Dawn couldn’t help but feel cheerful as she and Jeremy made their way back to the boat. She was fairly certain she knew where Lucy was and she had a show to perform that evening. If Lucy hadn’t been in possible danger all this time, Dawn would have considered these days to be the best of her life. She was getting to do what she wanted instead of living under the aunts’ rules.
As so often happened when she felt particularly good, she found herself singing, softly at first, then louder as she got into it and forgot where she was. She walked through the streets of town singing “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, which the school choir was doing in the spring concert. She was vaguely aware of people stopping to stare at her, and soon a small crowd followed her.
When she finished the song, there was a round of applause, and Jeremy quickly said, “And that’s just a sample of what you’ll hear tonight in our concert. You’ll find our show at slip nineteen. Come one, come all, and hear more of what this little lady can do.”
“That was slip nineteen, was it?” someone asked, and Jeremy verified it.
When they were able to get away from the crowd, Jeremy gave her an amused grin. “Do you have to burst into song in public?”
She shrugged sheepishly. “I’m sorry. Most of the time, I don’t even know I’m doing it. It’s like the song is in my head, and by the time I realize I’m singing it out loud, it’s too late to stop myself.”
“Well, you know, in the musicals, people may sing their way around town, but in real life when people do that, they tend to get psychiatric treatment. On the upside, I think it worked out to be great advertisement for the show, and one of the people asking me the details seemed to be in an official uniform, so maybe it was a royal talent scout.”
She danced a few steps and said with a smile, “See? Bursting into song in public isn’t so bad. But I am sorry if I embarrassed you. I know it sometimes upsets Lucy when I do that.”
They made it back to the boat just before Huw’s deadline. Huw met them at the gangplank. “Have you seen Rhian?” he asked.
“We didn’t see her in town,” Jeremy replied.
Huw snorted. “Well, she’s late now.”
“Only by a little, though,” Dawn said. “She must have lost track of time.”
Rhian didn’t show up until the troupe was already preparing for the performance. She greeted Dawn with a huge smile as she passed by where Dawn and the musicians were practicing. “Good luck with the show tonight,” she called out.
“Oh, thank you!” Dawn said, reminding herself that the superstition about not wishing luck before a show didn’t exist here. “She must have had a good day,” she remarked to the musicians after Rhian had gone to find her father. “I thought she didn’t like me much. Maybe she’s just getting to know me better.”
Rhian wasn’t the only one who was late. Spink arrived after the first group number, barely in time to sing with Dawn. Huw glared at the bird but didn’t say anything. It was unrealistic to expect a bird to tell time. They were lucky Spink had remembered to come back at all. After their number, Dawn asked, “Where were you? I thought you weren’t coming back.”
“Of course I came back,” the bird chirped. “I love to sing. But I saw the castle!”
“Yes, it does loom over the town, doesn’t it? Are you happy now that you’ve seen this castle?”
“It has a tall, tall tower, like my mother said! And you have to go to the castle!”
“That’s what we’re trying to do here, perform well enough to get invited. So do your best.”
“We’ll go to the castle!” Spink insisted, and she hoped he was right. Otherwise, she wasn’t sure what she’d do.
During her next song, things went wrong in a very strange way. The musicians accompanying her suddenly went silent. She turned to see if they’d forgotten the songs they’d only just learned, and saw they were still playing all-out, but making no sound. They looked as confused as she felt. She wasn’t afraid of singing a capella, so she raised her voice and continued. Spink did his part to help make up for the lack of music. The applause when she finished was just as loud as ever.
The instruments still weren’t working when the next performers took the stage. Huw himself sat in with his violin and couldn’t make a sound. The singers were pros, though, and were as comfortable performing without accompaniment as Dawn had been. After that number, Huw waved the musicians off the stage. “We’ll skip the dances,” he said. “Rhian!”
“Go out there and do your magic. Buy us time to regroup.”
“Gladly, Da.” She crooked her finger at Jeremy. “I’ll need some assistance setting up.” She alone, of all the performers, wasn’t at all flustered by what was going on. Dawn couldn’t help but wonder if her magic—real or the trick kind—would still work, but she stopped herself before she wished it wouldn’t. It might be up to Rhian to win their way to the coronation.
Huw addressed the others. “I don’t know what’s happening or why, though I suspect a rival might have a hand in it. We’ll simply have to do everything else even better.”
