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The Replacement Princess

The Replacement Princess © Katy Haye 2017

 

Cover design © Icy Sedgwick

 

The right of Katy Haye to be identified as the Author of this Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this ebook may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author.

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and should not be resold or given away to other people.

 

This story is a work of fiction. All characters and events depicted in this novel are fictitious and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. No slur is intended on any nation or nationality in this alternate history story. I spent my honeymoon on Tiree and I highly recommend it as a holiday destination.

 

www.katyhaye.com

The Replacement Princess

For my sixteenth birthday I received the gift of a truce with the Scots, which I must bring about myself by marrying a complete stranger – and an enemy to boot.

I was a princess of England, not a fool; I had always known my life would not be at my own disposal. But with those few words, Papa the king triggered bars that seemed to spring up around me, like the cages my mother kept her song thrushes in. My childhood – such as it had been – was now over, and my future unrolled before me: I must go to a foreign country, charm a prince, please a nation that hated me on principle (the feeling was mutual) and produce a brood of children whose existence would cement peace between the two countries. I was sixteen. I accepted the decisions made for me. It was too much to expect me to be delighted about them.

“Is there a chance he will change his mind?” I meant the Scottish prince, of course; Papa never changed his mind about anything.

Mama gave me a cold look. “No one will change their minds in this matter.” I picked up a clockwork mouse from Mama’s bureau, toying restlessly with the key. I wanted to pace but Mama was already irritated. “The deed is as good as done, Myrtle.”

I held back the shiver that urged my shoulder blades together when she said that. “I understand. I just meant… The Spanish princess—”

“Prince James did not change his mind on that occasion, nor will he now.” She stared at the fire, her voice fading until I could barely hear it. “That poor girl drowned in the Channel, I have no doubt. And a betrothal cannot go ahead with no bride.” She looked up. “Nothing will go wrong for you, child. We cannot afford any missteps.”

I set down the mouse. It whirred limply, only one wheel turning so it twisted in a circle. I pressed my fingers against its back so it wouldn’t fall off the bureau as the mechanism clicked to a stop.

Mama smiled. “And you have two years to prepare yourself.” Because the prince was younger than me, only just fourteen, and a marriage would not take place until he was sixteen. Another shiver tugged at my shoulders. “I am sure you will be reconciled to the match by then.”

“Of course, Mama. I know my duty.”

Another stern look assessed the truth of that statement. I let go of the mouse, clasped my hands behind my back and lifted my chin. Mama appeared satisfied. “You will be a queen, my girl. It is all we could hope for.”

All she could hope for. My dreams ran in completely different directions. Beside me, the clockwork mouse had a burst of energy and whirred off the back of the bureau. There was a clunk as it hit the wall, but its fall to the floor was silent, cushioned by the carpet beneath.

*

“Oh, he is said to be very handsome!”

Clementine, the youngest and silliest of my companions, giggled behind her hand at the news. I gave her a cold look. He was a boy of fourteen; there could be little indication yet what the man would look like. And it wasn’t looking at the prince that I was likely to find difficult in my new role.

She dropped her hand and found a calmer expression. “Good looks can’t hurt, can they?” she demanded pertly.

“They will certainly never harm you, Clem,” I said.

She flushed. “Would you prefer it if he were ugly as a sweep?”

He could be ugly as the rear of a horse and that would make no difference to matters. I gave Clem my most superior smile. “My husband will be everything I look for in a man.”

*

An announcement was made to the country, confirming the agreement. Celebrations were held. The Government was relieved. Anticipatory congratulations flooded in to me from all corners of the country, and even further afield. I received notes from the King of the Low Countries, as well the Kings of Spain and Portugal. It seemed the whole of Europe was relieved at the news that England and Scotland would – finally – stop fighting.

The palace hosted a ball. The great and good of England vied to attend. The Scots didn’t make the journey. Too afraid of assassins. Or, that the prince and I would take one look at each other and revolt.

Harry, my eldest brother and the Prince of Wales, stood up for the first dance with me. “I’m proud of you, Myrr,” he muttered, under cover of the music. “It will be a relief to see an end to the war.”

Except that it wasn’t a war, not really. It was a series of scraps between villages on the border; places whose inhabitants couldn’t speak English clearly, even if that’s the nationality they held to. Places that made no difference to life whatsoever, whether they were marked on the map as Scottish or English.

“Of course,” I muttered, dutiful as ever.

His hands tightened on mine. “Don’t think I don’t understand your sacrifice,” he said. I looked up. My distant, adored big brother. I knew the weight of learning kingship and statecraft bore heavily on him and I was instantly ashamed of my sulk.

