Sneak Peek: Twice Upon A TimeThere was a bird. But this story isn’t about him.
There was a bird. But this story isn’t about him. Even if he’d just flown across the Indian Ocean to get here for the summer. Even if he’d only just settled himself on the leafiest branch of a regal old tree with the rest of his birdie pals. He has a name, but it doesn’t matter because he only thought he’d be staying.
A muscular scream sent our bird and the rest of his friends scattering, all the way back to the Arctic. The regal old tree emptied like a school when the last bell rings. The palace that rose behind it trembled as if it were made of toothpicks. And a peacock in the royal gardens, halfway through impressing a peahen, jumped right out of his feathers.
Surya Mahal was on high alert. Many pairs of legs ran helter-skelter over the lawns, kicking up dust, stones and the unfortunate flower. Many pairs of arms dragged a safety net under a heart-shaped window. Many pairs of eyes looked skyward for a falling princess. But right now, Princess Keya was only intent on screaming.
The royal window-boy curled his toes around the rungs of the ladder to hold on for dear life. (His hands were clapped around his ears.) He’d never thought that window-cleaning could be so downright dangerous— and he wasn’t very brave. The scream issuing from that window was powerful enough to lop a man’s head off, and he was only a boy. He wobbled but didn’t dare grab hold of the sill. It was, after all, the princess’s bathroom window, and he did not want to catch Princess Keya, mid-tantrum, in her PJs. He gulped. Or worse.
The royal plumber had turned off the water (in case the princess decided to drown herself). The royal lock- picker had been called in to force the bathroom door open. The royal paratrooper stood on the roof, preparing to swing in for the rescue at the king’s command. The royal scribe had slipped a series of letters from the king under the bathroom door. They all said the same thing, in twelve different kinds of calligraphy: Please open the door.
And the king? King Ferrlip felt faint, and he reached for his jar of smelling salts. Bathrooms could be perilous places, and the princess—the king shuddered at the thought—was alone. He shouted a long list of safety dos and don’ts from the other side of the door.
‘Don’t throw yourself to the floor! Do stay away from the window! Don’t cry, your eyes will get swollen! Or scream, your throat might ache! Do mind your feet, you’ll bruise them if you stomp too hard! Do watch out for sharp corners, by the way!’
But there was only one, if predictable, response: ‘AAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHH!’
Only this time, it came with loud crashing noises of the sort that potty lids make when they are flung up and down in anger. There was also the scraping sound of a footstool being dragged along the floor and the smash of toiletries being tossed.
King Ferrlip’s eyes began to roll back in his head. He nodded grimly. ‘It’s time!’
The royal paratrooper slid down the rope that hung from the roof till he was right outside the princess’s window. The royal window-boy said a prayer for himself and prepared to clamber up. The royal lock-picker stuck a pin into the heart-shaped keyhole and gave it a good wiggle.
‘Don’t you dare!’ said the princess from inside. Something about that tone of voice made everyone freeze. The royal paratrooper dangled on his rope; the royal window-boy’s foot hovered a few inches above the sill; the royal lock-picker’s pin stopped mid-jiggle.
What next? Everyone turned to the king. After all, kings are supposed to have all the answers. But King Ferrlip scratched his turban. (He would have scratched his head if the turban hadn’t been in the way.) He was as baffled as everyone else. He weighed the facts.
Princess Keya was a hundred per cent real princess. She had been born with a golden spoon in her mouth (that she delicately spat out upon entering the world). She didn’t cry loudly like ordinary babies, but only mewled. She didn’t dribble food down her chin or, horrors, drool when her first tooth appeared. She didn’t wet her bed even once. Instead she batted the silver bell hanging above her cot with one delicate hand to summon the royal nappy-changer, who appeared with a fresh batch of nappies. A hundred per cent cotton, of course.
King Ferrlip turned to Queen Purl, who had been vexingly quiet until now. ‘What’s happening to our daughter?’ he asked.
‘Your daughter,’ she said, barely looking up from her knitting, ‘is now officially a tween.’
A real princess is hard to please, but harder to displease.’
—The Princess Rule Book, page 5
Princess Keya of Pompuspur (‘Pom-puhs-poor’) was as real a princess as they make them these days. Why, the queen pinched her every morning to make sure of it.
Princess Keya did princessy things like any princess anywhere: She sang, she danced, she wore pink at all times. She threw tea parties, she embroidered, she crocheted. She joined her hands in a namaste more exquisite than a lotus bud, she admired the roses in her garden and, oh yes, she baked.
But one Sunday, everything changed. Well, not everything. The sun rose and the morning dew twinkled— a touch less than the princess’s crown, but that was to be expected. The palace fountains danced, though less gracefully than the princess (which goes without saying). And the peacocks preened (with less reason to than Princess Keya). As on every other day, the world did its best to sparkle like the princess—and fell just short of the mark.
But that Sunday, the princess’s heart changed. Even Ayah—as the princess’s nanny was called—couldn’t see it. Maybe because she was nodding off in an armchair across the room, waiting for the princess to stir. She was old and didn’t have her spectacles on. Or maybe because when a princess’s heart changes, no one can see it but her.
A flutter of the princess’s eyelids, and Ayah’s heart raced. A stifled yawn, and Ayah’s breath snagged in her throat. For everything a princess does is a matter of great excitement, and waking up is no different. (Even if the princess has only been sleeping through the night and not for a hundred years.)
Ayah would have jumped up if she wasn’t so heavy now. Rising slowly, she parted the thick curtains slightly (because even the sun can’t enter a princess’s room without her permission). What would the princess see first when she woke up, Ayah wondered. Would the world be perfect enough for her this morning?
Ayah lumbered across the enormous room somewhat on tiptoe. And she tugged on the pink silken rope (yes, pink) that hung from the ceiling, as she had every morning for the last eleven years.
