By the time we start lunch, I have learned a couple things. The family name is Bradshaw. Lady Bradshaw, whom they call “Madam,” is the widow of Earl Bradshaw, who used to live in the countryside, someplace called Lochden. Bianca is a year older than me and ten times snottier. This country is called Athelia and is currently ruled by King Leon and Queen Isolde. I tried to acquire info about the prince, but unfortunately, Elle doesn’t know anything about him.
During lunch, Lady Bradshaw is displeased that I made zero progress—or rather, I regressed—in my performance.
“There is no way I can have you presented to the queen if you lack the ability to walk,” she says, slicing into a lamb chop. “I have already scheduled for Bianca to present in three weeks. If you fail at presenting, then I have no choice but to let her go alone.”
My fork falls on the plate with a loud clatter; I choke on my goblet of water. Which only makes things worse. Both Lady Bradshaw and Bianca shoot me looks of disgust.
“How many times have I told you,” Lady Bradshaw says icily, “that you do not eat and drink at the same time. Really, Katriona, your recent behavior is disgusting.”
“In fact, hardly anyone could tell we’re related,” Bianca says, not even bothering to glance at my direction.
Lady Bradshaw looks apprehensive. “My dear, I would not want anything to have the potential to affect your reputation. We must tread carefully if you...” she pauses and gives Bianca a meaningful glance, “if you are to be permanently installed in the palace.”
For the first time, I catch a flicker of nervousness in Bianca’s eyes. It does not become her cool, composed character. I guess when it comes to Prince Charming, even the beauty queen isn’t so sure of herself.
“We have to pay calls this afternoon,” Bianca says stiffly. “Perhaps I can learn something new, if I can manage to convince some of the girls to confide in me.”
“Indeed. Let us hope that the prince will announce his intentions of marrying soon. However indifferent he may appear to the idea, a man of his rank and position will require a wife.”
Bianca rises. “I must go and change now. Katriona, I suggest you leave that apricot pudding alone. It will be most detrimental to your figure.”
Her tone is so condescending that I am tempted to ladle two of said puddings on my plate.
“Katriona,” Lady Bradshaw says severely, “go with your sister.”
Once I return to my room, Elle peels away the silver gown along with the train (finally it’s off!), folds the garment over a chair, and goes to my wardrobe.
“Why do we have to pay calls?” I whisper. “Actually, what do you do when you pay calls? Sorry, I still don’t remember this part.”
“You pay visits to other young ladies of your social circle, and they do the same. It’s an important way of forming acquaintances and learning of important events.”
Important events. Yeah, I’d definitely want to go and see if I can pick up something useful. Pity they don’t use Facebook or Twitter.
“So it’s just hanging out with your friends,” I say, and realize I used another modernism. “Um, is there anything I should observe when paying calls?”
Elle hesitates. “I have never been instructed in the etiquette of calling, but I’m sure you won’t have to worry when Miss Bianca’s there with you. Just follow whatever she does.”
Urgh, I doubt that will be simple. I’ve never been good at socializing. But I have to go.
When Elle is done, I am wearing a chocolate-brown dress that reaches my ankles, thick-soled boots, a woolen mantle, brown gloves, and a velvet bonnet. My eyes bulge when I see my reflection—it looks like I’ve just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel.
“Can’t I go without this?” I tug on my bonnet strings.
Elle looks puzzled. “But Miss Katriona, you spent half your pocket money for that bonnet, and you’ve only worn it twice.”
Oops. I guess I’ll let it go this time. Better try to act more like the old Katriona.
Bianca is already waiting for me by the carriage with her arms crossed. She’s frowning and she keeps tapping her fingers on her upper arms. “Hurry, the roads can be crowded when everyone’s out,” she says. Then she addresses a young man who’s holding a horse whip by the carriage. “Van, make sure you drive round the puddles. Mother would be furious if the new carriage were splashed with mud.”
