One day, the princess of the Southlands woke up and felt different. She lay in her large white bed and tried to work out what was wrong. She blinked her eyes a few times. Then she wriggled her shoulders. Her hands, freed from the tangle of white sheets, looked normal. Sitting up in bed she gave a big yawn and looked around the room for her maid.
The door in the far corner of the room opened, and a pretty girl in a striped dress entered with a large wooden tray in her hands. She set it down on the table and went over to the fireplace, humming to herself.
The princess gave a delicate cough, 'I am ready to get up now, Etta.' She did not want to speak too sharply, as Etta would sometimes let growing princesses rest a little longer in bed than was strictly necessary, but surely she could see that today she was awake, and wanting her breakfast. Perhaps that was why she felt so strange.
Etta's slim fingers picked a taper from the vase on the carved mantlepiece, lit it from the nightlight and then knelt down to light the pine-cone fire. She paused to watch the flames catch, before rising from her knees and carefully dusting the front of her apron.
This time, the princess's cough was a little louder, a little more forced. She smoothed the cool bed-covers with her perfectly normal hands and wondered why they tingled.
The maid turned away from the spitting, crackling fire. She swept the curtains to one side and looped them neatly against the wall. She folded the big wooden shutters back from the glass windows. All without saying a word.
This was too much. The princess opened her mouth to remind Etta of her duties, but before she could do so, the unthinkable happened. Her stomach rumbled. Such a thing had never happened before.
(Except once or twice, when she was very young, and had evaded the normally watchful eye of her nurse in the hours before breakfast when she was supposed to be asleep. The first time, she had wandered along the corridors of the palace, up and down the stairs, and thought it great fun to be alone for once. She didn't notice the time passing until her insides began to make noises, and her stomach felt as hollow as the big drum in the playroom upstairs. This thought had distracted her for a while, and she patted her tummy with her fat baby hands, trying to make a tune in time with the growls from within. This was how nurse found her, and she was whipped off in a flurry of scolding and lectures that she did not understand. The punishment for these adventures was to spend the next few weeks with a silken cord around one wrist, with the other end held by nurse, to stop her wandering off. Since that time, she had never been allowed to rise alone.)
Pretending that nothing had happened, she tried once again to attract Etta's attention, 'I should like to get up now, Etta. I am sure it is well past the time appointed for it.'
Everything in the royal household was scheduled to the minute, if possible. The princess got up at a certain time, and ate her breakfast within the regulation half hour, before her bath-mistress and wardrobe mistress came to wash her face and hands, and to lay out her clothes for the day. The princess had even been instructed by her nurse as to the proper amount of spoonfuls for the eating of porridge (twenty, small) and as to the correct number of chews to be given when eating bread and honey (each mouthful to be chewed three times, but not excessively so). It must be confessed that the princess sometimes rebelled at this, now that she was old enough to eat without the eagle-eye of nurse counting every mouthful.
Etta continued to dart around the room, pulling at curtains, opening shutters, and setting out the breakfast dishes. At the sight of the food, the princess's stomach rumbled again. This was intolerable! If Etta insisted on ignoring her, then she would have to get up on her own. Besides, if she did not get her breakfast now, then it would be running into all the other scheduled events of the morning, and she would never catch-up. So, despite it being against all protocol, she pushed away the covers. The first thing that went wrong was that her legs got tangled up in the sheets. The second thing that went wrong was that she fell onto the floor, due to her legs still being caught in the sheets.
The fall stunned her, and she lay there wondering if the loud thump she had heard had really been her. She heard a strange voice say, 'What was that noise, Etta?'
While she was still lying on the floor, she heard Etta reply, 'It was only the shutter come loose, Princess, I'll fix it directly.'
Etta's skirts swept past the princess-on-the-floor, who narrowly avoided being trod upon. The shutter had indeed come loose and had knocked against the wooden strut of the window.
'I shall get up now, Etta.'
The princess got to her feet in as dignified a manner as she could manage. Her indignant, 'But I AM up!' was ignored by the two other figures in the room. Etta carefully pulled the bed-covers up and folded them straight back to the end of the bed, smoothing the under-sheet with her free hand. This done, she fetched a small stool and placed it by the bed. The princess watched as a girl with HER face descended from the high mattress, was dressed in HER breakfast robe and sat down to eat HER breakfast.
'Etta, this porridge is cold.'
The princess wrinkled her nose in sudden sympathy. The porridge was always lukewarm, for fear the princess should burn her mouth, but sometimes, if growing princesses had been allowed to sleep on, the porridge would be stone cold by the time it was able to be eaten.
'Can't be helped, Princess.'
The girl in the chair did not allow her expression to change, but there was perhaps more of duty than enjoyment in the way she grimly picked up her spoon. The princess walked to the other side of the table. Is that really what I look like? Is that really what I SOUND like? The voice didn't sound like her voice, but the girl sitting there was her mirror image, down to the nightdress both were wearing - one rather dusty now, to be sure, and the other covered by the breakfast robe, but still the same nightdress.
'Etta, stop this at once! That's an impostor - I'm the princess. And she's eating MY breakfast.'
The maid replaced the bed stool and extinguished the night-light, adding another few pine-cones to the fire while she was at the hearth. She gave no indication of having heard anything. Frustrated, the princess turned back to the girl sitting at the table, still dutifully eating the porridge (thirteenth mouthful).
'I demand to know what you think you're up to...' The princess began, only to be confused by the complete lack of response from the other girl (fourteenth mouthful). She tried again, 'You won't get away with this, you realise. You can't pretend to be me all day.' This had no effect either.
'You CAN'T be me. You just can't...'
She watched sadly as the last mouthful of the porridge disappeared. Etta bustled up and replaced the empty bowl and spoon with a plate of bread and honey. The princess noticed that the impostor waited exactly three seconds before taking another bite. Maybe you can be me, she thought. Maybe you can be me better than I can.