“We all have our part to play,” I murmured.

Our feet carried us through the steps of the dance. “The Scots will soon fall in love with you,” Harry promised. With his usual insight, he’d cut through the trivial to the fear that gripped my heart; the enormity of the job ahead of me.

“I hope they will.”

“Smile, look pretty, and most of the job is done.”

I twisted a smile as I looked up at him. I knew that half the girls in the kingdom sighed over handsome Prince Harry. “Is that the principle that guides you?”

Genuine amusement lightened his eyes. “Mama is full of advice for me, too, you know – she doesn’t save it all for you.”

“I can remember to smile, and nature took care of the prettiness; so there will be close to nothing to be done when I reach Scotland.”

Harry laughed. “That’s the spirit!”

Papa didn’t dance, and my younger brother Simon was too young to attend, but my uncles had both placed their names on my card.

Uncle Murgatroyd led me in the minuet. I was glad of my gloves forming a barrier between my hands and his. He made me uneasy, which I hoped he didn’t guess. There was something about the way his pale eyes looked through me, as though he knew something about me of which I was unaware – something unpleasant or shameful.

But I was a princess, and would eventually be a queen. I pasted a bland smile on my face and kept him at a distance with words as we trod the steps beneath the glittering friction chandeliers.

“I am pleased to see so many of England’s great families here tonight,” I stated. “The country is unified in our celebration.”

“Hmm. You face a grave responsibility, niece.”

That was his style. At a celebratory ball, he focused on the possibility of failure. I held on to my smile and looked over his shoulder. “But one that, God willing, I am equal to.”

“We will pray for matters to proceed smoothly.”

Whoever would pray for anything else? “Thank you, uncle.”

I was glad when the dance came to a close and I could offer my hand to Uncle Ordwell, my Aunt Delphine’s husband. Blue-eyed and smiling, he was in every way the opposite of my Uncle Murgatroyd.

He bowed elegantly over my hand, and the key difference between them struck me. Uncle Ordwell made me feel like a princess. Uncle Murgatroyd made me feel like a coster-girl who’d somehow wandered into the wrong life.

“Ah, Myrtle. I remember your birth.” Ordwell began to reminisce as we took our places for the dance. “And now you are a woman grown and nearly a bride.”

“Not quite yet, uncle.” There was no need to hurry the next twenty-two months away. I steered him away from reminiscence. “Have you invented anything remarkable lately?” Uncle Ordwell’s hobby was mechanics. He had created the Ordwell Repeating Rifle which killed Scotsmen with such terrifying efficiency it had forced the Scots to sue for peace, bringing us to this point.

“Now peace is before us, I shall enjoy turning my attention to gentler creations,” he said. “Fewer guns and more machines to help in our homes and factories.”

“Swords into ploughshares, uncle?” I teased.

His fingers tightened on mine. “Exactly that, Myrtle.”

We fell silent and I allowed the pleasure of dancing to take me over.

*

Celebrations continued with gifts from my family. Papa bought me fine new dresses, and bolts of cloth for my trousseau, practical as well as pretty. Mama gave me a diamond parure and Harry chose a jewel-encrusted pen and letter-opener set, a gesture that made me smile at the thought of him dashing off a letter to his sister over the border. Eleven-year-old Simon was a little young for statecraft. His gift was a finely-embroidered pair of dancing slippers, which raised another smile. And then the smile became a lump in my throat. I would miss my brothers. I’d miss my whole family. Twenty-two months to get used to the idea seemed more like twenty-two months of loss hanging over me before the axe would finally fall.

I retired to the portrait gallery, my favourite place when I needed to think or be alone. Other people seemed to find the looming figures oppressive, but I liked them. These were my family, too. Hatchet-faced great-grandmama Honoria, and second cousin Pernille whose demure portrait gave no clue to the scandal that had outraged the royal family and the entire nation fifty years ago. My portrait wasn’t on the panelled walls. A family grouping was in the card room downstairs, but I’d never sat for an individual portrait. Yet. Perhaps Papa would commission a painting before I left for Scotland.

I was staring at cousin Pernille’s rosebud mouth when the sound of footfalls alerted me that I was not alone. I turned to find Lord Padry, Mama’s secretary.

“Your Highness.” He stopped and gave a stiff bow.

“My lord.” I dipped a brief curtsy. He made no move to speak and I realised with surprise that my recent betrothal outweighed my youth and meant that I would have to initiate conversation. “Would you care to walk a while?” I offered. I’d come to be alone, but Lord Padry moved like a ghost through the palace when he was about Mama’s business; he would not be a troubling companion.

