Once upon a future time, I learned I didn’t exist. I was not the beloved little sister, the one with the heart of gold. My spunky, sassy sister with the sharp mind and spine of steel took my place. But perhaps it’s for the best. One day she’ll get her fairy tale ending, just not the one the stories gave her. That’s all mine, though I wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for my sister.
The sky was clear and the sea calm. The golden sun was almost ready to rise, but seemed to be as sleepy as Abigail felt as the weak winter rays struggled over the horizon. It made the sand beneath the soles of her thin slippers freezing cold, and her feet longed for a warm fire. But that would have to wait until after she, her sister, her stepmother, and her stepsister had seen her father, the Count Olidan, off to the Pearl Kingdom.
A distant relative of the king, but the only one who made his permanent home near enough, Lawrence had served as the ambassador to the nearby sea kingdom since before Abigail’s older sister had been born. Her father counted it as a great honor, but Abigail hated it because it meant he spent long stretches of time away from home.
Abigail stifled another yawn as her older sister draped a spare shawl over her shoulders.
“I’m fine, Camille,” Abigail said softly, though she did shift closer to her sister.
“Don’t worry so much,” Camille said, wrapping an arm around Abigail and holding her close. “Father will be back in the spring.”
“I’m not worried,” Abigail said on another yawn. “I’m tired. Why did Father have to leave at dawn?”
She felt Camille shrug as her eyelids drooped yet again. She was sad to see her father leave yet again, but he hadn’t ever really been present in their lives anyways. She barely knew him and he barely knew his two daughters. If his wife hadn’t died during the summer last year, he wouldn’t have been home at all during the fall and early winter. But Lawrence, the Count Olidan, couldn’t leave Camille and Abigail without a female influence, so had returned from the Pearl Kingdom to lay his wife to rest and remarry.
Camille’s squeeze woke her up again, and she sighed. “I’m awake, Camille,” she murmured. She smothered another yawn. “It’s not like he’ll miss us any more than we’ll miss him.”
“He’s our father, Abigail,” Camille gently admonished, though Abigail knew her sister felt the same as her. “Look, the sun’s almost over the horizon. We’d better join Father, Muriel, and Madeline.”
Abigail sighed heavily as her sister’s arms dropped away.
The sun was, indeed, much higher and brighter than it had been only minutes ago. It was casting a wavering golden light on the sapphire sea spread out before them. In the distance was an island with a lagoon that was home to a bustling mer society. The Pearl Kingdom itself lay spread out between the shore and the island, but, in recent years, most of the merfolk tended to stay closer to the island.
Lawrence was a tall, imposing man who rivaled the king in height. His hair was so short it barely covered his scalp. As he told his daughters when they asked why their father was the only man in the kingdom to be nearly bald, hair had a bad habit of getting in the way when he was in the depths of the Pearl Kingdom. Now he stood, the sea gently lapping at his ankles, dressed in simple trousers and shirt. Beside him, clinging to his arm, was a woman twice Abigail’s age, her graying dark hair powdered white so no one knew she was losing her lustrous raven color. Hovering behind them was a young woman just a year older than Abigail, her age resting comfortably between Camille’s and Abigail’s. A gray cloak was wrapped around her slender, solemn figure.
“Dear Lawrence,” the older woman simpered, “I’m going to miss you dreadfully.”
“Nonsense, dear,” Lawrence said distractedly, his free hand lifted to shade against the sun, his eyes squinted so he could keep a look out for the sea sorceress who would give him his tail. “You have three young women to finish educating and seeing to. I expect I won’t be back until one of them is about to be wed or when the betrothal is confirmed.”
Abigail could imagine the sharp nails digging into her father’s arm when he yelped with alarm and pulled himself from his new wife’s hands. She didn’t blame Muriel. Imagine marrying a man just two months before and then being told she’s on her own for who knew how long!
“Mother,” the slim woman behind Muriel, the new Countess Olidan, said quietly. She quickly sidestepped around her mother and stood on her toes to quickly peck her new father’s check. “Good luck. And, with any luck, we will be seeing you soon. I expect Prince James won’t find anything lacking in the mermaid princess.”
Lawrence smiled grimly as he turned from his new step-daughter. A figure had just emerged from the sea, just a head and half of a torso with a tail flicking a short distance behind. “The princess is a difficult woman, but I hope the rest of the negotiations go without a hitch. Thank you, Madeline.”
Madeline nodded and turned to draw her indignant mother away from Lawrence, allowing Camille and Abigail to make their way to their father. It wasn’t like their farewell would be any less chilly, but, being his blood daughters, they had a natural place of honor in Lawrence’s life.
Abigail clutched at the shawl around her shoulders as she and her sister stood before their father. His dark eyes had turned on them and he studied them from head to toe, as he always did. Abigail wasn’t sure if he was memorizing what they looked like so he could have an image to compare them to when he returned or if he was looking for something to scold them about.
Before he could say anything, Camille leaned forward and gave him his customary peck on his other cheek, murmuring, “Good luck, Father. We hope to see you soon.”
Abigail never really knew how to say farewell to her father. His first trip under the sea had been mere months after she’d been born. She hadn’t seen him again until she was nearly four, when her mother had screeched at him for leaving them for so long.
With her lashes demurely and shyly lowered, she lurched forward and deposited her own peck on his cheek. Without a word, she scampered backwards towards her sister, taking comfort as Camille wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She couldn’t see her father’s glare, but she could feel it. Abigail was his shy daughter, the one he always worried would never find a husband, would always have to take care of. She tried to not let the blush touch her cheeks, already pale enough with the cold.
“Good luck, Father,” she murmured, still not meeting his eyes, when Camille gently nudged her.
“Until I return,” Lawrence said curtly.
Light splashing accompanied his movements deeper into the water, finally drawing Abigail’s eyes up from the cold sand beneath her slippered feet. She watched as the sorceress fluttered her hands just above the water, and her father slipped from view, pulled under the sea. When she had been a young girl, she remembered she’d gasped and clung to her mother, but her mother had only murmured softly and urged her to look up. A moment later, her father had popped up and flipped a tail at them, just as he was doing now. Abigail wasn’t sure if the tail flip was a wave or a natural part of gaining a fish tail, but her mother always thought of it as a wave.
Once upon a time, Lawrence had been in love. Genevieve had been young and beautiful and kind. She, the daughter of a lord from the snowy Great North, had been new to the king’s court and had instantly won Lawrence’s young heart. She had been shy, but Lawrence had been persistent. He always said Abigail reminded him best of her, and always, in wistful tones, hoped she would find a husband just as Genevieve had. If only Abigail would leave the manor now and then.
Abigail couldn’t understand how her mother, such a sweet woman, could be so happily married to a man who left her for long periods of time, but Camille had said they would have awful arguments when Abigail had been young. Over the years, things seemed to have smoothed out between them and it had worked. Twenty-four years of marriage later, though, it was over when Genevieve had been thrown from her horse and killed instantly.
A loud sniff broke through her reverie, making her turn back towards her new stepmother and stepsister. Her heart broke a little for them. They’d just joined the family and had now been abandoned by the patriarch. Madeline, as always, looked serious and stoic, but her mother was clearly unhappy and, maybe, a little angry.
Camille gently squeezed Abigail’s shoulders before moving away. Abigail didn’t mind; Camille was better with people than her. Other than some of the servants and their mother, Abigail tended to shy away from everyone. How she was going to live with a new mother and sister was beyond her.
“Don’t worry, Muriel,” Camille said in her most calming voice. “Father will be back soon enough. The betrothal is all but guaranteed. All that’s left is to determine the best time for the wedding.”
As she slowly approached, Abigail could see Muriel’s lips tighten. Camille reached out and placed a hand on Muriel’s shoulder, and a shudder went through the older woman’s body.
“The nerve of your father,” Muriel said softly, her voice husky and melodious at the same time.
“But you knew he was one of the king’s ambassadors,” Madeline put in.
Muriel turned on her daughter, making Madeline shrink into herself a little, as Camille’s hand fell away. “A husband does not leave his new wife so early on in marriage, Madeline. I raised you better than to think that way.” Her cold eyes cut over to where Abigail and Camille stood together. “Lawrence may have his heirs, but I’ll not stand for this. He put the two of you under my thumb. We’ll see how long it takes him to come to his senses.”
Muriel turned away in a swirl of pastel skirts, sweeping her daughter along with her. Abigail watched her stalk across the shimmery pink sand as the sun rose behind them. The city was starting to come alive and a few curious looks were being thrown their way, but the streets were still quiet.
Camille wrapped her arm around Abigail and gently pulled her sister along after their new mother and sister. “Come along, Gail. Everything will be fine.”
Abigail shuddered and pulled her shawl closer, the skirt of her pale green gown just barely skimming the surface of the sand. “What do you think she’ll do?”
“Who knows?” Camille said grimly. “But I’ll watch out for you.”
“You’ve always done that,” Abigail protested. “I’m twenty-two now and you’re well over marriageable age. You don’t need to protect me anymore, Camille.”
But her sister only set her jaw more firmly. “I’ll not let that woman lay a hand on you,” Camille said softly, fiercely. “Whatever you do, Gail, stay out of her way.”
“No, Abigail. I don’t trust Muriel and she’ll only get to you over my dead body.”
“Camille, I’m a grown woman, too. You don’t need to protect me.”
“Need and will are two different things.”
Abigail sighed and trudged after her sister. Camille was stubborn, which was also why she had yet to marry, and there was simply no arguing with her. Abigail knew; it never worked. Then again, Abigail tried to skirt around confrontation.
Olidan Manor was one of the more ornate manors in the city. Since Lawrence was a distant cousin to the king, he was afforded more luxuries than most of the wealthy in the city. Since he was also the closest of the king’s kin living permanently in the city, it was situated just down the hill from the castle overlooking the sea.
The carriage that had taken them to the pink sands now rumbled into the manor’s courtyard after passing several smaller manors and elegant houses belonging to the city’s wealthy. Though none of the families were related to the king, or even the queen, they still carried themselves with dignity and their facades shimmered in the rising sunlight.
“Peasants,” Muriel had hissed as their carriage rolled by.
Startled, Abigail had turned wide eyes on her new mother, but Madeline had quickly reached out to grab her wrist. With a tiny shake of her head, she had pursed her lips and gently squeezed Abigail’s wrist. Unfortunately, Camille was on the other side of Abigail, so hadn’t had Madeline stopping her.
“That’s uncalled for, Muriel,” Camille had said sharply. Abigail knew where her sister was coming from. After all, the “peasants” had been their neighbors all their lives, no matter that some of them rotated in and out. “They’re hardworking people who have earned a place of honor in the city.”
Muriel had sniffed and looked down her nose at Camille, not seeing her daughter’s hand wrapped around Abigail’s wrist. “If you think that kindly of them, then perhaps you belong with them.”
Camille had narrowed her eyes. “You may be my father’s new bride, but you do not have charge of me. I am a grown woman, and you are the one being welcomed into my family home.”
Abigail had stiffened at the cold look in Muriel’s eyes. She had never trusted the woman, never trusted the cooing and tenderness she had shown under Lawrence’s passably watchful eyes. There had always been something cold and calculating in her eyes, something of a gold digger in her bearing. But her father would not have listened to her. How was Abigail to know anything of people? She rarely wandered out the door if she didn’t have to. But Abigail saw, and knew. Her new stepmother was not a kind woman, and she and Camille were about to find out just how deep she could cut.
Now, silently, solemnly, the four women trooped into the manor. Madeline’s hand was still around her wrist, keeping the two youngest women as close together as possible. Camille was stalking in front of them, silently seething and storming. Leading them all, though, was Muriel, her head held high and her skirts swishing with purpose around her.
The heavy mahogany doors slammed shut behind them as servants scurrying through the hall stopped to bow and curtsy. The chandelier was brightly lit, tiny crystals glimmering with rainbows to light up an otherwise dark and dreary Great Hall. The stairs before them curved along both sides, white marble glistening under the light while blonde oak gleamed along the railings. Beneath the platform they met under, a tall, serious man stood waiting, hands behind his back.
“Not now,” Muriel said, waving him off without a glance.
The man, with hesitation written all over his body, stole a glance at Camille and Abigail, the two women he had been serving since their births. Abigail could see the question in his posture, the uncertainty in his face. He had always been the first to greet them, even if they’d only gone out to pick a flower, the first to attend to them. It was his duty, as given to him by their father.
Before Abigail could smile and let him know everything was fine, Camille cut her a quick glance and called out, “Everything’s fine, Geoffrey. Please check on breakfast.”
The man bowed and turned away as Muriel rounded on her older stepdaughter. Madeline’s hand tightened almost painfully around Abigail’s wrist, making the younger woman wince, but she wasn’t quite sure of how to ask her new sister to let go. Perhaps something in her father’s words rang true. How was she to know how to properly talk to a person if she never left the manor unless forced? Madeline wasn’t paying her any attention, anyways.
“Let’s make one thing clear,” Muriel said, her soft purring voice deep and dangerous. “I am your mother now. I am the Countess Olidan. This manor is under my reign.”
Camille, never one to back down, drew herself up, her eyes flashing. Abigail wished she could disappear, or hide behind a vase. Camille was little more than a whirlwind, a force to be reckoned with when she was like this. Abigail had no desire to watch her sister and stepmother face off. She’d rather go hunt down the family cat or run among the chickens running free across the extensive land. But Madeline was still clinging to her. The one saving grace was that Madeline kept her nails trimmed short so they weren’t digging in and drawing blood.
“Madeline,” Abigail whispered, her voice wavering and so faint she wasn’t sure the other woman would hear her, but Madeline only threw her a warning glance before tightening her hand just a little more.
“I beg to differ, Muriel,” Camille said, biting off her stepmother’s name. “Father may have married you, but my sister and I are grown women. Besides,” she said, managing to look down her nose, “Abigail and I are of royal blood while you’re little more than a peasant yourself. Do not rise above your station.”
Anger rolled off Muriel like waves, making Madeline tug on Abigail to draw them both back a little. Clearly, Madeline had an idea of what her mother was capable of as Muriel drew closer to Camille, their noses almost touching, though Camille never moved a muscle. Abigail wished she could tell her new sister they could back all the way to the stairs and then flee to their rooms.
“I am the Countess Olidan,” Muriel said softly, quietly. “I am your new mother. My marriage to your father proves that. It is my responsibility and duty to take care of you and Abigail.” A slow, dangerous smile spread across her face. “I intend on doing just that.”
Camille smiled back. Viciously. A glimmer in her eyes.
For years, I believed my sister lost to time and space. As little girls, we would pick through the pink sand for sea glass. Lore said the sea sorceresses enchanted them before tossing them to shore, little gems left like gifts from the sea to the humans. The adults laughed it off. They had grown up long ago. But children always believed. My sister and I believed. We always have. The sea glass always worked for us. A way for sisters to communicate voice to voice, heart to heart. Until the cruel day the sea glass only spit back silence.
Abigail watched as Camille stalked back and forth across her room. She was perched, like a bird, on the edge of her own bed, the soft cotton sheets and quilt covered in blooming flowers neatly folded beneath her. Her fingers dug into the soft material at either side of her, possibly to keep her from flying away or possibly just to give her nervous fingers something to do. Camille had taken the book from her hands when she’d entered and Abigail couldn’t help but feel her fingers tremble with the need to pluck it back from her sister.
“Camille, you’re making me nervous,” Abigail said, a nervous laugh escaping along with the words.
“I can’t believe Father left that woman with us,” Camille seethed, her fingers white around Abigail’s book.
“Madeline doesn’t seem so bad,” Abigail said. “She has a good grip.”
“I don’t mean Madeline, Gail. Muriel is up to no good. Gold digging woman. I could smell her a mile away. Simpering up to Father at Mother’s funeral. The nerve of that woman!”
“She made Father happy,” Abigail said in a small voice. “But, Camille, it doesn’t matter. She is our mother now.”
“Stepmother,” Camille snapped. “That woman can never replace Mother, and I don’t intend on letting her try.”
“She isn’t going to make life here pleasant.”
Camille waved a hand. “She can do what she wants.” Taking a deep breath, Camille went around to her sister and knelt on the rug before Abigail. She finally handed the book back and clasped one of Abigail’s hands. “I just want you to stay out of her way. Let this be between her and me. Please, Abigail, I couldn’t stand it if Muriel tears you down.”
“Camille, I may not like being around people, but I’m hardly fragile.”
Her sister shook her head. “It doesn’t matter, Abigail. I’m your older sister. Please let me protect you.”
Abigail smiled and placed her free hand on top of her sister’s. “Camille, you forget I am of marriageable age as well. You do not need to be my protector anymore.”
Camille leaned forward slightly, an earnest expression on her face. “But I have to, Gail! I have to be. You have such a hard time speaking to people, such a difficulty even leaving the manor. How will you even find a husband?”
Abigail’s smile dropped from her face and she tugged her hands back. She folded her arms around herself and turned her head. It was always the same. Her father. Her mother. Camille. Even Geoffrey hovered over her.
“I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” Abigail said quietly.
She could feel Camille pulling away, could feel her sister’s disappointment and worry. But she couldn’t make herself turn back, couldn’t bring a smile to make things better back to her face. Camille had been shielding her all her life, had been the light of every ball and every social gathering so Abigail could nestle into a corner. She’d always taken the out with relief. She knew she needed to thank her sister. But, at twenty-two, her sister’s resolve to rule Abigail’s life was starting to grate on her. She couldn’t understand why everyone had a hard time with letting her be.
She heard Camille rise and take a few steps away. From somewhere around the doorway, she heard her sister’s soft voice, “Just promise me you’ll stay out of Muriel’s way. Let me deal with her.”
Without looking, Abigail nodded. She neither wanted to cross paths with her stepmother nor did she want everyone to continue treating her like something was wrong with her.
She clutched at her book, one of her mother’s favorites. The cover was soft and worn, and she imagined she could still hear her mother turning the pages. It had been a gift from Genevieve’s father. Abigail remembered her grandfather with fondness. His wife had passed long before Abigail had been born, so had taken to traveling back and forth between the two linked worlds. This book had come from the linked world, an old worn and used copy of what her grandfather had called a classic.
The lettering on the cover had worn away long ago. But she knew it by heart, had asked her mother read it to her night after night. It was about a girl. A dreamer of a girl just like Abigail. But, unlike Abigail, the girl had had a fantastic adventure full of wonder. The kind of adventure Abigail herself would shy away from. It wasn’t that she was adverse to any kind of fun or exploration, but she really did prefer to be at home, curled up with a book or wrist deep in smooth, warm bread dough.
Bread dough. The kitchen. Her sister wanted her to stay out of Muriel’s way. Well, she wanted to stay out of Muriel’s way, too. She chafed a bit under her sister’s orders, but she was intending on doing just that anyways. She’d thought frequent visits to her mother’s extensive library or out to chase the chickens and ride her favorite mare would be enough, but she also loved the warm yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread, of soft sweet cakes just waiting for icing, and muffins jammed full of berries from the bushes and fields behind the manor. She would just explain to Alexander and Diane and Helene that Camille wanted her to stay out of Muriel’s way, and what better place than the kitchens? They did love her company. Surely they wouldn’t have any objections, other than the one that a lady related to the king shouldn’t be acting a servant.
Oh, bah! She was only distantly related. There was barely any shared blood left. But Lawrence was still of royal blood, so still held a place of honor in the kingdom. Likewise, so did his daughters.
She bristled slightly. And now so did Muriel. Through marriage, of course. But she had no doubt that Muriel intended on perfectly placing her daughter in the way of, perhaps not the Crown Prince since he was practically married, but perhaps the Duke’s son. Or maybe one of the Marchioness’s three sons.
Wistfully, she remembered each of the boys and girls she called cousin no matter if they were the child of the Prince, the king’s younger brother, or one of the countless viscounts, counts, and barons. Prince James was close in age to her, as was Adrian, the Prince’s son. Since they all lived in the same city, they’d often spent time running the streets together as children, much to the consternation of all the nannies that had been set on them. Parties and balls had been particularly fun. James always had a prank he wanted to play and Adrian had always been more than happy to go along. It hadn’t taken much for them to talk Abigail into joining them since Camille preferred the company of Adrian’s younger sister.
Abigail wistfully ran her fingertips over her mother’s book. It had been a long time since she’d seen either James or Adrian, but, with James’s betrothal imminent, it wouldn’t be long before she could see her cousins again. The only boys who hadn’t teased her for hiding behind her mother’s skirts and her sister’s exuberance. And maybe she could warn Adrian he was likely being eyed by Muriel as a suitable husband for Madeline.
Dawn found Abigail fully ensconced in the kitchens. Helene had only nodded when Abigail had shown up and said her sister advised her to stay out of Muriel’s way. She’d set Abigail in a far corner where she’d likely be overlooked, happily kneading dough for sweet buns for the afternoon tea.
The kitchen was humming with the quiet sounds of cooking and baking. Alexander, Diane, and Helene were softly padding around, stirring here, adding there. It was a well-choreographed dance they didn’t need her to be a part of, but they welcomed her all the same.
Abigail closed her eyes as she gently worked the dough. Her nostrils were full of the smell of sugar and almonds. She knew Alexander and Diane were hard at work making breakfast, and was glad she would not be sitting down with them. Helene had shoved a soft, buttery roll into her hands before gently guiding her to her corner.
Camille had woken Abigail an hour before to whisk her towards the kitchens, shoving Abigail as they heard Muriel heading in their direction. Camille had hurried off to meet their new stepmother and Abigail shuddered slightly as she remembered the few short words the two women had exchanged. Muriel was set on treating Camille as little more than a servant herself, the quiet, oft in hiding younger sister completely forgotten. Just as she liked. How Lawrence would take it when he returned and heard his daughters had been treated like servants, she didn’t know, but Muriel would be the one facing the music, so she didn’t particularly care at the moment.
All that mattered, right then and there, was the dough Helene was gently coaxing from her hands.
Abigail’s eyes snapped open. The short, matronly woman with the curly gray hair that was forever escaping her cap smiled as she yanked the rest of the dough from Abigail’s hands.
“That’s enough, dear,” Helene said. “The dough has been sufficiently kneaded and I have a task for you.”
Abigail wiped her hands on the apron tied around her waist and smiled. “Of course, Helene. What do you have for me to do?”
Helene turned and pointed to a small table set near the door to the grounds. The small window to the side still had its curtains closed, so Abigail could only see a slim, bent over figuring sitting at it, hands picking at something on a plate.
“Get to know your new sister,” Helene said softly, gently pushing Abigail forward.
Abigail dug in her feet as panic struck her heart. Certainly, Madeline was her sister, but she didn’t know the other woman well at all. Of course, that would be why Helene wanted her to sit with Madeline, but what would Abigail say? Talking was not her strong suit, and absolutely, completely, made her heart want to jump up and out of her throat.
“Oh, no, Helene, I couldn’t,” Abigail said, her eyes pleading. “Surely you must have other tasks for me to do. I could go to the market. Or take out the waste.”
Helene frowned, though her eyes softened. “Miss Abigail, wouldn’t your mother want you to show kindness and courtesy to your new sister?”
Abigail crossed her arms. “If my mother were to tell me this, I wouldn’t have a new sister to get to know.”
Helene dipped her head. “I understand, Miss Abigail, but, if I may overstep myself a little, I believe your mother raised you better.”
Abigail’s chest hurt with how tightly it squeezed the breath from her lungs. Her mother, the paragon of elegance and propriety, had taught her better. She had understood Abigail’s tendency to shy away from people, but her mother’s words always buzzed in her head.
“No matter what, Abigail, we are ladies, cousins to the king himself,” Genevieve would whisper in her ear. “It is our duty to act accordingly whether or not we wish it.”
Abigail squared her shoulders and silently walked over to her new sister. Behind her, she heard Helene’s skirts rustle as the woman moved away.
Madeline was bent over one of the icing slathered sweet buns Helene was famous for handing out to anyone who wandered into the kitchens. Her delicate fingers were picking at the warm, sweet yeasty bread, shredding it into pieces just large enough for a bird. Abigail didn’t see her new older sister eating any.
“Good morning,” Abigail said softly as she sat, turning her head to her right to where Madeline sat staring at the curtains.
Madeline started and the piece of sweet bun she’d been holding tumbled to the plate. “Oh. Abigail. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were here.”
“What are you doing here?” Abigail asked, cringing slightly. As she’d told Helene, talking to people was far from her forte.
Madeline didn’t seem to notice, though. Her eyes had lowered and her fingers were back to picking at the bun. “Avoiding Mother. I heard her rise early and corner Camille. I didn’t hear you, though.”
Abigail shrugged and looked away. “Camille said I should come to the kitchens.”
“That was smart. Mother has Camille scrubbing the floors. Honestly, I didn’t think Camille would do it. After all, the two of you are royalty.”
“Distant royalty,” Abigail corrected, “but, yes, Prince James was one of my childhood playmates. I don’t really see how Muriel will explain all of this to Father. Then again, Father has only ever been mildly interested in us. Mother never managed to give him a son, so he’s only interested in us in how far up he can get us married. The more royal blood, the better.”
Madeline’s head dropped a little more. “I’m afraid my mother is not too different.”
“So she is something of a gold digger.” The words tumbled from her mouth, as they usually did when she was alone and talking to herself. Except she wasn’t alone.
“No,” Madeline said, laughing softly and uncomfortably, her head bowed so she, hopefully, missed the red blush staining Abigail’s face. “She absolutely is. She wants to use her marriage to introduce me to someone like the Prince’s son.”
Abigail felt her eyebrows rise. “That’s bold.” She cocked her head to the side. “I don’t remember much of my time running around with Adrian and James, but I do remember girls fawning over them. I suppose they’re handsome in their own ways. What do you think of it?”
Madeline raised one shoulder in a shrug, her fingers still working away at the bun and her teeth nibbling at her lower lip. Abigail couldn’t help but notice all the nervous ticks her new sister had. How she would manage marrying into the royal family was beyond her.
“If I’m honest,” Madeline said softly, “you and your family are the closest I’ve ever been to royalty. I don’t really know how to behave.” Her fingers suddenly clenched around the poor hunk of bread, and Abigail winced at the waste. “Mother wants me to be presentable by the engagement ball.”
“Helene’s sweet buns are the best part of the day,” Abigail said, unable to lift her eyes from the wreckage on Madeline’s plate. “Maybe next time you can actually try a bite.”
Madeline blushed and immediately pulled her hands from the mangled bun. “Apologies, Abigail.”
Abigail shook her head. “I don’t do well in public, either.”
“Oh, it’s not that,” Madeline said softly. “I mean, Mother has always complained I’m a little too much on the shy side. I’m just terrified of being that close to royalty, of being forced into marriage.”
“Well,” Abigail said, perhaps a little too sharply, “no one is forced into marriage. James and the mermaid princess have met and both agreed to the marriage.”
Madeline flapped one hand, her eyes wide and finally lifting to meet Abigail’s. “Oh, no, that’s not what I meant! I know I couldn’t be forced, and neither could he, but, well, Mother can be very persuasive.” She bit her lip and lowered her eyes. “Mother was born into a merchant family and married into an even wealthier merchant family. But she’s always angled on mixing her blood with royal blood, meaning me. She had been resigned to always being little more than a wealthy merchant’s wife, but then my father died, and she smelled opportunity.”
Abigail’s lips pressed into a thin line. She couldn’t help thinking bitterly at how quickly Madeline’s mother had jumped.
Madeline’s head drooped a little more and she heaved a great sigh into the silence. “I know what you must be thinking. I mean, you lost your mother so recently. But I hope I can at least befriend my new sisters.”
“I did say I don’t do well in public, and that’s true. I’m terribly awkward around people I don’t know well. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for Helene, I wouldn’t even be here talking to you.” Though calling it talking was probably being kind. She was certain she was botching the whole conversation.
Madeline looked up at her, her eyes earnest. “But do you think we could get to know each other well? Become friends maybe? Perhaps you could even teach me how to not humiliate myself at the ball?”
Abigail forced a smile. “I’ll share what I know. But, if you’re after Adrian, he was a bit of a cheeky boy when we were young. I imagine he’ll like you if you can give him a good laugh.”
Madeline tipped her head to one side. “At me or with me?”
Abigail shrugged. “Adrian will like you either way. He’s a bit indiscriminate. At least, he was back then. It’s probably been a good ten years since I last enjoyed his company.”
“You haven’t seen him since?”
“Since I was twelve? Only from a distance. His father took him back to Murant Holdings when he was fifteen. He comes back to the city only once in a while for periodic royal duties, but, as we’re so far down the line, we’re rarely in attendance ourselves.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t even tell you what he actually looks like, just what all the drawings say he does.”
“Oh,” Madeline said, her shoulders drooping a little. “I suppose he must have changed quite a bit since.”
Abigail shrugged, wondering how much longer this was going to go on for. “He’s grown up, at least. I don’t think I would be much help in winning him over, but I am intimately familiar with royal protocol.”
Madeline tentatively reached out and took one of Abigail’s hands. “Whatever you have to offer, I’ll be happy for.”
Madeline looked so grateful, it was all Abigail could do to not let her smile slip. People touching her was right up there with people talking to her.
We tied the bits of glass with soft string stolen from the seamstress’s basket and put it around our necks. They were our secret. Late at night, my sister and I would share secrets or plans. Even when she grew up, her voice was there for me. Eventually, the glass would grow as cold as the sea and as dead as driftwood. But there was always blessed sea glass, and two sisters who always believed.
Camille unpinned her hair and shook her head to loosen her chestnut curls. She fought the urge to curse violently and fluently in front of her little sister, but Muriel certainly had some demands all day!
