Fictober, Prompt 30 – “Don’t ruin this.”
Mother and Lorena were immediately obsessed with the notion that one of us might catch the Prince’s eye, especially when the ball was being held for the purpose of finding him a wife.
I feigned as much enthusiasm as I could.
Ellie and I did not speak about it.
She wanted to come, and the phrasing of the invitation would certainly allow for it. I might have been able to put in a word with Mother (there had been some whispers, during our usual social rounds, wondering what had happened to the household’s third daughter), but I did not.
I told myself it was because we had already agreed that I shouldn’t champion Ellie’s cause to Mother, just in case.
My motives were not so straightforward as that, but Ellie did not actually ask.
We did not kiss anymore, but still sat next to each other on the few nights I could manage to sneak down to the kitchen.
I told myself it was enough.
“Stepmother,” Ellie’s voice came hesitantly from behind us just as the carriage was pulling around. “Could- Could I come to the ball as well?”
I spun, faster even than Mother and Lorena.
Ellie had made herself a dress.
She looked even lovelier than usual, even in a pale (possibly faded) blue. An old dress of her mother’s, I guessed, reworked to fit her and bring it closer to the current style.
She had made herself a dress…and she hadn’t told me.
Hurt warred with a desire to pull her close, to murmur all the compliments she deserved for both her skill and how beautiful she looked.
“What, in that?” Lorena scoffed.
Ellie tilted her chin up, stubborn. “I know it’s not as fancy as—”
“As required for an event of this caliber,” Mother finished smoothly. “You’ve done well to manage so much, child, but it is quite unsuitable. And whenever did you find the time?”
None of us missed the warning couched in that question.
“After all my chores were done, Stepmother, I promise,” Ellie was quick to assure, her head still up.
“Hm,” Mother said, “I will be checking once we have returned of course, so you’d best go over everything again. If there are potential Royal visitors in our future, the manor must be in the best possible state. Come along, girls.”
She swept out, cutting off Ellie’s last attempt to protest. Lorena followed immediately, her nose in the air in a way that she thought made her look haughty and elegant, but really just made her look stupid.
Hands clenched in the satin and brocade of my own gown, I couldn’t help but meet Ellie’s eyes.
Fury and humiliation and hopelessness were all that greeted me.
I turned away before I could see her tears, and before she could see mine.
I knew immediately that it was Ellie, when the ‘mysterious,’ ‘foreign’ beauty arrived at the ball in stunning blue gown, and shyly took the smitten Prince’s hand.
Neither Lorena nor I had made any impression on him, nor had any of the dozens of other women here tonight vying for his hand.
Ellie did make an impression.
Huffing and turning up my nose when Lorena suggested we should go spy on them in the garden, I sought out another partner, one of the many men on standby to make sure that the dance proceed smoothly even though all the women were really here just to have a chance at the Prince.
I hid my jealousy and heartbreak behind as smooth a face as I could manage, and, when I had managed two dances without stumbling, made a decision.
What I had wanted more than anything for Ellie was for her to get out, and to be happy.
If marrying the Prince would achieve both of those things for her, then I would not stand in her way.
Ellie was still here.
In the days following the ball, she was back at the manor, quiet and ash-smudged and subservient around Mother as always. Mother suspected, I thought, though Lorena didn’t. But Ellie said nothing, did nothing, and made no move to come forward even though I knew that she knew the Prince was looking for her.
I was sure, because I had tucked one of the announcements saying as much into her folded up bedding, sneaking briefly into the kitchen one day when I was sure she was cleaning elsewhere and I could snatch a moment away.
Nothing happened, and I frowned to myself often, wondering what was holding her back.
It wasn’t me, I was sure of that much. But she might be reluctant to leave the manor, to leave her childhood home, which would be lost to her forever if she simply ran away. The announcement had said that the Prince was actively searching for his missing love, so eventually he would make his way here.
(I had so many questions I wished I could ask her: Where had she gotten the beautiful gown and slippers? How had she gotten to the ball? Why had she left so quickly, and so early?)
Ellie did not speak to me, and I did not go down to the kitchen at night.
