I was ten years old when I began plotting my escape. That was the day that I realized other people had real lives that made them genuinely happy.
It was my birthday and a young, energetic photographer named Lynn Scalia came to the palace to take photos of me and my siblings. She spoke Spanish fluently, but she told us she was from the United States and had grown up in a place called Nevada. She wasn’t our usual photographer, but someone the photographer had taken on as an intern, and she was already being sought after all over Europe.
My mother didn’t like her on sight, so instantly, Lynn became my hero. Even if I hadn’t taken to her simply to spite my mother, I would have been drawn to her. I didn’t understand it then, but I know now that some people have a magnetism about them that attracts other people into their orbit. Lynn had that.
The first thing I noticed was her striking beauty. Everything about her seemed to glow, and most attractive of all was her smile. It was warm and radiant, and she laughed easily.
No one in the palace where I lived laughed easily, not even us children. My mother rarely even smiled. When she did, it was only because her position required it. Her Majesty the Queen was born into the royal family in Greece and her marriage to my father, who was a Duke at that time, was arranged. He ascended to the throne of a small island just off the coast of Spain and they settled into a life of riches and ease based simply on their DNA.
My mother began having children; I was the first. According to the laws in our country, the eldest child would ascend to the throne regardless of gender, and the others would ascend in order of birth if an heir of the king or queen was not born or of age when the current ruler passed.
In other words, I would follow my father on the throne, becoming queen and only relinquishing that title upon my death, at which time if I had a living child, he or she would be crowned. If they weren’t eighteen at the time of my death, then the next in line for the crown would be my sister Elena, until that child came of age, and so on.
I didn’t want to be queen…ever.
When I thought of queens, I thought of my mother. When I thought of my mother, I thought cold and indifferent. I didn’t want to have a cold heart like her.
I knew even at ten years old that when I did have children, I would be the kind of mother that gave cuddles and read bedtime stories and didn’t pass off my responsibilities to a nanny or other staff. In my family’s travels, I’d seen that and ached for it. My children would never want for their mother’s love.
I knew that other places existed, and I knew that there were other ways of life. Although I didn’t fully understand “normal” people, I knew that I wanted to be one, so badly.
That summer day when Lynn came to take our photographs, she spoke to my siblings and me like we were real people and not royal children she had to defer to. She made me realize places existed where people smiled because they were actually happy and not because it was expected of them. I wanted that, not a pinched up face like my mother’s.
I began that very day planning and plotting. Six months ago, I turned twenty-one, and by the night of the ball held at the palace in honor of my birthday, I had it planned down to the last detail and was ready to act.
I had always known there was no way I’d be able to pull it off on my own. Over the years, I recruited “sympathizers” that would be instrumental in my plan. Unfortunately, my sister Elena, who is two years my junior, was not one of them. So many times I’d considered telling her and begging her to go with me, but she was too much like my mother and I knew that she’d tell on me and ruin my plans.
My brother Viktor was nine years my junior, and I adored him. It was going to break my heart to leave him, but he was too young to go and I knew that staying would break my spirit a little more every day until it was irreparable. Before I left, I wrote a letter to each person in my family and anyone else I was close to. One of my co-conspirators would deliver them once I was long gone. I could only pray my little brother would read his and someday forgive me for leaving.
That night, one of our maids, a young lady named Sophia, was dressed in a replica of the gown I was wearing. Her hair was swept up into a dramatic bun as I’d been wearing mine, and I’d given her my jewelry as well. From a distance, she looked just like me.
She waited in the library until Luca, a young member of the Royal Guard working with me, told her it was time. As she put on her mask and headed out to the ball, I changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and hoodie. It was the first time I’d worn jeans in my life.
Luca then led me down through the old tunnels underneath the palace that I was never allowed to explore as a child. My heart was racing, and I was sweating. I’m not sure what percentage was anxiety and what percentage excitement.
I followed him until we came to a door that opened to the beach surrounding the palace. A small boat was waiting for me with my things already loaded inside. When I got off that boat in Spain I had my new identity in my hands, as well as an airplane ticket to the United States. As I stepped onto the plane, Her Royal Highness Doña Ariana Maria Madrigal was left behind forever – I hoped.
Emma Mendez stepped off the plane hours later in Las Vegas Nevada. She was there on a work visa to begin an internship with a famous photographer who had traveled the world in her twenties and thirties, and now in her forties had opened a studio in Las Vegas. That photographer’s name was Lynn, and she was still my hero.
I loved taking pictures, but not so much pictures of people. People were Lynn’s specialty. She started me out doing still life photography, and since then she’d gotten me several gigs with food and travel magazines about Las Vegas.
This day was my first stint photographing people professionally. I had two subjects scheduled, one day after the other. This appointment was with a young girl named Hope, and we were doing her senior photos. She wanted them done at the Bellagio near the fountains, so part of what we dealt with was the crowds of people and trying to keep from getting them in the shots. I had never done that sort of thing before, but I wasn’t very worried about it.
The second appointment, however, was with the owner of several of the casinos in the city. Lynn told me that he was a billionaire and one of her most important clients. I was a nervous wreck and a little confused as to why she’d send me. She had so much more experience, and if this guy was as rich and powerful as she said, you would think she wouldn’t want to risk me screwing it up.