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

Previous: THIRTY-TWO
Next: THIRTY-FOUR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIRTY-THREE

 

 

“Krev? How long have you been here?”

He settles on the nightstand next to my bed. “Your eyes are as swollen as peaches. What happened, girlie?”

I pull my blanket up to my chin.

“The king’s curious,” Krev presses on. “I’ve seen in the papers that the bill Eddie proposed has just passed today, so you can now focus on your goal. In fact, how are things going between you and Eddie now? Have you convinced him to go for Elle, now that she’s working in the palace?”

“Memory charm,” I blurt. “I need one. I want to erase Edward’s memories of me. I can’t go on like this.”

“Aha! Did Eddie profess his love for you? Did he get on his knees? Did he say something like, ‘O my fair Katriona, put me out of my misery?’”

“Shut up!” I throw my tear-stained pillow at him.

“I guess he did confess his feelings then?” Krev looks gleeful. “Excellent. Morag bet against the king and looks like she won. And since you’ve been bawling, I suppose you refused him as well?”

I glower. “My life is not a stupid bet. Tell your stupid king to change his damned rules. I’ve had enough of them.”

“Calm down, girlie, you don’t want me reporting to the king that you cursed him. He wouldn’t make life for you easier. Besides, you already made huge progress, didn’t you? You still have the power to change Eddie’s mind. You can go find that spell of love and he’ll fall for Cinderella.”

“But Elle doesn’t love him. It’s Henry she wants.”

“Well, get another spell for her then.” Krev shrugs. “Look, you didn’t have to refuse Eddie. You could have just told him you’re looking forward to the ball. He’d have been happy, and then you could have given him the spell during the ball.”

“That’s a dirty trick,” I say. “He deserves to know the truth. I told him I wasn’t from Athelia, and I told him about the curse and the book.”

Krev falls off the dresser. A second later, he rises into the air, his wings flapping.

“YOU DISCLOSED EVERYTHING?” he splutters. “And he believed you?”

I nod. “He told me it accounted for my unusual behavior.”

Krev rolls his eyes. “Did you tell him about the spell that you plan to use on him?”

I don’t speak. It’s heartless of me, I know, but even though I thought Edward deserved to know the truth, I did not have the courage to tell him I planned to dupe him.

I close my eyes for a second. Images of my family, like slideshows on a website, flash through my mind, still vivid as ever. Paige begging me to tell her a story before bedtime. Mom yelling at me and Paige to get up in the morning. The three of us gathered at the television, poking fun at corny lines and stupid commercials.

I’ve got to finish the fairy tale.

 

Our plan to escape is pretty simple. Mr. Davenport hires this carriage, which will pick me up when Lady Bradshaw takes Bianca shopping. Although they agreed upon Bianca’s ball gown yesterday (after a whole hour of arguing), it’s now time to decide on her accessories. I hope they’ll spend the entire morning and even into the afternoon in the shopping district.

I pen a note for Lady Bradshaw, explaining that I’ve gone to the earl’s estate for a trip. After nearly getting attacked by Mr. Tolliver, I want to lie low for a while. It’s a pretty flimsy excuse, but it’ll have to do. Martha promises that she won’t tell Lady Bradshaw where I went, but I doubt it’ll matter. Once it leaks out that Poppy and Mr. Davenport are missing, Claire will definitely report to Bianca.

I touch the lily that Lady Gregory asked me to use to get to Lysander. Although the material has a silk-like texture, the lily itself feels warm, alive, like a real plant. As if I needed proof that magic (other than Krev’s appearance) exists, here it is.

Martha enters my bedroom and flaps an arm at me impatiently. “They’re here, miss! You’d better go down before the rest of the house starts to wonder.”

I sling my bag over my shoulder. “Thanks, Martha. I’ll be back as soon as the wedding is over.”

She nods. “You didn’t forget to bring that extra set of underclothes? And the cashmere shawl? The weather up north may be fickle, even in summer.”

“I’ve got everything packed,” I smile. “I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”

She pats my hand. “Stay safe, miss.”

The carriage awaits at the back door. It looks almost new, being clean and well polished. When I climb in, I notice it’s large enough to hold four people. The cushions aren’t lumpy like the ones in Van’s hansom. It’s nicer than I thought Mr. Davenport could afford. Great. I appreciate the comfort for making this dreadfully long journey.

Inside, Poppy is pale and quiet. She huddles with Mr. Davenport, looking afraid.

