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

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Next: EIGHTEEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SEVENTEEN

 

 

Dusk is falling when we arrive at Lord Mansfield’s house. Or mansion, should I say. It’s a cross between the palace and our townhouse. For one thing, it has enough space for several carriages, but at home, we only have space for the carriage and hansom; guests have to leave their conveyances outside along the curb.

It is a short walk to the entrance, and I’m glad. It was raining earlier, and the chill and dampness still linger in the air.

“Mind your manners,” Lady Bradshaw tells me in a low voice. “Do not spring up if any food drops on your lap, do not raise your voice but avoid whispering as well, make no noise when eating the soup, and never, ever, stand up to reach for a dish. But you may ask nicely for a gentleman nearby to pass the dish for you.”

“Mmm.” I am barely aware of what she is saying, and her voice dies away when we are ushered into the parlor and then summoned to the dining room.

The dining room is huge—the long table can seat at least forty people. A giant chandelier glitters above, the velvet-green wall is covered with framed paintings, and there are sideboards laden with silver plates and cutlery. A servant pulls out the chair, which has such an ornate carving that the maids must have spent hours dusting it. Before each seat is a folded napkin laid over a soup dish, with a bread roll on top, and a silver knife and fork placed on either side of the dish. I am puzzled by the extra silverware on the sideboards when it’s obvious that we have enough utensils.

I look for Andrew McVean, but it’s hard to find him amid the tall candlesticks and vases overflowing with flowers and ferns. Bianca is seated between two doting young men—no surprise there. She wears a simple wine-red gown with a square neckline and a string of pearls, which is less fancy than her attire at the croquet party was. I’m not surprised. Lady Bradshaw’s spy said the prince was receiving foreign guests tonight and therefore would certainly not make an appearance. Still, Bianca looks like a goddess.

Claire sits across from Bianca, and is also fawned upon by the young men around her. She is sweet and angelic—in appearance—in her white lacy dress. I marvel that she dares to wear a white dress while eating. Together, the two of them command the most attention from the male guests, except for the guy seated across from Poppy, who happens to be the same person who challenged her in croquet. Mr. Davenport is his name, I think. Now they’re at war again, though this time it’s waged across the table. They are arguing whether hitting the ball twice is considered cheating, and it’s really quite amusing to watch them banter.

I settle into my seat, trying not to stare too hard at the surroundings. Even after seeing the splendor of the palace, this dining room is still impressive.

“Quite a sight,” a voice says next to me, “but our dining table at home can seat a hundred.”

After a brief introduction, I realize the guy next to me happens to be Algernon McVean (maybe Lady Bradshaw had a hand in this). He’s a portly young man with slicked chestnut hair and a stiff bowtie.

“Oh,” I say, trying very hard to look impressed. “That must be…um…your house must be huge.”

“One can easily get lost in it,” Algernon boasts.

Yeah, accumulated from exploiting poor children in the factory. Lady Bradshaw shoots me a LOOK from down the table; most likely she wants me to exert some womanly charm and ensnare the young millionaire. Son of a millionaire anyway.

I try very hard not to yawn. Fortunately, food is served and I can concentrate on that instead. Which isn’t hard, because there’s mountains and mountains of it. Three kinds of meat—rabbit, goose, beef, not to mention scallops in cream; several vegetables from cauliflower to celery, accompanied with either butter or red wine sauce; then the tablecloth monogrammed with the Mansfield emblem is removed and now I know why there’s extra cutlery on the sideboard. Fruit, nuts, and cheese are served, along with a dessert called bouillee. It’s this egg and milk custard thing baked in a flaky crust. My stomach is bursting at this point, so I let Algernon have mine. He accepts it cheerfully, smacking his lips and giving a burp when he’s done. I want to leave the table as soon as possible.

My wish is soon granted. When the food has all been served, Lady Mansfield rises.

“Ladies,” she says graciously. “Let us repair to the sitting room for coffee and other refreshments.”

I’m glad to get away from Algernon, but on the other hand, I need to speak to his father. But since all the men remain seated while servants bring cigars and wine, I’ve no choice but follow the women. Anyway, according to procedure, the men will come into the sitting room once they’re done smoking.

The Mansfield sitting room is also spacious and furnished with great splendor. The walls are covered with a rich brown wallpaper decorated with an intricate golden embroidery, which goes well with the sparkling golden chandeliers (multiple, mind you) hanging from the painted ceiling. All the sofas and chairs are padded with red velvet and have clawed feet and gilded edges. Even the white marble fireplace is gilded with gold. A large shiny piano stands in a corner, topped with a fat vase of roses.

I find a chair as far away from the piano as possible. If I’m far enough away, they won’t see me and I won’t be asked to sing and play.

Poppy joins me, along with Lady Gregory. Her wrinkled face and spinster status make her easily ignored. Still, I prefer her company over that of Algernon McVean.

Bianca and Claire are seated with Lady Mansfield. Several young women, fashionably dressed but lacking in confidence, hover nearby, wanting to join in but hesitant to approach them.

Ha. Even in Story World, cliques exist. Bianca and Claire represent the beautiful and popular, the group of aspiring girls are the wannabes, while me and Poppy, the nerds, congregate on the edge and make snarky but useless comments.

“How do you find Mr. Davensport?” I ask Poppy. “You were practically having your own private conversation at dinner.”

Poppy blushes. Her freckles stand out when she’s flushed and pink, but while Bianca may call it hideous, I think it’s kind of cute.

“We were not having a private conversation, Kat. I also talked to people next to him. It’s just that he keeps challenging me and I can’t help retaliating.”

“I think he likes it,” I say slyly. “It’ll only be a matter of time before he invites you to another game.”