It would appear that the silken rope was a useless thing because nothing seemed to happen after Ayah pulled on it. But deep inside Surya Mahal, the yanking of the silken rope had jangled a ginormous bronze bell. It clanged loudly, as though it were in an almighty frenzy. And it threw everyone into an almighty frenzy with it.
The royal window-boy, asleep on his perch, was startled awake by the tolling sound. He shimmied up the palace walls to give the princess’s heart-shaped windows one last spritz. It simply would not do for the princess to open her eyes and see the world through a dust-flecked pane.
Down in the kitchens, it was as if a starting gun had gone off somewhere:
The royal maid sprang up to milk the royal cow.
The royal stirrer turned the upma over ‘ten times for a golden finish’, as the royal recipe advised.
The royal roller measured the dosa—exactly ten inches across—and permitted himself a tiny nod of triumph.
The royal cutter sliced the almonds precisely a millimetre thick.
The royal garnisher (for what else do you call a man in charge of decorating food?) applied a trained thumb to the freshly picked roses and squeezed three drops of rose essence on to a dish.
The royal taster smacked his lips at what the royal bees had made.
The royal folder transformed a table napkin into a swan that looked like it would float away.
And ‘Wait!’ cried the royal polisher just as the silver tray was about to be whisked off, dabbing at a stray fingerprint that had stowed away upon it.
On the other side of Surya Mahal, the queen put down her knitting needles with a sigh. She was still so many stitches away from finishing her fiftieth sweater and winning the Golden Needle Award. But it was time, and all that knitting had warmed up her fingers for the best part of her day. The princess’s morning pinch.
As she walked down the winding hallways, Queen Purl thought of how much she looked forward to it. Placing her hand on the princess’s arm—as lightly as a butterfly landing on a leaf. Drawing her long fingers together in a barely visible movement. Gathering up the royal skin for the teensiest-weensiest tweak. Just enough to check that a princess this utterly perfect was indeed real (even though the queen already knew that she was).
‘It’s time,’ she called as she glided past the armoury, where the king was fretting over the blunt edge of his priceless sword. (Before that, he’d fretted over a spot of rust on his chainmail vest. And before that, he’d fretted over a dent in his battle shield.)
‘Already?’ said the king, his worries vanishing as he thought of his daughter. He’d fallen hopelessly in love with her from the first moment he’d set eyes upon her. Skin as sheer as the finest silk; a chiselled nose that defied gravity; two points the colour of ripe mangoes where her cheeks rose up to meet her eyes. And those eyes—King Ferrlip felt his heart squeeze with affection—they were like the palace ponds on a moonlit night.
It was true, the princess would never rule the kingdom because that was the work of a prince. The king’s moustache flared at the thought of princes; one day he would lose both his precious daughter and his precious kingdom to some charmer on a white horse who could bow gallantly and speak sweetly . . . And just like that, King Ferrlip’s worries returned.
‘Think of the princess,’ said the queen, reading his thoughts (and his twitching moustache) as they descended the spiral staircase.
But as the royal parents sailed into Princess Keya’s chamber, her breakfast close on their heels, the princess waved everyone away.
Why was Ayah always there when she awoke? Why was the door to her room open all the time? And why couldn’t she just burrow under the sheets for a little longer? She stared at the pink milk and shuddered. The drops of rose syrup on the kheer. The swan-shaped napkin. Pink again.
‘Not hungry?’ Ayah convulsed with consternation. ‘Eat up, my princess, how else will you grow strong?’
‘The crows will come get your food if you don’t,’ wheedled King Ferrlip in a sing-song voice. He advanced his wiggling fingers towards the princess. ‘Do you remember how we told you that story when you were little?’
The princess groaned. ‘No tickling, please! And no more crow stories either!’
The royal maid cast a worried look at the food going cold. At the froth on the milk going flat. At the upma turning soggy, the honey congealing and, horrors, the dosa curling up at the edges.
‘Come, child, are you ill?’ asked the queen. She smoothed back the princess’s dark mane to check. Her forehead was cool to the touch.
‘Papa’s here,’ said the king. ‘Tell Papa what you want.’
The princess blinked back tears. If only she could climb on to his lap and bury her face in his neck like she used to—but she wasn’t a baby any more! And for the first time, she couldn’t tell him what she wanted . . . She only knew what she didn’t want. So many people at her heels all day, pinning her hair back, pressing her legs, carrying her parasol! Sometimes when Ayah was filling the bathtub, the princess drew pictures of herself on the steamed-up mirror. Planting a flag upon a mountaintop, or trussing up the sails of a ship at the height of a storm. Doing great things. Heroic things. Far, far away, where no one could tell her to eat, or sleep or sit still.
‘Shall I call the royal doctor?’ cried the king, speaking with such urgency that his turban slipped off.
Princess Keya sat up in alarm. You see, doctors are doctors everywhere, royal or not. They visit with dark cases full of sharp needles and bitter pills. Princesses, as you can well imagine, have taste buds more delicate than the first blooms of spring and skin thinner than parchment paper. Which is why Princess Keya feared the doctor even more than regular boys and girls do.
At the very mention of the doctor, she threw off her blanket and clambered out of bed. But that was all. She would not stretch her body in a surya namaskar. She would not heed Ayah’s thunderous protests of ‘A hundred brush-strokes for shiny hair!’ and instead wore her hair wild. She would not wait for the maid-in- waiting to clip on her crown. And there was no question at all of scrubbing her face with fresh turmeric or oiling her long tresses.
‘She’s still a real princess!’ said the queen after she had pinched Princess Keya and made sure of it.