“Morning.” I tuck my bag under my feet. “You’ll be fine, Poppy. Think about it. If you didn’t escape in time, your father would have found you and you’d be sent home to prepare for your upcoming marriage with your cousin.”

She straightens. “I’d never marry him. A few days on the road will be easier to tolerate than a lifetime with him.”

Mr. Davenport squeezes her hand and sends me a grateful smile.

“I’ve been worrying that you wouldn’t have the gumption to marry me,” he says, smoothing her hair in a gesture that reminds me of Edward. “There’s still time, you know. Though I can’t answer for the consequences when we’re out of the city.”

Poppy swats his arm. “Stop it, Jonathan. You’re not helping my nerves.”

They argue for a while—nothing volcanic—while I lean back in the seat and try to relax. What also seems like a crazy plan is my suddenly running away.

The carriage rattles on the street until I feel like dozing off. After a while, however, it slows to a halt.

“Is there a traffic jam?” I lift the edge of the curtains.

Davenport also peers out. “We’ve reached the gates. They’ll check on us, make sure we’re not carrying illegal goods, and it’ll be fine. Once we’re out of the city, it’ll be harder for Poppy’s relatives to track her.”

“Illegal products,” Poppy teases him. “You’re a solicitor and look, you’re evading the law itself.”

“Only for you,” he grins. “Anyway, it’s nothing to worry about. We all look respectable enough, the carriage is kept in great order, and they aren’t as strict with the checking when it’s leaving the city.”

We halt. Someone raps on the door. Mr. Davenport gives Poppy and I a warning glance, then he opens the door and sticks his head out.

“I’m taking my sisters back home up north,” he says, in a distinctly different accent. I wonder how he does it.

“Are you Mr. Davenport, by any chance?”

The voice sounds familiar; I peek out the window. Bertram stands among a few burly guards; his eyes light up with recognition when his gaze finds me.

“Finally found you,” he says and makes to climb in. Mr. Davenport plants a hand on his chest firmly. I’ve got to give him points for not being intimidated by Bertram’s enormous frame.

“Sir!” Mr. Davenport says sternly. “Under which law of this country is a stranger is permitted to enter another person’s private property?”

Bertram scratches his head. “I’m here to accompany Miss Katriona on her journey, sir. On His Highness’s orders.”

Now everyone stares at me. I’m dumbstruck as well.

“Mr. Davenport, let him in,” I say. “Let me ask him some questions first.”

“You have seen him in the prince’s service?” Mr. Davenport says.

“Yes.”

At the same time, the other city guards are yelling at us to get moving, as we’re holding up the procession. Bertram enters the carriage and grunts; he is so tall that his head has bumped into the roof. As a result, I am forced to edge to the farthest side of my seat.

“Sorry about that, miss,” Bertram says, unbuckling his sword and laying it beneath his feet. “But His Highness tells me I’ve got to protect you for your whole journey. He has entrusted me to see you safely back, so I ain’t going to mess it up.”

Poppy shoots me an incredulous look that I easily translate into, “You’ve got some explaining to do.”

“Did he…” Heat rushes to my cheeks, so I focus on a spot behind Bertram’s head. “So he told you to wait at the gates?”

Bertram nods, grinning. I guess Edward didn’t tell him about my refusal, or I doubt he’d look so cheerful.

“Say, are you two really heading up to Ruby Red?” He addresses Mr. Davenport and Poppy. “By the name of the king, don’t look so scared. I’ve got orders to look after Lady Kat.”

“Lady Kat?” Poppy interrupts, eyebrows raised.

Bertram grins. “His Highness calls her Kat, so I’ve adopted it. Anyway, as I said, I don’t mean any harm. Besides, I reckon you can use an extra witness at the altar.”

Mr. Davenport still regards him warily. “And how did you know that we were leaving for Ruby Red? You were expecting us to pass the gates, weren’t you?”

Bertram darts a furtive glance at me. I cough. Might as well get it over with.

“Um, sorry, but he wormed it out of me. His Highness, I mean. I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to betray you, but I don’t believe Edward—I mean His Highness—is the kind of person to meddle in private affairs, or I would have warned you.”

“His Highness wanted to invite Lady Kat out to tea today,” Bertram adds. “But since she had agreed to accompany you, he wouldn’t give her peace until she told him she was going to Ruby Red. You needn’t worry about them being overheard, sir, they were in His Highness’s private garden.”

Thank you, Bertram. You’ve been reeeeally helpful.

By now, Poppy is staring at me with her mouth half open. Even Mr. Davenport casts a doubtful glance in my direction.

