Xena and Xander Holmes sat at the kitchen table, hurrying through bowls of cold cereal. A gray London sky showed through the windows. Their mother, standing at the sink, was finishing a cup of coffee and telling them to hurry up while the announcer on the radio read the latest news in his calm British voice. It was a Thursday morning like any other.
Only, as it turned out, it wasn't.
Xena carried her bowl to the sink, and her mother said, "In the dishwasher, hon, andplease hurry, Xander."
Just then, the man on the radio said, "In local news, it has been revealed that twelve-year-old Alice Banders, a student at the London Multinational School, is the heir to the throne of the tiny country of Borogovia. Princess Alice is an orphan who has been living in London forher education. She is scheduled to return to her home in two weeks, shortly after she turns thirteen. At that time, she will be crowned.
"In other news, talks between transportation workers and management have broken down. If no agreement is reached--"
Mrs. Holmes switched off the radio. "It looks like that strike is going to happen, after all. It's a good thing your spring break is about to start, or I'd have to drive you to school every day, and think of the traffic without buses and the Tube! And what's that about a princess at LMS? You must know her, Xena, right?"
Xena was standing in front of the dishwasher, the bowl hanging from her hand, forgotten. Alice Banders a princess? It didn't seem possible.
"Xena! You're dripping milk on the clean floor!" Her mother grabbed the bowl. "So do you know that girl?"
"I don't know her very well," Xena said. "We worked together on a project in science class last term, and she's in two of my classes now, but she's really quiet. I never would have guessed she was a princess!"
"Is she that short girl with the big eyes andthe long blond hair?" Xander asked around a last mouthful of cereal. "The one who hardly ever talks?"
Before Xena could say any more than "Yes," their mother exclaimed, "Oh no! Look at the time! And you haven't even brushed your teeth. It's too late for the Tube. I'll have to drive you to school, and I have a lot of work today. Scoot now, and grab your macs after you've washed and brushed. It looks like rain."
Xena knew she should feel guilty about making their mother miss half an hour of work. Mrs. Holmes was a product tester for an electronics company back home in the States, and yesterday a big box had arrived for her. She would have a lot to do. Their father had already left for his job, teaching music at the university. But the Holmes family had lived in London since the fall, and the novelty of riding the subway--which Londoners called "the Tube"--had worn off, and the car was quicker and a lot more comfortable. Plus, the car radio would be on, tuned to the news as usual, and maybe they'd learn more about Alice on their way.
But during the fifteen minutes it took to get to school, the news reports were taken up withthe possible transportation strike, then some soccer star who had an injury that might keep him out of an important match, and finally a financial scandal. Apparently, a girl who turned out to be royalty wasn't important enough to report on more than once.
It was a different story at school. The plain brick building usually blended in with the neighborhood, except for the words "London Multinational School" carved into the stone above the heavy wooden door. But today, so many cars were parked in front that there was no place for Mrs. Holmes to pull up. The stone steps leading up to the entrance were packed with adults. Most of them held flashing, whirring cameras pointed toward the open door. Some called, "Alice! Alice! Look over here!"
"Are those people reporters?" Xander was amazed.
"And photographers!" Xena said, climbing out of the car. "Poor Alice--she's too shy for this!"
A harried-looking Mr. Singh, the assistant headmaster, stood in the middle of the crowd with his arms outspread, holding back some of the reporters. When a gap briefly opened, Xenacaught sight of Alice. Her pale hair made her visible even in the throng, and she looked terrified. A slender dark-haired man in a suit propelled her up the last few steps and inside the doors. The photographers on the stairs took a few more shots and then turned away, disappearing into the cars that lined the street.
Mrs. Holmes pulled into one of the suddenly vacant spots. "It looks like there's going to be some excitement around here today!" she said. "Maybe I should come in with you."
Xander slid out hastily. "Oh no, Mom, please don't. Those reporters are gone, and Mr. Singh is still out there. He'll let us in." Xena followed her brother before their mother could change her mind and mortify them by walking them into school like little kids. They ran up the steps past Mr. Singh, who was wiping his face with a handkerchief. Thank goodness, he seemed so preoccupied that he didn't scold them for being late.
Once inside, Xena saw a crowd of people buzzing around Alice, asking her questions. Most of them were students, but even a few teachers were there too.
"I wish they'd quit bugging her," Xander said. "She looks like she's about to cry."
She really did, and when a boy Xander's age asked a particularly dumb question ("Do you sleep in your crown?"), Xena lost her patience. She managed to squeeze through the crowd and grab Alice's arm. "Come on," she said. "Let's go to math. First bell rang ages ago."
Alice turned eyes full of such gratitude on her that Xena felt as though she had pulled a puppy from a well. The two girls hurried down the hall.
"Thanks," Alice said. "That was awful. And the worst part of it is that I don't even want to be a princess."
"No. I want to be a singer. I was going to audition for Talented Brits--you know, that TV show?"
Xena nodded. Everybody was familiar with the popular program, which showcased musicians, dancers, actors, even magicians and tumblers, from all over the British Isles. "What do you mean, you weregoing to audition? Aren't you anymore?"
Alice looked even sadder. "My aunt--she's my guardian--she won't let me, now that people know who I am. She says it's too dangerous. ButI think that's just an excuse. She's never wanted me to be a singer. She says it's unsuitable for a princess."
Xena didn't know what to say. Her parents had always been supportive of her and Xander and their dream to be detectives. Before the silence grew awkward, and just before a crowd of their classmates reached them, Alice leaned closer and touched Xena's arm. "I can trust you, can't I?"
Xena didn't know what Alice meant, but she nodded.
"I have a problem and I don't know what to do about it. I know you've solved some mysteries, and I don't know who to ask about this one. I thought maybe you could help."
"I'll try," Xena said. "What's it about?"
Just then the second bell rang, and they were swept up in a wave of chattering kids and into the classroom.
Copyright © 2011 by Parachute Publishing, L.L.C.