Book: The Ugly Stepsister (Unfinished Fairy Tales Book 1)

Previous: ELEVEN
Next: THIRTEEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TWELVE

Several exhausting days follow. Since I’m still terrible at dancing, Lady Bradshaw decided I could put off a few picnics and concerts and concentrate on my lessons. I don’t know which is worse: trying not to encourage any men while Lady Bradshaw tries hard to present me as a desirable young lady, or tripping on my feet while Pierre yells and raps his cane on my ankles.

After two hours of pure torture—my dancing is still awful—I head to the kitchens to get a cool drink of water. When no one is around, I snatch up the jug and take a long, satisfying gulp. I’ve always been tempted to drink directly from the jug, and since there are no plastic bottles here, whenever I’m hot and thirsty, it tries my patience drinking from a tiny china cup.

Thank God the lessons are over for now. I head back to my room and sit by the open window, letting the cool wind fan my hair, clearing my head. Still zero progress with the story. I go through my to-do list, but without any clue to the fairy godmother, I can’t figure out what else I could do. I call out for Krev, but there’s no answer. Maybe he’s still at the goblin king’s court, relating my social mishaps with lots of chortling.

A movement on the street arrests my attention. A small dark figure is waving at me. I squint; it’s Jimmy, Elle’s younger brother who I just met last week.

I point at myself. He nods and waves his hands even more dramatically.

I go downstairs, wondering what on earth Jimmy would want with me. Has Mrs. Thatcher’s condition worsened?

When I open the gate and step into the street, Jimmy shuffles to me. In broad daylight, his eyes seem even larger on his face. However, he looks less exhausted and a smile hovers by his mouth.

“‘Lo, miss.”

“Elle’s in the laundry room,” I say. “Do you have a message for her? I can convey it for you.”

He shakes his head, pushing his hands deeper into his pockets. A finger pokes out from a hole in his fraying trousers.

“I just needs to talk to you, miss. Kin we go a bit farther? This ain’t a place I’m supposed to be seen in.”

Across the street, a man with a bowler hat and shiny buckled shoes flashes us a curious stare.

“Sure,” I say. Now I’m curious what he has to say. We proceed around a corner to the side of the house, outside the walls, away from the main street. An elm tree shields Jimmy from view. It’s not ideal, but there are way fewer people passing by.

Once we’re off the main street, Jimmy lets out a breath. “I’ve come to tell you, miss. Of the man you’re asking about.”

“What man?”

“That man called Adam something.”

My stomach flutters. “You found him? You know where we can find him?”

Jimmy kicks his foot on the ground. “Nah, but he helped us plant the bush outside our house. Mamsie now remembers he’s a gardener at the place he comes from. Don’t suppose that’ll help you much, but you were asking.”

I doubt it as well. There must be hundreds of gardeners in the city (we have one at home), not to mention that Adam Snyder isn’t even from the city.

“That’s all? Is there anything else your mother remembers?”

Jimmy shakes his head. “Nah.” He coughs.

I fish out a handkerchief for him, but he waves me off. “Can’t ruin somethin’ so fine.”

Sunlight pours down at us, illuminating the pavement. I am reminded that it should be nearing noon. “Is it your day off today?”

Jimmy shakes his head. “Lunchtime. I’d best be going soon.”

“When do you get your day off? Sunday?”

“Never,” he replies placidly. “Can’t afford to, miss. We’re paid by how much work we do.”

A chill runs down my spine. Not just because he revealed that he doesn’t have any vacation, but that this boy, who can’t be more than ten, is stating his job situation in a matter-of-fact tone, as if he’s just telling me the weather’s fine today.

“Jimmy,” I say faintly. “How many hours do you work a day?”

He looks surprised but answers, “Twelve hours, miss. Sometimes up to fifteen, when it’s high season.”

I stare at him, numb with shock. I effing cannot believe this.

A shout comes from within the household.

“Miss Katriona, where are you? Lunch is ready.”

“You’d better go, miss,” Jimmy says, looking alarmed.

I nod. But before I start to head back, an inexplicable urge hits me. I reach out and give him a hug. His body, as expected, is just like a bag of bones, thin and brittle.

“Take care,” I say. “And don’t mention to Elle your coming to see me, okay? I can’t tell you at the moment, but I swear I’m doing all I can to help her.”

Jimmy looks surprised and a little embarrassed. “You shouldn’t…your dress is dirtied, miss.”

“Just promise me not to tell Elle,” I say.

He nods and shuffles off. Before disappearing round the corner, Jimmy trips and almost loses his balance. I wish I could call our hansom cab for him, but I can’t. Van is reluctant to drive me unchaperoned. I can’t imagine how he would react to this request.

 

“How do you find a gardener in a city of three million? Oh wait, he isn’t even in the city. Dammit! Can’t you even help me out here? Your goblin king is driving me nuts. It isn’t even fair when I don’t have magic like you do.”

I pace up and down in my room, foaming with rage. A new flat-wicked kerosene lamp burns on my dresser. I should be practicing sewing, but who cares about a lady’s accomplishments in a time like this?

