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Princess at Heart: Part 3 – Chapter 38

They stayed in town until the sky turned pink and the clouds turned lavender. Lottie explained the situation to them over hot tea that Anastacia treated them to. She told them about the dates, and about the Flower Festival, and Ellie leaving, and her friends listened intently, comforting her when she cried, waiting patiently for her to find the words.

When they arrived back at Rosewood, Dame Bolter was furious, saying she had been about to call the police, but as soon as she saw their faces, as well as the concerned look from Professor Devine, she let them off with a warning.

Grabbing a pillow and Mr Truffles, Binah walked with Lottie to Stratus Side, deciding it would be best for her to stay with her that night, so she wouldn’t be alone.

Humming to herself, Binah prepared some loose-leaf tea in her copper dining set, Lottie finding the stirring sound of the spoon against the metal strangely mesmerizing.

Wandering around, Lottie stroked the leaves on the plants in Binah’s private garden that she called a room, tracing long hanging vines with her fingers and breathing in the sweet lilies and herbs on the windowsill. On her large bookshelf was an array of crystals. One in particular caught Lottie’s eye, a cracked amethyst geode, the light bouncing off its jagged lilac edges, beautiful and pointed, sharp and wonderful, like a storm in summer. It reminded her of Ellie.

Where are you? she thought, and swallowed down another ache in her throat.

‘You can stay with me and my parents in London over Easter and the summer,’ Binah said suddenly, placing a teacup in front of her, steam wafting into the air from the amber liquid.

‘Thank you. I’m sure it won’t come to that,’ Lottie replied, but her voice wavered, unsure, so she took a sip of tea to try to hide it.

‘Either way,’ Binah said, not hiding her lack of confidence, ‘you’re welcome.’

The next morning was exceptionally cold, a wind coursing through the school that whipped at everyone’s uniforms, and blew their hair around in great bellows, obscuring faces and making the school appear filled with flickers, haunted and ghoulish.

Trudging through the gale, Binah and Lottie went to meet Anastacia and Saskia in the Conch common room.

‘Feels like we’re at the beach,’ Lottie said, shaking off the last of the wind as she hung up her jacket.

‘Or heading into a storm,’ Binah countered, but Lottie didn’t want to think about storms right then.

Anastacia had commandeered a spot at the bay window, reclining against the plush sofa, wrapped up in Saskia’s arms, the two of them looking like the deadliest couple in the whole world. For the first time ever seeing them together made Lottie’s heart ache in a way she wasn’t used to, her brain flashing up images of Ellie and Jamie in her head without her permission.

‘Any news?’ Anastacia asked, when Lottie came to sit beside them.

‘No,’ Lottie said, defeated. ‘No messages left for the school, and I asked permission to check my phone – nothing, no note, no letters.’

‘What will you do when school closes?’ Saskia reminded her unhelpfully.

‘She can stay with me,’ Binah said so Lottie didn’t have to reply.

‘The most important thing right now is that we get this information to them about when Leviathan will execute their plan regarding Ellie and her family,’ Lottie announced, ignoring how her voice cracked. ‘We have to warn them.’

Nodding in agreement, Anastacia pulled out a notebook. ‘I’ve jotted down a few possibilities that –’

‘Hey, Princess,’ a Conch student called across the room, cutting Anastacia off and gesturing to the large television mounted on the wall. ‘Your parents are on TV.’

Lottie felt her skin go hot, like the start of a fever. ‘Excuse me?’

‘Turn it up,’ Saskia called, while Anastacia gave anyone making noise a death glare that quickly had them shutting up.

We are now live with the king and queen of Maradova who have relayed that there will be an official announcement,’ the news anchor declared, and, sure enough, the image on the screen showed King Alexander and Queen Matilde stepping on to a podium, both dressed in the regal attire and sashes that Lottie knew were used for important addresses.

‘No.’ The word escaped Lottie’s mouth in a squeak, throat closing like she was drowning, because behind the king and queen was a girl in matching attire, a sash draped over her shoulders. ‘Ellie.’ The name sent a dizzy jolt of pain through her head.

Lottie could barely concentrate on the king’s speech, her brain only snapping back into focus when Ellie stepped up to the podium.

The king has now passed the podium over to a young woman,’ the news anchor announced, trying to hide her confusion. ‘I believe we will hear her speak next.

Her breathing ragged, Lottie stared up at Ellie, who was dressed in a long indigo sarafan dress embroidered with stars that matched the gold sash. The outfit was mesmerizing, flowing with Ellie where she swayed. Her hair was clipped up elegantly with a moon ornament, showing off her delicate neck and porcelain skin. She was so beautiful it made her heart ache – a perfect princess. But it was all wrong. Her dark eyes looked down in defeat, because this wasn’t what she wanted and this was never how she’d choose to present herself. Lottie desperately longed to free her.

‘Isn’t that …?’ another Conch boy began, but Anastacia scowled at him, practically baring her teeth.

And then Ellie began to speak.

Looking out at the crowd, eyelids half closed in a scowl, making her appear ferocious yet beautiful, Ellie opened her dark lips, her voice coming out as clear and dark as rumbling thunder.

After nearly eighteen years of being hidden away behind the palace walls, and under the cover of a pretence, I have come to address the world and my people with the hope of fostering a strong and honest relationship moving forward.

Lottie felt the world crumbling again, the little ledge she’d found for herself falling away beneath her feet. Binah grabbed her hand and squeezed.

The reasons for our decision to keep my identity hidden were complicated, but we believed this was the best choice in allowing me both the most preparatory upbringing and the chance to learn and grow until I was ready to take responsibility.

Another hand grabbed Lottie, and Anastacia’s pulse thumped against her skin, and Saskia put a hand on her shoulder, steadying her – all of them waiting for the inevitable impact, refusing to let it knock her down. They would not let her fall.

Together they looked up at their friend: a storm and a princess trapped in the tower.

On screen Ellie’s lips twitched, her nose crinkling, and Lottie saw that she was afraid – and all Lottie wanted to do was save her. Ellie looked over the crowd once more, taking a deep breath before she spoke the words that would change everything.

I am the real princess of Maradova.

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