Julian escorted me down the corridors, keeping our arms linked. There were very few people around to see us; the court would be in their chambers being served lunch by their servants. The court had dinner in the evenings in the Great Hall and most evenings my family joined them, but since the arrival of the first of the suitors I had been confined to our private dining room for meals. My father clearly didn’t want my coming into contact with any of the men. I didn’t know why, but I didn’t bother to ask.
The corridors seemed to continue on forever as we began our journey from one side of the palace to the other. The hallways of my home were a complete maze, but my siblings and I knew them like the backs of our hands. We’d played in them as children, running up and down the halls playing tag and hide and seek.
We walked into the entrance hall, crossing it to get to the other side of the palace where our dining room was, adjoining the Great Hall. The figure I had seen riding up the drive was standing by the door, dripping water onto the stone floor. His long jacket was soaked through and was dripping, as was his hair, which hung limply to his shoulders.
‘Come on Lili,’ my brother said, pulling me on. At this the stranger looked up at us, bowing as we passed.
‘Who was that?’ I asked as we moved into yet another corridor, turning to look back over my shoulder and get a second look at the man in the hall.
‘I don’t know,’ Julian said, ‘and I’m not too eager to find out. He’s just another guest. We have enough of them already with all these men turning up to compete for your hand.’ With a jolt, Julian stopped walking, a horrified expression on his face. ‘You didn’t see that man.’
‘What’s wrong Julian? Why haven’t I seen him?’
‘Because he’s probably another of your suitors and we are under strict instructions not to let them see you.’
‘I can’t tell you. I’m sure father will mention it at lunch. But please don’t tell him that stranger saw your face or we’ll both be in trouble.’
‘Alright, I won’t say anything if you tell me what is going on.’ I stared up at my big brother, who turned away from me his hands pushing his hair back from his face, which made his forehead look huge.
‘Fine, I’ll tell you, but you have to pretend like you don’t know when father tells you what’s happening.’ I nodded, waiting for him to continue. ‘It’s going to be the first challenge.’
‘What is? Stop being so ambiguous and tell me in a way I can understand.’
‘Finding you is going to be the suitor’s first challenge. Father is holding a masked ball tonight for the suitors and the court. The first suitor to find you and discover you are the King’s daughter will gain an advantage going into the next challenge.’
‘I don’t know, father hasn’t told me,’ Julian said, taking a step back, his shoulders un-tensing and his posture relaxing. ‘The only reason I know about the ball is because it has been our job to keep you away from the suitors so none of them have the advantage of knowing what you look like.’
‘I don’t remember there being all this fuss when Helena or Lucinda got married,’ I said. ‘They just chose their husbands and got married.’
‘True,’ Julian said, taking my arm and leading me down the corridor. ‘But you are his youngest child and he wants to make sure you will be happy. To him you will always be his little girl.’
‘Really?’ I felt a warm glow begin to spread through my body. I had no idea my father cared so much.
‘Really. And I’m your older brother and I want to make sure my baby sister isn’t going to have her heart broken.’
‘Thanks for being so positive,’ I said, unable to stop myself from laughing.
‘Well if it does happen I will kill him.’ This made me burst into hysterics, my laughter bouncing off the walls. I was laughing so hard tears began to trickle down the sides of my face. ‘What? Why is that so funny?’ Julian looked bewildered as he stared at me as I gulped in mouthfuls of air in an attempt to stop laughing.
‘Nothing,’ I finally managed. ‘It’s just the idea of you beating someone up-’ I couldn’t get any further before descending into laughter again.
‘What about it? Don’t you think I would do it?’
‘You haven’t fought anyone in years. You would probably be soundly beaten!’
‘Oh I wouldn’t be alone,’ Julian said, realising it would be pointless to be hurt by my behaviour. ‘I would take my army with me.’
I was still laughing, although not as violently, when we reached the door to my family’s private dining room. We paused outside to give me the chance to compose myself before entering.
‘Now you won’t say anything to father?’ Julian said, behaving like my responsible older brother again.
‘I promise,’ I replied. ‘Now let’s go eat, I’m starving!’