Not too far down the road from where Prince Thomas Pendragon was wondering how his sister was doing, Dannie (Danielle) Ferreira sat at a Mah-jong table, shooting glances under her lashes at her two new dorm-mates.
The three of them — Dannie, Lady Gwendolyn de Ganis, and Princess Jessica Pendragon — were the only young women from Albion to have enrolled at Camford University. There were a couple more who would enter Camford in a few years, but for now it was just the three of them. Which meant that Dannie would be sharing living accomadations with a princess and the girl who was more than likely to be Albion’s future queen.
Intimidating, you ask? No, not at all.
It was bloody terrifying.
But so far, Dannie thought she was doing a halfway-decent job of hiding her entirely reasonable fear. She smiled, she chatted, she laughed. She couldn’t bring herself to openly kiss up to either of them — her stomach turned at the thought — but still, there was no harm in being pleasant. And in hoping, nay, praying, that her mouth wouldn’t run away with her and spit out something that would offend one or both of them.
She focused her attention, first, on Lady Gwendolyn. If Dannie forced herself to think of the other young woman as just that — another young woman — then she wasn’t scary at all. Just the opposite — she seemed more frightened of Dannie than Dannie was of her. Or maybe it was the princess who was frightening her? Nah, that doesn’t make sense, Dannie thought. Not counting her sisters, the one female of their age who Lady Gwendolyn had seemed, in their school days, to spend the most time was the princess. They’d seemed like friends even before Prince Thomas began openly chasing her.
Not chasing, Dannie — courting. Princes court ladies. They might chase skirts on the side, but ladies they court.
Though, to be fair to Prince Thomas, Dannie hadn’t heard of him going after any skirts after he’d begun to court Lady Gwendolyn. For such a seemingly-docile little thing, Lady Gwendolyn must have had a way of keeping men by her side … either that, or Sir Bors had put the fear of Wright into Prince Thomas. Dannie had heard that Sir Bors could be a bit of a, well, boar at times.
“So, um … Lady Gwendolyn,” Dannie said, causing the other young woman to look up from her tiles with a start. “Have you, uh, given any more thought to what you were going to be studying?”
“Um …” Lady Gwendolyn pursed her lips together. “I, well, the university doesn’t offer a program in music, so … I thought I’d do literature instead.” She flushed. “It can’t hurt to be well-read, can it?”
“Of course it can’t,” the princess replied. “Besides, I’m taking lit too, so there ought to always be a friendly face in the classroom.” She smiled, and Lady Gwendolyn looked positively relieved.
Then Princess Jessica turned to Dannie. “And what about you?”
“I think I’ll study art,” she replied. It was hard being a woman of her class in the university; on the one hand her parents weren’t paying an arm and a leg for her to have an education that was purely ornamental, on the other hand, women weren’t exactly encouraged to study serious subjects. Some could get away with it, Rob had mentioned that his brother’s new wife had studied politics of all things, but Dannie had a feeling that she wouldn’t be extended quite the same kind of leeway.
More to the point, while politics might have been interesting, Dannie couldn’t imagine how they would have any use in her actual life. And other subjects that could be more immediately useful, like economics, struck Dannie as too mind-numbingly boring to contemplate for the space of more than a minute. Besides, she’d spent most of the past six years helping out in her parents’ many shops, what could the professors have to tell her that she hadn’t figured out already?
“Art?” Lady Gwendolyn asked. Then she blushed as if she had said too much.
Dannie glanced sidelong at the princess, who wore an enquiring look. Dannie shrugged. “I’ve always liked making things … clothes especially. Art can’t hurt.”
“Oh,” Lady Gwendolyn replied, her eyes going back to the board.
The silence spent some time being broken only by the clinking of the porcelain pieces. Dannie looked around the table once more. Of the three of them, only the princess seemed serene. She kept her eyes on the board and the pieces before her, not like Lady Gwendolyn, who was clearly looking at them in order to avoid looking around her, but simply because they were playing a game and it would behoove her to pay attention to it.
Or was that it? Dannie thought back, to the time in her life when she’d called the princess a friend. They’d been little — very little — but surely how one was as a child was supposed to predict the person one grew up to be, right? Not perfectly, of course. But there were supposed to be similarities.
So the Princess Jessica she had known when she was little, would she be this calm, nonchalant in the face of so much new-ness?
The short answer was yes — and no. Yes, because, as Dannie thought back to their shared past, the princess had never been one to demonstrate anything but coolness in the face of adversity. Or potential adversity. Because, in all seriousness, how much real adversity did eight-year-olds face?
Dannie remembered one time, when they were about eight, that the princess was over at her house (it was always that way, the princess at her house instead of the other way around), and Dannie’s granny had waltzed into Dannie’s room, announcing that she was thinking of baking some cookies but could use some help. Dannie of course had been halfway to the kitchen at the word “cookie”; the princess had hesitated, but only for a moment.
