“Why do we have to hide, exactly?”
I pull Will closer, shushing him. “Mother says I’m not mature enough for official kingdom affairs.”
“Then why are we here?”
I grin. “Because if she catches me, I can simply say I was showing you around like the gracious princess I am.”
“Of course.” Will shakes his head, but not without a small smile of his own. We’ve visited each other’s kingdoms more than enough times now for him to be accustomed to my little schemes.
I peek out from our hiding spot behind the wide stone column and see my parents standing in front of their thrones, a long line of people leading up to them for the monthly hearing of grievances. Now that my sister Isla is eighteen, she stands there as well, though she doesn’t seem all too excited about it. She glances around the room, lifting her hand to cover a yawn. If only we could switch places. She only looks back at the townspeople when the tan, burly man at the front of the line starts to raise his voice.
“You can’t expect such a measly ration of firewood to keep a sick child warm through the winter,” he says.
Father offers his sympathy — a hand over his heart, a look of sorrow. He says he’s sorry.
But the subject narrows his eyes. “If you’re so sorry, you should share your precious little garden.”
The crowd behind him gasps, and a buzz of murmurs echoes through the throne room. But Mother doesn’t shout — never deign to shout, she always tells me — she simply lifts her gaze onto the long throng of townspeople and looks to the king.
Silence, he says.
And there’s silence.
The subject flinches as Mother takes a step forward. She goes on with a long and dignified explanation of how much the rationing will help everyone in the long run and to stray from it would be unfair to the entire kingdom. She makes no comment on the royal garden.
When she dismisses the subject, he walks away without another word, allowing someone else to step to the front.
“That poor man,” I say.
But Will waves his hand dismissively. “He had it coming, disrespecting the queen like that. Besides, you heard your mother — this ration is important for your kingdom’s future. These commoners just don’t understand.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“I do wonder about that garden though. I feel like the hedges are higher every time I pass by. It must be amazing on the inside.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know. She keeps it locked.”
“Even from you?”
“Mother didn’t even give Isla a key until her eighteenth birthday last month. And I believe she’s the only person who has one besides Mother and Father.”
It does seem strange, though. I always thought Mother simply didn’t want a child gallivanting about her flowers — she’s always been very particular about flora — but if she’s hiding resources while the kingdom’s in need…
Suddenly, an idea comes to me. I glance back at the endless line in the throne room. It should keep the rest of my family occupied for a while.
“You know,” I say, “I doubt Isla has it on her person. We can probably find it in her room.”
Will raises an eyebrow. “Are you suggesting we sneak in?”
“Why not? It’ll be just like that time we snuck into the kitchen to steal extra tarts.”
“Stealing from the future queen’s private quarters is hardly the same as taking food from a common baker.”
I put my hands on my hips. “There is nothing common about Pan’s baking. Besides, we’re not stealing. We’ll put the key back before Isla can even notice it’s gone.” I take his hands and swing them back and forth. “Don’t you wanna see the garden?”
“All right,” he says with a smile.
“Now let’s go while everyone’s still busy.”
We tiptoe out of the throne room, following the corridor toward our destination. But as we approach the bedrooms, I stop in my tracks when I see Pete standing between the doors to Isla’s room and mine.
“What wrong?” Will says.
“The guard,” I whisper. “He won’t let us into Isla’s room — at least, not without telling anyone else.”
“Oh. Well, I’m sure we can find something else to do.”
I take a moment to consider. But no. I’m not giving up that easily.
I grab Will’s arm and head toward my bedroom door. Pete raises his eyebrows at me, but I pull Will inside and shut the door before he can speak.
“What are you doing?” Will asks, following me to my balcony.
“Exactly what I said I would do.” I tug on the thick ivy growing on the outside of castle. It completely covers the wall between my balcony and the next one over. “I’m going to Isla’s room to find the key.”
“Then why are we-” Will looks at the vine in my hand, and I grin as the unease settles into his face. “No,” he says. “No, no, Freya, it isn’t sa- hey!”
“Oh, it’s perfectly safe,” I say, pulling myself up high enough to set a foot on the railing. “See?”
He continues on with his frantic cries, but I ignore him, gripping the vines tightly as I step off the railing. I sway a little, and when I feel the wind pushing against my body, it strikes me just how high up I am. But I simply tighten my grip further and avoid looking down. Will eventually stops yelling as I carefully continue my climb. Before long, I’m halfway to Isla’s balcony.
But then I hear my bedroom door open, and my heart jolts at the sound of Mother’s voice: Prince William? What’s going on?
Before I can recover from my shock, the vines slip from my fingers, and suddenly I’m falling. The blur of clouds across the sky and the glaring sun are the last things I see before I close my eyes and brace for impact.
And then I feel the rough vines around my hands again, and the next thing I know, I’m back up against the wall.
I don’t remember reaching out or grabbing the vines again, but here I am, gasping for breath and clinging to ivy for dear life. And I feel like I could cling to it forever, never moving from this spot, until I hear Mother’s stern voice from above.
“Princess Freya,” she says. “Climb back up.”
But I can’t move.
“Princess Freya,” she repeats sharply. “Climb. Up.”
“I can’t.” I shake my head, wiping tears against the ivy leaves. “I can’t. I can’t.”
Then I hear Pete’s voice, offering to help. To save me. I need him to save me.
No. She must do this herself.
I look up at my mother, pleading with fearful eyes, but there’s no trace of sympathy on her face. She’s not my mother right now, I realize. She’s a queen who has been disobeyed, and I the subject who slighted her.
“Climb up,” she says.