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This is not the way to spend a beautiful spring morning! Elena Klovis thought, as she peered around the pile of bandboxes in her arms. They were full of hats, so they weren't particularly heavy . . . unlike most of her stepmother's luggage . . . but they were very awkward to carry. There was a lark serenading the morning somewhere overhead, and Elena wished with all her heart she was a bird and not herself.
Still, if nothing went wrong, in a few hours she just might be free! If not as free as a bird, at least better off than she was now.
She took a few more steps, feeling her way carefully with her bare toes, and caught sight of the neighbors peering over the rose-covered wall as she passed by their perch. They must have been standing on boxes or a bench to do so, and even at that, all that could be seen of them was the tops of their caps, the a few little graying curls escaping from beneath the lace, and two sets of eyes, blue and bright with curiosity.
Their curiosity would have to wait. She didn't have time to satisfy it right now.
Elena felt her way towards the carriage, the bandboxes swaying dangerously with each step. Madame Blanche and Madame Fleur knew better than to call out to her when she was in the middle of a task, and even if they hadn't been, she wouldn't have answered. Not now. Elena was not in the mood to take either her stepmother's sharp tongue nor the blows of her cane, and if the carriage wasn't packed soon, Madame Klovis would be delivering up both.
"Hurry up with those, do you think I have all day?" Jacques snarled from atop the carriage. She took her time, ignoring him. If a single box dropped, Madame or her daughters would insist the hat be unpacked then and there, and if it was damaged . . .
She made a few more careful steps. It would have been easier if she'd been properly shod instead of barefoot, but the only shoes she had were the wooden clogs she'd carved herself for winter, and the wooden pattens for rain. The last time she'd asked for shoes, her stepmother had flown into a rage and beaten her so hard that her back ached now at the memory.
Sometimes she thought about what would happen if she snatched that cane away and struck back . . . and wondered if it would be worth what would follow.
It wouldn't, of course. The girls would run to get help, and Elena couldn't possibly get away before she was caught. First would come the constables, who would charge her before the magistrate for assault, and the law was on her stepmother's side. An unmarried girl was the ward and property of her parents, who could do whatever they wished with her. Of course, most parents were good and kind, and would never hurt their children, not even when they were the children of another marriage . . . but when they were not, well there was no recourse for the child, none at all . . .
Well, the magistrate would certainly have his say. Then would come ten strokes of the lash at the hands of the town gaoler, followed by a session in the stocks in the town square. Then things would go right back to the way they were, except that Stepmother's hand would be even heavier.
Even if she was twenty-one, an unmarried maiden was still a child in the eyes of the law, and nothing could free her from her parents but marriage.
When she was much younger, Elena had dreamed about running away; now she knew better. A boy could run away, perhaps, and become a soldier, or a wandering man-of-all-work, or perhaps a tinker, or join the gypsies. It was different for a girl. It was a dangerous world out there for a girl. Oh, it was dangerous for everyone, true . . . there were bandit bands, rogues, thieves and tricksters, not to mention storms and wild beasts . . . but there were worse fates for a girl if her luck ran out. Stepmother was bad; being kept as the captive of bandits for their pleasure would be infinitely worse.
She got to the carriage, and handed the bandboxes up to the single servant that the Klovis household still possessed, after Madame and her daughters had finished running through the family fortune, or what had passed for their fortune when Elena's father died. Jacque, a dour, sour man, thin as a spider, balding, with a nasty long fringe around his pate, and evil-tempered as a toad, took them from her and began strapping them to the top of the carriage, adding them to the luggage already there. Elena turned back towards the house for more.
She heard whispers from the other side of the sandstone wall as she hurried up the mossy cobbles of the path that led from the front gate, through the formal garden, to the front door. She didn't have to go far; there was more luggage piled up just outside the stained, oak door. She loaded herself up with as much as she could carry, and repeated her trip.
She had been loading the luggage since dawn, first dragging the biggest trunks and boxes to the hired cart, which had left before the sun cleared the pointed rooftops, then piling the rest onto the old family carriage. The carriage was huge; it had been built to carry a family of eight with reasonable luggage for all of them, and by the time she and Jacques were finished, Madame, Delphinium, and Daphne would hardly have room to fit.
"It looks as if they're taking everything they own!" came a slightly louder whisper, as she handed Jacques more boxes and calico bags. A bit of breeze teased the ragged edges of her skirt and tickled her bare legs.
Yes they are, she thought sourly. And quite a bit that they don't own. All of her mother's property, which should have come to Elena, for instance. And never mind that the dresses were decades out-of-date; the fabrics of fine silks and satins, velvets and lace, were still good. Elena had no doubt at all that they would soon grace the backs of Madame and her daughters. Here, anyone who saw those dresses would know where the fabric had come from . . . but in another town, no one would know, or whisper. Let Elena go in rags with but two skirts and two blouses to her name . . . they would, if they could not find the money to pay the silk-merchant's bills, still have new dresses.
