Fictober, Prompt 29 – “Why are we whispering?”
Original fiction, fantasy/fairy tale. Part two of three: link to Part One (Day 28).
Warnings: none, other than the usual implications of abuse in any take on Cinderella.
Our presentations at court did not go well.
Mother had insisted on the traditional peach-colored dresses for both of us, which looked all right on Lorena but terrible on me. I had not argued. Once there, Lorena could not stifle a case of nervous hiccups, and I stumbled in my curtsy to Their Majesties.
For once, I felt glad to be just one of many young women present. I did not say this – Mother would scold me for it.
“If only the Prince had been there!” Lorena wailed during the carriage ride home. “I’m sure I could have caught his eye.”
“There will be time for that later,” Mother said, but looked as though she agreed. “It is enough for now that you are both presented, and can properly accept invitations. It expands our social opportunities.”
I did not sigh, or wince. Fortunately, Lorena continued to chatter (as grating as her voice often was), so I could safely look at the window, watching the landscape pass.
It was a relief when we reached the manor, and more so as evening set in. I did not allow myself to think about why.
I had slept the past three nights, to make sure I wasn’t too tired at court, but tonight I took my books (and one extra) and crept downstairs to the kitchen once Mother and Lorena were asleep.
“How did it go?” Ellie asked once I had settled myself at the table and she had exclaimed over the new book I slid over to her.
I hesitated, then shook my head. “Badly. I stumbled. And I look terrible in peach.”
(I looked terrible in most things, really. More and more I looked in my mirror and was forced to acknowledge to myself that I was not pretty. Not hideous, certainly, but not pretty, no matter what Mother claimed.)
Ellie grimaced sympathetically. It made me feel a little better somehow. “It’s so many layers, isn’t it?”
I nodded. Then, feeling daring and guilty all at once, I said, “Lorena got hiccups.”
Ellie’s face did something strange, as if she thought she should grimace in sympathy again but actually wanted to laugh. It looked funny.
She was still prettier than I was. She was pretty.
My stomach jolted a little with the thought, one I hadn’t ever quite had before, but I still found myself smiling wryly as she lost the battle against a giggle and hid it behind her hand.
“We’ll have to go to more parties now,” I said, allowing my displeasure with this idea to show now that it was safe. “Dances and things, in the evenings.” That they would run late, and probably interrupt this late-night studying with Ellie, did not improve my opinion of them.
“Ah, I suppose so,” Ellie said, her giggles subsiding. She looked a little wistful about it, looking down at the book in her hands, smoothing work-worn fingers over it.
The warmth in my stomach at our shared laughter soured, turning cold.
Of course if…if things had been different, then Ellie would probably have gone with—
Suddenly hyper-aware of the kitchen around us – the kitchen – of Ellie’s sleeping pallet near the fire, her threadbare clothes, her ash-smudged face, I found my ears ringing. The book in her hands, available to her only because I was sneaking them out of my own room, one or two at time, for her to read. My stack of studying books, casually tossed on the table. My warm, rich nightgown and shawl and slippers. My warm, soft bed, waiting upstairs.
Ellie was – should have been – my step-sister. She was a servant.
I didn’t realize I was swaying, vision going strange at the edges, until Ellie was suddenly beside me, her hands on my shoulders, her eyes wide with alarm in her pretty face. “Alicia! Are you all right? Are you sick?”
“I—” I rasped, gulping air suddenly, my vision slowly clearing. I stared at her in horror. All of her drudgery, and all of our taunts – of my taunts – over the past years stretching out in my mind. “Ellie, I—”
I wasn’t sure what, but something in my expression allowed her to guess what I had been thinking.
“Ah.” She made sure I was steady in my seat, then rose and shuffled back to her own. She didn’t say, ‘It’s all right,’ and I was glad.
It wasn’t all right, none of it…and I didn’t think I could fix it.
No, I told myself, more and more tired of the lies: I wasn’t brave enough to try and fix it.
Ellie, watching me, shook her head. “Don’t,” she said softly. “Don’t. I’m” she stopped, doing me the courtesy of not lying to me. “Your mother won’t abide it. Don’t take on that burden.”
“But you…” This was Ellie’s home, I thought, feeling momentarily sick again. I swallowed it down.
“Do you think,” she asked, very quietly, her eyes suddenly very hard, “that you would be safe, if you insisted?”
This wave of nausea was less because of the question, and more because I knew she was right to ask it.
Faintly, I shook my head. Strangely, she relaxed again at that, and allowed me a wry smile. “The books are enough.”
They were decidedly not enough, but they were something I could manage. I would, I decided then, see what else I could do without arousing any suspicion from Mother or Lorena.
“What did you want to go over tonight?” Ellie asked then, gesturing to my books.
Swallowing hard, I allowed her to change the topic.
My bed was not welcoming later that night, and I slept badly.
Things changed, over the next few weeks.