“Yes, Miss Bianca,” the man nods eagerly, his cheeks going pink. “I’ll be sure to pay attention.”
“See that you do.” Bianca ignores his proffered hand and enters the carriage without difficulty. I try to do the same, but my gloves make it hard to grip for support. I slip once, bang my elbow on the door, then barrel into the carriage. Bianca rolls her eyes and mutters, “Clumsy oaf.”
As the carriage rolls along, I can’t help noticing the city—this new city I just arrived in. It feels like I’ve stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia. Or like being Harry Potter, entering Diagon Alley for the first time.
The road is paved with cobblestones, not cement, which makes the ride a hard, bumpy one. Thank God our carriage is lined with cushions. Bianca bears every jerk and jostle with a perfectly normal face, while I squeak and groan, wishing I could stand instead. Despite multiple layers of clothing, I believe my bum could still get bruised. But it’s not just the ride itself that’s unpleasant. After a while, the tall, stately townhouses gradually disappear, the streets start getting narrower and more crowded, the air reeks of horse manure and smoke and ew, sewage waste. Flower-sellers, broadsheet boys, and street collectors holler and shout as they mingle with the traffic; it’s amazing how they navigate through the horses and carriages and carts. There’s even a live band with bagpipes and violins and drums. I put my hands to my ears until we pass; the cacophony of noises from the band and street sellers is deafening.
Everyone is dressed in dark cloaks and suits and gowns, like me, and no wonder. As we round a corner, I hear a woman gasp out loud. Someone riding a horse thunders past her, sending a wave of dirt and mud into the air, showering her bonnet and face.
Thank God we’re in a vehicle with a roof and door.
“Who are we visiting today?” I say.
“Claire, Mabel, and Gloria, of course. Lorna may not be home yet—her maid informs us she is still traveling. I’m not sure about Harriet, she didn’t return my call last time.” Bianca folds her arms; her lip curls. “Thinks she’s a cut above the rest of us, ever since she returned from a year spent abroad. However, even if she has acquired an exotic wardrobe, her dancing and singing shall never match mine.”
The carriage makes a turn. We pass a bookshop—how quaint it looks! The door is open, the windows are huge and transparent, displaying piles and piles of books, all of them hardbacks, stacked in teetering piles. A man in a waistcoat is smoking a pipe as he browses the selection. Another man wearing a big green apron is standing on a ladder, dusting the shelves. A crooked sign hangs from the roof: The Bookworm.
Wow. I would love to step into that shop.
“Katriona.” Bianca’s voice interrupts my reverie. “We’re here now.”
I look up at a large white mansion about four stories high. A man (is he the butler?) steps down the terrace and bows as we disembark. In his hands he carries a silver tray, but there’s nothing on it. Not even a single teacup.
Bianca pulls out a silver case from her reticule—I glimpse a large, loopy “B” engraved in the center of the surface. She takes out a richly colored card, folds the top left corner, and lays it on the tray. I wish I could read what’s written on the card, but the butler’s too quick. He bows and disappears in a second.
I’m burning with curiosity, but I don’t dare to question Bianca. Anyway, I figure it’s some kind of name card they use, only it’s much fancier and conveyed by servants.
Soon the butler returns. “Miss Bradshaw. And Miss Katriona. Miss Fremont is expecting your company. May I take your coats?”
“Thank you.” Bianca hands him her heavy ermine cloak; I do the same.
We are led into an elegantly-furnished parlor. Cream-colored wallpaper, rosewood chairs, several vases filled with roses and ferns. Two young ladies who are chatting together rise when we enter.
One comes toward Bianca with open arms. She’s beautiful. Maybe not as beautiful as Bianca, but if the prince is into blondes, this girl has a definite advantage. Pale, translucent golden ringlets coil over her shoulders. Her complexion is perfect and blemish-free—the creamy glow of her skin with a touch of makeup reminds me of milk and roses. The color of her dress (apple green) matches perfectly with her sash (lily white), and her pearl necklace and golden bracelet go well with her outfit—a touch of extravagance, but not overdoing it.
