(Looking for Chapter 1? It’s here: Chapter 1. Purple Pumpkins.)
Chapter 2. Behind the Arras
It started with a muffled boom that I could feel in my chest and stomach, followed by the thud of falling stonework, the higher-pitched crash of roof tiles, and finally the screams of injured horses. The first sounds frightened me. The last one angered me.
“Follow my lead,” said Frank. “Come on.”
I stood and swayed. My bad leg was asleep. Frank pocketed the note, picked me up like a child, and carried me to the back of the library. I was small but not that small: he was strong for his age. He pulled back the corner of a floor-to-ceiling wall hanging and revealed a wide, empty niche that had probably displayed a statue or two once upon a time. Though I spent more time in the library than anyone, I’d never suspected it was there. He pulled me inside and twitched the hanging back into place.
I found myself facing him, my arms around his neck. I couldn’t let go because my legs refused to support my full weight. He had an arm around my waist to help keep me upright. He enjoined silence by pressing the index finger of his free hand gently to my lips.
Just seconds later I heard footsteps enter the library. They ran up and down the aisles in an almost frenzied search. A man’s voice, familiar but unwelcome, said, “She’s not here, my lord.”
Another unwelcome voice said, “She has to be here!”
“Maybe she’s in the ladies’ room.”
“Let’s check, then.”
The footsteps departed.
I stirred, but Frank put his finger to my lips again and I subsided. It was dim but not entirely dark. Frank listened with his eyes closed and his head tilted. From time to time, he opened his eyes and looked at me to see if I was all right. He seemed almost painfully alert. Each time our eyes met, I could feel him relax a trifle, but this was interrupted when he closed his eyes again.
My legs were waking up and I didn’t need to hang on to him anymore, but I kept my arms around his neck.
After a minute or two, he began stroking my hair with his free hand. It was an outrageous liberty. I should have been furious, but … I wasn’t. It was soothing.
I hadn’t expected tenderness from Frank. I hadn’t expected tenderness from anyone ever again; not since my mother died. I sighed softly and let him continue, accidentally nuzzling his throat before resting my cheek on his shoulder. I could hear his heartbeat. He seemed so sure of himself, so calm, but his heart was racing. It slowed somewhat and his body relaxed as he stroked my hair. I wasn’t the only one who found it soothing.
The note had saved my life. I tried to remember writing it, but not a shadow, not an echo of it remained.
I tried to imagine writing the phrase, “You must befriend me,” but it seemed unreal. I had no friends; none at all. I rejected the few overtures that came my way, all palpably insincere. Stranger still, Frank had acted upon my note without hesitation, with a strange combination of manly fortitude, touching faith, and childish glee.
It was this that convinced me that I’d truly seen the future. I couldn’t have imagined Frank’s response, let alone predicted it. Not with my everyday knowledge.
I’d signed the letter, “Love, Flavia.” Perhaps it was a lie to ensure Frank’s cooperation? On the one hand, it was an almost admirable ruse; forgivable, considering the stakes, though I hated dishonesty. On the other hand, Frank had trusted the letter. He’d trusted me. I hoped he hadn’t trusted in vain. Taking advantage of him seemed terribly cruel. He deserved better. Could he ever forgive me?
After a long period of silence, we heard scattered shouts, gunfire, and shrieks in the distance. The tension was unbearable. I wanted to scream. That was when Frank and I began kissing. I’m not sure which of us started it. I was twelve and perhaps a little backward for my age. Kissing had never been on my mind. I suppose I still thought of myself as a little girl, though my body had changed in ways that declared otherwise. But here I was.
Frank, on the other hand, was boldness personified. Surely, his approach to kissing would verge on assault! But it wasn’t like that at all. He moved slowly, as if his heart would break if he startled me. His lips were warm and his kisses were so soft! In spite of everything, I allowed myself to pretend, just this once, that a boy could love me.
The shouts and gunfire stopped, but we didn’t. We traded gentle kisses, not only on the lips but on the face and neck, too.