As I had suspected, more evening social engagements meant fewer nights that I had the time or the energy for extra study. The relief of doing better with the Mathematics tutor would have been enough to keep me trying on the nights I could manage it, but seeing Ellie made it even better.
I did not think too hard about why that was. It wasn’t lying, I told myself (another lie), if I just didn’t think about it. It would all catch up to me eventually, but for now I was glad for a couple of hours where I didn’t have to hold myself so rigidly.
I left her more books, a few at a time, and brought down treatises and textbooks as well at her request.
“I always loved numbers,” Ellie told me one evening, her head bent over one of my old literature books, and mine over my mathematics, “so Papa taught me a lot of mathematics when I was younger.” We left unspoken the fact that her formal schooling had stopped when he died, and she devoured everything I brought her eagerly.
She was very smart, in addition to being very pretty. I surprised myself by feeling pleased, rather than jealous, as it became clear that she picked up everything much more quickly than I ever had. I wondered what lessons would have been like, if it had been Ellie there with me, instead (or at least in addition to) Lorena.
That thought made me feel bad all over again, though, so I set it aside.
It was a bitterly cold night.
This had the good effect of canceling any evening social engagements, and gave me an opportunity to sneak down to the kitchen. But even the kitchen fire was struggling against this cold, I discovered, and Ellie was already huddled up on her pallet (now supplemented with some additional blankets at my insistence).
I put my books on the table, but didn’t hesitate to join her when she gestured me over.
This close to the fire, tucked into the same blankets, it was still plenty warm enough.
We had rarely been this close, and I flushed a little, looking away.
“Here,” she whispered, and snuck an arm out to pull a small basket closer along the hearth. “Let’s have some of these.”
“What are they?” I whispered back, peering over.
“Some of the last chestnuts,” she showed me. “We can roast them, and they’ll be warm.”
I nodded, and watched her do it. I hadn’t ever had roast chestnuts before, that I could recall.
She whispered about finding them out in the woods, back in the fall, and tucking some away for the winter nights.
“Here,” she said, and handed me one.
It was hot, and I dropped it into the blankets in surprise. Ellie giggled, and picked it up carefully, blowing on it before holding it up for me to take a bite. I did, gingerly, and was pleased with the burst of heat and flavor on my tongue.
“It’s good,” I said, still whispering. “Why are we whispering?”
She laughed again, and made me take another bite of chestnut, her fingers brushing my lips. “I don’t know! It seemed like a whispering kind of night.”
It did, somehow. My lips tingled.
She ate the next chestnut herself, then fed another one to me. I ate it carefully, not sure what to do with the way she was watching me.
I took the next chestnut and fed it to her. Her eyes were bright, though she wasn’t smiling. It didn’t feel like a bad thing. She finished it with precise bites, her lips just barely grazing my fingers as she took the last one.
We were already so close, I didn’t know who leaned in first, only that we were kissing.
It was warm, her lips a little chapped and mine a little worn from nervous biting.
It was strange.
It was good.
Spring arrived, and slowly the manor warmed. The dining hall probably would be a tolerable temperature now, even at night, but neither of us suggested that I should go back.
Warmth had long since become the least of my reasons to study in the kitchen.
We sat and read together now, just as often as we studied separately. Ellie had taught me enough that I was keeping up mostly on my own with the Mathematics now, not perfectly, but with acceptable scores on my examinations. (Mother and the tutor took this as proof that I had just been lazy before. I did not attempt to say otherwise. It didn’t sting as much as it once would have.) I almost even enjoyed some of it now.
At Ellie’s request, I told her about the parties and dances we attended, describing gowns and suits and repeating the best jokes that I had heard during those evenings out. I attempted to teach her a few of the dances, but wasn’t too good at them myself. Her laughter made it worth it.
I taught Ellie the embroidery stitches that I was competent with, and she taught me practical things, like how to mend a tear or replace a button. Once I could do it well enough, we sometime did the mending together, and I was relieved to help lighten a burden for her, however small.
We kissed, sometimes, not every time, but we always sat close, leaning together if nothing else. It felt safe, and right, the way few things ever had. Although I hadn’t said anything to Ellie, I was starting to save away some money, and to think about ways to help her get out.
(To get both of us out, I hoped. But a tiny, niggling bit of doubt held me back. I had been cruel to her too, for so long. Why would she want to stay with me? It didn’t matter. She shouldn’t be stuck like this forever. I couldn’t fix the past, but maybe it wasn’t too late to do the right thing in the future.)
During the day, we put on exemplary performances of being just as distant and cold to each other as we had ever been. I was no longer cruel to her, unable to stomach the thought, but Lorena was nasty enough for two, and Mother just as bad, if in a subtler way.
My eyes felt opened now, though, to the ways that subtlety was turned against Lorena and me as well, and turned us against each other.
It was a relief to (mostly) no longer care.
Everything was going smoothly, and although I didn’t have a long-range plan yet, I felt sure that I would think of something soon.
Then, invitations for the Royal Ball arrived.