The False Princess

By: Eilis O Neal


The day they came to tell me, I was in one of the gardens with Kiernan, trying to decipher a three-hundred-year-old map of the palace grounds. We were sit ing on a stone bench, the delicate roll of fabric lying between us. Instead of looking toward the gardens, however, we faced the gray wall that separated the northernmost edge of the palace grounds from the streets of Vivaskari.

“It can’t be there,” he was saying. “Look, Nalia.”

I glanced up from the map to follow Kiernan’s nger, which pointed at the expanse of wall in front of us. Once he had my at ention, he jumped up from his seat on the bench and strode toward the wall. He rapped his st against it, then winced comically. I rolled my eyes.

“See?” he said. “There’s nothing here. Are you sure, oh princess wise and stubborn, that you’re reading it properly?” I sighed in frustration. He was right. We had examined this section of wall for over an hour, searching for any cracks or indentions that might indicate a secret door, all without success.

“We’re where it says we should be. At least, where the part that I can read says we should be.” I tugged a hand through my hair, pulling a few of the dark brown strands loose so that they trailed against my neck. “It’s those markings along the bot om. I’ve looked and I’ve looked, but I can’t nd anything that even comes close to them. They aren’t any modern language I know, or even any ancient one.” Which was irritating, since I knew four modern languages well, bits and pieces of six others, and enough of ve ancient tongues to at least recognize them. But these … runes—I could think of no bet er word to describe the scratchy markings—were completely ba ing. Not that I had asked anyone else about them, not even the librarians who should have been the map’s keepers. It was a mystery, one Kiernan and I had discovered, and we were determined to figure out the answer by ourselves.

“They could say anything,” I continued. “They could say, ‘Do the opposite of everything you’ve just read.’ After all, the location of the King Kelman’s Door is supposed to be secret.”

We had been trying to nd King Kelman’s Door since the snowstorm last winter that had trapped the entire city indoors for days. Though I would have enjoyed sit ing in front of a fire in one of the palace halls with a good book, Kiernan chafed at being kept inside. And since I was his best friend, finding ways to help him expend his boundless energy had generally fall en onto me.

So we had spent most of the four snowbound days exploring the palace, which, being more than six hundred years old, had enough interesting places to keep us busy for forty days. Kiernan liked the armory best, where he could examine the weapons of deceased kings and queens, and where we found a tiny hidden recess in the wall behind the shield of my great-great-grandfather. Inside the recess had lain a dagger, no longer than my hand from wrist to ngertip. It was quite plain and, since we couldn’t imagine that anyone had missed it during the past hundred years, Kiernan had kept it.

It was in the library, though, that we made our most exciting discovery. After two days of exploring, I had felt a strong, almost overwhelming need to read something, anything, and I had been determined to spend at least an hour in the palace library. Kiernan, though able enough when it came to books and learning, had lit le true patience for sit ing and reading. Still, he had followed me, protesting all the while. When I told him that he didn’t have to come, he only shrugged and came after me anyway. That wasn’t strange, though. We were best friends; we did everything together. He dragged me into scrapes that I would never have considered get ing into otherwise, pulled me from my shell of shyness and reserve, and for my part, I made sure that he read a book every once in a while.

I had wanted to look at a book on the history of Thorvaldian magic. The particular volume I wanted, which covered a span of some ve hundred years but contained magical theories now considered out of date, was shelved in a tiny room in the very back of the library, tossed amid a collection of moldering scrolls and maps. Even though I lacked any magic myself—no member of the royal family had possessed magic for four hundred years—I had always been fascinated with it anyway. Not that I had as much time as I would have liked to devote to it; there were always more pressing things that a princess needed to study. But I read what I could, even when I didn’t understand some of it.

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