I go down to breakfast in the silver dress. It takes me ages. I can’t take a step without looking down at my dress. Briefly I wonder if another tumble down the stairs would transport me back to America. Still, I decide not to risk it.
Wonder what the madam—oops, Mother—is like? What will Bianca be like?
I think the stairs will be carpeted, since my room is so luxurious, but they turn out to be cold naked marble. Polished so thoroughly that treading on them feels slippery.
When I reach the bottom, I breathe a sigh of relief. Never in my life have I been so happy to get down the stairs in one piece.
A tall slender woman sweeps over to me. She’s beautiful, though judging from the fine lines on her neck, she has seen better years. Her long gown swishes as she walks, and her heeled slippers click against the floor. I don’t know how she manages to walk so fast without tripping. In a few seconds, she has grabbed my shoulders and turned me around.
“What did you do with your hair?”
Oops. When Elle went off to Bianca, I found there weren’t any rubber bands or hair bands available—only ribbons and pins in the carved ivory box on the table. Instinct told me ponytails should be too casual, so I opted for a simple half ponytail instead, pulling the top layer of my hair into a tie and leaving the rest flow down my back.
“I…uh…decided to try a new look?” I attempt a disarming smile.
“And don’t jerk or wobble when you come down the stairs. Have you forgotten your lessons? Always glide like your feet are on clouds.” The woman shakes her head. “I’ve told you countless times—you must emulate your sister. If your gait were half as good as hers, you’d have more suitors to choose from.”
“Don’t bother wasting your time with her, Mother. Some things are born, not made.”
A female voice that I recognize. This time it’s oozing with contempt and snot. Bianca, my “sister,” descends the stairs with the air of an empress.
Holy cow. I can’t speak, even though I had fully planned to retort. Bianca is so gorgeous that she could star in Hollywood with terrible acting. Seriously. You can’t tell we’re sisters. Her eyes are dark and sparkling like large obsidians, framed by sooty lashes that are so long and thick, one might take them for artificial eyelashes in our modern age. Her face is oval but not too long, and her lips look red enough without lipstick. Oh, and the way she moves—elegant, sweeping, confident. She reminds me of Audrey Hepburn, though completely lacking the sweetness.
“For pity’s sake, Katriona,” she says, reaching the final step. “You look like you’ve never seen me before. Did Elle mess up my hair?” And she pulls a mirror from her pocket. Wow. She carries a mirror in her own house.
I clear my throat. “Nothing, Bianca. I’m just thinking about...” my stomach happens to rumble at the moment, “breakfast.”
She raises a perfect eyebrow. “Since when do you take an interest in food? Haven’t you vowed to consume only one meal a day until you shrink to my size?”
“I did?” Geez, no wonder I look thinner. So it’s done on purpose.
A light pattering of footsteps echoes in the hall. Elle, along with a few other similarly dressed servants in black caps and white aprons, approaches us and curtsies.
“Madam, Miss Bianca, Miss Katriona. Breakfast is ready to be served. Would you please come to the dining room?”
“I had set strict rules for breakfast to start at eight o’clock sharp,” Madam says with a disapproving glance at the servants. “If you again fail to pay attention to my orders, I shall have to release you from my service. What use is a servant if she cannot do exactly what she is told?”
I narrow my eyes, feeling indignant for Elle. It should be Bianca at fault for hogging her assistance. Actually, why is Elle doing so much? She cleaned my room, helped me and Bianca dress up, and apparently she’s also doing some cooking, or at least laying out the table. I long to ask why my “mother” is working her servants to death, but the words die on my tongue. Like I need to attract more attention.
It’s a fictional world, Kat. There’s no need to be so into it.
We enter the dining room. I have to restrain myself from gaping at the extravagance of the room. Floral print wallpaper, a crystal chandelier hanging over the table, and delicately-painted china cups and plates and bowls, paired with silver spoons and forks. Servants pull out chairs and wait on us. It’s like being at a fancy restaurant, minus a pianist or harpist.
Bianca’s elbow brushes against a folded napkin, and it falls on the polished marble floor. Elle picks it up, and Bianca takes it without saying thank you or even sparing her a look. So that’s why Elle was surprised when I thanked her. Apparently it’s normal to treat a servant like she’s an inferior human being. Oh, and when Elle stands beside Bianca, it’s SO obvious that Bianca’s the star. There’s no comparison. Elle’s pretty, in a girl-next-door sense, but Bianca’s breathtaking. She could stun everyone at the ball, just like she stunned me a few seconds earlier. If she looks like a goddess in her own house, then how much attention will she get when she goes to the ball? Oh God. Whoever heard of the stepsister being prettier than Cinderella?