‘What could it be, then?’ wondered the king. Didn’t he have enough to think of already? The local dragon was stirring after having been asleep for God knows how long. After all, every respectable kingdom has a dragon tucked away somewhere. The king’s subjects were troubled, his ministers were troubled and even though he was the king (and therefore above such things), he was troubled too.
‘Is the princess unhappy?’ he almost asked aloud, before remembering with relief that real princesses are always happy.
‘Don’t worry,’ whispered the queen hastily because the last thing she needed was for the king to go off on another one of his fretting sprees. ‘Maybe it’s just a tween thing.’
But of all the advice in the world, ‘Don’t worry’ is certainly the most useless. It has never stopped anyone in history from worrying, and often it has the opposite effect.
What on earth is a tween thing? brooded the king. He recalled the queen mentioning it around the time the princess had turned eleven, but he could hardly make head or tail of it. Spindles are the real problem around princesses’ birthdays, everyone knows that. Oh, how the king now wished for a certain spindle to prick his own finger on so that he could sleep through this terrible phase of his daughter’s!
After the king and queen left, the princess folded her long legs under her on the silk mat. She took her gleaming sitar in her arms and promptly forgot what she was supposed to do next (which is sing). When it was time to practise her Kathak, Princess Keya kicked off her ghungroos and flopped around like a rag doll.
It didn’t stop there. Princess Keya knotted up the threads while embroidering yet another handkerchief and she undid the tea cosies she had been crocheting. At noon, when real princesses are usually wearing their third outfit of the day, the princess yanked all her pink Sunday clothes off their hangers and rolled them into a disgruntled bundle with a loud ‘Blech!’ (Even though blech-ing is a very un-princessy thing to do, and loud blech-ing is even worse.)
At teatime, she paced the rose garden, grumbling, ‘Why must all the roses be so pink?’ At dusk, she glowered at the shahi korma simmering on the royal stove. And an hour before the guests were due, Princess Keya did the unexpected. The unimaginable. The unthinkable.
She called off the monthly tea party she always threw for the Society of Snobs.
‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ fussed the Queen, ‘what will I tell them all?’
But Princess Keya crawled back into bed, and a muffled groan escaped from under the covers: ‘Tell them I’m sick, tell them I’m in pain or tell them I just dropped dead out of boredom!’
‘A real princess has everything but an opinion.’
—The Princess Rule Book, page 99
An idea had taken hold of Princess Keya and it would not let go of her. Like a bird caught indoors, it flapped around inside her head until it found an outlet.
‘I quit!’ she said the next day, somewhere between Ayah’s thirty-ninth and forty-fourth brush-stroke. The idea fluttered out, free at last. The hairbrush quivered. Ayah shivered.
Real princesses can’t quit—everyone knows that.
But the princess rolled the words around in her mouth and said them again. They tasted like ice cream when it melts down your fingers (though real princesses never let ice cream melt down their fingers).
‘This is unheard of,’ cried the palace historians, their quills trembling in their hands, even though history is full of things unheard of.
‘This is—’ cried the palace ladies, the last word lost in the tut-tutting of so many tongues behind so many dainty hands.
‘This is preeh-poss-tuh-russ!’ cried the Society of Snobs, exhaling sharply through their favourite word and craning their pretty necks so that they could look down their upturned noses.
The queen had just finished approving of yet another royal dinner set and figuring out where to store the old one. With a fluttering heart (and one eye on her knitting), she made a call.
‘Your cancellation of last evening’s tea party has given me indigestion,’ said Lady La-di-dah, secretary of the Society of Snobs. A low rumble carried over the telephone line. ‘Do you know why, Your Majesty?’
The queen drove all thoughts of the half-done sweater out of her head and waited for the metallic voice to speak again.
‘As secretary of the Society of Snobs, I have to make sure that every member lives by the rules of snobbery. I know them by heart, as I’m sure you do too. A snob must always speak with an accent! A snob must hold high standards for everything! A snob can never look too pleased. A snob must always angle one’s nose north- north-west. And a snob must do at least one snobbish thing every month—which is why princesses have always hosted monthly tea parties for snob societies, have they not? And now . . .’
Another rumble. The queen mistook it for static disturbance.
‘Now we will have to do two snobbish things next month!’
The queen inserted a suitable cry of exclamation where it was needed. ‘Two snobbish things!’
‘Yes, two!’ said Lady La-di-dah. ‘Do you know how hard it is these days for us snobs to stay a cut above the rest? Why, even ordinary people are playing golf or wearing pashmina. And now you tell me the princess is quitting? I’m afraid my stomach will act up all day!’
‘I do apologize,’ said the queen, praying this would end soon. And well.
‘Times are changing, Your Majesty,’ said Lady La- di-dah, quite unshaken, ‘and if we’re not careful, all the snobs will be gone one day and, who knows, maybe kings and queens will be the next to go. We must hold on to our traditions with our very lives!’
‘Oh yes, we must!’ repeated the queen with as much feeling as she could manage. ‘I’ll convey your wise words to the princess, and I’m sure she’ll see the error of her ways. See you at next month’s tea party, Lady La-di-dah!’
If the princess doesn’t quit before that, thought the queen, her face darkening. Maybe it would help to remind Princess Keya of the pretend tea parties she’d enjoyed as a little girl on the palace lawns, her dolls sitting all around her. This was hardly any different. Besides, the gossip was better. And there were so many other perks to being a princess, she could hardly be serious about quitting! You never had to repeat your clothes. Or tidy your room. Or do anything, really.
But the princess was adamant.
‘I quit!’ she said softly, because real princesses are always soft-spoken.
‘THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!’ bellowed the king, because it’s completely fine for kings to bellow. He waved the Princess Rule Book in his hand. He knew it inside out, word for word. Where in blue-blooded blazes did it say that princesses could quit?