We froze when we heard footsteps. A soft voice called, “Flavia?”
“Daddy!” I scrambled out of the niche and almost fell, but caught myself on a nearby bookcase. Frank emerged a moment later.
My father the king strode into view. He was wearing one of his beautiful pinstripe suits. Unusually for him, he was carrying a Thompson submachine gun; the older model with the drum magazine. It made him look like a particularly handsome 1920s gangster with an excellent tailor. He sighed in relief. There were tears in his eyes, so I guessed that he’d been afraid that he’d find me lying dead. He looked curiously at Frank.
I wondered if Frank would be embarrassed. After all, he’d been caught alone with a girl and wasn’t even properly dressed. I needn’t have worried; Frank was the soul and image of the cheeky rascal. He extended a hand. “Sire. Frank Barron.”
Daddy shook it automatically, then chuckled. “Caught me off guard, boy. Welcome. I haven’t seen you since you were small.”
“Daddy, I think Frank just saved my life.”
Daddy’s face went wooden, the way he does when he’s hiding his emotions. “He probably did. They were going to shoot you if they caught you, Princess. Thank you, my boy.”
“Also, he’s my boyfriend.”
“What? How long have you known him?”
I didn’t wear a watch, so I turned to Frank. He glanced at his wristwatch and said, “About twenty minutes—or the rest of our lives, if we’d been found.”
I was starting to sag. Even my good leg was aching and trembling. Frank offered me his arm matter-of-factly and I leaned on it.
Daddy said, “Don’t get your hopes up, boy.”
“Show him the note, Frank.”
Frank handed him the note. Daddy read it carefully. He has wonderful powers of concentration, even in a crisis. He told me, “Interesting. We’ll talk later. Frank, I know you’re an intelligent boy. This note and every single one of its implications are state secrets.”
He stared at Frank for a moment and said, “I’m assigning you to accompany the princess. Stick close to her until I relieve you. Stay sharp and keep her safe.”
“Thank you, Sire!”
Daddy smiled briefly, then became grave. He told me, “Princess, I want to show you something. Something ugly, I’m afraid. Come along” He walked off briskly. He’d left his two bodyguards just inside the library door, and they flanked him. Daddy outpaced us and we were left behind.
Daddy is a wonderful person, but he has fixed beliefs about mind over matter, especially among the aristocracy. No coddling. What’s sad is that I can keep up with him and walk without limping for short distances if I’m not too tired, but I was over-tired that day, having worn myself out horseback riding the day before. Daddy never slowed to my pace. He strode down the long corridor and was lost to sight as he took the stairs to the ground floor. But he sent one of his bodyguards to walk behind us at a discreet distance. I hobbled as fast as I could.
Frank was upset. Many people are upset when they see me limping heavily, which adds an unpleasant lurch to my gait and almost as painful for them to watch as it is for me to walk. Somehow, though, I knew that he was bothered more by Daddy’s behavior than by my limp. I had mixed feelings about this. Eventually he said, “I can carry you or we can slow down. Take your pick.”
I slowed. He was right, of course: it helped. I could walk more normally and he could support me more effectively if I didn’t rush. Carrying me was out of the question; not when we might be seen. It was too undignified.
Frank said, “Should I be on your other side?” Most people are too busy pretending not to notice my handicap to take in the details. I nodded and he moved to my left. My left leg is indeed my bad leg. Not that my right leg is anything to write home about. I came down with polio when I was little, just before the vaccine was used widely here, and it damaged both my legs. I’m fine otherwise; I really am. I leaned heavily on Frank’s arm.
“There we go,” said Frank when my gait was as good as it seemed likely to get. “Two young people out for a stroll. I like having a beautiful girl on my arm.”
“I’m not beautiful,” I said, “and I don’t like flattery.”
Frank said, “Modest, too. Is there no end to your virtues?”
“I’m serious, Frank.”
“Oh, all right.” We started down the stairs to the ground floor and he changed the subject. “So what kind of stakes do you use when you gamble?”