The Prince arrived unexpectedly one day a few weeks later, having wended his way through more populous areas. The short notice would have been a problem, if I hadn’t already decided what I was going to do weeks ago, and prepared.
Mother locked Ellie in the kitchen.
I played my part, tried on the glass slipper dutifully, and secretly sighed with relief when it did not fit. Lorena shoved me aside then, and made a production out of her turn, which gave me the opening I needed.
I slipped out of the parlor, and ran for the spare keys.
I threw the kitchen door open, and for the first time in weeks met Ellie’s startled eyes across the space between us.
“He’s here,” I panted, although she must know it, must know why Mother had locked her in. “He’s here.”
Then, because it hurt too much to look at her again just as I was going to lose her for good, I ran for the stairs.
The bundle of money, jewelry, more sensible clothes and a few books was already waiting. In the hubbub of Ellie trying on the slipper, it was easy enough to slip out. I lingered only long enough to see the joy on her face as the Prince escorted her to his carriage, to be sure I had done the right thing, and then I left.
I wasn’t sure where I was going, exactly, but I would not stay in this house. If Ellie could endure all that we had forced upon her all these years, I could only harden myself to whatever hardships might lie ahead, and try.
I had not been hungry, or cold, or alone before. It was hard, and I cried many bitter tears, but I did not turn back.
Eventually, I found a small village where the mayor was new, and in need of a bookkeeper to help sort out the monetary abuses of her predecessor. Offering silent thanks to Ellie for all of her help during the long, cold winter nights, I was able to prove my ability to do what the mayor needed, and she hired me the same day.
It was still a much plainer, rougher life than I had been used to, but it was better than the open road, and it was far better than the manor.
This life was honest, and earned.
They year had turned, and winter was nearly upon us. The mayor had kept me on to do the village’s accounts regularly, determined to prove to her villagers that she would be honest with them. Gradually, others hired me as well, and by now I had enough work to keep my days full, to afford a room in the one small boarding house, and to eat as well as I wished.
It was enough, I told myself on many days, and it was almost the full truth. It was good. But it was not quite the full truth to say that it was enough.
I was still alone.
Until the early winter day when I left the mayor’s house, walking home with the sun already low, and found Ellie waiting outside the boarding house, wrapped up in warm clothing of good quality, of the sort that a wealthy merchant’s daughter might wear.
Not what a Princess would wear.
“Alicia,” she said, and smiled hesitantly at me.
“Ellie,” I breathed, chest tight, and felt tears spring to my eyes. Then sense returned, and I blinked them away. “Why- Why are you here?”
A visit? Plainer clothes would make sense for travel.
“I came to find you,” she said, stepping forward. “I came to find you and ask if I could” She paused, took a deep breath, and then held my gaze as she continued, “to ask if I could stay.”
Stay? Why would she— Involuntarily, my hands rose, palms out, even though she hadn’t come any closer. “Stay? Why would you—? No, no you shouldn’t—” I swallowed, unable to hold back the tears now, unable to bear the hope. “Don’t ruin this- this chance for yourself. You can’t be here to stay, what about—” I couldn’t say it, but choked out, “Don’t ruin your life for me!”
“It’s only thanks to you that I have any chance of any life at all,” she said softly, and I buried my face in my hands, truly weeping now and unable to stop, even though we were still out in the middle of the street. “I have given up nothing that I wanted to keep.”
I wept still, and didn’t dare look up even when familiar hands settled on my arms, pulling me just a little closer.
“I have given up nothing that I wanted to keep,” she whispered, “except you.”
Burying my face against her cloaked shoulder, I sobbed, and clung too tightly.
I loved her so much. She was here. She was here for me.
“It’s the same,” I said at last, when my tears had finally eased. My voice was hoarse, and I was sure my face and hair were in a state. “I have given up nothing that I wanted to keep, except you.”
She kissed me then, despite my messy face, and held me close. It was dark now, and a few flakes of snow began to drift out of the sky.
“We’ll figure the rest out together, then,” she promised.
And with the rest of our lives stretching out before us, to live as happily as we could learn how to, we did.