‘I quit!’ said the princess, this time in a voice that the king had not heard before.
Swallowing his anger, he smiled brightly. ‘How about growing blue roses in your garden to break the pinkness a little?’
‘There’s no such thing as blue roses, my darling,’ interjected the queen, glancing guiltily at her fiftieth sweater.
It had already taken much longer than it should have. Every queen before her had won the Golden Needle Award, as would every queen after her. Unless . . . Lady La-di-dah’s words rang in her ears like a warning: times are changing.
‘Hmm, let me see,’ said the king, quickly checking under the ‘Princesses and Cooking Regulations’ section of the rule book. ‘You could make biryani instead of pulao?’
Princess Keya pursed her lips and rolled her eyes.
‘I know, you could play Raga Yaman instead of Raga Kedar!’ said the king, after another quick check, this time under ‘Princesses and Music Regulations’.
Princess Keya stuck her chin out and said nothing.
‘YOU CAN’T QUIT, AND THAT’S IT!’ he finally thundered.
And that was it. The princess locked herself in her bathroom and had her first royal tantrum.
AAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHH!’ Finally, thought Princess Keya, the door is shut and I’m alone! There was something so wonderful about screaming at the top of her lungs that she tried it again.
She kicked the pink bath stool and jostled the soap dish till the pink bar of soap slid into the washbasin. Next, she pulled down the pink towels hanging over the bathtub.
There’d been a time when pink was her favourite colour—until it wasn’t any more. She’d outgrown it, like tea parties or her father calling her his little girl. She wasn’t anyone’s little girl! She was glowering at her tear-stained reflection (even her cheeks were pink!) when she caught a glimpse of her pink rubber ducky in the mirror.
It was a scream for pink rubber duckies everywhere that should really just be yellow.
Just as the royal paratrooper was swinging down to the princess’s heart-shaped window, just as the royal window-boy was climbing up towards it and just at the instant when the royal lock-picker was forcing the door open, the princess said, ‘Don’t you dare!’ in a voice that made everyone freeze.
And that was when the king started thinking about how his daughter was a hundred per cent real princess and could never be unhappy. But he was wrong.
Like children everywhere that have taken their own sweet time to show up, Princess Keya was a long-awaited child—and a much spoilt one. If she never went through the terrible twos or lay down on the floor and threw a tantrum, it was because she always got what she wanted before she’d even asked.
She had only to begin, ‘May I . . .?’ and the latest rocking horse would turn up (even if it was made of solid gold). The latest game (so what if it cost a small fortune?). The latest doll’s house (which was big enough for three grown-ups to live comfortably in). The latest giraffe (though giraffes tend to look the same, even if you go for the latest model). Everything the princess wanted—no matter how far it had to be shipped from or how expensive it was—had a magical way of appearing before she’d gone through the trouble of asking for it.
And like all boys and girls everywhere who get everything they want before they want it bad enough, Princess Keya ended up where she was now. Holed up in the bathroom, having the tantrum of her life.
The royal lock-picker looked at the king for how-to- proceed instructions, and the king looked at the queen. And she informed him over the clacking of knitting needles that his daughter was now a tween, and the rest is history.
Now, here’s the new bit: The king shouted, ‘I GIVE UP, YOU CAN QUIT!’
There was a shrill squeak from inside. It might have been the pink rubber ducky that the princess was squeezing too hard and preparing to hurl. It might have been the princess crying out in utter disbelief. We will never know.
Princess Keya stared at the pink bathroom door with its heart-shaped door knob. Had she heard correctly? She brought her mouth close to the keyhole. ‘What did you say?’
There were frantic whispers outside. ‘Here’s your chance to back out,’ urged the queen. ‘Do you see, she hasn’t even heard you, don’t—’
But King Ferrlip’s moustache was behaving as if a jolt of electricity had been delivered to it. He could not bear to be separated from his precious daughter by that ghastly pink door for a moment longer.
‘I GIVE UP, YOU CAN QUIT!’
The royal window-boy wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. The royal paratrooper swung back up to the roof and to safety. The royal lock-picker jumped back because he didn’t want to be caught with his pin in the keyhole when the princess opened the door.
But Princess Keya wasn’t about to do anything of that sort. Not yet. Not when she’d finally got the king’s attention. ‘I want it in writing,’ she said. ‘Just three simple words. You can quit.’
‘Well, I never—’ started the queen, but the king cut her off. ‘Of course, my little girl, I’ll have the royal scribe put it down in twelve different forms of calligraphy, as usual.’
‘Just the one will do, thank you,’ said the voice from inside. This had been easier than she’d imagined. In fact, she could scarcely believe her luck!
Soon, the royal scribe had printed ‘You can quit’ in beautiful cursive. He drew the last ‘t’ out into five loop- the-loops (and would have added a heart for effect had he not received a stern look from the queen).
The sheet of handmade paper was slipped under the door. There were a few tense moments of silence. ‘How long does it take her to read three simple words?’ said the queen through clenched teeth when the door opened at last.
Princess Keya stepped out wordlessly. She could have thrown her arms around her father, but it would not do to look so pleased with the outcome of that tantrum. Instead she advanced the paper stiffly. ‘Will you stamp this, please?’
The king stuffed his hands into his pockets so that the princess would not see them shaking. ‘Of course. Now, there is one condition . . .’
‘Ye-es?’ said Princess Keya in her frostiest voice. Her father wasn’t going to back out now, was he?
‘You must find a replacement.’
The princess opened her mouth, as if to protest, but the queen cut in, ‘Your father has already promised you more than he should have, young lady! Now you’ll make a real princess out of any replacement you find and present her to the Society of Snobs at next month’s tea party, do you hear? And if you fail . . .’ The queen paused to let the words sink in. ‘I mean to say, if the snobs don’t accept her, no one in this kingdom will. So if you fail, there’ll be no more talk of quitting. Agreed?’