Flipping her hair back, she turned from the long mirror hanging on a wall in Abigail’s bedchamber towards Abigail herself. As usual, her sister was gently swinging one leg as she flipped through a book. One of their mother’s if Camille had to guess. Ever since their mother had died, Abigail had been almost obsessed with her library.
Camille collapsed into the plush chair separated from Abigail’s by a small, round table piled high with books. The plant that usually rested there was under the table and likely wilting by now. Abigail had never had a green thumb, but that didn’t stop her from trying to grow something, anything.
“This is our home more than hers,” Abigail said softly. “You shouldn’t be doing as she orders.”
“Like I said, Gail, this is between me and her. We’ll see who breaks first.”
Abigail turned her head and snorted. Their mother would have rounded on her and sternly reminded her ladies do not snort. But Camille was with her instead of their mother, and she only rolled her eyes. There was no stopping the unladylike snorts her sister was prone to. It was like a nervous tick for her.
“It won’t be Muriel,” Abigail said. “She’s the one who gets to order you around. I’m sure she’s loving it.”
Camille lifted one shoulder in a shrug, her hands dangling over the sides of her chair. “Just collecting information to pass on to Father when he returns.”
“Like he’ll care any more than Muriel.”
Camille’s eyes sharpened. “He will. It’s his responsibility to care for his family, to protect his children. You know it as well as I do. Family protects family.”
“Muriel’s family now, too.”
“Blood family, Abigail.”
Her sister looked down at the book in her hands. Camille pressed her lips together briefly before she felt her face soften. It had been generations since the family’s blood had been called on, so long ago that it was nothing more than mere myth to the royal family now. The stories said the fae, when crowning the first king and queen, had strengthened their blood by giving them the ability for blood to sing to blood. Anyone of royal blood could be called by another of the same. She knew it was a nice fairy tale in Abigail’s head since it was so rarely done, but Camille remembered when their father’s mother was near death and Lawrence had almost magically come to her side. Abigail had been only a few years old.
“Is that another of Mother’s books?” Camille said instead, tilting her head slightly.
A soft smile lit up her sister’s face as Abigail’s fingers trailed over the cover. “One of Mother’s favorites. She spent almost a year reading it to me every night.”
“It looks quite hefty.”
Abigail laughed softly, her hands barely fitting around the sides of the tome. “Mother said her father told her it was one of the longest books ever written in the other world.”
Camille smiled. Abigail was a lot like their Mother, always getting lost in stories. The other world had always fascinated them, but neither of them had ever gone.
“What will you do?” Abigail asked softly, suddenly.
Camille jerked her head slightly, frowning. “What do you mean?”
Abigail waved a hand. “About all of this. What if Father doesn’t do anything? What if he just leaves us with Muriel?”
“Don’t worry so much, Gail,” Camille said, slightly more cross than she had intended. “You just stay out of Muriel’s way. I’ll handle her.”
Camille caught the flash in her sister’s eyes just before she turned her face away. She bit her lip, but was resolute. She was the older sister. It was her duty to protect her younger sister. Especially when her sister was so painfully shy.
“Madeline wants me to teach her royal etiquette,” Abigail said softly.
Abigail looked up, one brow arched. “Madeline is our new sister, which makes her part of the royal family.” She waved a hand to forestall Camille. “You can say all you want about blood, but, if were part of the royal family and Muriel and Madeline married in, then they are also part of the royal family. When our attendance is required, so will they need to be there. Besides, Muriel is hoping her daughter will catch Adrian’s eye.”
Camille raised a brow of her own. “Adrian? As in the Prince’s son?”
“Is there another Adrian we know?”
“Now why can’t you be more like this in public?”
Abigail made a frustrated sound and turned away. Camille saw her hands grip the book tightly, her knuckles starting to go white. It was the one nerve they always hit. It never made any sense to Camille, her sister’s unwillingness to mingle with others, her desperation to keep to the shadows and corners. Their mother had called it shyness and had taken great pains to make her younger daughter presentable.
“You must look after your sister,” Genevieve had told her mere days before the horse had thrown her. “Abigail is nothing like you. She’ll need you to look after her.”
So Camille had taken it to heart, was shielding her from Muriel and Muriel’s demands. Was drawing away Muriel’s attention so she wouldn’t wither beneath it.
“I’m tired, Camille,” Abigail said softly.
Silently, Camille nodded and rose. She left a soft, light kiss on her sister’s cheek before heading for the door, two fingers rolling the piece of sea glass hanging around her neck. “Remember, I’m just a call away.”
Abigail didn’t turn to look at her; only nodded and bent her head over the book.
Camille closed her sister’s door behind her quietly. Madeline was a start, but, at some point, her sister would have to leave the manor, would have to find a suitable life partner. She bit her lip as she started down the carpeted hallway to her own chambers, worry nagging at the back of her mind. Her mother had always told her Abigail would get there in time, but how long would it take? She should have been married by now herself, but how could she when Abigail still needed her so much?
Measured footsteps brought her to a sudden standstill, stirring the embers of anger in her chest. She knew who was about to turn the corner, and knew it couldn’t be anything good. Her chambers were on the floor above. There was no reason to be in the wing reserved for Abigail and Camille. After everything she’d put Camille through all day, she was the last person Camille wanted to see, especially so close to Abigail’s door.
Drawing light, silent breaths, Camille glanced back before lifting her skirts and hurrying a few feet closer to the oncoming steps, a few feet closer to her own door, and a few feet further from Abigail’s door.
Muriel turned the corner, her head held high, her skirts daintily held up with one hand so she could walk unimpeded. Her powdered curling locks were still impeccably done up and still decorated with a few colorful ribbons. Camille had to force herself to not roll her eyes at her stepmother’s vulgarity. Full skirts of silk and satin at home so late at night with glittering slippers and a face still lined with inks and powders was so far overboard it made Camille speechless. Even Genevieve, the daughter of a nobility, only dressed in a light gown at night.
Muriel’s skirts swished along almost the entire width of the hall as her eyes landed on Camille. A smile was pasted to her face, meant to be motherly and failing miserably.
Camille stood her ground, her own chin tilted up. She kept her arms loose at her sides, but ready to protect her sister. She would not let Muriel get past her.
Slowly, with a sashay that had Camille longing to gag, Muriel stalked towards her. The two women held each other’s eyes, both haughty and disdainful. Camille had never been so thankful for her unladylike height before; it meant she towered over Muriel by two full inches despite the heeled slippers Muriel wore. She would never have to look up at her stepmother, one small thing that brought her immense satisfaction.
“Camille,” Muriel said, purring out her stepdaughter’s name as she came to stand one foot away. She dropped her skirts and reached out to flick a curl from Camille’s shoulder. “Such lovely hair. I suppose you must have your poor late mother’s looks. All the stories I’ve heard of her always spoke of her beautiful chestnut hair. It’s a shame you’ll have to cut it all off.”
Camille couldn’t stop the slight jerk backwards, and longed to punch the smug look from Muriel’s face. She grit her teeth and fought the urge to ball her fists. “I’ll cut nothing off.”
Muriel’s smile slipped and her cold mask fell into place. Though shorter than Camille, she did her best to draw herself up as tall as she could go. “No one may outshine my Madeline, especially not her new sisters. She will marry into the royal family. To do that, she’ll need to be the belle of the ball. Literally. That means you may not be more beautiful than her.”
“And does your Madeline have the same ambitions as you?” Camille asked, tilting her head up slightly, just to needle her stepmother with her additional height and to mask her sudden fear that Madeline was only using Abigail.
Muriel waved a dismissive hand. “It doesn’t matter what my daughter wishes. I am her mother and she will do as I tell her.”
Camille gave an exaggerated shudder. “Thank goodness you are not my mother.”
“I am your stepmother,” Muriel snapped, right before her eyes flashed and her mask fell into place again.
But Camille noticed, and she smiled. “You could never replace my mother. My sister and I are of age. We do not need to be under your thumb. And you can’t throw us out. Father would never allow that. Besides, our blood is tied to this manor and yours is not.”
Muriel’s eyes flicked down the hall, a bemused light in her eyes, making Camille’s spine stiffen a little. “I know what you’re doing, Camille. You can protect you sister only by obeying me.” She let out a little laugh as fear and anger filled Camille’s chest, burning her from the inside out. “Cut your hair, Camille. If it’s not enough, you’ll know.”
With a last sweep of Camille’s body, Muriel turned and sashayed back down the hall.
Camille stumbled the last few feet to her chambers, her hands shaking and her legs threatening to give out under her. But she made it inside and slammed the door closed before she collapsed. It wasn’t so much the order to cut her hair as it was the threat to Abigail that was arresting her breath.
“Mother,” Camille whispered, “how do I protect Abigail? How can I keep her safe without losing my mind?”
Camille watched Madeline the next morning as the other woman skirted around the main hall. Madeline, roses blooming in her cheeks and eyes averted, had her arms crossed tightly across her middle, almost as though she were trying to sink into her already slender frame, as she hurried across towards the steps down to the kitchens.
She couldn’t stop her eyes from narrowing. There was a chance Madeline really was trying to befriend her sister. There was also the chance Madeline was playing her sister for a fool. Either way, Camille’s spine itched and it set her teeth into a clench as her hands scrubbed the floor harder than necessary.
A soft chuckle made her still and slowly sit up to rest back on her heels. Muriel was careful to keep her expansive skirts from the wet tiles. Camille met her eyes, cool and impassive.
“Camille, dear, the floor isn’t that dirty. You just scrubbed yesterday.” A bright light in her eyes, Muriel brought her fingertips of one hand to her lips and tapped them for a moment. “Take off that ridiculous rag around your head.”
Her facial muscles never moving, Camille slowly lifted one hand and pulled the length of white linen she’d wrapped around her head. It wasn’t that she was hiding her shorn hair, but she didn’t need or want her sister fretting around her.
Muriel nodded, the brightness in her eyes dying. As she’d asked, Camille had cut her curls, ending up with a bob that ended just below her ears. There was still a soft wave left, but her shining curls were gone.
“I trust this is what you had in mind,” Camille said mildly.
Muriel pursed her lips together. “That will do,” she said tightly, her voice forced enough that Camille had to smother the urge to grin.
“If you have nothing else, Muriel, I have a floor to finish,” Camille said coldly.
With a dismissive wave, Muriel turned and swept away, her skirts swishing quietly against the tiles. Camille narrowed her eyes as the woman left, and then twisted the linen back up around her head. With her hair that much shorter, it was the only way she could properly keep it out of her face.
It hadn’t been easy to cut her hair, more so because it was difficult to cut her own hair than it was to see it go. With a twinge of melancholy, she remembered her mother telling her daughters to keep their curls. Camille’s was more voluminous than Abigail’s, but Genevieve had adored both of their locks, had spent countless hours running a soft brush through the tangles every day. She would hum soft songs from her own childhood while brushing their hair.
But she also remembered running around the castle grounds with Andalissa, Duchess of Murant and Adrian’s younger sister. They’d played at being knights, rode horses bareback, and begged the knights to teach them to use a bow and arrow. Andalissa, always the bold one, had tried to wheedle sword fighting lessons out of one knight. It had been amusing to watch him stutter through his refusal, but he’d gotten his way in the end. Short hair would have been wonderful during those carefree days. But, after the Prince had taken Adrian and Andalissa back to Murant Holdings, Camille had given in and kept her curls.
Camille scrubbed at a scuff mark. It hadn’t been there the day before when she’d finished, and she couldn’t help but wonder if Muriel had purposefully scraped a shoe against the floor. She wouldn’t put it past the woman.
Taking a moment to stretch her back, Camille fingered the sea glass hanging around her neck. It was too dangerous to try to talk to her sister; Madeline was probably with her. But it was comforting to know Abigail was easily reachable, and safe.
The sound of slippers drew her attention and she looked up sharply.
Her shoulders relaxed as soon as she saw her sister, but stiffened once again when she caught sight of Madeline lingering behind Abigail’s shoulder and her eyes narrowed at the sight of a cloak draped around her sister and a basket dangling from a wrist.
Slowly, Camille pushed herself to her feet as Abigail approached with a tentative smile. Madeline ghosted after Abigail, her hands clutching at her elbows. Somehow their new stepsister seemed even more nervous than Abigail, but Camille wasn’t interested in putting a wing over her; protecting one sister was enough. Her blood sister, at that.
“Abigail,” Camille said, frowning. “What’s going on?”
“Helene is sending me to the markets,” Abigail said softly, her eyes shifting around the hall nervously. “She needs a few things for tea and supper.”
“Alone?” Camille asked, her eyes flicking to Madeline.
Abigail gave a single quick nod. “Helene said it would do me good. She said it isn’t healthy for me to stay here all the time,” she said with a pointed look at Camille. “She also said it would get me out from under Muriel’s eye for a bit.”
A small smile ghosted over Camille’s lips. “I take it that’s what did it.”
“She isn’t wrong,” Abigail said grudgingly, her eyes shifting to one side, as though she could see Madeline despite the woman doing little more than hovering just behind her. “After all, I can’t be free of her until I marry. Maybe I’ll meet a nice man at the markets.”
“Father would be scandalized if you marry a merchant or common man.”
Abigail shrugged. “Father should be pleased to get me off his hands.” She suddenly glared. “Don’t think I don’t know what all of you used to talk about. All the gentle pokes and prods were anything but gentle.”
“Abigail, we just care about you.”
Her sister waved her off and stepped towards the door. “I’ll be fine, Camille. Madeline, though, has nothing to do. Muriel hired one of Prince James’s former governesses to teach Madeline proper royal etiquette, but she won’t be starting until tomorrow.”
Camille crossed her arms, ignoring the sponge in one hand now streaming water down her skirts. They were cast-offs from some of the former serving girls, dresses that had been lying and collecting dust. Geoffrey had rummaged them up for her so she wouldn’t sully her own gowns, so she didn’t much care how wet and filthy they became; Geoffrey just threw them in the fire when she was done with them. Or so he said he would.
“Muriel has me keeping busy,” Camille said, her eyes narrowing slightly as they lighted on Madeline.
Abigail shrugged and turned her head slightly. “The gardens are quite lovely, Madeline. If you can ride, you should try out Peach. If not, you should ask the stablemaster to teach you. Adrian is quite fond of horses.”
Camille bit back a smile at Madeline’s suddenly nauseous look. She didn’t get the feeling Madeline and horses did well together. Probably especially not after learning the late Countess Olidan had died when thrown from her horse.
“I-I’ll keep busy,” Madeline muttered and quickly turned to flee the hall.
Abigail turned and watched her, bewildered. “Her mother wants her to marry Adrian, and she isn’t adverse to the idea. I’m only trying to help her.”
“Help yourself instead, Gail,” Camille said, turning to return to the floor. “Once Muriel has lost interest in me, she’ll probably come after you.”
Abigail nodded absently and drifted off towards the doors.
One day, Camille left. She was never satisfied with what life had to offer her in the Glass Kingdom. She never fell in love, never found anyone worthy enough. So, with a kiss and a hug and a fond fare-thee-well, she went off on her mare to seek adventure. The sea glass was our only connection. We spoke as frequently as we could, but our lives were beginning to diverge. She had her adventures and I had my duties.
The cold winter morning air had Abigail quickly drawing her hood over her hair, but it was far from a travesty. While her sister had shiny chestnut curls like their mother, Abigail wasn’t quite sure who she’d inherited her hair from. Straight and thin and the color of tree bark. Or dirt, as some rascals had teased and taunted until Camille had gotten her hands on them.
Intent on blending with the servants and thus only needing to speak with the merchants, Abigail kept her head down and her basket close. The markets were near enough that a brisk walk would bring her feet to them faster than a carriage could be prepare for her. Besides, she didn’t mind a good walk; it gave her plenty of thinking time.
She lightly chewed at her lip as the cold air danced around her face to edge into her cloak. Madeline was so skittish she wasn’t sure if Abigail was going to be able to prepare her to even meet the king’s nephew, the man next in line to the throne after Prince James, at least until the prince and his mermaid wife had a child.
Abigail remembered Prince Grant, the king’s younger brother, with fondness. He was a man who believed strongly in duty, family, and strong liquor. While James and Adrian had sat by his side to listen to Grant’s tales of adventure and battles from his youth, Abigail had hung just outside of the glow of the fireside. Grant always knew she was there, but respected her shyness and never pushed her to come to his side. He was something of a jolly man, but often took serious turns as the man who ran the family’s ancestral land, Murant Holdings.
King Gray and Prince Grant had had awful rows when she was younger (everyone always overlooked the little girl who never spoke and always hung back in corners and shadows until the halls were empty). She remembered the day Prince Grant had chosen to remove himself from succession. As much as the prince loved his family, the crown was never something he wanted. He’d been even more unhappy when the king named Adrian as second-in-line until his own son bore an heir. That was the day Adrian and Andalissa had packed up and left the city.
With the prince’s betrothal to the mermaid princess set to be announced any day, royals were beginning to trickle back into the city, filling manors that had long lain empty and gathering dust. Spaced as far apart as they were, Abigail could only feel the undercurrent of frenzied movement as servants rushed to prepare the manors for their masters and mistresses. It would be nice to have the streets populated once again, but also brought terror to her at the thought of all the parties and balls that they would throw.
The one bright spot was Adrian and Andalissa were likely coming back. It had been ten long years, and she’d often wondered how much the brother and sister had changed. Adrian had always tolerated her tagging along and pretending to be in peril so he and James could practice their fighting skills. Andalissa had always gotten herself and Camille in trouble, much to Abigail’s amusement. No one would have expected two stunningly beautiful girls to prefer mud to jewels, much less their mothers.
Just how much Adrian might have changed, though, troubled her. She wanted to do what she could to help Madeline win him, but she really didn’t know the Duke anymore, much less what he might look like now.
It was while she was chewing on her lips that the sounds around her became louder, the smells sharper, and the suddenly swell of people almost intolerable.
She’d entered the markets without even realizing it.
Market Circle was the largest plaza in the city and was lined by more shops than Abigail cared to patronize. Though, that included all of them except for the small bookstore tucked between the butcher and the milliner. Her mother had frequented it when Abigail had been a child, and she remembered clinging to her mother’s skirts while Genevieve wandered the aisles for new volumes from the linked world. After her father had passed, there hadn’t been any new books for her to consume.
Tucking her basket a little closer as a woman jostled her, Abigail grimaced slightly. Most days, Market Circle was full of brisk business with the fountain in the middle cheerfully burbling a hello to shoppers. But, once a week, out of town merchants were allowed to set up stalls and the shops pulled out their most enticing and valuable wares for purchase. It turned the plaza into a dizzying circle with sounds and smells that assaulted her senses from every side.
Helene wanted cinnamon, which only came from the edges of The Wilds, so was only available during the markets. Then there were the fresh herbs called thyme and tarragon that only came from the linked world. Violet, the House Keeper of Olidan Manor, also wanted some ribbons for Muriel’s gowns. That was one Abigail wished she could accidentally forget, but didn’t want to call Muriel’s attention to herself or Helene or Violet. Least of all Violet, who had been hired shortly after Abigail had been born as her nurse and had quickly been raised to House Keeper.
A large human colliding with her knocked her out of her head, and her basket out of her hands. Large hands grabbed her before she followed her basket, knocking her hood off and exposing her to the cold air.
“I’m so sorry!” a tenor voice rang out somewhere over her head as the hands were reaching out to pull her hood back over her hair.
Startled, Abigail could only blink as her basket was shoved back in her hands. She nearly screamed when a male face lowered to stare her right in the eyes.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his green eyes looking over her, concern flickering through his eyes.
She blinked at him, her hands clenched around the basket handle, but he didn’t seem to notice as he kept fussing with her hood and cape, making sure she was covered and warm. There was something familiar about his eyes, but, no matter how hard her mind searched through the archives of her mind, she couldn’t find it.
“I’m sorry,” he was saying. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.” He smiled and finally pulled away from her. “My cousin is getting married, so I’m here for a gift for his bride. Welcome her to the family. But I don’t know anything about her, so I guess I’m a little preoccupied.” He tilted his head to one side. “Say, you’re a lady. If you don’t have anything pressing, would you be willing to help me out?”
Abigail only blinked again. This man had run into her, fussed with her cloak, and was now asking her to help him shop for his cousin’s future wife? What was wrong with him? If her feet hadn’t suddenly felt like a brownie had played a trick on her and turned them to stone, she’d be slowly walking backwards and as far away as she could. Or screaming into her sea glass for her sister’s help. Camille was always ready to jump in and hurt someone if they were hurting Abigail.
“My Lady?” he asked, one eyebrow rising as he waited for an answer.
And then it hit her. It was the eyebrow quirk. It almost always lifted just like that when Adrian was waiting for something. It used to annoy James, but Abigail had always thought it was adorable.
This man was Duke Adrian Murant, one of her many distant cousins, and the son of the king’s younger brother. The man she hadn’t seen in ten years. The man Muriel wanted Madeline to marry.
Almost as an instinct as soon as her brain recognized him, Abigail moved to drop into a curtsy. But Adrian quickly grabbed her arm to pull her up before pulling her a step closer and looking around furtively.
“Shh! Please. I’m here incognito. I don’t want the people to know I’m out and about. I can’t stand all the fawning and Your Highnesses. I don’t know how you ladies don’t get motion sickness from all the bobbing. Say, you know who I am, but I haven’t been around the city much. Am I that recognizable?”
Abigail paused and then opened her mouth, but was saved from having to say anything. She’d forgotten how much Adrian liked to talk.
“I suppose James and I look enough alike that most people can put two and two together,” he went on. He frowned and pulled the hood of his own cloak further down his face. “I’ll have to be even more careful. Maybe you could walk with me so I can pretend I’m talking to you and everyone will leave us alone. What’s you name, anyways?”
She froze. There was no getting out of this one. He was waiting for her, his eyes expectant, his smile kind and welcoming.
Swallowing hard, Abigail croaked out her name, her heart racing. She hadn’t spoke to Adrian in ten years. He’d grown up. She’d grown up. He was as talkative as ever. She was a shy as ever. She barely knew this man anymore! Would he even remember her?
“Gail?” he asked. “That’s a pretty name. Do you mind helping me out, Gail?”
Her mind raced. Yes, she did mind. Very much. She was only hoping to drop into the markets, grab what Helene and Violet needed, and then race away as quickly as possible. But she’d also accidentally promised Madeline she’d help her win over Adrian, and Abigail hated to break a promise.
Almost as though he could read her mind, Adrian took a step back, his smile falling a little. “Sorry. That was probably a little too forward of me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around strangers.” He laughed nervously. “I’m used to knowing everyone. I’m sorry, Gail. I’ll leave you alone. Just please don’t tell anyone you saw me.”
Flashing a last smile, Adrian turned and vanished into the swelling crowd. Abigail sighed audibly. Whether she was relieved he was gone or disappointed she wasn’t keeping her promise to her new sister, she wasn’t sure. But at least she was alone.
Determined to keep her mind focused and her eyes open, Abigail pushed her way through the crowd, following her nose to the exotic spices. Helene used the cinnamon in her sweet buns and Abigail was more than willing to move to The Wilds just to eat it every day. The only problem was that time moved very erratically in The Wilds.
With her mind firmly on her task, Abigail used her slender frame and quick feet to wind through the crowd and stalls. In almost no time at all, she managed to pick up everything she needed. This time, she let out a relieved sigh as she began to make her way back through the markets.
“Yes, yes, absolutely! Your new cousin-in-law will love this!”
Abigail’s eyes perked up at both the voice and the words. She turned to the stall on her left and saw a skinny, bald man gesticulating wildly over his wares. She frowned, recognizing him as the man who wandered the shores for sea glass. He was a dreadful craftsman who managed to turn the glass into novelty showpieces that sparkled but fell apart easily. He also charged exorbitant amounts. She knew he’d gotten away with it for years, disappearing when he got a whiff of the law and reappearing when it seemed everyone had forgotten about him.
There was no way she could let Adrian buy something for the mermaid princess from this man.
Abigail stood there as irate shoppers brushed by her, chewing on her lip. Camille would have marched right over and set the two men straight. Genevieve would have shut the man down and called in the law. Abigail? Well, she would do exactly what she was doing. Anything that required speaking to people she didn’t know was an absolute no.
Except Adrian was her cousin, and he was planning on gifting trash to the mermaid princess.
“No, you can’t.”
Startled at the words that had just come out of her mouth, Abigail nearly dropped her basket in an effort to clap her hands over her face.
Adrian and the swindler turned to her, one with wide, surprised eyes and the other with a scowl.
Abigail took in a deep breath. They were both staring at her. She was stuck. Pressing her lips together, she summoned her inner Genevieve and swept over to them, her eyes flashing.
“You can’t buy a gift for your new cousin-in-law from this man, Sir,” she said, tilting her head up slightly. “He’s a known swindler.” She swept a hand, not the one bearing the load of her basket, over the man’s wares. “Give it a day and all of these pretty baubles will be in tatters.” She turned her eyes on the swindler and pinned him with her best imperious Camille gaze. “I’ll be sure to let the City Guard know you’re back. Come, Sir, I can help you find a better gift.”
Abigail quickly grasped for Adrian’s arm, but missed by a bit and ended up awkwardly tugging at his sleeve. The Duke, though, went willingly enough while the swindler mumbled angrily behind him, his wares clattering against each other.
Once the crowd had swallowed them, Abigail’s steps slowed and she quickly released Adrian’s sleeve. Her hands shook as she clutched her basket.
“I’m sorry,” she said, dropping her gaze and trying to tuck her head further into her hood. “I couldn’t let you be taken in by that man. What he does is reprehensible.”
“Then why is he allowed in?” Adrian demanded.
Abigail shook her head. “Truthfully, I don’t know. I only come to the markets now and then. I don’t actually know how they’re run.”
“Well, then,” Adrian said. “I do still need help finding a gift for my cousin’s bride.” He grinned down at her. “It’s nice to see you again, Gail. You’re not quite as shy as you appear, are you?”
Blushing furiously, Abigail muttered a few words, but couldn’t bring herself to look at his face. Instead, she focused her eyes on the basket, the smell of cinnamon tantalizing her. What she wouldn’t give to run home and wait impatiently for one of Helene’s sweet buns!
“Well, my one idea for a gift is out,” Adrian said into the silence. “Will you help me? Please? Other than my sister and mother, I’ve never shopped for a woman before.”
Abigail grimaced, but quickly nodded. It would keep her cousin from getting himself into further trouble at the markets. And she still had her promise to Madeline to keep. How she was going to finagle any information from him was beyond her, but she could at least bring her impressions of the man she hadn’t seen since she was twelve.
“Wonderful! What would you suggest?”
Abigail peeked over her shoulder, but they were far enough away from the swindler that they could no longer see his stall. “Considering the sea glass comes from the sea, I doubt giving the mermaid princess sea glass would be a good idea.”
Adrian scratched at his head and gave her a lopsided smile. “No, I guess not, huh? What do you think, then?”
Abigail gestured for him to follow. Quickly, they dodged around people and carts until they came to a quieter section, one filled with exotic wares that were much more expensive. The Duke, though, would be able to afford it. She led him straight to the stall that had been her grandmother’s favorite. As a child, she’d tagged along with her mother parents whenever they were in town. Her grandfather loved buying the small bottles of perfumes on market day for his wife, daughter, and granddaughters. Flowers for his little flowers, he always said.
“Right here,” Abigail said quietly as they approached.
“Glass bottles? How is that better than sea glass?”
Abigail smiled. “They’re perfumes. They’re made from extracts from flowers from all over the continent. Being of the sea, it’s unlikely the mermaid princess has even seen a flower. Imagine her delight when she not only gets to see them, but smell like them. It’ll be a gift from the land to a princess of the sea.”
“That’s brilliant!” Adrian whispered. “Will you help me pick something?”
At her nod, Adrian quickly picked up their pace and called out a hearty hello to the middle-aged couple seated behind the table. Before them was a white linen covered table with jeweled bottles arrayed like gems. The light struck them at an angle, casting colored shadows across the white cloth. Abigail remembered being more taken with the colored light than the perfumes, but she did miss the smell of some of the more exotic flowers.
“Good day, Sir, Miss,” the man said, bobbing his head as he popped up to his feet. He turned to address Adrian, “Are you here for a gift for your lovely lady friend?”
“Ah, no,” Adrian said, clearing his throat. “My cousin is marrying a lady of rather high standing and I’m looking for a gift for her.”
The man shifted easily from a broad smile to a contemplative air, fingers gently tapping his chin as he looked over the tiny glass bottles. Behind him, the woman, her gray streaked hair twisted up into an elegant crown, looked up from her knitting. She studied Adrian for several moments before nodding to herself.
“The blush pink bottle, dear,” she called out to her husband, her voice soft and melodious.
The man’s face brightened. He reached out and gingerly picked up a small, round bottle of the lightest shade of pink Abigail had ever seen. A clear liquid shimmered inside and the cork appeared to be painted with gold. He held up the bottle so it caught the light and spread a pale link glow across the table.
“This, my good sir,” the woman said, “is the finest of all our perfumes. A delicate floral scent created from the loveliest flowers just this side of The Wilds. A perfume fit for a princess.”
Adrian grinned and reached for the pouch hanging from his belt. “It sounds beautiful. I’ll take it.”
The woman smiled and held up one long finger. “Just a moment, Sir. I couldn’t allow you to make such a hefty purchase without at least sampling it first.”
“Oh, uh, okay,” Adrian said, his hand still hovering over his pouch. “Shall I just…?”
The man carefully uncorked the bottle with a slight pop and then held out his hand to Abigail. Startled, she moved back a step, clutching her basket close.
