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

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SIX

 

 

Without the Internet, TV, or a cell phone, the evening is horribly boring. I’m told to practice my embroidery—Lady Bradshaw sternly advises that a woman should always have mastery of her needle, no matter her class. Of course I pay no attention.

I eye the writing desk in the corner of my room, which has a small bookshelf built on top of it. I check out the collection: The Ladies’ Handbook of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness (seriously? A 500-page book on etiquette?), A Ballroom Companion and Guide to Dancing (yawn, yawn, yawn), Fanology: Fifty Rules of Flirting with Your Fan (You have got to be kidding me).

Reluctantly, I decide to practice for the court presentation. I can’t be bothered to put on the silver dress, so I tie one of the lighter blankets around my waist.

“Having fun, are we?”

Krev the goblin appears just as I’m putting a foot backward.

“You!” I lose my footing and land on the floor.

He floats in front of me, grinning from ear to ear. I try to punch his face, but he vanishes. A second later, he reappears on the mantelpiece, seated between the clock and the seashell.

“The king sent me to check how you’re faring.”

“Well, tell him I’ve nothing to report,” I snarl. “Not one thing is going well. Honestly, can’t he just lift the curse? I can easily get him a new Cinderella book at Barnes & Noble—they’re bound to have plenty.”

“You thought that was the problem?” Krev lets out a cackle of laughter. “It wouldn’t be any use even if you gave him a hundred books. They’re all factory-made, mass-produced human commodities.”

“Then I’ll mend the book.” I fling off the blanket and plop on my bed. “I’ll take it to a secondhand store to have it rebound.”

“Tsk, tsk, you’re still not getting it,” Krev waggles his eyebrows. “The curse can’t be lifted by the human world’s touch, so quit making those useless suggestions. And it’s quite normal that you’ll have difficulties; you’re just in the beginning of the book! Every story’s protagonist has got to struggle before he can reach the happy ending.”

“But I didn’t ask to be part of this,” I say desperately. “I didn’t know there was a curse on that old book! If I had known, I wouldn’t even have taken it out of the box.”

“It became your duty when you damaged the book.” Krev shrugs. “It’s how the spell works. We can’t tamper with magic without disastrous consequences. Not even Barthelius himself. Now go and figure out what to do.”

He grins, waves, and vanishes.

I stare into the darkness around me. There’s no way out of it now. I’ve got to do something.

I spring out of bed and carry the candelabra to the writing desk. I pull out the drawer and find some rough parchment—kind of quaint, almost like being in Harry Potter. But there aren’t any quills—fountain pens already exist. Whatever. I push the pen into my cheek and ponder the next step. A few minutes later, I begin to write:

First, persuade the prince or someone in the royal family to give the ball and tell the prince he’s got to find his bride by then. (Yeah, considering what Bianca and Claire describe of the prince, this is gonna be reeeeeally simple.)

Second, find out where the fairy godmother is. (Actually, why the heck doesn’t she appear in the story earlier? How can she just stay away while Cinderella works her ass off and only pop up when she needs to go to the ball?)

Third, arrange for the fairy godmother to show up AFTER Bianca (would that include me?) has gone to the ball. Cross fingers and pray that the prince will fall for Elle. (He has to. He must.)

I wad the parchment up in a ball and toss it into the waste paper basket. Then, on second thought, I scoop out the ball and throw it in the fire instead. God forbid that Martha or Elle come across my writing.

I can’t do this. This is impossible.

 

Martha comes to help me dress in the morning. I hope she doesn’t notice my eyes. I’m pretty sure it was way past midnight when I fell asleep. I’d been tossing and turning, trying to devise a way to finish the story, and the best I could come up with was making the fairy godmother my priority. In a situation like this, I need magic.

“Where’s Elle?”

“She went home today,” Martha says, buttoning up the back of my dress. “It’s her day off.”

“She...has another home?”

“ ‘Course she does, miss. Her mother and two brothers live in another part of town. I thought you’d know that already.”

Huh? Cinderella’s mother is alive and she has two brothers? Isn’t Lady Bradshaw supposed to be her stepmother? Then…it hits me. Elle’s last name is Thatcher. Not Bradshaw. That explains her other family.

Martha meets my eyes, and I can see that she’s frowning. Probably she’s still suspecting I have lost my mind. To get her out of the room as soon as possible, I shrug and tell her I need to practice the presentation before Pierre arrives.

The mystery of Elle’s parentage bothers me. I can’t find the godmother unless I can ascertain who her parents are. There is this adaptation of Cinderella where the godmother is a family friend, only she hides her magic so humans won’t bother her. Yeah, right. I should go to everyone in the household and ask if one of them is a fairy in disguise.

It’s too risky. Suppose the fairy godmother is still out there somewhere? I can’t be sure she will automatically pop up before the ball. If there is a ball. I still have to work on that. From what Claire and Bianca said of the prince yesterday, I’m not optimistic. Apparently he isn’t keen on marrying, and even if he is, he’s expected to marry another aristocrat.

Oh God, what can I do?

 

Two hours later, I’m in the hansom, a two-seated buggy half the size of our carriage. I don’t know how I did it—maybe I finally had a bit of luck, because I’d had none so far. I just tell the coachman, Van, that I want to find Elle. He seems reluctant to drive me. Turns out he’s concerned about driving me around the city alone.