“Thank you.” He fell into step beside me. “I hope you will accept my felicitations on your betrothal.”

“You are kind,” I murmured.

From the corner of my eye I caught his faint, tight smile. “The Scots are fortunate to gain such a rose to adorn their court.”

In all politeness, I could neither agree nor disagree with that. I made some sort of an encouraging noise.

“Your Highness, I hope you will not think me impertinent. I wondered if you might do me the great honour of accepting a small gift to mark this momentous occasion.”

I saw that he was holding a small box, which he offered to me, flipping the lid open to reveal a string of pearls such as might be given to a gently-born girl on the event of her debut into society.

“They belonged to my mother,” he explained, as though he thought my silence was framing a rejection. “If I had a daughter I would pass them to her, but I have not been so blessed. I would consider it an honour if you would accept them.”

Lord Padry ran Mama’s affairs impeccably and she was clearly fond of the man, although I’d always thought him a little eccentric. But he was well-meaning and always civil. For Mama’s sake if nothing else I would have accepted.

“That is very kind of you.” I looked up to meet his cautious brown gaze. “I am delighted to accept. Thank you.”

He smiled, gave another bow and retreated. “I will trespass on your time no longer, Your Highness.”

His footsteps tapped back across the floor. How odd, but how entirely in character for the man. I slid the pearls out of the box, the lustrous spheres smooth against my fingers. They had a pinkish glow. I had pearls of my own in the jewel box in my bedroom, but I preferred these. I had already spotted the jewels Mama had gifted me in two of the portraits in this room. I knew I wouldn’t find these pearls no matter how hard I looked. Perhaps there was a portrait in Lord Padry’s family home of his mother wearing them, but here they were unique. I slipped them back into their box. I would ensure they came to Scotland with me.

*

Gifts arrived from the Scottish royal family a few weeks later. I received a miniature portrait of the prince. It depicted a dark-haired boy with bland features that I didn’t think would set even Clem’s heart beating faster. He was definitely still a work in progress. They also sent me a small wooden casket of jewels. I wasn’t sure whether they thought I needed adornment or they felt a need to demonstrate their wealth. I would be surprised if they had much. Like us, I was sure their coffers had been comprehensively emptied by the war effort.

I was also sent a letter from the Scottish prince, James; the boy I must wed.

My father read it first, of course. When he found nothing to object to, it was passed to me, as though I might desire to sleep with it beneath my pillow, or some similar sentimental foolishness. I scanned through. The prince wrote a well-educated hand, which was a relief given the tales I’d been raised with about the barbaric Scots. The words were, mostly, formal and stilted. My eyes darted over them. He ended with a couple of sentences that seemed more heartfelt. “I am sorry I could not attend your ball. When you become my wife, Myrtle, I look forward to dancing with you at our wedding.”

That event was still twenty months ahead of us, but still… I look forward to dancing with you. I wondered if he’d been prompted to write that. Surely the Scots had spies competent enough to tell him my small pleasures.

I loved to dance. My father thought nothing of that; it was simply one of many accomplishments a royal daughter was expected to display. But the prince, my husband-to-be, liked to dance, and that was a very different matter.

The presence of a Scottish dancing master was engaged to ensure I would please my husband, and do credit to myself and my native country, when I danced at my wedding at the Scottish court.

Callum McAllister, youngest son of the Duke of Tiree, arrived two weeks later. When he walked into my sitting room, the place fell silent. Even Clementine had nothing to say. For several seconds. Then she leaned towards me and spoke behind her hand.

I expected a comment about the lack of trousers. His knees had certainly claimed my attention. But Clem had noticed something else. “Does he have lice, do you suppose?” The young man’s hair was cropped close to his skull, utterly different from the English fashion where men wore their long hair tied back in neat queues.

I hoped it was fashion and not a response to an infestation. McAllister had skin so pale it was blue-white, which unfortunately grew blotchy when he blushed, as he did in response to Clem’s spiteful and overloud words.

“I’m sure he was washed before he was allowed through the gates,” I muttered to Clementine and rose to meet my guest with a practised smile of welcome.

When he straightened from the low bow he greeted me with, I found a man younger than I’d supposed. He was close to my own age, his mottled skin unlined: a gangling teenager with a prominent Adam’s apple.

“What can this dreadful creature teach us?” Clem muttered behind me. I spared a moment to give her a glare. I would not have my companions embarrass me. Her cheeks flushed, redder than McAllister, but she held my gaze defiantly.

Her lips had been shielded by her hand, but McAllister – as perhaps suited a man selected for his musical ability – had sharp ears.

