Once a Princess by Sherwood Smith




  Once a Princess

  Sherwood Smith

  Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter One

  The rap, rap, rap at the front door beat a counter rhythm to the rapping in my skull.

  I sighed, sat up and realized I didn’t have anything on as the typical January Los Angeles heat wave had given us a ninety-degree morning. Rap-rap-RAP! They weren’t going to go away. So I pulled my bedspread around me, and my hair swung down over it like a neo-Raphaelite cloak as I lurched out of my bedroom, kicking aside a train of gold silk fringe at each step.

  Mentally preparing some sizzling remarks, I yanked open the front door. Instead of somebody begging money for some weird cult or a door-to-door sales scammer, a pair of older men faced me expectantly, one short and stocky, one tall and lean. Not American men, oh no. Their clothes didn’t fit them right, they didn’t stand with the slump shouldered bend I was used to in L.A. guys, and their eyes were pinkish at the rims in reaction to the smog. I knew that because once, years ago, I had come from pure clean air to the smog-clogged heat of Los Angeles, though that had not been the sole reason my eyes had been red.

  “What,” I snapped my body tensing. I almost lost my grip on the brocade coverlet, and shoved my hair behind me.

  Both of them stared at the coverlet. The one’s eyes widened, the other’s jaw slackened. They were not staring at me in it, they were looking at the pattern of firebirds chasing up and sown intertwined vines with little white flowers... queen’s blossom, it was called.

  And it doesn’t grow anywhere on Earth.

  One of the men exclaimed, “Sasharia Zhavalieshin?”

  I hadn’t heard my real name for many years. “Wrong house.”

  “You have a look of your father,” the other man promptly replied in a very strong accent one I had worked hard to get rid of all those years ago.

  Again an exchange of glances, and one of them said, with a furtive air, “We come with an offer.”

  “A fabulous offer.” The other peeked furtively left and right as though spies lurked in the palm trees and parked cars. “One might say, of magical proportion...”

  “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” I cut in. “so you’re trying to tell me that there’s a tremendous treasure waiting for me?”

  Both heads nodded.

  “If I take up a cause, one that includes deep magic?”

  Vehement nodding.

  “And perhaps an ancient castle full of sinister secrets?”

  “Yes!”

  “And all for truth, justice and honour?”

  “Yes, Yes!”

  My anxiety flared into anger.

  “Oh no you don’t,” I snarled. “I’ve been there, done that, and they don’t even give you T-shirts.”

  “Tee—“

  “Shirts?”

  “Let me make it plain. N-O, which in English – the language you are using now—means no mystery offers, no fantastic treasure, no magic and especially no causes. They hurt too much!”

  And I slammed the door.

  That is I tried. One put his foot out, and the door thumped into it. He game a muffled “ooof”, his eyes watering and the tall gray one glanced back over his shoulder yet again. Still no one there, if you didn’t count the string of tightly parked cars belonging to the other tenants of the apartment buildings on my street, and their roommates , boyfriends, girlfriends and whoever else could crowd in.

  He turned back to me. “We must discuss your father. May we enter?” Now he didn’t even speak English.

  And though I hadn’t heard that language since I was a child, I understood it. Its cadences, the clear almost singsong vowels after the flat affect of American English evoked so powerful a memory my arm tightened to slam the door in their faces. My throat hurt. “Is he dead? Just tell me. Yes or No.”

  “Please.” The tall one held out his hands. “We must discuss your—your inheritance.”

  My heart gave one of those knocks against the ribs that echoes through body and soul with fear confirmed. With the pain of regret.

  The younger one said quickly, “that is, we do not know for certain that he is dead, and that is why we—“

  So they don’t know either. I pointed past their shoulders. “Whoa, the winged victory of Samothrace!”

  As they hadn’t read Bored of the Rings, they peered skyward, shifting their weight as they did so.

  This time I got the door to slam.

  They pounded, of course, and I half expected them to blast it inward with magic—then realized that if they could have, they already would have. Magic so untrustworthy on earth, was on the ebb. They probably had just enough access to whatever magical energy was floating over L.A. to return through the World Gate. So I hotfooted back to my room and slammed that door too.

  I flung myself onto my bed, which sloshed and undulated, but even pulling the pillow over my head didn’t shut out the fact that at last, at last, after all these years, what my mother had warned me about had come true.

  They’d found me. Had they found Mom?

  “Argh,” I croaked, my sleep-deprived brain finally catching up, and I sat up again, so sharply my head swam in a different direction than the water bed undulated. “oooogh.” My insides lurched along with the sloshing water.

  But I ignored that too and reached for my cell phone, which I’d turned off before work the night before, and hadn’t turned back on as my shift had ended at 3:30 a.m. I flipped it open, and saw about a hundred calls from Mom. Uh-oh.

  She answered on the first ring “darling?”

  “Mom?”

