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

Previous: TWENTY-NINE
Next: THIRTY-ONE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIRTY

 

 

“SHUT. UP.”

Krev somersaults in the air and blows a raspberry.

“Don’t you think it’s a brilliant idea, girlie? With Eddie being dead gone on you, this looks like the only way to turn his attentions toward Elle.”

But I don’t want him falling for Elle. “Isn’t this considered cheating?”

Krev cackles. “What, you don’t want him to marry Cinderella?”

“I’ll do anything but use a love potion,” I say desperately. “Even if I can’t end up with Edward, he’s still my friend. I can’t do this to him.”

“Sure, but soon you’ll return to your family. A little sneaky manipulation won’t hurt.”

Yeah, I’m sure your morals are impeccable. Still, even if I could bring myself to use this spell di amor of the fairies, how am I going to convince them to give it to me? Not to mention that I still have no clue how to get to Ruby Red.

 

When Bianca and I return from a picnic, Lady Bradshaw sweeps in the dining room, looking like she has won the lottery.

“Girls!” she exclaims, flourishing a large white envelope with an oval-shaped red seal on it. “At last the king and queen have decided to hold the ball! ‘You are cordially invited to the palace ball given by His Royal Highness Edward.’ Bianca dear, we simply must go shopping the first thing tomorrow morning. You need a new dress, slippers, gloves, everything! It is imperative that we do everything so you can catch His Highness’s eye.”

She talks like I’m invisible. I cough to gain their attention. “Does the invitation state that the prince will choose a bride at this ball?”

“Silly child!” Lady Bradshaw sends me a contemptuous glare. “Of course they wouldn’t put something like that on the invitation, but we know the intention of this ball. I wormed from Lady Mansfield the other day that the king and queen had a private meeting with the prince. Edward has agreed to the ball, provided that they honor his choice.”

“It would be highly embarrassing if the message mentioned that the prince was looking for a wife,” Bianca says, also sending me an identical look of contempt.

Yeah, that does sound like Edward. It’s like putting an ad on Match.com, only he totally doesn’t need to. I wonder why in the original fairy tale the prince allows his messenger to broadcast to the entire kingdom that he’s in need of a wife. Sounds too desperate for a royal.

“Dance with me, Kat,” he had said, with such a hopeful look in his eyes. I take a sip of coffee and grimace at the bitter taste; the cook must have over brewed it today.

Lady Bradshaw clears her throat. “No matter what, we must outfit your wardrobe for this ball as soon as possible. I’ll sell the family jewels. Once you’re queen, you shall have the finest carriages and clothes in the nation. Oh, and you also, Katriona,” she says, as though it just occurred to her that I exist. “Do not give up on Duke Henry yet. Although the duchess has attempted to introduce him to a few ladies, so far he has not agreed to have tea with any of them a second time.”

My reluctance must show on my face, because she folds her arms and says, “I’ve had enough of your sulking in the corner, Katriona. Bear in mind that your utmost duty is to make a brilliant match. Although you pale in comparison to your sister, as long as you keep out of her way at the ball, there is still a chance that someone else will notice you. As far as I am concerned, your gauche behavior is more at fault than your face.”

So that’s how I am dragged to High Street the very next day. When Bianca enters the clothing store, every dressmaker’s gaze is turned toward her. Maybe it’s the announcement of the ball and thus the prospect of becoming queen—she seems even more beautiful than when I first saw her. Her eyes sparkle like black jewels, her figure is slim yet curved at the right places, her manner is as graceful and confident as any queen’s.

I am almost bored to tears as the dressmakers fuss over Bianca, complimenting her face, her hair, her figure.

“A dress for the ball, madame? Ah, this one will certainly stand out among them all!”

When it’s my turn, the enthusiasm is more lukewarm. And since I don’t look terribly enthusiastic either, the process is quicker.

“Ow!” I yelp when the dressmaker tightens the measuring tape around my ribs. “I can’t breathe if you make the dress that tight!”

