Rachelle is sitting on her bed, facing the window. I clear my throat to get her attention. She whirls around. Her eyes a puffy, but I pretend not to notice. She eyes my clothes. "Who are you? What do you want?"
I give my best curtsy. "Your mother has asked that I go on this quest with you... my lady."
She buys it.
It's not long before Rachelle (who, I learned is one of three princesses in the royal family. No princes.) and I are on our way. I tell her that my clothes are "special traveling clothes" so I don't get caught in one of those thick brown dresses with long skirts. I'd break my neck in that. "So... what are we looking for exactly... my lady?"
Rachelle scoffs and shakes her head, starting down the dusty path leading away from the castle. "I don't even know. No one does."
"Ah." How helpful.
Rachelle raises an eyebrow in my direction. "Did no one tell you anything?" She doesn't say it in a mean way. All I do is shrug and try not to look like a total idiot. Rachelle flings her braids behind her so they bounce against her lower back. "My father believes we haven't had rain this year because of some magic. A quest is the only way to fix that problem, in his mind."
Great. We need to make it rain. This could take a while.
Rachelle sighs. "I have half a mind to just disappear. You're welcome to leave me at any time, but I'm afraid you won't be able to go back to the castle. They'd hang you for leaving me alone."
I try to laugh. "Is that all?"
I don't think she got my joke.
I clear my throat and try to stand up straighter. "So you're just going to give up?"
She shrugs, which I realize doesn't look very princess-like, once you see a real princess do it. "Let my sisters handle it. They're more excited about the quest than I am."
I can't wait around here for everyone to realize Rachelle isn't coming back and THEN send the second princess. If my knowledge of fairy tales is any good at all, the second princess will fail, too. The third is the one who'll figure out something useful. We're talking several years of me being stuck in this lame fairy tale.
I throw my shoulders back and look at Rachelle. I give her the look my mom gives when she's trying to get me pumped up before a game. "Princess, you're better than that."
She lifts her chin and eyes me warily. I don't think she was expecting to hear any complaints from the girl in funny clothes. She's probably not used to being questioned, either. Bummer.
"You deserve to solve this. It's your right."
Apparently, this is the same argument her mother or someone made earlier, because Rachelle just rolls her eyes and shakes her head.
I exhale, biting my lower lip. Maybe I need a less direct approach.
Before I can think of a better argument, we see an old lady on the side of the road. Her frail body leans to one side and the hollows of her cheeks are deep enough to store plums. When we get closer, she wriggles her long fingernails at us. Well, at the princess. “Come here, young lady."
Rachelle wrinkles her nose and crosses to the opposite side of the street. But I know what this is. I grab her arm and whisper in her ear. "My lady, if you're going to live outside the walls of your father's house, you need to learn to behave differently."
She lifts her head slightly, listening to my every word.
"Outside the palace, young ladies are expected to be kind to old ladies." Old, creepy, leering hags, too.
The princess pauses and glances at the old woman's tattered clothes and bare feet. But she nods her head once and approaches. "Yes, can I help you with something?"
The old woman looks at Rachelle's feet. "My old feet are so tired and I have no shoes."
I nudge Rachelle, hoping she won't think too much about it. "You can have mine," I whisper.
Rachelle glances at my sneakers and her lower lip trembles, but she takes off her shoes.
The old lady snatches the shoes from the princess and grins so wide, we can see several gaps in her rotting mouth. "Thank you, my dear." She hobbles off.
That's when the rain starts. As the images around me start to fade, I take off my shoes. I'd feel awful if I left Rachelle out here alone, in the rain, without shoes. I manage to kick off my sneakers before my bedroom appears around me.
It's not until later, when I'm getting ready for school, that I realize my sneakers are missing from the closet.