“I will teach you to dance, Mademoiselle.” He smiled politely, the angles of his face lifting like the sudden spark of a lamp turned on. “A lightness of foot is a pleasant accomplishment for any young lady to acquire. Almost as pleasing as a lightness of speech, don’t you think?”

My turn to stifle a smile while Clementine turned a dull pink. I thought I might like the addition of Callum McAllister to the court.

“Princess.” He extended a hand, bowing to me with an elegance equal to any of my countrymen. I took his hand and curtsied, a dip of the knees only, to make clear our respective stations. “Are you ready to learn the ceilidh, my lady princess?”

Ceilidh dancing. Because quadrilles and boulangers were not good enough for our Scottish neighbours. I pushed the thought aside. A dance was a dance, and I would not allow myself to be disparaging about Scotland. A lifetime of habit must – and would – be undone. I would learn to love everything about Scotland, the way I had to hope they would learn to love me.

And I would start by not being offended by Callum McAllister’s knees, nor his bizarrely short hair. I would focus on his quick wit instead. “Of course, sir.”

“Then let us start. To the ballroom!” When no one moved, he clapped his hands. “Come along, ladies. You are needed, too.”

My entire retinue trooped through the palace to the ballroom. A fiddle player and a drummer were already there, awaiting our arrival.

Some of my older ladies moved towards the seats at the side.

“No, no, participation is obligatory!” McAllister called. “There will be no sitting and watching, ladies. Pair up.”

A few quiet mutterings marked their displeasure, but everyone obeyed. McAllister signalled to the musicians, who struck up a tune much less sedate than I expected. My Scottish tutor took my hand to demonstrate the moves and the ceilidh began.

I’d heard of wild Scottish celebrations, and the dances were … robust, to say the very least. All required hand-holding. And not a sedate, palm-to-palm touch like I was accustomed to.

Hands were grasped, and my arm was gripped at several points, our arms linking at the elbows. I was glad I was surrounded by my ladies, so no charge of impropriety could be levelled against me. It seemed the Scots were remarkably unrestrained.

At the end of that first dance I was left gasping for breath, my chest heaving. I was sure my face must be bright red. McAllister’s certainly was, and all my ladies looked to be glowing.

I was also sure my eyes were gleaming. I’d never tried ceilidh dancing before, but just that one taste was enough to know I loved it.

*

Other advisers were recruited and more classes added to my daily schedule. I was required to learn Scottish geography and history, as well as the ancestry of the royal family. A priest was engaged to introduce me to the religion I was expected to embrace. I found myself looking forward to my dancing classes as a pleasant respite.

So much so, that I was initially more concerned than affronted when McAllister failed to attend one afternoon two months later. I waited five minutes. No McAllister, nor any apology or explanation.

“Should I send someone to check his room?” Clem suggested.

“I will do it.” I rang for a footman. He returned five minutes later with the information that his rooms were empty and no sign of the man.

Irritation flared through me. You did not keep a princess waiting. Not if you were the younger son of an insignificant Scottish duke. I waved a hand at my ladies, who were watching me for a sign of how to react. I forced a smile of indifference. “No matter. Clearly the man cannot read a clock face. You are dismissed. I shall go for a walk.”

Two of my ladies trailed after me as I strode across the palace lawns, annoyance lending me speed. I forced myself to slow, lest I give life to gossip that I was upset by McAllister’s rudeness. I could expect no more of a Scotsman, after all.

I was rounding the fountain ten minutes later when the sound of frantic footsteps scratching through the gravel made me turn. McAllister, red-faced and long-limbed, was running towards me. I stopped where I was, lifting my chin so I could stare him down.

I wanted to remain silent, so he would have to explain himself, but I couldn’t resist. As he skidded to a halt before me, I snapped, “Is this how the court behaves in Scotland? I should like to be forewarned if I must tolerate rudeness.”

Shoulders heaving as he dragged in breath, he dropped to one knee before me, head bowed. “Forgive me, my lady princess.”

He fell silent then. I wanted to kick him; he’d placed himself ideally close to my feet. I wanted to shake an explanation from him. I wanted to know what was more important than myself. So I was going to have to talk to him. “Do you have an explanation for your absence?” I demanded coldly.

He glanced up. His hair was longer, I noticed. He was allowing it to grow in the English fashion, leaving his Scottish roots behind. “I tender my humblest apologies, your Highness,” he said, before returning his gaze to the gravel beneath our feet.

I kept my tone cold. “That is an apology. I requested an explanation.”

“You’ll laugh,” he said, tone defensive.

My anger ebbed. Now, I was more curious than anything. “I am not given to levity.”

“I got lost,” he admitted.

I waited, but that seemed to be it. “Lost?” He’d been here for two months now. “The palace isn’t that big. And the footmen will guide you.”

