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A Princess of Roumania
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A Princess of Roumania

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Author: Paul Park
Publisher: Tor, 2005
Series: A Princess of Roumania: Book 1

1. A Princess of Roumania
2. The Tourmaline
3. The White Tyger
4. The Hidden World

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (Fantasy)
Alternate/Parallel Universe
Historical Fantasy
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Synopsis

This is a truly magical tale, full of strangeness, terrors and wonders. Many girls daydream that they are really a princess adopted by commoners. In the case of teenager Miranda Popescu, this is literally true. Because she is at the fulcrum of a deadly political battle between conjurers in an alternate world where "Roumania" is a leading European power, Miranda was hidden by her aunt in our world, where she was adopted and raised in a quiet Massachusetts college town.

The narrative is split between our world and the people in Roumania working to protect or to capture Miranda: her Aunt Aegypta Schenck versus the mad Baroness Ceaucescu in Bucharest, and the sinister alchemist, the Elector of Ratisbon, who holds her true mother prisoner in Germany. This is the story of how Miranda -- with her two best friends, Peter and Andromeda -- is brought back to her home reality. Each of them is changed in the process and all will have much to learn about their true identities and the strange world they find themselves in.

This story is a triumph of contemporary fantasy.


Excerpt

Chapter One

Peter

In early August, after her best friend Andromeda had gone to Europe, Miranda met a boy in the woods. She knew who he was. His name was Peter Gross. They had no friends in common, though their high school was a small one. Miranda was a good student, popular and well liked. Peter Gross was none of those things.

He had curly brown hair, crooked teeth, tanned skin. Because of a birth defect, he was missing his right hand, most of his right forearm. Miranda had been aware of him for years. But she spoke to him for the first time at the ice house, which was a ruined cottage next to a little stone dam in a few wooded acres between the college and the golf course.

It was a place she visited occasionally, a small stone building half hidden in the oleander bushes. It had a wooden roof that had fallen in. She used to go there to read books, to be alone, and at first she was irritated when she saw him in her secret place. Almost she crept back to her bike and rode away. Then she thought she'd wait for him to leave. Then she got interested in watching him; he had built a weir under the dam with a piece of plywood to make a larger pool. He had made a sluice gate for the water to escape, and he squatted on the dam to catch minnows and frogs. His hand was quick in the water.

She stood under the willow trees while he caught a frog and let it go. After a few minutes she could tell by a kind of stiffness in his shoulders that he was aware she was watching him. Then she was too embarrassed not to go and sit beside him and scratch her sunburned legs. She thought he might be grateful for some companionship. He probably didn't know many people. But he was intent on the water and he scarcely looked up.

"Hey," she said.

"Hey."

What did they talk about that first time? Later she couldn't remember. Miranda had read in the newspaper about his mother's death maybe a year before. Andromeda had mentioned something about it, too---Peter's mother had been a secretary in the English department at the college where everyone's parents worked, and where Stanley taught astronomy.

Knowing about her death made Peter easier to talk to for some reason, although Miranda felt she had to tread lightly when she mentioned her own family. That summer she was having some problems at home. One afternoon in the middle of the month, she showed up at the ice house a little late. Everything she ever did was wrong, she said, and there was no part of her life that Rachel didn't want to supervise. She had no privacy. She'd got home and her shoes were lined up under the bed, even though she'd asked Rachel not to go into her room. Worse than that, the computer was on, though she was almost sure she hadn't touched it. Maybe she had. It didn't matter. She'd have to change her passwords.

Sitting on the dam, pulling at a loose piece of rubber on her sneaker, she said, "I feel as though my life isn't my life. My house isn't my house, and my parents aren't my parents. Which they're not, of course."

Peter was chewing on a long piece of grass, a habit of his. "What do you mean?"

She sat cross-legged and examined a scratch on her knee. "I guess when Rachel and I fight, sometimes I look at her and think, ‘You're not my real mother. My real mother is somewhere in Romania.'"

"Why Romania?"

"Because that's where she is." And then she told him about having been adopted from the orphanage in Constanta. She kicked her foot over the edge of the dam. "It's on the Black Sea. Have you heard of it?"

Peter shrugged. The stream under the dam was almost dry. Not much wider than a snake, it slipped back and forth over a bed of dry mud.

"I know a poem about Romania."

His mind was full of scraps of poetry that his mother had taught him. Already he had given her some recitations. "‘Oh, life is a marvelous cycle of song,'" he now quoted, and then a few lines more.

This was very annoying, even though she found herself smiling. "Hey, shut up," she said, because he wasn't taking her seriously. "Sometimes I feel like crying the whole time," she said, which was an exaggeration.

Peter was looking up the slope on the other side of the stream, squinting, not paying attention, it seemed like. Now he turned toward her. He was interested in things like tears or anger, she thought.