“Because I figure we’re about to be shown corpses or prisoners, and I wondered which side of the bet you wanted.”
I shuddered and my eyes filled with tears. “Please don’t. Please. I’ve had a sheltered life. I can’t joke about murder. It’s all new and horrible.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” He called me his sweetheart!
After a few steps he said, “So today’s not typical, then?”
I stood up straighter. “How could it be? It has you in it.”
I was afraid I’d gone too far, but he grinned. “So it does. Shall I distract you with pleasant thoughts?”
“Having you as my boyfriend is not a pleasant thought!” Now I was sure I’d gone too far and I was ashamed. He was my rescuer, my hero. He deserved my thanks, not my abuse. And I liked him. What was wrong with me? Was I some kind of monster? I looked at him anxiously. He was looking at me in exactly the same way. A moment later we were both smiling. It felt very strange.
I said, “I walk a lot better than this most days.”
“I’m glad to hear it. What good is having a girlfriend who doesn’t fetch and carry?”
“You’ll think of something.” The next time I glanced at him, he wore an evil grin. This puzzled me until I figured it out several steps later. “Not something like that! Stop it! I’m an innocent girl. I don’t do double entendre.”
Frank said, “I’ll teach you. I knew this girl, she had the biggest double entendres you ever saw.”
We were silent for a few steps, then I said, “Meaning breasts?”
“So I have to learn what people with dirty minds will infer when I only give them a vague hint?”
“Without developing a dirty mind of my own?”
I tossed my head. “Never mind, then.”
“What good is having a girlfriend who doesn’t let me corrupt her?”
“You’ll think of something.”
We were almost at the courtyard door and Daddy was waiting for us. When we caught up, he opened the door for us.
The palace is basically a Spanish-style villa. It’s three stories tall, with stone walls, red tile roof, and a central brick courtyard with a fountain in the middle. On the opposite side of the courtyard, part of the wall had fallen, presumably due to the explosion. Daddy’s study was exposed, looking strangely intact considering that one wall was missing, until you realized that this wasn’t true. The first several feet of floor, including his desk and chair, were missing. Someone had tried to blow him up.
We stopped and stared. After a while Frank said, “I wonder how it was done? I’d have thought the blast damage would be more spherical.”
“Do you know about explosives?”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
I’d heard the screaming of horses, but none were now in the courtyard. They must have been led off to the stables. I hoped the poor beasts were all right.
The aftermath of the explosion wasn’t what Daddy wanted us to see. He led us to a wooden farm wagon. In it had been thrown four corpses. I’d never seen a corpse before, except once or twice at open-casket funerals where the morticians had gone to a lot of trouble. This was different. I’m not going to describe what they looked like, but even I could tell that they were dead bodies and not people anymore. A cloud of flies had gathered already and there was a smell of feces that almost masked the smell of blood. Death was more undignified than I had realized. I felt a little dizzy and for a moment I had a sense of unreality. The appalling vividness made it undeniable, though.
Lord Murdock the seneschal was one of the corpses. So was my tutor, Sir Archibald. Two were men I didn’t know. The other end of the wagon held a dozen purple pumpkins. Until that moment I hadn’t realized that purple pumpkins existed outside of dreams.
There were other people about, so I had to speak formally. In a shaking voice I said, “Sire, Lord Murdock and Sir Archibald looked for me in the library. I recognized their voices.”
“I’m almost sorry they didn’t surrender,” said Daddy in a deceptively mild tone. “They would have apologized to you from the scaffold.”
Sir Archibald had been a nervous, twitchy man with bad breath. Of all my tutors, he had been the least competent, the least diligent, and the least sane. Sometimes I’d wondered if he hated me. I had my answer now. Lord Murdock hadn’t pretended to like me the way most did. A crippled princess was an object of open distaste to him, even if I was heir to the throne.
I felt weak and ill. Frank braced himself as I put more of my weight on his arm. I said, “Do I … do I have your leave to depart, Sire?”
“Of course, Princess.”
Continued in Chapter 3, “Inaccurate Fairy Tales.”