If my brothers take after him, I take after my mother. That's probably why, when I turned thirteen, my father sent me as far away as possible and hasn't had much to do with me ever since. I look too much like her.
Not that I haven't tried to forge a relationship with him, or my brothers. When I was all alone in boarding school in the south of England, I called and wrote all the time, telling him how well I was doing in my classes, practically begging for him to be proud of me, to acknowledge what I was doing. Here I was, a teenager with only her lady-in-waiting, Jane, as her guardian, adapting to life on her own and getting nothing from him in return except a birthday card and the annual trip back home at Christmas time.
I look at my phone, my heart feeling heavier than normal, and wish there was someone else I could call. But there isn't. There’s only Jane.
I text her: Do you want to come over? I have wine and cheese.
Jane has been my lady-in-waiting for nine years now, and the two of us are pretty close. Well, she's the closest person to me but that's to be expected. I know it's ridiculous to even have a lady-in-waiting since I'm not really a princess and the term sounds like it's been ripped straight from medieval times, but it's the rules and I guess it's more for security purposes than anything else.
Jane texts back: What kind of wine?
Any wine you want, I text her, knowing I went above and beyond for this stupid wine and cheese night and got both red and white.
Two minutes later there's a knock at the door.
"It's open," I call out to her.
The door opens and there's Jane in her fluffy leopard-print bathrobe, her dark hair pulled tight off her face except for her blunt bangs which nearly hang in her eyes. Jane is nearly sixty years old, with a round face, a big smile, and an outgoing attitude which usually makes her the life of the party in most places. With this being my third year of schooling, I know that she's the happiest here in this hall of residence than she's ever been, and I think she's living out the college days she missed out on, if only just in her head.
"You're lucky. I was moments away from putting my hair up in curlers," she says to me, shutting the door behind her. She claps her hands together and grins maniacally as soon as she spots the cheese. "Oh, what have we here?"
She shuffles on over to the kitchen counter and I step out of the way to give her full access to the cheese.
"It's just gouda," I tell her.
"Just gouda?" she repeats, looking me dead in the eye, as if I've insulted her cheese sensibilities, a slice dangling from her fingers.
"Listen," I say dryly. "You know me. It was the best damn gouda I could find. It's more than gouda-nough."
She pinches her lips together and gives me a mock glare. "You know I didn't come over here for your cheese puns." A wave of sympathy flashes through her dark eyes, the kind of sympathy that makes me wince internally, like something in my heart just bunched up. Pity. "What happened to your wine and cheese gathering?"
I shrug. "Who is to say I didn't want just you over?"
She tilts her head, examining me. “As much as I know you love my good looks and outstanding personality, I also know you were looking forward to tonight and getting to know your roommates. So what happened?”
“I don’t know,” I say, trying to sound breezy but failing. I turn my attention to the bottle of grenache and unscrew the cap. “I fell asleep and I guess they didn’t want to wake me up, and the party ended up moving somewhere else.”
“So why don’t you go to where it moved to?”
I grab the glasses and pour each of us some wine. “I don’t think I’m wanted.”
Jane doesn’t say anything, so I glance up at her. Her lips are pursed together and under her bangs I know she’s raising a brow.
“What?” I ask, that look meaning something.
“You’re always wanted, Ella,” she says. “I know making friends is hard for you, but it just means you have to be a little more persistent and braver than normal.”
“If they wanted me there, wouldn’t they have told me? Texted me? Tried to wake me up anyway?”
“Maybe they don’t know you enough or feel comfortable with you to do that. You are a princess, after all, and they know that. You know that people aren’t sure how to handle it, how to behave. Maybe they think waking up Princess Isabella from a nap gets you bloody hanged in Liechtenstein, I don’t know.”
I manage a smile. “That’s definitely why the guys stay away from me.”
“It is what it is, dear.” She takes the glass and swirls the red wine around. “And it isn’t going to change. It doesn’t matter where you are or what school you go to because you are what you are. Even if you changed your name and pretended to be some dumb redneck named Mindy from Arkansas, you’d still struggle. You have to be bold, my friend. Be bold and brilliant in all things.”
