Life at Alexandra’s aunt and uncle’s house was okay, she guessed. She knew there was more going on than any of the grownups were willing to tell her, but what that was, she couldn’t begin to guess. She’d only caught snippets of whispered conversations that stopped as soon as she entered a room. Then she’d been packed up and delivered to her aunt and uncle and kissed goodbye with smiles that didn’t make it to her parents’ eyes.
Alexandra had spent the first couple of weeks believing that her parents would return for her any day, until Aunt Winnie mentioned that she was to spend the whole summer with them. What Aunt Winnie and Uncle Alfred lacked in warmth they made up for in gracious manners. The large old house and its secluded property were quiet, as were its inhabitants, and Alexandra caught herself tiptoeing on several occasions just because it seemed the right thing to do.
To escape the quiet of the house Alexandra ventured outside more every day, wandering through abandoned gardens and visiting most often a moss covered stone fountain trickling what remained of its stream into murky green water. Here, at least, there was noise. Alexandra walked the fountain’s stone rim countless times, making up poems and songs, and often practicing what she’d say to her parents when they finally came back for her.
Sometimes she declared loudly that she’d refuse to speak to them for a week. Other times she practiced a cool, aloof greeting with all the manners of her aunt and uncle. Most often, she imagined running into their open arms, saying “mommy, daddy, I knew you’d come!” In those rehearsals she filled in their explanations.
“We didn’t want to tell you until we knew for sure,” she’d say in her father’s tone. “Sweetheart, it turns out I’m a king, and your mother’s a queen, which means that you’re a princess now. That’s why it was important for you to stay here, to learn good manners. Now come with us and see your beautiful palace.”
She’d fall silent then, watching the twitching green water with a hollow ache before returning to the great old house and its polite inhabitants. Often, as she turned to leave, she heard a small splash. She’d check over her shoulder for the telltale ripple on the green surface and was never disappointed. It was small consolation, but somehow it helped to know that she wasn’t alone, even if it was only a fish or frog or something.
She began to think of the old, forgotten fountain as her own private place. She scooped away as much of the green algae as she could with nearby sticks and she spent long hours watching the water for signs of its resident. Superstition began to take root and soon she was making up more elaborate stories of courtly intrigues that had kept her parents away and that they only came back for her once they knew their kingdom was safe. She never saw anything stir in the dim water, nor did she spy any creatures lurking nearby as she walked her rounds on the rim, but always when she turned to leave there was that sound, and the telltale ripple.
At mid-summer, when it seemed the days couldn’t grow any longer, Aunt Winnie called Alexandra to her study for an unscheduled visit.
“Your parents are splitting up,” Winnie said without ceremony. “Your mother will be here on Monday to take you to your new apartment. Of course, you’re welcome to stay here with us,” she added. “It will be some time before your mother can afford to look after you properly, and your father is out of the picture entirely it seems. I told her this would happen. We have the means, your uncle and I, and we can see to it that you receive the best education. I’ve already spoken with our lawyer. It wouldn’t be difficult for us to gain guardianship, so long as you tell the judge that you agree that this would be best.”
Alexandra sat mutely, staring at her aunt in dismay. The longer she sat, she more angry she grew. She wanted to shout at the woman that she had things all wrong, but shouting was a thing that was not done in this house. She had been studying her aunt and uncle, learning from them in preparation for her upcoming courtly life. She wasn’t sure when that dream had become so real to her but now… now it made everything else seem like a cruel lie. Why her aunt would tell her such a thing was beyond reason. She stood, careful to make the movement graceful and princessly.
“Thank you,” she said in her most princess-like tone. “I’ll consider your kind offer.”
She didn’t break into a run, or tears, until she was out of sight of the house and well down the familiar path to her little green pond.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” she growled as she made her first circle. “Kings and queens and princesses. Foolish little girl with your foolish daydreams.”
She stopped suddenly when she spotted movement through the murky water. She had seen… what, exactly? A flash of orange and white. A fish. A large fish, and a ripple left behind on the surface.
“At least you’re real,” she sniffed.
“Many things are real,” a voice replied.
Alexandra looked around, but instinct told her she was looking in the wrong direction. The voice had come from the water at her feet.
“I learned the big secret,” she said bitterly. “I don’t even get to go home again.”
“In your imaginings you weren’t going back to the same home either. Why is this different?”
“Because it’s all wrong,” Alexandra said, and she couldn’t help the tears that came. “In my imaginings we were going to our palace, together, all of us. It was a good thing.”
“Not all of your stories were filled with good,” the fish reminded. “Some included much danger.”
“Yes, but we all still loved each other,” Alexandra sniffed. “We were in it together.”
“Do you believe that you’ve lost the love of someone?”
Alexandra shook her head. That wasn’t it exactly.
“I always thought love was forever. I don’t really know what to believe anymore.”
“Ah,” said the fish. “What to believe. That is the heart of it.”
“I let myself believe my stupid stories,” Alexandra sighed. “I knew better, but still I let myself get carried away believing in impossible things.”
“Impossible things,” the fish said thoughtfully. There was a hint of amusement in its tone. “I see.”
“Aunt Winnie wants to be my guardian. I won’t do it. I don’t care if my mom and I live in a crummy little apartment. And I don’t believe for a minute that my dad’s out of the picture. He wouldn’t just leave.”
There was a long silence.