“Your hand, Miss,” the man said quietly with a small smile. He glanced over at Adrian. “So the young man can sniff it. It wouldn’t be quite the same if he merely got a whiff of it from the bottle. Too concentrated, you see.”
Eyeing the man warily, Abigail slowly lifted an arm and held it out, her fingers dangling awkwardly as she held her hand out. With a small bow, the man gently took her hand, turned it over to expose the inside of her wrist, and quickly applied a small dab of the perfume to her wrist. Then he took her hand and moved it over to Adrian.
Abigail blushed furiously as Adrian bent over to smell her wrist. His breath was warm against her skin and she felt her heart begin to beat wildly. Other than her father, no man had ever been so close to her. Not even her grandfather, who was loving but not demonstrative. She only hoped her deep hood hide how red her face was. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Adrian, though, was quick about it. Straightening, he nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I think I’ll take it. I think it’ll be perfect for my cousin’s bride. Thank you.”
The man smiled and corked the bottle. At the same time, Adrian reached into his pouch to retrieve a few bits of paper. The man named the price and Adrian handed over a few of the papers.
With a smile and nod of his head, Adrian took Abigail’s elbow and guided her away. All the while, Abigail thought furiously about where she could wash off the perfume. If Muriel caught a whiff of it…
She mentally shook herself and grimaced slightly. She’d saved Adrian from making a dire mistake. She wasn’t quite sure she hadn’t just gotten herself in trouble for doing it.
I could always hear the excitement in Camille’s voice. Sometimes I wished to be by her side, if only to escape my responsibilities for a day. But that quickly ended when she was ambushed by bandits. Ever ready for a challenge, and, admittedly, a fight, Camille was brash enough to go four against one. I had always though Camille and Andalissa were out rolling in mud and swinging in trees when they abandoned me to Adrian and James, but I was wrong. Camille learned how to use a sword and dagger. It saved her life.
The chandelier tinkled merrily around her as she half buried her head in it, her feet thankfully firmly planted on the sturdiest ladder Geoffrey had been able to find. Muriel had decided the crystals weren’t brilliant enough, so had ordered Camille to clean them. One by one. All three hundred of them.
Camille nearly fell off the ladder at the sudden sound of the door opening. She clutched at the top of the ladder and carefully turned her head. Abigail was standing there, gaping up at her, a basket clasped in her hands and the hood of her cloak resting along her shoulders.
“What are you doing up there?” Abigail asked.
Camille grimaced. “Why do you think?”
Abigail shook her head. “Doesn’t Violet have the crystals cleaned every week?”
“Apparently not well enough.” Camille cast a stern look over at her sister. “Where have you been? It’s been ages, Abigail.”
“You won’t believe it, Camille,” Abigail said, stepping closer and idly rubbing one wrist vigorously against the side of her gown. “The prince’s family is back in the city. I ran into Adrian at the markets and he insisted I help him find a gift for the mermaid princess.”
A small smile cracked Camille’s face. “That must have been nice. To see an old friend.”
Abigail’s gaze fell to her basket. “Yes, well, he didn’t recognize me,” she muttered.
Camille sighed. “And you being you didn’t say anything more than necessary.”
Abigail glared up at her. “You know how chatty he is. He hasn’t changed. I suppose, if he’s back, Andalissa must be as well.”
Camille waved at the chandelier. “It’s highly unlikely Muriel will let me see an old friend,” she said dryly. “Though it’s nice to know they’re back. Maybe I can catch up with her at the engagement ball.” She smiled, a little maliciously, or so she liked to think. “Muriel can’t stop us from going. We’re blood cousins to the king.”
Abigail kept rubbing her wrist against her gown, an anxious look growing on her face. “You haven’t seen Madeline around, have you?”
“No. Not since she scampered out of here when you left.”
“Wait, have you been here the entire time I was gone?”
Camille looked up sharply at her sister’s disbelieving voice. “This is why you must not cross Muriel.”
Her sister swallowed and nodded before turning to leave. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep to the kitchens. If you see Madeline…”
“I’ll let her know you’re back,” Camille said, quickly and efficiently as she went to back to carefully cleaning the crystals.
Abigail’s slippered footsteps quickly faded to nothing. Silence returned to the main hall. Camille had never been so alone with her thoughts before. The past two days had been a…unique experience.
On the bright side, Andalissa was back. They’d exchanged letters over the years, keeping their friendship strong. Andalissa, unlike Camille, had been able to wheedle one of the guards at Murant Holdings to teach her swordplay properly. Andalissa was eager to teach her friend. She was also eager to continue to work with Camille to match their siblings.
Camille frowned as she scrubbed absently at a crystal. Abigail had been quite young before the Murant family had left, too young to be properly matched with Adrian, but now the two families were back in the city and neither Abigail nor Adrian was attached. Never mind that Abigail was trying to set up Madeline with Adrian. Camille and Andalissa knew their siblings were meant to be together.
She nearly fell off the ladder. Clutching the sides with knuckles gone white, she peered around the chandelier to see Muriel smirking at her, her hands on her waist. She fought the urge to let her lips curl up in distaste. The woman still hadn’t learned that voluminous skirts had gone out of fashion last year.
“Muriel,” Camille responded through gritted teeth.
The woman pointed to a pile of fabric heaped at the base of the ladder. “The laundry. There are also a few gowns that need some repairs. I expect them to be washed and fixed by supper.”
Without waiting for a reply, Muriel whirled away, leaving Camille to grind her teeth together in a most unladylike way. Her mother would have scolded her. But it was just another thing to add to her tally, another thing to relate to her father when he returned.
How Muriel expected Camille and Abigail to not say anything when he returned was beyond her.
But then her blood froze. Muriel was already holding Abigail hostage, whether or not Abigail knew it. What would Muriel do to keep Camille quiet?
Camille set her jaw and went back to cleaning the crystals. She would just have to get her sister married off to Adrian as quickly as possible to keep her safe.
By the time Camille had taken to prowling around her sister’s room again that night, her hands were red and felt like they’d lost a layer or two of skin. A lot like the inside of Abigail’s wrist, though Abigail was trying to hide it by fussing with the sleeves of her nightgown even while trying to braid her hair.
Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and stopped in front of where Abigail sat on her bed, her bare toes idly brushing against the plush rug situated under the bed. She planted her hands on her hips, stifling her wince as her raw hands met the rough material of the dress she’d worn all day.
“What happened to your wrist?” Camille demanded.
Startled, Abigail’s hand flew to her wrist, her braid quickly unraveling around her shoulder. She raised wide eyes to her sister, her hand tightening slightly around her wrist.
“I meant to wash it off,” Abigail said softly, turning her eyes away, “but was so long at the markets that I didn’t dare stop.”
Camille’s blood ran cold. “Did Muriel do something to you?”
Abigail’s eyes snapped back to her, surprised. “No. Adrian.”
“Did Adrian do something to you?”
Abigail blinked at the sudden venom in Camille’s voice, forcing Camille to take a breath and a step back. If Adrian had hurt her, she would have to revise her plans of marrying off her sister to the man.
“Of course not,” Abigail said, her brows drawing together. “You know Adrian. He wouldn’t ever hurt anyone. Just talk their ears off.”
“Then what happened?” Camille demanded. “Why is your wrist red?”
“I told you I was helping Adrian find a gift for the mermaid princess.”
“Yes,” Camille said when her sister didn’t go on. “And?”
Abigail shrugged. “He decided to purchase a bottle of perfume. They used my wrist to test the scent. And I didn’t want Muriel to find out, so had to rub my wrist against my dress to try to get it off and hide it,” she finished in a rush, her cheeks growing rosy.
“Oh,” Camille said, blinking as her hands fell from her hips. “And did you?”
“In a way. The smells from the kitchens masked it. It was really a very light floral scent, so it was easily drowned out by supper.”
Camille nodded and moved away. “What do you think of Adrian? It’s been ten years since you last saw him. Is he still the same as you remember?”
“He’s older. Taller. Still a little awkward. Still extraordinarily verbose. A little too eager and maybe a touch too bright. I don’t know how Madeline will keep up with him.”
Forget Madeline, Camille thought sourly. Why her sister was so intent on matching their new stepsister with one of their oldest playmates was beyond her.
Abigail was back at braiding her hair, so Camille resumed her restless pacing. She was a little afraid of both staying too long and leaving, afraid Muriel would find her. She’d already scrubbed the gowns Muriel had dropped at her feet and pricked her fingers numerous times repairing tears she was sure Muriel had purposefully made.
“What’s wrong with your hands?”
Abigail’s curious question startled Camille, and she looked down at her clenching fists.
“You keep clenching your hands and grimacing as though they hurt,” Abigail clarified as she tied off her braid.
“Muriel,” Camille said darkly. “I think she ripped up some of her gowns for the sole purpose to making me wash and repair them.”
“What? Mother taught me.”
Abigail smiled. “You never had any patience for needlework.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t do it.”
“True,” Abigail conceded. “But how long are you going to let this go on for? You’re going to destroy yourself. And you know Father will expect us to look absolutely perfect for the engagement ball.”
Camille looked down at her hands. “You’re right. Father will be angry if I don’t look like the daughter of royalty, no matter how watered down the royal blood is.”
“I’ll get you some salves and lotions when Helene sends me to the markets next.”
“But you hate going.”
Abigail shrugged. “Of the two of us, I think I’ll be the only one to leave.” She offered a small smile. “You’re drawing Muriel’s attention away from me and Helene must be working with you because she keeps sending me out to the gardens and to collect eggs. Muriel has barely looked at me, even over supper.”
Camille clenched her fists and grit her teeth against the pain. But she nodded. “Thank you, Gail.”
“It’s bad enough Muriel is out to get you. You really shouldn’t have gone toe to toe with that odious woman. You don’t need to be getting into it with Father.” Abigail raised a finger. “And you absolutely shouldn’t get into any trouble with Andalissa. I’m sure she’ll be around soon enough. Muriel wouldn’t dare disobey the Duchess’s request to spend time with her friend.”
“But I’ll definitely be feeling the repercussions afterwards,” Camille said grimly. “I’ll manage it, though. Maybe Andalissa will have some ideas of how I can quickly best Muriel without having to kill her. I’m kidding, Gail!” Camille cried out at the horrified look on her sister’s face. “Not even being of royal blood will keep me from the noose if I kill her.”
“I should say not,” Abigail grumbled.
“Do you have any plans to see Adrian again?” Camille asked innocently as she idly peered at her red and raw fingers.
“No. Why would I?” Abigail asked, the rustling of bed sheets telling Camille her sister was preparing for bed.
Camille shrugged and dropped her hands. “Just curious. You two were friends once.”
Abigail made a face. “That’s only because you and Andalissa kept abandoning me.”
“We didn’t think you’d want to pester the knights for sword fighting lessons.”
Abigail’s jaw dropped. “You didn’t! Mother and Father were very clear on that, Camille. Ladies do not do sword play.”
Camille waved her hand dismissively. “Mother and Father had outdated ideas.” She sighed. “Not that it mattered. None of the knights were interested in disobeying rules. As Duchess, Andalissa was supposed to have more important things to do. Like learn to be an ambassador. The King was hoping to send her to the Land of Mist, so she was supposed to be studying everything there is. But then he and the Prince argued and they went back to Murant Holdings.”
“Well, Adrian didn’t actually mention if his sister is back as well, but I’m assuming she is. It’ll be lovely to see her again. I wonder how she and Madeline will get on.”
Camille inwardly groaned. “I’ll tell you. Andalissa will eat our new stepsister alive.”
Abigail gasped. “Camille!”
“It’s true, Gail. Madeline is so…awkward.”
Abigail glared at her. “She’s suddenly part of a royal family. She’s getting used to her new life. She doesn’t know either of us at all because, until now, we’ve been of such distant classes that it was impossible. No matter what we think of her mother, Madeline is really very nice. Muriel has you busy, so I’m taking her under my wing, so to speak.”
Camille couldn’t stop the brow that lifted. “You? Well, that’ll be interesting.”
“Madeline and I are getting on just fine,” Abigail seethed. “Just because I don’t like the balls and parties doesn’t mean I’m completely incapable of making friends or talking to people.” She turned her head away, suddenly making Camille feel very small. “I’m tired, Camille. I think I’m going to go to sleep.”
Camille bit her lip, but only said a quiet good night before leaving, quietly shutting her sister’s door behind her. Then she scurried down the hall to her own room, reluctant to have another hallway encounter with Muriel.
With a sigh, she closed her door and leaned back on it. Abigail was right; she was perfectly capable of enjoying the company of one or two people. She had survived for years tagging along with two boys.
For a moment, Camille toyed with the sea glass hanging around her neck. Then she lifted it to her lips and whispered, “I’m sorry, Abigail. What I said was mean. I didn’t mean it.”
She held her breath, until she heard her sister’s soft voice respond, “Thank you, Camille. Good night.”
I thought Camille’s first adventure would be to go through the gateway. While our grandfather crossed back and forth regularly, neither of us had ever been. Mother’s books tantalized us with the other world. But Camille didn’t head for the Spindle. She went hunting a myth, a legend, a god. Generations ago, the God of Time, maker of the worlds, vanished, sending us into something of a time tailspin. Camille has always been fascinated by that story, always wondered if she could find him. Or course she would head for The Wilds, home of the strangest time warps in the world.
Abigail was surprised by how much Madeline knew in the kitchen. Knowing her mother, she didn’t think Muriel would let her daughter sully her lily white hands, but Madeline had admitted to sneaking off to the kitchens of her childhood home. After her father’s death, she’d spent even more time there, until her mother had found her and forced her out of it.
Helene loved having Madeline around. While Abigail helped with the baked goods, Madeline was more than happy to help with the mid-day meal and supper.
Abigail watched as Madeline licked a tasting spoon, her own hands busily mixing a cake batter. Where Madeline was, as Camille called her, awkward in daily life, always nervously flitting behind Abigail, she really looked like she was in her element when cooking. She showed no promise when it came to baking, but whipping up delicious entrees seemed to be her forte.
“Is there any honey?” Madeline asked, her voice strong and confident.
Abigail, the only one around to hear her, made a face. “I think Helene had me use the last of it yesterday for the sweet buns. Do you need some?”
Madeline’s face fell. “It would make the sauce a bit sweeter, but I think it’ll be fine without.”
“Nonsense,” Helene said as she bustled over to them from the other side of the kitchens, wiping her hands on her stained white apron. “The markets are here today.” She smiled. “That’s the one nice thing about the nobility streaming back in for the engagement. The markets are weekly instead of biweekly.” She made a shooing motion in Abigail’s direction. “Miss Abigail will go.”
Abigail started. “Me? Why not Madeline?”
Helene planted her hands on her hips. “I need Madeline. The cake batter is done. I can finish it up. If Madeline wants honey, you can escape this manor and get it.”
Abigail offered a weak smile, idly wondering if she would run into Adrian again. Or even Andalissa. But she agreed with Helene. It was only a matter of time before Muriel found her way to the kitchens. Madeline could withstand her mother’s fury; she’d done it before. Abigail likely wouldn’t be as lucky as her stepsister, if Muriel’s treatment of Camille was any indication.
“Just honey?” Abigail asked, lifting her cloak from where it hung near the door to the back gardens.
Helene frowned and her gaze swept around the kitchens. “Well, I can never have too much cinnamon. If there are any fresh herbs from The Wilds or the other world, we could use them as well. A duck, too, for tomorrow.”
Madeline’s face brightened at the mention of a duck. “I know a fantastic preparation for duck. You’ll love it!”
Helene nodded briskly. “Right. Get two ducks, Miss Abigail. Miss Madeline, do you require anything else?”
Madeline shook her head. “I believe the gardens have everything I need. Father’s head cook taught me how to make duck. She only used what was available in the gardens. Father was such a skinflint.” She grimaced. “Mother is certainly enjoying the comforts being married to Lawrence has afforded her.”
“Yes,” Abigail said dryly. “I noticed.”
Madeline’s head drooped a little. “I’m sorry, Abigail.”
Abigail only offered a small smile and shook her head. She pecked Helene’s cheek before making her way for the door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
She quickly made her way through the empty main hall. Not even Geoffrey was bustling around, so she was sure Muriel had him running all over the manor as well. Camille was, apparently, off cleaning the floor again, but she was mostly glad to see Muriel was no where around.
The door shut quietly behind her and she took off at a quick pace for the markets, tucking her head as far into the hood as she could. The air was crisp and clouds were wandering into the sky, but had no where to go. As much as she wanted to be away from Muriel, she also wanted to be back before the rain started.
Biting her lip and tightly gripping her basket, Abigail wondered if Adrian or Andalissa would be around in the markets. She had promised Madeline, after all, she’d do her best. Madeline had listened intently when she’d told her about Adrian a week ago, but her stepsister had been more interested in helping Helene butterfly the chickens than listen to anything about the Duke.
“Hello there,” a familiar, cheerful voice said as a pair of boots suddenly started walking alongside hers.
She couldn’t help it; she startled easily. Fortunately, Adrian had quick reflexes and grabbed her basket before it tumbled to the ground. With a grin, he offered it back to her, and she saw his hood covered his face nearly as well as hers did. He was still coming to the markets incognito.
Well, that was fine with her. As long as he didn’t figure out who she was.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, stepping in a little closer so he could lower his voice. “I was hoping to see you again.” He pointed at the basket. “I recognized your basket. Not many people carry a white one. Anyways, you were such a big help last time, I was hoping you could help me again. See, my sister’s birthday is coming up, close to the Midwinter Festival, and I’ve always been terrible at giving gifts. She even threw one back at me, she hated it so much.”
Abigail blinked at him. Camille was wrong. If she didn’t work hard on Madeline, it wasn’t that Andalissa would eat Madeline alive. It would be Adrian completely steamrolling over her. She had to fight the small smile that always tugged at the corners of her mouth whenever she thought of that word. Her grandfather had brought it back after seeing one in operation and had been quite taken with how flat it left everything.
“Hmm?” Abigail said, tilting her head.
He gave her a nervous smile. “Will you help me?”
She blinked blankly at him for a moment, right before her cheeks started to feel warm and then hot. Right. Andalissa’s birthday was coming up. The Murants would surely host an extravagant ball in her honor, where all of the gifts would be presented. Abigail was sure Adrian wouldn’t want to be embarrassed in front of all the nobility, never mind the fact they were all distantly related and most knew how dreadful Adrian was at giving gifts.
Now the only problem would be to help him without letting on she knew anything about his sister.
“I’m afraid I am not familiar with your sister,” she said carefully.
At that, Adrian looked a little abashed. “Ah. Right. Of course you would have a better idea about what to gift a mermaid.” His eyes turned earnest. “I can tell you all about her and then maybe you can point me in a good direction.”
“I, er, suppose,” she stammered.
Adrian grinned and held out an arm. “Here, let me escort you to gather what you need and I’ll tell you all about Andalissa.”
If she were a different sort of woman, she might have slid her arm through his and smiled prettily. It didn’t matter he was incognitio; it was still easy enough to see he was a handsome man. Or she might have backed up and run into the crowd to escape the oppressive air preventing her from breathing and the constant heat in her cheeks she was sure was glowing from beneath her hood.
But she wasn’t. She was Genevieve’s daughter. No matter how she disliked having to be cordial to people when she’d rather curl up in a corner.
Tentatively, she placed one hand on his arm and allowed him to guide her into the markets.
“So. Andalissa.” He chuckled a little. “She’s my younger sister. Very much not a lady’s daughter no matter how much my mother tries. She somehow managed to wheedle sword fighting lessons from one of our knights, but Mother caught on and had one of the ladies-in-waiting take her under her wing to learn things like fashion and beauty.” He waved his free hand dismissively. “She seemed to take to it, probably just needed some direction and a little nudge from Mother. Instead of grass stained skirts, she started wearing silk and lace.”
Abigail nodded absently as they stared at a rack of deceased ducks. She disliked purchasing meat, but truly detested picking out live animals for the slaughter. Unfortunately, Muriel was quite a lover of fowl.
“I’m fairly certain Andalissa managed to talk one of her guardian knights into teaching her how to use a sword. See, when I was learning, I remember being soundly defeated many times, often coming away from the practice arenas with bruises and cuts. I caught Andalissa with a few bandages.” He laughed as she perused a stack of honey jars carefully labeled with what kind of flowers the bees visited. “Of course, she nearly bit my head off about it and forced me to drop the topic. But that must have been some time ago because now you won’t find her in anything but the most current fashions and cosmetics caked on her face.”
This man really doesn’t know his sister well, Abigail couldn’t help thinking as she handed over a slender piece of paper currency for the honey. Silks and swords. But nothing else.
“Why not a specially crafted sword or dagger?” Abigail asked as they edged their way towards a stall with lotions and salves for Camille.
Adrian laughed, drawing attention from passing shoppers, but he only readjusted his hood and kept on chuckling. “Because Mother would probably kill her. Or me. Maybe the both of us. Father always tried to encourage Mother to give us a looser rein, but Mother is more princess than my father prince.” He shrugged. “I suppose I could get her a new dress.”
“Do you know her measurements?”
“Her, ah, what?”
Abigail wanted so desperately to pinch the bridge of her nose. Madeline would have her work cut out for her.
“If the dress is to fit her properly, you need to know things like how tall she is, the measurement of her waist, the length of her arms. Otherwise it won’t fit well at all and a Duchess being groomed to be so ladylike will look anything but a lady.”
“Oh. I suppose Mother wouldn’t like that at all.”
“What about books or needlepoint? Some ladies have small window gardens these days. It’s quite popular in the warmer months. Or perhaps a new winter cloak.”
Adrian reached over to squeeze the hand gently resting on his other arm and bent over to peer at her with a wide smile on his face. “You may not know my sister, but I’m certainly glad I asked for your help. Those are wonderful ideas!”
She scowled at him, but he had already straightened. “If you wish to remain incognito, you might want to lower your voice.”
“Right, of course,” he said, but she could still hear the smile in his voice.
Why worry about Andalissa eating up Madeline when Adrian could just knock her over within a few minutes? Actually, she’d have to check with her stepsister about whether or not she prefered gregarious men.
“Andalissa is dreadful at needlepoint, but one can’t go wrong with books, right? I hear there’s a shop here that sells books from the other world.”
Abigail nodded as they stopped so she could pick up a few lotions for Camille. “There is. My mother used to take me all the time. There’s been more travel back and forth lately, so I’m sure there must be an excellent selection.”
Adrian waited patiently while Abigail picked out some items for her sister. As soon as she was done, he quickly situated her hand back on his arm and proclaimed, in a somewhat quieter voice, “Lead the way.”
Abigail led them around dozens of people and several stalls before they reached the gallery along a somewhat quieter stretch of the markets. A fixture in the city for as long as Abigail could remember, the book shop came and went in popularity, but the proprietor, an elderly man who was only known as Henry, never seemed to mind. He kept the small shop stocked in books from both worlds and, on the slower days, was known for setting up a rocking chair outside his door and stroking the stray cats that could always smell bits of dried fish on him.
But she fretted. She hadn’t seen Henry or been to the store since before her mother passed. Even before that tragic day, she had been stopping in less and less as her mother had started preparing her for marriage. She was, of course, expected to marry someone of royal blood, so was groomed for a title as high as Duchess. But she hadn’t changed much in recent years, so she feared Henry would recognize her.
Several times already, Abigail had toyed with telling Adrian who she was, but she always lost her nerve. Starting conversations was not something she excelled at. Frankly, having a conversation wasn’t something she excelled at, either. She briefly closed her eyes as she wondered how, exactly, this was going to come back and haunt her.
“What’s that smell?” Adrian whispered close to her ear as they approached the open door to the book shop.
“Fish,” Abigail whispered back. “Master Henry loves to feed the alley cats.”
“Will the scent linger on the books?” Adrian asked, worry tinging his voice.
“Not at all. Once we enter, we’ll only smell the books. The fish stays out here.”
It was almost like stepping through a portal. At least, it was the closest Abigail had ever come to the portal, the one in Roderick Manor in the Spindle that led to a world from which most of the books here had come from. The markets had been noisy with chatter and haggling and sellers hawking their wares. But, once she set foot in the book shop, silence descended alongside the unmistakable musty scent of paper and books. Sounds seemed a little dampened, but the air was redolent with stories.
“Well, this is delightful,” Adrian said, pulling her back into her body.
She peeked up at him from the depths of her hood and saw him standing beside her with his hands on his hips. His hood was barely covering his own head, but the shop was empty. She could see a spark of delight in his dark eyes and the corners of his mouth curled into a smile.
“Master Henry collects a wide assortment of books,” Abigail said. “Surely you’ll be able to find something for your sister here.”
Adrian looked around. “Where is this Master Henry?”
“Ill, I’m afraid,” a young, barely masculine voice called out just as a boy some years younger than Abigail came around a tall shelf. His blond hair was in disarray and his dark eyes looked a little sleepy, as though their entrance had woken him. But he was neatly dressed in clean boots, dark trousers, a fitted white shirt, and a dark green vest with the image of a book embroidered over the heart. “I’m his nephew, filling in until he’s better. May I help you find something?”
Abigail couldn’t help but breathe a quiet breath of relief. She had no idea who this young man was, didn’t even know Master Henry had anything in the way of family. Her secret was still safe.
“I’m looking for a gift for my sister,” Adrian said. He nodded over to Abigail. “This young lady has offered to help me out, but we’ll be sure to call for you if we require your assistance.”
The boy nodded and quickly vanished back into the shop.
“Where should we start?” Adrian asked, rubbing his hands together as his eyes eagerly swept through as much of the shop as they could see.
Abigail tilted her head and looked at him from the corner of her eye. “Are you a reader as well?”
He laughed. “I don’t know how I gave that away, but yes. My parents own an extensive library. Not quite as impressive as the one at Roderick Manor in the Spindle, but large enough.”
“Do you and your sister share the same reading interests?”
“Not even close. Actually, Andalissa isn’t much of a reader, but does enjoy books that teach her how to do things. There’s a term that’s started floating around here from the other world. You’ve probably heard of do it yourself? Well, that’s Andalissa right there. She followed a gardening book once and planted the most spectacular flower gardens, but quickly found out following the rest of the book to care for the garden to be too taxing. The garden was brown in a matter of days and the groundskeepers spent a week digging it up and replanting.”
“So not gardening,” Abigail murmured as she set off.
“Where are you going?” Adrian asked, his footsteps sounding right behind hers as she wound her way around shelves and tables, heading deeper into the darker depths of the shop.
“Most of the books up front are fictional. We simply can’t get enough of the stories from the other world. But I believe Master Henry also stocks some how-to guides. They’re not exactly popular, but they’re here for curious souls.”
Finally, they came to a small alcove packed full of books nearly toppling over one another. Most had hard, glossy covers and were nearly twice as big as the soft covered fictional novels they’d passed. Some had pages that looked crisp and white, but most sported faintly yellowed pages.
“Do it yourself may be growing in popularity, but I daresay most people are still reluctant to actually do any of it themselves,” Abigail said.
Adrian gently touched her arm and smiled down at her. “This is wonderful. Thank you, Gail. I’m sure we can find something Andalissa will like.”
Abigail was glad her head was buried back enough in her hood that the shadows masked her hot blush. At least, she hoped so. Being back around Adrian was comforting; he hadn’t changed much. Her childhood crush on him also hadn’t changed much, it would seem. But she’d promised Madeline, and Madeline needed to get out from under her mother’s thumb much more than Abigail did. Not that Abigail wanted to marry Adrian, exactly. Becoming a duchess would require her to be much more visible than she’d like. Still, it was nice to dream about. There just wasn’t any need for Adrian to know. For all she knew, he was going to marry a lady from another kingdom.
Adrian was still staring at her, she realized with a start. His fingers were still on her arm. She’d forgotten to breathe.
“Not gardening,” she blurted out, certain her face would never feel cool again.
But it snapped Adrian out of whatever he’d been in. His hand abruptly dropped and he blinked, pivoting around at the same time to stare hard at the books.
“No, definitely not,” he agreed in a murmur. He cleared his throat. “Mother would kill me if I get her a book about sword fighting.”
“You said she’s taken up ladylike activities?”
Adrian reached out and tipped forward a large, hard book with an image of a canvas and a needle on it. “Yes, but I must say she isn’t very good at any of it. Definitely not this needlepoint.” He pushed the book back into place and reached for another. “She does have a bit of an artistic streak in her. Perhaps this watercolor book will do.”
“Does she paint often?”
“I’m beginning to think your sister might not have any use for a book.”
“Oh, here we go!”
Abigail watched with fascination as excitement lit is features. He reached up and pulled down a slightly yellowed, but dust free book. It had a soft cover and was just a little larger than one of Adrian’s hands.
“Your sister is a writer?” Abigail asked.
“Well, I wouldn’t call her a writer. But she does love to tell stories. Some are better than others, and I think this storytelling book would be perfect for her.”
“Much better and more appropriate than sword fighting,” Abigail agreed.
He smiled down at her, the book tightly grasped in his hands. “Once again, Gail, you’ve rescued me. How can I ever replay you?”
Abigail ducked her head to better hide her hot blush, catching sight of the ducks weighing down her basket. “Perhaps let me get home before the ducks spoil?”
Adrian laughed and swept her along with one arm. “That I can do.”
We all know the stories of The Wilds. There are areas that look untouched by time and others that might once have been populated but now stand deserted. There are tales of fierce creatures and even fiercer savage humans. They say the fae sends the dark ones into The Wilds, but they also say some of the most gifted fae have marched in to try to tame it. But, they are The Wilds. You may enter one day and come out three years from now even if only a Wild day has passed. Or perhaps you’ll emerge before you were even born, before your mother was even an idea. The Wilds are dangerous, but, to my sister, the absolute perfect place to begin her adventures.
