too?
My gaze shifted to the next minister, the next adviser, one after the other.
What is that one plotting now? How about that one?
The other girls thought we had nothing else to worry about. After all, we'd triumphed over our worst enemy, Lord Throckmortonâand put him and his minions under lock and key. The other girls had never lived in a palace before. They didn't understand how new enemies could spring up overnight. Or do their evil in secret for years. I'd seen that happen too.
Elzbethl distracted me from my thoughts by stepping on the hem of my dress.
“Oh, sorry! I'm so sorry! I got too close, didn't I?” she cried, turning a tiny
into a spectacle for the entire assemblage to gawp at.
I turned, partly to make sure there wasn't any damage to my dress, partly to get her to stop screeching.
She backed away so dramatically that she almost fell over.
I gave my most gracious bow.
“It is no matter,” I said softly. “I pray, put it from your mind.”
I didn't say,
And, from now on, watch where you're going!
Even though I was thinking it.
I turned forward again and kept walking toward the thrones.
Behind me I could hear Elzbethl giggle nervously and recount to Fidelia, “She was even nice about it! Back in my village, when I was pretending to be a peasant, the other girls would have punched me if I'd done something like that.”
I wondered. But I was also secretly celebrating.
Yes, Elzbethl, that's right. Learn to be suspicious of false kindness.
But did I want her to be suspicious of me?
This question absorbed me as we all settled onto our thrones, an array of glittering girls with a table full of glistening crowns before us.
It was unprecedented for so many princesses to be crownedâor, in my case, recrownedâat the same time. It was highly abnormal for princesses to rule at all, let alone multiple princesses who were all only fourteen years old.
We had jointly decided that becoming a kingdom with thirteen ruling princesses made more sense than having all of us designated queens. The others argued that we were making everything up as we went along, anywayâwhy not call ourselves whatever we wanted?
Secretly, I thought that they were all so happy to finally be able to call themselves princesses out loud, in public, that they didn't want to give up the title too quickly.
Was I being unfair? Were they really that shallow? How vulnerable did that make us all?
Why did any of us think this would work?
I wondered in despair, as I stared out at the crowd. I was surer than ever that the assembled courtiers were all calculating and conniving. Was
there a single person out there who wasn't scheming to take over Lord Throckmorton's old role as the power behind the throneâonly with more princesses to manipulate?
I turned my head all the way to the far right, to the section where the delegation from the neighboring kingdom of Fridesia sat.
I thought in relief.
Jed. They aren't scheming. They're people I trust.
It was ironic: Lord Jedediah Reston was the ambassador from Fridesia, and my kingdom had been at war with Fridesia for as long as I could remember. Until now. The other girls and I intended our first act as co-princesses to be signing a ceasefire with Fridesia. And then, as soon as possible, we planned to work out terms of a lasting peace treaty that would end the war once and for all.
Even though he was still technically my enemy, I trusted Jed. And I
trusted his fiancÃ©e, Ella Brown, who sat beside him clutching his hand and positively beaming up at all of us.
Does Ella believe thirteen girls can really rule as co-princesses?
Or is she just being nice? Or just supporting us and Jed, because that's the way to get Jed's dearest dream of a peace treaty?
So of course Ella and Jed had ulterior motives too. Did it even matter that their ulterior motives were noble?
The royal herald stepped to a podium near the center of the stage, between the thrones for Florencia and Ganelia.
“Be it known,” he began, “that on her deathbed fourteen
years ago, Queen Charlotte Aurora designated not just one but thirteen baby girls as her royal heirs.”
The other girls and I had struggled so over the wording of that sentence. Sophia and Fidelia in particular wanted to hide the fact that none of us actually possessed a drop of royal blood. The only thing that made us royal was the queen's secret deathbed writings. Otherwise, we were all of us just ordinary orphansâordinary orphans raised by knights who were themselves tricked into believing we were princesses.
Why did it have to be my knight, Lord Throckmorton, who found out the truth first?
I wondered for the umpteethth time.
So I was the one manipulated and preyed upon, instead of being protected and cosseted andÂ .Â .Â . and loved?
Unexpectedly, tears sprang to my eyes. But I knew the trick to holding back tears: You stare at whatever you're afraid of and remind yourself how much worse it would be if you showed any weakness.
I learned that from Lord Throckmorton. For fourteen years, he was the one I feared most.
Now I made myself stare out at the crowd of calculating, scheming courtiers again. Not a single face registered surprise at the herald's words. No flurry of astonished whispers began. That made me certain that all the courtiers already knewâor thought they knewâeverything about us. They'd already heard the stories; they'd undoubtedly been gossiping for days about how Cecilia hit Lord Throckmorton over the head with a harp, about how the other eleven girls and their knights were freed
from the dungeons and the torture chamber, about how I had proposed sharing the throne.
And do they say I was a fool?
Do they think all of us are silly, preening girls easily played, easily used, easilyÂ .Â .Â . destroyed?
I wished Elzbethl would sit up straight. I wished Marindia would hold her head higher. I wished Cecilia would stop fidgeting with one of the ruffles on her skirt, where there seemed to be a rip. She was only going to make it bigger, more noticeable. That was how it went with rips.