“We could take advantage of performing without instruments,” Dawn suggested. “We’ve practiced harmonies, and that can sound very impressive.” The others looked doubtful. “Oh, come on! We’re not going to give up, are we?” she asked. “We can do this. We deserve to be part of the coronation. We won’t let them get us down!”
Will raised a fist in the air. “The show must go on!”
The others joined in the chant—softly, so it didn’t interfere with Rhian’s act onstage. Dawn put her hand into the middle of the circle the way they always did before going onstage in drama club, but no one else joined her and she realized it wasn’t a universal tradition. She pulled her hand back and said, “Let’s show them what we can do.”
Rhian’s act had gone without a hitch, so the crowd hadn’t moved on. The whole troupe went onstage and Huw called for a song, then nodded to Dawn to sing the first note. The multi-part harmony was spine-tingling, and the fairly rowdy crowd on the docks grew silent. Just as the song reached its climax, a loud hum filled the air, drowning out the voices. They finished the song and received some applause, but the audience was already drifting away, clutching their ears.
Dawn leaned over the railing, resisting the urge to beg the audience to come back. Jeremy joined her, putting his arm around her and pulling her against him in a half hug. “Maybe the royal talent scouts saw the first number, before things went haywire,” he said.
“I hope so. What do we do if we don’t get invited to the coronation? We won’t be able to get into the castle to find Lucy.”
Lucy had to do a lot of smiling and nodding throughout the evening as everyone came before the head table to greet her. The fact that she was an imposter weighed more and more heavily on her, and not just because her betrothed was a jerk. These people were rallying around the wrong person, and she couldn’t let them crown her, but then if they didn’t actually have the princess, they’d have wasted their efforts.
She glanced over at Sebastian and caught his eye. He rose from his seat and walked behind the head table, pausing as he passed her chair. “I need to talk to you,” she said without turning her head. “Privately.”
“Excuse yourself from the table. I will meet you at the bottom of the main stairs.”
“Okay. Got it.” She went back to smiling and nodding at everyone who approached her. If there had been babies to kiss, she’d have felt like a political candidate at a rally. In a sense, she was. They were just having a war instead of an election to put her in office.
Eventually, the flow of people stopped and she was able to slip away from the table and run down the stairs. Sebastian met her a few minutes later, and they retreated to a hidden area under the stairs. He still had that stoic look on his face, and he avoided touching her entirely. Now that they were both there, she had second thoughts about telling him. But she had to tell somebody, or she could very well end up getting crowned under false pretenses and being forced to marry a first-class creep.
“There’s something you need to know,” she began, then took a deep breath, bracing herself for whatever might happen next. “I’m not really the princess.” He opened his mouth to speak, but she held up a hand. “I know who the princess is. She’s my best friend, Dawn—you know, as in Aurora. I guess that was her cover identity.” She touched the necklace. “This is hers. It was my birthday, too, the other day, back in our world, and she didn’t have money for a gift for me, so she gave me this. Not to keep—I wouldn’t let her, since I knew she got it from her mom—but just to wear for the day. Those men saw it and took me by mistake.”
He moved as if to speak again, but she kept going because she needed to get all of this out before he said anything. “I probably should have told you from the start, but I didn’t know what to do, and I was scared. I was worried that you and your people wouldn’t be as willing to help some nobody. Plus, as long as the witch thought I was the princess, Dawn would be safe. So, there you have it. I’m not a princess, and they can’t go to war to put me on the throne. Or marry me to that idiot.”
“You’re not the princess?”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you. My name is Lucy Jordan, and I’m nothing special, just a victim of mistaken identity.”
His face broke out in a spectacular grin, and he picked her up and spun her around before kissing her. “Lucy Jordan,” he said, as if getting used to the sound of her name.
“Yeah, that’s me,” she replied, dizzy from the spinning and kissing. In all her worries about how he’d react when he found out who she really was, that response wasn’t one she’d anticipated. Lucy turning out to not be engaged to someone else was a bigger deal to him than the fact that he’d fought and even shed blood for an imposter. And that must have meant that he really liked her, Lucy, as a person, not just as a princess. That thought made her dizzy all over again. “Now, what do we do? We have to tell someone.”
He shook his head. “No, we can’t tell anyone.”
“But they’re about to go to war for an imposter!”