“I wasn’t in the palace.”

Now I was confused. “Where were you?” He was still craning up at me. I waved a hand impatiently. “Oh, stand up, for goodness’ sake!”

He did so, dusting off his knees – he had also adopted English fashions, I was pleased to see. “I went into the city.”

“And you got lost?” My confusion increased. “Did your driver not know the way?”

His forehead creased. “My driver?”

“The driver of the carriage you were in.”

“I didn’t take a carriage.” He sounded surprised at the idea. “I walked.”

“You walked? Into the city? Whatever for?” I glanced instinctively in that direction, but all I could see past the palace railings was the green of Hyde Park. I only ever passed through them in a chauffeur-driven carriage; and rarely at that. Walking. Through the city. Alone.

“I wanted to see the Thames.”

“Why?” It was a river. They had those in Scotland; I knew all about the country’s geography now.

“We’re surrounded by water at home. I miss it.” I caught the expression in his eyes. This was where he’d expected my laughter. I swallowed. I hoped I wasn’t so unkind as to laugh at him for missing home. My throat dried. In a year and a half’s time it would be me in a foreign place, missing what I’d left behind. I sank onto the edge of the fountain. McAllister loomed over me. “Sit. Please.”

He obeyed. My ladies hovered some way away.

“What is your home like?” Tiree. I didn’t remember seeing it marked on any of the maps. “Is Tiree quite a small town?”

“It’s an island. Wild and beautiful.” His eyes shone. His tone vibrated with love.

“Tell me about it.”

So he did. He told me about the land, and the farmers raising sheep tough enough to survive the wind and the sea spray, and cattle whose meat was prized across the country. He told me about the endless sky that stretched horizon-to-horizon. He told me how the blue sea met white beaches when the sun shone, and about the fishermen who took their boats out in all weathers. He told me about the seals that could be seen in the water, and sometimes on the rocks, bathing in the sun. He told me about the sea and its ever-changing moods and colours. He told me about the lighthouse his father planned, to stop ships dashing on the rocks surrounding the island, and how it could become a reality now there was to be peace.

I saw it all in my mind. And for the first time, I wanted to see Scotland for real. “I’m not surprised you miss it. It sounds beautiful.”

“It is. I hope you might see it one day.”

I hoped so, too. But the choice wouldn’t be mine. I dragged my mind back from my uncertain future. “I don’t think a view of the Thames would make a satisfactory replacement for that.”

“It’s filthy!” He spoke with the injured tone of someone who’d been promised gold and given coal instead. “They said it was tidal – I thought I’d be able to see the sea!”

I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “The sea is miles away from here!”

“Aye, I know that now!” He was laughing, too. Then he sobered. “And I insulted you by missing our lesson. I am truly sorry.”

“No matter.” I was sure I’d gained more than I’d lost. I stood and dusted off my skirts. My ladies drifted closer, sensing that my conversation was coming to an end. “I am glad we could talk.”

He rose, too, and bowed. “As am I, Princess.”

“Thank you for telling me about your home.”

He bowed again. I walked towards the palace, but in my head I saw a Scottish island and the wild sea. In my head, the country of my future started to be real, instead of just a picture on a map.

*

For my seventeenth birthday, I received another letter from Prince James. There were more formal words, and the missive was accompanied by a gift. A single red rose, beautiful and fresh despite its journey. Then I picked it up and realised it was no flower. Carved from wood and painted with exquisite detail to mimic the real thing, it had fooled me until I touched it.

It was beautiful. And yet … impersonal.

I found myself asking McAllister to stay for tea after our next lesson.

“What is the prince like? Do you know?”

“I have met him,” McAllister told me, his tone warning that he didn’t have much to confide.

I sighed and sipped at my tea. I didn’t want to get a reputation as a gossip before I had even crossed the border. I sought for something it would be seemly for me to show curiosity about. “What of Edinburgh, then? Do you know Edinburgh at all?” If I couldn’t find out more about the people, I would learn about the places, at least.

McAllister smiled. “We spend our winters in the capital most years. I love Christmas in Edinburgh.”

How strange to hear the word ‘capital’ and know it didn’t mean London. “Tell me about that.”

He painted pictures with his words, and I saw the dark granite of the castle on the hillside, and the cobbled Royal Mile that led down the hill from the castle to the royal palace of Holyrood, my future home. I walked along the lamp-decked winter-dark streets with him, and paused to buy roasted chestnuts from the street sellers. By the time we’d finished our tea, I felt as though I were familiar with the place; as though I would recognise it like an old friend when I arrived.

