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

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TWENTY

 

 

Back in my room, Krev is sitting on my window sill, snoozing. When I shut the door and stagger to bed, my feet sore and aching, he opens one eye. Then he leaps into the air, hovering above the bed. I’ve got to admit that even though he’s annoying, it’s a relief to talk to someone who knows who you really are.

“How did it go? What did the duke really want?”

I pull off my slippers and stockings and toss them on the rug. God, what a relief to wiggle my toes in front of a roaring fire. Martha or Elle must have kindled it when we arrived home.

“It was…okay. Henry and I didn’t talk much, actually.”

“I don’t believe you.” Krev’s bulbous eyes glow like yellow traffic lights. “The more indifferent you are, the more I detect that something big has happened. Spit it out, girlie. Or I shall overturn that jug of water on the dresser.”

Damn, he really gets me. I haven’t washed my face and hands, nor brushed my teeth, and no way am I gonna tumble in bed in my current state.

So I give him a brief account of the dance. I had to include Edward, since Krev is convinced my “indifferent tone” has to do with meeting the prince, so I try to downplay it by mentioning the eight-hour law only. Somehow I also mention Bianca’s request—scratch that—threat, that I report to her the prince’s schedule, now that I’m a “special” acquaintance of Duke Henry.

“She wants you to acquire information of dear Eddie from his cousin?”

“Stop. Calling. Him. Eddie.”

Krev grins. “Here’s an idea: how about you try seducing Duke Henry?”

I almost fall off the bed. “You’re nuts!”

“Why not? It would solve a lot of your problems.”

I groan. “First, Bianca doesn’t even believe Henry’s interested in me. Second, he…he probably has a thing for Elle already.”

Krev flips upside-down like Spiderman, and grins at me with his stupid feet in the air.

“Aha! Girlie, if you can turn the duke’s attention toward you, you’ll come closer to your goal.”

“I don’t see how.”

“Dumb as usual.” Krev shakes his head mournfully. “I thought that your goal was to get Eddie together with your maid.”

And then it hits me. If I can manage to turn Henry’s attention toward me, then he will forget about Elle. Plus, if Henry and I were an item, Edward couldn’t flirt with me anymore.

“But…” I pull over a pillow and bury my face in it. “God, I’ve never had a steady boyfriend, and now you’re telling me I have to go out there and seduce a duke?”

It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. Me, a seductress? I’d sooner hear Ashley exalting the rustic delights of small town life.

Krev continues to bounce. “Well then, you can always stay in the book. Won’t be too hard, once you’re used to the big skirts and fancy hats.”

No way. I WANT to go home. I want simple, comfortable clothes, I want hot running water, I miss having the internet, and most of all, I miss my family. I toss the pillow aside and sit up straight.

I don’t see Henry as anything but a good friend, but he does have an attractive physique, evidenced by his rescuing Elle from the river. He’s amiable, kind, compassionate. A girl could do much worse.

I push aside thoughts of the impossibilities, of awkwardness, of the sheer terror of trying to catch a guy. God, I should have read more issues of Seventeen. You know, I might have picked up some tips for attracting a guy. But then they probably wouldn’t work in this old-fashioned, elitist society.

“All right.” I feel like Wendy, being forced to walk the plank on Captain Hook’s orders. “I’ll give it a try.”

 

Lady Bradshaw is surprised when I ask for extra lessons in etiquette.

“So you have finally realized the importance of attracting a husband?” she asks when I also request a shopping trip.

“Yes, Mother,” I say, trying to look repentant. “While attending Duke Henry’s ball, I found that his acquaintances are more desirable than others’.”

“Hmph.” Lady Bradshaw purses her lips. “The duke tends to go around with tradesmen more than the peerage. But I should be thankful if you can get anyone at all, judging from your performance so far.”

I work hard on my appearance and deportment for a few weeks, trying to combat my klutziness with the horribly uncomfortable crinolines and poofy skirts. I am making some improvement—I keep thinking of Mom and Paige—and after all, having been subjected to Athelian culture for an extended period, I am more competent by now.

When Pierre proclaims my gait and posture acceptable, I decide it’s time to act. I settle at my writing desk and pen a note for Henry, asking if I can visit his library again. It’s a perfectly reasonable request; I found it easy enough to write without embarrassment.

However, when the messenger returns, he tells me that the duke is absent, though he has left my note with the butler, Thomas.