Princess Keya thought this through for a minute. It sounded difficult enough, but she hadn’t got this far to give up. Dimples flashed in her cheeks as she broke into a slow grin. ‘Agreed!’
The faint smile on the king’s face should have given him away, but it didn’t. After all, he’d read the Princess Rule Book all too carefully and the last rule on the last page made things quite clear: ‘Real princesses are born and not made.’ He felt a little bad that he hadn’t let the queen in on his secret. He was leading their daughter on a wild goose chase. But one day, once she was past locking herself into bathrooms and bringing down the palace, when she’d looked for a suitable replacement and failed, she’d see that he was right. Wasn’t he always?
‘What have we done?’ the queen muttered in disbelief.
But Princess Keya had already waltzed off to place an ad in the Royal Samachar.
The Royal Samachar landed on hundreds of doorsteps all over the kingdom the next morning. The front-page headlines sent hundreds of wannabe princesses into a royal flutter. They flocked to their mirrors to confirm how beautiful they were. You see, girls who dream of becoming princesses think it has everything to do with the way they look. Not all girls, though.
Many miles away from the palace, on the outskirts of Pompuspur, a girl who had just turned eleven was running around a muddy courtyard, making strange snarling noises and pulling stranger faces. Nyla was halfway through Slay the Dragon, in which her three brothers had made her the dragon again. Ugh. She couldn’t see why all the boys in the kingdom wanted to play this hateful game, but the local dragon was waking up and it was all the rage. If she didn’t play, her brothers would tease her. After all, most boys are only ever nice to girls who behave like one of them.
‘Wait, look at this!’ she said, catching the newspaper as it sailed through the air. She dodged Amar as he made a swipe for it, swatting away Akbar’s hands with equal deftness. She did not have to be overly concerned about Anthony because she had him pinned to the ground and was sitting on top of him.
‘My tomboy’—that’s what her mother called her, dressing her in Amar’s old clothes because they were too poor for anything but hand-me-downs. But tomboys don’t wear bath towels on their heads like pretend veils when they’re alone. And do they walk on tippy-toe or break into dance when no one is looking? How Nyla wished her mother could see her for the girl she was! But the trouble was, her parents had planned on three sons whom they could name Amar, Akbar and Anthony after some Bollywood hit from the 1970s. And somewhere between Amar and Akbar, and right when they were expecting Anthony, Nyla had turned up.
‘Wanted: A real princess,’ Nyla murmured, gazing at Princess Keya’s picture so hard that the words began to swim. How smooth and polished the princess’s skin looked! Her hair was so lustrous as it tumbled down her shoulders. Her eyes were so large and luminous. It seemed almost unfair for a girl to be this beautiful.
‘Why on earth would a real princess in her right mind look for a replacement?’ Nyla muttered.
‘Well, why on earth would any girl in her right mind want to replace her?’ retorted Amar. ‘Princesses have to trip around in long, itchy dresses—’
‘That they can’t get dirty,’ chimed in Akbar.
The brothers laughed. They were in agreement, for once.
‘It sounds like a snoozefest!’ lied Nyla, trying not to look at her callused hands and her mud-caked fingernails.
‘Trouts next Friday!’ exclaimed Akbar, who still hadn’t got the hang of reading.
‘It’s try-outs, you twerp!’ said Amar, doodling a moustache on Princess Keya’s face and adding a few scribbles for a beard to match.
Anthony, who had been mercifully quiet until now, threw his sister off him. ‘Look,’ he panted, ‘isn’t the princess’s dress as pink as falooda?’
‘Your face is just as pink!’ Amar guffawed.
‘I’ll show you!’ shouted Anthony, whose sense of humour was feeling just as squashed as he was.
Before long, the three brothers were trading blows, and Nyla settled down to read. At last, the newspaper was hers! She clapped down on the sigh that escaped her as she smoothed the pages. The headlines were now a muddy smear. When was the last time she’d spent an hour undisturbed by her brothers and their antics? Or read anything at all?
Past the crumpled front page was something about the Society of Snobs finding yet another shade of pink, called Pink #2231. The queen was on the verge of winning the coveted Golden Needle Award for her fiftieth sweater. More roars had been heard from the dragon’s cave. Dragontologists were saying that the dragon would soon come out. But there was nothing on why the princess was quitting, or what she planned on doing after . . .
Nyla’s mind wandered as her brothers settled their squabbles like they always did.
What would it be like to dress in pink? To grow her hair? To live in a palace?
‘Get off me!’
‘Ha, fat chance of that!’
To admit that Slay the Dragon bored her to bits? ‘Nyla, are you okay?’
The boys had stopped fighting as suddenly as they’d
started. Three pairs of eyes were fixed upon her now. Nyla jumped up, as if she’d been caught doing something terrible. In her brothers’ world, reading the newspaper probably did qualify as something terrible . . . and so did dreaming about princesses.
‘Know what I’m thinking?’ said Akbar slowly because thinking wasn’t something that came naturally to him.
‘Somebody wants to be a princess,’ said Amar slyly.
Nyla gave a small, hollow laugh. ‘I’d rather wear a black eye than be caught in pink!’
Anthony, whose humour had returned, grinned like a monkey. ‘Maybe you should apply for the princess’s job!’
Nyla’s heart lurched. The last thing she needed was for her brothers to get carried away by their silly imaginations.
‘Is that so?’ she said, trying to hide the wobble in her voice. She brushed the dirt off her pants and clenched her fists. ‘Now, which of you wimps wants to slay the dragon next, or are you scared?’
‘A real princess knows how to speak softly and how to appear to be listening.’