  “Sash! Oh babe, I am so relieved,” she exclaimed, as if a month hadn’t gone by between out last fight and now. But then it was always that way. After we cooled off we were too glad to hear the other’s voice to continue whatever fight had sent me stomping off—Mom’s words usually echoing behind me, You’re too much like your father: stubborn, dream driven, won’t compromise—

  “Mom—“

  “Sasha.” I could hear her breathe. “They found me.”

  “You too?”

  “You—you too?” she said, her voice to high with anxiety for either of us to laugh at the echo.

  “Two old guys. Something about dad and an inheritance. I slammed the door in their faces. Mom, he isn’t, like, dead is he? They wouldn’t tell me. Or is it the Merindars, and some sort of trick?”

  She heaved a shuddering sigh. “I don’t know Chiquita. The one I got was young and his isn’t any Merindar, unless canary has mellowed in his old age. If he’s aged.”

  Canary was our private name for Canardan Merindar, usurper to the throne of Khanerenth, on the world Sartorias-deles. It had once been a funny name, meant to ease my fears while we were on the run back before we’d lost everything but one another.

  Mom said urgently, “Look, I don’t want to get into this stuff on the phone. It’s way too heavy-duty, and I don’t know what they can or can’t do with magic and phones. Meet me... at the old place. Okay?”

  “Why not at your house? You’ve got t
hose security guards and everything—“

  “And they got past. Rogers in the middle of getting out tickets and we are gonna beat feet. But first I needed to talk to you.” Her voice roughened and I knew she’d been worried sick.

  Filled with remorse, I nodded, remembered she couldn’t see me, and said, “Give me five.”

  In about a minute and a half I’d dressed, grabbed my travel bag and was out the door.

  “Five “in LA traffic is likelier to mean five hours than minutes. An hour later, I’d inched my way across town through the morning commuter traffic to the street we’d first lived on when we blasted back through the World Gate with nothing more than the clothes we wore, a jumble of jewels and keepsakes wrapped in my firebird bedspread, and each other.

  My mother drove up from the opposite direction seconds after I arrived in my battered old car. She had the door open almost before she’d turned the engine off. Heads turned on the street as we flung ourselves into the others arms. Even in LA you don’t often see a couple of women close to six feet tall hugging—one blond and elegant in hand-tailored haute couture clothes, the other in old jeans and a tee, a hawk’s beak of a nose, and butt-length, wildly curly honey-coloured hair.

  “Sorry, sorry,” I muttered into her linen-covered shoulder.

  “Sorry darling,” she whispered into my hair.

  We backed up to draw breath, caught some smiles and curious glances from people on the sidewalk watching and remembered why we’d come—I could see it in her face as clearly as I was thinking it.

  We looked around guiltily for lurking magical spies as we crossed the dusty LA Street, Mom whirling to beep her car locked. I didn’t bother. No one would want to steal mine, even if they could get it running.

  Our place was an old fifties diner that miraculously hadn’t been axed when the rest of the bean fields at the bottom of Sepulveda and Cantilena had sprouted into the Hughes Center. We headed toward a corner table, settling our chairs so that our backs were to the wall and two exits in sight.

  Mom hadn’t forgotten Dad’s training. She’d been on the run for several of my childhood years. What for me had been training had become habit for my mother, the idealist hippie “performance art” chick who met a prince from another world, crossed with him back to his world. Dad had never tried to fool her into thinking a “happily ever after” awaited them. There were problems at home, and one of the reasons dad had left to visit earth was to think about them, and perhaps to learn how to cope. But my mother had always believed in good causes—even if her prince looked a lot like Harpo Marx.

  She said, “This kid came. Young. Your age, I’d think.”

  I nodded. Comparing in years was almost meaningless between a world with 365 days and one with 441 days.

  “He told me your father had set something or other up, some spell. If he wasn’t heard from in ten years, they were to activate this spell, and it eventually led to us.”

  She didn’t say I told you so. She never did, and I had learned not to either. Our last fight had been over my reluctance to move yet again. We’d run every year since we’d first arrived, after Granma died. We always returned to some part of LA school after school, town after town, getting used to new kids, new rules, new clothes and slang and styles—grammar school, middle school, high school, college. I’D finally rebelled, declaring I would stay in LA and go to graduate school. I’d been grimly slogging my way from work to school ever since, but I had yet to learn to make and keep friends. I got along with everyone I worked with. I just never got close.

  She sighed. The waitperson behind the counter called out, “Moria.”

  Mom got up to fetch our drinks. When she sat, I hunched over my latte, stirring in sugar.

  “Moira?” I asked.

  “My latest name.” She made a face. “And yes they found me anyway.”

  I didn’t say Told you so either.

  She sighed. “Okay. Roger is getting you a ticket as well. I kept hoping you’d call, and I was going to wait until the last minute.”

  “Where are you going?”

  “New York.” That had been our last destination. She added defensively, “sash we can get lost in New York better than anywhere else.”

  “We can’t in LA?” I waved a hand. “All right. Consider the argument already done, me saying how much I hate running, you with the anonymity, me hating fake names and faker people, or with safety, and me with the fact that we’re probably never going to be safe. It looks like we’re unfinished business for those guys, and when it comes to tech versus magic, guess who wins?”