Krev perches on the mantelpiece, his ugly knobby feet dangling before the hearth. I whirl upon him and fix him with the most intimidating glare I can manage. Maybe if I glare hard enough, he’ll come up with something other than cackling or crowing.

“Do you know how to find this Adam Snyder?”

Krev shrugs. “Have you ever heard of a gardener in Cinderella?”

“No, but also it’s never mentioned that Cinderella has a mother and two brothers! Look, I’m sick and tired of playing this silly game. Can’t you do some magical equivalent of Google search?”

Krev disappears for a second, then reappears on the window sill.

“Well, here’s an idea,” he suggests cheerfully. “We know Adam Snyder is a gardener who doesn’t live in the city, but he has a daughter who does, and he has visited her years ago. Most likely, if their relationship has not deteriorated to the point that they’re estranged from each other, he’ll keep coming to the city.”

“You’re not being helpful,” I say. “Are you telling me I have to look for his daughter?”

“What I meant is that Snyder could have other acquaintances in the city. He might purchase more seeds or tools, or bring in some wild species from wherever he works. Why don’t you ask at the shops and see if they have a clue?”

“Me?”

“‘Course, my dear. Even if I’m feeling benevolent enough—which I’m not—to do it for you, they can’t see me. And even if they could, they wouldn’t listen to me.”

He’s wearing that infuriating grin again. The grin that likes to see me suffer.

“I still don’t think this is a good idea,” I say, crossing my arms. “First, it’s like combing for a needle in a haystack. Second, isn’t it kind of strange for a noble lady to step inside a gardening store where they sell fertilizers and spades and rakes?”

“Now she’s worrying about propriety!” Krev cackles. “This from a girl who drove to the poorest neighborhood unchaperoned and allowed her servant to ride in the hansom with her. And took off her shoes in the royal garden and snored in the theatre and…”

“Oh shut up, you,” I snap. If he couldn’t fly or disappear, I’d wring his neck.

There’s a knock on the door. “Miss Katriona?”

Martha comes in with a load of fresh laundry. She squints at me, a suspicious glint in her eyes. “Were you talking to yourself?”

Now, if she asked me that question when I first arrived in this world, I might have stuttered and stammered, or just played dumb, but now I am ‘much improved.’

“Actually, Martha, I was simply rehearsing a piece of poetry I would like to perform in the next soiree,” I say, lifting my chin. “Since my piano-playing is dreadful, my singing horrible, and I dance with two left feet, I figure the only way left is to hone my elocution.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse Krev nodding with approval.

Martha dumps the load of cotton chemises and drawers on my bed, and starts sorting them into neat piles, folding with expert efficiency.

“By the way, I need to go shopping today. I’d like to decorate my window sill with flowers.”

She pauses, a sleeve dangling in her hand. “Flowers, miss?”

“Why yes.” I give her a winning smile. “After visiting so many beautiful homes, I’d like some flowers in the room. The Ladies Domestic Journal says a little gardening will benefit our health, because of the fresh air the plants provide. Wouldn’t you like a nice, colorful flowerbed in the window?”

Martha stares, then shrugs. “Whatever you say, miss. I say ever since you hit your head and lost your memory, you’ve never been the same. This request is at least normal.”

I smile. “Good. Prepare my cloak and boots. I leave at once.”

 

I cannot freaking believe this. I actually lied in such a perfect manner that I’m impressed with myself.

But as the hansom bumps along the street, my mood becomes less cheerful. While Krev’s suggestion has some sense in it, it just doesn’t seem practical. But it’s what I can do now, so I might as well make the most of it. Better use of my time than piano-practicing, anyway.

The gardening stores are actually nicer than I imagined. Mrs. Thatcher’s hut is definitely hell in comparison. When I push open the door, I realize that the stores cater to the middle-classes and above, and so most of those I go to are clean and well-kept and frankly speaking, quite lovely with elegantly carved window boxes and baskets overflowing with ferns and flowers.

But even though the stores are nice, no one has heard of Adam Snyder, and honestly, it isn’t surprising. Judging by Elle’s age, he came to the city at least fifteen years ago. Some of the store clerks look barely older than fifteen themselves. And annoyingly, everyone seems to think that the only reason a lady will ask after a man is because he is A. her fiancé B. her husband C. her brother or D. her father.

Finally, a white-haired clerk, upon hearing that Snyder possibly worked for Earl Bradshaw, suggests that I go to the palace and ask the head gardener, Galen.

“But he mayn’t see you, ma’am. He hates women. Especially young, pretty ladies like you.”

“Why?”

He smirks. “Since the prince is greatly interested in gardening, a number of young women have tried to attract his attention through Galen.”

“Oh.” I remember Mr. Wellesley had asked Henry if he would like to purchase some gardening magazine for the prince. “Um, I assure you I only want to find Mr. Snyder.”

“Best of luck, miss.”

Previous: ELEVEN
Next: THIRTEEN