At lunch, Bianca looks elegant as usual. In fact, she appears to be in a very good mood. For once, she has not admonished me for my figure, complexion, or appetite. Lady Bradshaw also appears to be more benevolent. She doesn’t snap at Elle for being late at bringing her soup.
I wonder why. Maybe the royal family has finally decided to hold the ball?
“Are you certain your sources are correct, Mother?” Bianca says, forking a piece of roast beef.
“The lad assures us that the prince canceled a private hunting session after he received the Fremont invitation,” Lady Bradshaw smirks.
I drop my fork on my plate—not the carpet, thankfully. The prince is coming to Claire’s party?
Lady Bradshaw is too buoyed with the news to notice me. “Even if he doesn’t show up, there is certainly no harm in your going. In fact, I believe that Claire would be offended if you did not go.”
“Of course,” Bianca remarks acidly. “But if the prince is going, I need to apply extra effort to my appearance. Especially while we play croquet.”
“That certainly is a problem. We certainly cannot have you looking dirty and sweaty. But if you don’t play, there is definitely less chance of you attracting him.”
“Provided that he plays.”
“I expect Claire will convince him. We must work on the best advantage you can present to him. Fortunately, attachments are often formed during the game; although it might not be obvious, it offers an innocent opportunity for men to converse informally with women. Of course, we could always use a low-necked dress and powder your collarbone…”
Oh no. Lady Bradshaw’s spy, whoever he is, seems confident that the prince will show up at Claire’s croquet party. If he does show up, Claire and Bianca will definitely mob—er—do their best to gain his attention. I need a distraction. Then another idea pops up—how about making Elle the distraction?
In the evening, I throw aside a new novel I got from Mr. Wellesley’s bookshop. It’s time to act.
“Krev,” I call. “I need your help. Your king won’t have any objection to this one, I promise.”
“Are you sure you wish me to come to the party?” Elle asks, twisting her fingers and rubbing them against her apron.
“Of course,” I assure her. “I need you there in case I mess up my hair or trip over the ball and fall flat on my face.”
“If you say so.” Elle still looks doubtful. “But won’t their servants be on hand?”
“No one has hands as skillful as yours,” I say. “Come on, you’ve been working so hard these days that I’m sure you deserve a little break.” And I mean it. Even though my real purpose is to get Elle and the prince together, I’ve been kind of worried about her recently. She already has this mountain of work at our house, rising from five and going to bed at ten, and now she also goes home to nurse her mother whenever Martha or another servant can cover for her. I also try to ease her burden by trying to bathe and dress myself in the morning, though I’ve yet to succeed in doing the convoluted maze of laces behind my back.
Lady Bradshaw didn’t object when I insisted on bringing Elle with us. Madam is laid up with a cold, and since it’s generally expected that young ladies shouldn’t go anywhere unchaperoned, she consented to have Elle accompany us. Bianca, of course, has no objection. Her elaborate hairstyle could get messed up playing croquet, and it is easier to have your own maid around who’s familiar with your needs.
The party is held in the Fremonts’ private garden. Lady Bradshaw had mentioned caustically that theirs is one of the few houses in the city that can afford a majestic garden. Last time we visited, I didn’t have a chance to see it. Now I see that for a garden in the city, the Fremont one is pretty amazing. Our garden is just a narrow gathering of meticulously-trimmed bushes surrounding the house. But the Fremonts, being one of the oldest and most distinguished families in Athelia, own this huge expanse of land consisting of sweeping lawns, sparkling fountains, symmetrical flowerbeds, and a pavilion for ladies who don’t want to get sunburned. There’s even a river on one side, which shows how big the garden is. In fact, the river gives me an idea. I make a note to mention it to Krev when he appears.
“Dearest Bianca!” Claire greets her friend in an affectionate tone. “I am so delighted that you are here to play with us.”
Although she is smiling, I think her smile is a bit strained. If the prince really shows up, Claire definitely won’t want Bianca there. But it won’t matter. I am here on a mission to make him notice Elle.
“I must say, the weather is damn fine today.” A loud, rowdy voice booms over the lawn. It’s coming from a middle-aged man who’s talking to Lady Fremont. He has a beer belly, a small forehead, and fleshy, drooping jowls. He looks like our neighbor in the real world, the one who can’t be pried away from the TV whenever a game is on. You can hear his voice all the way from the street when a goal is scored.
