The next day at breakfast, Bianca positively shines. She is wearing a golden pendent shaped like a rose, which accentuates her long, swanlike throat. Possibly one of the many things she got while out shopping. Elle, who is pouring her tea, simply can’t compete. Just compare her chapped, calloused hands to Bianca’s smooth, marble-white fingers. Unless plastic surgery exists, I doubt even the fairy godmother can make the prince fall in love with Elle. Bianca can’t be the only beautiful girl in Athelia. With so many girls around, how is the prince going to notice Elle?
Still, if I want to get back to the real world, I have to try. On my way back from Elle’s, I came up with another plan.
“Mo...Mother,” I begin. “We are to go to the palace next week, aren’t we?”
Lady Bradshaw arches an eyebrow. “And?”
“Well...I’ve been thinking. About the chances of Bianca marrying the prince.”
Bianca chokes on her tea. I can’t help but feel impressed with myself. Score one for making Miss Perfect lose composure.
“The king and queen would rather the prince marry someone of his own station, but he isn’t keen on marrying,” I say, remembering what Bianca said to Poppy. “That means he isn’t interested in the daughters of dukes. How about we persuade the king to make a compromise?”
“But how?” Bianca asks.
“Well, maybe we can convince them to throw a ball for the prince. And put out a notice: every girl in the kingdom, between the ages fifteen to twenty, is invited. The king no longer will insist the prince marry a high-born lady, but on the other hand, the prince must choose a bride.”
Lady Bradshaw’s eyes gleam. “Interesting concept. But will the prince compromise?”
I shrug. I don’t know the prince. I’m just following the story! “If he can’t even find someone among all the eligible ladies in the kingdom, then we’ll know it’s no use trying.”
“Unless,” Lady Bradshaw chews on her lip, “he has a secret lover.”
Bianca snorts. Somehow by holding up a handkerchief over her mouth, she manages to snort in a ladylike manner. “If he does, then he’s hiding it very well. So far, the most time he spends is with that eccentric cousin of his.”
That’s it. He’s gay. Incest! Aaah!
“Katriona’s idea may be worth considering,” Lady Bradshaw says. “I shall try to broach it to the queen in the buffet after the presentation. Allowing the prince to choose his bride will give him a degree of independence, which he must appreciate. And when he is presented with all the eligible ladies in the kingdom, he can no longer excuse himself.”
Bianca finishes her tea. “This suggestion, while novel in conception, may not be entirely unfeasible.”
Okay. Now that Lady Bradshaw approves, I just have to hope that the king and queen will accept the idea.
“Hold still, miss,” Elle says.
I clench my fists and try to breathe normally. The corset made for the presentation isn’t as comfy as the ones I wear daily—actually, I find my corsets are getting tighter. Maybe it’s due to all the desserts I’ve been secretly consuming. Once Elle laces up my back, my lungs feel like they’re squashed together.
I barely recognize myself in the mirror. My hair is piled on top of my head and secured with numerous pins and even a few ostrich feathers—talk about the insanity! But that’s not the end of it; Elle produces a long white veil and pins it to my scalp with all the flowers and feathers.
“‘Tis the latest fashion for being presented in court,” she says. “Olga told me so, when I got Miss Bianca’s new stockings. I’d trust the best dressmaker in town.”
I look down at the dress. White satin draped with double layers of white tulle, embroidered with golden roses and leaves. It’s gorgeous, but the white dress and veil make me feel like getting married.
“How is your mother doing?”
A soft smile spreads over Elle’s face; she looks remarkably pretty. “She’s getting better. Mr. Henry came yesterday, and he showed us how to mix salt and sugar in water, which worked wonders. He says as long as we keep the windows open and the water clean, she’ll gradually recover.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I say.
Elle fastens a ruby pendant around my neck. The ruby rests in the hollow of my throat. It looks nice, but does little to help me feel less naked.
“It’s all your doing, from when you made Mr. Henry come with us that day.” She surveys my reflection and claps her hands. “There. You look lovely, and I wish you luck, miss.”
I eye the detestable train, which trails three yards on the floor. Luck. Yeah, I’ll definitely need it.
Now I know why Lady Bradshaw purchased a new carriage when we already have a hansom. It fairly sparkles in the afternoon sun, the golden trappings gleaming. The coachman, a new, distinguished-looking fellow wearing a smart gray suit, sits on the high seat, which is covered with a new blue cloth stitched with silver threads. Van and another footman stand on a tiny platform at the end of the carriage. Already I can imagine what it’s like to be Cinderella.