Oh yeah, rotten luck again. Not surprising.

I decide to pay a visit to the bookshop again. Elle hasn’t gone home for some time—Lady Bradshaw ordered the servants to do a thorough cleaning of the house plus laundry, leaving them completely exhausted. I could see Billy and ask how Jimmy is doing.

 

At the bookshop, only little Billy is there, cleaning the spines of the books with a big yellow feather duster.

“Hello Billy,” I say, smiling at him. “How are you doing today? Feeling energetic on this bright morning?”

He smiles back at me shyly and nods.

“Mr. Wellesley isn’t in here?” Usually it’s the other way round—Mr. Wellesley is minding the store while Billy goes on an errand.

“He’s in the basement.” Billy takes my hand and leads me behind the counter. We enter a narrow corridor that smells of old books and faded ink. At the end of the corridor is a rickety staircase that leads to a floor below. I go down the stairs carefully—no matter how plainly I dress, there’s no getting around ankle-length skirts, even though it’s the beginning of summer. Which might as well be a blessing for Bianca’s suitors. If they saw her in a mini-skirt, showing off those model-thin legs, they’d go from half-idiots to complete idiots. Then Billy shows me to a room with the door left open. Indistinct voices drift from within.

I halt in the doorway. Mr. Wellesley and several other men are gathered around a table. The room is kind of messy, with an old-fashioned printing press that looks like it should be in a museum and piles of books in danger of falling apart.

“Who’s that?” A man asks, his tone somewhat unfriendly. He’s big and broad-shouldered with a ponytail, and has tree-trunk arms that look capable of tossing me out of the window.

“Lass?” Mr. Wellesley raises his head and shoots me a curious look behind his spectacles. “Is something the matter?”

“Um…” I shrink back, unsure if I stumbled upon some felonious conspiracy. “You’re not doing anything illegal, are you?”

He chuckles. “Right you are, lassie. We’re smuggling opium and drugs into the kingdom. Now you’ve discovered our dirty little secret, I’m afraid you cannot leave this room alive.”

Now it’s plain that he’s kidding. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Mr. Wellesley wipes his glasses with his big green apron. “Aye, that I agree. His Highness would skin me alive if anything happened to you.”

My heart skips a beat. How does he know about me and Edward?

“That reminds me.” Mr. Wellesley slaps a hand on his forehead. “Today the parliament voted on the bill His Highness submitted.”

“The eight-hour workday?”

“It was rejected.”

My mouth falls open. “Rejected? But…why? Can’t they see it’s simply inhumane to let children work more than eight hours a day? Even before Jimmy was injured, he was so thin and shriveled up, it just hurt to look at him.”

Mr. Wellesley shakes his head. “Nothing stands between unscrupulous owners and their insatiable desire for wealth. At least a quarter of them hold seats in the parliament, and more than half of the lords are in one way or other affected by the industry. It’s going to be a long, difficult campaign if we wish to impose legislative intervention on those that protest the freedom of a man to work.”

“Does Andrew McVean also hold a seat there?”

“No, but his influence might as well equal ten. Now don’t go throwing wine on him again, lass. We’ll take care of it.”

“How?”

“Too inquisitive for a lady,” one of the men growls. “Wellesley, if you keep answering her questions, we’d never get anything done.”

The man with a ponytail pushes back his seat and stands up. He stalks toward me—for a moment I believe he really is going to take me by the nape of my neck and toss me out—but then he stops and scowls down at me.

“We don’ be needing a fine lady barging in and messing wi’ our business. Run along and stick your nose in your needlework.”

A hot flush of anger sweeps over me. Factory owner or laborer, their views toward women are the same. God, I miss the modern world.

Mr. Wellesley coughs. “Now see here, Godfrey, this isn’t your ordinary noble-bred woman. She supported His Highness submitting the eight-hour bill.”

Ponytail Godfrey doesn’t seem much affected. “Eight hours is bit of a drastic start, when the children were working twelve to fifteen hours. The prince ought to have stuck to his original idea.”

“There’s still a chance for an amendment,” Mr. Wellesley says. “Listen, why don’t you continue the discussion on mobilizing the factory towns? I’ll escort the lady outside.”

I do not like the idea of being “escorted” outside (kicked out, more likely), but nor am I inclined to remain in the room with these sexist jerks. Especially when Godfrey shakes his head and mutters, “May the Lord deliver us from the sheltered rich who think they know about the real world.”

