Anne blew a loose hair from her eyes and glanced around her at the smiling faces of the party attendees. There was glitter and confetti all over the grass, sparkling in the late afternoon sun, and streamers of rainbow colors thrown haphazardly through tree limbs above. Half-empty pink cups lay abandoned on the refreshment table as adults and children alike stood in the shade of the giant oak tree, all eyes on Anne.
Or, as she was known in these parts, Princess Cordelia.
The Princess sat down on the grass and motioned for the children to join her. They all clambered to get as close as possible as she began to weave the tale of her ascent to the throne. A tale of daring-do and dragons, of false identities and maidens fair. A tale of wonder and romance - a tale which did not reflect Anne’s life in the slightest. The children listened with rapt attention, however, never once stopping to imagine it may not be real. The Princess in front of them in her satiny dress with puffed sleeves the color of the sky and a crown shining with azure jewels would never lie to them. She answered their questions in turn and made them gasp in surprise when she recounted the time she challenged a knight to duel without realizing he was her True Love in disguise.
No, Anne Shirley-Cuthbert did not live a life of fantastical proportions, but for a few hours a week she could pretend that she did - just as those children could. Princess-For-Hire was by far the best summer job she had ever had and, honestly, she never wanted it to end. She had never thought she would get paid just to have an imagination and entertain the masses with it! Okay, so, her audience was mostly children, but who better to be completely engaged in the story? She would often get compliments from parents as well, but they, of course, had long shed their naïveté and sense of wonder. Adults mostly wanted to ask about her costume (handmade with help from Diana and Cole) and how she had the energy to keep up with their kids during games (lots of coffee).
Anne sat in chair to the side of the yard enjoying a slice of cake the birthday girl’s mother had thrust into her hands with excited thankful words and watched the kids open presents. Her job was technically done, but parents always asked her to stay as long as she wanted - “the kids just ADORE you!” - and she did very much enjoy birthday cake. She scraped icing off her plate with her plastic pink fork and placed it on her tongue, a sweet burst of lemon hit her and she closed her eyes to savor it. When she opened them, the fork still in her mouth, she saw a young man about her age staring at her.
For a moment, she was transfixed by the lock his gaze had on hers. A dark hazel peered into her blue, his lips turned amusedly towards her as if they shared some sort of inside joke ― which they definitely did not! Anne felt her cheeks heating up and yanked the fork out of her mouth, her eyes moving quickly back down to the cake on her plate. She knew he was still staring despite her downcast gaze and staunchly refused to glance up until she was sure he had walked off in search of his child or younger sibling, whomever he was here with. Majority of the time, adults simply ignored her while they chatted with other parents. They were usually at least six years older than her as well, having moved on from university classes to the nice house and decent job portion of their lives. They weren’t working children’s parties on the weekend and writing English papers during the week in a studio apartment rented cheaply from their best friend’s wealthy aunt. Having strangers act so curiously around her was not something she was used to, even as a performer.
Without all the glitter and hairspray (and the occasional wig), Anne considered herself unworthy to be stared upon. Her hair, though considerably darker than it had been in her youth, was bright auburn and still flat as a board. She didn’t consider her shape to be enticing either. Unlike her curvaceous best friend Diana, Anne felt childish in her everyday clothing. She was of average height with limbs belonging more to a giraffe than a twenty-two year old woman and a hip to waist ratio that was barely two-to-one. The princess gown helped with its many tulle layers and corset binding, which Anne was glad to be able to hide behind every once in a while.
She heard a muffled creak next to her chair and her eyes went wide as she dared a side glance. The stranger had sat down beside her! The absolute gall of him to stare at her as if her appearance was somehow humorous and then pull up a chair! Some part of Anne’s brain (the more logical part that sounded quite a bit like Diana) supposed he was sitting beside her because they were possibly close in age, but the currently irritated part of her was unfortunately in the forefront.
Anne had just begun formulating a perfect HOW DARE YOU opener, when a small child ran over to the man.
A shout of “Uncle Gilbert!” rang out as the little girl embraced him. Anne watched as the man laughed and pulled her into his lap, asking if she was ready to leave. She felt her anger soften as he adjusted the ribbons on the girl’s braids and she turned away quickly, feeling bad for staring in the same way she had been irked at him for doing earlier.
A gasp suddenly came from the girl as she realized who she was sitting next to, and Anne overheard her whisper to her uncle asking if she could say goodbye to the Princess.
“Don’t you think she’s beautiful?” The little girl whispered again, “She’s tough, too. She’s got a sword ! Do you think she’ll let me hold it?”
Anne smiled and turned to the chair then. Her “sword” was really just a small, dull dagger attached to a chain on her hip, but it definitely helped her popularity with little boys and girls who wanted more excitement in their princess stories.
“This blade has been blessed by a fairy,” she said, watching the little girl’s eyes get wide, “if you aren’t worthy it’ll burn you upon contact. Do you think you’re ready?”
The child glanced up at her uncle, who nodded down at her.
“I think she is,” he locked eyes resolutely with Anne and for a moment she forgot what she had said in the first place, “Lizzie is actually a very powerful sorceress.”
He winked at her above the girl’s head and Anne choked slightly on her next sentence as Lizzie nodded affirmatively to his statement.
“All-all right, then,” Anne unhooked the sheath from the chain and placed it in the girl’s open hands, “be very careful. It seems harmless, but that’s how all magic appears.”
Lizzie’s uncle ( Gilbert , Anne’s brain prompted) took the blade out of the cover for her and placed it handle-first in her palm, then he let out a small breath, “look, no burns!”
Anne appreciated his dedication to the story and wished more adults were open to the magic of a simple play of pretend. She watched as Sorceress Lizzie gripped the handle and smiled when her hands remained unscathed. She asked Anne about the jewels on the handle ―glued with expert care by Cole on a late night costuming binge―and Anne told her a quick tale about an evil witch who hoarded gold to melt for spells. The jewels were the power Princess Cordelia had snatched from the witch, condensed into gems to be protected for the good of the kingdom.
Parents were beginning to pack up their kids and Gilbert handed the knife back to Anne, telling Lizzie to say her goodbyes. The little girl reached for one of her bows and placed it in Anne’s hand.
“It’s magic!” She whispered. Anne smiled and gave her a hug, the girl seeming to disappear in her voluminous pastel skirts for a moment.
The pair began to walk away when Lizzie started nudging her uncle back. He let go of her hand and turned to Anne, running his fingers through his dark curls for a moment. He seemed a tad sheepish now as he stepped toward her.
(Anne ignored the way this gesture made her heart yammer in her glittered bodice.)
“I’m Gilbert, by the way,” he began to reach out a hand for her to shake, then smirked at her and retracted it to cross over his chest instead, bowing deeply at the waist. Lizzie laughed at him and Anne resisted the pink spots forming on her cheeks.
“I’m actually Anne,” Anne smirked back at him―two could play this game, after all― and lifted her skirts to curtsy, “with an E.”