An Invitation to the Ball
The village of Fortrente, Delmany, 1672 FTE (fairytale era)
The voice called from a distance away, but I ignored it. Nellie would shout for me, and I’d come, and half the time she’d have forgotten what she wanted anyway.
“VIOLA! I’ve got news!”
She’d bothered to come right into the room I was working in, so it must have been more important than just a scratched finger or a handsome man smiling at her. I carefully stood from where I’d been scrubbing at the mouldy patch at the top of the back stairs, turning towards my stepsister. “What is it, Nellie?”
She was pink-cheeked and breathless with exertion, but somehow that just made her look even prettier. Genetics had been kind to her; making her petite, golden-haired and curvy, and ‘as lovely as an angel’, to quote an enthralled admirer. Today she wore a plain red and white day dress,but on her it may as well have been a ball gown. Speaking of which…
“There’s to be a royal ball,” she announced with glee,her bright blue eyes wide and guileless. “The prince is to choose a bride, and they say that any eligible girl can come. Anyone!”
Ah, so that’s what the excitement was about. This wouldn’t be the first time that my stepsister had got overly enthusiastic over some marital prospect. None of them had panned out, mostly because she chose men out of her reach. But it was certainly the first time she’d aspired to marry a prince. “Define eligible.”
“Well…between sixteen and twenty-five, never been married…”
So far, so good.
Of course that made Nellie eligible, since she’d been born in this kingdom. As for my family and I, we’d come from neighbouring Cristonia to the south, and that would shut us out even if I had considering trying. Ha. Only if the prince was blind, or else had a strong penchant for tall, skinny girls with bland colouring…
“And a landowner who can procure a gown suitable for a royal ball,” Nellie finished in a rush.
And here it was. “Nellie, you’re not a landowner,” I said patiently. “You might technically own half of the Bluebell inn-”
“I do, even if your mother runs it!”
“…but it doesn’t count as being a landowner. You own this building along with our brother, and you have a hundred-year lease from the landlord, and that’s Squire Jonathon, remember? So even if you could somehow magically find a gown that would get you into the ball, you’d fail on that count.” I finished gently, but she had already got that angry, mulish expression she so often wore.
“You just don’t want me to be happy,” she accused, and her expression changed into the one that had got her everything she wanted from her father (until he’d died, that was). She looked at me beseechingly. “Oh come on, Viola, can’t you see that this is meant to be? I’m beautiful enough to be a princess, everyone says so! The prince just needs to set eyes on me…”
It sounded arrogant, and it was, but it was also true. Nellie AKA Petronella was beautiful. Very beautiful, in fact, and she’d been told it every day since she was an infant. Males did tend to fall at her feet,even though her looks were yet to produce her an acceptable marriage proposal.And by acceptable I meant rich – her standards, not mine.
Chances were that if the prince set eyes on her he would be infatuated…and it would probably last long enough for her to become his mistress. Prince Royce didn’t have a good reputation, at least not here in Fortrente. He was cut from the same cloth as his father, who while not exactly wicked, was hardly a model of Christian charity. Funny to think that the king before him had been so horrible that when he’d been eaten by a dragon, everyone had celebrated at the change of leadership.
But all I said was, “Even if he did fall for you, I don’t trust him to follow through with marrying a commoner, Nellie.”
“I’m not a commoner! Mother’s grandfather was a count.”
A count who’d had his title taken away by the same king who’d been eaten by a dragon. “It doesn’t matter. It’s all hypothetical. You aren’t a landowner, and we can’t afford to buy you a gown that nice.” Not at all. The inn that Nellie was so reluctant to do housework for scraped by, barely keeping us fed and clothed. We would need a good injection of cash to clean it up enough to get the wealthy customers coming through. Speaking of which…
“Nellie, have you considered the squire’s offer? He’d keep you well; far better than you live now.”
“I’m not marrying the squire,” Nellie stated flatly.“He’s old and ugly, and you need to stop trying to make me!” Her face crumpled,and tears sparkled in her eyes, somehow making her look even prettier.Completely unfair, because whenever I cried, I just got snotty. But I’d long ago accepted that with my stepsister, life wasn’t fair.