I watched McAllister depart my rooms. My opinion of him had changed greatly since he’d arrived with his visible knees and pale skin. He was … well, a friend wasn’t the correct term. Perhaps there wasn’t a word for what he was to me. He was … a bridge, offering me a link to Scotland. A bridge that provided a glimpse of my future, making it less alien and scary. Making it all seem … possible.

*

My marriage was just five months away when the epidemic began.

Typhoid broke out in the city, a miasma rising from the river. It was confined to the docks to begin with. Mama and my aunts and uncles suggested we move to the country until the danger was past. Papa refused. My aunts and uncles left for their country houses, as did most of my ladies. Clementine was called away to join her parents at the coast.

Even as the palace echoed hollowly, we remained. Papa never changed his mind about anything; it was our duty to show the city and the country that we were uncowed.

Simon was the first to grow sick. Even then, Papa would not be swayed. The best doctors were engaged and Mama herself nursed him. And he pulled through.

We tried not to be triumphant, not when other families in the city were less fortunate, but the sense of relief was palpable.

One afternoon, McAllister found me wandering the portrait gallery, with nothing to do now Mama didn’t require my assistance. “Can I offer another lesson?” he suggested.

“That would not be fitting.” I longed to dance again, but such signs of levity weren’t appropriate. Not yet.

“Perhaps a walk?”

I glanced along the gallery that smelled of carbolic, then accepted McAllister’s proffered escort. “That would be a pleasure.” As would breathing fresh air and seeing the sun. We walked outside and started across the lawns behind the palace.

“Don’t you want to go home?” I asked McAllister. Now I thought about it, I was surprised his family had allowed him to stay while sickness occupied London.

“I can’t go home.” His matter-of-fact tone was at odds with my surprise. He explained. “I may return home when I have finished escorting Princess Myrtle to her husband at Holyrood House. Until then, I have a job to do.”

“Don’t they care that you might fall ill?”

“They have other sons if I do.”

My breath was stolen by that calm response. “I’m sorry,” I said at last.

McAllister turned in surprise. “What are you sorry for? It’s not as though they are hoping I die. They just won’t squander this opportunity.”

My face must have betrayed my confusion. He continued, “My parents wished to gain favour with the king. They put me forward for the role here. If I go home they may never get another chance. And it’s not as though I mind.” He looked at me and smiled. “I’d stay forever if I could.”

His words prompted a warm glow in the pit of my stomach. “I’m glad you’re here.” I tried to make the words formal. “I welcome your company.”

He inclined his head. “I am delighted to be of service, your Highness. Now, and in the future.”

I smiled. He was, of course, currying favour with his queen-to-be, but with such charm that I couldn’t object. And he was right: maybe I’d need him when I arrived in Edinburgh. I was pleased to think that my new life in Scotland might include gains, as well as losses. There were now nineteen short weeks until I would leave England. For the first time, I looked at that event with anticipation as well as trepidation.

*

Harry fell ill the following morning. Mama resumed her nursing duties, but he was no better two days later when Papa also fell ill. I was told to keep away, but what was I supposed to do? I tried to read, and tried to wait patiently, and mostly paced. They had the best doctors, as well as everything Mama could do for them, but that didn’t change the outcome.

They died within a day of each other, my stern father and my beautiful, adored older brother, lost in the space of two days.

It was hard to believe, and Mama spent a week walking around the palace as though in a dream, while the Lord Chamberlain made arrangements around us. Oddly enough, it was only when her secretary, Lord Padry, also succumbed to the disease that Mama showed any emotion. I walked in on her in her rooms, a volume of poetry open on her lap while tears poured down her cheeks and dripped onto the pages of the book.

I crouched beside her, resting my head on her lap, my hand curling around hers on the book. “I’m sorry,” I murmured.

She stroked my hair the way she hadn’t done for years, since I was a very small girl. “So am I, Myrtle.” I heard her shuddering breaths and a single tear landed on my shoulder. Then she stood up. “But sorry doesn’t change matters.”

She fetched a pair of shears from her work basket. For a moment I was paralysed with fear of what she might do. Without a word she lifted her lace cap from her hair, uncoiled the rope of brown hair threaded through with grey and used the shears to cut through it, what had been her crowning glory falling to the floor. She raised her other hand to touch the shorn strands and nodded satisfaction that her grief was now plain for all to see.

I feared she might expect the same of me, but she simply put the shears back, wiped her tears, and went to speak with the Lord Chamberlain.

*

Now it had taken who it wanted, the disease seemed to have run its course. People drifted back to court to stand huddled in corners, dressed in black. Mama’s expression of grief became a fashion. Within a week both ladies and men all had shorn heads. McAllister, whose hair was now down to his ears, once again stood out as different.

