Elisaveta Margherita Arnsonira, Crown Princess of Belsornia, ran her hand along the smooth mahogany of the balustrade, and looked longingly down the grand sweep of the staircase. A mischievous glint lightened her eyes and her father, catching sight of it, placed his hand warningly in the small of her back. Elisaveta smiled warmly at him.
“Poor dear!” she thought to herself. “It’s not easy being a king when your daughter retains fantasies of sliding down bannisters!” Sadly for Elisaveta, her days of sliding down bannisters – in public or private – were long gone. “Not commensurate with the dignity of the Royal Family:” that was how the Chief Minister of the Belsornian Grand Council had phrased it, when he caught her over a year ago. Since then, Elisaveta had sternly refrained from embarking on such ventures, careful not to embarrass her father. Elisaveta had matured considerably, and no longer resented the restraints of royalty, though she sometimes privately yearned for a more anonymous existence. However, she loved her country and her people, and was glad for the opportunity to serve them. And now here she was serving them, though in a slightly different fashion. The queen of a neighbouring country, Mirania, was celebrating her betrothal, and the Arnsoniras of Belsornia had naturally been invited to the proceedings.
“His Royal Highness King Carol of Belsornia and Her Royal Highness Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia!” The stentorian tones of a footman startled Elisaveta from her reverie, but she made no indication of it, and descended the sweeping staircase as gracefully as any princess, her hand resting lightly on her father’s arm. They were greeted at the bottom by Queen Roxalanne of Mirania, who was, unsurprisingly, distantly related.
“King Carol!” exclaimed the Queen. “I was so delighted that you and Elisaveta could attend. Now, Elisaveta, you must wait here, for there is someone I wish you to meet.” With a flick of her finger, she summoned over one of the footmen circulating the large ballroom, and requested him to find the Contessa di Mirolani. Elisaveta looked at Roxalanne with interest. She knew the Queen only slightly; though Belsornia and Mirania were neighbours, they had relatively few dealings with each other.
“That’s your niece, isn’t it?” Roxalanne nodded.
“Tamara is hardly a child, though. She’s a year or two older than you I think. You have someone in common though.” Elisaveta looked at her host in confusion, but before she could enquire further, the Contessa di Mirolani appeared at her aunt’s shoulder. Elisaveta inspected her curiously. She was built on a small scale, with deep, dark eyes that reminded Elisaveta somewhat of her old friend, Joey Bettany, and rich golden hair that waved perfectly over her small head. As Roxalanne made the introductions, Tamara’s eyes lit up, and she barely waited until the Queen had finished speaking before grasping her new acquaintance by the wrist.
“Come on!” she said excitingly, pulling Elisaveta along with her through the crowd. “We’ve been dying for you to arrive.”
“Who’s we?” asked Elisaveta, rather confused by all this. A moment later, she needed no questions, as a familiar figure came into view.
“Elisaveta! There you are finally!”
“Margia! Margia Stevens! What on earth are you doing here?” Margia Stevens it was indeed, and Elisaveta grinned ecstatically as she embraced the other girl. Her time at the Chalet School in Austria had been possibly the happiest in her life, and Elisaveta would have been happy to see anyone from those days, but for it to be one of her closest friends was wonderful.
“How simply topping to see you!” Elisaveta exclaimed stepping back. “But what are you doing here?” Margia grinned at her, not one whit abashed by her ceremonious surroundings.
“Rather nifty, all this, isn’t it,” she commented. “Keep your hair on, Elisaveta, my love, I’ll tell you why I’m here!” as Elisaveta looked likely to strangle her old school friend. “You must have heard of the College des Musiciens here in Valnich? Well, Father’s hanging around this area at the moment – looking for another book, I rather think – and we all thought it would be rather a good idea if I attended – the College, I mean. Amy’s still in school, of course. Thrilling, isn’t it!”
“I’ll say!” agreed Elisaveta, with scant regard for the language expected in an heir to the Belsornian throne. “Why didn’t you write to me, you idiot, and tell me you were in this part of Europe? I’ve been imagining you tucked away in London, or somewhere like that.”