But her tears didn’t soften me. “I’m not trying to make you marry-”
“Yes you are!” she sobbed. “And if you won’t help me to better myself, then I’ll find someone who will!” Tears streaming down her face,she lifted her chin and stalked off back down the stairs.
I sighed, then crouched down again to scrub at the mould patch that seemed embedded in the old wood. See, it was dramas like that,acted out in public no less, that made me and my mother out to be villains. I’d never known anyone who could act as well as Nellie, but that was probably because she believed every word that spouted out of her mouth.
She’d been terribly spoiled by her father, my late stepfather. Even when she was older and he began to see that he should have been a bit stricter, all she had to do was pout and beg prettily…or perhaps turn on the tears. As for me, I’d tried it once and been told to stop whining.
I thought again of how she’d called Squire Jonathon old and ugly, and felt offended on his behalf. He was a widower of around thirty (alright,twice our age, but hardly ancient) and while he wasn’t precisely handsome, he was also one of the kindest people I knew.
Three years ago when my stepfather had died in the carriage accident that had ruined my mother’s legs, and we hadn’t been able to pay our rent, he had waived it for a full two months while we got ourselves back on track. While I didn’t love him – at all – I’d have been perfectly happy to marry him if only he’d looked my way.
Unfortunately, standing next to Nellie any other girl looked like a hag, and me more so. I was tall and thin with strong facial features and pale colouring that took after my late father, and the comparison with my stepsister wasn’t kind. When my mother had brought my younger sister and I here to Delmany to begin our new life, the then seven-year-old Nellie had taken one look at us and said, “I don’t like my stepsisters, Papa, they’re ugly.”
That was the first time anyone had ever suggested that I was less than acceptable, and even though my new stepfather had hastily told her off and Nellie had never again said it (she had been only seven, after all)that sort of thing wasn’t easily forgotten. While by now I had concluded that I wasn’t actually ugly, but I wasn’t pretty either, my younger sister Edwina still struggled with that nickname.
You see, while Nellie might not have meant it, she’d said it in public – loudly – and some of the neighbourhood children had picked it up. We still got called the ‘ugly stepsisters’ on occasion, and even though Edwina was no Nellie (but then who was?) she always seemed pretty to me. She was only fifteen now, but I could see how it still hurt her. King’s crown, its till hurt me, even though I’d decided long ago that I wouldn’t let it bother me. People could be such fools.
Half an hour later the mould patch looked less like a pit to hell and more like an old brown stain, and I called it done. Walking back into the inn’s entry where my mother sat doing the bookkeeping, I said,“I’ve cleaned the stain as well as I can, although I still think that we won’t get rid of it without either replacing the boards or getting a rug. Or perhaps some sort of potion might help.”
“I’ll put those on the genie list,” my mother replied placidly, making a note on a separate piece of paper. It was a very long list,and ‘genie’ meant ‘there’s no way this will ever happen without a miracle or a very good marriage’ because as far as we knew, genies had been long extinct and weren’t going to be granting anyone wishes any time soon. “There are still the hens to be cleaned out tonight. I’ve put James onto that, and then when Edwina’s done in the kitchen we can all work together on the spare beds.”
And by ‘all’ she meant the rest of us, Edwina and I and our ten-year-old half-brother James, since she had trouble walking ever since the accident, and had to rule benevolently from this chair. “Where’s Nellie? I sent her out to get flour, but that was two hours ago.”
I shrugged. “She was all excited over some ball in the capital, and then got mad when I told her she wasn’t eligible.” I quickly explained the terms of the ball, and Mother reacted much the same way I had.
“Huh. I shall have to warn the Squire not to listen to any offers to borrow against the value of the inn,” she said briskly.
“Do you think she’ll try that again?” The last time had been a year earlier, and Nellie had wanted a new wardrobe to try to catch the eye of a passing nobleman. We’d had to do some fast talking to make sure that she didn’t go off with the man, new wardrobe or not, because it had been obvious to everyone except her that his intentions hadn’t been honourable.