“Isn’t that Andrew McVean?” Bianca says, raising an eyebrow. “The man who made a fortune in cotton manufacturing?”
“I didn’t want to invite him, but Mother made me.” Claire looks exasperated. “She says times are changing now. You can even buy an earldom if you can afford it. Do you remember Norman Jones, who made a fortune in coal mining? He was able to present his daughter to the queen last summer. Imagine that, the daughter of a coal-miner!”
“Perhaps your mother has her eye on him as providing a prospective husband for you.”
Claire rolls her eyes. “I have not the slightest interest in his sons. Even if they are able to afford fifty servants in retinue and a dozen carriages.” I glance where she’s looking. Two young men stand behind Andrew McVean. One is an exact replica of his father, bulky and boisterous. The other is tall and good-looking, except for a mole on his chin with hair growing out of it. It makes him look like a walrus.
Elle looks quite nervous; she keeps biting her lip and rubbing her hands over her apron. I note with relief that despite her well-worn clothes, she has taken care to wash her face and arms thoroughly. No sign of soot anywhere. Her hair is neatly braided and criss-crossed on top of her head. She looks fresh and pretty—just how I want her to be.
Poppy waves at me, a huge grin on her face. I wave back enthusiastically. Poppy’s presence always makes me feel less lonely or awkward.
Glad of an excuse not to meet any other people (for once, I share Bianca and Claire’s opinion of guys), I head over to her.
“How are you doing, Poppy?” I say. “I haven’t seen you in a while. Are you enjoying your Season so far?”
Poppy grins and pushes her bangs away from her forehead. “Positively spiffing. So many events to attend! I like most of them except the theater. I fell asleep during one attendance. Lord Westin must have thought me an utter rustic. I was ever so ashamed.”
“Don’t be,” I say automatically. “I find the theater awfully boring as well. I wish I could bring some coffee with me. I too ended up snoring in front of everyone.”
We share a laugh, and Poppy sighs and puts a hand on her forehead. “This all could have been good simple fun, if only Mama hadn’t told me I must look for a husband. I just want to enjoy myself instead of meeting every eligible man and wondering if I’m going to spend the rest of my life with him.”
“That sounds stressful,” I say. I can’t even fathom marriage at my age.
“Don’t you feel stressed as well?” Poppy says curiously. “Sorry to rub it in, but isn’t it hard on you when everyone’s attention is on your sister?”
I catch a glimpse of Bianca, who’s wearing this large hat filled with feathers and roses. On others it might look ridiculous, but Bianca makes it look fashionable. Beneath the hat, her long, swan-like neck is revealed. She usually doesn’t go without a necklace or pendant, but today her neck is completely bare—obviously she wants to show it off. And it’s working. Some love-struck admirer gravitates toward her like she’s a human-sized magnet.
“Nah, I don’t really care,” I say. “All I want is—” I stop myself from continuing with ‘to prevent her from getting in Elle’s way’.
Poppy waits expectantly.
“—a drink of water,” I finish lamely. “Isn’t it supposed to be spring? This temperature seems like summer to me already.”
I glance in the direction of the buffet table, which is set up near the pavilion. Several ladies and gentlemen are already helping themselves to cake and sandwiches.
Poppy grins. “If you’re feeling hot now, you’ll faint when it’s time to play.”
I realize she means croquet. Already a few servants are carrying balls and other kinds of equipment onto the lawn.
My heart sinks. Great, yet another chance to show off my clumsiness. I’m already shuffling with the dress Elle made me put on. The skirt isn’t as big as the one I wore for the court presentation, but it still reaches down to my ankles and puffs out in the back. I’m baffled how to sit down without squashing the mountain of lace and bows behind my bum, not to mention moving around the lawn. I mention this to Elle, tentatively, but she assures me that all ladies can play croquet in big dresses.
“I don’t know how to play.” I sure hope Katriona didn’t, or at least was a lousy player.
Poppy doesn’t take no for an answer. “I’ll teach you, don’t worry,” she says, taking my arm. “Come, they’re already measuring the distance between the hooks.”
