The girl hurries me through a pink room with a long couch that’s absolutely covered in bows. The pink room has twelve other doors. The one we take leads into a hallway lined with pink and gold tapestries and a vase of flowers in every window. It’s like a sugar plum fairy got a little slap-happy with her wand.
Finally, we end up in a dining hall. At least, that’s what I assume you’d call this room. You know, because of the mile-long table right in the middle of it. It’s carved from a rich, dark wood, with thirteen chairs around it—one at the head of the table and six on each side. Less than half the chairs are occupied, but the four girls in front of me all look the same as the young girl who led me here. They all have long, blonde curls and small, pointed noses. Long, white necks and perfectly dainty chins. I’m starting to feel out of place. Mom is as pasty as they come, but I inherited Dad’s small size and his dark eyes and dark hair. And with my round nose and narrow eyes, I’m not exactly a classic beauty.
The oldest girl, sitting the farthest away on my left, turns her head and raises an eyebrow. “There you are, Ivy. We were beginning to think you’d run away.”
The other girls giggle like she said something very funny, but I must have missed the joke.
At the height of my self-consciousness, the youngest girl lets go of my elbow and leaves me, taking the last chair on the right. Between her and the girl sitting directly in front of me, there are four empty chairs. I start to sit in one of them, since there are only three empty seats on the other side, (What can I say? I like symmetry.) but the girls all give me a look like I just said I’d love to eat some raw oysters. I’m guessing we all have assigned seats in this place. And I have eight to choose from. Wonderful.
So I pretend like I meant to come this way, but I need to stretch my legs a little more. Nothing like a nice walk around the dining room table. I circle around at a leisurely pace and try to look casual, but five pairs of eyes follow me around the room. I slow down when I get to the other side of the table, but the girl nearest to me—the older one who made the not-so-funny joke—frowns. “Stop this nonsense, Ivy. Father will be here any moment.”
Sounds pretty serious. I move to the next chair, then the next, but the older girl’s frown deepens and her pale freckles really start to stand out against her light-colored skin. So I take the only chair left, between a tall girl, about my age, with dirty blonde hair and another girl that looks remarkably like the one sitting in front of her.
The heavy wooden chair scrapes against the mauve and white-swirled tile and I have some trouble scooting the huge piece of furniture under my butt. With another loud screech, my knees are finally tucked under the table and I’m pretty sure I’m blushing. I smile around at the beautiful, confused faces, but behind my smile I’m trying to figure things out. Why are there so many empty chairs, if I’m late? And why am I sitting here, dark-haired and stumpy like I’m one of these angelic girls? Are they all supposed to be sisters? My sisters? Was I adopted or something?
Okay, that’s ridiculous. I wasn’t adopted. I know who my parents are. My real parents, anyway. This is probably what the pixie meant when he said he’d have extra fun this time. He’s messing with me.
I try to relax and lean back in my chair. I run my moist hands down the rich wood carvings of the chair’s arms. The table setting looks like it belongs in a furniture store—a huge, flowery centerpiece, matching plates, and enough forks to make a certain little mermaid’s collection look embarrassingly small. No plastic cups in sight, either. It’s pretty, but it’s not home.
The double doors on the other side of the room fly wide open. The girls in front of me don’t turn around to look. They don’t even blink when the doors hit the walls with two simultaneous bangs. A tall man in a fur-trimmed jacket marches in with a scowl on his face. A train of men, dressed in black and brown (some of them holding musical instruments) scamper behind him like shivering, shaking
The tall man comes around to the head of the table and I notice the crown
resting on his brow. He’s a king? Does that make us… princesses? Immediately,
he turns to his left and stares at the empty chair. The one next to the nine
year old. His scowl grows colder.
“Faith.” He whips his head to address the oldest girl with the freckles, sitting to his right. “It seems another of your sisters has disappeared. Where is Grace?”
He speaks the last three words slowly, but his voice is hard and deliberate. One of his daughters is missing? Another one? Six of the chairs at the table are empty. They couldn’t possibly belong to six more princesses that have all gone missing. Who has twelve daughters?