“Then you shall spend the whole month on bread and water,” Lady Bradshaw says, her tone frosty. “Really, Katriona, how many times have I told you not to touch dessert? I must have a word with Martha when we return.”

“But I can’t dance if I can’t breathe,” I say.

“You’ll manage. If every other young lady can slim down, there is no reason why you cannot accomplish the same.”

In what seems like a hundred years, we’re done. Bianca announces she has to purchase new shoes. I refuse.

“I don’t need any high-heeled slippers,” I say. “If I have to dance half-starved, I’ll certainly trip and fall over.”

“Do not use that tone with me!” Lady Bradshaw glares. “Fine, then. At least few people will notice your feet. Come, Bianca dear. We’d better take a strip of that dress material to ensure the colors will match your shoe.”

While they go shoe-hunting, I wander aimlessly down the street, pondering how much magic Krev can perform in order to help me sneak away to Ruby Red. But if he had a lot of power to begin with, then I wouldn’t have gone through so much trouble.

I give a huge, dramatic sigh and turn round a corner. Discordant sounds—sounds of hollering and yelling—reach my ears. Before me lies a long, narrow street that’s teeming with people. Judging from the smart yet neat style of their clothes, my guess is they consist mostly of the middle-class.

“Miss?” A pasty-faced young man hands me a yellow pamphlet with black bold printing. “Care to take a look at our campaign?”

I take the paper and almost drop it. The headline reads, The Curse of the Factory System. My report, complete with the twelve interviews, occupies the front page and the next. A few places are edited—I’ve made some spelling and grammatical errors—but all the gruesome, horrifying details are kept intact.

“It’s all over the headlines now,” the young man tells me. “Don’t suppose you’ve read the story of the miserable fate of those children working in factories?”

Of course I have. ‘Cause I wrote it. I look for my name, but it isn’t printed with the report. Only something like “An investigator has visited the factory and conducted a series of interviews…” is revealed in the first paragraph.

At the end of the street, the people are densely packed around an elevated platform. The few men who stand on the stage look familiar—a man turns around and his ponytail reminds me of Godfrey. Actually, it is Godfrey!

“We are here,” Godfrey bellows, “to declare that no more blood shall be shed! We are here to protest that the murderers of our children shall not be allowed to carry on with their killings!”

Cheers rise from the crowd.

“Well said!”

“No more killings!”

Godfrey continues, “You have all read the report, which faithfully records what our little ones have been suffering. Tell me, do you want the future of our kingdom to grow up in this hellhole? Or to not even be able to reach adulthood?”

“NO!” The crowd shouts. A few punctuate their passion with fists raised in the air.

“Do you agree it is murder to work a child more than twelve hours a day?”

“YES!”

“Do you agree a law must be made to prevent more injuries, more killings?”

“YES!”

The other men beside Godfrey—familiar faces I recognize from Mr. Wellesley’s shop—start distributing stacks of paper.

“Then I urge you,” Godfrey shouts, “to sign this petition, so we can convey our fury to the government! Let our voices be heard! Let the cruelty be stopped!”

My eyes fill up. When I wrote the report, I only wanted to do what I could to help. But even then I hadn’t expected the impact would be this big.

As the petitions are circulated and the crowds scramble for pens, another voice comes over the noise.

“Excuse me sir.” A man dressed in an immaculate black suit mounts the stage. “I beg to question the veracity of this report.”

Godfrey regards him with slanted eyes. “What have you to say?”

“Since you ask,” the man says. “How are you to prove that everything written in this report is true? For one thing, all the children are given false names.”

“That is to protect their identities,” Godfrey growls. “A precaution never hurts.”

“Then what of the author?” The man wags his finger. “Is he a coward who writes inflammatory material, yet does not bother to sign his name? If the plight is truly as miserable as you say, then how was the author able to visit the factory and interview so many children in one afternoon, when they’re supposed to be working and there is an overseer to supervise their activities?”