“You believe that your aunt lied to you,” the fish said at last.
“No… yes… I don’t know.”
“Saying that your stories were true,” the fish said in a leading tone, “how would this… play into them?”
Alexandra hesitated. Her heart was broken, and even moreso because she had allowed herself to travel too far down the path of fantasy. This line of thinking the fish had offered felt like hope. A dangerous thing to a heart so wounded. Still, she couldn’t help but pick up the thread.
“I wouldn’t trust it,” she said carefully, resuming her circles around the fountain. “I mean, if my parents had just been crowned King and Queen then my aunt and uncle could feel like it should have been them.”
“What if they weren’t just crowned,” the fish suggested. “What if they’d been royalty all along?”
“Then…” Alexandra gave that some thought. “By taking guardianship of me,” she said, her words picking up speed, “they’d be making a power play over the future of the kingdom. Or maybe they’d keep me as a hostage to make sure my parents ruled the way they wanted them to.”
“Trickery and intrigue,” the fish said approvingly. “What about enchantment?”
“Yes,” Alexandra agreed, her mind spinning across all of the possibilities. “Not by my aunt though,” she added thoughtfully. “That would be too obvious. No, the enchantment was woven by Uncle Alfred, and he’s using my aunt as a puppet so that I would assume that she’s the one with the hidden agenda.”
“Well done,” the fish praised. “Your intuition lives up to your bloodline’s reputation.”
Alexandra stopped and frowned.
“This is no use,” she sighed. “Imaginings of a child. I need to grow up and be real with myself. I have to face the truth. All of my stories… they aren’t real. They’re just stories a scared little girl tells to herself to keep the truth at bay. They’re impossible, and the sooner I face that fact, the better off I’ll be.”
She stepped off the ledge and turned back toward the old house. It was time to tell her aunt that she would rough out whatever came next with her mother. It was time to grow up.
“Impossible, eh?” the fish asked, and she heard the expected plunk behind her. “As impossible as a conversation with a fish?”
Alexandra stopped mid-step, wondering why that hadn’t occurred to her. The conversation had felt so natural, as if she and the fish had talked many times before. She turned and saw it, watching her near the surface.
“Let’s talk again about enchantments,” the fish suggested.
Alexandra knelt against the fountain rim.
“I know you, don’t I?” she breathed.
“That you do,” the fish replied, “and we haven’t much time. I sense your uncle approaching. Your memories have been tampered with. Find the coin bearing your father’s mark and toss it in this fountain. Go now, quickly!”
With that, the fish disappeared into the murk. A minute later Alexandra heard footsteps on the path and hurried away in another direction.
She watched her aunt and uncle through supper that evening, grateful suddenly for their cool politeness as it left more room to hide her true emotions. She also noticed how her aunt’s pendant looked oddly like a large old coin with obscure markings. She followed her aunt to the study after supper, which was unusual, but she used their conversation from earlier in the day to allay her aunt’s suspicions.
“I’ve been thinking about your offer,” she said once she was sure that her uncle’s footsteps had made it to the top of the stairs on his nightly retirement to his library. “I think I could learn a lot from you and Uncle Alfred. Still,” she said when her aunt smiled with satisfaction, “I’d like to discuss it with my mother before I make a decision.”
“Of course, dear,” Aunt Winnie said. “She called again today to say that it will be another week before she can come for you, but if… we, when she comes the two of you can talk it through.”
“That’s a pretty necklace,” Alexandra said abruptly.
“This?” Winnie said, seeming to notice it for the first time, “I… that’s interesting.”
She pulled it into the light to inspect it and Alexandra had the impression that it was the first time Aunt Winnie had ever noticed the thing.
“Someday I’d like to wear necklaces like that,” Alexandra said. “If I stay with you, will I be able to do that?”
Winnie’s smile held warmth in it that Alexandra wasn’t used to seeing in her aunt.
“Come here,” Winnie said, removing the necklace and placing it around Alexandra’s neck. “It’s perfect,” she admired. “Now kiss me goodnight. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow.”
Alexandratook the necklace off as soon as she was out of sight. She felt befuddled the moment it slipped around her neck. She went through all of the motions of bedtime and once she was sure that the household was well asleep, she crept down the flights of stairs and out the kitchen door. She ran breathlessly to her pond and tossed the necklace in, certain that she heard footfalls on the path behind her.
“What are you doing?” her uncle’s voice bellowed from the shadows.
Alexandra spun around readying her reply, but another voice spoke up from behind her. It was her father’s voice, and when she turned, she saw him standing in the fountain water, dripping in the moonlight.
“It’s over Alfred,” he said, holding up the coin.
Several things happened at once then. Uncle Alfred began to shrink. The dark trees faded away to be replaced by vibrant gardens filled with laughter and conversations in what was now evening light. Birds chirped overhead and the fountain behind her splashed playfully beneath them. A gleaming palace sparkled in the warm red glows of the setting sun and Alexandra’s mother straightened where one of the bent trees had stood. Flopping before her feet, where Uncle Alfred had stood, was a gold and white fish. One flop, then two, and the fish found its way into the clear water of the burbling fountain.
“I knew you could do it,” her father said as he wrapped warm, familiar arms around his daughter.
“You broke the enchantment!” her mother laughed as she joined them.
“It was simple once I realized,” Alexandra said, remembering everything in a rush. “All I had to do was believe.”