Camille bristled all the way to the front doors. After her sister had breezed in to the kitchens, right past her, with hardly a word and two ducks nearly falling out of her basket, she’d felt a little resentful of that Madeline. Their stepsister was getting more of Abigail than Camille was, and she thought her sister was with her in standing against Muriel. But she’d simply gone back to scrubbing the walls. Just perhaps a tad harder than she should have.
And then Muriel had had the gall to call her to the great hall like some kind of servant. Her father would definitely be hearing about this.
Camille took a deep breath in the shadows of the narrow side hallway before stepping out into the great hall, the chandelier lit and glistening, turning the walls gold and making the floor sparkle. Muriel couldn’t possibly want Camille to do the floor or the chandelier or both again. Could she?
Muriel was standing by the door, a frown on her lips and a thoughtful look in her eyes. As always she was unfashionably attired in a number of voluminous skirts and the tightest bodice she’d worn yet. There was lace at her low neckline and at the cuffs of her sleeves and pearls sewn along the waistline. The one appealing thing was the single color: a pale blue that was actually pleasing to the eye. But her hair, twisted into a heavy braid resting over one shoulder, was still heavily powdered and her face bore almost too many layers of cosmetics.
In her hand, though, rhythmically tapping against the palm of her other hand, was a small cream card. There was writing on it, but Camille wasn’t close enough to read it.
She strode out into the bright lights of the chandelier, her head high. Her slippers whispered over the floor, so Muriel didn’t notice her until she was practically breathing down her neck, trying not to crane around all the material her stepmother was swathed in to read the card.
“Don’t do that,” Muriel snapped, turning and nearly smacking Camille with the card.
Camille only gave her a bored look and raised an eyebrow. “I take it the floors are not shiny enough or the chandelier isn’t bright enough? Or perhaps the walls are not gold enough. I suppose the markets might have some gold flecks.”
Muriel scowled for a split second before she hastily smoothed it away, still tapping away with the card.
“There’s a request for you,” Muriel said, practically spitting the words out. Camille briefly regretted her decision to get so uncomfortably close to Muriel. “From the Duchess Murant.”
Camille only blinked, bored, at Muriel while the other woman narrowed her eyes as she continued to wait for a response.
“Well?” Muriel snapped.
“Well what?” Camille asked in her best off hand manner. If she thought she could get away with it, she would have studied the nails of one hand. But she wasn’t interested in pushing Muriel too much. No need to accidentally draw attention to Abigail. “You will have to tell me what the Duchess wants of me.”
Muriel gritted her teeth, as though asking how Camille and Andalissa could possibly know each other was the very last thing she ever wanted to do. “The Duchess would like to come round and have tea here with you.”
Camille looked thoughtful. “Yes, that makes the most sense. Her birthday is coming up, so I imagine Murant Manor must be in quite a flurry. It’s very difficult to bring in fresh flowers in the middle of winter. I’m sure they must be expecting a fae any day now to help out. I’ll send a response as soon as I can.” She smiled. “It would be terrible manners to not respond to the king’s niece right away.”
Knowing Muriel could not and would not refuse a request from the Duchess Murant, Camille tilted her head slightly and dipped a small curtsy before turning and escaping before Muriel could think of anything to say.
Tempering her stride, Camille headed straight for her rooms to dash off a quick response. She smiled as she wrote, inviting her old friend to tea the next day. She knew Helene would be delighted to put together a tea set. It had been far too long since they’d hosted anyone other than mourners and wedding guests. For some reason, Muriel never had anyone over and no requests or invitations from the nobility. But it was not something Camille bothered to ponder.
She found Geoffrey poking around in the kitchens, trying his best to not hover around Abigail so much. He, just liked everyone else, always seemed to fuss over Abigail. But, since there wasn’t anything he could do to serve Camille since Muriel was treating her like a servant, he had taken to posting himself within easy access of Abigail.
It wasn’t something Abigail was pleased with, if Camille was reading her sister’s brief glares over at the corner Geoffrey was squeezing himself into. A tall, lanky fellow with graying hair, he still didn’t fit into corners any more than any other person would. It didn’t stop him from trying, especially of late with Muriel storming around in clouds of fabric.
Geoffrey quickly straightened and came to attention as Camille approached him. She gave him a fond peck on the cheek before coming to stand beside him, her own eyes resting on where Abigail was teaching Madeline how to knead dough.
“I’m assuming Abigail has been glaring daggers,” Camille said, a soft smile on her lips as she watched Abigail correct Madeline’s hand placement.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Geoffrey said fretfully. “The Count hired me to look after you and your sister. The new Countess would have my head if she caught me helping you, so I must look after Miss Abigail.”
“Well,” Camille said, proffering the small envelope. “I do have a task for you. Could you run this over to the Duchess Murant? She and I would like to have tea here tomorrow.”
Geoffrey’s face brightened as he accepted the envelope into his gloved hand. He offered her a bow. “I would be delighted, Miss Camille. It’ll be so good to have the Duchess here again. Will the Duke also be taking tea with you?”
“Doubtful. It just said the Duchess would like to come by.”
Geoffrey nodded before bowing and leaping away.
Camille smiled as she watched him whirl out the door. He’d been with the family for over twenty years, and hadn’t exactly been young when her father had hired him, but he always seemed to be sprier than even she and Abigail. Her smile dimmed a little as she realized just how difficult it must be for him to watch the two girls he’d help raise to be ladies to be treated as little better than himself. Muriel would pay.
Pressing her lips into a thin line, Camille stalked over to where her sister and Madeline were working on the bread dough, pushing it into a large, smooth lump.
“Abigail,” Camille said.
Her sister’s head shot up and she wiped a flour coated hand across her forehead, leaving a white streak and powdering her hair a little too much like Muriel’s for her liking. She tossed a small hand towel at Abigail as Madeline drew herself back, bent her head down a little, and clasped her hands together.
“Don’t worry, Camille,” Abigail said as she wiped the flour from her face. “I’m keeping out of the way. Haven’t even seen Muriel in days.”
A small smile cracked Camille’s face. “Good. I’m glad. She, uh, probably isn’t in the best mood right now.”
Madeline’s head jerked up. “What did you do?”
Camille looked away and scratched at her neck.
“Camille,” Abigail said softly, urgently with rising panic in her voice. Her sister knew her far too well. “Camille?”
“Well, it’s Andalissa’s fault,” Camille groused, stalling.
“Andalissa? She was here?” Abigail asked in surprise.
“No. She sent a card over, asking to come by for tea tomorrow.”
Camille didn’t miss the quick look Abigail shot over at Madeline, who was intently watching Camille, her body tense and her knuckles turning white.
“Just her and me,” Camille said quickly. “Like we used to.”
“I see. And Adrian?”
Camille shrugged. “Andalissa didn’t mention him.”
“My mother saw the card, didn’t she?” Madeline asked, her voice almost too quiet for Camille to hear her squeak.
“I, er, may have-“
“Acted like your usual self,” Abigail finished. She shook her head. “Camille, we’re supposed to be trying to stay out of her way.”
“No,” Camille corrected. “You are supposed to be staying out of the way. This is war between Muriel and me. I’ll see her out on her behind as soon as Father comes back.” She cut a quick glance at the now pale Madeline. “No offense, Madeline, but you know your mother.” She looked back at her scowling sister and straightened her spine. “I will do what I need to do and you will keep your head down, Abigail. Now, I need to see about the tea menu for tomorrow. Have you seen Helene?”
Wordlessly, Abigail, her face full of shock, pointed to the opposite side of the kitchens. Camille nodded and walked off, her back straight and her head high. No matter what, she was still the daughter of a Count and Countess, still a relative of the king. And now she was about to see one of her childhood friends, her co-conspirator. Oh, the things she and Andalissa could come up with to destroy Muriel…
After two weeks of dressing in plain, cast off dresses from the servants, Camille was glad to be able to put on one of her own dresses. Unlike the monstrosities Muriel wore, her’s had a slim bodice in cream and a slightly flared ankle-length skirt in pale green, a wide cream ribbon secured around her waist. The white gauzy sleeves billowed slightly around her arms down to where they were secured at her wrists. There was, for once, no hiding her short hair, but it was thick enough for her to slide a light, ornamental comb into the remaining waves.
She peered at herself in the mirror. It had been a long time since she’d seen herself dressed as a lady. Even though Andalissa was her oldest friend, there was still propriety to maintain. Andalissa would be arriving by carriage and, since Murant Manor lay some distance away, would likely be seen, forcing her to dress to match her station. Camille only felt it fair she shared in the misery. Still, it was strange.
Hoping to avoid Abigail so she wouldn’t see Camille’s short hair, she quickly made her way to the Lavender Room, where she’d requested Geoffrey and Helene to set up tea. She was just glad Abigail’s lotions and salves had been doing their jobs so her hands were still soft and ladylike.
The Lavender Room was, as it’s name said, lavender. While the walls were a soft white, the rugs were decorated with lavender flowers and the furnishings were upholstered in soft lavender material with plush pillows in lavender and pale blue trimmings. The two large windows overlooking the back gardens were trimmed with gauzy lavender curtains with tiny white flowers embroidered onto them. In the center, between the two couches, was a low rosewood table already set with small sandwiches, soups, and cakes. A white teapot decorated with a bunch of lavender stalks sat with two matching tea cups.
A soft knock came at the door and Camille spun around just as the door opened.
A tall, slim figure swathed in a thick winter cloak whirled in, closed the door behind her, and leaned back on it, her eyes twinkling and a smile playing at her lips as the hood fell away from her face. As Camille anticipated, she wore a midnight blue gown, the bodice tightly fitted, and golden stars embroidered along the sleeves and hem. Her dark hair glinted in the light, a golden circlet around her head, crowning her own shortened hair.
“You cut your hair!” both women cried out at each other.
The other woman giggled while Camille smiled and held out her hands to her old friend.
“I hope Geoffrey won’t be too angry with me,” Andalissa said. “I think he’s forgotten how quick I am.” She wrinkled her nose. “But I did get a glimpse of your new stepmother. What in the world is she wearing?”
Camille grimaced as she led Andalissa over to the couches. “Fashion from ten years ago.” She shook her head. “I just hope she doesn’t embarrass us at the engagement ball.”
Andalissa waved her hand as she pulled off her cloak and gloves before settling onto one of the couches. “Forget the engagement ball. You and Abigail will be at my birthday soiree, won’t you? The whole household is madness right now.”
Camille grinned as she poured tea for both of them. “We wouldn’t miss it. I’m sure Abigail will be as delighted as I am to see an old friend.”
Andalissa’s eyes glimmered as she leaned forward, her familiar conspiratorial smile on her face. “I do hope so. I have a secret I’m not supposed to share, but I hope my parents will forgive me considering you and I have been plotting it for so long.”
Camille frowned. “Do you mean you just now cut your hair?”
“What, this?” Andalissa asked, startled, as she reached one hand to her head. “Oh, no. I did this a week ago. Mother screeched and yelled at me, but I assured her it’ll be quite popular soon. I hear the mermaid princess actually keeps her hair quite short so it doesn’t get caught in the coral. Everyone will want hair like hers as soon as she’s formally introduced to the kingdom. No, I mean about my brother.”
“It doesn’t sound like your brother to have secrets. I remember he never seemed to be quiet.”
Andalissa laughed. “He hasn’t changed. Which is really why I know this.”
Camille leaned forward. “You’ve piqued my interest, Anda. What is it?”
“Well, Adrian intends on formally courting Abigail as early as my soiree when they’re back in the same room together. He was quite taken with her when we were young and hasn’t even looked at another girl in the past ten years. It’s always been Abigail for him.”
Camille’s eyes widened. “Truly? Well, I have something to share with you. Abigail intends on seeing our new stepsister, Madeline, married to Adrian.”
A disgusted look flashed over Andalissa’s face. “I’ve never met her, but I’ve heard of her. Muriel, too. I will not tolerate that woman joining my family. Keep an eye on her, Camille. Madeline is craftier than she looks.”
“She looks rather meek to me,” Camille said dubiously. “I think I would know. I live with her.”
“Just watch out, Cam.” Andalissa took a bite of cake, completely foregoing the sandwiches and soups just as Camille suspected. “But that’s not all. Adrian has apparently met a lady at the markets. She’s helped him pick out some gifts for me and for the mermaid princess. He’s started talking of her with fondness and looks forward to the markets now, hoping to see her.”
Camille nearly choked on her sandwich.
“Camille?” Andalissa asked, quickly going around to thump on her friend’s back. “Are you all right?”
Camille coughed and gulped down her tea before taking Andalissa’s and gulping that down as well. “I’m fine,” she finally wheezed.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t finish that sandwich,” Andalissa said as she went back to her seat. “The cakes are much better.”
Camille laughed, but the rough sound grated on her ears. “That’s not it, Anda. You won’t believe it, but Abigail is the woman Adrian has been meeting in the markets.”
Andalissa paused, another cake hovering in the air. “What?”
“Apparently Adrian hasn’t recognized her, but that makes sense considering Abigail has grown up and keeps the hood of her cloak over her face. Abigail, though, recognized him. He thinks she’s called Gail.”
“Yes, that’s the name,” Andalissa said, holding her cake aloft. “He said a lovely young lady named Gail has been a great help and he looks forward to seeing her again next market day.”
“Abigail hasn’t changed, Anda. She’s still painfully shy.”
Andalissa waved her cake around. “Don’t worry so much about her. She’ll have Adrian to lean on. Besides, with James getting married soon, an heir is imminent. It’ll let Adrian off the hook. We’re newly arrived in the city, but he’s already ready to head back to Murant Holdings. I must admit, I am as well.”
Camille nodded thoughtfully, taking a cake as her friend suggested. “I do look forward to when they come face to face at your soiree. To see Adrian’s face at understanding Abigail and Gail are the same.”
“Well, I can tell you he’ll be relieved. Poor man has been driving himself crazy thinking himself in love with two different women.”
“Shall we take odds as to how mortified my sister will be?” Camille asked with a sly smile.
“Oh, I have missed you so much, Cam! If it weren’t for you being here, I’d have run away back to Murant Holdings by now.” She giggled. “Yes, we shall. I will bet a rosy red.”
Camille laughed. “I’ll go with turning and running out of, not just the room, but the Manor!”
The stories say The Wilds are full of dangerous creatures, but my sister found no evidence for them. She was tired, dirty, starving, and lonely by the time she stumbled on a small town. A small town! Somewhere in The Wilds! No one else had ever spoken of a town, complete with a well, bell tower, and council chamber, but my sister regaled me with the details one night, keeping me awake into the early hours of morning as she walked the cobbled streets in the dead of night.
It had been tempting, almost too tempting to drag Madeline up to the Lavender Room to introduce her to the woman who could be her sister-in-law one day. But Abigail was certain Adrian had told his sister about Gail, and Camille knew about Gail, so she wasn’t going to risk her secret coming out to Adrian. Of course, he would probably laugh it off as a joke, but she was mortified knowing she hadn’t corrected him, had continued the charade.
So she had stayed in the kitchens, learning how to prepare duck, which Muriel had banned Madeline from ever making again. She’d also banned Madeline from spending time in the kitchens like a servant.
Abigail wasn’t quite sure if she missed Madeline’s company or relieved she no longer had to go over royal protocol while wrist deep in dough. But she did enjoy the return to solitariness.
Now, with a small smile, she finished icing the last cakes and banished the thoughts of Camille and Andalissa’s tea. After all, it had been a few days before and the Duchess had yet to return. An invitation to the entire household for her birthday soiree, though, had appeared. It must have been because of the tea that Andalissa had made sure to name each lady in the household. Abigail smiled to herself as she remembered the fury in Muriel’s voice as she read her and Camille’s names. A soft chuckle escaped her lips when she recalled Camille’s bored voice reminding their stepmother Andalissa had been a long-time friend of the family, as well as blood family.
Abigail dusted off her hands, smiling with satisfaction at the carefully iced butter cookies. She’d decorated them with tiny flowers and leaves in purple, pink, and yellow so they looked something of a garden. But her smile soured as she remembered this was only a test batch. Muriel was planning on inviting the Prince and his wife to Olidan Manor in the coming weeks, right after the soiree, and wanted to ensure the menu was flawless.
“These are lovely, Miss Abigail,” Helene said, drawing her out of her thoughts.
Abigail planted her hands on her hips. “I don’t know whether to hope Muriel likes them or not.”
Helene twisted her face into a sympathetic look and placed a hand on Abigail’s shoulder. “I’ll take them up to her. You need to scurry off to the markets today. The soiree is in a week and you and Miss Camille need the finest fabrics to finish off your gowns.”
“Is there anything else I can get?”
“No, dear. There isn’t anything we can’t get from the daily market. Just focus on getting what you and Miss Camille need.” Helene smiled. “It’s high time my little ladies shone again.”
Abigail smiled and gave the older woman a somewhat awkward quick hug. Then Helene was shooing her into her cloak and shoving her basket into her hands.
Winter had finally taken a turn towards frigid. She shivered as she pulled her thick and almost too heavy cloak around herself. The hood was lined in soft, plush material that helped keep her ears moderately warm, and she kept it firmly pulled over her face. Her gloves were lined in the same soft material and were almost as thick as her cloak, making it a little difficult to keep a tight hold on her basket. The sun was shining weakly and the snow had yet to come, but Abigail still shivered.
“Here, allow me,” a familiar voice said as a large hand swooped in to take charge of her basket.
Abigail bit back a smile. His sister and the mermaid princess had been taken care of. She wondered what Adrian could possibly be doing at the markets this time.
“Is it more duck this time?” Adrian asked cheerfully as they entered the markets together.
“N-no,” Abigail stuttered through teeth she kept clenched to prevent them from chattering.
“It is cold out here, isn’t it? Come. Let me purchase something for you to help.”
“N-no. No, thank you. I’m really in a hurry.”
“Please,” Adrian said. “It’ll just take a moment. Why don’t you tell me where I can find you and I’ll bring it to you so you can get home as quickly as possible? Honestly, I don’t see why your mistress or master doesn’t offer you a carriage on such dreadfully cold days.”
Abigail clutched tighter at the cloak, her eyes wide. She had no answer, none that would or could be flattering to anyone. Besides, if she had taken the Olidan carriage, with it’s family crest on both sides, and he’d seen it, he might guess at who she was.
She swallowed the ball in her chest, the one that both wanted her to speak up, to correct his misunderstanding and to bite her tongue and not say anything so as to prevent further embarrassment. It was, needless to say, an uncomfortable feeling.
“Gail? Where can I meet you at?”
“Oh,” she said with a small jolt. “I, um, I’m here for some material. There’s a stall near the fountain that sells the finest fabrics from the Sun Kingdom.”
She peeked up at him when neither of them moved. His eyes had lit up, though he appeared deep in thought.
“Then you must be employed by one of the wealthiest families,” he murmured to himself, his voice loud enough for her to hear. He turned away to walk off, murmuring, “That narrows things down a little.”
Abigail swallowed hard, her eyes lingering on the basket still swinging from one of Adrian’s hands.
It did narrow things down. Almost too much. Very few families outside of the royal family could afford the fabrics from the Sun Kingdom. Only accessible by either a roundabout route across most of the continent or through the narrow and often treacherous single pass of the Fairy Mountains between the Sun and Glass Kingdoms, the merchants who made it through often charged exorbitant sums for their troubles. But the fabric themselves were the finest woven, and very little was produced year to year.
It was said the threads were like spidersilk. Thin, yet strong. When woven properly, it was nearly impossible to see individual strands. An opalescent white in it’s natural form, it was very difficult to dye and, reports said, took great amounts of dye to turn it into the pale, pastel colors they shimmered with. Even the Queen wore very few gowns made from it.
She had to get out of the markets, had to hurry home as quickly as her feet could carry her. She’d already given too much information to Adrian. She couldn’t risk spilling any more secrets. Besides, she’d already told Madeline everything she knew about Adrian. The man was still as unchanging and consistent as she remembered.
Abigail had no idea what Adrian intended on buying, or how far away the stall was, or how long it would take him to make the purchase. So, she ran towards the fountain, weaving around people as quickly as she could.
The merchant stall she was looking for was practically deserted. Very few could afford the fabrics, so the man sat reclining in a chair with a book in his hands. A handful of neatly folded fabrics were settled on his table, shimmering in the weak light as clouds began to scuttle by.
He caught her eye as she approached and quickly stood to offer a small bow.
“Greetings, Miss. Are you interested in some of the finest fabric in the world?”
Her breath still labored, she nodded, and her hood slipped a little off her head.
“Yes, sir,” she said breathlessly. “I’d like a yard of the blue and a yard of the white. Please. As quickly as you can.”
The man nodded and jumped into action. “Your mistress is in a hurry?”
“Yes, sir,” Abigail said quickly, taking peeks over her shoulder as the man worked quickly to cut the fabric and fold it up for her.
Finally, the man smiled and handed her the two fabrics with another bow. She hastily paid, not bothering to haggle over the price. The man was likely inflating the prices since she was in such a hurry, but the Olidan coffers could handle it. After all, the king paid handsomely for his cousin to not only take up permanent residence in the city so he could have family nearby, but to also spend much of each year in the cold waters of the sea with the mers.
Abigail took a quick glance around and breathed a small breath when she didn’t see Adrian. Of course, the man still had her basket, but it was easy to replace. Her heart hammering, she quickly wound her way back through the markets, fighting hard to not run, her ears listening carefully for Adrian’s voice.
But she never heard him, never saw him. Before she knew it, she was passing through the gates to Olidan Manor. Breathing heavily, she slowed her stride and tucked the fabric into a pocket on the inside of her cloak. She didn’t want Muriel to claim them for herself, and definitely did not want to wander back to the markets.
She bit her lip as she approached the doors. How she would explain her sudden disappearance, she wasn’t sure. She just hoped Adrian wasn’t going to come knocking on every door, looking for her.
Abigail stifled a yawn, but did as Clarice told her and raised her arms. It was, after all, the dead of night, but it was also the only time Clarice could work on her and Camille’s gowns so Muriel wouldn’t see the fabric from the Sun Kingdom.
“A little higher,” Clarice said, gently raising one of Abigail’s arms. She shook her head of purple hair and sighed. “I know it is late, Abigail, but I must get this done.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Abigail grumbled. “Do the fae ever need to sleep?”
Clarice laughed, a light tinkling sound. “Not quite the same way you humans do.”
“Come on, Gail,” Camille said from where Clarice’s fae assistant was measuring her. “It’s just one night.”
“I don’t see how you can be so cheerful. Doesn’t Muriel have you running around like a servant?”
Camille shrugged, forcing the fae lady working on her dress to tut unpleasantly at her. “Muriel has been having me assist Violet, and Violet will shoo me off to steal naps as often as she can. Doesn’t Helene do the same?”
“We’re afraid to,” Abigail admitted. “Muriel comes barging into the kitchens when she pleases to make demands for food. We usually hear her coming and Helene will force me into a corner or under a table or into the shadows. Honestly, Camille, I don’t think the kitchens are as safe as you think they are for me.”
Camille frowned. “It must be because she’s making sure Madeline hasn’t been sneaking back into them. Did you know Muriel has Madeline locked up most of the day with an etiquette instructor? I heard Muriel yelling at her daughter to not embarrass her at Andalissa’s soiree.”
Abigail rolled her eyes. “I doubt very much anyone will really take notice of Madeline and Muriel. They’ll be complete outsiders, and you know how snobby the royals and wealthiest families can be.”
“But it’ll be good to make sure Madeline doesn’t make a mistake,” Camille said, turning concerned eyes on her sister. “It would reflect badly on our family.”
“Andalissa will probably think it funny.”
“Muriel won’t. Neither will Father when he hears about it. You know how prickly Father can get if we embarrass him.”
Abigail limply waved a hand. “So let him. Serves him right for being gone most of the year, every year.”
“Abigail,” Camille said, the sharpness in her voice making Abigail’s head shoot up. “What is the matter with you? This isn’t like you.”
Abigail turned away. “I’m tired, Camille.” She sighed. “I must be a bit grouchy.”
Clarice patted her hand, drawing her attention. “That’s it, Abigail. You can head off to bed now.”
Abigail smiled, her arms quickly swinging down with a sigh. Under her sister’s frown, she quickly went behind the screen in the corner to remove the gown and replace it with the dress she’d worn all day.
As quickly as she could, she hurried from the room, leaving Camille to the two fae. With determined steps, she marched over to Madeline’s rooms. She didn’t care how late it was. She needed to make sure Madeline was ready for the soiree in five days. Madeline needed to capture Adrian’s attention. She needed Madeline to capture Adrian’s attention, if only to make him stop looking for her.
It was several minutes before Madeline pulled open her door, several minutes of Abigail rapping sharply on the solid wood, constantly peering over her shoulder nervously for any sign of Muriel.
“Abigail?” Madeline asked with a yawn, drawing her dressing gown tighter around herself. Her hair was in complete disarray and her eyes were sleepy, but she pulled her door open so her stepsister could step in. “Is something the matter?”
“I need to know how prepared you are for the soiree,” Abigail said as she strode in and put her hands on her hips.
“What?” Madeline asked, bewildered, as she shut the door. “Abigail, it’s the middle of the night.”
Abigail sharply clapped her hands once, making Madeline jump. If only it had been loud enough to overpower the sudden fear she had of coming face to face with Adrian as Abigail and Gail. “Madeline, please. It’s important. You’ll only get this one chance to make an impression on Adrian. That is what you want, isn’t it?”
“Well…yes. But, Abigail, it’s the middle of the night. Couldn’t we do this tomorrow? Besides, my etiquette tutor will be sure to drill it into me.”
“Your tutor is one thing. What I need you to know is another. Your tutor will teach you to be flawless when presented to the rest of the royal family. Only I can make sure you don’t make a fool of yourself in front of the Duke.”
That seemed to get Madeline’s attention. She visibly swallowed and dropped her hands to her sides, lifting her chin as the sleep quickly faded from her eyes.
“Then teach me, Abigail.”
Abigail gave a sharp nod and crossed her arms. “Let me see you curtsy.”
Madeline obliged, stretching her dressing gown out as far as she could, dipping her head, and sinking a couple of feet towards the floor. After a beat, she rose, keeping her head bowed and dropping her dressing gown to demurely clasp her hands before her.
“That will do just fine in formal royal occasions, but the soiree is not one of them.”
“There’s a different way of curtsying?” Madeline asked, gaping at her. “I just spent a whole day learning how to properly curtsy to the king!”
“Yes, well, that is the proper way to curtsy to him, and you’ll need to do that at the engagement ball. But it will not do for informal gatherings, nor is it appropriate for anyone other than the King, Queen, and Crown Prince.”
Worry creased Madeline’s face and she nervously played with the sash of her gown. “What do I do?”
“For one thing, no fidgeting. Ever. It’s undignified.” Madeline’s hands instantly stilled. “For another, you only avoid eye contact with the King and Queen in any situation. Otherwise, you must keep eye contact. Once you’ve made your dip, the formalities can drop. Here, copy me.”
Abigail swept out her gown in a quick, practiced move, keeping her head up, and sank into a dip before dropping her gown and rising to stand in her usual pose. Madeline, her eyes nervous, copied Abigail’s moves until Abigail nodded.
“The only time you need to curtsy is when you first greet someone. You do not approach anyone above our rank; they will approach you if they wish to speak to you. The only people you will be allowed to initiate conversation with is anyone below our rank. However, once you have already conversed with someone of a higher rank, you are then free to approach them at will during the remainder of the event. Of course, the Murants tend to be a little non-traditional, so keep a sharp eye for what everyone else is doing.
“Be sure to be introduced to Adrian as early as possible. Once you’ve been introduced and have exchanged pleasantries, you will be able to address him directly as you please, assuming he is not otherwise engaged with someone else. Andalissa will be the first one you formally meet. It’s best if you request an introduction to her brother once all of the guests have arrived.”
Madeline swallowed. “You mean you will not be introducing me to him?”
“It’ll be best if Andalissa introduces you,” Abigail said, sidestepping Madeline’s question. In reality, she planned to be nowhere near Adrian the entire night. “Don’t worry too much, Madeline. Keep what I’ve just told you in mind, keep your eyes on me or Camille to know how to conduct yourself, and you shouldn’t embarrass yourself.”
“Shouldn’t,” Madeline repeated, her voice trembling slightly.
“If you do feel nervous, eat something. It’s impolite to interrupt someone when they’re eating. Keep that in mind. Do not approach someone if they’re eating. If someone invites you to eat something with them, do so and take something to eat.” Abigail briefly touched a finger to her lips. “And then forget all of this when we attend the engagement ball.”
Madeline paled and her hands went back to fidgeting with her sash. “I’ll never survive being part of the royal family.”
Abigail took a breath, finally realizing just how much she had put on her stepsister to try to stamp out her own anxiety. “You’ll do fine. Everything will be fine as long as your mother doesn’t embarrass herself. Clarice has made a new gown for her, hasn’t she?”
Madeline grimaced. “I hope so. Trust me, I do know how unfashionable my mother is.”
“Then, Madeline, she is the only thing you’ll need to worry about at the soiree.”
My sister said the bell tower rang out as soon as dawn’s light was visible through the trees. It was strange, she said. The bell sounded almost hollow through the glass, but she said it was deep and resonant. But the strangest thing was seeing people pour out from their doors, fully dressed and ready to begin the day. No one was even surprised to see her. They welcomed her, led her to the inn, and settled her in with some fresh bread and wild berries. They called the town Caeladrin. I scoured the maps after she told me, but there was no indication the town was real.