As did I.

I ignored the looks that followed me, glad no one had the temerity to tell me to my face that I should cut my hair to express my mourning. I murmured to my companions that I didn’t wish to offend my future husband with so radical a change of appearance, but that wasn’t the truth. I mourned them, of course I did. But what good could it do for me to make myself ugly? It wouldn’t make Papa and Harry any less dead. I was my own person, and I would make my own choices where fate allowed.

*

Simon was king now. But at twelve he was far too young to rule. Duke Murgatroyd was appointed regent, along with my mother. I wished my other uncle had been given the role, but no one asked my opinion in the matter.

Murgatroyd gained Mama’s approval immediately by suggesting a scheme of works to create a reservoir from the lake in Hyde Park, with the water to be cleaned and then pumped into all the houses in the city. Mama agreed immediately. The plan was that it would prevent the summer’s tragedy from happening again. I only wished he’d suggested it a year ago. But perhaps he had and Papa had rejected the idea. He was a man whose mind was – had been – very hard to change.

With funerals so recent, Simon’s coronation was a low-key affair. He repeated the words he’d been coached to say, chubby fingers gripping the orb and sceptre hard. He was crowned, and after that he returned to the palace. Aside from the fact that he and Mama moved into different suites, nothing else seemed to change.

Murgatroyd was given rooms in the palace, and I was relieved when he didn’t use them, preferring his own house close by in the city. That wasn’t far enough away for my liking.

I still didn’t trust him. I was half-afraid that he would change the arrangement with the Scots, but as Mama had said, it was a binding agreement and there was nothing to be done. There was nothing to keep me in England now, and a part of me hoped the Scots would call for me to go to them early, away from this dismal, mourning court. But they gave no indication of desiring to bring the arrangement forward. They couldn’t change Prince James’s age just by wanting to, and that was the day we were all working towards.

Until then, I spent as much time as possible in my rooms with my ladies and my tutors, learning about Scotland and wishing I could dance, something impossible while the country was in mourning. The last four months of my life in London crawled past, and then the final week raced.

I found myself alone in my rooms the night before I was due to leave, the walls bared of everything that would be taken with me, which had been removed and packed ready for the journey.

I had retired early, pleading a headache, although I was not in the least unwell. If I remained in my stuffy room, however, I was sure I would gain a migraine. I hurried to the portrait gallery. The windows there gave the best view to the gardens behind the palace. There was a full moon, and the sense of peace I gained from the company of the portraits made my shoulders relax as I leaned against the casement and stared at the gardens below.

The sound of a throat being cleared made me turn.

McAllister was standing at the end of the room. “Your Highness,” he said, with a perfect bow. As he straightened, I reflected that life in London had suited him. He had grown into himself, his shoulders broadening to suit his height and his hollowed cheeks filling out. Of course, having a decent head of hair helped matters, too.

He crossed the floor to stand in front of me, extending a hand. “I was hoping to find you before you retired,” he said. “Will you come with me?” When I didn’t move, he reached for my fingers. I didn’t pull away. His hand was warm against mine. “I want to show you something. If you have time, Princess.” He dropped my hand and stood straight, inclining his head in a respectful bow. I wished he hadn’t let go.

“It would be my pleasure, sir.” I set my hand on his sleeve and let him escort me. Our steps led to the ballroom. Friction lamps shone, casting glowing pools of light in the dark room. It was a warm night. The glass doors in the middle had been thrown wide. The moon glowed as brightly as the friction lamps, hanging low in the sky behind the beeches. I wondered if McAllister had organised this, if he’d spent time in the ballroom: lighting the lamps; pulling the curtains free of the particular doors he wished me to walk through; selecting which doors would frame the moon most particularly.

And then I wondered why thinking of him doing that, for me, made a warm, full sense bloom in my chest.

We stepped outside, the clack of the wooden floor surrendering to the soundless give of the lawns beneath my slippers.

“There’s a particular spot where the view is best. I’ll show you.” He led me onwards, over the grass towards the trees.

I cast a single, brief glance back. Aside from the room we’d just walked through, the windows on this side of the palace were all dark. And then I lifted my chin and looked away. It didn’t matter if someone was watching me. In two days I would be a married woman. If I could not be trusted to conduct myself with propriety – well, what was anyone to do about it today? And McAllister was a friend. How strange that it was only now that I recognised him as such. It was all he could ever be, but that was more precious than anything else he might have been. He was my bridge between my old life and my new one. I tightened my hold on the sleeve of his coat and followed him.

We stopped among the beeches.