“Probably not,” Mother replied. “She’s not stupid, no matter how she might act sometimes.”
No, Nellie wasn’t stupid, but she also hadn’t developed what I would call common sense. She seemed to go through life thinking that no matter what happened, it would turn out well for her because she was special and beautiful. Generally it did, but I figured that she just hadn’t made any truly terrible mistakes yet. One day she would, and then…
…then I could say ‘I told you so’ and go about cleaning up the mess, likely getting blamed for it along the way.
I sighed heavily at the thought. No matter how annoyed I got with Nellie at times (and trust me, I got annoyed) I still cared for her.She wasn’t at all malicious, just careless and spoiled, and underneath all of it she had a kind heart that would show itself at the most unexpected times. So if I’m sounding like I really disliked her, or that we all did, it wasn’t true.
We’d lived together for ten years as sisters, and it was the small difficulties of everyday life that wore on us as a whole. Nellie refusing to pull her weight, or acting like she was overworked every time she was asked to do a chore; well, that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. And if we were to be honest, it had become a running joke with the rest of us, a little light relief perhaps.
Just then the door to the kitchen swung open, and Edwina poked her head out. She was of medium height, soft-featured like Mother,and her light brown hair was pinned in neat curls in spite of the heat of the ovens. She’d responded to the ‘ugly’ taunts by dressing as well as she could on our limited budget, and in my opinion she’d done well, even if it seemed like a poor use of energy. “Dinner’s done. Shall I serve up?”
“The sisters from Brelfne are at the table,” Mother replied, referring to two of our newer guests: young women from the religious nation to our south-west, passing through on their way to visit family. “And John Tailor said that he’d be eating out tonight.” He was a regular customer who stayed with us once a week as he travelled, our primary appeal being that we were cheap.
“I’ll serve them then come help with the beds,” Edwina said. “Then we can eat.”
Later young James came in from cleaning the hen house,smelling a little of the dirty straw that was used there. Nellie followed him in, smiling as if the earlier incident with me had been forgotten, and perhaps it had. Then I saw the reason why: one of the boys from the market had carried the flour all the way here, no doubt for the reward of a smile. He set it down where she pointed, then received the aforementioned smile. “Thank you, Clemence. That will be all.”
“Um, it’s Clarence,” the boy corrected, but he didn’t seem upset. “Do you need anything else?”
“That will be all for now,” Nellie replied with another dazzling smile, and off Clarence went, seemingly unaware that he’d been used as a servant to do a job that she could have done herself. Then to us she burst out,“Did you hear about the ball? Not you, Viola, I mean the others.”
After Nellie went into detail Edwina seemed interested,although disappointed she was too young and not the right nationality, but James was the one who spoke the truth. He was only ten, with the white-blond hair I’d had as a child and dark eyes from his and Nellie’s father, and a big mouth. Metaphorically, not literally. “But we’ve got no money, Nellie. How would you get to the ball?”
“If we could spare just a few silvers, I know someone who’ll sell me discounted fabric-”
“We can’t even spare a few bronzes,” Mother cut in firmly,although her tone was kind. “We barely get by, and we certainly can’t have such expense on something that will ultimately be a waste of time.”
Nellie’s face crumpled. “It’s my inn, and my money. You can’t keep me from it!”
The rest of us looked away, and Mother said what she’d said many times before. “Your father’s will left me as your guardian and in control of this inn, and what little money there might be. Besides, only half of it is yours. The other half will be James’s once he’s old enough, and it still needs to take care of the rest of us, too. This isn’t just about you, and you know that.”
Nellie did know that, but she was still tight-lipped, her eyes wet. “I wish that I could get away from here, from this place, and from all of you. I’m better than this! Some way, somehow, I’m going to prove it.”
Ouch. Mother turned away, and just then I saw out of the high window a shooting star streak across the sky, and the words came unbidden. “I wish you the best of luck,” I told her angrily. “I wish that you would go away and leave us alone, even marry the prince, just stop being such a burden.”