The castle sat atop a hill overlooking sea and land. At the foot of the hill, silver gates blocked the way to the path that wound upwards, but, directly across the wide avenue separating the hill from the city, was a large, lush garden. A cobblestone road, just wide enough for two carriages abreast, ran straight from the avenue to a large, imposing manor, looping around the large fountain in front of it.
Murant Manor wasn’t ostentatious, but it was commanding. The central section was crafted from a dark gray stone while the two wings, both long and a story shorter than the central part, had been built from a lighter gray stone. Gargoyles and smaller statues of various notable fae decorated the nooks and crannies from top to bottom. The double doors at the front were flanked by imposing statues of the first fae to lead the world and her husband.
The evening of Andalissa’s soiree was chilly, but the lanterns around the garden and within the manor were warm and bright, like twinkling stars through the hazy mist that wandered through the city. The doors were pulled wide, though the fae still stared down everyone entering under their watchful gazes.
Camille had to hide the small smile playing around her lips. Muriel couldn’t stop peeking out the window of the carriage, her mouth opening and closing much like a fish’s. Beside her, Madeline was a bit more restrained, turning her head slightly to peer with interested eyes out the other window. Riding backwards, Camille and Abigail couldn’t see the manor, but had visited enough in the past to know what it looked like.
It had been years since Murant Manor had hosted a gathering, so most of the city’s nobility and wealthy had turned out. The line up to the manor was barely crawling. Voices and laughter already rang out around them as guests alighted.
A thrill ran down her spine as the carriage came to a stop, the fountain on one side and the open doors of the manor on the other. Laughter and voices battled with the burbling of the fountain as the carriage door swung open, letting the chill air sweep in. Beside her, Abigail shivered and pulled her cloak closer around herself. Unlike the cloak she usually wore to the markets, this one was soft, thick, and a pristine white with the Olidan crest embroidered on the back.
A footman, dressed in the ruby red and golden yellow of Murant, bowed to them before holding out a hand. Camille watched with interest, wondering if Muriel knew the etiquette here. She felt a stab of disappointment when Abigail’s foot reached out to nudge Madeline’s, who quickly nudged her mother.
Muriel, her powdered head held high, took the man’s hand and allowed him to guide her out of the carriage. Behind her back, Camille rolled her eyes. Muriel had toned it down, but her skirts were still too wide and the sleeves too billowy, though the turquoise color was a pretty one. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, Abigail had introduced Madeline to Clarice, so her stepsister was dressed in a deep blue ball gown, the hem and neckline sparkling with clear gems.
Camille, as the second eldest, alighted next, followed by Madeline and Abigail. Camille was surprised to see Muriel had swept on without them, leaving the three sisters to hurry after her, holding their cloaks tightly closed against the frigid air, though the flush of anger went a long way to warming her after the sudden chill.
It was warm inside. Though there were few enough people to allow for free movement, there was still a heavy concentration of people milling around the hall and the grand ballroom. Warming lights had also been placed along the walls, letting light and heat sweep over the gathered guests.
Andalissa stood greeting guests at the open doors to the ballroom. Her short hair had been decorated with strands of pearls and sea glass and her pale pink ball gown nearly matched the color of the sand. She stood, smiling and responding to bows and curtsies with deep nods and smiles, but Camille could see under the mask her friend was wearing. Andalissa was impatient.
“Looking for me?” Camille whispered close to her ear as she, her sisters, and stepmother, took their turn greeting the Duchess.
Andalissa turned from where Muriel was dipping a curtsy and had to throw a hand over her mouth to smother her unladylike squeal. Her eyes sparkled as much as Camille thought hers must be as well.
Camille, smiling almost mockingly, dipped a curtsy while Andalissa bit back a giggle and responded with a nod. She could see Muriel scowling fiercely as Abigail quickly pulled Madeline close and led her into the perfect curtsy.
“A good birthday to you,” Camille said. She looked around before leaning close again. “Is your brother close by?”
Andalissa made a face before turning to smile and nod at Madeline. “He’s in the gardens, freezing I’m sure. He’s been rather distressed for the past week, ever since Gail ran off from the markets.”
“Gail did what?” Camille hissed.
Andalissa met her eyes. “Find me later, after everyone has arrived.”
Camille nodded and moved on, dimly hearing Abigail introduce Madeline to Andalissa. She frowned as she made her way into the ballroom, but it quickly morphed into a smile as she passed by a bewildered Muriel, who was trying hard to smooth her feathers and look like she belonged. She knew Abigail had been staying up late to help Madeline learn everyone in the royal family so she wouldn’t embarrass herself. She wasn’t sure if any of that care and concern had made their way to Muriel. Tomorrow’s gossip would be interesting.
She smoothed the front of her ice blue gown. The blue silken fabric Abigail had gotten from the markets had been used to create the bodice and shimmered in the light of the lamps as she moved through the ballroom. On the other end was the entrance to the private gardens, a courtyard located in the center of the manor. It had been years since she and Andalissa had walked the gravel walkways, had hidden behind bushes and trees and tall flowers to ambush the unsuspecting household staff. Andalissa’s mother had reprimanded them, but it had never stopped them.
With the strains of a soft dance wafting through the air from a small chamber orchestra she couldn’t see through the crowd, Camille turned back just before passing through the open doors. Madeline was easy to pick out. Taller than most of the ladies, her dark head stuck out. She was latched onto Abigail, whose face was stoic and polite as she guided Madeline around to a corner. Madeline didn’t seem to mind. Her face was pale and she kept biting at her lips. Muriel on the other hand, was attempting to be the life of a party. Or, at least, of the small group of barons and baronesses she had probably elbowed her way into. None of them looked pleased, but were polite enough to not turn away from someone higher in status than themselves.
It was not going to reflect well on her father, Camille realized with a cringe. Abigail, everyone was used to. Many of them likely also remembered her as a close friend to the Duke, Duchess, and, of course, the Crown Prince. Muriel, on the other hand, was going to be an embarrassment, and word would get back to her father.
Sighing heavily, she turned and headed into the courtyard. Sheltered on all sides from the light wind and lined with warming lamps that hung from posts and trees, it was much warmer than the front gardens, and a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of all the bodies.
Somewhere in this manicured garden was the conflicted Duke. What she was going to say to him, she wasn’t sure, but she and Andalissa were still on a mission to see their siblings married to each other. Besides, guests were still pouring in. It would be a while yet before Andalissa was free to let her in on what was happening with her brother. She might as well find out on her own.
The gravel was rocky beneath her slippers, so she was glad to be wearing flat silken slippers instead of the heeled glass slippers most of the ladies of nobility wore to functions like this. After all, no one looked under her gown, so how were they to know if she was being fashionable or not? She might live in the Glass Kingdom, but all she cared for was the sea glass.
Soft male voices pulled at her and she heard the light crunch of gravel. It didn’t grow quieter or louder, so she assumed whoever it was wasn’t walking. Like a ghost, she stepped into the garden itself and silently made her way around the trees and bushes until the voices grew louder, her movements remembered from years practice of practice.
“Well, if you intend on saying something, why are you hiding in the courtyard?” a familiar male voice asked.
Camille peeked around the trunk of the tree she hid behind, recognizing the Crown Prince’s voice.
The two men looked like brothers, the prince and the duke. They had the same dark auburn hair, worn short, and were of a similar height. The prince was just inches taller then his cousin. Both had heavy winter coats on, so she guessed they had planned to be out here a while.
The Duke cracked an almost pained laugh. “To which one?”
“I highly doubt a maidservant would be here,” James said dryly. “Though, if you intend to pursue her, this is probably the best time to find her at home without her mistress roaming around.”
“I wonder if I could guess which household she belongs to.”
“You said Gail was there to buy fabric from the Sun Kingdom. Very few families can afford it. Mine, yours, the Olidans, the Greshins, the Leightleys.” She saw the prince shrug. “And a few others, but I think one or two have yet to return to the city.”
“Speaking of all of us returning, how are the negotiations going?”
“Changing topics, are we? Don’t worry, cousin, we’ll return to your dilemma soon enough. As for me, the Count Olidan is doing an impressive job. The mer king is becoming more amendable to losing his daughter to the land permanently.”
“I wonder why.”
The prince shrugged. “The Count works wholeheartedly for the interests of my parents and the kingdom. He’s very good at wearing down people. I just wonder what he promised in return.”
“So we’ll be seeing the betrothal proclamation soon.”
“By the spring, I expect. If not sooner. There have been some rumblings about a spring wedding. My mother is already speaking to the fae about ensuring the flowers will be in full bloom. Hmm. Maybe even before spring.”
“Ready to be married?”
A crunch of gravel had Camille peeking around the tree again. The prince had turned to more fully face the Duke. In the warm light, she could just barely see James’s serious face, the one he always put on when in public.
“There is no question of whether I’m ready,” James said crisply. “I’m the heir and I need one of my own. You know duty as well as I do.”
Adrian’s head dipped once. “I suppose, then, when you put things that way, Abigail would make the better bride.”
Camille rolled her eyes as she rested her back against the tree. Men! Always talking about women like they were wares on a shelf. It would serve him right if Abigail turned him down. No matter how much she wanted her sister to marry the man, it was, after all, Abigail’s choice. Maybe getting stuck with Madeline wouldn’t be so bad for him.
“You have known her longer,” James pointed out. His voice turned teasing, “And you have been mooning over her for years. Fae! It became annoying when you asked after her in every letter. Her father’s always away from court, so I only saw her at the important functions for the entire family or when her father was home to escort the ladies. Besides, what do you know of Gail, other than that she’s really good at picking out gifts? She probably does that for her master every year when it’s his wife’s birthday.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Adrian said pensively. “She reminds me of Abigail. Quiet, shy, but such a good listener, always helpful.” He laughed softly. “Unbending when she wants to be. She would love Murant Holdings.”
Camille’s eyes flew open, but she smiled when she saw Andalissa picking her way through the trees and bushes on silent feet.
“Did you find him?” Andalissa whispered in her ear as soon as she pressed her own back against the tree.”
Camille jerked a thumb over her shoulder as James’s voice came crystal clear, “I’m sure she’s here tonight.”
“What’s going on?” Andalissa whispered.
“James and Adrian are talking about Abigail and Gail.”
Andalissa rolled her eyes. “I thought men didn’t talk about things like that. Come on. I’ll tell you what I know about what happened between Adrian and his market friend.”
Quietly, the two women picked their way back to the ballroom. It was hot and stuffy, an unwelcome change from the chilly, quiet courtyard. The orchestra was still playing, couples were dancing in the middle, and everyone else was gathered in groups on the outskirts of the dance floor. Along one wall were long tables draped in shimmering white linens, heavily laden with small bites and desserts.
“I thought this was supposed to be a soiree,” Camille said as Andalissa linked her arm through Camille’s and started leading her around the room.
Andalissa snorted. “That’s what I told Mother I wanted. But you know her. She’ll take any opportunity to throw a ball.” She gestured with her free hand. “Everyone’s here. It’s been so long since we’ve hosted anyone here, I suppose everyone just had to jump at the invitation.”
“The king and queen?”
“Absent. But James is here, avoiding wedding details, I think.”
“I heard him say the betrothal is imminent.”
“I’ve heard that, too. Father has come back from some meetings saying it would be any time now. Apparently, the mer king is ready to hand off his daughter and make the alliance a done deal.”
“Anyways, what, exactly, happened between Adrian and Gail?” Camille asked as they passed by the corner Abigail and Madeline were sheltering in. Well, Abigail looked quite at home with a few cakes on a porcelain plate. Madeline was nervously twisting the skirt of her dress around, her head darting side to side like a bird’s. “That woman will be the death of me,” she muttered under her breath.
“Gail?” Andalissa asked, puzzled.
Andalissa craned her neck around and chuckled. “Poor girl. But her mother’s worse.”
Camille turned to where her friend was pointing and had to stifle a loud groan. Muriel had moved on to an uncomfortable group of ministers, King’s Knights, and a couple of barons. She knew the group well. They were the ones who directly oversaw the city and often took advantage of gatherings like this to discuss business. One of the ministers, a middle-aged woman with hard eyes who was in charge of the guilds, was glaring at Muriel over the full fluted glass she held aloft in one hand, her bony elbow perched on her hip.
“Let’s forget she’s my stepmother,” Camille whispered. “Tell me about Gail and Adrian.”
Andalissa shrugged, eyeing the uncomfortable group with amusement. “Adrian’s been going to the markets every week just to see her. Though I do appreciate the book she helped him pick out for me.” She cleared her throat. “He went last weekend and swooped in to hold her basket so she could keep herself warmer. There’s this new drink making it’s way into this world called hot cocoa. He went to get a cup for her and was to meet her at the fabric seller’s stall. Only, she wasn’t there when he arrived. The man said a woman had come and gone, but he’d missed her by several minutes. Adrian tried going back this morning, but didn’t see her.” She gave Camille a sidelong look. “I’m assuming ‘Gail’ was busy preparing for the soiree. Anyways, he’s been fiddling with that basket since, moping about, arguing with himself. He thinks himself torn between the girl he’s loved since we all were children and the woman he met at the markets.”
“Your brother is a disaster.”
Andalissa chuckled. “Well, our parents have kept us out of society for the past ten years. I suppose we’re both a little rusty. Oh, before I forget, I did manage to wheedle some sword lessons back at Murant Holdings. If you’ve time, or can sneak away from Muriel’s clutches, I want to show you what I know.”
Camille’s heart leapt and she could feel her face light up. “Really?”
“It’s why I cut my hair. Come. My parents won’t need me until later. We can sneak off to my rooms and I can show you some basic moves.”
Camille laughed softly. “Any I can use on your brother if he gets on my nerves one more time?”
“Oh, absolutely. I’ve been tempted to use them on him myself, but Mother would die. After killing me, of course.”
Caeladrin seemed to be untouched by time. At least, that’s how my sister described it. They wore clothes neither of us had ever seen: long skirts, slim dresses, shortened breeches, and shirts with buttons down the front. There were even open shoes that barely clung to a person’s foot and made a strange flopping noise as the person walked. My sister, though, was more intrigued by a little girl with curly ginger hair. She was quite young, perhaps six or seven, but her blue eyes looked old and she was incredibly serious. She said her name was Cass and she had a twin sister, but her sister had been lost to her for a long time.
Abigail frowned as she watched Camille and Andalissa walk out of the ballroom. She had been hoping to use Andalissa to introduce Madeline to Adrian, though she still hadn’t yet seen him. But now she would have to devise another way that kept Adrian from seeing her.
She would also have to do something about Madeline’s unladylike fidgeting. She could hear her mother in her head, gently reprimanding her for not sitting still, for not keeping her hands calmly in her lap, for picking at her gown and creating unseemly creases. Unfortunately, Madeline had been raised far from the royal family, far from the wealthy that rotated in and out of the district nearest the castle.
Abigail finished off the last bite of her chocolate cake with a sigh. She had missed the cooks of Murant Manor. Helene was wonderful and talented, but no one could make cakes like Veronique. There were rumors that the woman had studied not just in the Glass Kingdom, but in the other world as well, in places with fancy names like Paris and Copenhagen.
With her cakes gone, she sighed inwardly and reached out light fingers to still Madeline’s.
“Do sit still, Madeline,” Abigail said softly. Then, just as her mother had throughout her childhood, said, “It’s unladylike.”
Madeline pasted on a nervous smile. “I’m terrified, Abigail.”
Madeline looked around, surveying the packed ballroom, full of dancing couples and people sitting and standing around them talking and eating. “There are so many people here.”
Abigail smiled. “Princess Aloise takes any opportunity to throw a ball. I imagine Andalissa wasn’t pleased, which must be why she just left with my sister.”
Madeline’s head whipped around, craning to look around the room. Abigail briefly closed her eyes and suppressed a sigh. Whatever that etiquette tutor had been trying to teach her had obviously not stuck.
“B-but how will she introduce me to her brother if she isn’t here?” Madeline asked. “Who else can introduce me?”
Abigail pressed her lips into a thin line. Yes, who? Not her, she was certain of that. She didn’t want to be anywhere near Adrian tonight. Not that she had even see him yet. The Prince and Princess were dancing, Andalissa had left, and Adrian was missing. Not even Camille was there to introduce Madeline.
Her eyes desperately scanned the crowd again. But a loud crash brought the soiree to a screeching halt. Silence fell across the ballroom as people silently turned in the direction of the noise.
“I have had it,” a female voice spat.
“Oh no,” Madeline murmured, rising from the settee she and Abigail were perched on. “Is that my mother?”
Abigail, pale and her own fingers shaking now, rose with her. Muriel was standing with a group of men and women, all of them leaders of the city. The woman who had spoken was the severe head of guilds. She didn’t tolerate nonsense or fripperies. The fact that she had tolerated Muriel’s entrance to their group spoke volumes of her respect for Count Olidan.
“You, Countess, do not belong here,” the woman was saying, her voice crisp and no nonsense. “Your family should be ashamed of your behavior. How dare you enter our conversation without an invitation. How dare you dominate us. You will listen and your will respect us.”
“Oh no,” Madeline whispered again as she gripped Abigail’s wrist.
Abigail winced, wondering if she was going to be stuck with this for the rest of her life. Or at least until she could get Madeline married off to Adrian. Madeline certainly didn’t know her own strength.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Abigail said calmly as she caught sight of Camille and Andalissa rushing back into the ballroom.
Muriel, though, had no idea of the offense she had inflicted, and drew herself up, holding her head high. “I am the Countess Olidan, married to a cousin of the king. How dare you raise your voice to me.”
Abigail covered her face with her free hand. Her heart was hammering, her feet wavering with indecision. She both wanted to flee and jump between the minister and Muriel to try to soothe ruffled feathers. But her feet were like leaden stone. Instead, she reluctantly lowered her hand to meet her sister’s eyes.
Camille was already grimly making her way through the crowd just as the Prince and Princess were making their way over. Abigail took her own free hand and gripped Madeline’s in a vice grip. Together, they stood still as statues, waiting, hardly drawing a breath.
“What is the meaning of this?” the Princess demanded, her soft, cultured voice sweeping through the room.
Muriel apparently had no compunction about raising a finger at the minister. “This woman has insulted me. I am the Countess Olidan.”
“I know who you are,” the Princess said, her voice icy. “But do you know who you are speaking of?”
Muriel sniffed and tossed her head slightly. “No one ranked above my station. I am certain of that.”
“You are wrong,” the Princess said, fury tinging her words now. “This is Minister Cecile Edelwood, one of the King’s Ministers who directly oversee the city. She has the King’s ear more than your husband does. Now, I believe you have insulted my daughter’s guests enough tonight. We bid you good night.”
With that, the Princess turned on her heel, pausing just long enough to nod to Camille as the two women passed.
“Come,” Abigail said softly, finally pushing her feet into movement.
Quickly, the two women made their way over to Muriel, who was pale under her cosmetics as everyone of notable society flowed away from her like water.
“I-I don’t…” Muriel stuttered before her voice completely escaped her.
Camille, stern and unamused, didn’t even bother to be gleeful at her stepmother’s embarrassment, Abigail was glad to see. Instead, she took Muriel’s arm before turning to Andalissa, who had a twinkle in her eye she was trying desperately to hide.
“My apologies,” Camille said stiffly as her hand tightened on Muriel’s arm. She offered a curtsey, pulling Muriel down with her. “I wish you a fortunate year.”
Andalissa smiled and gave a single nod in acknowledgement. “I am sorry to see you leave so early, but, perhaps, if my mother is amenable, we may visit again soon.”
Abigail watched as Camille cut a glare over at Muriel, who was still staring vacantly, her mouth moving like that of a fish out of water. Madeline was just as pale as her mother, her hand still clamped around Abigail’s wrist. She was certain this was not the formal introduction to society either woman had expected.
“Abigail,” Andalissa said, turning her way.
Quickly, Abigail dipped a curtsy, keeping her head low. “My apologies, Duchess, on behalf of my stepmother.”
“Nonsense,” Andalissa said softly, just loud enough for Abigail to hear. She lifted her head to see the twinkle in Andalissa’s eyes and the smile playing at her lips. “Your stepmother was certainly in the wrong, but it made for some much needed entertainment.”
Abigail raised an eyebrow. “Your mother would not agree.”
“No,” Andalissa agreed. “But my father will. He’ll be roaring with laughter later and reminding Mother why we retreated to Murant Holdings.” She sighed. “I’m sorry to see you leave so early, especially as Adrian and James have yet to return from the courtyard.”
Abigail stiffened at Adrian’s name, masking the wildly beating heart under her white gown. She wanted to bolt from the manor, but her family had already caused enough of a scene.
Fortunately, Camille took charge. She pulled Muriel forward and inclined her head to her friend in parting. Abigail quickly moved Madeline alongside her in Camille’s wake. Muriel was still in her stupor as they loaded her into the carriage and headed back home.
By the time the carriage rolled up to Olidan Manor, Muriel had managed to shake herself out of her daze. Now she shook slightly and her face was ashen.
“What shall I do?” Muriel murmured as they trooped into the manor, her daughter’s hands helping to support her.
Abigail met her sister’s eyes before Camille could open her mouth. She knew her older sister was furious, knew nothing good would issue from her mouth. It would be up to Abigail to smooth things over, to prevent the rift between stepmother and stepdaughter from filling with angry words and blood. Camille, Abigail knew, wouldn’t let an opportunity like this to belittle Muriel pass by her.
“Madeline,” Abigail said, pushing past the stone in her throat. She swallowed heavily. “Why don’t you and Camille see if Helene has any sweet buns left?”
“Madeline, do you mind going on your own?” Camille asked, her eyes on Abigail.
Out of the corner of her eye, Abigail could see Madeline nervously looking around all of them before, blessedly, dropping Abigail’s wrist and bolting from the hall. As she left, Geoffrey took it as his cue to swoop in and gather heavy cloaks.
Abigail pressed her lips tightly together and shook her head at her sister. She saw the frustration in Camille’s eyes, saw her need to take Muriel down a notch. But Abigail knew it wouldn’t help any of them, would just make matters worse. Abigail couldn’t let that happen.
Taking a deep breath as her heart raced away from her, Abigail stepped between Muriel and Camille as smoothly as she could. Muriel still looked a little lost, but met her eyes anyways, a bewildered, confused look in them.
“I know your introduction into society was not what you thought it would be,” Abigail said soothingly. “Fortunately, we know the Prince and Princess well. They are unlikely to invite you into their home.”
Her words must have sunk into Muriel’s head, because Muriel abruptly dropped to the floor, her voluminous skirts billowing around her as she wrapped her arms around her middle.
“I didn’t know,” Muriel whimpered. “I didn’t know.”
“You must write immediately,” Abigail said, pushing force into her voice, making her sound more authoritative than she felt. But she knew the royal family, how they operated. She knew what to do to repair the relationship before it was too late and there was no way to see Madeline married off to Adrian. “Invite the Prince and Princess to Olidan Manor. If they accept, you are halfway to being forgiven and can then beg them for the rest.”
From where she huddled on the floor, Muriel nodded, her eyes focused on a spot just in front of the skirt of Abigail’s gown. “Yes,” she said softly. “Yes, I will do that. I must. Madeline must marry the Duke. I must make sure we are in the Prince and Princess’s good graces.”
Abigail caught Camille’s arm just as her sister was opening her mouth, fury on her face. She shook her head and Camille angrily snapped her mouth shut, glaring at Abigail before whirling out of Abigail’s grasp and stalking up the stairs.
Swallowing hard, Abigail reached down to help Muriel up. “Come, Stepmother,” Abigail said softly. “I will help you.”
She would probably regret this, drawing Muriel’s attention to herself, but it couldn’t be helped. Even with two sisters now instead of one, soothing ruffled feathers was still Abigail’s duty.
“My sweet Abigail,” Genevieve used to murmur. “You may be quiet, you may shy from society, but your eyes see the soul. Your eyes see a way to peace.”
Abigail still had no idea what her mother had meant, but her father had taken it to mean Abigail would be just as accomplished a negotiator and ambassador as he was one day, if only she would speak more.
Abigail grimaced as she guided Muriel into the parlor and over to the small writing desk. It was mostly used only by Lawrence when he was home, but Abigail didn’t think he would mind if his new wife used it. After all, he’d be just as intent as Abigail at repairing fractured relationships. Of course, their reasons would be different, but her father didn’t need to know.
My sister was completely taken in by the girl. She didn’t say much, but seemed to see so much more than a normal child. She spoke frequently of this twin of hers, said she was in a deep sleep and could not be woken. My sister gathered the girl’s sister had died during childbirth. But the strangest thing was the girl’s mother and father refused to speak of this with my sister, and ended up pulling their daughter from my sister’s side. After that, the townspeople slowly began to refuse to associate with my sister, eventually driving her from the town and back into the forest.
The Prince and Princess had kept Muriel waiting and fretting for three days, three days during which she either stormed through the halls or withdrew to her rooms. Three days during which Camille had willingly put herself at Muriel’s disposal to shield her sister, to try to ensure Muriel forgot about the young woman who had assisted her after the disastrous soiree.
Camille, at least, had heard from Andalissa. Muriel had been the talk of the soiree after their departure. Very little of it was flattering, but most of the remaining guests were sympathetic to her and Abigail. Andalissa’s note had been full of humor, so Camille knew her friend had gotten a good laugh and a reprieve from the quiet dignity her parents always pressed on her.
Camille had replied with relish: a request to her friend to ask her parents to delay responding to Muriel. Andalissa had been more than happy to acquiesce. But, finally, Muriel had received her answer.
The new Countess Olidan was to host the Prince and Princess. In three days’ time.
The manor was thrown into disarray at Muriel’s frequent, often competing, requests. Abigail bemoaned the fact that the kitchens had never been busier, her arms had never ached more from mixing, baking, and decorating. But, because she had been so frazzled and exhausted, she had been able to blend in with the rest of the kitchen staff so Muriel barely glanced at her when she charged into the kitchens.
The night before the visit, Camille found Abigail sprawled across her bed, her eyes blinking blankly at the ceiling.
“Abigail?” Camille asked tentatively as she pushed the door closed behind her.
“I may never move again,” Abigail murmured, not moving a muscle.
Camille grinned and flopped down beside her sister. She groaned and stretched, her muscles protesting, but she has certain nothing had ever felt better.
“It’ll be all over tomorrow,” Camille said.
“Yes. But then we’ll be back to the same Muriel.”
“At least we’ll know what to expect.”
“I suppose,” Abigail murmured just before yawning.
Camille smiled and pushed herself up. “Would you like me to help you prepare for bed?”
Abigail shot her a glare, but it quickly lost it’s ire as another yawn overcame her. She threw and arm over her eyes and said, “No, thank you. I’ll manage. Besides, it wouldn’t be terrible if I fall asleep right here just like this. It’s not like Mother never fell asleep by the fire, fully dressed.”
Camille nodded, though her sister couldn’t see. With a groan, she pushed herself off the bed, murmured a quiet good night, and silently left Abigail’s room.
The halls were quiet and empty, all of the household staff having retired for the night, weary from preparing for the Prince and Princess. As soon as Muriel had proclaimed everything perfect, well, Camille couldn’t blame them for how quickly they had scattered. She was feeling exhausted as well. The great hall had needed another thorough cleaning and the front gardens, full of winter blooming flowers, had needed some pruning.
Camille sighed. She was ready to fall on her bed, but headed down to the parlor instead, just to ensure the room was still spotless. Why she bothered, she wasn’t entirely sure. But the Olidans needed to impress the Murants, return to their good standing with the king’s brother. Muriel had potentially ruined any chance of Camille and Andalissa matching Abigail and Adrian, and Camille was set on ensuring that wasn’t going to happen.
Her slippers shuffled quietly over the freshly washed hall floor as she crossed to the closed doors of the parlor. But voices from within had her stopping abruptly.
Now fully awake, she gently pressed her ear to the door and had to stifle a gasp at the sound of Madeline and Muriel’s voices. What were they doing in the parlor so late at night? Her heart rate picked up as she hardly dared to breathe, to move. Madeline didn’t quite sound like herself.
“It was foolish, Mother,” Madeline was saying, her voice crisp and clear and cold.
“What choice did I have?” Muriel snapped back. “The Prince and Princess were refusing to respond to my notes, my invitations, my requests. You must remember, Madeline, I am doing all of this for you, so you can marry the Duke.”
“Don’t worry so much, Mother,” Madeline responded, her voice dismissive. “I have Abigail in the palm of my hand. She’s given me invaluable information about them so I can shape myself into the perfect bride for Adrian.”
Camille ground her teeth together and balled her hands into fists. She’d suspected Madeline had ulterior motives! The woman would pay for using her sister. Dearly. With blood, if she had her way, but then Abigail would never forgive her. Instead, she held her breath and listened closely.
“If you hadn’t caused such a scene, I would have already been introduced to Adrian!” Madeline hissed. “But, no, my mother prefers to take things into her own hands, to speed things up in her own way.”
“Adrian was nowhere in sight,” Muriel bit out. “The man had been in the gardens all evening, and there was no sign of him returning to the ballroom. The next best thing was to get the Prince and Princess’s attention. Which I did. Now, Madeline, I don’t want to hear any more of this from your mouth. You are my daughter and you will act that way. Do not presume to order me about.”
Camille heard a sharp inhalation before Madeline said, seemingly through clenched teeth, “Yes, Mother.”
“Now,” Muriel said, her voice more settled. “You have absolutely befriended Abigail?”