“But she was, at least until last month, weren’t you, Margia?” put in Tamara. “Mr Stevens has only recently arrived in Mirania,” she added in explanation. “He is thinking of writing a book about some of the Balkan states, and has been discussing it with Roxanne and her ministers.” With Margia’s presence suitably explained, the two girls launched into a “do you remember?” conversation, until they suddenly stopped and cast simultaneously guilty glances at Tamara, still standing there.
“Do forgive us, Contessa,” begged Elisaveta prettily. “Margia and I haven’t seen each other for several years – it was too tempting!”
“Yes, sorry, Tamara,” said Margia, blushing slightly. “Horribly rude if us.” Tamara just laughed at them.
“Oh, I do not mind! I have old school friends myself, and I know what it is like! But you must excuse me now, I am afraid. My brother is beckoning me over.” She curtseyed slightly to Elisaveta, and grinned at Margia before making her way over to a tall, dark-haired young man near the entrance to the ballroom.
“She seems rather nice,” said Elisaveta, watching her go.
“Very,” agreed Margia. “She was a pupil at the College, though now she just comes for lessons three times a week. She plays the violin. Awfully funny seeing her curtsey to you, though, Veta!” Elisaveta blushed.
“It’s awful rot, I know,” she said despairingly. “I try to get people to stop it at home, but you just can’t on occasions like this.” Margia grinned reassuringly.
“’Salright, Veta, I was only teasing. You should talk to Tamara’s brother though: he hates all that sort of thing too. Their father was the heir to the throne, you know, until he died. The old king didn’t approve of his wife, or something silly like that, and so Rafe – Tamara’s brother – couldn’t inherit. That’s why Roxanne’s queen.” Elisaveta nodded understandingly.
“Yes, their father drowned, I know. The Rhaniche flooded about fifteen years ago. He was caught in it. Jolly bad luck for them, to lose their father like that.”
The following day, Elisaveta awoke later than her customary hour to find that Alette had laid out her walking clothes. She gazed at them for a moment, then called out for her maid. After a moment, the Belsornian woman who had looked after Elisaveta since she was a child came through the doorway.
“Yes, Your Highness?” Elisaveta rolled her eyes, her usual response to this mode of address from those who knew her best. However, she knew better than to expect Alette to call her anything else, and said nothing about it.
“Why have you got these out, Alette? I thought I was attending a reception with my father?” Alette bustled around, then whipped the covers off Elisaveta, who gave a shriek of indignation and pulled her knees under her nightdress. “Alette!”
“Time to get up! You’ve been invited to an excursion outside Valnich, and His Highness considered that you would rather go.” Elisaveta slid out of bed, digging her toes into the thick rug on the floor.
“Invited? By whom?”
“The letter came from the Palazza del Fiume, Your Highness. The Countess di Mirolani, I understand.” Elisaveta’s expression cleared.
“Oh, Tamara! I’ll bet Margia’s coming as well!” More cheerfully she headed for the bathtub, ignoring Alette’s scandalised expression.
“Princesses do not bet, Your Highnesses.” Elisaveta concentrated on scrubbing herself in the fresh water that poured down from the northern mountains, and ignored Alette.
“I wonder who else will be there. Margia’s at the College, she said. They might bring some of the other people studying there, I suppose. I’m sure Roxanne will be too busy for things like that.” By this time, she had finished bathing, and was pulling on the dainty, lace-edged underwear that Alette had also laid out. With the ease of long practice she pulled on her stockings [okay, I know this is dead easy, but I couldn’t think of any other appropriate underwear!], sparing a thought for a dreadfully spoiled Italian duchessa she had met the previous summer, who had been entirely incapable of dressing herself. Within ten minutes she was fully dressed, and without further ado fled down the hallway to the dining room she and her father had been appointed.
King Carol looked up as his only child plumped herself down opposite him, and reached for the rack of toast. With her hair still down and only dabbed at with a brush, Elisaveta still looked much like the schoolgirl she had once been. Observing her bright, cheerful face, Carol thanked God for the advice that Dr Tracy had given him long ago to send Elisaveta to school.
“For,” he murmured to himself, “it has made all the difference, I am sure.” Elisaveta looked up rather absently at his words.