It wasn’t until later that Dannie had found out that the princess had never before baked anything — had never even been inside the castle kitchens — and that her fumbling in the baking process hadn’t been a product of normal kid clumsiness but of complete and total cluelessness. At the time, all she had thought was that the princess was being unusually quiet, and maybe a little lazy. And oddly daft; Granny had to keep shooing her from the oven as the cookies baked. It wasn’t until they were eating the cookies and the princess asked Granny to come up to the palace, to show the Queen how to do this, that Dannie had begun to put the pieces together.
Glancing sidelong at the princess, Dannie had to wonder if the princess remembered that day … if she remembered any of their earlier aquaintance …
But then the church chimes rang out, signalling they had only fifteen minutes before class, and all questions were perforce put off until another time.
It wasn’t until a few days later that Dannie got up the courage — and time — to approach the princess again. Whatever other universities, particularly those who served young people of the female persuasion, might be, Camford didn’t care if you were male, female, royalty, a peasant, or a purple-people-eater: Camford demanded excellence, and was perfectly willing to explode your brain in order to get it.
So one evening, after she managed to restore the pieces of her blown-to-bits brain, Dannie went down into the common area only to find the princess seated on a couch by the fire, reading a book. (Literature was certainly the right major for that girl; even when they were little it was only rarely that the princess was long separated from a book.) Gulping, Dannie sat by her side and waited for the other girl to notice her.
It didn’t take long; Dannie had barely made herself comfortable before the princess glanced over at her, smiled and put her book down. “You don’t have to–I mean, if you were reading, don’t let me disturb you.”
“It’s all right,” the princess replied. “Honestly, I was barely making head or tail of it anyway.”
“Ah.” Dannie bit her lip. “So, um … how are you adjusting? Miss, um … your family?”
“Yes, but Mum has already written three letters to me, so it’s not so bad.” She cocked her head a little to one side. “You?”
“Well, on the one hand, it’s kind of nice to get away from the chaos … on the other hand, I’m finding that life feels kind of empty without two little brothers harrassing me and getting into everything, plus, you know, five shops to run and all that fun stuff.”
The princess chuckled. “And here your mother swore that George would outgrow that … he must be getting so big now. How old is he, eleven?”
Dannie had to restrain herself from doing a double-take. Not only did the princess remember her, she remembered her pesky little brother — and was damn close with his age! “Ten, actually,” Dannie corrected. “But close enough. He’d be so flattered you thought he was older than he was.”
Princess Jessica giggled. “Kids are like that, aren’t they?”
“Yeah, no kidding … so, um … how are those literature classes going, your highness?”
For some reason the princess frowned — a quick frown that was barely visible before morphing into an expression of pleasant neutrality. “Fairly well. My class on hagiography is … interesting.”
“Hagiography — you mean saint’s lives?” The princess nodded and Dannie tried very hard not to make a face.
A sigh came from the princess. “It would all be much more interesting,” she said in a carefully neutral tone, “if it was taught from a … secular perspective. Then we could look more at the literary techniques than simply reading for the content.”
From this, Dannie guessed that the class was taught by a member of the clergy, and that they were expected to take every word in the works they were studying as gospel truth — something that was apparently rather difficult for the princess to do.
“Do you still play chess?” the princess asked suddenly, too suddenly for Dannie to restrain her double-take this time. Chess — she never would have played chess at all if it hadn’t been for the princess. They’d had a chessboard at their home, mostly for show, but it had been the princess who had slowly, painstakingly taught her to play. They’d spent hours at the board, at first the princess teaching and Dannie learning, later just playing, and still later starting to play but stopping as the conversation became more interesting than the game.
“Um — well, yeah, a little bit. Not as much as I used to …” Not as much as I used to, when we were still friends because we could pretend that it didn’t matter that my parents were shopkeepers and yours were the King and Queen, and when, let’s face it, I could be a kid instead of spending half my time behind the counter at one of Mum and Dad’s shops, or babysitting George and Freddy. “But I think I still remember what all the pieces are and how they’re supposed to move,” she said, trying to turn it into a joke.
The princess smiled. “Maybe we could have a game sometime?”
“Sure. Name your day, your highness, I’ll be there.”
“Great. Oh … and, Dannie? Oops — you don’t mind if I call you Dannie — do you? I won’t if you do.”
Dannie shrugged. “You’re probably better off calling me Dannie, I only answer to Danielle if it’s said at an ear-splitting volume by my mother … anyway, you were saying?”
The giggles the princess had begun cut off abruptly. Her eyes dropped to her skirt. “You can — um — call me Jessie if you like. I mean — Lynn does — it seems silly to be so formal if we’re going to be living in the same place …”
Dannie stared as the princess — Jessie — looked up with a smile that was almost … shy. “But only if you like.”
Dannie picked her jaw up from the floor and managed to reply, “All right — well — pleased to meet you, Jessie Pendragon; I’m Dannie Ferreira.” She stuck out her hand.
Jessie took it and shook. “Pleased to meet you.”
And nothing much else really mattered at all.