“The chief object of the Season,” Lady Bradshaw says, “is to find a husband.”
A huge lump of sugar slips from my tongs and falls into my cup. Hot tea splashes out and brown stains appear on the tablecloth. Bianca shoots me a look of disgust. We’re having afternoon tea with just the three of us after three days of incessant parties, and I’m super thankful for a break.
“Perhaps the notion is not fully bred into your mind yet,” Lady Bradshaw continues icily. “But it is imperative that you procure a suitable partner, preferably before the Season is over. It is widely considered a failure for a young lady, if she does not receive a marriage proposal within three seasons.”
Three seasons. As most girls presented are seventeen or eighteen in Athelia, one can be called a failure when she is unmarried at twenty-one. By this definition, most Hollywood actresses would be considered fossils.
“And,” Lady Bradshaw lowers her voice, signifying the end of the world is to come, “if you are still unattached when you reach thirty, you are doomed to spinsterhood.”
I fight the urge to roll my eyes. Mom is nearly forty, but she never lacks for dates. She was actually going steady with this lawyer from Chicago who drove up to Oakleigh every weekend, but she later dropped him when she discovered he wasn’t really divorced.
Okay Kat, remember this is a different world.
“And getting engaged is becoming more difficult these days,” Bianca says, inspecting a fingernail. “Claire says many men are purposefully delaying marriage, especially the younger sons, who prefer to establish their own career before settling down.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about you, dear. You already have enough beaux. With the number of invitations you’re getting, it’s becoming more of a nuisance than flattering.” Lady Bradshaw puts down her teacup and looks at me with a long, piercing look. “But you, young lady, had better make an effort. Ever since that…that disaster at court, your chances of attracting a husband—which are already low—are further diminishing.”
Whatever. I’ll be returning to the modern world as soon as I can, and the last thing I want is to fall for some dreamy Mr. Darcy-ish guy here in Story World.
Still, even though I feel zero pressure to spouse-hunt, the Season is tough enough, not to mention damned exhausting.
Back in school, there’s this girl who’s desperate to join the in-crowd and always complaining about her super-strict parents enforcing a super-strict curfew, (six o’clock…okay, I admit that is pretty harsh) but now I can tell her it really isn’t that exciting. I’m living the life of the beautiful and popular—I’m doing nothing but partying all day. And I hate it.
First we start the morning with a ride in the park, which is swarming with fashionable people who want to be seen and introduced, either on horseback or in an open-air carriage. I prefer the carriage—I’ve never ridden a horse before—but Lady B puts her hands on her hips and insists equestrian skills are also important, especially during hunting parties in autumn. I think it’s because there’s a chance a man can assist me mounting the horse, but no way do I want a man putting his hands on my bum or waist or legs. Bianca, on the other hand, climbs on her horse with the elegance of an elf while I quake and tremble and hold the reins in a death grip. Sometimes I luck out and see Poppy, who’s generous and sympathetic enough to help me. Since she grew up in the country, she’s an excellent horsewoman.
Then around half past nine, we go home and remove our riding clothes (a short, fitted jacket, a long skirt, and mud-splattered boots) and don light cotton dresses for breakfast (ew, baked beans). Lady Bradshaw whisks Bianca off for shopping or morning calls, while I suffer through more lady lessons, mostly on dancing.
“According to our unofficial estimates on the market, about half of the marriages are made on the dance floor.”
Yeah. I have to plan one for Elle and the prince anyway.
“So I expect you to master the waltz and quadrille and all the other dances the master teaches you. I will not have a repeat of that disastrous presentation.”
Urgh. Because of the strenuous dance training, by lunch time my feet are sore, my back aches, and my appetite is huge. I stare longingly at the water jug, wanting to snatch it up and drain the contents instead of sipping daintily from a tiny cup.
In the afternoon we change into appropriate clothes depending on the event, and there are so many. Concerts, garden parties, picnics, lectures, bazaars, cricket matches, bowling games, tennis, all kinds of activities that make my head spin. Usually I try to find some place to make myself inconspicuous, or hang out with Poppy if she’s also present, and pray that dinner will be held at home.
Because if we’re invited out to dinner—a formal, elaborate affair—then full evening dress is required. Lady Bradshaw tells me not to concentrate on the food and conjure up something witty and amusing to say to whatever unfortunate young man is seated beside me. Which is totally difficult, considering I’m doing my best to remember which fork goes with the salad and which spoon is to be used for soup. Above that, I have to watch myself about using modern references and slang. It’s not like anyone here has seen my favorite TV show.
But. It’s. Not. Over. Yet.
Then comes the theater, the opera, or the soiree. I haven’t been to a ball yet, but Elle says it will come, sooner or later. Of course, the best I can do at the theater and opera is avoid falling asleep. Oh, and did I mention that we have to change again for the evening event? Even Miss Perfect Bianca gets kind of impatient with all the changing, though I suspect it’s because she hasn’t got enough dresses to wear a different one every time, every day.
Once, I was so tired from attending a tennis match, a horse race, a soiree, and a dinner party that I fell asleep during a play. My timing couldn’t have been better. I slept through the whole thing and woke up just when the play was over and everyone was getting ready to leave.
“You snored,” Bianca said, looking down her nose at me. “Hereafter, I shall avoid going to the same events with you. It’s too embarrassing.”
Great! If she really means it, she’ll have to miss like nine out of ten of the social activities we go to. Most people are considerate enough to invite us both, except for very close acquaintances of Bianca’s, like Claire. But that happens very rarely.
