Original fiction, fantasy/fairy tale. Part one of a probable three.
A voice from the door startled me: “What are you doing?”
I turned and regarded Ellie with as haughty a look as I could summon at half past midnight. “I don’t have to explain myself,” I told her, “especially not to you.”
It probably would have been more effective if my voice had been less stiff, if my shivering were less obvious. I had supposed that the extra layer and a warm shawl would be enough, but without a fire, the dining hall was cold at this time of night.
Ellie raised one eyebrow ever so slightly, then bobbed something that could be considered a curtsy and left, closing the door behind her.
I pulled my single candle closer, holding my hands near it for a moment to warm them. I knew that Mother insisted it was important for us to understand Mathematics, so that we could keep the accounts in our own households whenever we married, but numbers did not come easily to me.
With our days full of lessons and social outings, there was no extra time during reasonable hours for me to try and learn what came so much more easily to Lorena. I would not fall behind her in this, or in anything. I would not be a disappointment to mother.
Allowing myself to feel nothing except determination, I bent over my books again, determined to get this right.
When Ellie interrupted me again, two nights later, she at least had the decency to knock lightly first.
Of course, I had slipped into a half doze, worn out from our usual long days combined with shorter nights, so I startled anyway.
“What?” I snapped when she peered around the door, covering my frustration with anger.
She didn’t quite flinch back, but it seemed like a close thing. Then she straightened, and said, “It’s warmer in the kitchen.”
“What?” This time it came out bewildered. I blinked at her, my exhausted mind not following.
“It’s warmer in the kitchen,” she repeated, and I hated the sense that she was being patient with me. “If…If you want to come work in there.”
“Won’t that interrupt your beauty sleep?” I taunted automatically, then snapped my mouth shut.
Ellie’s lips pressed together in a thin line, and I could tell that she wanted to taunt back, but didn’t quite dare.
She should have taken advantage of the opportunity – it wasn’t like I’d be able to tell Mother about it without explaining what I was doing up in the middle of the night.
After a moment, Ellie shrugged, and left.
I hesitated. I’d gotten almost nothing done, and while a warmer room probably wouldn’t help with staying awake, the cold wasn’t doing that either, and it was hard to either concentrate or write when my teeth were chattering.
Winter was only just beginning, and I didn’t know how long I might need to do this.
Carefully, I gathered up my things, pulling my shawl tighter before tucking my books into one arm and lifting the candle out and away with my other hand, so I wouldn’t drip wax on anything.
I hesitated again at the door into the kitchen, but eventually eased it open awkwardly and peered in.
Ellie blinked at me from where she was brushing her hair out on the bare wooden chair she kept near the fire, surprised.
“You offered,” I muttered, and slipped in, pulling the door closed behind.
It was, blissfully, much warmer in here than in the dining hall. Not much brighter, with the kitchen hearth banked for the night, but definitely warmer.
Cautiously, I made my way to the table, and set my candle down, watching her as she watched me. At last, she nodded, and I felt a little bit of tension drain away.
I got back to work even as she laid down on her pallet near the fire and seemed to fall immediately to sleep, apparently not bothered by my scratching pen. I didn’t make any effort to be quiet, of course, but it wasn’t like studying was a noisy activity in the first place.
Telling myself I was not jealous of the fact that she got to sleep now and I didn’t, I determined to get at least five more problems right before I would slip back up to my own room.
After two nights where I let myself sleep, worried that I wouldn’t be able to hide my midnight studies from Mother and Lorena if I stayed up too many nights in a row, I slipped back downstairs after the lights in both their rooms were out.
Early habit took me in the direction of the dining hall, but as my candle illuminated the long, cold, room, I found myself hesitating.
It really was awful in here.
My knock at the kitchen door was too light, my hand raised before I was really certain I wanted to do this—
But then Ellie had opened it, and we were staring at each other in surprise.
“I—” More words refused to come, my throat tight. Besides, did I really need to request permission to be in the kitchen of my own home? I refused to ask.
Ellie watched me in silence for a moment, frowning, but then slowly opened the door wider and stepped back to let me in.
Scowling for reasons I didn’t quite understand, I swept past her as gracefully as I could and piled my books on the table, setting the candle down carefully nearby. The fire was still burning tonight, so the room was a bit brighter than it had been before.
Neither of us said anything as I got to work, and Ellie returned to whatever chores she was apparently still doing at this hour. Eventually, she settled in her chair near the fire with one of the books that Mother had permitted her to keep.
She was so quiet and still as she read that I forgot she was there, and accidentally let out a hiss of frustration when I got my sixth problem in a row incorrect. Why could I not understand—
“What are you working on?” Ellie asked.