As the carriage rolls toward the palace, I close my eyes and take a deep, pacifying breath. It’s the day I am presented to the queen. My head is heavy and uncomfortable, my mind thick and woolly—how many pins and flowers did Elle stick in my hair? Across me, even Bianca looks a bit nervous. She’s looking out the window with her hands clasped together on her lap, her knuckles white. Lady Bradshaw is silent too. Perhaps she’s working on conveying to the queen my suggestion of the ball.
It seems to take forever. Our pace grows slower and slower, until the carriage comes to a halt. I look outside—lots of onlookers are gathered outside, their gazes curious and excited, like we’re part of a Brazilian carnival. It’s embarrassing, really, being a public spectacle.
Then comes a rap on the window—I jump and almost bump my head on the top of the carriage. Thank God I missed it, or all those feathers would be squashed flat.
A funny-looking man with a round red nose is knocking outside. “Eez Madame needing help with her hairstyle?”
Lady Bradshaw opens the door. “That would be much appreciated.”
Bianca brushes past me. The round-nosed man adjusts her veil, tweaks her flowers, and adds some extra pins to secure everything on her head. Then he does the same to me. I yelp when a pin pricks my scalp. The man apologizes but assures me I look beautiful and reminds me not to toss my head, lest I disturb his fine work.
When he disappears, I ask Lady Bradshaw, “Who was that?”
“Why, it’s Monsieur Etienne, of course. We couldn’t ask for a better hairdresser to put the finishing touches before you present.”
Wow. I knew the presentation was important, but I didn’t expect that it would be taken so seriously.
“We’re here,” Bianca says. She looks calm and serene, but I detect a tremor of excitement in her tone.
“Along with about a hundred other landaus and broughams,” Lady Bradshaw says, peering out the window. “Bianca dear, keep in mind that you must allow your smile to blossom slowly when you meet the queen’s eye, and answer concisely if she questions you. It is of utmost importance that you make an impression. As for you,” she glances at me like she just remembered I exist, “don’t trip up.”
I step off the carriage, keeping an eye on my train. Once I get both feet firmly planted on the ground, I look up.
It’s like the Disney castle that appears before every Disney movie. A great white marble structure rises before us, with numerous windows and balconies gleaming in the sun. Flags wave atop every tower and turret, which are capped with blue roofs. The entrance, a huge gate of iron and bronze, stands at the end of a long path paved with smooth white stones.
My hand creeps to my pocket, finding only a handkerchief. Too bad my compact camera wasn’t transported along with me. I SO want to bring a picture of this castle when I go home.
“Quit staring, Katriona.” Bianca’s voice pulls my mind back from the clouds. “You act like you have never been here before.”
I barely notice the condescending note in her tone. For a moment, I forget about my worries. With my right hand, I take a handful of my gown, grasping the folds near my thighs so I can walk without the hems getting caught round my ankles; with my left, I pick up my train and drape it over my arm, and start down the stone path.
I’m living in a dream. Wow.
Miraculously, I reach the entrance safely. Four burly guards open the entrance gate, and we find ourselves in a grand courtyard.
“Bianca! Katriona!” An excited voice rings through the air. Poppy, attired in a dress of pale buttercup yellow, runs toward us. She trips, but quickly rights herself.
“So you are presenting today.” Bianca nods at her.
“Auntie managed to adjust my schedule.” Poppy grins widely. “I’m so glad to see you both. I was thinking of giving up waiting and going inside, but then you showed up! Oh, I’m so thrilled to have come. Mama told me stories of the castle, but seeing it with my own eyes—doesn’t it beat everything?”
“Yes, it’s awesome,” I say heartily. “I can’t wait to go inside.”
Bianca raises her eyebrows as though I’m a country bumpkin.
Poppy tucks her hand under my arm and beams. “Come, let us go in together.”
The castle’s interior does not disappoint. We enter by the double doors into the castle, and I’m half dizzy from drinking in the surroundings. Huge rooms that are ten times bigger than the living room back at home. Crystal chandeliers hanging from painted ceilings, carved and polished furniture with gilt edges, velvet carpets stretching from room to room, winding staircases, tapestries that reach from ceiling to floor, servants dressed in neat, uniform colors of blue and silver, courtiers decked out in magnificent clothes which look like they came straight from a movie set.
