When I left, all I could think about was finding a place less crowded. Unsurprisingly, I got lost in the maze of streets and alleys. I find myself in an area with a rather dingy-looking pub—this looks a far cry from the fancy shops that Lady Bradshaw dragged us to. Panicking, I look around and try to figure out which way I should go. Just moments earlier, I wanted nothing more than to leave the cramped shoe shop, but now I’d kiss the window panes.
A violent push on my back sends me sprawling on the ground.
“Ow!” My chin and elbows hurt from smacking on the hard surface. I make an effort to get up, but then a boot kicks into my side, right above the hips.
“Meddlesome wrench!” A voice bellows. Still reeling from pain, my gaze follows the boot to the person wearing it. Stout figure, pointy chin, and a scar running down his right arm. Talk about coincidence. The overseer, Mr. Tolliver, towers over me, his eyes bloodshot and burning with rage as he brandishes a bottle in the air.
“Because of you,” Tolliver spits his words like venom, “I’ve lost everything. Everything!” He grabs my arm and yanks me toward him. He reeks of alcohol, his breath sickly and stinking.
I struggle as hard as I can, but his grip is like iron. Still, I twist and squirm—there’s a bottle in his hand, for Gods’ sake! If he cracks it over my head, I’m done for. For a second, a question flashes through my mind: can I actually die in Story World?
“Let me go!” I yell. “Get away from me!”
“Not till I’ve taught yer a lesson,” he snarls, raising his bottle. “Teach yer not to go poking your nose where it doesn’t belong…”
He stops. Like a deflated balloon, he sinks to the ground, unconscious. The bottle hits the ground with a resounding thunk and shatters into several pieces.
It’s Bertram, Edward’s personal attendant with the body build of a gorilla and a sweet face that still has baby fat. Right now, he looks more like King Kong than an angel. There’s this menacing expression on his face as he lowers a meaty fist. I actually take a step backward.
“Lady Kat.” He strides toward me. “My deepest apologies that I didn’t arrive earlier.”
“How did you find me?” I look around, wondering if Edward is also here, but apparently only Bertram has come.
“It’s my day off, lady. I was just having a pint over there,” he nods at the pub, “when I heard someone yelling. Then I thought my heart was going to jump out from my throat. If something happened to you, His Highness would feed my flesh to the dogs. You’re all right, are you not? I’ll take you to the doctor’s right away.”
“I’m fine,” I say, though I can’t repress a shudder when seeing those broken pieces of glass on the ground. “I’ve got to head back though. I was out shopping with my mother and Bianca.”
“Getting a new dress for the ball?” Bertram grins, then wags a finger at me. “You oughtn’t bother, when His Highness is clean swept off his feet. Never saw him so bewitched before, as it was usually the girls throwing themselves at him.”
I choose not to reply.
“Ah, but I’m embarrassing you, ain’t I? Now, let’s get you back before your family starts worrying.” Bertram grabs Mr. Tolliver and slings him over the shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “Got to deliver this scum to the nearest constable. Can’t have him lurking around and attacking you again.”
When we’re back on the main street, I’m relieved to see Bianca and Lady Bradshaw emerging from a jewelry store.
“Thanks a million,” I tell Bertram. “You saved my life today.”
“Don’t mention it, Lady Kat. Soon you’re to be part of the royal family, so I’m just starting my job a bit early.”
I can’t have him blabbing out my relationship with Edward in public, so I quickly thank him again and turn away.
“Katriona!” Lady Bradshaw adjusts her spectacles. “Who’s the young man you were talking to?”
“He appears to be in the prince’s service,” Bianca says, her eyes narrowed. “Since when did you make the acquaintance of a servant of the prince?”
“Oh, so he works for the prince?” I pretend to be confused. “I just dropped my handkerchief and he picked it up for me.” To divert their attention from Bertram, I add, “so did you buy anything that’s fit for a princess?”
Lady Bradshaw sniffs. “Hardly anything worth purchasing is left. It must be the ball. All the young ladies with the means have raided the store.”
I fight to contain a grin. Anything that goes badly for Bianca is a plus for me.
Soon, however, I am back to pacing the floor and trying not to rip my hair out. I still don’t have a plan for leaving the house and embarking on a quest for the fairies. I have no idea how to escape. I can’t engage Van to drive me this time, no matter how I might bribe or threaten him. Not to mention I’m scared of traveling alone. Even though I’m pretty used to Athelia by now, making a week-long journey by myself is pure terror.
What if robbers attack the carriage? What if I’m kidnapped and raped and my corpse is left to rot in some deserted forest?
Geez, Kat. You sure have a morbid imagination.
“Miss Katriona,” Martha pokes her head inside. “Miss Poppy has come to see you.”
One glance at Poppy tells me something is wrong. Her eyes are swollen, and she seems to be fighting back a deluge of tears.