The only thing I enjoy about the Season is annoying Bianca. Since I’m still waiting for Elle’s mother, Mrs. Thatcher, to make a full recovery (I dare not disturb her when she’s still pretty ill), I figure what I can do now is cut down on Elle’s competition, starting with Bianca. Like, whenever this lord or mister asks for Bianca when she’s out shopping, I always welcome him inside and tell him to wait in the parlor. Sometimes I also inform them of Bianca’s schedule, like she’s planning to go to Lady Willoughby’s soiree, or Lord Westin’s dinner party. Hopefully, one of them will persuade Bianca that he is THE ONE, not the guy at the palace.
Bianca’s exasperated, though Lady Bradshaw reasons with her that there’s no guarantee she can be the future queen, so it’s always a good idea to have someone to “fall back on.” I wonder what those young men might feel about being second-choice, but then they probably don’t mind. As long as they can get the goddess in the end.
One morning when we’re finished with a carriage ride, Lady Bradshaw orders me to go home and practice the piano while she takes Bianca shopping.
“Once you have shown some improvement in your piano playing, I will take you to Madame Olga’s for a new dress.”
Ha. As if that will ever happen, given my sausage-like fingers. Plus, like I said, I already have enough dresses for three girls.
When I get home, there’s a gentleman anxiously waiting on the doorstep. I recognize him right away. A marquess (or is it a viscount?) whose full name I can’t remember, but his thick sideburns have earned him the nickname of Sideburn Sidney among the girls.
I clear my throat. “Excuse me, but I need to get in my own house.”
“Miss Katriona!” Sidney turns. “How lovely to see you this morning.” He looks around, as though Bianca is hiding behind me. Which is impossible, since she is three inches taller. “Your sister is not with you?”
I yawn. “She went shopping on High Street. Can I take a message?”
“As a matter of fact,” Sidney drops his voice. “Dare I ask your sister’s opinion of me? My heart and soul have been suffering ever since we dined at Lord Westin’s.”
An image of Bianca, haughty and dismissive, pops in my mind. “Sideburn Sidney? Such a bore he is,” she said when Lady Bradshaw asked for her opinion. “His speech is more sleep-inducing than any lullaby.”
I form a bright smile. “Don’t worry. She actually thinks very highly of you.”
“Really?” Sidney looks doubtful. “But she did not appear enthusiastic when I tried to engage her in conversation yesterday morning.”
“She’s just being shy,” I say. My mission right now is to have Bianca swamped by numerous suitors so she won’t have time or energy to go after the prince. “You know, a girl doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. In fact, she is secretly looking forward to your attentions.”
Sidney heaves a sigh of relief. “I am much obliged to hear that, Miss Katriona. What would you advise me to do? Is there some way that I can court her without seeming too eager? I would not want to scare her off.”
“You could send her a gift. Chocolate, for instance.”
He rubs his hands. “I will order a box tomorrow. With flowers.”
“Excellent. I’m sure she will love it.” I grin as I bid him goodbye. Of course, since Bianca is so wary of getting fat, those chocolates will eventually end up in my stomach. “Make sure they are from a gourmet store on High Street.”
“So have you received a marriage proposal yet?” Krev asks me one evening, when I stumble in the room bleary-eyed and flop onto the bed like a dead fish.
I roll my eyes. Apart from this guy called Lord Lloyd who has a red-hair fetish, almost everyone is drawn to Bianca. Which is totally normal. Come on, an Audrey Hepburn lookalike and Josephine March? I’d take Hepburn anytime.
“Is the ugly stepsister supposed to get married in the story?” I ask, choosing to ignore his question.
Krev grins. He disappears from the mantelpiece where he was sitting and perches on the foot of my bed.
“We’re having a bet, the king, the queen, and I,” he says.
“On what?” I have a bad feeling about this.
“On how many proposals you’ll receive by the end of the Season. The king bets on two; the queen five.”
“And you?” I can’t help asking.
“One. But I won’t say who the man is, or you’re certain to avoid him.”
“You’d better bet on zero,” I say dryly. “There’s no way I can marry anyone here, and I’m not even out of high school. It’s ridiculous. Besides, you guys would have more fun betting on Bianca. She’s refused seven suitors already!”
Krev shrugs. “The king doesn’t care about other females—you’re the one who ripped his book. Besides, you’re an underdog here, and Morag has more sympathy for underdogs.”
“Sympathy? Then help me get out of this stupid book!” I throw my pillow at him; he snaps his fingers and the pillow comes flying back like it has rebounded off a wall. “Look, you can do magic and disappear and such, but you won’t even lift a finger to help me.”
Krev raises a crooked eyebrow. “How?”
“Well, with finding the fairy godmother, for one thing! I can’t get Elle to the ball on my own, I can’t turn a pumpkin into a coach, and mice into footmen, and God knows where I can get glass slippers. I want to get back, I want to go home!”
I let out a tiny sob. Krev, who usually takes pleasure in my misfortunes, looks a bit uncomfortable.
“Impossible, girlie. The king created the book a hundred years ago, along with several others. He doesn’t even remember what the fairy godmother looks like, not to mention where she might be.”
“Seriously? A hundred years ago?”
“Goblin-made objects last longer.”
“Like the sword Harry Potter used to kill the basilisk?”
“Oh, that is pure nonsense.” Krev sounds amused. “We don’t make weapons, trolls do. And the book was already fragile when you touched it. It may last longer than human-made stuff, but that doesn’t mean it lasts forever.”
“Whatever.” The point is I’m alone in my quest for the fairy godmother. God, with all the luck I’m having, I might be stuck in this story forever.