“A burden?” Nellie hissed, and now she did cry, then turned and ran for her attic room. We all had attic rooms – the better ones were for the guests – but no, poor little Petronella was the only one to suffer, just like always.
“Viola,” Edwina scolded lightly. “That wasn’t very nice.”
I turned away, frowning. “I just agreed with what she said. And she is a burden. She wants everything done for her, thinks she’s so much better than us – she just said it! And in case you haven’t noticed, she’s turned the whole town against us. Everyone thinks that we use her like a workhorse because we’re jealous of her.”
“Oh, that can’t be true,” Mother said slowly, but James piped up.
“Last time I was out, Nathan the butcher’s son said that he felt sorry for me, because my mother and sisters were so mean to poor Nellie, and because I had ugly white hair like my ugly family.” He frowned. “Do you really think it’s ugly?”
“Of course it’s not ugly,” Mother assured him. “It’s just unusual for here in Delmany, and it will darken in time. Mine did, and so did Viola’s.”
Mine had darkened from Cristonian ‘white’ hair to a very boring light brown, but I was still ‘ugly’, apparently. Feeling anger spike through me, I stomped over to the sink and began to wash the pile of dishes that was there as always. It was Nellie’s job, but somehow I doubted that we’d see her again tonight. Besides, the effort involved getting her to do her chores usually outweighed what it would have taken to simply do it ourselves. “I really wish she would go,” I muttered. “It would make our lives so much easier. Maybe we could finally make something of this inn.”
“Or sell it and move back to Cristonia,” Edwina suggested quietly, and we all turned to stare at her. Wide-eyed, she continued,“The living’s cheaper there, and besides, there’s all your family, Mother. Even if we got just enough to move and start over, I think we could do well.”
It wasn’t the first time it had been brought up, and just like last time Mother brushed it off. “This is our home now,” she said firmly. “Besides, I couldn’t go back…like this.”
Meaning that she’d left all hopeful and bright-eyed with the two of us, heading off to make something of herself with her new Delman husband, but she would come back with an extra child, poorer and widowed for a second time, and unable to walk properly. Something of a blow to her pride,I imagined, but she had a point. For all of this place’s flaws it was home now,and I barely spoke Cristonian anymore. Edwina was the only one who really wanted to go.
The next day I went into the market with James to get groceries, Nellie having refused to leave her room. He got distracted by some friends playing nearby, so I let him. These trips out could be a break for both of us, even though I knew that any work I avoided by being here would be waiting for me when I got back.
The market centre of Fortrente was larger than you’d expect for such a small town, but it was also one of the key routes towards the mountains, and was right across the river from Delmany’s capital, Ostraime. There were dozens of stalls set up in the cobblestoned area, each specialising in their particular produce: meat, fish from the nearby river, leather or metalwork,fabrics or fruit.
As always, I headed straight for the pumpkin stall. The stallholder’s name was Nancy, and she was one of the few here who I felt never judged me for what Nellie had said about us. She was an older woman with a leathery face and a slight orange tinge to her skin (too much of her own produce would do that) and she had the most open manner I’d ever known. She didn’t smile much, and it had taken me a little while to realise that her deeds showed her kindness rather than her tone or expression.
“Miss Viola,” she called gruffly as I approached. “You haven’t been here in a good week. What have you been doing with yourself?”
“Lazing about while poor Nellie does all the work,” a nearby man grumbled, and Nancy turned on him.
“Does that lass there look like she’s done a day of lazing in her life? Bogger off, Derrick you old fool, and take your silly words with you.”
Derrick did indeed leave, and Nancy turned back to me. “Sorry about that, love. If that man had an ounce of sense he’d see the truth. Any of them would. How would someone like you, all skin and bones, ever be lazin’ about?”