I spring up and make her sit down. “Martha, get her some hot chocolate. With plenty of milk.”
Then I hang up her coat and gloves, find a clean hanky, and pull up a stool facing her.
“Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
One big fat tear rolls down her cheek.
“Is it about Mr. Davenport?”
Her lip quivers and she starts to cry. I just sit still and let her be. When Martha brings the chocolate, I simply put it on the dresser and tell her to shut the door.
“I…I wrote home and told them about Jonathan,” Poppy says, still drying her tears. “Today I got a letter from Papa. He’s FURIOUS, Kat. He says he expected more of me than to develop an attraction for a tradesman. And he’s coming to the capital to take me home.”
“That’s awful.” I pat her on the back. “I’m really sorry to hear about that. I guess because Mr. Davenport isn’t good enough for him?”
“Jonathan is better than any of those rich and titled peacocks I met,” Poppy says fiercely. “I don’t care if he’s only a solicitor. He earns an honest living on his own. Most dukes and earls haven’t worked one day in their lives.”
I’m tempted to pump her hand up and down and yell “You go, girl!” but I just nod. Mentally she has my support, but I can’t ignore practical matters. Mom married Dad due to a fit of wild passion, and look how that turned out.
“Poppy, suppose you two get married. Marriage brings responsibility. There’ll be bills to pay. The house mortgage, water and electri—I mean, water and coal. Three meals a day. And if you have a baby, that’ll mean a lot more bills. Have you thought about those problems?”
Poppy looks impressed. “Kat, you know a lot about housekeeping.”
“Not that much,” I say hastily. “Anyway, did you discuss that with Davenport?”
“He’s calculated everything. We must live modestly, which means I can’t afford to buy a new dress every week, and there’ll be no parties or soirees.”
“And what did you say?”
“‘Thank God for that,’” Poppy said, grinning. “At first I loved going out to the theater and balls, but now I’m tired of the Season and honestly speaking, I’m more used to simple life. I’d rather be asleep at a decent hour than dragging my sore feet to bed at three in the morning.”
“Okay. As long as he’s willing to support you. So when your father arrives, Davenport will try to convince him?”
“I am not sure we can risk it.” Poppy looks down on her hands. “Papa can be an awful tyrant. He wrote that if I can’t marry above my station, then he’ll arrange for me to marry my cousin Wilkie, rather than let an outsider get his paws on my dowry.”
Poppy nods. “Wilkie isn’t as intolerable as Algernon, but he’s such a bore. He holds no affection for me either, but he’ll take me if Papa tells him to. So I told Davenport that the only way I can avoid Papa and Wilkie is to elope. We’ll go to Ruby Red.”
I almost knock over my mug of hot chocolate. “You’re kidding.”
“What did you say?” Poppy looks confused.
“Er…you can’t be serious.”
“Kat, you are the one who suggested we elope.”
“Yes, but I didn’t really believe that you would listen to me.”
Poppy takes my hand and holds it with both of hers. “Kat, can I ask you a huge favor?”
“If I can help you…of course,” I stammer. She looks so serious.
“Can I ask you to come and be our witness at our wedding?”
I can’t freakin’ believe it. “Me?”
“Because the law now states that the witness in any wedding that takes place in Ruby Red must be a non-native, unless the witness is directly related to the couple. There have been too many people running off to Ruby Red in order to do without parental permission. Davenport asked his friends, but most of them are hard pressed to give up an entire week of work. And then I heard from one of your servants that the late Earl Bradshaw has an estate near Ruby Red…well, I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind taking a trip back.” Poppy bites her lip and knots her fingers on her lap. “Sorry, Kat. I realize it’s a tall order and your mother probably wouldn’t approve—”
“I’ll go.” This offer can’t have come at a better time.
Her eyes go round and wide. “Really, Kat? Positively sure?”
“A trip to the estate sounds nice,” I say, trying not to appear too eager. Seriously, this is my only chance to find the fairy godmother. “I’ve had enough socializing for a while as well. A change of scenery will do me good. So, when do we leave?”
A determined look comes into Poppy’s eyes. “In two days. We must disappear before Papa finds us.”
After Poppy leaves, I summon Martha. I tell her in hushed tones about my plans and ask her to help me pack for a week’s journey. She takes it more calmly than I expected.
“I suspected you were planning to leave; I heard ya when Miss Poppy came last time. But aren’t you going to inform Madam?”
I ponder the possibility of Lady Bradshaw forbidding me to leave. Yeah, it’s very likely.
“I’ll leave her a note,” I say. “I’m sure she can do without me for a week.”
Martha purses her lips. Just then, the parlor maid comes in with a message. My heart beats fast when I recognize the royal insignia.
“Come to the palace,” the note reads. “Important news awaits.”
It’s signed by the prince.