“Do I have your word that you are accompanying us solely for the protection of Miss Katriona Bradshaw? That in the unlikely case her father pursues us, you will help us escape?”

Bertram holds out his hand. “You can count on me, sir. Actually I should thank you. I’ve always been curious what a Ruby Red wedding is like, and since me mam would hang me if I tried to run away, this is the closest I’ll get.”

We pass the next hour mostly in harmless chatter about the weather and travel. I can tell Poppy is bursting with curiosity; she’s twisting her handkerchief until it looks like a crumpled rag, and she keeps looking in my direction but refrains from speaking.

Once we stop for a drink of water and let the horses rest, Poppy grabs my arm and pulls me away to a clump of trees, making sure we’re out of earshot.

“Kat,” she says reproachfully. “Why didn’t you tell me that His Highness has been courting you?”

I’m reminded of when I was twelve years old, when Mom caught me stealing Paige’s share of Halloween candy from the cookie jar. “I’m sorry,” I say, looking down at the grass. “It’s…complicated.”

“I’ve told you all about Jonathan. I’ve even trusted you with our eloping.” Her voice is laced with hurt. “Why couldn’t you even tell me this? I don’t see why you must keep it a secret. Claire would have proclaimed it from the rooftop if His Highness invited her to tea.”

My mouth curves at the thought of Claire standing on the roof and holding a bullhorn. Still, I can’t deny that I’ve kept things from Poppy, even though I had reason for doing so.

“I’m sorry. Truly.” I debate about telling her the truth, then decide to hell with it. I feel less inhibited out in this wide-open space with no inhabitants in sight. “I’ll tell you everything, but promise me you won’t tell anyone.”

She nods, a determined look on her face.

“The truth is…I’m cursed.”

She jerks her head back, her eyes wide. “You’re joking, Kat. Magic doesn’t exist in this world.”

“That’s what I also believed,” I say. “But the day I ripped up a picture book, I found that my entire world was changed.” I tell her about being transported to Athelia, the mission to make Elle end up with Edward, and how my efforts result in attracting Edward instead. Poppy looks at me like I just sprouted horns, but once I get to Edward binding my foot in the palace garden, she forgets about the spell and grows interested in our “courtship.” Like with some romance novels with an outrageous plot—as long as the reader is interested in the relationship between the hero and heroine, any flaw or inconsistency can be overlooked.

Still, when I finish my tale, she shakes her head slowly, her eyes full of disbelief.

“This cannot be! Are you saying I’m a character in a book?”

“I know it sounds like I’m making it all up,” I say, desperately wishing I had a cell phone or tablet to prove myself. “I wouldn’t have believed it myself if it hadn’t happened to me.”

“That day when we played croquet. Your servant fell into the river and you asked His Highness to save her. Was that a ploy to make him notice her?”

“Yes, but it didn’t work out.”

“Because he loves you.”

Her words send an arrow through my heart.

“Trust me, I didn’t want to…to reject him.” My voice comes out in a choked cry. “If I didn’t have family back home, I would have agreed to be with him. He has been nothing but kind and wonderful and well, just the most amazing person I’ve ever met. But I can’t. I have to go home.”

Poppy scrunches up her forehead. “If your family is from another world, can’t you just make that goblin king transport them here as well?”

A tear rolls down my cheek; I swipe it away furiously. It’s impossible. She has no idea how different our modern world is. Athelia has been eye-opening and sometimes fun, but if I hadn’t met Edward, I’d be only too happy to return. “My world is too different. Besides, Edward might be…infatuated with me now, but he is the prince. He’ll never lack an eager woman—you’ve seen how girls talk about him at events. Maybe one day he’ll tire of me.”

“But it’s unfair to him! You’re not even giving him a chance.”

“So now you believe me?”

Poppy bites her lower lip. “I…I don’t know. Honestly speaking, I can’t fathom that there can be a country that doesn’t need a king. Or that you don’t need your parents’ permission to get married. It’s the oddest tale I’ve ever heard. But I do believe you have good reason for refusing the prince, though I wish you wouldn’t. Poor Edward! The one woman he wants cannot accept him.”

A shout comes from afar. Bertram is hollering for us to leave.

“Come on,” I say, repressing a crazy urge to jump into the river. Two confessions in two days. “We had better go. Before your father finds us.”

Poppy jumps. “Goodness, I completely forgot!” We gather up our skirts and hurry toward the carriage. Before we reach Bertram and Mr. Davenport, she grabs my arm and whispers, “Kat, I don’t care where you’re from, but you have to find a way. You must.”

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Next: THIRTY-FOUR