“Good gracious,” Poppy gasps. We pass through this enormous room two stories high, with a vaulted ceiling and balconies running on the second floor. Tall, narrow windows line both sides of the room, offering an excellent view of the gardens outside. Our slippers click loudly on the polished marble floor. I’m tempted to holler and test if the room echoes.
“This is the ballroom,” the servant who escorts us says tonelessly.
It dawns on me that this is where the ball will be held. In the story, Cinderella commands the attention of everyone by descending a staircase. But there’s no staircase in this room. I look around—the central balcony should do. If she needs to shine in the limelight, she has to stand where the prince can behold her beauty. I ponder on how to get Elle up there.
Then, finally, we’re brought to a place that looks like a sitting room. Bianca tells Poppy it’s called an antechamber. Lady Bradshaw is told to wait outside, in another room, with the other sponsors. She orders Bianca and I to conduct ourselves “with impeccable manners” before the queen, though she barely looks at me. Bianca’s the only daughter that counts.
A dozen other young ladies, all wearing similar dresses of white or cream, wait in the room. A few wear haughty expressions, others look nervous, and some appear bored.
“Bianca,” Claire calls to us. She looks absolutely stunning in a white satin gown, her golden ringlets curling softly on her shoulders. “I’ve been wondering when you’d arrive.”
“How long have you been waiting?” Bianca asks, settling into a chair next to Claire. They are undoubtedly the prettiest girls of us all—one dark and one fair. Damn. Bianca’s competition enough and now there’s Claire, and God knows how many more gorgeous girls out there.
“An hour already.” Claire whips out a fan. I wish I had brought one as well; a dozen girls in long swishing gowns huddled in the same room—it’s suffocating. Once this presentation is over, I am so going outside.
“Wish they’d hurry up,” another girl grumbles. She has a mass of chestnut curls pinned closely together.
Poppy sits down, but she keeps twisting her fingers. I itch to pull off my gloves.
After what seems like another hour, we are summoned to see the queen. Two footmen remove a pair of carved wooden hurdles, which brings us to another room, where we can only stand. By this time, we’re all too nervous to even speak or whisper. Another man dressed in red-and-gold livery—I later learned he’s called a flunkey—spread out our trains. A third man has this roll of parchment that he reads off. We are to go in, one by one.
When my name is called, my heart starts beating ten times faster. I try to breathe calmly, tell myself this is Story World and it doesn’t really matter if I trip and fall. But I don’t want to make a fool of myself. Story World or not, I can smell, hear, and touch everything around me.
The queen is a resplendent blur where she sits, her dress elaborate with numerous folds and embroidery. A heavy necklace of gold beads hangs down her front. Behind her are several people dressed in similar fancy clothes; they must be members of the royal family. A red carpet leads to the queen’s throne, and upholstered chairs are placed on both sides of the carpet. Bianca, Poppy, and those who have gone before me occupy those chairs, hands folded neatly on their laps and backs as straight as a cutting board.
I clench my hands and shut my eyes. Okay, here goes.
I go slowly down the aisle, one step after another. Pain gnaws at my heels, but I do my best to ignore it. I have done a lot of walking since I got off the carriage, and now my feet are suffering for it.
Breathe in. Breathe out. There. Easy does it.
I reach the queen. She has a round face, broad cheekbones, and hazel eyes. I expected her to be gorgeous, magnificent—as befitting a monarch, but actually her looks are only above average.
Now it’s time to curtsy. Trying to remember everything that Pierre taught, I sink to the floor as low as I can. My knees feel like cracking.
“Your Majesty.” My voice comes out in a squeak. At least I haven’t toppled over—a miracle considering my klutziness.
“Lady Katriona Bradshaw,” the queen says. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”
“Er...same here, Your Majesty,” I stammer. Please, please don’t ask me anything about any previous meetings.
Fortunately, she only smiles and gives a regal wave, the diamonds on her fingers glittering. “You may rise.”
I can’t help exhaling a sigh of relief. Keeping a respectful smile on my face, I begin that perilous journey of walking backward with that awful train.
Halfway through, I decide it’s rude to keep staring at the queen, so I avert my gaze slightly. A familiar face catches my eye.
Holy crap. Darcy Guy, standing right behind the queen, wearing the same royal colors.
I let out a small gasp. My foot catches my train; I lose my balance and land on the floor in a tangle of silk.
Someone kill me. Now.