Princess Claire’s first day at Larkspur Academy dawned dreary and cold. She slid drudgingly from under her thick warm blankets, slipped her tiny feet into the slippers by her bed, and shuffled over to the large dome-shaped window that looked out over the land of Larkspur. She rather liked that the sky matched her mood today, the gray clouds offered comfort somehow.
“I don’t want to go to the academy today,” she told Ilsa, her handmaid. Ilsa was stoking the fire, filling the room with warmth and light.
“I know you’re nervous, Princess, but it will be fun,” her maid said with a completely unconvincing smile.
“I’m not nervous, Ilsa, I’m sad. I love doing my studies here in the castle with my tutors. For generations princesses have been schooled by trusted tutors, within the safety of the castle walls. Why must my parents decide to make this change now?”
Ilsa left the fire and crossed the room to stand next to Claire. She was not much older than the princess, perhaps twelve or thirteen. Claire considered her a friend more than a maid. Many village girls desired to become maids in Larkspur Castle. The king and queen were known to be caring and generous with their staff. Ilsa had been hand chosen by the queen to be Claire’s personal maid after everything had returned to normal—after Puranna and Derrick of Dungeoness had been locked away in the Murky Realm, and King Alastar had resumed his role as the ruler of Larkspur. It had taken months to bring the castle and the land back to its previous glory, but the people had worked hard, and worked together, wanting to put the dreadful past behind them as quickly as possible.
Now, more than ever, Claire did not want to leave the comfort of her home. She had spent so many long, lonely months in Redmond’s forest hideout, frightened and sick with worry. Now that her parents, and Luminara, were back by her side, she never wanted to be too far from them. Larkspur Academy was located miles from the castle. She couldn’t possibly go. Her parents simply had to understand.
“Good-bye, my darling. It will be wonderful, wait and see.” Queen Sabina hugged her daughter before nudging her into the carriage being pulled by Dillon, Claire’s devoted horse, and driven by Sugar, Aidan’s frill and best friend.
“It won’t be wonderful. It will be dreadful.” Claire’s pout tugged at the queen’s heart, but she knew this was the best thing for her youngest daughter.
If the king and queen had learned anything during their time in the Murky Realm, it was the importance of fellowship. Though they had one another, there were times when they thought they would go mad in that desolate place. They didn’t want Claire to ever be so isolated. There was also the importance of getting to know her people. Claire was still just a child, but they knew that it was their daughter’s destiny to rule over Larkspur someday. When that time came, her people would know her, respect her, and love her. But Claire had to get out of the castle in order for that to happen.
“We love you, Little Light!” The queen waved as the carriage pulled onto the road that would take her precious daughter to her first day of school.
Larkspur Academy was an intimidating stone fortress, with huge windows on every floor. But the courtyard that surrounded it, with its paths that wound their way through lively and colorful landscaping, and benches placed near bubbling fountains beneath the shade of a handful of tall trees, was delightful and welcoming. As Claire’s carriage pulled up in front of the massive front doors, she tried to hide her fear by pulling her shoulders back and lifting her chin just a bit higher than everyone else did. Sugar lifted her down from the carriage and gave her a covert wink as she lowered her to the ground. She and Sugar had become quite close since the terrible ordeal the year before. Claire fought the urge to bury her face in Sugar’s warm, white fur and beg her to take her home. Instead, she winked back, and then walked regally to Dillon’s side.
“I’m going to miss you, boy.” She nuzzled his muzzle, taking in his sweet horse scent, a mixture of hay and earth and sunshine. His big brown eyes told her that he was going to miss her, too.
Inside the building, the halls were bright and airy with high domed ceilings and glossy tiled floors. Claire’s new black and white loafers squeaked with each step, drawing looks from the students who lined the halls, waiting for the bell to announce the start of the day. They were a sea of red and gold. The girls all wore red and gold plaid skirts with white blouses and golden yellow cardigans. The boys wore tan trousers with white shirts and red cardigans. Claire had hoped that the uniforms would help her to blend in, but no matter how hard she wished for it, no other student at Larkspur Academy was glowing.
“Welcome to Larkspur Academy, Princess. It’s lovely to see you.” In the front office, Mrs. Prescott, Larkspur Academy’s secretary, greeted Claire. Claire had to smile as the elderly lady tried to curtsy.
“Please, call me Claire; and no curtsying. You must treat me like any other student.”
“Of course, Princess…I mean, Claire. All incoming fourth graders are assigned a student companion. Your companion has not yet arrived. Her name is Jewel Newell.”
“Yes, Jewel is also a new student. You two will have the same schedule, so you’ll see each other throughout the day, and be there to help one another adjust to your new surroundings. It’s a nice tradition, and has created many lifelong friendships.”
And what if this Jewel already has enough friends? Claire thought to herself. But the thought soon vanished as a tiny wisp of a girl with a mass of bright orange curls tumbling around her face and down her back came bouncing into the school’s office and right into Claire’s arms.
“Oh, Princess! I can’t believe you are my student companion! This is going to be the best year ever!”
Claire tried to let go, but the girl kept right on hugging her. “Um, hello. Please call me Claire,” Claire said into the swirl of red hair that was tickling her nose.
“Oh, can I?” Jewel finally released Claire and stood back, her face brimming with delight. “You do glow! Well, I’d heard that you do, of course, but to see it up close. Oh my! Can I really call you Claire?”
“I wish you would. I just want to be treated like any other student.”
“Well, that might be harder than it sounds. I mean, you are a princess. But I promise I’ll try.” Claire liked this girl. Jewel. Jewel, her first new friend.
Not everyone at Larkspur Academy was as happy to meet Claire as Jewel had been. As she and Jewel walked down the massive tiled hallway, they were followed by dozens of eyes; some were filled with wonder, some with suspicion, some with contempt. Claire kept her head held high, a habit of her upbringing, but more than anything she wanted to find a nice, dark closet to slip into. She began to long for Redmond’s forest hideout. At least there she had felt safe and cared for. And then Jewel reached over and took Claire’s hand in hers. As a wave of warmth swept over her, Claire realized that she didn’t need a hideout; she had a friend.
“Thomas! Bradley! Over here!” Jewel called out to two boys who had just entered the cafeteria. Claire could tell right away that they were twins. “Wait ‘til you meet Thomas and Bradley; they are hilarious! Disgusting, filthy boys, but hilarious!”
“Hey, Jewel.” The two boys sat down across from Jewel and Claire. “This your companion?” asked the one with hazel eyes. That was the only way Claire could see to tell them apart—one had hazel eyes, and the other one’s eyes were deep brown. Other than that, they were both tall and lanky with wispy sandy-colored hair.
“Yes. Thomas, Bradley, meet Claire.”
“Claire, huh? Isn’t that the princess’s name?” Hazel Boy again. Obviously, he was the spokesperson for the duo.
“Bradley! This is Princess Claire, you big dope!” To Claire she said, “Don’t mind these dummies, they’re just farm boys who don’t know any better.”
“Well, farmers are no dummies, I know that,” Claire said with the pride that always filled her heart when thinking of the hard workers who kept Larkspur’s people well-fed and healthy. “I thank you, Thomas and Bradley, for your contribution to Larkspur’s well-being.”
“Huh?” This time it was Brown Eyes.
“See what I mean, Claire? They’re just a couple of dopes, but they’re my friends, and they’ll be your friends, too. Right boys?”
“You bet,” they both said in unison, mouths full of mashed potatoes.
Claire now had three friends. And it was only the first day of school. Maybe school wasn’t going to be dreadful after all.