“They’re going to war to remove a pretender. She has to be stopped now, before she crowns herself. Without you—as the princess—that will be more difficult. We have to march tomorrow, and you have to be there since we can’t get to the real princess now. We still don’t know who the spy is, and it would devastate our cause if word got out that we didn’t really have the princess, so we don’t dare tell anyone. Once we’ve defeated Melantha, we can worry about the succession.”
“Are you sure? People are gonna notice that the real princess looks nothing like the one they fought for.”
“The situation isn’t entirely without precedent. Royalty uses decoys all the time to avoid assassination. The enchantresses guarding the real princess could have used a decoy, one who would be up to the rigors the princess might face, while the real princess was brought in quietly to a safe place.” He grinned again, “And you were certainly up to the rigors. I should have known you weren’t a princess. I can’t imagine a real princess would have been so hardy or spirited.”
“Okay, so the plan is we kick out this witch, and then we worry about finding Dawn or the king and queen in some big surprise move?” She still wasn’t sure about this, and she didn’t know if it was because she thought it was a bad plan or because she was afraid of having to play princess for a bigger audience.
“The enchantresses will be at the castle, and they will know how to proceed.” He hesitated, frowning, then added, “And they will know how to get you home. That is, if you want to go home.”
Her heart broke a little right then. This was a no-win situation. She did want to go home, where she had her mom and her friends and all the comforts of twenty-first century life. But she didn’t want to be away from Sebastian, and she couldn’t have both. “My mom will be worried sick about me,” she said. “My dad died when I was a kid, so it’s just the two of us, and I can’t leave her alone like that.”
“No, of course not. You shouldn’t have to leave your family.” He was back to that stoic Gregory Peck expression that made her want to kiss him all over again.
“Should we at least tell your brother who I really am? It seems like someone other than the two of us should know.”
He considered that for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t think so. And I doubt we’d get the chance. We’ll tell him when the time is right. And now we should get back to the hall before we’re missed.” He smiled again. “It is very nice to meet you, Lucy Jordan.”
That went better than she thought it might, though, really, did she expect him to be a jerk about it? She just wasn’t sure she agreed with him about not telling anyone else. That wasn’t the sort of thing to spring on someone in a crucial situation. She knew she wouldn’t want to say, “Surprise! I’m not the princess!” just before they put a crown on her head.
But she would definitely do that before she married Harald.
The troupe had gone to bed relatively early, as none of them felt much like celebrating after the disastrous performance, and that meant they were all up early the next morning. They were supposed to learn before noon if they would be invited to the coronation. None of them held out much hope, but Huw insisted that they all be ready to go, just in case. While she put on her lacy dress, Dawn tried to come up with a secondary plan for getting into the castle. As much as she hated to be disloyal to Huw, she considered finding a troupe that did get an invitation and talking her way into the group. Surely one of Huw’s rivals would be willing to steal her. Or perhaps she could try out on the spot as a solo performer.
The troupe milled about on deck in their performing clothes. A few halfheartedly went through the motions of rehearsing. The musicians polished their instruments, and Rhian supervised Jeremy’s packing of her magical supplies. She looked more smug than usual, and Dawn wondered if she thought she might have received a solo invitation. Dawn went over to stand near Jeremy. “Have you seen Spink yet this morning?” she asked.
“No, I haven’t, come to think of it,” he said with a frown. “But you know how he is. He comes and goes at random.”
“I hope he remembers that we might have to perform today.”
“You think we’ll be performing, after what happened last night?” Rhian asked.
Dawn shrugged. “You never know. It was obvious that the problems weren’t our fault, and the acts we did were really good. You didn’t have any problems.”
Rhian suddenly flushed dark red and grabbed her case away from Jeremy. “Perhaps whoever was interfering was afraid to bother someone with magical abilities,” she said before stomping away.
“I thought I was complimenting her,” Dawn said. “She was the only truly successful performer last night.”
“Unless maybe she has a reason to feel guilty about that.”
“Do you think she’d sabotage her father’s troupe? Surely not.”
Every head on deck turned to watch the docks as a pair of black-clad men bearing sealed packets walked past. Those had to be the coronation invitations. Dawn crossed her fingers. At the sight of the invitations, even the pretense of work stopped while everyone waited to see if one of those men would come to their boat. It reminded Dawn of waiting to see audition results posted. Nearly half an hour went by before the men returned, coming the other direction, and they still carried packets. Dawn unconsciously took Jeremy’s hand and squeezed it in a nervous reflex.