“Did you ever climb trees?” He asked. “When you were a child?”

A sudden memory caught a lump in my throat. A sunny day, years ago. I could have been no more than ten. Harry carrying me on his shoulders to deposit me in the crook of one of the trees in the garden. I looked at the beech we’d stopped beside. It might even have been this one; my memory was too hazy to be sure.

“No.” I wished Harry were there now, to give me a boost on his shoulders. I could hardly accept such a thing from McAllister. I glanced down at my dress. I couldn’t accept such a thing at all. “No. And I can’t start now.”

He smiled, his teeth bright in the moonlight. “With respect, Your Highness. Now is exactly the time to start. I will be your guide, and I am your only witness.”

He fell silent then, waiting for me to make my decision. I realised: I was on the bridge with him. Done with being an English princess, but not yet become a Scottish one. Tonight was a night out of my life. When anything could be possible.

“Very well. If anything happens, you are sworn to secrecy.”

“My lips are sealed.” He guided me up so I sat in a cleft in the tree, feet dangling. McAllister scrambled after me and stood on the next branch up. “Look.” He pointed to the sky through the branches. The full moon seemed to fill the sky. And it glowed with a strange, red light. “It’s called a blood moon,” he said before I could even frame a question.

I’d liked the view until that point. I shivered, hitching forward. “Let’s go back inside.”

“No, no, blood isn’t bad.” He crouched down so our faces were level, tilted to the moon. “Blood is strong, and pure. The blood in your veins is the essence of you. A blood moon marks a strong start.”

I met his gaze, reading the reassurance in his eyes. Blood held, not shed. My blood, which would mix with that of the Scottish prince, and between us we would put a stop to the bloodshed between our nations. I nodded to McAllister. “You are right. A blood moon is a good omen.”

He smiled. “The best.”

We watched the round moon. A bird called somewhere in the trees. The wind shifted and blew wisps of cloud over the moon, but it shone through it all.

I would have stayed there all night, but nothing lasts forever. It was a yawn I couldn’t stifle that broke the spell.

“I shouldn’t keep you up any longer,” McAllister said. “We all have an early start in the morning.”

He scrambled down the tree, then turned and lifted his arms. “If I may, Princess?”

I nodded and scooted forward. His hands were firm at my waist. I set mine lightly on his shoulders and he swung me down so the grass met the soles of my slippers.

“Thank you,” I told him.

He smiled, but shook his head as though he’d done nothing to deserve thanks. Taking a step away, he met my eyes as he bent one knee to the dew-damp ground. “Your Highness, may I be the first to welcome you to Scotland, your new home?”

I didn’t hold back my smile as my heart soared up to meet the moon. “Thank you, Mr McAllister. You are very kind.”

“When we arrive, I will be the first to congratulate the prince. He is a lucky man.”

I ducked my head to hide my blush.

“Come, let me return you to your ladies.”

I set my hand on his sleeve and we retraced our steps into the palace. I left McAllister at the bottom of the grand staircase and went to bed with a lighter heart than I’d carried for months. Tomorrow I would set off to the border, seeking my new husband and my new life.

Finally, I felt ready for it.

 

THE END

 

The world of the clockwork war

Thank you for reading The Replacement Princess. This is a prequel story to the clockwork war series. First novel in the series, The Clockwork War, is available exclusively in Shattered Worlds, a collection of 23 YA stories. You can pre-order a copy now for just .99 (it releases 8th August). Get more details on the Shattered Worlds website: https://www.shatteredworldsboxset.com/

 

If you’d like to find out more about the world of the clockwork war, please join my Reader Group. You’ll get behind-the-scenes insights into this alternate world – royal family trees, character profiles and exclusive sneak peeks.

 


The Replacement Princess

Queen Elizabeth I never ruled. England and Scotland never unified. 300 years later, the two countries are once more at war. It's 1841 and 16-year-old English Princess Myrtle holds the fate of two nations in her hands. She can bring about a truce by marrying Scottish Prince James. Since he is just a boy of 14, she has two years to unlearn everything she thought she knew about Scotland and fall in love with the country that will be her home, and the boy destined to become her husband. Duke's son, Callum McAllister joins the court to teach her about Scotland and change her reluctant mind about her future. But when war has been simmering for centuries, two years is a long time. The smallest misstep could bring chaos and return the countries to war. Myrtle must tread carefully to ensure nothing goes wrong. This delightful steampunk story introduces readers to the world of the clockwork war, a glorious fusion of steampunk and alternate history.

  • Author: Katy Haye
  • Published: 2017-06-28 17:20:08
  • Words: 7732
The Replacement Princess The Replacement Princess