"Why?" he asked.

"Sometimes it's just that word. Romania. It makes my stomach turn."

She was deeper into the conversation than she wanted. She had only planned to tell him about some of these things. But now she felt she had to continue, because of the stupid poem. "I was three years old. I have these pictures in my mind, but I can't tell what's real, what's made up. There's a woman I call my aunt. There's a journey on a train. There's a man and he's talking to me, trying to make me do something I don't want. There's a cottage with a tin roof, and he's talking to me from the terrace above the beach. There's a stone castle with a steeple---it's like a postcard in my mind. There's a little room overlooking the sea."

Rachel and Stanley had found her in Constanta. They'd told her how her family had disappeared during the uprising against Nicolae Ceausescu, the dictator who had destroyed her country. But then who was the woman in the picture? She had coarse skin, gray hair, dark eyes. Her hair was pinned up on the top of her head, and she was dressed with great elegance in furs. It was wintertime and she looked cold. But the smile on her frosted lips was full of love.

"God damn it," Miranda said.

Peter had wedged the stem of grass between his two front teeth, and he was smiling. "Go on," he said.

"God damn you." Miranda blushed. To her surprise, her face was hot, and some tears were moving down her cheeks. Was this a real emotion? She couldn't tell.

Peter looked away. "I'm not sure I believe you," he said. "I think you're trying to make a fool of me."

"What do you mean?"

"Everyone feels as if they're from some foreign place. Or another planet. That doesn't mean they are."

She scratched her nose. "Yeah," she said. "I guess you're right."

A few minutes before, she had pretended to be angrier than she was. But now she was furious and she didn't show it. Who was Peter Gross to condescend to her? Though he was older, he'd never acted like it before.

She looked down the stream, where it disappeared in a tangle of broken willows. She didn't look at him, though she could tell he was watching her. Then she stood up. "I've got to go," she said. "Rachel wants to take me shopping before school starts."

He had a piece of grass stuck through his teeth. "I'm sorry if I offended you," he said.

"Hey, no problem. You're right."

"Will you be here tomorrow?"

She shrugged. "I've got some things to do."

Though she stood for a while scuffing her feet, she was anxious to go. And when she bicycled away, up the dirt road behind the grounds department shed, she wondered why she ever should come back, which made her sad. She didn't need to prove anything to Peter Gross.

But maybe she did, because the next day she snuck into her parents' room and found the box of her Romanian things on the top shelf of the closet. In the afternoon she loaded them into her leather backpack and rode out to the ice house.

For a minute or so, she and Peter sat listening to a bunch of birds. Then: "Let's see," he said. She took her time. The house had a wide stone step, and the first thing she did was brush it clean with the edge of her palm. Then she opened her backpack and took out a fringed, gray velvet shawl, which she unfolded and laid over the stone step. Next she took out a manila envelope and a beaded black purse. The envelope contained a leather-bound book with gilt-edged pages, very thin, almost transparent.

"Onionskin," she told him.

There'd been a time in her life when she'd looked at this stuff almost every day. But it was years now since she'd touched it. Still, she found she remembered everything as she opened the book, the mysterious foreign words, the penciled inscription opposite the frontispiece---a hand-colored, photographic portrait of Carol I, king of Romania. His hawk-faced, bearded profile was extremely clear. You could see the grizzled hair along his neck.

"It's called The Essential History," she said. "But I can't read Romanian. Stanley says that when they found me in the orphanage, I could barely speak. I was still in a crib. When I go to college, I'll learn it all again."

She placed the book carefully on the gray velvet. She allowed it to open to where the marker was, a ribbon maybe halfway through. Then she was drawing her things one by one out of the beaded purse. Most were wrapped in Kleenex, and she was uncovering them and laying them out according to her remembered ritual. First, a silver cigarette lighter, decorated and engraved with the initials FS under a small crown. Second, a silver locket on a silver chain. Opened, it revealed two sepia faces, a woman and a child.

Third, fourth, fifth, and sixth were all coins---big, solid, heavy, ancient, gold. And then a smaller silver one, which Stanley once had managed to identify in a book from the library. It was a Greek drachma, they'd decided, two thousand years old, and stamped with the head of Alexander the Great.

Romania had been conquered by the Romans in the second century. But even before that, Constanta had been a Greek town. As Miranda unwrapped the last of her things, she caught a remnant of a fantasy from long ago when she was small, an image of herself as a princess standing on the shore of the Black Sea, the warm water lapping the toes of her riding boots. From the terrace of the castle she had walked down to the beach. Someone was above her on the parapet---was it that man de Graz? What was he afraid of? Why was he always watching her?

Copyright © 2005 by Paul Park

Copyright © 2005 by Paul Park


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