(Continued from Part VI)

Brita was sitting with the princess when a knock came and the door to their room creaked open. The king entered alone and quietly, pulling a wooden stool over to sit next to the girls. He gently kissed his unconscious daughter’s brow.

“The doctors are still pretending to be hopeful,” the king began. “The poison is gone, but it has done its work. Too well, I’m afraid.” His glance fell over Elda’s sunken eyes and discolored skin, and he shook his head and exhaled. Then he turned his face to Brita. She noticed that his eyes were bloodshot. Still, she could tell from their intensity that he had come with her and not Elda primarily in mind.

“Brita, I have an odd request,” Father said at last. “It is both selfish and perhaps unkind, but I hope you will hear it through.” Brita looked into his haggard eyes: there was indeed more troubling him than his daughter’s condition. Elda’s wedding was three days away, and royal responsibilities had weighed more heavily in his recent conversations than familial ones.

The king took a deep breath and continued, taking her hands between his. “As you know, only the queen and I can tell the two of you apart. The guards cannot, and her fiancé, who has met her but once, certainly cannot…”

Brita was stunned. She knew what his request was going to be. It wasn’t fair. Not to her, not to the princess. Damned tradition!  Damned alliances!

“…need you to step in, so to speak. We need this union if we are to survive as a kingdom…”

She barely heard the rest. If Elda died, Brita would become the new princess. Life would go on for the kingdom, with only a few trusted souls ever knowing the truth. She would marry a prince, live in a castle. She could live her mother’s dream by taking Elda’s dream away. All she had to do was nothing. But was it her dream?  Was it right?

“…cannot be forced upon you. It must be done with your complete cooperation, though who would believe the story were you to tell it?”

Brita looked at the princess while Father waited patiently for an answer. She glanced past him at the tapestries that hung from the castle walls and imagined how her own might look. She imagined her own children, someday, running down stone hallways and playing in the woods, learning to ride and to hunt with their father. She remembered their future father struggling for his crossbow. She saw the bolt in his back, the blood on his white teeth.

“Let me think on it, Father. Please?” she said finally.

“That’s all that I can ask,” Father replied at last. And pulling himself heavily to his feet, he turned and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Brita looked down at the princess. She removed her gloves. Once the wedding was over, there would be no need for her. Brita had long since put behind the fear that she would be made to disappear, and thought she might be allowed to return to the Huntresses. But they were still outlaws. Jenna’s limp body hung in her mind, slowly twisting.

If not, she could marry the prince, wear a crown, and raise a future king. And after all, she was the daughter of a king. Well, he’s probably a king by now, she thought. Maybe he’s even the king she had taken to calling “Father” in the past few months. That brought an ironic smile to her lips.

She set her gloves down while she listened to Elda’s labored breathing. She could hear own steady, if slow, heartbeat, beating in rhythm with the girl’s rising and falling chest. She watched a bead of sweat roll off the princess’ brow. She felt a matching one on her own.

Now that you’ve been a princess, she asked herself, how badly do you want to be a queen?

(Continued in Part VIII)