Ouch. She didn’t even realise she’d insulted me, but I kept my face straight. After all, it was true. My limbs were long and thin, I was as tall as most men, and the angles of my face were sharp. Perhaps if I had richer food and the chance to ‘laze about’ I might look different, but I didn’t waste time thinking about it. “I just need a couple of the big orange pumpkins,and that grey one that’s shaped like a pear,” I told her. “And any news, if you’ve got it.”
Yet another reason to visit Nancy first. Her ears were always open, and she knew all the good gossip that was brought into the town by those travelling through, even before we did at the inn. Many of those who stayed with us weren’t inclined to talk.
But Nancy was still annoyed by what Derrick had said,even though it was an incorrect opinion that I’d heard many times. “Aye, but if those fools could only see that you and yer sister are doin’ all the work while Nellie takes any damned chance to swan off to the capital whenever she can-”
“Anything I don’t know?” I cut in. It wasn’t quite fair what she was saying about Nellie, since as far as I knew she’d only been to visit the capital once, three months earlier with some neighbours who thought of her kindly. I wasn’t angry anymore over last night’s exchange with my stepsister, but I certainly didn’t want to talk about it. “Nellie says there’s to be a royal ball, but I don’t care about that. Is there anything else?”
Nancy shrugged. “That’s all the big news. There have never been so many people invited before. It was basically an open invitation! Why, even you could go lass, if you had the dress.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, I’m not Delmany-born, nor a landowner,” I retorted dryly, barely holding back from rolling my eyes. “Besides, what would I do at a ball?”
Nancy laughed. “Same as any of us, love. Eat as much fine food as we could fit in our bellies, and stare at all the toffs in their fancy dresses.”
I laughed too, and a quiet voice piped up from beside me. “But it’s a royal ball. Wouldn’t you like to go to a royal ball?”
It was an unfamiliar woman who’d spoken: grey-haired and round-faced and round-bodied and reminding me a little of a cheerful gingerbread woman. She was accompanied by a quiet, handsome young man who surely had to be her son, and she was looking at me expectantly.
I couldn’t help smiling. “Doesn’t everybody? But when midnight strikes, you still have to come home.”
“Midnight, eh?” Nancy commented. “Is that when it ends?”
“I’ve no idea,” I admitted. “I was just winging it.” But the round woman had vanished along with the young man, and I turned curiously, looking for her. “Did you see her leave?”
Nancy didn’t look up from where she was sorting through the pumpkins, choosing the largest. “Who?”
“The woman who I was just talking to. She just disappeared.”
“Didn’t see anyone but the air,” Nancy countered. “And that’ll be one bronze, thanking you.”
I handed over the coin, bemused as to what had happened, and that was when the soldiers arrived. Four of them all dressed in the grey of the royal guard, walking into the market centre – clearly none of them high enough ranked to rate a horse. Otherwise it was a three hour walk from Ostraime, and judging by the sweat on their faces, they’d done it. The hum of noise reduced as everyone watched them curiously while pretending not to be watching, and the first of the soldiers walked over to the wooden wall that served as our notice board, lifting up a piece of parchment and hammering it in place.
News was always interesting, so as people moved over to see what it was, he raised a hand. “Attention! There has been a theft from the temple of the Dragi in Ostraime, a series of small gold figurines in the shape of elephants. If anyone knows anything about this and can give information leading to recovery of the items, there will be a reward.”
“Odd that it should be elephants,” Nancy murmured. “Aren’t the Dragi snake worshippers or somewhat?”
“Dragons, I heard.”
“Either way it’s a nasty mess I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Can’t trust those kinds of people as far as you can throw them.”
She probably had a point since the Dragi had a reputation for being rich, powerful and mysterious, and therefore untrustworthy, but I was thinking about something else – the reward. If the figurines were worth more than the reward, why give them back? Mercenary, and I’d never follow through, but I wasn’t the only one to realise that.
“How much is the reward?” someone called from the crowd.
The guard paused, and I realised that he was younger than I’d first thought, perhaps not more than nineteen or so. He was also quite handsome: dark-haired with a long, interesting face and a strong chin. “I don’t know,” he admitted finally. “But if it’s coming from the Dragi, they’ll be generous.” A hum arose in the crowd,and he had to shout the rest: “I should also say that the stolen items are cursed! Whatever the reward is, it’ll be better than whatever curse keeping them would bring!”