—The Princess Rule Book, page 37
Nyla reminded herself that she didn’t scare easily. There’d been that time she’d camped out in a bat cave with only a flashlight for company. And hadn’t she rafted down a waterfall in that rickety barrel her brothers had found? Of course, those dares were nothing compared to the night she’d spent out in the graveyard, jumping at the slightest sound but staying put till morning.
And yet, here she was at the palace on try-outs day, her legs shaking like a badly set caramel custard. We dare you to become a real princess! She should never have fallen for it. But if she won, she wouldn’t have to play Slay the Dragon again. Ever. And if she lost? She paled at the thought: Three boys slaying her with pretend swords for the rest of her childhood. Not to mention the endless gloating! Nyla stole a guilty look at her brothers—could they read her thoughts? She wasn’t frightened, she told herself. And if she was, she wasn’t about to show it.
‘Are you sure you want to do this, my tomboy?’ her mother had asked her in an unusually quiet voice that morning.
‘I’m not a tomboy,’ Nyla had muttered under her breath.
Her mother had laughed and ruffled her hair. ‘Yes, yes, of course you aren’t.’
Nyla looked at all the girls who’d turned up, each more dazzling than the other, and her stomach churned. What was she doing among them?
‘Don’t worry, we’ll be home again soon,’ said Akbar, giving Nyla a comforting pat. ‘Mom was worried you were too young to stay at the palace on your own, but we told her you’d never get picked.’
He was only trying to help, but for some reason, his words bothered Nyla.
‘Out, boys!’ said the royal guard, shooing them away. ‘Unless the four of you want to try?’
‘Four?’ sputtered Nyla. ‘I’m not a boy!’ Just then a bugle sounded, the enormous gates of Surya Mahal swung open and Nyla took a deep breath as the wannabe princesses surged forward, sweeping her along with them. From the royal balcony, Princess Keya looked down at the bobbing heads below her. It was as if every girl in the kingdom had turned up in uniform. Pink bows and sashes; stiff dresses that practically crackled when they moved; and narrow-toed shoes with a hint of a heel. Looking their best was making everyone fidgety. Fans fluttered, face-glitter boxes flipped open and shut, handkerchiefs dabbed at beads of sweat that had no business showing up. There was much jostling and pushing for a spot in the front. Upturned faces under lace-trimmed bonnets squinted into the sun as Princess Keya spoke at last. ‘Thank you for coming,’ she said, trying not to let her nervousness show. After all, the king was standing behind her. ‘Now, if you’ll queue up, I’ll see you in the reception hall.’
She ignored the protests that erupted under the balcony.
‘Queue up?’ cried the wannabe princesses. They weren’t used to standing around in their narrow closed shoes.
‘Get me out of the sun before my face burns!’ one cried.
‘The humidity is frizzing my hair!’ whined another.
‘Now, dear,’ started the king, ‘don’t forget, you must be very choosy. Being a princess isn’t just any old job, you know—’
‘I think she knows,’ said the queen in a quiet voice.
In the hall, the princess sat up straight, even though the crown on her head felt heavier today than it ever had before. ‘I’ll see them one at a time, please,’ she told the royal guard.
It all got rather predictable from here on. The wannabe princesses filed in one after the other. ‘What makes a real princess?’ Princess Keya asked every one of them. It was a question she’d been asking herself for days.
‘The loveliest hair,’ said a few of the girls, hastily adding, ‘Just like yours, Your Royal Highness!’
The smile plastered on Princess Keya’s face was sickly sweet. ‘Next!’
‘The loveliest skin!’ said a few others (with the same hasty afterthought).
What a bunch of flatterers! ‘Anyone with anything, um, different?’ she cried.
‘Different?’ scoffed the king, speaking out of turn again. ‘Real princesses are all exactly the same!’
The princess wiggled her toes to wake them up as the interviews dragged on.
‘The loveliest eyes!’ said yet another group (remembering to say that the princess’s eyes were the loveliest and all that).
‘No,’ said the princess (to the girl who wore her hair all the way to her toes, thinking of what a hard time poor Ayah would have of it).
And then, ‘NO!’ (to the girl whose eyelashes were so long that it was a wonder she could see anything through them!)
Who would have thought that saying no could be such fun? But ‘no’ is a wonderful word for all its shortness. It can close doors, end arguments and buy freedom. It should possibly be every girl’s first word.
‘Nyet!’ (Her Russian teacher would be proud!) ‘Nahin!’ (Because which Indian princess doesn’t speak Hindi?) ‘Negative!’
Until, at last, there were so many ‘no’s echoing in the cavernous room, she didn’t need to pronounce them any more. Instead she closed her eyes and turned her head from side to side. Like she was listening to a tune that no one else could hear.
‘You see, my little girl?’ said the king, even though the queen tried to shush him. ‘Everyone knows that you’re the loveliest girl in the kingdom. That’s why you’re the princess, and they aren’t!’
Princess Keya frowned. How was loveliness useful when a princess’s job was only slightly more interesting than digging wax out of your ears? Or scratching your bum when no one was looking? (And in case you’re wondering, all princesses do such things, although they’ll deny it if you ask them to their faces.)
‘Next!’ she said, eyeing the clock. It was almost noon.
The royal guard flushed and bowed his head. ‘We’re done, Your Highness.’
‘Done? What do you mean we’re done?’
But a fight had broken out somewhere down the hallway. There were scattered shouts of ‘Stop right there!’ and ‘Someone grab her!’ and the guard dashed off with an ‘If you’ll excuse me, Your Highness!’
The king was barely able to hide his joy. ‘I’m afraid he means you’ve rejected everyone, my dear!’ He stroked his moustache lovingly. ‘You’ve interviewed hundreds of girls and you’ve come up short.’