“So what do you suggest I do?”
She takes a long sip of her wine, briefly closing her eyes and sighing happily. “Speaking of bold and brilliant, this wine is something else.”
She looks at me in surprise. “What do I suggest you do? Just take this cheese and that other wine, leaving this one here with me, and go find out where the party moved to and show up there.”
I shake my head, feeling panic swirl through me. “That’s pushy. I’ll get on their nerves.”
“You won’t and so what?”
“I hate feeling like a tag-a-long.”
“But maybe that’s just a feeling. They might not see you that way. They might just say, oh hey, it’s Ella, she came after all. Glad she’s here, now it’s a party.”
I shake my head, knowing full well that won’t happen. I take my glass of wine and head over to the couch, plopping down. The thought of doing that brings me nothing but anxiety. I don’t want to be a pain in the ass, so it’s just easier if I stay here and pretend the whole thing never happened.
I avoid Jane’s eyes as she watches me, trying to figure out what she can say next to convince me, but then, as usual, she concedes. With a heavy sigh she brings her glass and the bottle and the gouda, balancing all with ease, and comes to sit beside me on the couch.
“Are there any new episodes of that Making of a Murderer show on Netflix?” she asks, getting herself comfortable before reaching for a slice of cheese.
I grab the remote and turn the TV on. “Let’s find out.”
The next morning is dreary and drizzly. I spend too much time looking for an umbrella, which already puts me a few minutes behind my schedule, and when I give up and head out onto the campus, the skies decide to open, drenching me in seconds before I reach shelter under an elm tree.
Not the best start to the day. I drank a little too much wine with Jane last night, and despite passing out on the couch early and then dragging myself to bed before my flatmates got home, I still woke up feeling like crap.
Now my head is still muddled and there’s a chance I might be late to one of my favorite classes, Marine Ecosystems. I’m always punctual, early even, and the professor doesn’t look too kindly toward students who come in late.
I cringe at the thought of having everyone in the class stare at me, probably making comments at what a “princess” I am who thinks she needs special treatment or something like that. I crane my neck to look at the sky but it seems to have grown even darker.
Suddenly “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” bellows out from my book bag, making me jump, and it takes me a moment to recognize what it is. My ringtone. It has been so long since someone actually called it—usually I talk to Jane or my family through text or email—that I didn’t remember what I’d set my ringtone to.
I quickly fish the phone out of my bag then nearly drop it when I see the words on the screen. The call is from Liechtenstein, though the number is blocked and private.
Oh, please no, did something happen to my father or brothers?
I press the talk button and hold it to my ear, taking in a deep breath.
“Is this Princess Isabella?” a familiar male voice says in German.
“Yes,” I answer back, switching languages easily. “Who is calling?”
“This is Schnell, your father’s butler,” he says. I didn’t recognize his nasally voice at first, but Schnell has been working alongside my father as his right-hand man for decades now. I’m used to seeing Schnell as much as my father, maybe even more so.
“Hi, Schnell. Sorry I didn’t recognize your voice,” I tell him, my heart gripped by panic as I realize why he could be calling. “Is my father all right? Are my brothers?”
“Yes, yes, they are all fine. I’m calling on behalf of your father, actually. He has a meeting today and couldn’t call you himself but it’s a matter of importance.”
“Okay,” I tell him, relieved that everyone is fine. It’s not unusual for Schnell to do most of my father’s phone calls, even when it comes to state matters. “What is it? Is there a problem?”
“Not a problem,” he says. “But you have been invited to dinner tomorrow night at the Royal Palace in Oslo.”
“Uh, can you repeat that, Schnell?”
“Yes, madam. The Norwegian royal family has invited you for dinner tomorrow night and your father thinks it’s very important that you attend.”
“But…why? Why me?”
I mean, this is most unusual. I’m never invited anywhere, let alone any place royal. My princess status has been nothing but a hindrance ever since I left my own country. I don’t think the world even knows I exist.
“I am not sure,” he says. “Your father didn’t say much except to say it was mutually beneficial.” He pauses and I swear I hear some murmuring in the background. “Perhaps you can use this opportunity to speak to them about one of your issues.”