It is late afternoon when we return. Bertram offers to escort me to the door, but I refuse. If he babbles about me being the future queen again, I don’t know how to handle Lady Bradshaw and Bianca’s reactions.
Van is pulling weeds in the narrow garden surrounding the front porch. He is startled when I get off the carriage, but then abruptly turns his back on me. Maybe he got up on the wrong side of bed. Maybe Bianca snubbed him and told him to never, ever, think himself worthy enough to wipe the dirt off her shoes.
I sneak in through the back door. Much to my horror, Lady Bradshaw is giving orders in the kitchen. When I enter, the cook gasps. Plop! The pudding she’s carrying falls on the floor in a pile of gooey mess, but no one seems to notice.
Lady Bradshaw looks like she’s ready to explode. Two strides across the room, a flash of her velvet sleeve, and a stinging slap hits my cheek. I cry out and stagger back. It hurts of course, but I’m more upset that she raised a hand to me. Just days ago she was still calling me “dear Katriona.”
“In my entire life,” Lady Bradshaw says through gritted teeth. “I have never taught anything that would make a daughter of mine commit such a scandal.”
Geez. From her tone, you’d think I just committed murder. First thing I return home and she’s not worried about my safety, but only about my reputation?
“I left a note,” I say, not bothering to conceal the defiance in my look and tone. She doesn’t hold any affection for me. For her, I’m just a product on the marriage market.
“Lady!” Martha tries to intervene. “Miss Katriona needs rest, she’s obviously worn out from a long journey.”
“I don’t remember asking you to tell me how to deal with my daughter,” Lady Bradshaw hisses. “Katriona, is it true that you sneaked off to Ruby Red because Poppy Montgomery needed a witness when she ran off with a solicitor?”
I search my brain frantically for a lie, but nothing comes to mind.
Her rage now erupts. She looks like she wants to throw me out of the house. Literally. “Incorrigible girl! After all that I’ve done for you…if this gets out, you’ll ruin your sister’s chance of happiness! The royal family will not want a sister-in-law who does such a disgraceful thing. No sense of propriety, morality…you bring shame on us all.”
It’s so hard not to gag.
“What makes you so certain Bianca will attract the prince?” The words tumble out before I can stop myself. “She’s had plenty of chances already, but he still hasn’t expressed an interest in her.”
“Which is why we must take advantage of the upcoming ball.” Lady Bradshaw glares at me. “The king and queen expect Edward to pick out his future bride at the ball. He has no excuse to dilly-dally any longer. This is Bianca’s greatest chance to shine.”
I don’t say anything. I can only hope that Meg’s spell di amor will work.
“I’ve made up my mind,” Lady Bradshaw breathes in deeply. “In order not to let you have any further chance of preventing Bianca from becoming queen, I forbid you to go to the ball.”
My heart stops for a second. I have to be there. I have to ensure Elle and Edward will fall for each other. And I…I have to see Edward one last time before he commits to Elle.
Lady Bradshaw’s expression is hard, forbidding. Now that I’ve learned she gave the order to have Elle drowned, I can’t face her without reading “Murderess!” on her forehead. Must not let it slip that I know what she did to get this big, beautiful house with all its fancy furniture and array of servants. I would turn her in, but there’s no one dead. Elle survived, thanks to Meg. I would be laughed out of the constable’s office.
“What about the duke?” I say. “He might still wish to see me.”
“I already have it on good authority that he regards you as no more than a friend. There’s an absurd rumor that he is attached to Elle, but it is immaterial.” Lady Bradshaw whirls on the servants. “If I catch any of you disobeying me, you will be sent packing straight away.”
Martha and the other servants look at each other. I read sympathy in Martha’s eyes, but she doesn’t say anything.
Then I glimpse Bianca in the doorway, leaning into the kitchen. She’s glaring at me with unmistakable hatred. Bianca never liked me, but now she looks like she could throttle me. She must be really pissed off that I’ve diminished her chances of making a royal match.
When I return to my room, I discover that Lady Bradshaw really means it. All my fancy dresses are gone; only the ugly snuff brown dress and a few other plain ones remain. The pretty shoes and boots are missing too—not that I care that much, but it makes my shoe cupboard look threadbare. Even my books are gone! I have half a mind to go down and threaten Lady Bradshaw to make her return them, but it’s likely that the books have gone into the burn bin. Besides, my door is locked from the outside.
At least the double poster bed remains. I dive onto the bed, face-down, and bury my nose in the pillows, inhaling the scent. Mmm…Martha must have done something to the pillows and sheets, because they smell like a combination of lavender and lemon. After that crazy journey to Ruby Red, I miss the comforts of city life. For a moment I forget about being grounded a second time, I forget worrying about getting Elle to the ball, and just close my eyes, wanting to put all my troubles behind me for…a few minutes.
There’s a tiny popping noise. A cackling voice. “Girlie! You’re back!”
I’m so tired, I don’t even open my eyes. “Come back some other time, Krev. I’m dead-tired.”
Water splashes over my back.
“Hey!” I sit up. Krev hovers in the air, his pointy ears protruding from the jug he’s holding. Damn. It’s the jug I use to pour water into the basin when my hands are dirty.
“Couldn’t you at least warn me?” I glare at him. The blanket now has big patches of dampness.
“You’ll have to say you got clumsy, it’s one thing you’re good at,” Krev smirks. “We’ve all been wondering what happened on your journey. Did your little friend get married? Did you find the fairy?”
Seeing the jug bobbing in the air, ready to tilt over a second time, I give in. I’ll have a lot of explaining to do if Martha finds my blanket and spread soaked through. So I tell him reluctantly. Krev chuckles when I mention Montgomery storming into the wedding, and how he is thwarted because Bertram and the “future queen of Athelia” are witnesses.