“Yes, Mother,” Madeline said, though it sounded like she was forcing the words out. “But being banished from the kitchens did not help.”
“It couldn’t be helped,” Muriel said dismissively. “A Countess’s daughter does not work in the kitchens.” She sniffed. “Besides, Abigail shouldn’t have been there in the first place. She ruined my plans.”
“And you ruined mine. Honestly, Mother, you’re not helping at all, like you promised you would.”
“Temper, Madeline,” Muriel said sharply. “As I said, it couldn’t be helped.”
“Then what do you expect me to do?” Madeline asked, exasperated. “If you think you have everything all planned out.”
“Use your brain, girl,” Muriel snapped. “If you want to be a Duke’s wife, wife to the king’s nephew, you’ll need to exercise it more.”
There was silence for a long moment, and Camille held her breath, hardly daring to move or press her ear against the door.
“Fine,” Madeline finally replied, her voice muffled as though she didn’t completely open her mouth to speak.
“I’m only trying to help you accomplish your dream of marrying the Duke,” Muriel said, her voice a little softer, a little more maternal now. “Think of all the sacrifices I’ve made for you.”
Now Madeline sighed loudly. “I remember, Mother. Don’t worry. I do appreciate it.”
Camille could hear a “but” in Madeline’s voice, but her stepsister didn’t voice anything else. Instead, the conversation turned to what Madeline would wear the following day. They could hope for the Duke to accompany them, but impressing his parents would do just as well.
“And, for fae’s sake, Mother, you can afford to update your wardrobe. You’re a disgrace.”
Camille could hear Muriel sniff. “You know it’s becoming on me. Besides, it attracts attention, which means more attention is put on you, my little one.”
“That’s not the kind of attention I want,” Madeline ground out. “I hardly dare leave the Manor for fear of overhearing what someone has to say about you.”
“Tsk, Madeline. Have patience, dear. You’ll be wed to the Duke soon enough and then you can house me in the castle and no one has to see me again.”
“I’ll make sure of that,” Camille heard Madeline say, her voice very soft.
Thoroughly disgusted, Camille stalked back from the doors and up to her room. She would need to speak with her sister. Early in the morning. Warn her about Madeline. The woman wasn’t as twitchy and nervous as they had thought.
“That can’t be right,” Abigail said the next morning when Camille finally caught her in the gardens. She was carefully gathering sprigs of rosemary and mint to complete the tea Muriel had arranged. Her basket was already overflowing with dew-kissed vegetables.
Camille sighed, the exasperated sound coming out harder than she expected. “I heard it myself, Abigail. Madeline said she has you in the palm of her hand. You must stop interacting with her.”
“She’s my sister. How do I do that?”
“Just…tell her you’re too tired or too busy.” Camille threw her hands up in the air. “I don’t know, Abigail! But you cannot continue to help her.”
Abigail rose, slipping the shears into the basket, carefully to not nick any of the vegetables and herbs. “Why not? If she wants to marry Adrian and he agrees, I don’t see what the problem is.” She moved to walk past Camille to re-enter the kitchens. “Honestly, Camille, it’s not our choice.”
“But,” Camille started, whirling around just as the door banged shut behind her sister.
She let out a frustrated sound. Perhaps it would have helped if she’d told her sister her intentions of marrying her off to Adrian. Perhaps her sister really didn’t see Adrian in that light. Either way, she simply could not let her gold digging stepsister marry that high into the royal family.
She would need Andalissa’s help. If anyone was keener to marry Adrian and Abigail off to each other than she was, it was Andalissa. Andalissa didn’t care a whit for Madeline, would make life miserable for the woman if she did marry Adrian.
Her lips pressed tightly together, Camille headed back into the manor through a side door, not ready to run into Abigail again in the kitchens. She needed to get back to her rooms to dress appropriately for the Prince and Princess. Andalissa had sent her a private note informing her she’d be visiting along with her parents to help smooth ruffled feathers. Camille couldn’t wait another moment to enlist her friend’s help. It could be too late any time now. Especially with Madeline waiting to make an impression on the Prince and Princess.
Camille quickly dressed in a light lavender gown and pinned a pearl and lace net over her short hair. She smiled at herself in her mirror. The short hair really did look lovely on her. Abigail had been horrified when she’d seen it, but even she had to admit it was very becoming on Camille.
She was almost at the great hall when she heard voices and the heavy front doors closing. Her heart kicked up and she picked up her pace, lifting her skirt slightly so she wouldn’t trip on it.
“Your Highness,” she heard Muriel say. “Thank you so much for gracing Olidan Manor with your presence. Might I present my daughter, Madeline?”
“Your Highness,” came Madeline’s clear, demure voice.
Inwardly, Camille seethed. Now Madeline sounded like the perfect shy lady, not the conniving wretch from last night. The woman would pay dearly for deceiving Abigail. For using her sister. For sounding so much like her right now.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Camille skittered to a stop. That had been Adrian’s voice. What was he doing here? Andalissa hadn’t mentioned anything.
Her feet stilled as her mind debated. Head into the great hall and confront the group or fetch Abigail? She could either discredit Madeline or push her sister into Adrian’s arms. After all, he had voiced his intent to court Abigail. He hadn’t made his intention known at Andalissa’s soiree, so this would be the perfect time, as long as she could get Abigail into the same room.
But time was of the essence. Abigail was too far away, and she’d have to go through the great hall to get to the kitchens as quickly as possible anyways.
Her choice taken from her hands, Camille lifted her chin and glided into the great hall as only a royal lady could. She smiled as she approached the group, Muriel and Madeline on one side and the Prince and his family on the other. The sight of a white basket, the kind of basket Abigail always carried to the markets, stopped her cold, though, her smile frozen in place.
“Ah!” the Prince cried out heartily, quickly making his way over to Camille with a broad smile while his wife smiled warmly from where she stood.
Camille barely managed to bob a curtsy before the Prince engulfed her in a hug. In many ways the solemn, serious king’s opposite, the Prince was tall and no longer slender but neither was he portly. At least, not yet. His dark hair, always long, was going gray and he’d grown a beard between when he’d whisked his family away and now. His eyes twinkled as he pulled back and clasped her upper arms to look her over properly.
She’d forgotten just how enthusiastic Prince Grant was.
“My, my, Camille,” he said before looking over his shoulder at his wife. “Our Camille certainly has grown, hasn’t she?” He leaned in close to whisper. “I hear my daughter finally learned how to hold a sword. Aloise would murder me, but I think Anda would be happy to show you what she learned.”
Camille couldn’t stop the grin stretching across her face, warmth flooding her chest. As a child, she, and Abigail, had affectionately called him Uncle, though their exact relationship was muddled by a great many marriages, divorces, remarriages, and generations. Still, it was clear he took the honorific seriously even though she was grown.
“It is wonderful to see you as well, Uncle,” Camille said warmly. “If you’d like, I could call Abigail to join us.”
The Prince finally withdrew from her and nodded thoughtfully. “It has been quite some time since I last saw little Gail. The soiree was just so chaotic and busy! I imagine she must have grown since I last saw her.”
“Oh, yes,” Camille said eagerly. “She’s become a truly lovely lady.”
A throat clearing bordering somewhere between ladylike and decidedly not interrupted the small reunion, drawing a frown from the Princess and a hasty curtsy from Muriel.
Muriel shot a quick glare in Camille’s direction before clearing her throat again. “Your Highness, our tea awaits. May I escort you into the parlor?”
“If I may,” Adrian said quickly, stepping forward. He looked around the group nervously, his gaze skittering across Madeline as she smiled and preened a little under his gaze. He cleared his throat and looked away. “I’ve been looking for someone. I believe she works as a maid in a household such as yours,” he said, bowing slightly to a baffled Muriel. “She-she dropped her basket. All I know is she is called Gail and she works for a royal household. I’ve been to a number already. I hope you might forgive my intrusion as I know only my mother and father were invited, but I couldn’t pass on a chance to perhaps come across the woman who dropped this basket.”
“That is very kind of you,” Madeline said, smoothly cutting in and gliding forward to smile and rest her fingers on the basket. “The markets become ever so busy. Someone collided with me and I dropped my basket. By the time I had dusted myself off, it must have been kicked away.”
Camille watched with dread and fascination warring in her chest. She had never seen such a smile on Madeline’s face. Neither had she seen such confusion and consternation on Adrian’s. Beside the Princess, Andalissa smiled and winked at her, drawing a few blank blinks from Camille. What was her friend planning?
The surprised gasp drew everyone’s attention.
Camille looked up sharply to see her sister, dressed in the gray dress she always wore to the kitchens and her heavy winter cloak, standing at the entrance to the great hall, apparently on her way back to the markets if the white basket matching the one in Adrian’s hands was an indication. Her eyes quickly cut over to Adrian, who stepped away from Madeline, pulling the basket with him. Madeline’s eyes flashed, especially when they landed on Abigail.
“G-Gail?” Adrian stammered as he walked over to her.
“Abigail!” the Prince thundered at the same time. But his pleased expression devolved into one of confusion and he quickly turned to Muriel. “Why is Lady Abigail dressed like a servant?”
“Abigail?” Adrian asked. “I don’t understand.”
Camille drew in a breath as she watched her sister’s face drain of color. Abigail’s eyes darted around the room. Muriel was furious while Madeline had a carefully crafted mask of confusion. The Prince and Princess looked affronted and confused while Adrian was bewildered and Andalissa had a hand over her mouth.
Abigail was still as a statue. Her eyes landed on Camille before she turned and fled.
My sister wandered The Wilds once again. She slept under boughs heavy with blossoms and in hollows of dead trees. She ate wild berries and mushrooms and drank dew from leaves. For days she came across neither creatures nor people. But then a plume of white smoke caught her attention and she hurried towards it, hoping for a roof and warm meal. She came to a cottage. A very lovely cottage with white trim and splashes of bright colors around the frosted windows and pale blue door. A wreath of bright green leaves and colorful flowers adorned the door. The most delightful scent of hearty stew wafted out, and my sister, hungry as she was, could not resist.
Abigail ran back through the kitchens and into the gardens. Her feet took her through the herb gardens, the vegetable gardens, and the stone wall dividing the gardens from the wildly growing undergrowth and thick copse of trees extending as far as her eyes could see. Her heart hammered wildly, her mind refusing to whirl, stalled as it was. She refused to think, refused to hear anything but the sound of her breath reverberating in her head.
Adrian had found her.
It was cold, but she barely registered it, barely saw the gathering gray clouds hovering overhead. Her cloak flapped behind her as she ran, heading straight for the trees. There was one, an old, hardy tree with branches bent at all angles, that she had always loved best. It was there, just to her left, demanding space from all the other trees, dripping in dark green leaves. Like the rest of the copse, it had been blessed by the fae to forever believe it was summer.
Abigail grabbed onto a branch, her breath coming heavily, and pulled herself up. Her thin slippers slipped as she hurried as high up as she could. She climbed, her fingers scraping against the rough wood, her palms lashed by disgruntled twigs, her hair collecting leaves as her hood was pushed off her head.
Finally, she had gone as high as she could. She panted heavily for a few moments before clamping a hand over her mouth to quiet her presence. Around her, the copse was silent. A light breeze danced through the trees, rustling branches and leaves. For a copse that thought it was summer, it was still chilly. Abigail wrapped her cloak tightly around herself, huddling close to the trunk as the sunlight slowly faded behind the clouds.
This is a mess, she thought as she tried to shrink into herself. She could hear distant voices calling to her, but no crunches within the copse. If she was lucky, Camille had led them away from it, towards the pastures and the stables.
The hiss coming from around her neck almost startled her out of the tree. With one arm, she latched onto the trunk; with her other hand, she clutched at the sea glass she wore.
“I’m fine,” she whispered back.
“We’re looking for you,” came Camille’s hushed voice. “I’m leading them into the pastures, so I hope you’re not riding away with Pear.”
“I’m in the trees.”
“Good. Stay there. Stay there until I call you. But stay warm. Snow is coming. Muriel is furious. We need to talk tonight.”
Abigail clutched at the glass, her fingers starting to tingle. She wasn’t sure if it was from the cold or from the sudden drop in her blood pressure. She neither wanted to face Muriel nor discuss what had happened with Camille.
She turned her head in the direction she thought The Spindle lay in and bit her lip. She’d always dreamed of heading to Roderick Manor, of stepping through the portal. The stories she’d heard made it sound like it was easier to slip into obscurity there. There were small electronic devices people were obsessed with that prevented them from properly interacting with the delightful world they lived in. She could walk down a lane and no one would see her.
Her knuckles tightened around the glass. If Helene hadn’t decided to send her out for the dark chocolate that created that rich hot drink, she would never had entered the great hall, never seen Adrian. Madeline would have been able to make her impression on him. Perhaps she’d even be engaged to him right this moment!
Instead, she was huddled in a tree, a light dusting of snow finally falling. Her hand dropped from the glass and she pulled her cloak tightly around herself. It was still cold, but staying huddled against the tree helped a little. She tugged her hood over her head and rested her forehead against the rough bark.
Abigail’s head jerked up. Her heart raced as she looked around. She was still freezing in the tree, but the light snow had abated. The copse was still empty of anything but trees and her.
“Abigail?” Camille’s worried voice came from the glass around her neck.
With cold fingers, Abigail fumbled for the string around her neck. She could barely feel the glass pressed into her palm as she gripped it as tightly as she could.
“Thank goodness! Abigail, are you alright? It’s freezing.”
“Y-yes,” Abigail stammered.
“Come back in. Quietly. Through the kitchens. Helene has prepared a hot stew for you. Muriel has retired to her rooms and Madeline is with her. Everyone else has left.”
“I’ll-I’ll be there soon,” Abigail promised.
Slowly, she unfurled cramped muscles and limbs. With cold fingers and toes, she practically crawled down the tree and lumbered back through the copse. The snow had left a white dust over everything, not too different from the powder Muriel piled onto her hair. She grimaced as her feet prickled with every step, wishing the landscape looked less like her stepmother’s hair and more like the pastures, trees, and gardens she loved.
“There you are, child!” Helene cried out as soon as she pushed open the kitchen door.
Abigail could do little more than let the matronly woman hustle her into a stiff chair. A bowl of a steaming, hearty stew was pushed in front of her, the metal spoon clacking against the porcelain bowl. A hunk of bread fresh from the oven was placed on top and a delicate tea cup with wisps of steam accompanied it.
The kitchens warmed her skin while the food warmed her insides. She was so cold and hungry she barely noticed her sister staring intently at her from a neighboring chair.
“Are you alright?” Camille asked once Abigail finished eating.
“Much warmer now. Thank you.”
Camille grimaced and crossed her arms on top of the table. “Muriel is not pleased.”
“I suppose she never got around to her apology.”
“Well, no, but she’s more furious at the fact that Adrian intends on courting you.”
Abigail’s eyebrows lifted completely on their own. “Court me? Are you sure he didn’t say Madeline?”
“Abigail, as much as you don’t want to hear it, Madeline has only been using you. She and Muriel have been plotting to introduce Madeline to the family. Muriel intentionally caused a scene and Madeline intentionally befriended you to get as much information as she could. Today was supposed to be Madeline’s formal introduction to Adrian.” She rolled her eyes. “In their deluded minds, it was also supposed to spark the romance of the ages. Imagine! A young woman lifted from a merchant family because the marriage of her widowed mother to a relative of the King meant her introduction to the Duke.”
“You do remember Adrian has final say in who he marries.”
“That’s exactly what went sideways in Muriel and Madeline’s plans.” Camille pinned Abigail with her hazel eyes. “Adrian has always been smitten with you, ever since childhood. He just kept it to himself considering how large the age difference was back then. He didn’t think Mother would approve since the people of the Great North don’t usually start courting that young.
“He intended on announcing it at Andalissa’s soiree, at Andalissa’s urging, might I add. Except he went to the markets one day and ran into a woman who was extraordinarily like the girl he’d loved as a very young man. She left her basket with him one day and fled. Since then, he’s gone to almost every household that can afford the fine fabrics of the Sun Kingdom, asking after a maid who dropped a white basket.”
Abigail groaned and dropped her head into her hands. “I realized my mistake too late when I told him where to meet me.”
Camille cleared her throat and went on. “Olidan Manor was on his list, so he came along when he learned the rest of his family was coming to receive Muriel’s apology. Of course, Muriel intended on using it as a matchmaking opportunity, while Adrian came to find his lost maid and Andalissa intended on prodding her brother towards you, Abigail.”
Silence fell on them for several moments as Camille’s words sank into Abigail’s thawing mind. Spoons and pots clattered and the fire crackled, but, otherwise, the kitchens were quiet. Even Camille sat quietly, waiting patiently.
Suddenly, Abigail lifted her head and blinked wide eyes at her sister. “Did you say Adrian has always been smitten with me?”
“Yes,” Camille answered simply.
“You’re sure on that? Me? Abigail, Lady Olidan?”
Camille huffed out an annoyed sigh and said emphatically, “Yes.”
“You’re sure,” Abigail pressed.
“Well, he and Andalissa certainly didn’t say Madeline. Or my name, for that matter. This afternoon, Adrian looked Muriel squarely in the eye and said he intended on courting you. That’s uh, about when everything ended. Muriel collapsed into a heap,” Camille said with a roll of her eyes, “and Geoffrey and Madeline helped her up to her rooms.” She narrowed her eyes slightly and studied her sister. “Why?”
Abigail looked away, her fingers clenching around her skirts, creating unseemly creases Genevieve would have admonished her for. Crinkling fabric was certainly not something ladies did, especially in the Great North where, when people were so swaddled in warm clothes, outward appearances took on an exaggerated importance. Especially if it was almost all anyone saw of a person.
“I never knew,” Abigail said softly. “I always felt like he was being nice by letting me tag along with him and James. He tolerated me, I thought. I always felt a little foolish for following him around. Of course he wouldn’t want anything to do with a young girl who could barely swing a tree branch.” She cocked her head to the side. “I always did wonder why Mother always allowed me to play with them.”
“Mother knew,” Camille said softly. “A few days before she died, she was combing my hair and, quite sadly, actually, told me she wished she had encouraged you and Adrian more.” She shuddered. “It was almost as though she had known she was going to die.”
“Maybe she did. Her mare had been acting out of sorts and she was intent on taking one final ride on her before they had to send the horse away. You know Mother was sometimes careless, a little too reckless. Geoffrey tried to stop her, but she was insistent.”
Camille sighed, almost as though she were exhaling all the sadness that might have welled up in her. Then she pressed a smile onto her lips.
“Are you telling me, Abigail, that you have similar feelings for the dear Duke?”
The last time Abigail had felt a flush that hot was when Adrian had touched her in the book shop, when her heart had jumped and she’d both wanted him to stop touching her and to keep his fingers on her.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, looking away. “I don’t want to cause trouble in the family, especially not with the stepmother and stepsister we have. You know that’s not in my nature.”
“Abigail,” Camille said, smiling, “always the placid one, Father would say. The one who would never rock a boat. He would always jokingly say he should take you out on the boat to the lagoon of the Pearl Kingdom because it would be the smoothest ride ever made out there.”
“My point,” Abigail said, perhaps a little sharply, “is that I’m not going to go running over to Murant Manor to tell him he can court me. I will not create waves here that might drown us.”
With that said, and feeling sufficiently warmed up, Abigail pushed herself away from the table and whirled away.
“Where are you going?” Camille demanded.
“To dry off and change,” Abigail called back. “In case you didn’t know, it was snowing out there and now it’s all melted into my clothes.”
Abigail hurried up to her rooms, freeing the clasp holding her cloak closed as she went. She waved off Geoffrey and Violet, who had been worried with how long she’d been outside for.
Her head was starting to pound, fiercely and painfully, like a hammer up against her skull. All she wanted was to put on some dry clothes and curl up with one of her mother’s books. Supper would be announced soon, but she could decline to go down. After all, she’d just finished the most filling stew she’d had in ages.
Her feet came to a sudden halt as her heart lurched into her throat. Warm clothes and a book were not in her immediate future; just a more ferocious headache.
Madeline was standing in front of her door, the basket twirling in her hands. She looked up when Abigail approached, looking every bit like the young woman Abigail had befriended. Surely Camille had been wrong. After all, Camille and Muriel loathed each other. That would color her sister’s thoughts about Madeline.
Abigail forced a smile. “Madeline. I’m sorry the afternoon did not go as planned.”
Madeline bit her lip, the same way she’d always done so. Abigail studied her stepsister as Madeline appeared to mull over what to say while twirling the basket in her hands. She looked the same, acted the same.
“Don’t be,” Madeline finally said softly, thrusting the basket into Abigail’s arms. “Adrian will make his choice, and then it’ll be our turn.”
“What?” Abigail said, startled, as Madeline swept past her. She turned to watch Madeline walk around her. “What are you talking about?”
“I thought you didn’t have any interest in him,” Madeline said over her shoulder. She nodded to the basket. “I’m not sure what that basket is supposed to tell me.”
Abigail stood, thunderstruck, her wet clothes clinging to her, the basket clasped in her hands. “It’s a basket, Madeline.”
Madeline only gave her a sad smile before continuing down the hall. “It’s a shame, Abigail. I really do like you.”
She vanished around the corner. Abigail raised a hand to her head, feeling the heavy pulse at her temple. Her sisters were making her lose her mind.
The cottage was warm and smelled of freshly baked bread. An old woman lived there, alone, and hadn’t seen anyone in years, excepting a few carefree rascally children who thought her house was made of sweets and candy. The house was a landmark, the woman told my sister. A way for the giants in the clouds to find their way. The old woman took my sister outside to where a towering vine hung from a cloud. But my sister wasn’t entirely certain it was a cloud; it didn’t move. The giants of the skies, the woman told her, are nomads, and she is the keeper sent by the fae to protect them.
Adrian waited before the massive doors of the castle, his hands behind his back, his feet stationed apart from each other. He looked like a well-dressed version of one of the castle knights that flanked him and the doors. He abruptly shifted his feet closer and relaxed his arms as a carriage rumbled closer to the castle, the noise only partly masked by the bubbling fountain to mark the turnabout for the carriages.
Unlike his sister and parents, he preferred to walk up to the castle. The time gave him some silence to think in. After days of listening to his sister berate him for not going after Abigail and his parents, in very confused tones, asking about what, exactly, was going on in the Olidan family, walking to the castle to meet James’s bride was a relief.
He still wasn’t sure himself what had happened to the Olidans. Abigail, the girl with the warm smile and wise eyes, was the the maid he’d met at the markets. He had realized his mistake only after Abigail had run from the manor. The maid hadn’t said her name was Gail. She’d clearly choked on her own name, ever the shy, reticent girl he’d left behind ten years before.
Adrian fought the urge to rub his brow. It was a relief to know he hadn’t gone and fallen for two different women who were, admittedly, a great deal alike. But, clearly, Abigail hadn’t intended on him ever finding out. How he was going to get through to her again was a complete mystery, but, perhaps, the coming engagement ball could be used to his advantage. As long as he could shake off her stepsister.
The carriage came to a stop, the four horses pulling it snorting and stamping at the ground. He smiled. The Murant horses were very active and disliked being told to stop, but the castle, for being on a hill, still had a great deal of open space they could gallop around in, and they knew it.
A footman opened the carriage door and handed out his mother and sister before his father emerged.
Grant smiled and patted Adrian on the shoulder as they approached. “Ready to meet a mermaid?”
“Should be an interesting experience.”
“Oh, I’m sure the sea witches gave her and her entourage legs,” Andalissa said, the skirt of her ball gown brushing against his legs as she passed by.
“Come, dear,” Aloise said to her husband, lifting an eyebrow expectantly.
Grant bowed to her and offered his arm. Then he nodded to the knights, who pushed open the great doors. Adrian and Andalissa filed in after their parents.
The castle’s steward, a surprisingly young man with a bland face and impeccable manners bowed to them, the short ponytail behind his head barely moving as his head bent and rose.
“Your Highness,” he said, his voice crisp and proper. “The King and Queen await your arrival. Please follow me.”
“Lead on, young man,” Grant said, sweeping his arm out.
The steward bowed again before turning smartly and heading off in what Adrian vaguely remembered as the direction of the main parlor Gray and Coryn usually greeted family in. It had been a decade since he’d set foot in the castle, but very little appeared to have changed. Though he couldn’t say he minded the change in stewards; the former one had been old and stodgy and had constantly yelled at him, James, and Abigail to stop running in the halls.
The royal family of the Glass Kingdom was large with many cousins across the generations, but Gray and Coryn only hosted one or two families at a time, so the parlor was relatively small compared to the rest of the castle. It was cozy, though, and Adrian always felt more at home in it than anywhere else. The floor was a pale wood, but the rugs strategically placed so no shoe ever had to touch the wood were plush and bore intricate designs in dark, vivid colors. The furniture was similarly plush and comfortable, inviting guests to stay and recline for a while. The windows with sea green sheer curtains looked over the ocean with the lagoon far in the distance. Along one side was a long side table full of cakes, soups, buns, breads, cheeses, and fruits.
But the young woman currently standing in the middle of the room, her golden hair curling around her shoulders, stole everyone’s attention.
A teal gown perfectly flattered her slender figure with bared shoulders, a slim bodice, and the same layered without being too full skirt that was currently popular. The neckline and hem were decorated with opalescent pearls and an elegant strand of them adorned her long neck. Matching combs decorated with pearls and diamonds held her hair back on both sides. But it was the plain wooden box in her hands that drew everyone’s attention. It was overflowing with colorful jewels and golden coins.
The woman turned when the Prince and his family entered. Her sea green eyes coolly looked them over. Her skin was a perfect cold porcelain, making her look almost like a doll. Adrian distantly wondered if the sea witches had made her look that way while they gave her legs.
James, seated nervously on the edge of one of the sofas, rose quickly with a relieved smile, tentatively touching his arm to the woman’s elbow. “Merike, this is Prince Gray, Princess Aloise, Duke Adrian, and Duchess Andalissa.”
The woman nodded, unsmiling, before turning to back to James, not even bothering to run her cold gaze over her intended’s extended family. “It is a pleasure to meet them.”
James offered them an apologetic smile, though Adrian thought it looked a little strained. He gestured to the remaining seats before quietly returning to his own. Adrian, though, thought he saw his cousin flick a glance at a young woman standing meekly in the shadows with her head down, her hands demurely folded before the folds of her slim sea green dress.
Merike tilted her chin up, suddenly capturing everyone’s attention once more. Her eyes were trained on James again, her gaze demanding he look at her.
“A gift from the sea, my prince,” she said, her voice clear and crisp.
Adrian shared a grimace with his sister as they sat behind the mermaid princess’s back. The deep chill of the sea was standing right there in the parlor, and he had to suppress a shiver while trying hard not to thank the fae he wasn’t the Crown Prince.
James awkwardly inclined his head, his eyes nervously flicking back to the woman in the shadows. “Thank you, Merike. My family is honored.”
The princess nodded once, perfunctorily. “The engagement is official.” She turned her head to the side and the young woman quickly sprang up to take the box, her head bowed. “My handmaiden will hold it until the day of the engagement ball.”
The handmaiden was petite with auburn hair cascading down her back. She kept her eyes lowered as she withdrew from the princess, the box clasped tightly in her hands. She kept her face averted, but Adrian was still able to catch a quick glance and saw she was at least as beautiful as the mermaid princess, her long lashes casting light shadows across her cheeks, her pink lips perfectly bowed. It was easy to see why his cousin kept glancing at the handmaiden instead of focusing his attention on the princess.
But this alliance needed to happen without a hitch. He tried vainly to catch James’s eye, to warn him, but James seemed to be intent on not looking at anyone directly except the handmaiden.
The princess, in a swirl of light green fabric, settled herself on a sofa, ensconcing herself between a powerful, imposing man with long golden hair and beard and a slighter, curvy woman with pale hair and pale eyes that swept the room, missing nothing.
“First Handmaiden,” the woman beside the princess called out in a high, clear voice, not bothering to look behind her at the young woman hovering just behind them in the shadows. “Secure the gift in the princess’s quarters.”
The handmaiden bobbed a curtsy and hurried from the room. Adrian watched closely as James’s eyes followed the her. He desperately wished he could kick his cousin. If he didn’t keep his eyes on the mermaid princess, all of Lawrence’s hard work would have been for naught.
His lips briefly pressed into a firm line at the thought of the Count Olidan. With the Pearl Kingdom’s rulers here in the Glass Kingdom, surely Lawrence was already home or swiftly making his way home at this moment. Adrian had no idea why Abigail and Camille had been dressed like servants, why Abigail had pretended to be a maid, when he knew Genevieve had raised them to be the epitome of grace and royalty. But Lawrence would figure out what his new wife was up to, whatever it was.
His more pressing concern was ensuring his cousin didn’t ruin Lawrence’s hard work, didn’t jeopardize the direly needed alliance his marriage would bring.
Abruptly, James jumped to his feet. He turned and bowed awkwardly to the King and Queen, who had been sitting on either side of him, and then the rulers of the Pearl Kingdom. Adrian narrowed his eyes.
“Merike,” he said, placing a hand over his heart and bowing elegantly to her. “My most sincere apologies. I was informed gifts would be presented and exchanged at the ball. Please allow me the honor of presenting my gift to you.”
Her eyes cool and unshifting, Merike nodded.
James offered another round of bows before leaving the parlor in quick, long strides.
Adrian leaned towards his sister slightly as the rulers of the two kingdoms engaged in stilted, formal conversation. “I’m going after James.”
“Why?” Andalissa whispered back.
