The matron dropped another pile of dishes in the sink, causing the soapy water to splash onto my shirt. I took one look at my callused hands and almost laughed from the sheer madness of it. Growing up, I’d heard tales of princesses in disguise but never thought I would be one. Now, I worked in the same palace I’d grown up in.
There was safety in it though. Why would nymphs think to look for me here? These callused hands only added to my facelessness. That, and the scar I’d received the night of their invasion. A blessing in disguise really. Their army was equipped with a description of long, sleek auburn hair and perfect skin.
True enough, my hair was long again, hiding the burns on my neck and shoulders. But it was the scar that ran from my left temple to the corner of my chin that would destroy any notion that I was the princess.
Three weeks ago, the emperor’s soldiers had brought me in for questioning, like they did with all women my age. The emperor wanted to destroy my family, though he couldn’t accomplish that until he found me. Ever since Zephyr, the war consul’s son, had assumed that responsibility, the nymphs’ search for the fugitive princess had become more desperate. I’d been plucked from the safety of the small farming village where I’d hid for the past two years.
Minnie, one of the maids, entered the kitchen, her shrill voice catching my attention. I looked up from the dishes, watching her smirk.
“I heard Caiaphus is gathering troops again,” she giggled as she gossiped with another maid I didn’t recognize.
The matron glared at Minnie. “That’s none of your business. Not if you want to keep your job here.”
Minnie only snickered, leaning close to a cauldron of bubbling soup. The other maid whispered something in Minnie’s ear, and the two started laughing loudly. Until Minnie slipped, her hand brushing against the scalding pot.
The matron scoffed at the whimpering girl. “Serves you right.” She handed Minnie a wet cloth. “Now shoo. Leave the kitchen staff to their work.”
When the matron turned back, her withering gaze landed on me. I slowly went back to washing the dishes until they shined like mirrors.
Minnie wasn’t the first person to speak of war. I’d heard whispers and idle chatter from the other servants that the nymphs were preparing to attack one of the nearby cities. In the two years since their war consul, Caiaphus, had conquered Iridia, the water nymphs had grown fat and bored.
I suspected they would hit the human city Meraki, but the wood nymph village of Charmolia was also a viable option. Both cities were near rivers or lakes, something the water nymphs desperately needed for survival. It didn’t matter that Charmolia was predominantly wood nymphs. If the emperor wanted something, he got it, no matter who it hurt. I hadn’t realized how prejudiced the nymphs were, even against their own kind, until I arrived at the palace.
It should have been obvious to me since only one of their consuls was a wood nymph. I wondered how many favors the creature had bought to gain his position. He must have resented Caiaphus, who’d gained his consul position merely by conquering my kingdom.
Once I finished the dishes, I planned to go back to my room and rest but found myself wandering through the rest of the palace. Even as I traversed the familiar grounds, moving through the hallways with ease, it seemed odd to be out in the open since I’d made myself so good at hiding. Overall, little had changed about my childhood home, and my feet automatically remembered the way without direction from my brain.
But it was the little things, like the paintings of rivers and streams meant to worship water, the water nymphs’ life source, or the fountains that had been built in my absence so they could refresh themselves by dipping their fingers in the ever-flowing water, that yanked my body from its autopilot. This was no longer my home, and I was no longer a princess.
I hesitated outside my old bedroom. The brown door with curling gold script welcomed me back as if no time had passed. It was ironically fitting that Caiaphus’s son now lived in my old rooms, though my stomach twisted as I pushed the door open and saw my things replaced with his. If anyone had information about the nymphs’ movement against neighboring countries, surely Zephyr would know.
The light pink bedspread had been replaced with a gray one. The ruffled bed skirt had disappeared, revealing storage boxes beneath the bed. None of my books or trinkets decorated the bookshelf in the corner.
There weren’t any books on it at all. Instead, the shelves had been transformed to display his swords and knives. In fact, the only book in the room sat on the side table next to the bed.
And then there was the bicycle mounted like a trophy over the fireplace. They were meant to be used, not displayed. I couldn’t remember a time when my bicycle wasn’t stored in the stables. I spent nearly as much time polishing it as I did riding it. Exhibiting it like a toy seemed like a mockery of its purpose.
I quickly scanned the room, going through his desk and drawers. I found only discarded love notes to Johanna, my back-stabbing best friend. I tossed them back into the drawers with disgust.
Our families had been close, and Johanna’s father had been the one to reassure us that the nymphs wanted to live in peace. But they deceived us, her father secretly looking to increase his power and Johanna hoping to gain a better position. Self-serving snakes.
Johanna had gotten what she wanted though. Managing to ensnare Zephyr in an engagement couldn’t have been an easy task, especially as a human. The only thing the water nymphs hated more than wood nymphs were humans.
But his discarded notes to her weren’t helpful. If anything, they were pathetic attempts at poetry, reinforcing my opinion that the marriage was for political reasons.
But how could Zephyr not have one clue about his father’s plans?
Across the room sat a tilted sofa, as if someone had knocked against it and not bothered to fix its position. Elegant, gold-encrusted clothes lay scattered over the plush cream seats so that there wasn’t any room to sit down.
Of course, nymphs could live for hundreds of years. Zephyr was about the same age as me. They probably wouldn’t start grooming him for his father’s position until long after I died.
What a horribly disappointing thought.
As I bent down to look under the bed, my old vanity caught my eye. It looked out of place among the weapons decorating the room. Moving closer, I expected to see cobwebs or dust, but its surface was clean.
Catching sight of my face in the mirror, I flinched. The scar was an ever-present reminder of everything I’d lost. While I never really forgot about it because of the constant throbbing, I never pictured it in my mind, preferring to remember myself from before.
Maybe this was a sign. I should cut my losses and leave. My job in the kitchen had provided me with enough money for food. If I could find transportation… I glanced back at Zephyr’s bike. I could escape to one of the cities they hadn’t conquered yet. A place where no one would be looking for me.
Deciding to be thorough, I checked under the bed one last time. Three large boxes sat underneath. I pulled them out, careful not to catch the lids on the bed frame. The boxes bulged awkwardly, stuffed to their brims. One lid slid off as I dragged the box across the woven grass carpet in the center of the room.
A little stuffed doll with auburn hair stared back at me. The same doll my parents had given me for my eighth birthday. A coolness settled in my chest. Why did Zephyr have my doll?
Looking underneath it, I could see everything in the box had once belonged to me. All three boxes were overflowing with things that had once been mine.
I sat back, tucking my legs beneath me. This went beyond his job. Zephyr didn’t just want to find the princess, he was obsessed with her. With me.
After rearranging everything so he couldn’t tell that someone had snooped through his things, I tucked the doll in my apron pocket and headed back to the room I shared with another kitchen maid.
Thankfully, she wasn’t there. Other than the two beds and the table with the oil lamp, the room was completely empty. I sat on my bed and studied the doll carefully, running my fingers over its unmarred fabric complexion. My mother had commissioned the doll maker to create a doll that looked like me. A miniature Allure, she called it.
This was the real sign. The nymphs had destroyed my way of life, and they wanted to destroy me. I resolved I wouldn’t let them conquer any more cities. If Zephyr didn’t have the information I needed, then I’d go to Caiaphus’s room next.
But first, I reached for the sewing kit under the bed, the one that all the servants had been supplied with. I snipped away the doll’s hair. Then I threaded a needle with black thread, carefully stitching little x marks from the doll’s temple to her chin.
Now, she looked like me. I placed the doll under my pillow, reminding myself it was the nymphs who’d done this to me. Now it was my turn to hurt them.