“Coffee or tea, miss?” A servant offers.
“Orange juice, please,” I say absentmindedly. At that look of surprise (it is becoming kind of familiar now), I realize that people don’t drink juice for breakfast here.
“Um, coffee. With cream and sugar.”
Across the table, Bianca raises another eyebrow. I’m not sure if she’s surprised by my blunder, or simply surprised that I want cream and sugar.
Whatever. I’m not the one with the mission to attract Prince Charming. My stomach is rumbling again, loudly, so I help myself to scrambled eggs, sausages, and bacon dripping with grease. Who cares about dieting?
Speaking of the prince...
I clear my throat. “Will there be a ball at the palace soon?”
Madam looks at me like I’m crazy. “They just held one a month ago.”
“For the queen’s birthday,” Bianca says. “Goodness, you were never bright, but I didn’t know your brain could malfunction.”
I ignore the insult. “So there isn’t any chance of a ball being held in the near future?”
“A ball takes months to prepare, you daft child,” Madam says. “Why are you so keen to find out?”
Uh...because I need to marry Elle to the prince and return to the real world?
I pretend to be interested in my plate of bacon and baked beans. “Just curious.”
“She probably is dying to see the palace again,” Bianca says, dipping a piece of blueberry scone into coffee. Her movement is smooth, elegant. Not a single crumb falls on the table. I couldn’t do that in a million years.
Madam sniffs. “You’ll get your chance when you are presented to the queen. But I will only allow you to go if Pierre proclaims you are presentable. I will not have one daughter of mine wrecking the marriage prospects of my other.”
I have no idea about being presented to the queen (sounds scary), but I do understand she doesn’t want me hanging around if I don’t behave like a lady. This is so like Pride and Prejudice. Now I’m Lydia who stands in the way of Jane and Elizabeth’s paths toward marrying up.
I rack my brain. Looks like there isn’t going to be a ball anytime soon. In that case, I have to persuade the prince to hold one. But to see the prince, I have to go to the palace first.
What is this ‘presenting’ thing, anyway?
As it turns out, preparing to be presented to the queen is a LOT of work.
Once breakfast is over, I am told to go with Bianca to the ground floor, which has this huge living room. I glance around in awe. Of all the rooms I have been in, this is the grandest of them all. It has a high ceiling, polished wood paneling with brackets for flowers, heavy curtains parted to show tall narrow windows with glass cases holding an assortment of ferns. Gilt-framed pictures depicting landscapes and people cover the walls. On one side is a shiny black piano surrounded by stools and potted plants. A black walnut table and matching chairs are arranged close to the fireplace, leaving most of the floor bare except for a thick carpet. I am puzzled by the lack of furniture, but soon I learn that it’s done on purpose. The table and chairs are pushed out of the way so Bianca and I can practice for our presentation to the queen.
Get this: we have to spend the entire morning in ridiculously long dresses with trains as long as those worn in weddings and walk backward. With the trains sweeping behind us. Supermodels have to balance books on their heads, but this takes the cake.
The etiquette master, Monsieur Pierre, supervises us walking. He’s a middle-aged man, tall and angular, with a perfectly curled moustache, cuffs on his sleeves, tights, puffy shorts, and boots. Like a Shakespearean actor.
“Well done, Miss Bradshaw. That is absolutely perfect,” he cries, clapping his hands. Of course Bianca executes the backward exit like a professional. I wonder if she could pull off Michael Jackson’s moonwalk if I showed her a YouTube clip.
I giggle—Bianca in a ball gown doing the moonwalk? MJ would turn over in his grave.
Pierre turns on me, a disdainful frown on his face. “What are you laughing at, Miss Katriona?”
“Nothing. My bad—I mean, I beg your pardon.” I try to arrange my face into a blank expression.
“Then let us see your execution.” Pierre walks to my right side—maybe my side profile looks better—and Bianca stays on the left, arms crossed. She has a smug look on her face. Clearly, she expects me to trip and fall on my face.
“Now, pretend that vase is the queen.” Pierre gestures toward this giant china vase filled with roses and ferns, which is set on a high table right in front of me, “and keep your eyes focused on it while you perform the curtsy. Remember, a court curtsy differs greatly from the one in a minuet or gavotte. Bend your head slightly when you sink to the floor. Transfer your weight to your left foot when you rise. Keep the corners of your mouth turned upwards. Do NOT show your teeth!”