“You ought not be going out unchaperoned, Miss Katriona,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck. “It ain’t proper.”

Unchaperoned, my foot. Next thing I’ll be donning a veil and keeping my head covered.

In the end, I manage to bribe him with a lock of Bianca’s hair. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out Van is in luuurve with her. Unless Van turns out to be the missing heir to some kingdom, Bianca will continue to treat him like dirt.

Lady Bradshaw has taken Bianca shopping (as if she hasn’t enough clothes already! I’m the ignored sister, and my wardrobe is enough for three girls) and won’t be back until lunch. Without their bossy presences, the servants are in good moods, and who can blame them?

So this is how I find myself clutching my bonnet (Martha was adamant that I not leave the house without it) in the wind and drinking in the sight of the city. For a moment I forget my worries. Everything is so real, yet surreal at the same time. The houses, the people, the streets. I still cannot believe I am living in a world that resembles a Jane Austen adaptation.

The hansom comes to a stop. Schoolchildren dressed in blue-and-white uniforms are meandering across the street. Several of them are happily eating cotton candy. One small girl holds a rag doll tightly. Two boys are tossing a rubber ball between them. Two middle-aged women, wearing fancy hats with feathers, are herding the children along like mother hens. In fact, they don’t look much different from fancy prep–school children in movies.

Then we’re off again. Gradually, we enter a part of the city that doesn’t look as nice. From the well-worn clothing of passersby and the stink of human waste and garbage to the run-down look of the houses, it almost seems a different world. A few children, barefoot and in rags, run past us. One stops and stares, but when I meet his eye, he scampers off like a frightened rabbit.

We approach a tiny, dilapidated house—uh—hut. It smells horrible: rotten meat, soured milk, animal dung, and smells I can’t identify. I rub my hands against my dress and try to keep my head down. What if someone tries to rob me?

“We’re here,” Van says.

I stare at the house before me, trying to ready my nerves. I don’t feel like going in. But then the door is thrown open and a young woman rushes out, nearly colliding with me. I throw out my hands and steady her shoulders.

“Miss Katriona!” Elle gasps. “What’re you doing here?”

Before I can answer, she spies Van and catches my arm. “Oh miss, can you let me borrow the vehicle just once? Please, I beg you!”

“Huh?”

“My mother’s awfully sick, and I need to have a physician for her.” Tears course down Elle’s face. “It’ll be so much quicker if I can use the hansom than flagging down an omnibus.”

I don’t see any reason to refuse her, so I push her toward the vehicle. “Of course. Let’s get the doctor.”

Van frowns. “But she ain’t allowed. Madam won’t be liking a servant using her conveyance.”

“Screw it,” I say. Both Van and Elle wear twin looks of confusion; I cough and quickly say, “I mean, this is an emergency. We can’t afford to waste time.”

Seeing that he’s still hesitating, I grab the edge of the hansom and send him a withering glare. “VAN. If anything happens to Elle’s mom because we were delayed, you’ll be responsible.”

Van’s shoulders slump. He lets out a long, resigned, defeated sigh and climbs on the sprung seat behind the hansom. “Dr. Jensen’s?”

Elle pauses; her knuckles are white against her maroon skirt. “Yes. I can’t bear to lose Mamsie.”

Van flicks his whip, and soon we’re roaring down the street. Children in dirty rags, their faces thin and haggard, jump out of the way. I bite my lip and look down on my lap.

On the way, Elle buries her face in her handkerchief, her shoulders trembling. I’m not sure what I can do, but I imitate what I’ve seen on TV. I put my hand on her arm. “Hang in there, it’s gonna be okay.”

Slowly, she raises her head. “I’m so scared, miss,” she whispers. “Mamsie has had such a hard time since Father left. If she, if she goes, I don’t know what I will do.”

I squeeze her arm. “She’ll be okay. My mom is also—” I start to talk about Mom, then remember my mother’s supposed to be Lady Bradshaw. “—your mother must be a strong woman to be taking care of the entire family. She will be strong enough to fight through this illness.”

Elle nods, but her tears continue to slide. “That’s what I tell myself too.”

The hansom halts before a large townhouse. Elle starts toward the door, but stops. She twists her hands and plucks at her plain, threadbare dress.

“D’ you think the doctor will refuse to see me?”

I take her arm and pull her along. As if I’d let her retrace her steps when we’ve come this far. I look for a buzzer, realize this is Story World, and rap my knuckles against the door instead.

The door swings open. A maid with the blankest expression I’ve ever seen peers at us.

“What’s your business?”

“We’d like to see the doctor,” I say, since Elle is still close to freaking out. “We have a sick patient who shouldn’t be moved.”

“The doctor ain’t here,” she says, her face still devoid of emotion. Maybe this comes from experience as a doctor’s parlor maid. No doubt she has her share of frantic, hysterical family members. “He’s gone to see another patient.”

And she proceeds to shut the door.

“Hey!” I put out my foot and jam it in the space between the door and the casing. Luckily, the thick leather of my boot and the woolen layering of my stocking prevent any pain.

“When will he be back?”

The maid looks annoyed.

“No idea, we’re never sure, when he’s on an emergency.”

My heart sinks. I shouldn’t be surprised. Nothing ever goes well with me in Story World.

“Pardon me, but is Doctor Jensen not currently available?”

A warm, pleasant voice, the accent cultured and refined. I turn around, my foot still wedged in the door.

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