Princess Keya fingered the lace on her collar uneasily. Had she been too eager with her rejections?
‘I’m glad you’ve finally come to your senses,’ the king continued, patting his turban smugly. ‘Of course, your tantrum is all forgiven because you’ve learnt something very valuable, haven’t you?’ The king spoke some more, but the princess wasn’t paying any attention.
Her eyes were trained on something else. A boy (or a girl?) was being dragged off by the guard—and wait a minute, she’d just cuffed him! The guard was howling in pain and rubbing his jaw. He was hopping around on one foot now. And though it’s not proper for a real princess to laugh at someone else’s misfortune, the princess laughed.
The king barely noticed. He was busy delivering his final sentence with all the punch he could muster.
‘. . . you haven’t found anyone to replace you and that means you can’t quit!’
‘Oh, but I can!’ said Princess Keya, standing up slowly and extending a slender arm (even though pointing is very rude, and the princess knew better).
The queen followed the direction of Princess Keya’s finger. The king turned, his moustache quivering. And they all stared (even though staring is just as rude as pointing). A short, scruffy girl with cropped curls and a mud-brown face stood at the entrance of the reception hall, shaking with anger. The oddest set of teeth, noted the princess, quickly looking away. A wide nose. She stole another glance. Chubby too. Or maybe just stout.
‘Don’t be funny, my dear, you’ll regret this!’ hissed the king.
He was probably right, but a little voice in Princess Keya’s head spoke up out of nowhere: What if he isn’t?
‘Unhand her!’ she said as the guard hobbled up behind the girl and gripped her arm. ‘Didn’t you say we were done?’
‘Well, um, I, er . . . this girl is a trespasser,’ stuttered the guard before trailing off. It was hard to finish a sentence with the princess scowling at him.
Her gaze fell upon Nyla next. ‘Are you here for the job?’
Nyla gulped. She was directly under the royal nose now. ‘Yes, but he wouldn’t let me in.’ She glared at the guard. ‘He said I didn’t look the part.’
The princess decided not to comment on this. ‘Never mind the guard. Tell me anyway, what makes a real princess?’
There was an exasperated groan from the king that the princess ignored.
‘I don’t know,’ Nyla blurted. ‘I’ve never been one before.’
‘Rampaging royals!’ cursed the king. ‘Everyone knows what a real princess is made of!’
‘Everyone?’ murmured the princess, too quietly for her parents to hear. She had been unhappy for days, and no real princess is supposed to feel this way. That’s why I’m quitting, she thought as it fell into place at last. I don’t know what makes a real princess any more than she does! At least she’s honest about it.
The princess leaned forward, just a little intrigued. ‘Why did you come, then?’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, how does it matter?’ scoffed the king.
‘My brothers put me up to this,’ Nyla mumbled, her cheeks growing warm. ‘What sort of girl says no to a dare?’
‘A dare?’ Princess Keya’s face brightened with interest.
‘It was a long shot, but you did say anyone could apply.’
The king’s moustache bristled. ‘You’ll never make a real princess out of that one!’
Never. He shouldn’t have said never.
‘Now, child, get a hold of yourself, you can’t be serious!’ pleaded the queen, who already knew what was about to happen.
But Princess Keya’s eyes were narrow chinks in her perfect, moonlike face. The stubborn set to her mouth said it all. She nodded, and the bugle sounded for the second time that day.
The queen shook her head and returned to her knitting. The princess had taken on an impossible task. She was sure to fail.
‘I’m gobsmacked, I’m dumbfounded, I’m absolutely speechless!’ said the king. Though, of course, if he really was speechless, he’d have said nothing.
The air outside the palace throbbed with gasps of astonishment when the results were declared. Hundreds of hopeful girls limped away in their tight closed shoes, their princess dreams crushed. Hadn’t their hair been shiny enough? Their tiaras too?
But no one was half as astonished as the three boys who shuffled home, worrying about what they’d tell their parents. And wondering how on earth it was fair for their sister to win every dare.
‘A real princess always carries a pocket mirror to arrest stray strands of hair as well as food stuck in her teeth.’
—The Princess Rule Book, page 10
‘Maybe brown is her natural skin colour?’ said Princess Keya.
‘Pink, really,’ muttered Nyla, rubbing her sore cheeks gingerly.
Ayah’s old arms ached. How could a real princess be brown? She had scrubbed Nyla’s face with turmeric and dunked her in a bathtub of milk for the third time, but she was still that shade somewhere between bitter chocolate and burnt toast. And Ayah would not hear of stopping.
‘Maybe we’ll try something else?’ she cried, resolving to have another go at Nyla’s blackened knees before giving up on them forever.
‘A lifetime of grime won’t get washed away so easily—’ started Nyla before letting out a little sigh of utter contentment. The lotion that Ayah was rubbing on her legs smelled so heavenly!
‘That’ll be all, Ayah,’ said Princess Keya curtly. ‘She’s suffered enough!’
Nyla flushed. This was hardly suffering! Even if the letter she’d written to her brothers made it sound like it was.
Dear Amar, Akbar and Anthony,
Ugh, you must have heard by now. I’ve been chosen to replace Princess Keya. I am to stay at the palace while they train me to be a real princess. I’m sure it will be terribly dull, taking half the day to get ready and having nowhere to be after! Besides, the dresses are so long, I’ll never get anywhere without falling on my face first. I’m not sure I’ll survive speaking so softly that I can’t be heard and smiling sweetly through the boredom of it all.
But a dare is a dare. Can’t wait to be home when I’ve won!
She felt a little guilty about lying, but what would her brothers say if they knew how much she’d dreamt of this? They’d never let her hear the end of it.
‘Thank you, Ayah!’ Nyla murmured.
