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

Previous: TWENTY-EIGHT
Next: THIRTY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TWENTY-NINE

 

 

The ball.

It’s finally happening.

Cinderella will be going. The prince will ask her to dance with him. The happy ending is nigh.

Yeah, right. Who am I kidding? If I don’t do something to influence Edward and Elle, it’ll more likely turn out that Henry claims all the rest of Elle’s dances, while Edward focuses his attention on me. Heck, if his parents told him to choose a bride, just like in the fairy tale, he might even propose!

Edward. He is everything a fairy tale prince should be, everything a girl could ask for. Smart, sympathetic, sexy as hell. His concern for me—slightly domineering but forgivable, given his status and Athelia’s old-fashioned concept of women—is simply sweet. Every time he smiles at me, every time he touches me, every time he tries to show me he cares, my heart melts a little.

I love him. When it occurs to me that I’ll open the ball with him but can’t end up with him, I want to curl up in bed and cry. Elle, despite all her sweetness and loveliness, doesn’t love him. Why oh why did I make such a mess of the fairy tale?

Martha enters my room, carrying a pear-shaped ceramic vase overflowing with violets and lavender and star flowers.

“Another of Miss Bianca’s suitors,” she says briskly, setting the vase on my nightstand. “We’ve already filled two vases from that enormous bouquet he sent. If this carries on, we’ll have enough to set up a flower stand.”

I force a laugh. The hollow sound makes Martha pause.

“Are you all right, miss? You look like you just woke up from a nightmare.”

“I’m fine,” I say automatically. “Nothing to worry about. Seriously.”

She misinterprets my gloominess, perhaps because of Bianca’s bouquet. “The time for you will come, miss. You ain’t such a looker as your sister, but you’ve got a heart. When a young man chooses you over your sister, you’ll know his feelings are real.”

There’s no point arguing with her; I simply smile and assure her I’m not worried about my marriage prospects.

When Martha is gone, I glance at the vase. My room does look nicer, what with Edward’s roses on my window sill and now this fancy bouquet. A forest nymph is painted over the vase, her hair wreathed in leaves. It reminds me of the vase at the Mansfield dinner party.

I bolt up. Lady Gregory had talked about how fairies on the vase come alive and play when humans are asleep. Can there be the tiniest possibility that she knows how to summon a fairy? Right now it will take a miracle to get Elle and Edward together. I really, really need some magical intervention.

It won’t be easy, though. She’s Lord Mansfield’s aunt, and given what a party pooper I was at their dinner, I doubt the Mansfields would be happy to receive me. Maybe they’ll shut the door in my face before I’m allowed to see Lady Gregory.

I fret for some time, pacing in the room, until I shake my head and laugh. I’ve visited Andrew McVean’s factory and knocked out a man (Krev helped me, but he wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t made the first move) and interviewed a dozen factory children. Visiting Lady Gregory is a piece of cake. And judging from her friendliness toward me, maybe she’ll be willing to share any insider information she has about fairies.

 

“The lord and lady are currently away,” the doorman says when I arrive at the doorstep of the Mansfield mansion.

“That’s no problem. It’s Lady Gregory I would like to call on.” I hand the doorman my card. Ever since Henry sent me that invitation specifically addressed to me, Lady Bradshaw has allowed me to have my own calling cards. I don’t enjoy paying calls, but it is kind of satisfying, not having to rely on Bianca like an appendage.

The doorman returns in a minute. “She’ll receive you in her room, lady. If you’d follow me, please.”

Lady Gregory’s room is small and actually wouldn’t look out of place in any of the nicer bed-and-breakfast inns in the modern world. Pale blue wallpaper dotted with daisies, white-framed pictures, the rug and bedspread of warm pastel colors. It’s quaint and comfy and also rather out of place, compared to the splendor of other parts of the house.

“I hope you don’t mind being here instead?” Lady Gregory says affably. “I was in the middle of crocheting a pair of woolen stockings for my great-great nephew, and it bothers me to carry the basket and pins back and forth.”

“Oh no, not at all,” I say. Somehow she reminds me of Miss Marple.

“Do sit in that chair if you’d like,” Lady Gregory says, pointing to a low sofa draped with a bright multi-colored spread. “Yes, I made the spread myself. It’s one of the few things I can occupy myself with at my age. Would you like a cup of tea?”

I’m not really into tea, but I don’t feel like refusing. Besides, tea means a chance for a longer talk.

“Yes, please,” I say politely, using what I’ve learned in etiquette. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Oh, of course not, my dear. Two cups, then. And bring the scones Cook baked the other day, if the others haven’t gobbled them all up.” She quirks an eyebrow at me. “The scones are heavenly. One bite can make you forget all the troubles in the world.”