“Bianca! It’s been ages since I last saw you. Come and sit down. There’s so much I’ve wanted to tell you.” She gestures to a chair right next to her. “Oh, and your sister. Such a pleasure to have you here as well. Won’t you have a seat?”
Judging from the way she holds herself as the mistress of the house, she has to be Claire.
“And this is my cousin Poppy. You may remember her father is a squire in one of the counties up north. She spent her childhood there, but now her parents have decided that it is time she was presented. She has come to stay with us for her Season.”
Poppy giggles. Next to Claire, she looks rather plain. She has straw-colored hair, a flat nose, round face, and like me, a splash of freckles over her nose. “Oh, I so looked forward to coming to town. Ain’t it—er—isn’t it the most exciting place to live? I’m so happy to meet you girls. It’s awfully lonesome in the country. The nearest town is half a day’s ride.”
“Charmed.” Bianca’s tone is cool, but civil enough. She leans, I think, in reluctance to kiss Poppy’s cheek. I am not surprised. An ambitious girl like Bianca won’t be impressed by a country girl, even if she is nobility.
“Tea, ladies?” Claire asks. She gestures toward a young woman dressed in an apron by the door. “Hannah, bring us a pot of black tea and the chocolate éclairs Cook brought home this morning.”
Chocolate éclairs. Anything chocolate sounds good to me.
We all sit down. I mimic Bianca, sweeping my skirts to the front and folding my hands on my knees.
“So,” Bianca says, “any recent news you care to share with us?”
Claire sighs. “Not much, except for Amelia Fairfax breaking up her engagement—again. I suppose she believes she can end up with a better match than a banker.”
Bianca gives a little snort of derisive laughter. “Maybe she aspires for an earl or viscount. The title of a peeress certainly would be more appealing than being a mere gentleman’s wife.”
Poppy looks rather indignant, but she picks up her teacup instead. I wonder if she wants to argue with Bianca but doesn’t dare to. I would like to argue, but then I don’t see the point. I’ve no idea who this Amelia Fairfax is.
“But not all peers are desirable matches,” Claire says, smoothing the front of her gown. “Indeed, quite a few sons have married daughters of the nouvaeu riche to save their dwindling estates. One can hardly be expected to live comfortably off a title when there’s no fortune to support it.”
I contemplate about how to broach the subject of the palace without appearing too eager. Lady Bradshaw says the palace is unlikely to hold a ball anytime soon. Still, I’m hoping for some chance to meet any royal household member and convince them to have a ball for the prince. The sooner I can persuade the royal family, the better.
Claire takes a chocolate éclair; I notice that like Bianca, she has mastered the art of eating without getting any food on her teeth. “Aren’t you also due to present to the queen next week?”
“Oh, you’re not presented yet?” Poppy asks excitedly. “Maybe we can all go together! I’ve been dying to see the palace, I’ve heard so much about it.”
“It’ll depend on the dates,” Bianca says in a lukewarm tone.
“Poppy, do calm down,” Claire says. With a shrug, she tells Bianca and me, “She’s been hoping to catch a glimpse of the prince. I told her not to get her hopes up.”
I lean forward, my heart pounding. Is the prince already engaged? Are his standards beyond the sky’s limit?
Bianca smirks, her eyes lit with amusement. “Do you even know what he looks like, Poppy?”
“Well...” Poppy falters. “I’ve heard he is very handsome. Tall. And strong.”
“Half of the palace guards fit that description.”
“I am uncertain if Claire has informed you already, but Prince Edward may not meet your expectations,” Bianca says with a shrug of her elegant shoulders. “It is well known that he has little affection for balls and parties. He dislikes interacting with people—especially those he is not well acquainted with. He barely spoke at the queen’s birthday party. He nodded more than he opened his mouth.”
“Truly?” Poppy looks at me for confirmation, but what can I say?