“Are you saying the report is a pack of lies?” Godfrey’s face is now livid.

“I didn’t mean to imply that, sir,” the man says, though his expression is smug. “I only mean to say that the report seems to exaggerate, and that the questions are put, may I say, phrased in a way to incite sympathy for the children.”

Godfrey looks furious. He grabs the man by his collar and growls, “Exaggerated, is it? Why don’t we go down to the factory together and see for yourself?”

“No!” I shout. If Godfrey hits the guy, then it’ll reflect badly on the petition for support. “Don’t hit him, Godfrey!” Then, when heads swerve in my direction, I take a deep breath. “Sir, I can assure you that everything written is true. Because I wrote the report.”

Silence. The pasty-faced man near me drops the stack of pamphlets he’s distributing. Murmurs run through the crowd and some are even laughing.

“A young lady conducting an interview?”

“Is she out of her mind?”

I push through the crowd until I reach the platform. It’s probably a stupid thing to do, but I can’t let this chance slip by. I can’t afford to let seeds of doubt be planted in the audience, just when they’re willing to sign the petitions.

“A little boy I knew died from working in Andrew McVean’s factory. Half of his head and shoulder was crushed from the machine when he rolled beneath it to collect leftover cotton,” I say. A few gasps from the women. “His mother just recovered from a severe illness and has medical bills pending. But there is no compensation. She couldn’t even afford the funeral.” More gasps from the crowd. The man in the black suit looks like he wants to say something, but I send him a glare.

“So I wanted to do something. I could have just done a charitable deed and paid for the funeral, but I know that’s only a temporary solution. I didn’t want more children suffering. So I decided the best way would be to expose the reality to the public.” My heart pounds furiously and my throat itches, but I force myself to continue speaking. “I went to the factory. I knocked out the overseer, Mr. Tolliver, with my umbrella.”

Someone snorts. Although the faces remain sympathetic, many of them also have eyebrows raised. They don’t believe I could take out a full grown man. But I can’t tell them about Krev.

I raise my voice, trying to sound more confident, more strong. “Of course, I didn’t succeed on my first try. It took three beatings on the head and him slipping in the mud.”

A few of them smile. Encouraged, I continue, “Then I told the children to halt the steam power so we could conduct the interviews without the machines running. They were frightened, but also eager to have a respite from working. The older ones were able to talk, but most of them simply fell asleep. That shows how tired they were.

“It’s a horrible place, the factory. It’s so humid and warm that the sweat pours down your back. The air is terrible because there’s a hundred people crammed in one big room with machines running. I don’t think I could stand being in there for one hour, but children about this high—” I gesture at my elbow “and this thin—” I depict a length that the most severe corset can produce, “are forced to work there for at least twelve hours, sometimes up to sixteen, a day. Not to mention at risk of their lives! I saw the machines move like huge, whirling monsters. One wrong move, and you can lose a finger, a limb, or even your head.” I shudder at the memory. “It’s a nightmare,” I add, my voice softening. But since the crowd is practically silent, I’m sure they heard every word.

“I, Katriona Bradshaw, stepdaughter of Earl Bradshaw, swear that everything I’ve said is true. If you have one ounce of sympathy in you, I urge you to help us pass the new bill that reduces the working hours to eight a day. I…I don’t ever want to see a dead child again.”

My courage fails me. I slip off the platform and make my way through the crowd. A few people try to speak to me, but I shake my head and break into a run. Only a brief moment on that platform, and I’m mentally drained. My forehead is damp with cold sweat, my palms slick and moist.

Oh, why did I have to go and behave like an idiot, blabbing my involvement up there? What will the aristocratic circle say when the story gets out? Lady Bradshaw is going to hang me from the chimney!

I didn’t know that retribution was coming for me only a moment later.

Previous: TWENTY-NINE
Next: THIRTY-ONE