Chapter 7

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A half hour later, the nine princesses stood before Maelyn’s throne - now Uncle Jarrod’s throne. He clutched a cavernous goblet of wine and chuckled. “After fifteen years, one would think I’d know the names of my nieces.” He had a deep voice, strong as a pounding drum. “Remind me.”

 The princesses sighed collectively. This ritual came with every visit.

“Maelyn.”

“Coralina Corissa.”

“Heidel.”

“Briette.”

“Lace.”

“Jaedis.”

“Shulay.”

“Ivy.”

“Arialain.”

“Ha!” Uncle Jarrod took several gulps from his goblet. He smiled at Coralina. “Yes, I remember. You’re Coco.”

“Yes, Uncle!” Coralina flashed her stunning grin. “You never forget me.”

Maelyn rolled her eyes. Coralina’s black curls and dramatic purple eyes made her everyone’s favorite. Uncle Jarrod would soon forget the other names and go back to calling them all “Princess.”

Uncle Jarrod’s smile faded when he turned to Maelyn. “What have you done with the servants?”

“Gone,” said Maelyn. She watched him steadily, refusing to look ashamed.

“When did you expel them?”

“Seven months ago. Just after Father’s death.”

Uncle Jarrod dipped into his goblet again. For a moment, Maelyn suspected he took the drink to hide a smile. “Why?”

“Never mind why,” said Maelyn.

Uncle Jarrod set his goblet on the arm of the throne and leaned forward. “What?”

“The reason is unimportant.” Maelyn kept her tone firm though her heart began to hammer.

“She hasn’t told any of us,” said Coralina, her voice smooth as cream.

“How can you live a respectable life without servants?” Uncle Jarrod asked.

“Quite easily,” said Maelyn. “The castle is small. And we are many.”

Coralina gave a short laugh. “Now you get to hear about the ‘system’.”

Uncle Jarrod frowned. “The system?”

Maelyn sighed, reluctant to explain what would only disgust him. But she had to.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The system was simple: nine princesses, nine duties divided. The castle chores could be organized into nine general tasks. If each princess took a task, they wouldn’t need servants. They wouldn’t need anyone.

Convincing her sisters had been far less simple.

“What do you mean ‘we’ll do the work’?” Coralina had demanded from the depths of her rosewater bath.

Maelyn held out the list of duties she’d written. She had given each job a title, hoping her sisters would find that appealing. “Just one. And I’m letting you pick first.”

Coralina poked her lip forward as her gaze brushed the list. “Throne Princess,” she said instantly.

“Sorry. That’s taken.”

“You said I was first!” Coralina cried, sloshing scented water out of the tub.

“Naturally. First after me.”

Coralina’s eyes narrowed and Maelyn half-expected a cake of soap to be flung at her head. But another glance at the list seemed to tilt Coralina’s thoughts. “What would the ‘Festivity Princess’ do?”

Maelyn smiled. “Anything to amuse visitors to the castle: banquets, balls, even theater if you like.”

Coralina twirled a black curl around her finger. “Well, if I have to….”

Each sister chose the task that best suited her talents, except Arialain who received the list last. “Door Princess? But….”

“It’s perfect for you, Ari,” said Maelyn. “Just answer the door when someone knocks. What could be simpler?” She took Arialain’s sigh for acceptance.

Seven months later, life inside the castle ran as smoothly as wool through a spinning wheel, with only occasional snarls in their daily thread. No harm had come from her unconventional method.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Silence followed Maelyn’s speech. Uncle Jarrod regarded her with glass-cold eyes. “Fifteen years ago, your parents turned nine ragamuffin peasants into royal princesses. Now you would turn those princesses back into peasants?”

"No!” said Maelyn. “I just-”

“We… we don’t mind much,” Arialain spoke up. “Just Coco… and sometimes Lace-”

“Snap it, Ari!” said Coralina. “We hate it – all of us! If I was ruling the kingdom, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Hmm. An interesting thought.” Uncle Jarrod drained his goblet and loomed out of the throne. Without looking at Maelyn, he grabbed her cloak and scepter off a small table and carried them down the steps.

“What are you doing?” Maelyn asked sharply.

Uncle Jarrod beckoned Coralina forward. He draped the ivory cape around her shoulders. “While I am visiting, Coco will be Throne Princess. Let us see who bears the title… more worthily.”

Coralina smiled at Maelyn. Like a smug child who just snatched away her favorite toy.

“You may go.” Uncle Jarrod waved them all away. But as the sisters turned to leave he said, “Not you, Princess.”

Maelyn stopped. Though she never cursed, the words leapt forward in her mind.

Her sisters trickled out, Coralina trailing the cape behind her like a peacock with new feathers. Uncle Jarrod climbed back up to the throne and waved at his goblet. “Fill that.”

Maelyn carried the goblet to the kitchen and returned with it brimful of mulberry wine. Uncle Jarrod drank the entire goblet before speaking.

Maelyn’s heart grew mournful as she watched him. So like her father – grand stature, powerful voice, prominent features. But without Father’s joy, Father’s gentleness.

Uncle Jarrod lowered the cup and studied the jewels bedecking the rim. “Now,” he said, “You will tell me.”

Maelyn shook her head. “I won’t.”

He twirled the goblet in his thick fingers. “Bear in mind, Princess, you cannot be queen until your twentieth year. Until that time, I can always decide you are… unfitting for it. Coralina may be better.”

“Coralina cannot rule herself, let alone a kingdom,” Maelyn snapped.

Uncle Jarrod smiled. “We shall see. In seven days I return to Grunwold. Before that time you will give me your reason for dismissing the servants. Or I shall name Coralina the next successor to this throne.”

He held out the goblet. “Fill that.”

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