“Nice work, girlie,” he says. “The king bet you couldn’t find the fairy. Morag bet you couldn’t persuade her. Now they’ve lost the bet. Ha!”
“You bet I’d succeed?” I say in disbelief. “But I’ve always had rotten luck.”
“They took the other options so I didn’t have a choice.”
I roll my eyes. For a second, I thought he had faith in me.
Krev’s still in a good mood anyway. “Don’t go making faces, girlie! Look, you started out with zero clues, and now you’re almost done!”
“Not yet.” I tell him that Lady Bradshaw has grounded me—again. Even the duke can’t get me out of hot water this time. “How am I to escape and tell Elle she has to go the ball?”
“Considering the doctor cousin is gaga for her, maybe she’s invited already.”
“That’ll be worse,” I groan. “And besides, I’ve got to give her the spell di amor. Edward’s the one she has to fall in love with.” I look up at him. “Can’t you sneak me out of the house with your magic?”
The jug floats back on the dresser.
“I could give it a try,” Krev says, surprisingly cooperative. Or maybe he figures that the story will suffer if I can’t get to the ball. “But you’re much heavier than the jug. Can’t promise anything if I fail to levitate you from this floor to below.”
Damn. My room is on the third floor. What’ll the neighbors say if they see me floating to the ground? Do they have witch-burning here? Even worse, what if Krev’s magic fails and I fall on the ground? I could break a leg—or worse, my neck. I wonder about the consequences if I die in the book. I’m too wussy to ask though.
I’m tempted to hurl a chair at the door and see if it’ll crack. But I can’t sneak out of the house through the front door. Not all of the servants like me. Van, for instance, is fed up with me making him drive everywhere. I could ask Martha to send a message to Elle, but I’m not sure if she’s allowed to see me. Unless Edward comes himself… Haha. Fat chance of that happening. As if a rejected suitor would come, not to mention there’s Bianca around.
I open my desk, take out the almanac, and count the days till the ball. Less than two weeks left.
I spend the next few days in complete frustration. I can go down to meals, but once I finish, a servant is ordered to accompany me upstairs and lock my door. Without my books, I feel like going crazy. I stomp on the floor, roll in the bed, yell at Krev, and even start pondering the risk of being levitated through the window.
Finally, on the third day, the mirror glows. Meg’s face shows.
“The spell is ready!” She announces triumphantly, like a child who has just completed a jigsaw puzzle.
“Great,” I respond. “Now get your butt over here.” There’s this whirring noise, like a fan turning, and then the mirror starts to glow. Meg’s head emerges from the mirror, bathed in golden glow, and I jump back with a shriek. It’s kind of freaky, her crawling out of the mirror, but then it becomes comical when she’s stuck.
Meg heaves and puffs until her upper torso is through; she grabs the rim of the mirror and tries to haul the rest of herself out, but somehow she can’t budge.
“Give me a hand,” she pants.
I grab her arm and pull. She moves—maybe a few inches.
“Sometimes this happens,” Meg says, looking embarrassed. “It’s a long time since I travelled through the looking glass.”
“I’d say this is due to incompetence.” Krev’s annoying voice floats in the room. I glance around; he’s sitting cross-legged on the mantelpiece, grinning from ear to ear. Obviously he’s not going to help; he always revels in others’ misfortunes.
“Who are you?” Meg snaps.
I give another tug—she squeezes through with a nasty squelching sound and lands on the floor with a bump.
“Ow!” Meg rubs her elbows. “Why do you use wood for your floor? Moss is much better.”
“We have carpets…” I start to say, then stop. I haven’t seen fully carpeted floors in Athelia, not even in Lord Mansfield’s mansion or the opulent palace. I guess it’ll be too difficult to clean them until the vacuum cleaner is invented.
“Oho!” Krev takes off and hovers above Meg, a mocking expression on his face. “So you’re the fairy godmother, huh? Looks pretty dim-witted to me.”
Meg rounds on him. “Who are you calling dim-witted, you ugly pointed-eared creature?”
I refrain from pointing out that Meg’s ears are also pointed. She does have a point on the ugliness though—Krev’s squashed, toad-like face is definitely an eyesore compared to Meg’s baby-pink cheeks and cornflower blue eyes.
Krev snorts. “I’ll have you know that in the goblin realm, the females are swarming for my attention.”
“Really?” It’s Meg’s time to snort. “They must have very poor taste in males.”
“Okay, stop it.” I step in between them. Meg’s still making faces at Krev, so I have to wave a hand in front of her face. “Look, we don’t have much time. I’ve got to get to the palace and tell Elle she has to go to the ball. And I’ll bring her here so you can put the spell di amor on her, Meg.” My best bet is to wait until Bianca and Lady Bradshaw have left for the ball. Meg can perform her magic with the pumpkin, mice, and outfit, though after seeing her struggle through the mirror, I’m having doubts. I didn’t expect the fairy godmother to be this incompetent. Maybe that’s why in the original tale she couldn’t make Cinderella’s dress last past midnight.
“Why must you go to the palace now?” Meg asks.
I explain about Elle. “But Lady Bradshaw now expressly forbids me to go out. Is there a way you can sneak me into the palace?”
Meg scratches her head. “But I don’t know where the palace is.”
Neither do I; I always relied on Van’s driving.
“I do,” Krev says. I’m kind of surprised he’s being helpful. Maybe he wants to prove his superiority.
“Yes, but we still have to find out how to get there,” I groan. “Meg, do you have any ideas?”