Now that brought conversation, and I shook my head, amused. Not only were the Dragi a rich, secretive cult that I truly wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, but anyone’s chances of finding the figurines were as good as Nellie’s for going to that royal ball. It wouldn’t happen, and I said as much to Nancy.
“Even if the thieves have come through here, and I doubt it, then why would they stay long enough for curious townsfolk to go through their things?” I said reasonably. “They’ll be long gone. Or at least I would, if I was a thief.”
Nancy’s eyes widened a little, and I turned to see the young guard who’d pinned up the notice standing there right next to me, his dark eyes narrowed. “And you know the thinking patterns of thieves, do you Miss?”
Flustered, I raised my chin. “Well, no, but it just seems a reasonable thing to do. If you were to steal a valuable item, why stick around to be found?” The guard’s eyebrows raised, but he didn’t look surprised,and I realised he’d been teasing me. “Oh. Well, good luck with finding them.”
“Thank you,” he replied wryly. “But you can do more than wish us luck. Where is the nearest inn?”
“You’ve come to the right place,” Nancy said bluntly. “Viola’s family runs the Bluebell. It’s the only inn here in Fortrente, but then people seldom stay here when they can stay in the capital.”
And that was our inn in a nutshell. I raised an eyebrow back at the guard, shrugging. “Well, do you want me to take you there?”
“If you don’t mind,” he said politely.
Of course I didn’t mind, but even if I had, I still would have offered. After all, he was a royal guard, and I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of people who could arrest me on a whim. I’d never personally been mistreated by any guards, but I had heard stories.
I led the young guard along with a slightly older, fair-haired guard to the inn, carrying the pumpkins with me. As I was planning to come straight back I left James in the market, and the young guard gained some favour with me by offering to carry one of the largest pumpkins. I let him; they were quite heavy.
“The Bluebell,” he mused as we approached the inn’s familiar, blue-trimmed front. “It sounds familiar. Do you advertise in Ostraime?”
I laughed, I couldn’t help myself. “We don’t advertise anywhere except by word of mouth in the marketplace. Besides, the place needs a good spruce up before we start telling all the toffs about it.”
“Toffs?” the fair-haired guard asked.
I glanced at him sidelong over my armful of pumpkin, noticing that he had a gleam in his eye I didn’t appreciate. Guarding my tongue, I explained, “It’s a casual word for nobles and wealthy travellers. Perhaps you don’t use it in the capital?”
“Of course it’s used,” the young guard cut in. “It’ just not very polite, and it wouldn’t pay for us to be using it in regard to our betters.”
His betters, meaning those who paid him. I secretly agreed with the fair-haired guard’s scoff of derision, but I didn’t say anything in reply as I led the two of them in through the front door amid interested stares from our neighbours. Inside Mother sat behind her table to the direct right of the doorway, and she looked up in surprise. “Is everything alright, Viola?”
“There’s been a serious theft in the capital,” the young guard explained before I could say anything. “We’ve been sent to visit all the possible places the thieves could have gone, including all the inns within two days’ journey. Hence our arrival here.”
He was perfectly polite, and I saw Mother’s manner warm slightly. She always appreciated good manners in a man before wealth or position. “Forgive me if I don’t get up, my legs aren’t what they used to be, but I’ll be happy to answer any of your questions. I am Madame Hazel, and my family owns this inn.”
The guard nodded briefly. “Captain Franco of the Royal Guard. Can you tell me if anyone new has been through here in the last couple of days? Anyone at all.”
“Well, there’s only been John Tailor, but he comes through every week,” Mother replied thoughtfully, “and he left this morning as usual on his route into Ostraime. He comes from the mountains to the east.”
A captain, was he? He looked very young for his rank. But he dismissed John as an option. “Anybody else?”
Mother looked hesitant. “The only others who’ve been through last night also left this morning, but I truly doubt they’re what you’re looking for.”