“Did you notice how he kept looking at the handmaiden? It bothers me, Anda. Nothing can jeopardize their marriage, but James is off to a fine start in that direction.”
Andalissa slid her eyes sideways and frowned at him. She gave him a tight nod, knowing that, should James endanger the alliance, Adrian was less than a step away from the throne. “Then go, Adrian.”
Plastering a smile on his lips, Adrian rose and bowed neatly to the mermaid princess. “Princess Merike, I am Duke Adrian Murant, nephew to King Gray and Queen Coryn. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance and to welcome you to the Glass Kingdom’s royal family.”
Her eyes still cool, her face like an expressionless mask, Merike inclined her head once. Her father looked him up and down, one large hand stroking his beard thoughtfully while her mother appeared bored and moved her legs while dissatisfaction twisted her features.
Adrian smiled and bowed. “With your permission, I’ll go and help Prince James bring his gift to you.”
Once again, the princess inclined her head to him before flicking her eyes away from him, boredom lacing her beautiful features.
Dismissed, Adrian left quickly, letting out a soft sigh as he closed the door behind him. He couldn’t blame James for preferring the look of the handmaiden, but devastation would fall on both kingdoms if this marriage didn’t go ahead.
For decades, a tenuous peace had reigned. But that didn’t mean sailors didn’t sneak out to the lagoon to capture a mermaid and it didn’t mean the merfolk didn’t sink a ship or send heavy rains. Much had been lost, especially trust, over the years. It would only be worse if the marriage failed.
Taking a deep breath, Adrian set off down the hall, trying to keep his steps as quiet as possible. Drawing in silent breaths, he listened carefully for any murmurings or footsteps. The halls, though, were silent. His heart beating faster with every second, he could feel sweat gathering along his scalp.
Finally, he passed by a hallway that held a soft swish of soft soled shoes and fabric. His breath caught in his throat. It could just be a servant. Or it could be his cousin getting himself into trouble. James had been expressing concern about the upcoming engagement. Marriage wouldn’t just mean entering into an alliance with a girl who normally had a tail, but also possibly spending half his own life under water. For a boy who had nearly drowned, it was a terrifying thought.
“The gardens are lovely.” Adrian immediately recognized his cousin’s voice, but not the earnest tone in it. “If you ever have a free moment, I’d love to show you around.”
Adrian didn’t hear an answering reply, but he did finally spot two people standing just outside the light cast by one of the large, arching windows that looked out over the inner courtyard. One head bearing long, flowing hair dipped slightly and a hand belonging to the other figure tentatively reached out to brush at the other’s face.
“James,” Adrian hissed as he quietly came up on them.
Startled, James jumped away from the handmaiden, who shrank against the wall with large eyes. He looked back at Adrian, both guilty and defiant.
“What are you doing?” Adrian demanded in a whisper, not wanting to draw attention. “Your betrothed is waiting for you to bring your gift.”
“I’m talking to the First Handmaiden,” James said coolly. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t judge me when I haven’t judged you.”
“That’s different. I’m not Crown Prince.”
James tilted his head and raised a brow. “You will be if I step aside.”
“You wouldn’t. Not over a woman.”
James shook his head, his shoulders slumping. “You don’t understand what it’s like, Adrian. You’ve had the choice of staying away for ten years. Court isn’t what you remember. This marriage isn’t what it’s supposed to be. The Count Olidan arranged for me to not have to spend half the year under the sea, but it means my firstborn will be heir to the Pearl Kingdom and, once they take that throne, I’ll never see my child again.”
Adrian drew back in surprise. “Why would the Count agree to that?”
“Not Lawrence,” he said, bitterness tinging his words. “He was only following what my parents wanted. They’d rather keep me on land, even if it means surrendering their first grandchild.”
Adrian glanced over at the handmaiden trying to make herself as tiny as possible in the shadows. “And you think you can get out of it by having a tryst with the princess’s handmaiden?”
James straightened up. “Not a tryst.” He looked over at the woman and his features softened. Then he looked back at Adrian, his eyes hard. “If this ever gets back to my parents, I will step aside and make way for you to become king.”
“You wouldn’t,” Adrian hissed angrily. “Stop being a spoiled brat, James.”
James bowed his head for a moment before lifting his eyes back to Adrian. “Think what you want, Adrian, but you don’t know what court is like anymore, you don’t know the demands on my shoulders already, you don’t know the changes that have been coming to the kingdom. So don’t judge me.”
Abruptly, James turned and reached a hand out to the handmaiden. Tentatively, she came to him, stepping out of the shadows. James didn’t touch her, but guided her down the hall, away from Adrian.
Adrian’s lips thinned as he watched his cousin walk away, smiling down at the woman who had the power to change all of their lives. But James was right. Adrian and Andalissa had been gone for ten years. They’d all grown up during that time, and the people in power had only grown older and more comfortable.
Murant Holdings was far from the sea, closer to The Spindle than the coast. His father rarely discussed the frequent letters that had come in from the King. While he’d been living an idyllic, pastoral life, his cousin had been thrown into what now sounded like a maelstrom.
Lips tight, Adrian spun on his heel and headed back to the parlor.
My sister said most people called her the Keeper, but her name, long ago, had been Ilsa. She was a sad woman, one who had lost everything. Her late husband had made a number of terrible deals with the fae, and had paid with his life. They’d had two children, an angelic girl and a strapping boy, but they had been sent to serve the giants. Ilsa had been cursed to remain on the ground, the Keeper to the Clouds of Giants, to stare longingly up the stalk that she could never climb but led to her children who could never descend because they no longer remembered her. My sister, of course, offered to go up the stalk and retrieve the girl and boy.
The blood boiled in Camille’s veins even as she let Abigail help her into a gown with violet skirts and a cream bodice. Seed pearls lined the neckline and sheer sleeves encased her arms. Her short hair had already been slicked back and covered with netting to help hide the short strands from their father.
Lawrence had sent word early that morning that he would be arriving shortly. It had sent the household into a flurry of activity. While Muriel had commandeered the serving girls to help her and her daughter prepare for the Count’s return, Camille and Abigail had hastily retreated to their rooms to help each other into gowns they hadn’t worn since the day he had returned to the sea.
“Madeline threatened you?” Camille demanded, wanting to make sure she’d heard her sister correctly, even as a list of everything Muriel had subjected them to ran through her head.
“I didn’t say that,” Abigail said as she worked at doing up the tiny buttons at the back of Camille’s gown. “She seems to think there’s a competition between her and me for Adrian. Honestly, I didn’t really understand what she was saying.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Camille said, pulling herself upright as Abigail finished. She tilted her head and peered at herself with her best ladylike gaze. “Father will be back and Muriel will pay.”
Abigail sighed and planted her hands on her hips. “That’s assuming he’s interested in hearing how you were treated.”
Camille looked at her sister in the mirror before her. “I’ll make him listen. Eventually, he’ll have to. For now, with the engagement ball tomorrow night and the wedding not far off, he’ll be in residence. He’ll need to talk to us eventually.”
Abigail frowned. “Don’t you think the engagement ball is coming a little too quickly? It’s still winter, the princess has only just arrived, and now we all have to prepare for a ball in one day.”
Camille shrugged and smoothed down her dark skirt. “It’s been years in the making, Abigail. Even we have gowns prepared, and I imagine Clarice and her team are rapidly making their rounds.” She turned from the mirror and looked her sister up and down. “Don’t slouch, Abigail. You know Father hates it. Come. He’ll be arriving soon.”
“I think you’re taking this a little too far,” Abigail said as she followed Camille out into the hall.
“Not at all,” Camille responded breezily. “Just like Mother, we are born ladies, cousins to the king himself.” Her lips twisted with distaste, and she admitted to herself there was more than just a little anger in her heart. “Muriel is not.”
She heard her sister sigh behind her. “But Father has never been particularly interested in us. We’re healthy, clothed, warm. Muriel hasn’t hurt us.”
Camille whirled around, the skin around her eyes tightening. “Muriel has mistreated members of the royal family. There is no excuse for that. It may take some time to speak with Father, but I will and he will set his new wife straight.” She straightened and tilted her chin up as she shook out her skirts and whirled back around. “Muriel will not get away with how she treated us. I will see to it.”
She heard Abigail sigh again, but ignored it. She hated to be so severe, but Abigail wasn’t one for confrontation, wouldn’t bring up a problem unless it was dire. Of course her sister preferred to smooth things over as much as she could, of course she would rather live with it than have to discuss it with someone. So, of course, it was Camille’s job. She didn’t mind, really. It was her duty to protect her sister.
Muriel sniffed as Camille and Abigail joined her and Madeline in the great hall. Camille suppressed the urge to roll her eyes at Muriel’s garish skirts, so wide they could engulf mother and daughter. Madeline, at least, was more fashionable in a sky blue gown with a full skirt and a matching ribbon in her hair.
Camille silently guided her sister to the other side, standing so they flanked the doors and faced their stepmother and stepsister. She caught something akin to an awkward glance between Abigail and Madeline. Madeline’s cheeks flushed slightly as she looked away while a covert glance at Abigail revealed a small puzzled smile.
“Abigail?” Camille murmured.
But her sister only gave the slightest shake of her head.
Geoffrey bounded into their midst, sharp and perfectly groomed for his master’s return, breaking the tension in the hall. He came to stand tall and at attention in his place by the door. His white gloved hands hovered on the elaborate door handle. Silence settled over them, though Geoffrey appeared unaffected by the tension he was in the middle of.
The clattering of carriage wheels broke the silence. Muriel shifted slightly, drawing herself up taller while Madeline shuffled awkwardly beside her. Camille quickly masked her smirk, as though Lawrence would actually notice any of them; he was usually more interested in stripping the gloves from his hands and calling for one of the servants to pour him a glass of the best liquor in the manor.
Geoffrey heaved the doors open as soon as the clattering ceased. A cold winter breeze blew in, but the sky was blue and cloudless. Camille shivered, wishing she’d brought one of her mother’s shawls with her. Beside her, Abigail clutched at her skirts, careful to hide her hands in the folds.
She heard her father calling to the driver as Geoffrey went out into the cold to arrange for Lawrence’s luggage to be brought inside. She drew herself up just as her mother had taught her, waiting patiently for Lawrence to sweep in, cast his eyes over the women waiting for him, and retreat to his study.
The scuff of boots just outside the door was the only sound to herald the Count’s arrival. He stepped into the warm manor, stripping off his gloves. His dark eyes swept around the room, taking in the wife and daughters waiting for him. He nodded once before stepping in and kicking the doors shut behind him.
But, instead of sweeping past them and calling for his liquor, he stopped, his dark eyes trained on Abigail. Camille felt her sister stiffen and go still beside her, catching the murderous look Muriel cast in Abigail’s direction at the same time. Her heart kicked up. When Lawrence left again, she’d have to step up more to shield her sister.
“The Duke Murant will be escorting you to the engagement ball,” the Count said, his voice clipped. “Do not disappoint me, Abigail.”
Camille watched her sister swallow hard, her eyes widening. But Abigail dipped a perfect curtsy, bowing her head in acquiescence. Seemingly satisfied, Lawrence took a moment to look at the rest of them before moving further into the manor without a word.
Camille stood there in stunned silence just like the other three women around her. In the distance, a door slammed closed, rattling Muriel from her stunned bewilderment, launching her straight into a barely contained anger.
She barely had a moment to step partially in front of her sister before Muriel was practically on them, Madeline standing stiff and still behind her. Abigail stumbled back a step behind her.
Camille lifted her chin, just as her mother had taught her when faced with a haughty courtier who thought themselves better than a blood royal. “You heard my father,” she said her voice clear.
Muriel pursed her lips, glaring behind Camille at Abigail. “No matter. Madeline will go with you. It is my will that my daughter marry the Duke, and she will.” Muriel’s eyes turned icy. “After all, my daughter assures me Abigail has no interest in the Duke.”
“That is for the Duke and my sister to decide,” Camille said, her voice sharp as a knife. “Remember, Stepmother, Father is home now. Abigail and I will reclaim our places as his blood daughters.” She let a sharp, dangerous glint into her eyes. “Otherwise I’ll have no recourse but to tell Father exactly how you debased his daughters in his home.”
Camille wanted to smile with satisfaction as Muriel’s face paled and she fell back a step. She briefly caught a glance at a murderous look in Madeline’s face, but it was just as quickly wiped away as the other woman hurried forward to take her mother’s arm.
“We’ll discuss this later,” Madeline said softly, a fascinating mix of demure and threatening, before turning her mother away and guiding her up the stairs.
Camille let out a breath and planted her hands on her hips before whirling around on her sister.
Abigail was still standing there, stiff as a statue, her hands very unladylike as her fingers curled around the folds of her skirt. Her cheeks were pale and her lips trembled as she pressed them together. Camille knew she was seconds away from shaking like a leaf.
Quickly, Camille reached out, but Abigail just as quickly brushed her away.
“I’m fine,” Abigail said, her lips trembling around the words.
“You’re not,” Camille said softly, soothingly. “Come, let’s get you upstairs so you can calm down before Clarice arrives.”
But Abigail only folded her arms across her middle and took another step back. “You don’t need to coddle me, Camille. Obviously, Adrian has forgiven my deceit.”
Camille frowned. “Then I don’t understand.”
“Everyone expects me to marry Adrian and Madeline is furious I lied to her about it,” Abigail burst out, her voice full of a force Camille had never heard before. Involuntarily, her feet took a surprised step back. Just as quickly, Abigail took a deep breath. “Apologies, Camille, but I need to be alone.”
Camille turned and gaped as Abigail hurried past her and practically flew up the stairs.
The doors burst open, making her jump. She turned and saw Geoffrey accompanying two servants carrying two large bags each. As soon as the three men were inside, Geoffrey slammed the doors closed on the cold wind and directed the servants up the stairs to Lawrence’s rooms.
“Geoffrey?” Camille asked.
The older man quickly turned to her and bowed. “Yes, my Lady?”
“Could I have a cloak? I’d like to call on a friend.”
“Of course, my Lady.”
He moved with a spryness she hadn’t seen since before Lawrence had departed for the Pearl Kingdom, and Camille smiled, hoping home was back to normal now that everyone was in residence. At least, she and Abigail would be treated like ladies of royal blood instead of servants. She just wondered how long it would be before her father was sent away again.
Within moments, Geoffrey had returned with a thick winter cloak in a shimmery gray. He quickly and deftly wrapped it around her and closed the clasp at her throat, smiling as he did so.
“It’s wonderful to see you and your sister back to normal,” he said softly, his hands on her shoulders.
She smiled up at him. “I think so, too. Thank you, Geoffrey, for everything.”
He pulled away to bow deeply. “Anything for my Ladies.”
She grinned and curtsied, just as she used to when she was a young girl. He laughed softly and practically pranced over to the doors to hold one open for her.
She slipped out into the cold, tugging the cloak tightly around herself. She’d heard of warm winter coats and jackets from the linked world, but, sadly, they had yet to catch on here. There was a rumor the Great North was starting to adopt them, though she doubted her father would let her make such a long journey on her own just for a coat or jacket. No matter how nice and warm they sounded. Sometimes, the Glass Kingdom felt a little old fashioned, a little dated, a little backwards. But it was home. For now.
While the Murant Manor was just across the road from the winding path up to the castle, Olidan Manor was tucked away to the side, abutting against the hill, with the copse of trees Abigail had hidden in located just before the land swept upwards. In order to offer the most privacy to the king’s beloved cousin, the surrounding manors were set far from Olidan and had been granted to nobility who rarely came to the city.
Of course, the crown prince’s engagement was cause for all of them to flood back in. Camille reminded herself several times of this as she walked carefully around a sudden flux of people and carriages, stepping lightly to avoid sweeping skirts and trailing cloaks.
Fortunately, Murant Manor was only a short walk away. She should have taken the carriage, but, with Father home, it was best to leave it for his use. Besides, she didn’t mind the walk; it gave her time to puzzle out her sister. And whether or not she and Andalissa really should pursue pushing their siblings together.
She turned sharply at the sound of the bright, female voice, and grinned as she recognized Andalissa with a cream colored cloak flapping open behind her, her hands hiking up her skirts so she could better run.
Andalissa, barely breathless, drew up in front of Camille and grasped her arms, grinning and looking her friend up and down. “Has your father thrown that dreadful woman out of the manor yet?”
Camille laughed. “Not yet. But we need to talk, Anda.”
Quickly, her friend’s expression shifted into seriousness. “Your father told Abigail my brother intends on escorting her.”
“In front of Muriel and Madeline.”
Andalissa winced and muttered, “Men.”
Camille couldn’t disagree. Then again, her father hadn’t expected Muriel and Madeline to turn out to be who they really were. He’d only known a simpering woman and her demure daughter. The perfect coddling stepmother and a stepsister who wouldn’t step on her royal sisters’ toes.
Andalissa tucked her arm through Camille’s and turned them so they could walk up the long road to Murant Manor. Her lips were pursed and Camille recognized the thoughtful look on her friend’s face, the one that said she was plotting something.
“Abigail isn’t interested in being thrown at your brother,” Camille said quietly.
“Why not?” Andalissa asked, turning her head sharply. “Certainly, he has his flaws, but he’s a good man.”
“Oh, Abigail is very aware of what kind of person he is, Anda. She just…wants everyone to stay out of her life. I think. She was upset when she said everyone seems to expect her to marry Adrian.”
“Well,” Andalissa said, turning her head away slightly. “I suppose she isn’t wrong. They’re just perfect for each other. Abigail’s the only one who will willingly listen to my brother. And he’ll protect her. He’s always understood her need to be in the shadows and corners better than the rest of us.”
Camille’s spine suddenly stiffened as Andalissa spoke. It was true. Adrian had never seen anything wrong with how quiet and shy Abigail was. A touch of guilt threaded it’s way through her heart, wiggled into her thoughts. He was the only one who had ever really accepted her exactly as she was while she, Camille, Abigail’s older sister, always worked to protect her and gently nudge her to be different.
Andalissa sighed and hung her head slightly. “I can tell my brother Abigail intends on being escorted by her father instead.”
“Was it his idea?” Camille asked.
“Of course it was,” Andalissa said with a light laugh. “My parents have never been able to corral him, so it’s a good thing they very much approve of Abigail. She’s already like a daughter to them. They’re thrilled he intends on courting her.” She sighed. “It’ll break his heart if she feels otherwise.”
“It’s hard to tell with her,” Camille admitted as they finally approached the doors to the manor.
There was a flurry of activity as the house guards on either side of the doors pulled them open. The housemistress spotted them right away and quickly ordered tea to be served in Andalissa’s favorite sitting room. Their cloaks were delicately removed and soft hands ushered them down the hall as more maids rushed ahead to open and air out the room.
Andalissa laughed as she and Camille settled across from each other, a low rosewood table between them. “I often prefer the understated elegance of how Olidan Manor cares for guests.”
Camille smiled as the door opened and three maids filed in, carrying trays of tea, cakes, and small bites. She and Andalissa smiled and nodded their thanks as the young women quietly set the trays down. Andalissa waved them off when one attempted to pour for them and they quickly scampered out.
“Father hates the fuss,” Camille said as Andalissa poured a cup for her. “Muriel has no idea what she’s missing as she has never before been in a royal’s household before.” She smiled over her tea cup. “I quite prefer letting it stay that way.”
Andalissa laughed. “I’m very much looking forward to the day your father dismisses her. He still has the cottage the King granted him to the west?”
“He does.” A wave of nostalgia hit her. They used to spend a couple of months each year there when she was young. It was the one time the Count Olidan relaxed, loosened his shoulders and doted on his wife. They hadn’t been since the Prince and his family had retreated to Murant Holdings.
“Seems like the perfect place to send her,” Andalissa murmured just before taking a sip of tea.
Camille arched a brow. “Unless I follow through with my threat and tell Father everything she put Abigail and me through.”
“Why haven’t you yet?”
“Leverage,” Camille said, shrugging one shoulder. “She had Abigail’s safety hanging over my head while Father was away. I want to have something hanging over her as well.”
“Didn’t your mother raise you to be better than that?”
Camille set her teacup down on the saucer with a little more force than necessary. It clinked loudly and her fingertips went white around the saucer and teacup handle. “Not when it comes to people like Muriel,” she said sharply.
“It sounds like you’re playing a dangerous game with her, Camille. I’m concerned.”
“Don’t be,” Camille said dismissively. “Mother taught me how to play the game.”
“But you’ve never done it before.”
“Neither have you.”
“That’s irrelevant, Camille. Isn’t it dangerous considering you’ve inadvertently wrapped Abigail into it?”
Camille pursed her lips, pressing them together tightly. “All the more reason to marry her off to Adrian.”
“But you just said-“
“I know,” Camille said sharply.
Andalissa sighed. “Be careful, Camille.” She sat back, crossing one leg over the other and folding her arms loosely across her waist. “By the way, has your father said anything about your hair?”
Camille lifted one hand and touched the netting obscuring her short locks. “He hasn’t seen it yet. And I intend on keeping it that way. He always did want me to dress more like a proper lady.”
Andalissa let out an unexpected, loud giggle before she clapped her hands to her mouth. “Imagine that. Muriel is good for something.”
Camille glared. “You never know. I could have just decided to cut it one day.”
“Yes. I suppose that’s true.” Andalissa cocked her head to one side. “All the lords looking for a proper bride will be attentive to you tomorrow night.”
“You know it’s true. As a matter of fact, I was in town earlier and heard no less than three lesser lords mention they were hoping to find a proper lady they could court tomorrow. With everyone back in town and the biggest ball ever thrown on the horizon, it’s more than the prince and mermaid princess looking to be wed.” She narrowed her eyes slightly. “You should be thankful my brother will be escorting Abigail. No man will dare approach her when she enters with the Duke.”
“I’ll spend the night directing them all to you,” Camille said, a twinkle in her eyes.
Andalissa gasped. “You wouldn’t!”
“It would be quite an honor for any family to have you turn your attention to one of their sons.”
Andalissa huffed. “Oh, why don’t you just marry me, then?”
Camille smiled. “I love you dearly, Anda, but you know the King would never approve my sister and I both marrying the only two Murant children. Besides, you know we’ll never be anywhere nearly as matched as Adrian and Abigail are.”
Andalissa sighed and lifted her teacup in a mock toast. “To an uncomfortable evening tomorrow, then. We can only hope something interesting will happen to distract all the men looking for wives.”
Camille smiled and lifted her own teacup. “It’ll probably be Muriel.”
“Oh, don’t remind me,” Andalissa groaned as her teacup clattered against the saucer. “I still haven’t forgiven her for how she disrupted my birthday. My parents may have smiled and accepted her apology, but we all know I haven’t and never will. At least, not until she’s banished to your family cottage.”
“Or perhaps your brother will propose marriage to Abigail. It’ll be a magical night full of the fae.”
“They can’t influence people like that, you know.”
“I know. But maybe the light will be just right. Maybe the music will be just right. Maybe my sister will finally realize everyone’s right and Adrian is the perfect match for her.”
“Let’s just hope something happens so we can dodge all the eligible bachelors, and all the dowagers who have the perfect grandson.”
Camille was happy to raise her teacup to that.
The stalk was easy for my sister to climb. Or so she said. She did mention a lovely view of the forest from up there. Passing through the clouds was a little more treacherous, so I’m quite glad she didn’t contact me until after she was on the top side, though there were quite a few huffs and puffs on her end. But, oh, the wonders she saw up there! Castles of silver, roses of golden sunlight, giants of bronze. Of course, they were massive, but there were also several normal sized people up there. It was a town, a town with castles for the giants and ordinary houses for the humans. My sister had no idea how she was going to find the Keeper’s children.
Thanks to Clarice, Camille, Violet, and even Helene clucking over her all day, Muriel hadn’t been seen anywhere near her all day. Of which Abigail was glad. The fuss, though, hadn’t stopped Madeline from hovering at the fringes now and then, gazing longingly at the gown Clarice was madly working to finish off.
She didn’t quite know what to think of her stepsister anymore. It was entirely possible Camille was right and Madeline wasn’t as she appeared, but Abigail still couldn’t find it in her heart to believe something like that. Madeline was still the reserved young woman who lived her life on the edge of things.
Now, Abigail was surrounded by Clarice, Violet, and Camille as two fluttered around to ensure her ballgown fell just right while the third worked at pinning up her carefully curled locks. She was dressed the part of a royal lady attending a royal engagement ball. But she was also dressed as a lady fit to be seen on the Duke’s arm. Hence Clarice’s mad rush to ensure her gown was nothing short of perfection.
The sea green gown was layers of tulle and silk. The bodice was made from the Sun Kingdom fabric with a cream colored lace overlay. Seed pearls and polished sea glass dripped down the gown, meant to catch the light and make her sparkle. An off the shoulder gown, it made her feel self-conscious though Camille assured her her shoulders were lovely. That really wasn’t her concern, though. Fortunately, the glass heels her feet were encased in took away some of her attention. She’d dance like a princess in them, but they were not the most comfortable to walk in. Of course the fae would forget something when they enchanted the glass shoes.
“There we go now,” Violet said softly, sliding the last pin into her hair and stepping away. Abigail nervously met Violet’s soft brown eyes. “You look radiant, my lady.”
Abigail lowered her eyes as a hot blush spread across her skin. A loose curl stroked against her cheek. “Thank you, Violet. You don’t think it’s too much?”
“Not at all,” Camille said quickly, her hands smoothing down Abigail’s gown one last time. “Adrian will think you’re the most lovely woman in the room.”
Abigail’s eyes involuntarily flickered to Madeline. Her face was impassive, though her lips tightened a little. Abigail’s heart stuttered a little. Then, without a word, without anyone else noticing, Madeline swiftly left the room, hardly stirring the air.
She fought the urge to bite her lip. Violet had already caked her face with cosmetics; she would lightly scold Abigail if she ruined all that hard work.
“Now for you,” Violet said, turning to Camille. “Turn, please, my lady.”
Camille sighed while Abigail bit back a smile. Violet went to work covering Camille’s short hair with a silver net dripping with sea glass beads. Since Camille wasn’t attending the ball with the thought or hopes of attracting any attention, her burgundy gown was more austere. There were no pearls or glass ornaments, no floating layers and lace. It was a fairly simple ballgown with gauzy sleeves caught at the wrists. The netting was the only decoration to proclaim her a daughter of royal blood.
Abigail bit the inside of her cheek as she watched Clarice and Violet hover around Camille. She knew Madeline and Muriel would be arriving soon for the final touches to their gowns. She had no idea what Muriel was wearing, but, considering the Count had returned, Abigail assumed she would be in something more fashionable.
But, whatever her stepmother was wearing, she didn’t want to be in the same room.
Silently, Abigail moved from the room, not meeting anyone’s eyes as she left. The hallways were quiet as she made her way down to the great hall. Most of the servants had been given the night off, to celebrate the engagement in their own ways. Geoffrey still stood at attention by the doors, straining his ears for the sound of carriage wheels. She only offered him a small smile before vanishing into the parlor.
Even though no guests were expected and most of the staff had been dismissed from the Manor for the evening, a soft fire still flickered in the fireplace, keeping the room warm and dimly lit. But Abigail didn’t need to see; she knew her way to the window seat with her eyes closed.
Spreading her skirts around her, she sighed softly and settled onto the soft cushions. Outside, soft lamplight lined the drive, otherwise all was dark. There was no sign of a Murant carriage, only the Olidan one that would take the rest of her family.
The door opened, stirring the air and alerting her to someone entering. Quickly, Abigail swiveled her head to see Madeline poking her own in.
Madeline glanced around the room before she saw Abigail. She offered a small smile before stepping in and closing the door behind her with a soft click.
“I hope you don’t mind my intrusion,” Madeline said softly as she slowly advanced on Abigail. Her sky blue ballgown swished softly against the floor, her glass shoes tapping quietly with every step. Her hair was done up in a mass of curls gathered behind her head and arranged to cascade around her shoulders. “My mother is making things difficult for Clarice and your father sent me out.”
Abigail nodded, silent as she watched Madeline slowly make her way to her. It felt strange to look on her, to see the shy stepsister she had gotten to know as well as the manipulative woman Camille had made her out to be. Every soft movement seemed tinged with danger, but her smile was still exactly as she remembered.
So she held herself stiffly, hardly daring to breathe, wondering what Madeline would say or do. She no longer knew if it was Muriel’s or Madeline’s will that Madeline marry Adrian. Either way, Camille wouldn’t lie to her. Yes, she was Madeline’s sister. But she was also a relative of Adrian’s, a childhood friend who had always loved her in his own way.
“My mother insists I ride with you and the Duke.” Madeline stopped in front of her and tilted her head slightly. “Would that be acceptable?”
If she were Camille, she would be saying, “No,” and would then sweep out of the room, every bit a Count’s daughter. If she were her mother, she would be calmly and politely informing Madeline it would be Adrian’s choice.
But she was Abigail and this was still Madeline, the young woman she’d befriended.
“Yes, of course,” Abigail said, nearly breathing a sigh of relief as Madeline’s body seemed to slacken a little.
“Thank you, Abigail,” Madeline whispered.
“I will introduce you to the Duke,” Abigail found herself saying just as voices beyond the parlor door could be heard and the sound of carriage wheels began to crunch on the gravel. She rose gracefully, her skirt falling perfectly around her body. “Come. He will be here soon.”
Her glass shoes clicked softly against the floor as she stepped past Madeline, whose envy at Abigail’s elaborate gown was just barely veiled, leaving enough exposed that it was easily missed, but Abigail still caught a glimmer of it. But she curved her lips into a smile as she walked past and into the hall.