Ayah looked up, surprised. Making a princess is a twenty-four-hour job. Buffing and polishing, scrubbing and soaking, washing and moisturizing. If one is to let down one’s guard for even a minute, who knows what might show up? An open pore, dark circles or, horrors, a blackhead . . . Well, at least the new girl’s manners were in place. Even if her hair wasn’t.
‘Come!’ said the princess. ‘We’ll find you something to hide your knees under.’
‘Hide?’ Ayah’s voice rang with dismay. ‘It’s what you know in your heart that counts,’ here she wagged one finger at Nyla, ‘and you know in your heart that those knees need scrubbing!’
‘She means black heart,’ retorted Princess Keya, ushering Nyla away amid loud protests from Ayah. ‘Though she’d very much like it to be pink. Like everything else here.’
‘It’s what you know in your heart that counts—I like how that sounds . . .’ Nyla was saying when her mouth fell open. She rubbed her eyes.
They were standing in front of the royal closet, an impossible stretch of pinkness as far as the eye could see, and it made her clean forget about brown skin or black knees.
‘ALL THESE CLOTHES ARE YOURS?’
‘Lower your voice!’ said Princess Keya, smothering a giggle. ‘Who else would they belong to?’
‘Your closet is as large as a football field!’ shouted Nyla, before dropping her voice to an acceptable volume. ‘It is?’ wondered Princess Keya, who had never played football in her life.
‘Doesn’t pink remind you of flowers and sunsets?’ said Nyla dreamily, staring at the aisles upon aisles of flouncy frocks, glittering ghagras, shimmering sarees and lush lehengas in every possible shade of pink. Velvet trays overflowing with gargantuan gemstones. Silk stoles and satin scarves arranged by colour. Reams of lace. Racks of hats. Soft muslin nighties. Stockings and petticoats. Strands upon strands of pearls. And stands upon stands of perfume bottles with ballerinas for stoppers. Not to mention the shoes: more shoes than a single pair of feet could wear out in a lifetime.
The new girl is only being polite, thought Keya as she watched Nyla walk a full circle around, barely daring to touch anything. Pink reminded the princess of mosquito bites and calamine lotion. And what was so exquisite about silks and satins as heavy as ballroom curtains? She snuck a wistful glance in the direction of Nyla’s denim cut-offs. If only Ayah weren’t in such a tearing hurry to dump them in the palace bin!
But Ayah was a woman on a mission as she rummaged in the royal closet. After all, there was a princess to be made from scratch. She peered at Nyla’s unruly hair, her stick-out ears. From less than scratch.
‘Perhaps one size does not fit all?’ said Princess Keya, after everything had been tried on and found to be too long (or too tight) for Nyla. ‘Let’s call the royal seamstress.’
‘Did you say you’d like a knee-length gown?’ The royal seamstress could not believe her ears and had to ask twice to be sure.
‘That way, the hem won’t get all dirty!’ said Nyla.
The royal seamstress busied herself with the tape measure to hide her amazement. Since when did the likes of princesses give two hoots about all the work that went into a beautiful hemline?
‘And no train?’ The royal seamstress pricked her thumb in alarm. What on earth was the point of a gown without a long gauzy train of cloth behind it?
Nyla shook her head. ‘No train. But I’d like two pockets, please! Pockets are really handy!’
The royal seamstress sucked her thumb where she had pricked it and sat down at her sewing machine without another word. Ayah was not as even-tempered.
‘What’s a princess without long hair?’ she grumbled, wrestling Nyla’s short frizzy hair into gem-studded clips. ‘Or a full-length gown with a train?’ mumbled the royal seamstress under her breath.
Two hours of mumbling and grumbling, and the dress was ready at last. With an impatient snap of her fingers, Princess Keya called for the mirror.
‘How do I look?’ whispered Nyla, barely daring to see for herself.
Ayah looked her up and down. It was an odd sort of gown. More of a dress, really. With baggy pockets. ‘I’d say fine—’
‘Better than fine!’ blurted the royal seamstress.
Sure, Nyla’s teeth could have been straighter, her nose narrower and her legs longer. But her smile couldn’t have been any broader, and Ayah caught herself smiling as well. She’d met too many princesses who didn’t like what they saw in the mirror. This one was different.
Nyla thanked her again. With real feeling and not out of habit, noted Ayah, although this was no reason to feel so tenderly towards the girl. ‘You look the part now,’ she said gruffly, tucking a stray strand of Nyla’s hair out of sight.
Princess Keya gave Ayah a long, hard stare. This was how princesses were dolled up in every kingdom everywhere. She couldn’t remember the last time Ayah had looked this pleased with her, which bothered her. At least a little.
One floor up from the royal closet, the queen settled upon a divan and drew a long breath. It was time to make that dreaded call.
‘What do you mean she’s quit? I thought you were going to knock some sense into her!’ A low rumble carried over the phone line. ‘There, you’ve set my stomach off again!’
Lady La-di-dah sounds like a door that needs oiling, thought the queen.
‘“Tween”, you say? Well, I think that’s nonsense! What’s being a tween got to do with being a princess?’
How would a dinosaur like you have any idea? thought the queen. You’ve never been either. Instead she said, ‘Well . . .’ and made a few comforting sounds.
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, don’t tell me you’re cancelling our next tea party too? Oh, you’re not, that’s a relief! Well, then, who’s going to throw it? A replacement princess? A fake? You know what I think of fakes! And why am I the last to find out?’
Because you don’t read the papers, you stuffy old bat, thought the queen. ‘We’re only indulging the princess,’ she said, sounding gentler than she felt. ‘You know how princesses are. Once they want something, they must have it. But I assure you, it will amount to nothing. The new girl is never going to make a real princess. Now, if you’ll listen . . .’
And in the dark shadows of the hallway outside the queen’s chamber, someone else listened too.