A wild scheme…
“You’re mad!” I stared at Helen.
“Why not? We’re of the same height, the same build—more or less, and our faces are so much alike…”
“Totally mad,” I repeated, as she continued, with mounting enthusiasm.
“And I could see what he is truly like, as he pays court to you, thinking you are me!”
“No!” I protested. “This isn’t… it’s the kind of wild scheme in a farce on the stage, or in those outlandish ballads the bards sometimes sing!”
Her eyes shone. “That’s why no one would ever suspect that we switched places!”
“It’s mad. And deceitful. No one would believe it,” I insisted again. “And the guards would know.”
“We could swear them to secrecy. Or I could order them to keep silent. I am the princess.”
“You are. And you are acting like a featherbrained fool. Whatever gave you this idea—” No, that was the wrong question. “Why do you want this so much?”
“You remember my mother taught me—and you, too—how to watch people when they take no notice of you. I have to know, don’t you see? If he is truly a good man, as they say, or a drunkard, or cruel, or a lecher. Someone like my… our… father.”
She rarely played that card, knowing I thought the same as she did, but it meant she was in deadly earnest.
I took a careful breath. “The ambassadors and ministers have all assured your mother that he is a good man. An honorable one. They made many provisions to protect you in all the marriage documents.”
Her face looked set in stone, my assurances having made not so much as a dent.
I sighed. “And if you find him not to your liking? What, then?”
“Then he will only have seen me as your maid. I can slip away and he will never know.”
I stared at Helen. “But all the arrangements, the ambassadors and their contracts—you agreed to all this! Isn’t it too late to say this is not what you wanted? And why didn’t you say so before?”
Helen bit her lip and looked down. Her face was miserable—and stubborn. “It’s not what I wanted. It never was. But—”
“But?” I probed, struggling to hold on to my patience.
She looked up at me with defiant sadness. “I could not quarrel with my mother.”
Oh, dear God. I could feel the pain in my own heart, and could think of nothing to say in answer. It had gone unspoken among the four of us—the queen, my mother, Helen, and I—something we all understood but never said aloud.
“I know this is how she thought to provide for me,” Helen continued. “To see me well-settled…” Her voice caught. “But Alyne, I can’t! To marry a stranger, and have to depend on him for my entire life? To do his bidding, because he is a king? When there is so much more that I want to know, that I’ve dreamed of learning—”
“It’s the way of the world,” I reminded her. We had both studied enough history to know that. “Remember also: you have a duty to your country. And you will be a queen—not wholly helpless.”
“But not free,” she whispered, her gaze dropping to the floor again.
I squeezed her hand. “But not alone—remember that as well.”
She hugged me then, fiercely. “Promise you won’t leave me.”
I returned her embrace. “Of course I promise. Come and get a good night’s sleep—things may look more cheerful in the morning.”
I brought her bedtime posset, of hot milk and honey, the way I had when she was a child. She smiled at me sweetly, almost angelically, as I took the empty cup away.
I should have remembered that smile.
The next morning she was gone.