“You can’t be serious!”
Krev must have enchanted the room. Either that, or I really am in a dream, considering how loud I’m yelling. I’ve never yelled in my life except on one occasion of life and death. When I was younger than Paige, Mom took me to the pool. Even though I had done my best to listen to the trainer, I still sputtered and clawed and flailed and yes, yelled at the top of my voice.
To this day I can still remember that horrible, helpless feeling, of water clogging up my nose and ears and mouth, of grabbing wildly for something solid but all I got were fistfuls of water.
This could rival the day I nearly drowned.
“You can’t do this to me!” I shout. “I want to go home! Now!”
I continue to shout, but he simply grins.
“The king never expected this would happen either. He’s extremely curious to see how you’re going to complete the story, so you’d better give him a good show. Later!”
Cackling with fiendish glee, Krev jumps into the air and vanishes. It happens too fast—one second he’s still grinning like a madman and the next there is only thin air.
Complete darkness reigns.
I bolt up in bed. It is then that I realize that my conversation with Krev had been a dream, but I am still trapped in Story World. The world of Cinderella.
I reach out and touch the velvet curtain hanging over the four-poster bed. Heavy, thick, luxuriant. I trace a finger over the golden embroidery.
This can’t be real.
I leap off the bed and hiss when my bare feet slap on the floor. I’ve missed the round fur rug lying at the foot of my bed. Brr…it’s cold in here. The fire in the grate has long died out. Only a heap of ashes remain.
Now with morning light streaming in the window, I can see much better. This is definitely not my plain, messy bedroom crowded with books and notes. A birch-wood washstand stands on the right side of the bed, complete with a basin, towel, and ceramic pitcher. There is a dressing table littered with perfume bottles, a jewelry box, needlework doilies, a pincushion, a sachet of dried flowers, two brushes and a comb. Way too feminine for my taste.
I pass the fireplace, complete with a coal scuttle, a fire screen, and a wide mantelpiece draped with a floral print linen cloth. On the mantelpiece sit a shepherdess figurine made of blue china, a bowl of wax fruit, a large pink seashell, and a clock encased in glass. The face of the clock shows the time with two hands: just a little over eight in the morning. In front of the fireplace is a chair with a velvet wrap hanging on the back of it. I fling it around my shoulders and tiptoe to the window.
My stomach hardens and I grip the window sill—only to snatch my hand back because it’s icy cold. Across from the building I’m located in is a row of yellow-brick townhouses, all of them at least three stories high. An iron fence surrounds the building. A carriage, pulled by four horses, rolls slowly over the street. I can even see the long whip the driver is carrying. No matter how much I want to deny this—with sinking horror I realize I am living in a weird new dimension.
This can’t be happening! There must be some mistake! I want to go home!
I spin around, shake my head, and blink hard. Still the same room, with the fireplace and four poster bed.
“No…” I whisper. I press my hands to the sides of my face and sink to the cold, hard floor. My limbs feel numb, my mind completely blank. I don’t know how long I sit curled up in a fetal position with no idea what to do, when there comes a frantic knock on the door.
The girl with the heart-shaped face bursts in, carrying a large jug, a pail, and some flannel cloths.
“Miss Katriona!” she gasps, dipping into a brief curtsy. “I am so, so sorry that I’m late this morning. Miss Bianca’s needing a new hairstyle, and I couldn’t do it up to her satisfaction.”
The first page of the book pops up in my head. The girl, with her long honey-colored hair hanging in a braid down her back and dressed in a black cap and white apron, looks remarkably similar to Cinderella in the picture.
Oh my God, this girl has to be Cinderella. I’ve found her.
“Miss Katriona?” Cinderella says softly, plucking at her apron strings. “Are you mad at me?”
It takes like two seconds before my brain registers that I am now Katriona, not Kat.
“Um, don’t worry about it,” I say, waving my hand. “I just spaced out for a moment.”
Now her forehead puckers. “Spaced out?”
Oops. I guess their language differs a lot from modern American. “Nothing. I just wanted to say I’m not mad at all.”
Seeing that she has set the jug on the dresser, I move toward her. This ancient room without central heating is still making me shiver. Steam rises from the jug, and I could do with a hot cup of water.
“Excuse me, but did you forget the cups?”
“Cups?” Her eyes widen.
“Yeah,” I say, and mentally punch my brain. From now on, only ‘Yes’ shall pass my lips. “I’m rather thirsty. If it’s not too much trouble, can you get me a cup?”
She looks at me like I’m crazy. Did I say something wrong again? My stomach flutters and there’s still a slight throbbing in my head.
It seems hours until she opens her mouth. “This water is for your daily wash, Miss Katriona. It’s not meant for consumption.”
“Maybe we should ask for a doctor. It seems that your memory has been deeply affected by that fall down the stairs.”
“No!” I quickly say. If I have to finish the story, I don’t want to be labeled a lunatic. “I’m fine, I just need a little time. I...er...my memory will heal soon. Really.”