The sofa is just as comfortable as it looks. I sink into the seat, enjoying how deep and enveloping it is. “Really nice room you have here,” I say, meaning it.

“Thank you, dear,” Lady Gregory smiles. “See that bag hanging by the door? I also made it, and it won first prize at last year’s Ladies’ Crocheting Society’s annual show.”

We talk about her crocheting and other inconsequential stuff until the butler returns with the tea and scones. Lady Gregory dips her hands in the finger bowl and dries with a napkin, as daintily as if she were seventeen.

“Now, dear,” she says, with the air of our school guidance counselor. “What is it you wish to talk to me about?”

“Well…” I begin hesitantly, “I was wondering about your mention of fairies at the dinner party.”

“Ah yes, how well I remember. A most entertaining party it was.”

I flush, but am relieved that she merely looks amused.

“This is just asking out of curiosity, but do you know how to find a fairy?”

Her hand pauses in midair. “Find…a fairy?”

“I…well, to tell the truth, I’m under a curse,” I blurt. If it were anyone else, I wouldn’t have confessed, but she’s so friendly and seems to know so much more than meets the eye, that I can’t help it. “To break the curse, I’ve got to help El—a friend. But I can’t do it on my own. I need help—help from a fairy.”

She tilts her head. “Fairies are stringent with their magic,” she says in a low voice. She doesn’t question anything about the curse or Elle.

“This one won’t be,” I say quickly, though I’m not sure of it. “I have heard that this fairy is my friend’s godmother.”

“Then why do you need to seek this fairy, if you’re certain she will help your friend?”

“I’ve no idea why the fairy godmother hasn’t shown up, but I’ve only recently learned she is in the mountains near Ruby Red.”

It’s all pure guesswork that I gathered from what Martha told me. But apparently I’m on to something. Lady Gregory’s teacup crashes on the table. Hot tea spills over the white crocheted spread. Alarmed, I grab the napkins and dab furiously over the spread, but it’s too late.

“There, there, it doesn’t matter,” Lady Gregory says. “It’ll have to be washed. About your question, though…”

She gets this faraway look in her eyes. For a second, if you just look into her eyes and ignore the lines on her face, she looks like a young girl.

“I haven’t told anyone before, because no one will believe me, but I think you can understand. You are aware that I am a spinster?”

I shake my head.

“That’s what everyone thinks; I’m this old matronly woman who crochets all day long,” Lady Gregory smiles. “But in fact, I was married for fifteen years. To Lysander, my fairy husband.”

I choke on my scone. “Married to a fairy? Then when—why—”

“I left him,” she says simply. No bitterness, no angst, just stating a fact. “But I don’t regret it. Nor do I regret those years—they have given me the loveliest memories to cherish. I wouldn’t trade my fifteen years with Lysander for fifty years with the king of Athelia.

“I was seventeen, young and reckless. I was traveling to Ruby Red with my childhood sweetheart. He was the son of our local vicar, so you understand my parents were vehement in opposing our marriage. In fact, I was the one to persuade him to run away with me. On the way, we were unfortunately raided by robbers. My lover was killed. I plunged my dagger into the robber who murdered him, but the others swarmed around me. I was all prepared to die before I surrendered my honor, when a flash of light appeared in the air. He was tall, long-haired, with an ethereal beauty that doesn’t belong to this world. I never saw anything so beautiful.”

Lady Gregory sips on her tea. An image of the elves in Lord of the Rings comes to my mind.

“I was badly hurt, so he brought me back to the fairies’ den. We fell in love, Lysander and I. Since my relationship with my family was tenuous and strained, I was content to marry him and let them believe I was dead. We had fifteen gloriously happy years—until I discovered my first silver hair in the mirror.”

I have an inkling of what she is going to say, but I keep quiet.

“Fairies don’t age. You may argue that there are couples in which the wife is older, but how would it look when I was fifty and he still looked twenty? When I passed away while he lived on forever?”

It really is like Lord of the Rings. Only the roles of Arwen and Aragorn are reversed.

“Lysander begged me to stay. He said his body might look young, but in heart and mind he was older than me. I even heard someone suggest to him that he use a spell di amor.”

My ears prick up. “A love potion?”

“Not quite, but close. Instead of drinking a potion, you rub this magical powder on your thumb, or whichever finger you like. Whoever you touch will instantly fall in love with you. Whatever you say, he will do it.”

My eyes grow wide. Sounds kind of creepy.

