‘But why?’ asked Frida, surrounded as usual by the others. ‘You can’t keep us locked in.’
‘I’m king and I can,’ Alberto said. He sighed, scratching the top of his balding head through the circle of his crown. ‘I’m doing it because I love you,’ he went on. ‘I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you. It’s so dangerous outside the palace walls.’
‘It’s dangerous inside them too,’ Frida muttered, as their father hurried off. He almost ran away from them, as if each of his daughters carried within her the spark of his dead wife, and their faces might pin him to the floor with grief.
By now, not even their eyes felt like the princesses’ own, not even their hands and feet. Their hearts were gloomy; the palace guards watched them everywhere. Everything they saw and touched belonged to their father.
A yearning for their mother spread through the princesses’ bodies like mould. It grew and grew, inside and over them, a creeping, seeping crust of pain swallowing them up – and the only things that might have kept them breathing, might have pushed back the mould a little bit, might have reminded them that they were still alive, and deserved a chance to enjoy this fact, Alberto had taken away. The girls felt as dead as their mother.
Frida’s sorrow over this turned to confusion, and finally to clarity and anger. She understood what that motor car had meant to Laurelia – it wasn’t the car itself so much as what it had given her: a sense of movement, of direction. ‘You see, my darlings,’ Frida said to her younger sisters, ‘it made her feel free. And I’ll tell you something else. The time for muttering is done.’
Frida was true to her word, as she always was.
One fateful afternoon, after the princesses had endured yet another morning cooped up like twelve chickens with no promise of an egg, she stormed the corridors looking for their father. Polina and Lorna ran after her, trying to keep up. The other nine sisters scattered behind, a confusion of sad butterflies.
King Alberto was in the throne room as usual, the curtains closed. His advisers were standing in the shadows, unsure of what to do with their increasingly difficult monarch.
‘Your Majesty,’ said Frida, coming towards him. ‘This isn’t fair, and you know it. You cannot tell us how to grieve.’
‘Please go away,’ he said. ‘I can’t bear to look at you.’
‘Father,’ Frida persisted. ‘We know you’re sad, but we’re sad too. Why take away our lessons, our music, our books and our paints? They make us feel as if Mother is still here.’
‘She loved that racing car,’ said Frida.
‘Well, it didn’t love her back,’ the king replied, screwing his face up like a horrible turnip. ‘I’m having it crushed.’
‘Frida,’ said Alberto, ‘I’m the king. I can do what I want.’
Frida pretended she hadn’t heard. ‘Let me fix it with the help of the palace mechanic,’ she said.
‘You’ll do no such thing!’ King Alberto snapped, losing his patience. ‘No man will marry a girl who fixes cars!’
‘What does Mother’s motor car have to do with getting married?’ asked Frida.
(Frida, you may have noticed, never gave up.)
King Alberto’s round cheeks turned tomato red, and he looked at his other eleven daughters, who had gathered behind Frida as she faced their father.
‘Every one of you is a stick of dynamite!’ he bellowed. ‘You’ll explode me, and this kingdom – BOOM! Your mother was ridiculous about you, and now no one will touch you. Girls aren’t supposed to do even a tiny bitof what you got up to. And look at what happened to her. Dead. Dead! I won’t have it, I won’t!’ He slammed his hand on the arm of his throne, and his crown knocked slightly sideways.
‘We’re not sticks of dynamite,’ said Frida. ‘We’re simply excellent girls.’
Jessie Burton was born in 1982 and went to school in south London. Her favourite subjects were story-writing, sleeping and ice-cream eating. After studying at Oxford University, the highlight of which was playing a rose and a fox in The Little Prince, she went on to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She worked hard for nine years as an actress and a PA before her first novel, The Miniaturist, was published. The Miniaturist was translated into over thirty languages and has sold over a million copies around the world. Her second novel, The Muse, was published in July 2016 and is also a no.1 bestseller. She shares her home with a cat called Margot and some very nice friends – some real, others quite imagined.
Angela Barrett studied at Maidstone College of Art and the Royal College of Art. She has taught Illustration at Cambridge College of Technology and Drawing at Chelsea College and is widely regarded as one of the UK’s finest illustrators. She won the 1989 Smarties Book Prize for Can It Be True? and has been shortlisted three times for the Kurt Maschler Award and once for the Kate Greenaway Medal.