Being a princess isn't all that....
You've heard the fairytale: a glass slipper, Prince Charming, happily ever after...
Welcome to reality: royal genealogy lessons, needlepoint, acting like "a proper lady," and -- worst of all -- a prince who is not the least bit interesting, and certainly not charming.
As soon-to-be princess Ella deals with her newfound status, she comes to realize she is not "your majesty" material. But breaking off a royal engagement is no easy feat, especially when you're crushing on another boy in the palace.... For Ella to escape, it will take intelligence, determination, and spunk -- and no ladylike behavior allowed.
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Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
March 01, 2007
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Excerpt from Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix
A long, dull afternoon of needlepoint stretched ahead of me, so I dawdled leaving the dining room. That meant I was alone when I felt a timid tug on my dress.
"Please, miss. I mean, Princess."
It was the child I'd sent for the doctor.
"Me mum, she's the one tending to that lord now, she says he's got a fair to middling chance of making it, and if he pulls through the night, he could live another twenty years. Except nobody knows if he'll ever be really himself again, because he can't move one of his arms and one of his legs, and half his face don't move neither. But" -- the last words came out in a rush -- "me mum says he wouldn't be alive at all if you hadn't sent for help so quick and made sure he could breathe and all."
The child stood back on her heels, looking at me doubtfully, as if afraid I might punish her for speaking.
"Thank you," I said. "I hope somebody else thanked you too, for running for help so quickly. You're really the one who saved Lord Reston's life."
The girl hunched her shoulders modestly.
"That's what me mum says."
I felt the familiar stab of envy, hearing someone talk about a mother who obviously loved her. My own mother had died when I was born, and my father said it hurt to talk about her, so I had very little in the way of even secondhand memories. Certainly Lucille was no substitute for a loving mother. And I'd lost my father, too.
I dragged myself out of self-pity and directed my attention back to the child. Her dirt-colored hair was cut in a ragged circle around her face, and her cheeks and hands were so grubby it was hard to tell how long ago they'd been washed, if ever. And anyhow, her nose was too big and her mouth was too small -- no one could mistake her purpose in life to be providing beauty. But her eyes were lively and quick, and I found myself looking at them and forgetting the rest.
"What's your name, child?" I asked.
"I'm -- well, I guess you know who I am," I said. "How about if we make a deal. If you get a chance, could you let me know tomorrow how Lord Reston is doing? You're the ?rst person who's been honest with me. I don't have anything with me now, but I'm sure I can come up with some reward for you."
"Oh, that don't matter. I just thought you'd want to know. I heard you ask at the table. Don't that Madame Bisset beat all?"
Mary's pronunciation of "Madame" was actually better and more French sounding than mine. She probably knew more about palace protocol too. I squinted thoughtfully. Mary wasn't more than four or ?ve years younger than me. It didn't seem fair that I was now a princess and she would always be a servant, just because I looked a little prettier than her.
"Madame Bisset does beat all," I agreed. "You won't get in trouble for talking to me, will you?"
"Are you kidding?" Mary said. "Not as long as you don't mind."
"All right, then -- ," I started, when someone called from down the corridor, "Princess -- "
"See you tomorrow," I told Mary.
I went off to my needlepoint feeling a little cheerier.
That evening was my time to meet with the prince. We had an hour together just about every other night, depending on his schedule. I saw him at the banquet table every night, of course, but that was often from a distance, because the seating chart always changed. In the beginning, they always placed me with Madame Bisset and my other instructors, so they could correct any horrifying error I made before it attracted too much attention. I could tell someone thought I was learning something, because in the last few days I'd occasionally gotten to sit near people who hadn't heard anything but the castle's of?cial story -- that I was a foreign princess who'd disguised herself as a commoner, because I wanted to win Prince Charming's love on my own merits, not because of my father's vast lands. I thought anyone who believed the castle's of?cial story had to be several logs short of a roaring ?re, but nobody asked me.
Now I sat in the prince's vast antechamber, waiting. The protocol of these visits was strictly regimented. Someone -- usually one of my older and therefore more mature ladies-in-waiting -- had to walk me down the hall and make sure there was a chaperon in attendance. My lady-in-waiting would curtsy and discreetly remove herself. Then the door to the prince's bedchambers, a place I'd never seen, would open, and I'd catch my breath and try to make conversation with the prince, the man I was going to marry.
I studied the tapestry on the wall, a dramatic scene of huntsmen killing a wild boar. There were dogs yapping at the boar, blood pouring from his sides, a nobleman with a sword poised above him, ready to deliver the ?nal thrust. Women must have stitched this gory scene -- needlepoint wasn't for men. How did that ?t with Madame Bisset's notion that women must be protected from all unpleasantness? I dismissed her ideas as too silly to even think about.
Behind me, tonight's chaperon, an ancient retainer of the king's, snuffled. He sounded like he had a bad cold. The candles sputtered in their sconces. The old grand-father clock by the door donged eight times. Not twelve -- not midnight, the hour I had dreaded and run from on the most exciting evening of my entire life...