I look to Faith for some kind of explanation. The chairs can’t all be for members of the same family. And what does the king mean by “missing”? Maybe Grace is just late getting to the table.
But Faith lowers her chin to her chest. Somehow, she still maintains that regal air while she stares at the empty plate in front of her. “I don’t know where she is.”
The king pounds his fist into the table and one of his forks falls to the floor. The happy chiming sound of delicate metal on marble explodes through the silence. The king pretends not to notice, even though one of the servants behind him looks horrified at the loss of a utensil. “I hope you girls have reconsidered.”
The other four girls hold completely still. I feel like I’m hiding in a wax museum and I don’t dare to move, either. I’m supposed to be blending in, I remind myself. Who cares what’s really going on in the messed-up family? But my eyes move from girl to girl, and then back to the king. My heart beats noisily inside me and I wipe my palms on my jeans.
When the king’s eyes fall on my, I’m sure I’m going to crack. At least, I would if I knew where his daughter had gone. His gaze bores into me, drilling holes into my brain, like he’s hoping to take the information by force. I hate to think it, but if he pulled stuff from my brain, the king would be really disappointed.
He stares at me for another minute. I feel like I’m not getting enough oxygen, even though I’m still breathing. A heavy weight pushes against my lungs. The pressure builds. I'm going to scream, I know it. Nobody can take this kind of torture.
Then he moves on to the tall girl next to me. Her hair is paler than the rest of the girls. “Felicity, please tell me. Where have your sisters gone?”
His voice is gentler now. Pleading. My heart breaks a little, until I look up at him. The king’s face is as hard as Plexiglas. Except for his eyes. Something about his eyes is just as desperate as his voice. Even they’re blue and buried under thick blond eyebrows, they prick a soft spot in my chest. They’re the eyes of a father.
Felicity lets her white-blonde hair cover her face. “I don’t know. I’m sorry, Father.”
The king turns his eyes back to me. “Please, Ivy. Tell me where my Grace is.”
I swallow hard and try to keep eye contact long enough to get a full sentence out. “I wish I knew.”
The king’s eyes harden a bit before moving to the girl to my right. “Charity? Chastity? Perhaps one of my twins heard something in the night?”
I realize the girl next to me and the girl sitting across from her have the same impish look and wild eyes. Something in those eyes flares like blue fire when they both answer. “No, Father.”
The king has to skip over four empty chairs to talk to the last sister. I still can’t imagine the whole table surrounded by that many blonde girls. “Please, Mercy.” He pleads with the youngest girl, the one that was worried I’d be late to dinner. But she doesn’t seem scared. Her perfect little face is smooth like porcelain. “You and Grace were so close. Tell me where she is so I can bring her home.”
The answer comes quickly and it sounds a little bored. “I don’t know where Grace is.”
The king stands, toppling his chair over with his broad shoulders. “Very well. If you won’t tell me willingly, I’ll find another way. But you won’t like it.”
Charity mutters something under her breath. It sounds like “manipulative old goat”.
The king nods to one of the servants behind him. The poor trembling man dashes out the double doors, his black ruffles bouncing around his neck. The princesses all follow him with their eyes, but keep their heads lowered. Seconds pass and I’m ready to scream again. Where are the lost princesses? What is the king planning? And where is the frilly man going?
The king seems smug, now that the frilly servant is off doing his bidding (whatever that may be). None of the softness is left in those blue eyes. It’s all ice and anger and an unsettling gleam that reminds me of the twins, Charity and Chastity.
Footsteps pulse in the hallway beyond the doors. Everyone watches the open doorway. What has the servant brought back?
But it’s not the servant. It’s a man, dressed in a cape and vest. A man with a sword and perfectly perfect teeth. He bows with a flourish of his hand and I gasp out loud. I recognize this guy, and his stupid hand flourish. He’s Prince Ferguson of Spiddle.