“Sorry, Daddy, did you say something?” He smiled and shook his head at her.
“Nothing, darling. Did Alette tell you about your invitation?” Elisaveta nodded, her mouth too full of toast and jam to speak. He passed over a piece of cream-coloured paper. “It came this morning from the Contessa di Mirolani. I heard one of your old schoolfriends is in Valnich.” Elisaveta swallowed, and nodded again.
“Yes, Margia Stevens. You remember, Daddy, her father is the writer.” Carol had already made the connection.
“Charles Stevens. Yes, I remember. His Glorious Prague was a wonderful piece of writing. I heard he was thinking of writing a book about Mirania.” Elisaveta shrugged.
“I think so; that’s what Tamara – the Contessa – said. Anyway, Margia’s attending the College des Musiciens.” She opened the invitation as she spoke. “‘A picnic on the banks of the Rhaniche just outside Valnich:’ it sounds lovely!” and she bounced on her seat a little. “I wonder if she’s invited others from the College?” May in Mirania was perhaps the most beautiful months, and it certainly seemed to be the case as Elisaveta and the others lay on the banks of the Rhaniche.
“This is simply too luscious for words,” sighed Margia complacently as she ran her hands through the lush green grass.
“Mmm,” agreed Elisaveta, then giggled. Tamara, who was leaning against the trunk of a tree idly flicking through a book, looked at her curiously.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“Oh, I was just thinking about a Guide camp we went on,” replied Elisaveta, with another giggle. “Do you remember, Margia?” Margia rolled over onto her stomach with scant regard for the good cotton frock she was wearing, and propped her chin on her hands.
“I’ll say! Eventful doesn’t begin to describe it!” Tamara and the others began plying the old Chalet girls with questions, and Elisaveta and Margia spent a pleasant half hour regaling their companions with the various happenings.
“Oh, and then there was the time when we thought we’d discovered a dead body…”
“And when Joey fell into that hole and called Bill a half-witted idiot…”
“I wouldn’t have thought you would be allowed to go to a normal school,” commented Jennifer, one of Tamara’s friends. She was small with short blonde hair and an air of almost other-worldliness. She too was a pianist, and described by Margia as being ‘absolutely it.’ “When the King made Tamara and her brother royal, she had to leave the College, and just come sometimes for lessons, like Roxanne.”
“Oh, the doctors recommended it,” replied Elisaveta, “otherwise I daresay I couldn’t have. Anyway, when I was a kid, Belsornia still had the Salic law – that a woman couldn’t inherit the crown, you know. Grandfather changed that later and then I did have to leave the Chalet School. Back to governesses and all that sort of thing.”
“But one day you will be queen,” said Tamara. Elisaveta nodded, and sat up.
“Yes. Yes, I will.”
“Awfully odd,” said Margia with a yawn. “Well, be queen all you like, my dear, I shall still remember you as Veta, who managed to reduce Madame to speechlessness by the appalling state of your dresses!” “Should you like it? Being queen, I mean,” asked Jennifer, rather tentatively. This new acquaintance seemed to be extremely good-natured, but she was a princess, and always had been, and Jennifer didn’t want to overstep her mark. There was no danger of that with Elisaveta, however, who considered the question carefully.
“Well, it won’t be a bed of roses,” she admitted after a moment. “It’s awfully hard work, you know, and very demanding. But you see, I love my country.” She said the words simply, and it was clear that she meant them. “And being able to serve one’s country is the highest honour one can hope for.” Elisaveta’s tone changed as she changed the subject, for she found such things to be hard to express to strangers. “As for you, Miss Stevens, it’s a good thing you shall never be queen, for anyone lazier I’ve never met!”
Margia sat bolt upright at this calumny, an indignant shriek issuing forth from her. “Elisaveta! You beast! Take that back!”
“Shan’t!” retorted Elisaveta, leaping nimbly to her feet. “If it’s not music, you’re not interested, my dear! You know, I think Joey was right,” she added thoughtfully. “She always said you were the worst wretch of a Middle she ever knew.” Margia scrambled to her feet to give chase and soon the whole crowd were engaged in a game of tag that would have made anyone who had met them in more formal circumstances stare in a marked manner!