  “Over there? Magic. But here?” she shrugged. “We’ve got tech on our side.”

  “Tech wins only if there’s an ebb in the magic. Or a cold spot, or whatever they’d call it. Any way they did find us. And even if we run again, those guys are smart enough to find their way to tech if they want us bad enough.”

  She pushed our cups aside and gripped my hands. Tears slipped down her cheeks as she studied my palms. “You’ve got strong hands. That was about all I could give you, when your father disappeared.” She met my eyes. “But I’m afraid. For us both. They can’t be tracking us for anything good. If it was good news, your father would come himself. I would rather have you with me.”

  “Mom, I’d like to stay with you too. Nothing better. Heck, I even like roger, even if he does tend to bore on about the stock market.”

  She smiled faintly, looking young and old at the same time. Vulnerable—though I loathe that word. Kittens are vulnerable. Orchids are vulnerable. When something wants to hurt me, I want to kick its butt from here to mars.

  “Mom, I’m going to stay. I don’t see any difference between New York and LA for hiding in. Except I can hide better here since I know LA. But really I just don’t want to run anymore.”

  “We ran fifteen years ago,” Mom said. “Sasha we’re not running from shadows. They are here.”

  “Oh I’ll move. I’ll go back to using grandma’s last name, but that’s it. I have at least a semblance of a life for the first time. I like my studies, I like my sport. I think I might maybe even learn how to make friends. So I’m staying. If they try to come after me, I know this ground, I’m going to stand and fight.”

  She held my hands so hard that I had to flex them so her grip wouldn’t hurt. Despite her tears, her elegant, poised appearance, it was obvious she’d stayed in shape too.

  She sighed and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her expensive jacket. “Okay. Like you say, you’re good at taking care of yourself. Better than I ever was. There is half your father in you—” Her voice suspended again. We didn’t have to say it. We were both thinking, but he disappeared.

  I pointed at here, thumb up and finger out—the Mick Jagger pint-and-shoot she’d used ever since I was little. “Time to go back and pack. I hated that apartment anyway.”

  Chapter Two

  Two weeks later, there I was asleep again, after another night shift. Same time, same weather, same bed—but this time I did not live alone, I had roommates. The apartment was located in Venice instead of west LA fewer palm trees, more sea breeze, otherwise the same close packed strings of cars out front, same rows of buildings with the ever present TVs flickering in the windows.

  The rap at the front door made me bury my head into my pillow. I was sliding back into my dream involving guns, squealing tires and tomato sauce with oregano, when a knock at my bedroom door startled me.

  I jerked upright. “What?”

  Leslie, my co-worker and new roommate, opened the door and popped her head in. “sorry, Sasha. Some suit asking for you.”

  “Suit?”

  She shrugged her beaded dreads swinging and clicking as she glanced over her shoulder, and back at me. “Suit. Tie. Briefcase. Something about legal papers.”

  A lawyer? Asking for me? This did not sound good? Take out delivery lawyer service has to cost a C-note a minute, I thought. But out loud I thanked her for the heads-up.

  Once again I surged u
p from the water bed and yanked my summer duvet around me. Not the beautiful one. That was now packed at the bottom of my closet in my old karate gear carryall. This duvet was a gen-yoo-wine cheapo in five garish colors, one hundred percent synthetic earthwerar.

  I hadn’t upbraided my hair from my work shift, so my braids fell around my shoulders, all six of them with curly wisps trying to escape; the effect, to my eyes looked like I’d stuck my fingers in a light socket. Oh well this was not any visit I’d asked for.

  When I entered the living room, the mixed smell of simmering spaghetti sauce and stale marijuana toxins slugged me in my empty middle. The pounding I’d thought was in my head resolved into the boom-crash-screech of an action movie on the TV. So that explained the dream.

  The sauce smell drifted informs the kitchen, pungent with fresh oregano. The toxins were from Dougie, a long lanky guy in a filthy t-shirt and jeans. He lay in the middle of the living room looking at some book called how to make a million of the internet as he smoked his doob. The TV blared unwatched across the room.

  Marcie whose name was on the lease had to rent out the extra bedrooms in order to scrape together enough cash to support this slob—nobody at the restaurant could figure about why. As they say, love is blind. In this case, blind deaf and dumb. Especially dumb.

  Dougie spewed another cloud before greeting me “Hi ya Sasha.” The greeting was accompanied by a leer down my body. I clutched the duvet tighter.

  “Dougie.” I left off the “hi” or “good morning” or any other word that he could possibly interpret as an invitation to hit on me. Not that that would stop him—as long as Marcie wasn’t around.

  Leslie jerked her thumb at the visitor and then vanished into the kitchen, firmly shutting the door on Dougie’s personal smog bank.

  I turned to the front door. There stood a young guy in a suit carrying a legal briefcase. He looked ordinary enough: pleasant face, wavy brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, dark brown eyes, and brown skin. Obviously startled by my height. I don’t hold that against anyone—I am tall. Not a surprise when you come from two tall parents of spectacular make and model.

 
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