“I’ll take him on anytime,” Poppy declares. “But how about you, Kat? You were sitting with one of the McVean sons, weren’t you?”

“Oh him,” I groan. I give her an account of Algernon, describing how vapid he is, how he could not speak of anything but the house he lives in. “If he isn’t impressed by this house, why can’t he just stay there?”

“I’m sure the McVean house is a palatial mansion,” Lady Gregory joins in. “Andrew McVean rarely scrimps on decorations. But there are some things he can’t purchase.”

I expect her to say stuff like “culture” or “good breeding,” but she indicates the vase sitting on a small cherrywood table near us.

“This vase is hand crafted by fairies. It’s given, not bought.”

“You’re making fun of us,” Poppy complains. “There’s no such thing as fairies.”

Lady Gregory gives an enigmatic smile that reminds me of Mona Lisa. “See the wee folk painted there? At midnight, when everyone’s fast asleep, the folk come alive and out to play.”

Poppy and I stare at the vase. There are, indeed, several humanoids that look similar to Tinkerbell, though their hair is long and flowing and their clothes drape around their legs in uneven lengths.

“Have you seen them come alive?” Poppy asks in a tone used to humor children.

Lady Gregory laughs softly. “No one does. The fairy folk always make sure the humans are asleep. If a human were to get up in the middle of the night and come down, they would sense him immediately and hurry back to the vase.”

“Oh that’s interesting,” Poppy says, but her tone indicates otherwise. In the real world, I might have nodded along with her, but having been pulled into a storybook and seen a bizarre-looking goblin appear out of thin air—what Lady Gregory says doesn’t sound that fantastical to me. In fact, I’m struck with further ideas.

“Do you mean that a fairy gave this vase to Lord Mansfield?”

“To his great-great grandfather,” Lady Gregory smiles. “The lord did the fairy a good turn, and was rewarded by this vase. You’ll not find another in the kingdom.”

“Is there some other magic the fairies can do? Like, turning a pumpkin into a fancy coach?”

Poppy stares at me like I’m crazy, but Lady Gregory’s eyes are twinkling.

“A wild imagination you have, child,” she says with a soft chuckle. “If a fairy wants to produce a coach, he needn’t use a pumpkin. Just like the magic that went into fashioning this vase, a fairy need only draw a coach in thin air with his wand, sprinkle a bit of magic dust on it, and a real coach will materialize.”

“Oh wow.” I prepare to ask her more about fairies, but sounds of talking and laughing come from the doorway and the men enter the sitting room. One of them stumbles, his cheeks ruby red, and a man servant escorts him away.

Andrew McVean’s voice, loud and raucous, carries to us on top of the other voices.

“…keeps them away from idleness…nothing wrong with cadets of dukes and earls seeking positions in farming, mercantile and trading houses, as long as there’s profit to make!”

I narrow my eyes and try to move stealthily toward McVean. Lips dry, heart pounding, I wonder how I should broach the subject of Jimmy to him.

But before I can reach him, a hand clamps firmly on my elbow.

“Katriona, dear.” I jerk my head back—since when does Lady Bradshaw call me ‘dear?’

Then, seeing the young man near her, it becomes painfully obvious.

“Mr. McVean,” Lady Bradshaw says, her tone dripping with honeyed sweetness. “I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter, Katriona.” She pulls me close and whispers, “Ten thousand a year.”

Randall blushes and stammers, “In…in fact, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Miss Katriona previously.”

I fight hard not to giggle. The whiskers sticking out of his mole quiver as he speaks.

“Really? How delightful,” Lady Bradshaw beams. “When was the occasion? I believe it must have slipped my memory.”

“At the croquet party given by the Fremonts,” Randall says. “Your sister was also there.” He glances at Bianca, who is conversing with several men by the fireplace. From the look of longing on his face, I know why he is so certain we have met before.

“There you are, lad!” Andrew McVean bears down on us, clamping a hand on Randall’s shoulder. “Getting to know the ladies, eh? About time, I’d say. Though it seems only yesterday that you were crawling on the floor, shaking a rattle!” He lets out a bark of laughter, and Randall looks like he wants nothing better than to jump out the window. However, I’m glad I don’t have to weave my way over to McVean. Here I am presented with a ready chance to question him.

“Mr. McVean,” I say as politely as I can. “I understand that you are a manufacturer of textiles and own a cotton factory. Several, in fact.”

“My word! Is the lady interested in trade?”

Lady Bradshaw’s hand tightens on my elbow.

“Yes, very,” I say, before she can stop me. “What I am curious about is that you employ children to work at your factory.”

He looks slightly bemused. “So I have. Everyone does, anyway. Children are cheaper to employ, lighter on their feet, and small enough to be around the machines.”

“You mean risking their lives in the process.” I can’t keep my temper any longer.

Randall has successfully slunk away.

But I’m not done yet. “Just yesterday a little boy no more than ten got his head smashed when he was crawling under a machine still in motion. Surely you are aware of such accidents? Haven’t you thought of taking safety measures?”

“Katriona!” Lady Bradshaw hisses, throwing me a withering look.

McVean looks suspicious. “Lady, I’m giving these children jobs so they won’t starve on the streets. Accidents sometimes happen, but it’s nothing to get so worked up about.”

“So you don’t care that a child has been nearly killed?” My voice rises.

McVean shrugs. “You exaggerate, young woman! Calm down, there’s no need to get your feathers so ruffled.” He takes a goblet of wine from a passing waiter and hands it to me. “Here, have some champagne. It’ll calm you down. A young pure-minded lady like you shouldn’t concern herself with unpleasant matters. A woman’s place is in the—”

I take the goblet and dash its contents over his neatly-pressed white shirt.

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Next: EIGHTEEN