My cheeks flushed hot with embarrassment at being observed, and I turned my head away so that she wouldn’t see. “Nothing.”
A hesitation, then, “It didn’t…sound like nothing? And you’re staying up so late…”
“As if you aren’t,” I snapped, but quietly, still not looking at her.
“But I am usually up this late,” she pointed out, and the chair creaked under her. “Let me see.”
“What would you” I started to say, alarmed, but by the time I turned my eyes back, she was already at my shoulder, surveying my books.
“Oh,” she said in recognition. “This is pretty sim— I mean…you’re struggling with this?”
Several scathing things gathered at the tip of my tongue, but I bit them back. I wasn’t sure why. Only, her question had not sounded like a taunt.
I couldn’t answer, though, so I just looked away again, staring at the closed kitchen door.
“What parts do you find difficult?”
Surprise drew my eyes back to her. Was she…offering to help? Did she even know any of this herself? Mother had never included her in lessons with Lorena and I. Swallowing, hesitant, I shrugged.
“All of it.” The confession came out as barely a whisper. If the wind outside had been any louder, it would have been inaudible.
Ellie paused, and held my gaze for another long moment. At last she asked directly, “Would you like some help?”
I struggled with my pride. To show weakness in front of Ellie, who was little better than a servant…but something in my stomach twisted uncomfortably when I realized that it would be even less acceptable (less safe) to show that same weakness in front of Mother or Lorena. Mother was already disappointed enough in me for my shortcomings in this. She had even begun to talk of punishments if I did not improve sufficiently.
“Yes,” I said at last, the word still barely voiced. Then, because it refused to stay on my tongue, I spat, “please” as harshly as it would come.
That got me another barely raised eyebrow, but Ellie went and got her own chair and came to sit next to me.
She read through the problems that I was having trouble with, and looked at my work, frowning thoughtfully. Then her face brightened. “Ah! I think this is where you are going wrong.” She explained, and although I could see that her words were saying the same thing as the book and the tutor…somehow the way that she said it was different.
“Oh,” I said, involuntarily, because suddenly I could see where I had gone wrong, and why.
By the time I slipped back up to my room that night, I had done ten problems on my own, and gotten them all right.
“Well,” Mother said a couple of weeks later as she reviewed the marks from our morning tutors over luncheon. Ellie had already served us, and moved on to other chores until it was time to clear the table. We had not looked at each other.
“Well,” Mother repeated, setting the papers down, “it is good to see that you can at last do your basic mathematics competently, Alicia.”
Lorena snickered, but stopped quickly at Mother’s glare. “Don’t snicker, Lorena, it’s unladylike. Really, girls! You’re to be presented at court next week, and I will not have you embarrassing me.”
“Yes, Mother,” we murmured in practiced unison, looking to our plates.
Although a small part of me had hoped for more praise, I knew that Mother was right. I had only just reached a barely acceptable level. But even that was more progress than I could have dreamed of making in just two weeks, and I could not help a small, quiet feeling of pride.
That night, there was an extra book in my stack when I snuck downstairs and into the kitchen.
I let myself in, and told myself I wasn’t relieved to find Ellie still awake.
“How did it go?” she asked when I had gotten settled at the table.
Words crowded on my tongue, and I gave up, shoving the extra book I had brought at her instead. It was just an old novel that I’d been gifted two years ago, not even all that interesting, really. But Ellie wouldn’t have had a chance to read it, and I was pretty sure by now that she only had four books of her own, old and worn, the ones Mother had let her keep. She definitely wasn’t permitted to use the library.
Shock widened her eyes, and she reached immediately for the book, only to hesitate at the last second. “Are…Are you sure?”
I nodded, refusing to meet her eyes.
She snatched the book up quickly, cradling it against her chest. “Thank you! Oh, Alicia, thank you!”
I couldn’t remember the last time she had said my name. My throat was tight, and I shook my head. It felt…strange. To see such joy over a single book. It didn’t…it made my stomach feel strange, and not in a good way. It was just one book.
“It’s been so long since I— Thank you!”
I hadn’t thought about what it would be like, to never have new books to read. I shoved the thought aside.
At last, the words on my tongue untangled themselves, just a little bit. “I passed, today,” I whispered. “I passed.”
Ellie’s expression brightened again as she looked up from the new book. “Did you? That’s wonderful!”
That made my stomach feel strange again, swoopy. Not bad, this time. I turned away and scowled to cover it.
But the last two words slipped off my tongue, just loud enough: “Thank you.”