And as for Theresa Klovis's jewels . . . or what was left of them . . . once Madame and her daughters were safely in a place that didn't recognize those either, the necklets and bracelets would go to a pawnbroker or to ornament the Horrids.
That was what Elena called them; the Horrid Stepsisters. Would that they had been ugly as well, their outsides matching their insides! If there was any justice in the world, they would both have the faces of the greedy monkeys that they were.
But no, they were not particularly unattractive; Delphinium, the eldest, was a little too thin, her nose a little too long for beauty and her perpetual look of hauteur was going to set extremely disagreeable lines in her face one day, but right now, she was not so bad to look at. Her sister Daphne was just like her, except for tending to plumpness rather than bones. Both had beautiful raven hair, like their mother, and if their eyes were rather close-set, they were still a fashionable deep blue. Never venturing outdoors without a hat or a parasol kept their skin as pale as any lady could wish and their hands, which never lifted more than a needle or a spoon, were white and soft.
They were no great beauties, but they were pretty enough. And if they lacked for suitors here, well, that was partly due to the fact that they wouldn't consider anyone without a title or a fortune, and preferably both.
The rest of it, of course, was because . . .
"Elena!" came the inevitable screech from above. "E-le-na!"
"Coming, Madame!" she called, and handed Jacques the last of the bags in a rush. If he dropped them, she didn't care; let him take the blame for once.
. . . the rest of it was because they were such shrews, such harridans, that any sensible man in this town would have cut off his right hand rather than wed either of them. Only a sizable dowry would have enticed anyone here to court either of them . . . dowries which neither of them possessed.
She pushed past the pile of boxes and bags still awaiting her inside the door, and ran up the dark, oak staircase. "Elena!" came another screech, this time in Daphne's unmusical voice. "Where are you, you lazy slut?"
No, there wasn't a man in the town who didn't wince at the idea of hearing that voice coming from within his house.
She didn't trouble to answer, just pushed open the heavy door into Madame's room.
It was the largest room in the house, of course, a pleasant chamber, with whitewashed walls and dark beams supporting the ceiling, furnished with a peculiar mix of the fashionable and the ancient. The canopied bed, for instance, was generations old, and was too heavy to move. The little dressing-table where Madame sat and two of the chairs were spindly-legged, delicate items in the latest mode, painted white, and gilded. The wardrobe was the same age as the bed, plain and dark, with little carving, but the bedside table was the sibling to the dressing-table, ornamented with carved curlicues and flowers. The remains of the breakfast she had brought up earlier were still littering the bedside tables, the window-seat, the massive oak mantelpiece and the floor.
Madame had been tugging at the laces of Daphne's corset, but let go as soon as Elena entered. Daphne hung to the post of the disturbingly bare canopy bed. The bed had been stripped of its linens and embroidered hangings as soon as Madame rose this morning; those were some of the first things on the coach. Yes, Madame was taking everything that was remotely portable, and the only reason she wasn't taking the modish furniture was that she had already sent on as much of that as she could manage.
Madame didn't have to say anything; Elena took her place behind her daughter and wrapped the long corset-laces around each hand. Not as long as they should be; Daphne was putting on weight again; the wider gap between the edges of the corset proved that much. If she didn't leave off the cream cakes and bonbons, soon no amount of corsetting would make her fit her dresses. Elena put her knee in the small of Daphne's back and pulled with all her might.
Daphne. A nymph. A water nymph. Well, if you pushed her in the river, she'd certainly float . . .
Daphne squealed a protest as her waist gradually became several inches smaller with each pull of the laces. Madame, however, was having none of it. "Pull harder, girl," she ordered, looking down her nose. "If she will eat two cream teas in an afternoon, then she'll have to suffer the consequences."
"I was . . . being sensible!" Daphne objected, "It would . . . only have . . . been thrown . . . away!"
Elena gritted her teeth at that. The food wouldn't have been thrown away; Elena herself would have gotten it. It would have been nice to have a cake or two instead of stale, dry toast and the watery remains of the tea. Greedy pig. She'd stuff herself sick rather than see Elena have a single treat.
Elena obeyed by pulling on the laces until she wondered if they were about to snap . . . this was one of the few tasks she ever did that she enjoyed doing . . . and the corset narrowed again. When the edges finally met, she tied the laces off, leaving Daphne red-faced and panting in tiny breaths, while she picked up the froth of three pink silk petticoats with their trimming of ecru lace from the floor. They rustled and slid softly over her work-roughened hands.