“We must address every option,” the captain said politely. “Who were they?”
“Well, just two young women from Brelfne on their way to visit family a few towns over,” she replied. “Sisters, and very religious, just like most are from that area, and they wore headscarves the whole time, even at the table. Quiet, well-behaved, paid without any trouble.”
As I’d expected, the guards dismissed those as well. “If there’s anything else, let us know,” the captain said, but it was clear that we wouldn’t be hearing from them again. After all, why would they have reason to come through here? For some reason, I found myself a little disappointed.
Just then Nellie came into the room, dragging a small bucket of water as if it weighed a ton, and with a mop tucked under her arm. She looked like some voluptuous, ill-treated saint with her lovely face and her expression that cried ‘It’s hard work, but somebody must do it’, and both men’s eyes shot straight to her.
“Ella?” the captain burst out in surprise.
Nellie looked up, and her eyes widened, a bright smile dawning on her face. “Franco, is that you? What are you doing here?”
The captain flushed with pleasure, suddenly looking very much his age. “Official business – nothing to do with any of you, it seems, but I’m very glad that it’s brought me here. Is this the inn you told me about?”
It was a silly question, because what other inn would there be? But as if there was no one else in the room, Nellie beamed at him. It was the same sweet, brilliant smile she used for every person who didn’t know her well, but I could see by his dazed expression that he was infatuated.
“Yes, it is,” she replied sweetly. “The Bluebell was built by my father’s father, but now my stepmother runs it.” As usual she didn’t say anything I could point out as wrong, but there was something in her tone that made the guards look at us narrow-eyed.
“This is your family, then?”
“Stepmother, and stepsister,” Mother interrupted crisply. “Nellie, I didn’t realise you were acquainted with any royal guards.”
“Oh, Franco and I met a few months ago when I visited Ostraime with the Smiths, do you recall?” She smiled once more at the captain.
“Ah, yes,” he agreed. “But I thought your name was Ella?”
She looked down sadly, her voice lowering. “It’s Petronella, but my family calls me Nellie. Please do call me Ella, though, as I prefer it.”
That was news to me. Of course that made it sound like we had purposely called her by the name she disliked, and Captain Franco gave us dirty looks. Behind him, the fair-haired guard looked amused.
The captain indicated towards the bucket of water. “Perhaps after you’ve finished your work, you might come out for a walk? It’s a lovely day.”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Nellie replied softly with a sad little smile. “I’ll be working all day, no doubt, and you must finish your duties. You said there was a theft, is that right?”
I realised then that if they’d met that one time she’d gone into Ostraime with a neighbouring family, then who knew what she could have told him? Captain Franco looked even more displeased at this reminder of ‘Ella’s’ work situation, but he nodded. “Five small gold figurines were stolen from the Dragi temple in the capital. They’re valuable in themselves, but they’re also cursed. Whoever stole them is going to be sorry.”
Nellie looked suitably appalled, and the captain added ,“Perhaps tomorrow? We shall be staying in the woods tonight as an antidote to the bandit problem, and if you were free then…?”
He was so, so keen it hurt to see, and the rest of us were just awkward bystanders. Nellie of course wouldn’t be interested, not in some poor soldier, but she’d string him on for weeks if he wasn’t careful.
But Mother put an end to it. “She won’t be free,” she said firmly though respectfully. “My stepdaughter does not go for walks with men, especially ones I do not know. You understand my position on this, of course.”
The captain still looked unhappy, but he nodded, taking a step towards the door. But he couldn’t resist one last glance towards Nellie. “Good day, Miss Ella. I hope to see you again soon.”
She gave him a brilliant smile once more, then turned back to her mop as if it was a long lost lover. The last expression on Captain Franco’s face was a definite one of displeasure, and the unnamed fair-haired guard was smirking. I couldn’t help agreeing with that second emotion.
The moment they were gone I turned to Nellie. “Since when do you prefer to be called Ella?”
She shrugged carelessly, plunking the mop into the soapy water so that it splashed out on the stone floor. “I went through a phase. But don’t you think it’s prettier than Nellie?”