The men reached the gangplank of the troupe’s boat, paused, and checked through the remaining packets. There was a collective gasp on deck as everyone held their breath. One of the men came up the gangplank and handed a packet to Huw. Huw waited until the man was back on the dock before he broke the seal and unfolded the parchment. The troupe clustered around him as he read. Dawn had to remind herself to breathe before she passed out. This was worse than waiting for audition results because far more was on the line.
At last, Huw looked up. “Well, what are you lot waiting for?” he asked gruffly. “We have an important performance ahead of us, and we need to leave in half an hour. Get yourselves ready.” Only as the troupe burst into cheers did he allow himself a grin.
Dawn turned to Jeremy, released his hand, and fell into his open arms. “We did it!” she said.
“That’s step one. Now we need to figure out what to do once we get inside.”
“I think this pull I’m feeling from my necklace should guide me. I’ll be able to follow it to where Lucy is.”
“Which will likely be guarded.”
“We’ll worry about that when we get there.”
Within half an hour, a procession of performers came down the riverside docks, and Huw’s troupe joined it. Huw walked next to Dawn, and Jeremy held her hand. If Huw was going to stay with her like that, it could be a problem once they got into the castle. She wasn’t sure he’d like the idea of her heading off on her own.
The city was full of soldiers, even more than the day before, and they were more heavily armed. Dawn noticed a few archers on rooftops. It looked like the witch wasn’t taking any chances. Crowds lined the streets, and the guards didn’t seem to be holding back the people so much as they were forcing them all to be there. This was apparently a mandatory parade. There were strange, loud noises in the distance, from back at the river, and the guards’ attention strayed from the crowd, like they were concerned about something. Dawn wondered what was going on, but the press of the procession didn’t allow for any dallying or turning back.
Huw fell a few paces behind Dawn as he looked back. A cry went up from behind, and some of the guards left their posts to fight their way against the flow of the parade, back toward the river. “What’s happening?” Dawn asked Huw when he rejoined her.
“I didn’t think they’d let her crown herself,” he said. “They’ll put up a fight.”
He ignored her question, instead putting a hand on her shoulder and saying, “If something happens, you take cover and stay out of the way. Hide if you need to, but you must remain safe.” Turning to Jeremy, he added, “Boy, that is your job, to keep her safe. Don’t worry about anything else, do you understand me?”
Jeremy nodded. “Yes, sir. That was my plan all along.”
The noise from the river grew louder, even though they were moving away from it, but Dawn’s attention was focused ahead, on the castle. The pull she’d been feeling was stronger than ever, creating a roaring in her ears. She wasn’t sure she’d even be able to sing while it was doing that, and she’d never yet found a situation in which she couldn’t sing.
They reached the castle gates and were herded inside. The guards were in a hurry to get the entire procession in the castle, but when a distant trumpet call sounded, they shut the gates, right behind Huw’s troupe. Dawn shivered as she realized how close they’d come to being shut out. Once they were in the castle courtyard, guards directed them toward the throne room. Dawn wanted to turn aside at the main stairs because that was the direction she knew she should go, but Jeremy steered her along with the rest of the group.
The throne room was a mass of confusion. All the performers were there, along with a gallery of nobles, but the throne was empty. The witch herself wasn’t present, and no one was to perform until she arrived, according to the official who spoke to Huw. The performers were directed to wait for further instructions. Huw guided his people to a corner at the back of the throne room and told them to get ready to perform. The musicians got out their instruments and started tuning up, adding to the cacophony from every other troupe doing the same thing. The singers went up and down their scales.
Dawn knew she ought to do the same and warm up her voice, but all she could think about was that tug from her necklace. Lucy was here, nearby, and she couldn’t stand just waiting around in the throne room. She felt like someone had tied a rope around her waist and was giving it a good tug. She kept shifting her weight from foot to foot as she’d find herself lifting a foot to walk away and had to force herself to put it down again. Next thing she knew, she’d moved several feet away from the group.
They did have some down time, and the witch was nowhere in sight. Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to investigate? She’d be back before anyone knew she was gone. She slipped through the crowd to the throne room door and headed straight for the staircase.
Continued in Chapter 18.