"You really are getting as fat as a pig, Daphne," said Delphinium from the window-seat, still dressed in nothing more than her corset, shoes, stockings and drawers. She looked out the window as a she spoke. "You'll have to marry a peasant farmer before you're through if you keep eating like you have been, because no wellborn man will be seen with a hog in satin . . ."
"Mother!" whined Daphne, as Elena dropped the three petticoats over her head and tied them in place. And when Madame feigned to ignore them both, went on, viciously, "Well, no one would look at you twice . . . you're getting lines around your mouth and nose from all the scowling. And starving yourself like you do gives you bad breath and no breasts . . . you're as flat as a boy, a boy with the face of an old hag!"
"Huh. Better thin than looking like a pregnant sow," Delphinium replied, but as Elena took Daphne's dress from the chair on which it had been left, she saw Delphinium surreptitiously pick up her hand-mirror and examine the area around her mouth with a certain alarm.
"Enough, girls, both of you." That order, in Madame's coldest voice, shut them both up. Elena dropped Daphne's pink-and-green silk dress over her head and tugged it in place over the petticoats, then laced up the back while Daphne stood still. It was, Elena thought, just entirely too frou-frou for anyone, much less Daphne; a torrent of ruffles and lace adorned every possible hem, and there were ribbons and rosebuds anywhere that one could be placed. Daphne looked rather like a wedding-cake and the comparison did not suit her.
Once Daphne was gowned, Madame rose from her dressing table and gestured imperiously; obedient for a change, Daphne took Madame's place, while Madame attended to her hair. All three women wore their hair piled high on their heads in elaborate designs of pompadours and ringlets, and as a consequence, never actually took their hair down and combed it out more often than once a month. They slept with their hair protected at night by huge, stiff paper cylinders, so that in the morning, Madame didn't have to do a great deal to set it to rights. Ever since she'd learned this, Elena had thought they were mad to fuss so much, and she still did. No one else in the town wore their hair that way unless they were going to attend a ball or some other important event. It couldn't be comfortable, sleeping like that, and she shuddered to think what could move in and set up housekeeping in those untouched hair-towers. It was stupid to go about dressed and coiffed like that every day.
Why, not even the Queen went to such pains over her appearance! You could see that for yourself, if you went to the Palace about the time she took her afternoon stroll in the garden with her son, the young Prince Florian. That was one of the chief entertainment in their town of Charbourg, in fact . . . going to the Palace in the afternoon to watch the Royal Family walk about in their gardens, then take a stroll yourself when the Royals had gone into the Palace and the gardens were open to the public for an hour. Not that Elena ever had the time for such a diversion, not since Madame had taken charge . . . but she remembered back when her father was alive, when the baby Prince was just big enough to toddle about the grass. The people of Charbourg loved their King and Queen, and in fact, everyone in the Kingdom loved the King and Queen; Otraria was a good Kingdom to live in. The land was fertile and the climate gentle, the tax collectors never took more than was reasonable, and sometimes gave what they took back, if someone had fallen on hard times. In Spring, there was never a frost to blight the blossoms; in summer there was always enough rain, and never too much. The King listened to the needs of his people, and met them, and the King and his Queen were good, kind, caring stewards of the land. Not like some of the Five Hundred Kingdoms . . .
Or at least, life was good here for anyone who didn't have Madame for a stepmother.
With Daphne dressed, it was Delphinium's turn to be gowned and coiffed, and the elder sister slid off the window-seat with a scowl, and turned her back to Elena. Delphinium's bony shoulder blades protruded over the back of the corset like a pair of skin-covered winglets; Elena wondered why she bothered with a corset at all. Perhaps only because it was fashionable to wear one; perhaps because the corset gave her a place to stuff balls of lambswool, to give her the illusion of breasts. The corset didn't exactly need tightening, just tying, and Delphinium's petticoats of yellow, and her dress of blue and yellow, were soon slipped over her head and laced on. Delphinium didn't indulge in the yards of ruffles and lace that her sister did, but she was very fond of vertically striped materials which tended to make her look like an unfurled umbrella, and perhaps she shouldn't keep wearing her necklines quite so low, since she had very little there to display, balls of lambswool notwithstanding . . .
All the while that Elena had been dressing the girls, she had heard Jacques going back and forth to the carriage, carrying off the baggage that had yet to be stowed. There was a single basket on the floor, and a single case on the bare mattress; when Madame finished with Delphinium's hair, she turned to Elena.
"Put the toilette articles into the case," Madame said imperiously, "And pick up all the china and put it in the basket, then bring both down to the carriage. Come, girls."