Lady Gregory nods. “You understand it’s not a desirable condition to be in. I was determined, if Lysander dared to use it on me, I’d run away at first opportunity. But he was only silent for a while, and refused. He would rather have me leave of my own volition than stay in a body controlled by magic. I nearly stayed, but in the end I couldn’t. Whenever I looked in the mirror, I was reminded of every new wrinkle, every line on my face. So I told him I had to say farewell.”

Her voice softens; she looks down on her hands, wrinkled and papery.

“Wasn’t there any problem when you came back?” I can’t help asking.

“To my advantage, time passes a great deal faster in fairy land,” she says. “When I returned to the mountains, I found that only two weeks had passed here. It works out to be a day here for a fairy year.”

“So…” I process everything that I’ve learned so far. “So do you know how to get back? Can you still remember?”

She shakes her head sadly. “I never tried to return. But if you truly wish to go, there might be a way. Can you do me a favor?”

I nod. “If I can manage it.”

Lady Gregory rises and slowly crosses to a chest of drawers beside her bed. From the lowest drawer, she takes out a beautiful carved box with a ruby in the lid. She opens the box and produces the most exquisite bouquet of lilies I have ever seen. They are silvery-white and the contours seem to glow. She removes one lily from the bouquet and hands it to me.

“Take it,” she says, pressing the flower in my hand. It’s cool and soft, like it’s made of silk. “When your carriage passes into the mountains—stop at a source of water, be it a river or pond, and say, ‘Lysander, come to me.’ Perhaps he will appear, and you can inquire of him about the fairy you’re searching for.”

“You never went back?”

“I can’t,” she says softly. “But if you see him, give him this.” From the box, she lifts out a delicate crocheted heart-shaped bag, filled with dried flowers. Two letters, ‘L’ and ‘M’ are crocheted in the middle, entwined with each other. “The ‘M’ stands for Margaret, my name,” she explains. “I’ve always wanted to give it to him, but I never had the courage to go back. Or found someone I trusted, or would believe me, to give it to him. Can you do it for me?”

I want to persuade her to come with me, but I don’t. From her silver-white hair and wrinkled face, I’d put her at sixty at least. Even if Lysander doesn’t mind, I know that Margaret Gregory will.

My hand closes over the bag and lily. “I’ll do it.”

“Thank you, dear,” Lady Gregory smiles. “I wish you the best of luck. I hope you will break this curse and achieve what you wish for.”

I smile back, but I can’t tell her this: part of me doesn’t want to break the curse anymore.

 

It’s clear what I have to do. I must go to Ruby Red.

But how? It’s enough trouble prodding Van awake or bribing him to drive me in the city. How am I going to engage a carriage for several days? Is there a railway system yet? I have no idea how long it’s going to take. Damn, I need Google Earth. More than ever, I miss the modern world.

I stare out the window at the carriages shuttling along the road. I’ve gotten used to taking the carriage, but on a journey that can take days…urgh.

“Hey girlie,” a familiar voice interrupts me. “You’ll lose chunks of your hair if you keep tearing it like that. Dear Eddie wouldn’t like it.”

I whirl on him. “Krev, I need a flying carpet. Or a portkey. Or a wardrobe from Narnia. Anything for long-distance travel, just not via horse-and-carriage.”

“What do I look like to you, the Almighty?” he says waspishly. “What’s gotten into your head?”

“I think I know where the fairy godmother might be. I have to leave the city.” I tell him as fast as I can about everything I’ve learned from Martha and Lady Gregory. I even show him the lily.

Krev looks impressed. His eyes go large and he picks up the lily, turning it over in his grubby little hands. “Looks like you’ve made good progress, girlie. Should go tell the king—”

“Wait a second! There’s still a long way to go—literally. How am I going to get to Ruby Red?”

“No idea. Guess you need to buy a travel guide. And no, don’t look at me like that. I don’t have any power to transport human beings.”

My shoulders slump. So it seems that even if I can make it to Ruby Red, I still need to be gone for days. I wonder how the road is these days. Lady Gregory was mobbed by robbers.

Krev settles on the window sill. “Girlie, you have done more than you think. If that Lady Gregory isn’t lying, you’ll find the fairy godmother soon enough. And I daresay your little problem with Eddie will be taken care of. You don’t need to seduce Duke Henry anymore.”

“What do you mean?” I eye him warily. Krev’s suggestions usually backfire.

“The spell di amor she mentioned.” Krev shows his pointed teeth, his eyes gleaming. “Have Elle use it on Eddie. He’ll fall in love with her, and there’s your happy ending.”

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Next: THIRTY