Her head was spinning from the noise, from the attention. Once the students at Larkspur Academy had gotten used to their princess being one of them, they found her presence exciting. They all wanted to be her best friend, a part of her group. She was so surrounded throughout the day, she rarely saw Jewel, Thomas, or Bradley. They chose to stay at a distance now that the atmosphere around Claire was pure chaos.
So this is what it feels like to be popular, she thought to herself. I suppose I should get used to it; I am their princess, after all. And so Claire smiled and nodded and hugged and sat next to her new best friends. There was Sookie and Samantha, and Susan and Jane; Krysta and Greta, and Bryndol and Layne. There was Kyle and Kenny, Freddie and Frank, and the tallest boy in sixth grade, known simply as Hulk. Claire said their names over and over in her mind, so afraid of forgetting, offending, or disappointing her fans. She was exhausted.
“Ilsa, is it normal for best friends to borrow things from each other?” Claire was soaking in the huge marble tub that took up most of her bathroom. She loved the way the water surrounded her with warmth and quiet. She dunked her washcloth into the honeysuckle scented water and pulled it out all heavy and dripping. She listened to the drip, drip, drip before squeezing it and delighting in the soothing, rippling sound of water falling into water.
“I suppose, Princess. Girls sometimes exchange clothes with one another, or borrow books and such from each other. Why do you ask?” Ilsa poured a cup of bathwater over Claire’s head and began shampooing her hair. As her fingers swirled softly around Claire’s scalp, Claire could feel the tension from the day melt away.
“Bryndol asked if she could borrow one of my tiaras for a party she’s attending this weekend. And Susan remembered the sea green dress that I wore to the Art Festival last July, and thought it would go so perfectly with a pair of sea green shoes that she—”
“Princess, stop right there. It is one thing for friends to share what they have with one another, but it sounds to me like these girls want only to take and not give in return.”
“Oh, well…I don’t mind.”
“Well, you should!” Ilsa sometimes forgot her role as humble servant, especially when she felt her princess needed her help. After all, Ilsa new much more about the outside world than her sheltered, younger princess. “Those girls are not your friends, Princess. They don’t make you laugh, or help you study, or share their dessert with you like—”
“Like Jewel and Thomas and Bradley,” Claire finished for her.
“Yes, Princess, like them.”
“But Mother and Father wanted me to get to know my people.”
“Even Jesus left the masses to spend quiet time with his special friends.” Claire sighed. “You’ll figure it out, Princess. In the meantime, dunk.” Claire dunked her head underwater, reveling in the peace and quiet she found there.
“Jewel!” Claire could see a bouncing mass of red curls just feet in front of her, but the swarm of girls around her didn’t allow her the ability to catch up to her friend. “Jewel, wait up!” Jewel turned. Claire had been expecting to see the usual crooked-toothed smile that was always on her friend’s face, but there was no smile. “Jewel, thank you for waiting,” Claire said as she reached the girl’s side.
“What can I do for you, Princess?” Jewel curtsied.
“Jewel, please, call me Claire.”
“Claire was my friend. She doesn’t go here anymore.”
Claire grabbed Jewel’s elbow and moved to the closest classroom door, and pulled Jewel inside with her. She closed the door and scanned the room. It was empty. And quiet. Claire took a deep breath, held it for a few beautiful seconds, and exhaled slowly. “That’s better.” Jewel was looking up at her with fixed guarded eyes. “Try it.” Claire took another exaggerated breath and held it for a super long time before letting it blast out between her lips, making her look like Dillon, her horse.
Jewel smiled, but it was a whisper of a smile.
“Come on! It’s your turn.”
Jewel shrugged and took a deep breath and then blew it out as though she were a fire-breathing dragon letting out all the hot tension she had been holding onto.
“Feels good, right?”
“Yes,” Jewel had to admit. She plopped down into one of the empty chairs and looked at Claire.
“I’m sorry,” Claire said as she sat in the chair next to Jewel’s.
“For what? You’re the princess, you don’t have to be sorry for anything.” Jewel was now looking at her hands down in her lap.
“Not here, Jewel. Here at school, I’m Claire. Out there,” she waved toward the window that overlooked the land of Larkspur, “I am Princess Claire; at festivals and parades, and balls and tournaments, I am Larkspur’s princess. But here, I’m Claire, friend of Jewel, and Thomas and Bradley, and anyone else who will hold my hand when I’m scared, or pray for me when I’m hurt, or sit with me when I’m lonely.”
“Or tell you jokes until you laugh so hard your milk comes out your nose?”
“Yes, that is most important of all.”
Jewel smiled again. This time it was a loud smile, a truly joyful smile!
After that day, when Princess Claire’s carriage pulled up to Larkspur Academy, a throng of students awaited her. They waved and called her name, and she waved back. They made room for her as Sugar lowered her to the ground and as she nuzzled Dillon good-bye. Claire gave out hugs and smiles as she walked toward the massive front doors. But once inside, the students, respecting her wishes, parted from their princess, allowing her the luxury of just being Claire—best friend to Jewel Newell, lunch pal of the Frasier twins—student at Larkspur Academy.