Before she can answer, a knock comes on the door. There’s the sound of a key turning in the lock. I freeze. Meg pulls out a wand from her pocket and starts waving the wand around her. Slowly, her body disappears where the wand passes. By the time the wand reaches her head, she has completely disappeared. Krev stays put, though. Since he isn’t from Story World, no human can see him except me.
Martha enters, carrying a pail and a jug.
“Were you talking to yourself again, miss?”
“I got bored,” I say. Which isn’t far from the truth. Before Meg appeared, anyway.
Sympathy is etched over her face. “I thought so. Here.” She sets down the pail, removes a few cleaning cloths, and extracts a small, fat, hardcover book.
“I managed to snag it before Madam burned the rest. Keep it hidden under your pillow; don’t let her catch ya.”
I smile gratefully, touched by the small gesture. “Thanks, Martha. I really appreciate it.”
Martha shakes her head and wrings her hands. “Least I can do, miss. I’m sorry she forbade ya go to the ball.”
“It’s all right,” I say quickly. “She’s doing me a favor actually. And the men who attend the ball. Their toes are safe from me.”
She senses I’m just putting on a façade.
“Just don’t get into any more mischief,” she says. “We’ll try talking to the mistress; perhaps she’ll come around at the last minute.”
When Martha leaves, I press my ear to the door. When I’m sure she’s gone, I tell Meg to reappear.
“Okay, I’ve got an idea. First, can you make me invisible?”
Meg hesitates. “It won’t last long. More than two hours, and the spell will go weak. Your head might appear.”
I can’t be invisible the entire time anyway. I pace the room, thinking hard. What if she can make an invisibility cloak, like the one in Harry Potter?
I outline my idea to Meg. At first she looks doubtful, but when she spots my cloak hanging on a coatrack, she brightens.
“That’ll do! With a real object to work on, I can weave a spell on it. This is much easier than conjuring an illusion from thin air.”
“Great.” I’m relieved. I should have expected it—the fairy godmother had to create a coach from a pumpkin after all. “Also, since Martha or someone might come in again, can you make a duplicate of me as well?”
Meg looks around. She removes the cloak and stares hard at the coatrack. Then she waves her wand. A puff of smoke surrounds the wooden rack—when the smoke clears, a crude version of myself stands in place of the rack. It’s like seeing a weird Photoshopped version of myself. The contours of my body are fuzzy and my head blurred.
Krev cackles. “Ooh, imagine Martha’s face when she sees this dummy. She’ll run out of the room screaming.”
Meg glares. Anger seems to fuel her determination, for when she waves her wand again, I’m looking at a twin of myself. You couldn’t tell us apart.
“There!” she says, with a smug smile at Krev. “Now she can go to the palace.”
Even though we’ve taken precautions, the journey to the palace is difficult. Without the carriage, it takes me two hours on foot. My feet ache from the walking. I’m tempted to hitch a ride from a carriage waiting on the side of a road, but I’ve no idea if it’s headed to my destination. Plus, I’m worried my hood would slip and I’d be this dismembered head floating in thin air.
Krev flies above; guiding my way. I sneak in the entrance with other courtiers, taking care not to bump into anyone, while also worrying that Meg’s magic will fade. Finally I make it through, sweating like I’ve finished a marathon, and as thirsty as though I’ve crossed the Sahara.
“Krev,” I croak. “I need some water.”
He leads me to a fountain in the gardens. I scoop up a handful of water and drink till my thirst is quenched. Then I duck into the hedge, remove the cloak, and try to tidy myself up the best I can. Tendrils of my hair, damp from sweat, cling to my neck. I do my best with finger-combing, then start looking for the greenhouse. Galen is most likely there.
Before I enter the greenhouse, I halt abruptly.
Elle grasps a leafy plant in her hands, the dirt-covered roots hanging out, apparently in the process of moving it into another pot. Edward bends over her, apparently giving instructions. His body is so close that he could embrace her if he opened his arms. There’s a blush on her face, but out of respect or fear, she doesn’t back away.
I freeze on the spot.
“By the name of Barthelius,” Krev is saying. “This beats a melodrama! The heroine catches sight of the hero with another woman in his arms without any staging or script. Wait till I tell the king!”
I tell myself to stay calm. Isn’t this what I told Edward to do, to set his sights on Elle instead? What he’s doing is only proof that he is selfless enough to heed my wish. I doubt he has fallen for Elle this fast; he is only trying to attract her because I asked him to. Still, a lump forms in my throat and I swallow hard.
Hastily, I brush a strand of hair out of my eyes and enter the greenhouse. Several workers glance up, but I ignore them. I head straight to Elle and Edward.
The prince looks up once I step in. Astonishment, hurt, and resentment seem to cross his features, but soon he conceals all emotions in a perfectly cool and calm mask.
“What can I do for you, Lady Katriona?”
He never calls me by my full name. Only then do I realize how affectionate it sounded when he called me Kat.
“Your Highness.” I curtsy, not daring to look him in the eye. “I’d like to speak with Elle, if you can spare her.”
Elle brightens when she sees me—she looks so pretty and radiant that I wish Edward was away.
“May I be excused, Your Highness?” She gazes up at Edward, a pleading expression in her baby blue eyes. No man can say no, I’m sure.
