“Have you nothing to say for yourself, young lady?”
Brita looked at the king, who stood in a rage on the dais above her. His face burned as purple as the robes he wore. He was flanked by a pair of guards in matching ceremonial armor; each looked as uncomfortable as their patron looked angry.
She stood in the throne room of a castle. Some castle. Though frightened by the guards’ steel and confused about her location, she took in at the majesty of the woodwork and stonework, the gems on crown and sword. Had her hands not still been tied, she might have reached out and caressed them. Brita had never seen such wealth, nor heard of such luxury.
From the king’s odd questions and the report of the guards, she learned that Huntresses besides Jenna had escaped the trap. The lucky ones had faded into the brush as soon as the double-cross became obvious. If only Brita had not left her horse so far behind her, she might be with them, rather than facing such questions as she could not possibly be expected to answer. How could she possibly be truant? And what did he mean about what her mother might think of her accompanying such rubbish? Mother would never call the Huntresses rubbish. They had taken her in; this man knew nothing, nothing at all. Brita decided that silence would continue to be her only response.
After a brief pause and with a muttered curse, the king sent his guards away, intimating that the rest of the bawling out she would receive was not for their ears. Relief at their dismissal was plain on their faces.
Dread rose in Brita as echoes of their locksteps faded into the hall behind her. It was somehow worse being alone with the king in this quiet hall. She turned her attention fully to him now. Her face was downcast, though she met his gaze as best she could.
As he studied her, the anger in his face broke and was slowly replaced by open puzzlement. He approached her where she stood, his ringed hand reaching around the back of her head. She nearly panicked and bolted when he lifted her hair with his fingers and turned her away, looking at the back of her neck. She shivered as she felt his soft hands drop her hair back into place. When he said nothing, she turned back and faced him again. The king met her eyes and shook his head; a look of relief, rather than of anger, was written across his broad face.
“I don’t know who you are, Lass,” he said finally. His fingers twirled momentarily in his long mustache. “However, I would like you to obey me immediately and silently.” He awaited evidence of her consent and then continued. “The double door behind this throne opens into a hallway with doors on both sides. You are to wait before the fourth one on the left. I shall be but a few moments behind you.”
Brita was glad one of the double doors stood open; she was not sure she could have opened them with her hands still tied. She marched directly through the open door and heard a small bell behind her ring. It was followed by the king’s voice. “Bring Her Majesty the Queen here,” it called. The voice did not sound angry at all.
Brita unconsciously counted the doors as she padded down the paneled hallway. The mud on her high-topped boots had dried, and small cakes of dirt broke off with each of her silent steps, leaving a ragged trail behind her. Dirt seems so out of place here, she thought.
She paused in front of the fourth door. It was ornate and heavy, of an exquisitely-carven dark wood. Its fixtures were enormous, made of polished bronze, and looked like they could withstand a siege. She did not try to open it; instead she pushed a few of the chunks of dirt off the carpet with her toes, though the movement seemed to cause ever more dirt to fall from her. At last she decided to silently await whatever was coming.
The king and his astonished queen soon appeared. He pushed the door open – it was unlocked after all – leading Brita inside with a hand on her elbow. She felt the cords of her bonds being cut. The queen hung somewhere behind them; Brita could smell her heavy perfume. She could also hear the queen’s rapid breathing. She looked and sounded more nervous than Brita, even though she said nothing.
Behind the door lay a quiet room – it obviously belonged to a girl – with bejeweled tapestries hanging everywhere and an ornate bed set in the middle of the wall farthest away. In the middle of the bed sat a red-haired girl, engrossed in an enormous book, who turned toward the sounds invading her placid chamber. Brita gasped as she beheld a washed and perfumed version of herself.
With a wave of his hand, the king motioned for Brita to sit on the bed. She complied immediately. The eyes of the queen, who came to stand next to her husband, darted in confusion from girl to girl.
“What is your name, Lass?”
“It’s Brita, Your Highness. I…”
“Brita,” he began, cutting her off with a wave of his ringed hand, “you have been caught with the Huntresses. As you know, brigandage is a capital offense in this realm as well as every neighboring one. I must therefore pronounce your doom.” Her face fell and that of the girl next to her displayed open horror. “However, you have obviously noted the startling resemblance you bear to my daughter. But for her birthmark, you could pass for her, even in my eyes.” The girls looked at each other; Brita had reached the king’s conclusion immediately, though she wondered if the princess she beheld could see anything of herself in calloused, smelly, muddy Brita. The King’s words, now sounding more like an explanation than a decree, drew Brita’s attention back to himself.
“Despite what you might think,” he continued, “the life of a princess is not easy in these times. My daughter’s life is in danger, as is that of her fiancé. Therefore I offer you a choice: remain in this place and take on some of her duties – the dangerous ones, of course – or face the consequences of your profession.”
Brita thought about it for only a second. “I accept,” she said. She rubbed her wrists and looked over at the girl on the bed, the princess who looked just like her.
“But Father,” the princess interrupted. “You cannot just…”
“I can do what I wish,” he snarled, but his face softened immediately. “And this is purely selfish on my part. Many of my nobles have been kidnapped or killed in the border wars, not a few by the Huntresses to whom your new companion lately belonged. I will not have you endangered in such a way. However, with your engagement about to be set, there will be need for you to appear publicly and more than once. Several of those appearances will be made by Brita, who will travel with me in your stead.
“Once you are married and the alliance is sealed, then we shall decide what to do with her.
“Have no fear, Brita,” he continued. “Your doom is lifted for as long as you comply. Do you understand this?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Brita replied.
Without another word, he turned to leave, motioning the queen to follow him. With confusion still upon her face, she retreated, stopping briefly to stare at Brita again. Then she closed the door quietly behind her.
“Well,” the princess said, turning to her muddy twin. “I’m Elda. How in the world did you ever get mixed up with the Huntresses?”
The question surprised Brita, and she thought about the only time she had asked another the same question…