Remembering the ball, I almost missed the opening door. But then there was the prince, in all his glory: clear blue eyes, high cheekbones, rugged jaw, blond hair precisely the right length because it was cut every fourth day by the royal barber. Tonight the prince was wearing a deep blue waistcoat that exactly matched his eyes and showed off his muscular chest and trim waist. My heart quickened, as always. Dizzily, I thought back to a summer afternoon years ago, before the Step-Evils entered my life, when several of the other girls in the neighborhood and I were wading in the creek behind our house, talking of whom we would marry.
"This is posh," Vena, a gloomy girl none of us really liked, had muttered. "We'll all settle for whoever asks us. We'll just be lucky if we don't get someone like my dad."
Her father was a well-known ne'er-do-well, who spent most of his time in the village tavern.
"Not me," I said. "I won't settle. If the right person doesn't ask, I won't marry at all."
Some of the girls gasped, I remember. What would they have said if I'd vowed to marry a prince?
Now I murmured, "Your Majesty," trying to sound properly digni?ed and feminine and loving. I bent forward and extended my hand for kissing. Charm took it, and the brush of his lips on my skin sent shivers down my spine.
"Princess," he said.
His voice was low and deep, just as you would expect. Perfect, like everything else about him.
He sat down beside me, his left leg a scant inch from my skirt.
"Have you had a good day?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "And you?"
I hesitated. Had he heard about Lord Reston? Would I be violating some etiquette rule by bringing up his condition? I didn't know if Prince Charming realized that Lord Reston was tutoring me, or if Prince Charming even knew who Lord Reston was. No wonder I kept making so many gaffes -- I never thought to ask the important questions until it was too late. Tonight, I decided, the less said the better.
"My day was ?ne, Your Majesty," I murmured.
"Good," he said.
The chaperon coughed behind us. The clock ticked. I saw the time on its face: 8:03. And already Prince Charming and I had run out of things to say.
I often wished, during these stiff meetings, that I could skip ahead in my life, past the glorious wedding, to maybe a year from now. Then, after many hours together without a chaperon, I could picture the prince and I cuddling cozily on these cushions instead of sitting stiffly an inch apart. We'd share our deepest thoughts and dreams, forgetting there was a castle or a kingdom or anything outside our love for each other. We'd call each other Charm and El, not "Majesty" and "Princess."
So far I'd called Prince Charming "Charm" only in my mind.
Prince Charming gave me an innocent, adorable smile. He didn't seem to realize that the chaperon made me feel awkward, or that the silence between us was uncomfortable and unnatural.
Charm and I hadn't talked much the night of the ball either, but then, we didn't need to. When we danced, he kept one hand on just the right spot on the small of my back, gently guiding me. His other hand held mine. We looked into each other's eyes, and it seemed like he already knew everything about me. He didn't let me dance with anyone else. He whispered in my ear, "You're the most beautiful girl here."
Hey, I was as susceptible to flattery as the next girl.
Sometimes he still told me I was beautiful, but it wasn't like he was really paying attention.
"What are you thinking about?" I asked.
He jerked his head toward me, jolted by the urgency in my voice.
"The hunt," he said, then looked puzzled. I may have surprised him into telling the truth.
"You went hunting today," I said, trying to coax more out of him. "Did you catch much?"
The word catch sounded odd. Back home we used to talk about catching ?sh. That's what I was thinking of. But the deer and wild boars and other animals worthy of royalty's attention weren't "caught." Should I have said "killed"? Were ladies allowed to say that? How could Prince Charming and I ever talk the way I wanted to -- no holds barred, our thoughts as close as our bodies had been at the grand ball -- if we couldn't even use the same words?
The prince smiled indulgently.
"Don't trouble your mind about that," he said. "The kingdom is in ?ne shape. Why, we throw away food here at the castle that would be a feast in Suala."
Suala was a neighboring kingdom. We had been at war with Suala for as long as I could remember, so maybe the prince was only showing bravado, the way street urchins brag about the number of maggots in the bread they steal. But still, I wondered....
"Why?" I asked. "Why throw away food when some of your own subjects go hungry each night? Why, I myself know -- "
The prince toyed with a ringlet that had escaped from the ribbon holding my hair in place. He wrapped and unwrapped my long blond curl around his ?ngers. I wished my hair had feeling. I wished he were touching my hand instead. I couldn't remember what I was going to say I knew.
The prince chuckled.
"So my princess worries about the poor," he said. "If it pleases you, I'll order that our table scraps be set outside the palace gate each evening."
"It's that easy?" I asked. "Just like that?"
The prince shrugged.
"Why not? It matters not to me."
He smiled and I should have smiled back, given him the gratitude he deserved. But his last words stopped me.
Why didn't his own hungry subjects matter to him? What was wrong with this man?
Copyright (c) 1999 by Margaret Peterson Haddix