I have no idea about the purpose of this stupid practice, but Madam says I can’t go to the palace without behaving like a lady. And if I can’t go to the palace, how am I going to ask the prince to throw the ball?
All right. Here goes.
According to his instructions, I stand with my feet slightly apart. Then I move the left foot sideways, draw it in a circular motion, and place it behind my right foot. Pierre tells me I should rest on the toe only, but I ignore him. Keeping my balance is far more important. And besides, who can tell through this dastardly long gown?
It takes multiple curtsies until Pierre grudgingly tells me I can continue with exiting backward. With a sigh of relief, I lift my right foot carefully and place it a step back. Solid ground, thank God. On to the next foot.
“Look straight ahead, Miss Katriona! Don’t turn your head, there’s no hound waiting to snap at your heels! Keep your eyes focused on the vase and SMILE! You aren’t going to impress the queen with that wooden expression pasted on your face!”
Pierre waves his hands frantically, as though the harder he flaps, the quicker I can master this. He should be a comedian—he’s hilarious even when he isn’t trying.
In the fraction of a second when I fail to concentrate on moving backward, my left foot slips.
Now it’s my turn to flap my arms like a startled hen. I try to regain my balance, fail, and topple over. My bum hits the floor, hard.
Bianca regards me with cold contempt. Even though I’m rooting for Elle, I can’t help thinking that Bianca looks more queenly, more regal. I can’t picture Elle sitting on the throne, holding a scepter, giving orders.
Pierre groans, his shoulders slumped. “And I thought you had improved, Miss Katriona! Even when you are at your worst, you never fall on the floor.”
If I didn’t have a mission to visit the palace, I’d tear off the train and throw it at him. I don’t care about seeing the queen. But I have to.
So I get up, dust off my hands, and try again. Again and again. Pierre is fed up with me and banishes me to a room next door so he can see to Bianca’s dancing lessons. Obviously she shows a lot more promise than me.
Too eager to leave, I get stuck in the doorway. That stupid crinoline under my skirt wedges in the door frame. Pierre groans audibly. I have to turn around and adjust my position until I can safely pass through.
Once I shut the door, I sink on the floor (as far as the crinoline allows), my feet aching and my bum bruised and sore. I miss my family. I want to go home. I want to tear off this heavy fancy gown, slip into comfy sweatpants and a T-shirt, and curl up on the sofa with a book. Being a lady is tiring and frustrating, not to mention boring.
Elle’s voice, soft and hesitant. I didn’t even hear her come in.
“Are you all right?” she whispers anxiously. “Where are Miss Bianca and Master Pierre?”
At her gasp and look of sheer horror, I quickly amend, “I’m just kidding. They’re still in the main room. Bianca’s practicing her dancing.”
Elle looks visibly relieved. “What’s that word you said—kidding?”
“Forget about it,” I say, and quickly switch the subject. “Elle, can you do me a favor? Don’t tell anyone about my fading memory. I...” I search my mind for an explanation. “I don’t want to be sent to an asylum.”
Her hand flies to her mouth. “Miss Katriona! How could you possibly believe Madam would do that!”
“I know, she’s my...my mother,” I say. It isn’t easy saying it. That woman looks nothing like Mom. “Anyway, can you please not tell the others? It’s only a bump on the head. Soon I’ll be back to normal.”
She looks a bit frightened, but nods. “I promise. It would be unfair if you had to suffer consequences because of that fall.”
“Yeah, losing my memory is bad enough.” I stand up. “Okay, so here’s my first question: why does Pierre insist that I must be presented to the queen? Did I do some honorable, worthy deed that merited it? Scratch that, Bianca’s also going. So what’s the deal with it anyway?”
“Why, it’s customary for young ladies to be presented when they’re of age. You are seventeen, so it’s about time. When you are presented, it’s an announcement that you are on the marriage market.”
Marriage! Geez, I’m barely surviving high school, let alone marriage.
Oh well. Whatever it takes to get to the palace. Once the prince agrees to throw the ball, the next on the list will be...
“Do you have a fairy—er—do you have a godmother, Elle?”
She gives me a blank look.
I should have seen this coming. If Elle knew she had a fairy godmother, she would have begged for help long ago and not let herself be trampled upon like a doormat.
I put both hands on my head. I can’t do this. The other stepsister is drop-dead gorgeous. The prince would have to be blind to pick Elle over Bianca. My only hope is that the fairy godmother, with her magic, can transform Elle into a more stunning person somehow. But where is the fairy godmother?
Damn. Where’s Google Search when you need it?
“Tell me more about this place,” I say finally. “This country, the monarchy, everything.”