“If you insist.” She still looks doubtful. “Does your head still hurt? I can bring you some salve.”
Actually there’s still a dull pain, but the less trouble the better. “No, don’t trouble yourself.”
Cinderella starts pouring water from the jug into this large bowl on the dressing table. Curls of steam rise from the bowl. She then dips the flannel cloth into the water, wrings it, takes a bar of soap, and looks at me expectantly. Since I don’t dare ask more questions, in case she thinks I’m really crazy and goes for a doctor, I try to act like I have done this before.
“Your arm, miss.”
She starts to rub the damp cloth with some soap over my right arm, dries it with another cloth, and then starts on my left arm. It’s kind of awkward in the beginning, especially when I have to put out my foot, but she’s so deft and capable that the wash is finished sooner than I expected. She tosses the cloths into the pail, which is now filled with soapy water.
I rack my brains, trying to remember her name. Last night…there was an older servant called Martha, who thought I lost my memory, and then Cinderella told me her name is Elle Thatcher. Got it.
“Um...Elle?” I venture.
“How long have you been working as a servant?”
“For as long as I’ve been here, miss.”
Huh? But Cinderella isn’t born a servant. Isn’t it after her mom or dad dies that the stepmother starts treating her like dirt? I don’t get why she’s acting so respectful and polite and servant-ish toward me. I wonder why she doesn’t resent calling her own stepsister “Miss.” But then, in the story she was always kind of a wimp anyway.
“Don’t you ever resent it? Don’t you mind working as a servant here?”
A slight frown creases her forehead.
“I am not sure what you mean,” she says. “Madam has been generous enough to offer me shelter.”
And then she goes to this armchair on the right side of my bed, where a heap of white garments hang over the back. First I have to put on a cotton gown with a plunging neckline, which Elle calls a chemise. Then comes a knee-length garment I have to pull on up my legs, called “drawers.” Silk stockings go on after the drawers, and these stockings are held in place by garters.
I can’t believe this. Garters. Mom would have a fit if she saw me.
But that isn’t the end. Elle produces a corset that looks like a nightmare. Hourglass in shape, massive steel boning around the ribs, a maze of criss-crossing laces in the back.
“Can we, um, do without that thing?” I whisper. Now I fully understand why Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean detests wearing corsets.
“I beg your pardon?”
Before I repeat my question, Elle slips the corset around me. Surprisingly, it isn’t as tight as I expected. It fits my torso in all the right places, the structure snug but not constricting. While I marvel at the comfort, Elle brings out two petticoats—one of plain white cotton, the other made of silk with frills and lace and flounces along the hem.
By this time, I’m sure I look like a snowman.
Elle goes to the wardrobe and opens it. My jaw drops on the floor. A sea of silk and velvet, patterned and embroidered, dazzles me. Gorgeous dresses, all of them trimmed with lace, sewn with pearls, adorned with bows. I feel like an ugly duckling offered a chance to be a swan.
“Here, miss.” Elle pulls out a shimmering dress of silver-lined silk. The hem of the dress actually trails several yards on the floor, making it look more like a wedding dress.
“Um...I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“But you have etiquette lessons today,” Elle says. “Master Pierre has instructed that a longer dress should be used for simulating your presentation to the queen.”
Presentation? To the queen? What am I getting myself into?
At first I’m awkward having someone to help me dress, but the gown looks so expensive and fragile, I don’t want to damage it with my clumsiness. A layer of gauze covers the skirt. Pearl buttons run down the front. Furthermore, when I glimpse Elle lacing up my back, I know there’s no way I could do it by myself. There must be a hundred hooks on the bodice! When she’s finally done, I position myself in front of the mirror. I don’t look bad—it’d be hard to appear ugly in such a lovely gown, but how am I to walk in it?
“ELLE!” Another voice penetrates the air—shrill, angry, demanding. “Where did you misplace my pearl necklace? I can’t find it anywhere!”
“Coming!” Elle gives the sash a final tug, securing it round my waist. “Miss Bianca is needing me. I’ll be back later to do your hair.”
Bianca. That must be the other stepsister...oops, my sister now. Hearing that bossy voice travel through the wall, I’m not too eager to meet her.
“Don’t worry about it.” I reach for the brush. I may not know how to put on this awfully long dress, but I know how to brush my own hair. “I can manage myself. Thank you, Elle.”
She gives me a bemused look. “Did you just thank me?”
“Because you helped me dress?” I say, bemused as well. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
She frowns slightly. “But I’m a servant and you never...um, never mind. You’re welcome, Miss Katriona.”
Judging from Bianca’s demanding tone, I guess Elle never expects us to express gratitude. Geez. I suppose this is a different world (I bet their constitution doesn’t say all men are created equal), but is it that difficult to say a simple ‘Thank you?’
I move toward the dressing table so I can sit and brush my hair in front of the mirror. I step on the hem of my gown—I wobble—I grab the bedpost for support.
Geez. Being a noble lady is as hard as the stories say.