I look around for any sign of the prince, but no luck. Only Duke Henry is present; the sun gleams off his curly hair. He’s talking to another man who’s wearing spectacles. Several girls cast glances at his way but none are bold enough to go up to him. I consider asking him if the prince will appear, but that could easily cause a misunderstanding.
“Kat? Where’re you looking at?” Poppy follows my gaze, and her eyes widen. “Oh my goodness! Do you fancy the duke?”
I quickly turn back to her and motion her to keep her voice down. “Of course not. I’m just curious who he is conversing with.”
“Probably one of the professors at the medical college,” Poppy says. “Claire tells me Duke Henry is one of the rare royals who actually bothers pursuing a profession. If you really like him, I’m sure he’s a worthy catch.”
“You can have him,” I laugh. As if I could marry someone in Story World. To get her off the topic, I start walking toward the croquet lawn. “Didn’t you want to play? Show me the rules.”
It turns out the rules aren’t complicated. All you have to do is hit the ball through a series of wooden hoops sunken into the lawn, using a long, old-fashioned golf club they call a mallet. The first player to get seven hoops out of thirteen in total is declared the winner.
But while the rules are simple, the skill required isn’t. Or at least, not to me. The first time I try to hit the ball, it’s a lot heavier than I thought, being completely made of solid wood, and it rolls like a snail for several inches. Everyone laughs. I try to laugh as well, but when my turn comes next, I’m determined that I won’t make the same mistake.
Poppy, on the other hand, excels in croquet. She executes each shot with amazing precision and power, like a pro. In two shots, she has already passed six hoops. One more, and she will win. If she’d been born in the modern world, I could imagine her becoming a professional golfer.
“Watch out, Davenport!” someone calls. “If you’re not careful, Miss Montgomery is going to blow your reigning position out of the water!”
Several men nearby start to snicker.
“Knock it off, Georgie,” a man responds. I don’t remember Bianca introducing him to me—from the checkered material of his shirt and his well-worn boots, I guess he isn’t that high up the social ladder. He darts a glance at Poppy and gives her a wide grin. “Unfortunately, Miss Montgomery, I do not believe in holding back for the fair sex. I shall endeavor in every way possible to keep you from challenging my undisputed reputation as Athelia’s croquet champion.”
Poppy arches her eyebrows. “Quit wasting our time, Mr. Davenport. I assure you I have no compunction for my opponents either, whether they be male or female.”
When my turn comes, I swing the mallet with all my strength. The end of the mallet connects with the ball with a sickening thud, and I’m horrified to see the ball sailing through the air in a perfect arc—please don’t let it hit anyone, except for Bianca’s awful hat—and it disappears behind a clump of trees and bushes.
Oh God. This is even worse.
Bianca, who is sitting in the pavilion with Claire, rolls her eyes heavenward. Claire’s mouth curves up in amusement.
“How am I going to play?” I whisper.
“You need to retrieve the ball and resume from the starting line,” Poppy whispers back, looking concerned. “I’ll go with you.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I say. “It’ll be your turn soon and you’ve been playing brilliantly. Unlike me, you can’t afford to lose. Beat that cocky Davenport, okay?”
In fact, I am rather glad to slip away from mocking glances and piteous looks. It’s no fun making a fool of yourself in front of a bunch of fashionable ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’.
The bushes—particularly the huge rhododendron shrubbery—beyond the lawn are thick and tall. I don’t feel up to searching for the ball, but it belongs to the Fremont family. I should at least make an effort. I am attempting to eye every nook and cranny when something tugs on my bun. A low, leafy branch had found its way to my hair.
“Just my luck,” I mutter.
And then Krev appears. He’s actually hovering in thin air, cross-legged like a genie just out of the magic lamp.
“Krev!” I hiss. “Finally you’re here. Do you see the river?”
“I see everything.” Krev gives me a Cheshire Cat smile. “Let me guess…you want me to make Elle fall in that river? And then have the prince show up and rescue her?”
“Yeah, that’s the plan.” I give my hair a final tug and the part where it’s caught comes loose, curling round my neck in messy locks. “But to make it work, he has to show up first!”
Krev grins and winks. “Wait and see.”