He nods. “Go.”
Elle and I step into the gardens. I find a long bench in a secluded spot and motion for her to sit with me.
“I’m not your mistress now,” I say, seeing her hesitate. “How are things going? I believe His Highness has been treating you well.”
A pink flush spreads from her face to neck. “I’ve learned a lot about herbs from him and Mr. Galen.” She tilts her head, her large eyes concerned. “What about you, miss? I’ve been meaning to visit you once I have a few days off. Mr. Galen says we’ll receive a short holiday after the ball.”
“Aren’t you going to the ball?” I blurt.
Her hand flies to her chest. “How did you know His Highness invited me?”
Jealousy stabs me for a second; then relief washes over. Edward has been considerate enough to make my wish come true, even though he doesn’t love Elle. Plus, Elle is unlikely to refuse if her boss asks her to the ball. I should be glad that the happy ending is in sight, but instead a heaviness weighs on my chest.
“Fantastic,” I say, trying to appear cheerful. “Then come by our house on the night of the ball. Let’s dress up and go together.”
She looks down at her hands. “Miss Katriona, can I ask you something?”
Please don’t tell me you’re pining for Henry.
“Why are you all so kind? You, His Highness, Mr. Henry…you’re doing too much for me.” She bites her lip. “I’m sorry, but you’re making me scared. I don’t feel right accepting so much kindness.”
I hesitate. Should I tell her the truth? What if Elle insists that I stay in Athelia? Call me sneaky, but I can’t bring myself to tell her I’m trying to manipulate her to be with Edward, so I can return to my family. I clench my fists briefly, then let go. They’re storybook characters, I tell myself for the zillionth time. I’m not actually causing real harm.
But I can’t make up a lie on the spot. I rack my brain for a moment, but there’s nothing I can come up with.
“You’re right,” I finally say. “There is a reason I’m going out of my way to help you, but I can’t tell you right now. Trust me, Elle, I’m just waiting for the right moment.”
She looks confused, but she nods slowly. “After all you’ve done for me, I’m willing to do anything you ask of me.”
“After the ball,” I promise. “When the ball is over, I’ll tell you what’s going on.” Maybe before Edward comes with the glass slipper, I’ll tell Elle she is Earl Bradshaw’s daughter. That should be reason enough that I’m helping her get back to the life she’s entitled to. That should remove any doubts that she is unfit to marry a prince. And once Edward claims Elle as his bride, she will be part of the royal family, ranking far higher than her original title.
“By the way, how is your mother? And how’s Billy?”
A sparkle flares in her eyes. “I’ve put a mortgage on a flat in a nicer neighborhood for Mamsie.”
“Really?” Considering her income as a servant, even at the palace, I wonder how she managed to convince the seller.
“Mr. Henry kindly offered to be my guarantor,” Elle says shyly. “Without him, I couldn’t have succeeded. I shouldn’t have let him, but I really wanted Mamsie to move to a better place. She deserves it, after working so hard to raise us.” Her face is now entirely pink.
Oh no, she’s still in love with Henry.
Krev suddenly appears. “Watch the time, girlie. Don’t forget you’ve still a long walk home.”
I stand up. He’s right. My duplicate looks real enough, but I’m not sure my “twin” can make it through dinner.
“I should be returning,” I say. “Promise me that we’ll go to the ball together?”
Elle nods. Though she still looks uncomfortable, I can tell she’s looking forward to the ball. Seriously, what girl wouldn’t?
After bidding Elle goodbye, I head toward the hedge where I hid my invisibility cloak.
A hand clamps on my arm. I’m shoved against the stone wall; I let out a gasp of pain. Edward looms before me. I try to shake him off, but his other hand slams against the wall, right next to my shoulder. I’m trapped.
Great. Thick bushes surround us, shielding us from view, and it’s all my fault. I took care to pick a secluded area to hide my invisibility cloak.
“What’re you doing here?” He growls, his eyes blazing.
“I…I wanted to talk to Elle,” I stammer.
“Right.” His voice is full of bitterness. “You came to ensure she’s going to the ball with me?”
He glares, and I glare right back.
“So what if I did? Did I interrupt a cozy moment in the greenhouse?”
“Jealous?” He smiles, but it’s strained, forced, and doesn’t reach his eyes.
“I’m not,” I snap. “I can’t thank you enough, really.”
Now he looks mad again; he moves so close that he’s flattening me against the wall. He’s breathing hard, his chest moving, yet he doesn’t say anything. I sense he’s trying to control himself.
I swallow and blink away the tears forming in my eyes. The irrational jealousy and anger I hold toward him evaporates. I’m hurt by his readiness to switch his attention to Elle, but honestly speaking, I’m the one to blame.
I place my palms against his chest. Heat flows through my hands. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “Edward, you know I have to go back to my family. I’m so sorry for asking you to…to do this.”
Gently I push him away from my body, but his gaze is still glued to my face. He raises a hand to me, tracing my eyes, my nose, my lips, my chin. I should slap his hand away, but I stay rooted to the spot, trying hard not to throw myself into his arms.
Finally, he drops his arm. “Don’t worry.” This time, his voice is gentle, but firm. “You’ll get what you want.”
And he stalks away, leaving me feeling like a complete wretch.