The three of them sailed out the door, and as Elena hurried to attend to this final task, she heard the sound of their elegant high-heeled shoes clacking on the wood of the staircase as they made their way down.
She would have liked to just throw everything in the case and basket, but knew better. Madame would check. So she fitted the brush and mirror, the comb and pick, the powder-box and powder-puff, the cologne bottles, the rouge and lip-paint and the patch-box all in their proper places, then stacked dainty floral-figured saucers, cups, teapot and silver in the basket with the soiled napkins around them to keep them from jouncing. At least this was one set of dishes she wouldn't be washing. With the case in one hand and the basket in the other, Elena hurried down the stairs and out the door.
They were already waiting in the carriage, with Jacques up on the driver's box, the hired horses stamping restively. She handed up case and basket to Daphne, who took them and stowed them away somewhere at her feet.
Madame thrust her head out the window.
"Keep the house tidy," Madame ordered.
"Yes, Madame," Elena replied, throttling down her joy. They still might change their minds . . . something might happen. Madame might get cold feet at the last minute.
"Don't let any strangers in."
"We will write to inform you of our address. Send any invitations from the Palace on immediately."
Stepmother looked down at her, frowning, as if trying to think of something else, some order she had not yet given. Elena held her breath. There was one . . . she prayed that Madame would not think of it.
And she did not. She moved away from the window, sat back in her seat, and rapped on the roof of the coach with her cane. Jacques cracked his whip and snapped the reins over the horses' backs. With a clatter of clumsy hooves . . . they were nothing more than carthorses, after all . . . the carriage lurched into motion. It wallowed down the cobbled street, over the arched granite bridge, then around the corner and out of sight.
Elena waited, listening for the sound of returning horses. There were too many things that could go wrong. They could discover that they had forgotten something. They still could change their minds . . .
Madame could remember that she had not ordered Elena not to leave the house and grounds.
The rose-scented morning breeze pressed her shabby brown skirt against her bare legs. Her bare feet began to ache from standing on the hard cobbles. The larks overhead continued to sing, and a pair of robins appeared and perched on the sandstone wall beside her. The sun climbed a little higher. And still she waited.
But the clock in the church tower struck the hour, and though she watched with her heart in her mouth, there was no sign of them. No rattle of wheels on the cobbles, no clatter of hooves on the stone. Only the song of larks overhead, the honking of geese on the river that flowed under the stone bridge, the whisper of the neighbors on the other side of the wall . . .
"You can come out now, Madame Blanche, Madame Fleur," Elena called. "I think they're really gone."
Two thumps, and the patter of footsteps, and the two old women burst out of their own gate and hurried over to Elena. They were as alike as two peas, these neighbors; sisters, round and pink and sturdy, dressed in handsome linen gowns with a modest trimming of ribbon, no lace, and white linen mob-caps over their gray-streaked dark curls. Blanche wore gray, Fleur wore blue; Fleur's gown was sprigged with tiny flowers in darker blue, Blanche's was faintly striped gray-on-gray. Elena was very fond of them; they had done their best to help her whenever they could, though they had to be careful. Madame Klovis would punish Elena for taking anything from them, if she discovered it. And Madame hated both of the sisters. "Common," she called them with distaste, though they were no more common than Elena's father had been, and not being given to speculation, had kept the money they had intact.
"What has been going on?" asked Blanche, at the same time as Fleur burst out with "Where are they going?"
"To LeTours for now, and if necessary, right out of the kingdom entirely," Elena told them. "And," she continued sourly, "as soon as the creditors find out, I expect them to come for the furniture."
Both little rosebud mouths formed identical, shocked "o"s.
"I didn't know it was that bad," Fleur said, after a moment. "She kept it all very quiet! What are you going to do?"
"They can't claim the house, of course, since it was willed in equal shares to all of us, and I haven't run up any debts," Elena continued. "So at least I will have a place to stay for the moment."
"But what will you do? How will you manage?" Blanche asked at last. And "Why did they leave?" asked a more bewildered Fleur. "All they would have had to do to discharge the debts would have been to sell some jewels, live more frugally . . ."
Then Fleur stopped as both Elena and Blanche favored her with sardonic looks. "Oh," the old woman said, and grimaced. "I forgot. This is Madame and her daughters we are speaking of."
Blanche shrugged. "She still could have lived frugally," the elder sister said. "She could have decided to lose those airs of hers, and act her station, instead of miles above it."
Elena just shook her head. "There are a great many things she could have done. None of them suited her."
"You mean, none of the gentlemen of our town suited her," Blanche said, knowingly. "Because all of them saw through her. I wish your father had, before it was too late."
Since Elena had wished that very thing every day for the past fourteen years, there wasn't much she could add to that.