“Your father called you Nellie,” Mother cut in, looking weary. “What’s wrong with that name?”
Nellie shrugged again, beginning to swirl the mop around in a way that left puddles of water and wouldn’t make the floor any cleaner.
“He was infatuated, poor boy,” I couldn’t help saying. “How much did you talk to him when you first met him?”
“Oh, it was just a brief meeting,” she replied, eyes fixed on the stone floor. Clearly our argument of the previous night was forgotten. “He’s nice though, isn’t he? Useful.”
My eyes narrowed. “Useful how?”
“Well, he’s a captain, which of course is never a bad thing, and they say that he got his promotion so young because he saved the king’s life once.” Her lips curled at one side, a genuine smile for once. “But I know the real reason. He’s one of King Barrick’s bastards, and the old man can’t stand to see his offspring as a mere guardsman.”
“Good grief,” Mother burst out. “Language, Nellie!” Then a moment later, “How do you know that’s true?”
Yet another careless shrug. “The Smiths told me. It’s common knowledge, or at least commonly suspected. He looks an awful lot like the king did when he was young, you see, and his mother was apparently a chambermaid in the palace twenty years ago.”
Interesting, yes, but it was also gossip. “Good for him,” I said bluntly. “But did you have to make us seem like we were working you to death, Nellie?”
“What are you talking about? I just told them I had to work.”
“Like we all do,” I countered, then sighed. There was no point. We’d been over and over this many times, and she could never seem to understand (or chose not to understand) that it was her tone and body language that caused the trouble, not her words. “Never mind. I’m going upstairs to clean.”
I headed up to the rooms that the sisters from Brelfne had recently vacated, changing the sheets and checking for bedbugs and lice left behind by the guests – not very nice, but unfortunately not unusual. I spotted a couple, so I quickly moved over to the nearby hall closet, looking for the bottle of Essence of Terebinthia we kept there for such cases.
The small wooden crate sat at the bottom of the closet, accompanied by countless other boxes of useful bits and pieces, the mops and brooms, and an unfamiliar cloth bag. It was dark blue fabric, about the size of a pillow case, and stuffed off to the side of the box so that I almost didn’t notice it. When I picked it up it was very heavy.
“Odd,” I murmured. “Who would have left this here?”
Inside was an assortment of items. The first thing I pulled out was a small, leather-bound book of the kind Mother used to keep track of our income; its cover a simple, time-worn dark brown. I flicked through its pages, looking for a name that might hint at its owner, but there wasn’t one. It appeared to be a diary.
Besides the book, the bag contained a series of small shapes.I pulled out the first one to see that it was a plain dark green figurine, in the shape of a stylized, fat elephant and about the size of my closed fist. It was very heavy, but I still didn’t realise what it was.
Footsteps clomped up the stairs behind me, and a moment later Edwina appeared, carrying the still full bucket of water. Nellie followed behind her with the mop, most likely having claimed that she couldn’t manage to carry the bucket alone. Couldn’t be bothered, more like. They both looked curious. “What’s that, Viola?” my sister asked.
I studied the thing, turning it over in my hands. “I don’t know. After what the guards said…well, this can’t be it, right? It’s green.”
“Let’s see,” Edwina asked in interest, leaning over to pick up the bag. She tipped the rest of the contents out on the floor, eyes widening as she saw that they were all the same. “Oh…do you think…?”
“The missing figurines are gold, Edwina,” Nellie said with an eye roll. “Like Viola said-” She reached out to pick up one of the figurines herself, knocking my elbow as she did so. I dropped the thing on the hard floor and it landed with a crunch.
“Ah!” It wasn’t damaged, not really; but there was a wide scratch the size of my nail, revealing a bright, white-gold metallic surface.
The sisters from Brelfne had always worn headscarves, even at the table, and I’d assumed it was because they were devout. But there was another reason that you might cover your head, and partially cover your face.
If you had something to hide.
It looked like the sisters from Brelfne weren’t so innocent after all.