“Er...yeah.” I don’t even know what the prince looks like. I only learned his name today.
“Yet his antisocial behavior does not appear to impede many,” Claire says. Her eyes dart toward Bianca for a second. “He’s handsome, wealthy, and the only heir to the throne. Even if he were twenty years older and fifty pounds heavier, girls would still line up for his hand.”
Bianca clears her throat. “True, but it is also unlikely he would wed a commoner, so that leaves out most girls in Athelia. Ideally he should wed a foreign princess, but of course it’s impossible.”
“Why so?” Poppy asks, and I’m grateful. Her rural background makes her almost as ignorant as I am.
Bianca and Claire laugh. “Princess Marie is still crawling on the floor in her baby dresses,” Claire explains.
“So that leaves...” Poppy scrunches her face, “daughters of a duke or marquess?”
“At the very least.”
“Oh.” Poppy looks downcast for a moment, then she shrugs. “I guess I don’t mind, though. Mama says a girl ought marry up, but not too high, ‘cause then you might be socially incompatible. Besides, if what you say of the prince is true, I think a life with him would be boring.”
Claire looks amused. “Poppy, Poppy,” she says, shaking her head. “You put all girls who hanker after the prince to shame. I ought to tell you to open your eyes and grow up, but I’d rather you kept that pure, idealistic mind of yours.”
Poppy flushes. “I’m not a child, Claire, and you know it isn’t naive to want to marry for love.”
“I agree. Besides, I don’t think the prince would appreciate being regarded as a cash co—I mean, a pile of money.”
Claire and Bianca stare at me. Actually I’m also surprised I blurted that out in the middle of their conversation. Perhaps I just don’t like the superior manner Claire displays. She reminds me of Ashley, who always complains how boring it is in Oakleigh and brags about her childhood in New York. I wish she had stayed there.
Poppy smiles at me. I smile back, but now I’m worried about the prince. An antisocial royal who avoids parties? Great. Now, not only do I have to worry about bringing Elle to the ball, but also convincing the prince to go as well.
I clear my throat and attempt to change the topic. “Doesn’t the prince have a say in his own future bride?”
Bianca smirks, but Claire actually looks thoughtful. “His character, from what I have heard, does lean heavier toward making his own decisions, but since he hasn’t shown a strong attachment for any woman, he might not care if his parents choose a bride for him.”
Dang. Please don’t let it turn out he’s gay. How am I to marry Elle to the prince if he swings in the other direction? She is most definitely not a man in drag.
“That we can never be sure of,” Bianca says, after giving me a long look. “Edward may avoid people at parties, but it does not mean he cares little for women. He simply is not very concerned about social activities and entertainment.”
“You speak as if you know him well,” Claire says with a tight smile.
“I am merely forming assumptions from my observations,” Bianca returns, with an equally unfriendly smile. “I may be wrong, of course.”
If this were a cartoon, sizzling lightning would appear when their gazes clashed. Ooh, this is getting interesting. Now there’s definitely a rival for Bianca.
Claire takes up her teacup. “Will you be presenting with your sister, Katriona?”
This is the first time she has actively spoken to me. I suspect she wouldn’t have noticed me if she hadn’t just waged a cold war with Bianca.
“I hope so,” I say, “but the preparation’s very difficult.”
“I most definitely agree,” Claire says with a laugh. “I tripped several times before I could move more than a pace.”
Bianca rises. “We shall not trespass on your hospitality any longer, Claire. Plus, we have a few more places to call, and I have no intention of being late.”
“Goodness, look at the time!” Claire rises as well. “What a beast I am for keeping you. Hannah, will you fetch the ladies’ coats, please? And tell their coachman to wait at the door.”
As we leave, Poppy touches my arm. “It was nice meeting you, Katriona,” she whispers. “Mind if I call you Kat? It sounds chummier than Katriona.”
I believe I’m going to like Poppy. I’d much rather be called by my real name.