I shake off Mr. Wellesley’s hand on my elbow and say icily, “I can find the door, thank you very much.”

He lowers his voice. “Lass, I know it wasn’t very friendly of them, but you cannot help who you are and how you look. You’re a lady of privilege, and even if you’re sympathetic toward the working-class, you have never experienced how it is to be poor and struggling.”

“It’s not the class issue,” I mutter, brushing off some dust on my skirt. “I didn’t hear him criticizing Edward for being part of the sheltered rich. They see me as a useless woman who shouldn’t be poking her nose into public affairs. In their opinion, women aren’t intelligent enough.”

“It is sufficient for you to lend moral support,” Mr. Wellesley says. “See here—we’ve been organizing assemblies and forming unions and gathering petitions for the government. Even if you want to contribute, you can’t put yourself out there in the public sphere.”

“Why not?”

Mr. Wellesley gives me a weird look. “Your mind sure works differently than other young ladies’, that’s for certain. Have you arrived from another planet?”

Ha. Pretty close to the truth.

“Anyway,” his tone is brusque and firm, “there’s little you can do. Best leave the problem to us.”

I resent his patronizing tone and resist the urge to stick my tongue out at him.

“By the way, isn’t the annual flower show opening in a few days? If you didn’t see it last year, I suggest you attend the event. It’ll take your mind off troubling matters. Let that pretty little head of yours have a rest.”

It is then that I realize I’ve been an idiot. Why should I care for the injustices of Story World, when it’s clearly not any of my business? I really should get back to the mission.

 

“I’m sorry you had to do my hair again,” I say as Elle brushes my hair with a deft hand. I had tried doing a few of the hairstyles in fashion, but eventually gave up. My clumsiness extends to my hands as well. It’s evident from how badly I play the piano—my fingers move like sausages over the keys. I’ve improved a little, but nothing can replace years of practice.

I’ve just returned from a morning walk in the park, where I fretted over the impossibilities of going after Duke Henry and nearly ran into a low branch that jutted out from some stupid tree. Still, quite a few leaves found their way into my hair.

“But I like doing your hair.” Elle catches an auburn lock that curls over my collarbone. “It’s so pretty and thick and wavy, like wine-colored silk. Besides, you must change out of your riding clothes, so we might as well redo your hair. Shall I pin a rose near your ear? The roses you got at the shop are so lovely that it would be a pity not to use them.”

I glance at my window. That last time I visited the palace, Edward had insisted on giving me a sample from his private garden. Since I’d told Martha I wanted to get some flowers, I’d decided to accept his gift. The roses grew well, despite the smoke from nearby chimneys and the dust from the street below. I have no idea what kind of roses they are, but Edward sure knows his stuff. They’re huge and crimson-red, with an intoxicating scent.

“But the flowers are so large,” I say. “Won’t I look ridiculous wearing a huge rose in my hair?”

“Absolutely not,” Elle says emphatically. “It’s an elegant touch; it’s not like you’re putting an entire bouquet on your head. Aren’t you going to the royal flower show this afternoon? A flower in your hair will be just the thing. I’ll bet scores of other girls do the same.”

She turns my head slightly to the side so I can see view my hairstyle in the mirror. She has swept my hair into a low chignon at the nape of my neck. The rose rests snugly in the center of the chignon. Honestly, I do look good—I might even pass for a bridesmaid.

Someone knocks on the door. The parlor maid comes in, bearing the silver calling card tray.

“Who can be calling at this hour?” I turn around slowly so as not to mess up my hair. “It’s not even noon yet.” By now, I know that making calls is restricted to the afternoon. Morning calls happen only between close acquaintances, and I doubt I have any friends close enough for that.

“It’s not a calling card,” Elle says, handing me an envelope. The paper quality and color are familiar—I received the same type a month before. Fingers slightly trembling, I open the envelope and slide out the letter within:

My dear Miss Katriona,

Regarding your expressing the desire to tour my library, I regret to inform you that my schedule recently has been quite booked, as medical lectures, practical training, and of course visiting Elle’s family, have taken up most of my time.

However, please do not let my current schedule deny your pleasure in reading. You are very welcome to visit my house and browse the collection at your leisure anytime. I have informed my butler, Thomas, that he may expect you to drop in, and that he should provide assistance with anything you wish.

I remain, faithfully yours,

Henry.

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