The doors were just being pulled open when she and Madeline joined the rest of the family. Camille looked more demure than she actually was, though the netting rested on her soft curls in such a way that the glass caught the light and sparkled brightly. Abigail had to bite back a giggle. Her sister looked matronly. But Camille only raised an eyebrow at her from where she stood quietly beside their father and cut her eyes to the side.
Abigail’s eyes darted past their father, who was, as always, impeccably dressed in a dark suit complete with a black vest shot through with silver strands and a deep purple cravat decorated with tiny pieces of glass. On his other side stood Muriel. Abigail forgot herself just long enough for her eyes to widen, but not long enough for her jaw to drop.
It would seem that, with her husband home, Muriel did know how to dress fashionably. Or perhaps it was Clarice’s handiwork. For the first time, Abigail saw a surprisingly shapely woman in a plum ballgown. It had a high neck and fitted bodice with seed pearls sewn on in two slightly diagonal lines from her bosom to her narrow waist. From there, the taffeta skirt was tastefully crinkled and pleated, and thankfully much less voluminous than her usual gowns. Her hair was still powdered, but had been done in a thick braid resting over one shoulder and threaded with strands of pale pink pearls.
Abigail met her sister’s eyes, but Camille was looking behind her. Turning her head slightly, Abigail caught a glimpse of Madeline, whose lips were pinched in a tight line. But she didn’t get more than a quick look as the door pulled fully open, letting in a sweep of chilled air.
“Ah, thank you Geoffrey!” came Adrian’s cheerful voice. “Wonderful to see you again, old man.”
Geoffrey bowed low, solemn and dignified as usual, as he closed the doors. “A pleasure to see you again at Olidan Manor, Your Highness.”
Adrian, wrapped in a thick winter cloak, flung back his hood and looked around at the assembled family, a wide smile on his face. Until his eyes found Abigail, and his deep intake of breath seemed to echo throughout the hall.
Abigail stiffened even while her flesh wanted to shudder with the cold. Her feet were cemented to the sparkling floor as Adrian slowly walked towards her and reached out to take her hands. For once, the gregarious Duke was silent, his eyes solemn and serious.
Adrian’s hands tightened around hers, almost as though he were afraid she was going to run again. She couldn’t fault him. She had run the last two times she’d seen him. She took in a deep breath, remembering that last time she had run from the manor without a word, and then had stayed hidden until after he’d left.
“Abigail,” he said softly, ignoring protocol that demanded he call her Lady Olidan.
“Adrian,” she whispered, barely audible, likewise foregoing protocol.
She could see his lips wavering, and her own curved into a small smile, remembering how his lips did that when he wanted to say something but wasn’t quite sure of his words. Just like she used to when she was twelve and he was holding her hand, she gently squeezed his fingers, time warping and melding around them.
She saw the tension leave his shoulders at the same time his own lips smiled. “You’re beautiful, Abigail. It’s an honor to escort you tonight.”
An impish dimple flashed, a memory from a decade before. “I don’t believe I was left with a choice.”
Adrian laughed, the rich, deep sound filling the hall. Then, just as he used to when they were children, he leaned forward and gently kissed her cheek. “It’s good to see you again, Abigail.”
She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. At least he wasn’t calling her Gail. And he was still the boy she’d grown up with and loved silently.
“And it’s an honor to have you escort my daughter as well,” Muriel quickly put in.
Abigail watched with fascination as the boy she had known shifted and vanished to become the perfectly groomed Duke Murant, second in line to the throne. His spine stiffened and he dropped Abigail’s hands as his eyes finally traveled to the woman hovering behind Abigail’s shoulder.
“I apologize for my wife,” Lawrence quickly said, stepping forward, leaving Muriel and Camille behind him. Abigail looked over at her father as a frown creased his face and Adrian slowly turned after studying Madeline for a long moment. “I’m afraid she’s new to society and, as I’ve been away to the Pearl Kingdom, I have not been able to acclimate her as I should have. The Lady Olidan erroneously thought you would be escorting all three ladies.”
Abigail saw Muriel’s lips pinch and her hands fist at her sides. A space away from her, Camille was struggling to tamp down a smile, her fingers lacing together.
But Adrian merely bowed, every inch the Duke and nephew to the king himself. “It would be my honor to escort the Ladies Olidan.”
Lawrence openly frowned and cleared his throat. “I do not wish to impose on you generosity, Your Highness.”
“It would be an honor to escort Abigail and her sisters,” Adrian said again, though his voice was stiff.
Abigail fought the urge to chew on her lip. She didn’t want to be alone with Adrian, not yet anyways. But she couldn’t fathom why Adrian would go from escorting just her to her and her sisters.
Swiftly, Geoffrey swept in and expertly wrapped each of the Olidans in their winter cloak. He was quick and efficient, vanishing as quickly as he had arrived. Just as he had done prior to Lawrence’s second marriage, and as the Count expected.
Adrian held out a hand to Abigail and bowed low. “My Lady?”
Abigail smiled, tickled at seeing both the boy she had grown up with and the regal man he had become. It was easy for her to place her hand in his, especially when the boyish twinkle she’d loved darted through his eyes. The boy she’d known had always been happy to include everyone, to have as large an audience as possible. Inwardly, she grinned, wondering if she and her sisters were in for a ride during which they would lose their ears.
Adrian guided Abigail towards the door, his hand tight around hers. The clicks of glass heels followed behind her as Geoffrey reappeared to pull open the doors and bow the family and Adrian out into the snow.
“James had to get engaged during the winter,” Camille muttered as soon as Lawrence and Muriel had split off from them for their own carriage.
“The Pearl Kingdom was eager for the match to proceed as quickly as possible,” Adrian said. He shrugged, letting formality fall by the wayside without the Count Olidan to look on. “The mermaid princess is fascinated by the snow. I’ve heard she’s demanding a winter wedding out in the snow.”
Beside him, Abigail shivered, her fingers clenching tighter around his. “She’s mad.”
“She’s a mermaid,” Camille put in as a footman pulled open the Murant carriage.
“I’m sure the novelty will wear off,” Adrian said dryly as he handed Abigail in.
Abigail happily settled into the warm carriage, a heating lamp on either side. Camille was handed in after her and quickly settled on the other side, happy to ride backwards. She was also quick to grab onto Madeline and pull her to sit beside her, leaving the seat beside Abigail free. Abigail couldn’t stop the brief glare that filled her face, but Camille only innocently raised a brow and turned to look out the window beside her where Adrian was exchanging a few words with the footman.
“Let’s hope we head right over to the castle, shall we?” Camille said, a smile on her face.
Next to her, Madeline’s eyes widened. “What?”
Camille waved a hand while all Abigail wanted to do was cover her face.
“Oh, Adrian has a habit of getting thoughts into his head and wanting to see them through.” She turned to Abigail and smiled. “Wasn’t it a few months before the Murants left the city when he was supposed to escort you home, but you ended up on the beach and in the city gardens before you actually made it home?” Camille giggled, one hand over her mouth. “Mother was furious. Adrian and Abigail were supposed to be right behind our carriage, but had diverted well before getting here.”
“I was feeling melancholy,” Abigail muttered, fiddling with the edge of her cloak. “Adrian was being kind and thought a trip to the sea to pretend to talk to Father would help.” She sighed. “It didn’t, so he thought the rose garden would help.”
“Telling stories about me?” Adrian asked merrily as he climbed into the carriage. He grinned at Abigail just before settling down next to her. “I remember taking you to the rose garden.” He reached out and gently brushed her fingers. “You were so sad that day.”
Abigail shook her head. “Let’s just get to the castle, shall we?” She flicked a look in Adrian’s direction. “On time would be nice.”
Adrian dipped a nod. “Of course. My uncle, not to mention my parents, are expecting me to be on time. The driver has explicit directions to take us straight there.”
Madeline shifted slightly across from him, her eyes demurely lowered, her fingers tightly clenched in her lap. “It must have been lovely to ride around the city with you, Your Highness.”
Adrian cocked his head to the side. “Well, you’d have to ask Abigail.”
Abigail met Madeline’s gaze, but there was nothing except the Madeline she’d come to know in her eyes. They were wide and eager, though her teeth nibbled nervously at her lip. She took a quiet breath, remembering her promise to do what she could for Madeline and Adrian.
“An outing with Adrian is always a surprise,” she finally said. She smiled at Madeline. “If you’ve the time, it’s certainly an experience.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Abigail saw her sister frown. Certainly, she liked the Duke, but he’d grown just as she had. While childhood still had a certain hold on them, it was uncertain whether they would even be compatible. No, it was more pragmatic for her to set aside childish infatuations and keep her promise.
My sister wandered the clouds, careful to not be stepped on, eyes searching for two children. In the end, it was a giantess who found my sister attempting to climb onto a giant’s fountain. The giantess was kind, motherly with a babe slumbering on her shoulder. My sister explained why she was there, and the giantess smiled, quietly beseeching my sister to go with her. At first, my sister walked, but it was clear the giantess’s steps far outstretched her own, so the giantess let her perch on her other shoulder. They passed small homes and towering castles, fountains and gardens, plazas full of whirling people, and alcoves where people and giants rested before reaching the giantess’s home.
The castle was full of milling nobility as the Murant carriage divested itself of its passengers. A soft snow had begun to fall as the evening temperature dropped. Camille could see Abigail burrow into her cloak, likely grateful for her usual cloak instead of a servant’s. Though it also prevented Adrian from offering his arm to Abigail, who appeared to be clutching at the interior lining to keep herself from shivering.
The Count and Countess Olidan were ahead of them, Muriel with her hand lightly on Lawrence’s arm and her head high. Camille pressed her lips together to prevent a smile from showing through. With Lawrence around, Muriel was unlikely to embarrass herself again.
Camille turned and smiled as a second Murant carriage rolled up, Andalissa’s head sticking out of the open window.
“Andalissa!” came Princess Aloise’s shrill voice. “Watch your behavior!”
Andalissa threw Camille a cheeky wink before pulling her head back in. A moment later, though, a shivering footman opened the door and the Duchess tumbled out, ignoring her mother’s mutterings and her father’s chuckles. Andalissa hurled herself in Camille’s direction and grasped her arm, turning to look at where Adrian and Abigail stood beside each other.
“Don’t they look lovely?” Andalissa asked, her smile broad and her mischievous eyes twinkling, the cold quickly turning her cheeks rosy.
Camille caught a scowl on Madeline’s face from where she stood just behind Adrian. But it was there and gone. Still, she was resolved to watch that woman all night.
“Andalissa,” Princess Aloise said firmly as she and the Prince approached. “Your place, please.”
The Duchess smiled, but pulled herself up and glided over to her mother. She stood just in front of her parents, her hands demurely folded as snow kissed the top of her hood. The Princess nodded crisply and took her husband’s arm, briefly spearing him with a glare as he smiled indulgently at his daughter.
“This is exactly why Andalissa will never make a worthy match.”
“Nonsense,” the Prince said with a grin. “She’s the king’s niece. Everyone will want to marry her!”
Camille tightened her lips to keep her smile from spreading as Andalissa clearly suppressed a sigh and a look skyward. Though it was true. No matter how strange Andalissa was, she was still the Prince’s daughter.
“At least Adrian will do us proud,” Princess Aloise said with a fond smile at her son. “Abigail, my dear, it’s so lovely to see you properly.”
The Princess held out her free hand, a soft smile on her face. She always did have a soft spot for Abigail, just as her husband did. Camille could see a moment’s hesitation on her sister’s face, but Abigail still went and offered a curtsy over the Princess’s hand as the Princess smiled indulgently.
“It’s a pleasure, Princess,” Abigail murmured, exactly as Genevieve had taught. In her place, Camille smiled proudly. Abigail would grow into her own. “Prince.”
“Ever the perfect lady,” Princess Aloise said softly. “Your mother would be so proud of you. You’ll make a fine bride for my son.”
It was so subtle Camille only saw her sister stiffen because she knew her so well. Quickly, Camille cut her eyes over to Madeline, whose face was studiously blank, and then to Muriel, whose eyes showed fury. An unease settled in the pit of her stomach. Fortunately, there was little either could do in a castle full of royalty.
Abigail dipped her head once more before retreating back to Adrian, who swiftly tucked her hand under his arm and wrapped her under his cloak along with him to help warm her.
“Well, let’s not stand here freezing,” the Prince finally said. “My brother is awaiting us so we can begin this ball properly. After you, Lawrence.”
Lawrence offered a bow and turned Muriel with him. Camille saw Muriel’s spine straighten with pride. As the architect of the royal marriage, the Count Olidan had a place of honor in the arrival train: just ahead of the Murants, who were always the last to be received by the King and Queen. If she hadn’t been groomed so well, Camille would have groaned. As it was, she simply fell into line behind her father and beside a stiff Madeline.
“Just stay close and do as I do,” Camille muttered to her stepsister.
Madeline offered no other reply than a curt nod.
The line moved slowly as the nobles who had arrived before them were still being announced to the King and Queen. It was the longest slow walk Camille had ever done. Not only was it freezing, but she was stuck next to Madeline, who almost looked like a walking doll. Her gait was a little stiff and, other than her skirts and cloak, nothing else seemed to move. The ball in her stomach hardened.
Finally, they stepped into the castle, into the great hall with it’s high, domed ceiling sparkling with bright chandeliers and fae lights that floated just overhead, offering light and pulses of heat. On the other side of the hall, directly across from the great doors, were the doors to the ballroom. The line of nobles was headed right for it, where a steward stood tall, arms held stiff at his sides, his voice booming over the softened straights of a group of strings and wind instruments coming from within the ballroom. Another steward approached and quickly whisked off with their cloaks.
Camille briefly glanced over her shoulder and saw Abigail’s bare shoulders tense. She offered a small smile, but her sister was so intent on facing forward her eyes were probably on the fae light hovering just over the entrance to the ballroom, illuminating a painting of James and his intended bride.
“The Count and Countess Olidan and their daughters Lady Camille and Lady Madeline,” the steward announced as they drew near, his voice booming and echoing in the ballroom.
Camille couldn’t see much beyond her father and stepmother, though Muriel’s diminished skirst helped. There was no dancing or mingling yet; just nobles crowded on either side of the room, clearing a path to the dais where the king and queen sat on their thrones and the prince and his princess stood before them, receiving the well wishes of every noble family in attendance. But she could see Madeline, out of the corner of her eye, who suddenly drew herself up and held her head high.
Camille grimaced. It was the first time Madeline was being introduced as a lady. The thought didn’t sit well with her. But she passed over the threshold beside Madeline and walked gracefully, just as her mother had taught her, over to the dais to offer her curtsy and well wishes. She was less pleased to see Muriel carry herself flawlessly, though Lawrence had a firm hand on his wife to guide her. She wanted to snicker, but her breeding kept her in check.
Lawrence was offered a place of honor to the left of the king and queen beside the dais, and he took it with a low bow, pulling Muriel down into a curtsy beside him. Madeline and Camille likewise made their second curtsies and followed Lawrence and Muriel to the side. Camille had to hide the gleeful smile that threatened her lips when Muriel almost gracefully tucked Madeline behind her. Madeline was less pleased and passed by with a glare for her mother, but either Muriel didn’t see or pretended not to. Camille was more than happy to blend into the background, even if Madeline had inserted herself a step in front of her. No need to call attention to herself as Lawrence’s daughter. The less men foisted on Andalissa, the better.
“The Duke Murant escorting Lady Abigail Olidan,” the steward called out. “The Duchess Murant.”
Camille watched from beyond Muriel’s shoulder as Adrian expertly guided Abigail across the floor. She exhaled softly, watching her sister step gracefully, appearing almost to glide. Just as their mother had taught them, she held her chin up and an angelic smile on her face. She watched as Adrian bowed and Abigail curtsied before James spoke a few words and the mermaid princess dipped her head with a smile. Then Adrian guided Abigail to the other side of the dais.
Her sister now situated outside of the spotlight, Camille took a deep breath and settled back, tuning out the few remaining well wishes from Andalissa and her parents. Instead, she took in the rest of the ballroom.
It was bright and copiously lit by fae lights that shimmered and spun high overhead. There were tasteful floral displays and a long, narrow table tucked away in the shadows, presumably for small bites that servers would bring in as soon as the dancing started. There was a balcony above the entrance that was currently full of ten musicians, though only the violinist was currently playing.
The rest of the guests stood quietly and still, too well-mannered to let their feet shuffle as the endless introductions wound on and on. But one young woman caught Camille’s eye. She was dark haired and dressed in a simple blue gown. She hovered just behind the mer king and queen, who sat on the other side of the dais beside King Gray and Queen Coryn. Camille guessed her to be a servant as she bore absolutely no adornments and she kept her head down, but, every so often, Camille caught the flickering looks she was casting at James’s back.
Before she could study the woman further, though, King Gray stood and raised his arms. His usually serious mien was broken by a wide smile.
“Welcome! The Queen and I are delighted to have your presence tonight!” He looked over and nodded at the mer king, who nodded gravely and stood, the regal woman beside him rising a beat behind. “King Alon and Queen Merin of the Pearl Kingdom and Queen Coryn and I are delighted to announce the engagement of our children, Princess Merike and Prince James.”
From where she stood, Camille could only see the backs of James and the mermaid princess. They stood stiffly beside each other and James mechanically took the princess’s hand as the engagement was announced, though it looked more rehearsed than because he wanted to touch her. For her part, Merike stood still and tall, her slightly tilted head not even bothering to turn when James touched her, and her hand appeared limp in his as he raised their joined hands.
She frowned slightly, suddenly worried about what their reign would be like. But, at that moment, King Gray was gesturing to the musicians on the balcony and a waltz started. James, without even looking at his bride, stepped forward, pulling her along, into what was sure to be the most awkward dance ever.
But she was stuck where she was, watching along with everyone else as the mermaid princess danced on legs she’d only just been granted. Still, she was a foreign princess and everyone applauded them politely. As he whirled by, James looked stiff and uncomfortable, except when his eyes strayed to the dais and they suddenly lit for brief moments.
Her frown deepening, Camille turned her head and saw the plainly dressed young woman hovering behind the mer king and queen dip her head further, hiding a soft smile.
Camille straightened, but didn’t get a moment to think further on it. In front of her, her father was leading Muriel onto the dance floor and she had to fight the urge to cringe. She had no idea if Muriel could dance.
“Can your mother dance?” The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them.
Madeline glanced at her sharply. “Don’t worry,” she bit out. “My mother will not be an embarrassment again.”
Camille’s eyes flashed as the crowd began to break apart, milling for the dance floor and the sweets being brought out. “I should hope not.”
She didn’t wait for Madeline to say anything else. And she didn’t feel any pangs of guilt when she spread her skirts slightly and swept out of her corner, intent on finding Andalissa.
Abigail squeaked softly as Adrian suddenly pulled her into his arms, sweeping her along with him into the thick of the dancers. Her heart lurched as his arm went around her waist, though her own hand automatically lifted to his shoulder and her other met his free hand. After all, she was a Lady Olidan. Genevieve had instructed them in dancing from the time they could walk.
He grinned at her as their steps fell into a rhythm right away. They glided around other dancers, Adrian leading her gracefully, her skirts twirling around their legs but never catching on anything. Clarice’s work was brilliant in every way.
“Nice to see we can still do this,” he said, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
She blushed, lowering her eyes. They’d danced exactly once before, the night his father had argued with the king, which only ended in making Adrian second in line for the throne. The Murants had whisked off to Murant Holdings the day after. All those years ago, they’d danced a waltz at the king’s birthday, Adrian leading her in circles until she was dizzy and giggling. But their steps had been just as synchronized as they were now.
“I suppose there weren’t any balls at Murant Holdings,” she said shyly.
“Not a one,” he said cheerfully. “Mother was aghast at first, but she quickly settled into country life. We didn’t actually host many gatherings, just the holiday ones we were expected to do. Father held court a few times a year and Mother had the women in for teas and sewing circles. But it was quiet. I think you would like it.”
Abigail’s blush deepened. There was no way out of it; Adrian had made his intention clear as he’d escorted her in and her name had been announced alongside his own, and it was now her decision. Madeline would be furious when she found out. Her hand trembled a little in his.
“Abigail?” he asked, concern in his voice.
“Madeline wants to marry you,” she whispered, lifting her eyes a little so she could look at his face.
He scowled. “I have no interest in your stepsister. There’s something odd about her. Besides, my parents are expecting me to have a royal bride, one of royal blood.” His voice softened and he gently squeezed her hand. “My parents adore you and I’ve loved you since I was thirteen. I promise our life together will be full of pastoral days, surrounded by books and extensive lands and gardens. The people are few, but they’re hardworking and proper. You’ll love them and they’ll love you.”
“Madeline’s going to kill me.”
“Stop thinking about that woman.”
“How can I?” Abigail muttered. “She’s lurking in the shadows. Everywhere you turn me, I see her.”
Abruptly, Adrian turned her and looked in the direction Abigail had been looking. By the suddenly clench of his jaw, she knew he saw her stepsister hovering beside a nearby pillar.
“You’ll just have to keep occupied all evening and dance with me,” he said with a grin, though his eyes were still trained on her stepsister, a frostiness around the edges.
She glared at him, but there was a playful undertone to it and her voice. “My feet will surely fall off by then and my stomach will be quite irate.”
“Then don’t leave my side. I’ll formally introduce you as the woman I intend on courting to my aunt and uncle. James won’t mind,” he said grimly, his hand suddenly tightening around hers.
“What do you mean?” she asked, a frown of her own furrowing her brow.
Adrian took a deep breath, his face serious as she studied him, worry fluttering in her chest. “There’s no love between James and Merike. But I think,” he stopped and cleared his throat. “I think he may be in love with her handmaiden, the woman in blue standing behind the mer king and queen.”
Abigail gasped and her eyes widened, though she was too well-groomed to let her head snap around to stare at foreign royalty. “But my father worked so hard to unify the Glass and Pearl Kingdoms.”
“Don’t worry. James has been carefully groomed. He won’t upset things simply because he doesn’t love his wife. But it’ll be a loveless marriage.”
Abigail shook her head. “Poor James. He’s such a sweet man. Strange at times, but still sweet and thoughtful.”
Abruptly, Adrian’s hand tightened around hers. Startled, she looked up, surprised to see how serious his eyes were.
“Sweet and thoughtful,” Adrian repeated, murmuring quietly, almost to himself. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Abigail, about the markets. You were probably telling me your name is Abigail and I misunderstood.” He gave her a crooked smile. “I suppose I still just rush into things.”
Abigail lowered her eyes as a hot flush swept across her skin. Her hand started to shake slightly in his and he only gripped it even tighter. She wished he hadn’t brought it up. The fact that he’d chosen to escort her said he had forgiven her for misleading him.
“I’m sorry I didn’t correct you,” she said softly, her voice trembling softly. “I should have. My mother raised me to be better than that. I was just so surprised to see you and then you were there the next week and I didn’t know how to correct you.”
“No, Abigail.” The force in his voice made her head swing up, but the expression on his face was gentle and understanding. “You’re Abigail. How can you be someone else? I’m glad you haven’t changed much. And I never did give you a chance to try to correct me.” He tilted his head to the side. “But, tell me, why were you dressed as a maid?”
Abigail grimaced. She quickly took a look around the crowded ballroom, looking to see if her father was close by. Not seeing him, but catching sight of Camille and Andalissa cautiously leaning around a pillar to eye them, she risked a bit of indecency and swayed herself closer to him. As close to his ear as she dared, she said softly, “The day Father returned to the Pearl Kingdom, Camille and Muriel essentially went to war with each other. Camille assured me she had a plan, though I still can’t fathom what that is. She made me stay out of Muriel’s way, so I took to the kitchens. Muriel treated Camille like a servant, Adrian. Father doesn’t know yet. I don’t know when Camille plans on telling him. But I did my best to stay out of it and Helene, our head cook, often sent me to the markets.”
Adrian frowned as she finished and continued to keep her close. It should have been indecent, but only Madeline seemed to be paying them any attention.
“Adrian, can we spin by the desserts? I’m starving.”
“Ah, yes, sorry, Gail.” He stopped and Abigail watched in fascination as a light blush stained his cheeks. “Sorry. Abigail.”
She grinned up at him. “It’s fine, Adrian. You grew up calling me Gail.” She tilted her head slightly. “I’m surprised you didn’t started telling me about the Gail you had grown up with.”
“Yes, well.” He cleared his throat. “Come. We’ll probably find our sisters by the desserts. Hiding. My parents expect Andalissa to choose a partner, but she clearly doesn’t agree with them.”
Abigail smiled as Adrian spun her around the dance floor, making a haphazard beeline for the side. But the crowd parted easily around them, many heads nodding and faces smiling as they slipped by. She wondered how many of them remembered when they had been children, dancing with little rhythm around their fellow dancers but somehow perfectly in step with each other.
Abigail had to admit Adrian had aimed well, though. Much better than when they’d danced that first time and nearly run into one of the pillars. The crowded dance floor disgorged them right near where Camille and Andalissa were sampling every dessert while whispering and staring at where James and the handmaiden were standing apart but close enough for James to speak to her and her to react with smiles and blushes.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” Camille whispered as Abigail and Adrian joined them, waving a delicate pastry around. “He does all the talking, but seems to find it charming. She doesn’t say a word. Maybe the interest is one-sided.”
“I can only hope,” Adrian said softly. “Excuse me, Abigail. I think I need to have a word with my cousin.”
Abigail nodded, easily folded in with Camille and Andalissa, who closed in tighter as they caught sight of Madeline lurking.
“Has Madeline been following you around all evening?” Camille whispered as she piled a plate with desserts for Abigail and replenished her own at the same time.
Without looking in Madeline’s direction, Abigail nodded. “She’s been there everywhere Adrian turned me.”
Camille shook her head. “I told you there’s something weird about Madeline.”
Abigail sighed, tilting a tired head to one side. “She must be hurt. I did tell her I would help her marry Adrian.”
“Well,” Andalissa said, as decisive as ever. “It’s not her choice.”
“I don’t want to be the one to tell her that. But maybe you two should make the choice to stop gorging on the desserts. Your faces are looking a bit pained with every bite.”
Adrian didn’t want to leave Abigail’s side, not after having watched her stepsister glare daggers at her all evening. But James’s behavior worried him. He had to fight the urge to clench his hands into fists as he made his way over.
“I don’t imagine they do have cakes in the Pearl Kingdom, do they?” James was saying as he lifted a small square of iced cake.
A few feet away, the handmaiden blushed and giggled, shaking her head, making her dark hair swish around her shoulders. She, too, was sampling cakes. A quick look at the dais told Adrian the mermaid princess was currently speaking with her parents, her back to the room.
“James,” Adrian said, forcing his voice to sound cheerful as he approached.
His cousin’s head shot up, a guilty look quickly wiped away. It was quick, but Adrian still caught it and had to take a deep breath to keep himself calm.
“Ah, Adrian!” James called out, the smallest twitch to his lips indicating his nervousness. “Enjoying the ball?”
“I should be asking the same of you,” Adrian said, lifting a brow. “Care to tell me what’s going on?”
James swept a hand over the table constantly being refilled with desserts. “Just introducing Merike’s handmaiden to the pleasures of living on land. She’ll be relocating alongside the princess.”
Adrian’s eyes narrowed. “Shouldn’t you be this friendly with your bride instead of her handmaiden?”
James’s eyes hardened. “My bride is currently indisposed.”
“Look, James, I get it. No one wants an arranged marriage. Especially not in this day and age. But you’re the Crown Prince. You have duties and responsibilities.”
There was a sudden gleam in James’s eyes that had Adrian’s spine straightening.
“It doesn’t have to be mine.”
“Stop thinking about yourself,” Adrian hissed. “You were raised to wear the crown, not me. It’s your duty and responsibility. Your father will disown you, will drive you from the kingdom.”
James shrugged and looked down at the desserts, his shoulders sagging. “If you’re so interested in responsibility and duty, why don’t you become king instead of me? You could probably do a better job of it than me.”
“Because I promised Abigail I would take her back to Murant Holdings. Do you think Abigail, our Gail, would marry me if I made her Queen instead?”
James looked up at him angrily. “So you’ll have me sacrifice my happiness for yours?”
“We’re going in circles here, James. You have a responsibility. I don’t. Your father is expecting you, not me, to take the crown.”
“Didn’t you just say we’re going in circles, Adrian? I just told you I do have an heir.”
Adrian threw up his hands. “Just think of everything you would be giving up by pursuing a relationship with this handmaiden. Is it worth it, James? Is it her you want or are you running away from something?”
“I deserve happiness and love just like anyone else in this kingdom, Adrian. More so! I’m going to be King one day. I should be entitled to some happiness, shouldn’t I?”
“Life in the castle?”
“Then change it, James!”
James shook his head and turned to the handmaiden, who was standing still, her eyes wide and her hands clasped at her waist so hard her knuckles were white. His face softened as he looked at her. Slowly, cautiously, he held out a hand.
“Come,” he said softly to her. “Let me show you the gardens. Good night, Adrian.”
Adrian watched, speechless for once in his life, as the prince and the handmaiden left the ballroom.
The giantess graciously allowed my sister entrance to her large home, though it was modest by giant standards. There, playing within with a young giant child, the size of a full-grown adult, were a lovely girl and broad shouldered boy. They resembled Ilsa, the Keeper, and my sister knew she’d found the girl and boy. But, just as the Keeper had said, her children could not recall her, could only call the giantess their mother, if only by adoption. The giantess offered to let the children visit this woman calling herself their mother, but the children refused, so my sister went on her way. The Keeper was overjoyed to know her children were well and happy, though sadness at not being with them clung to her as my sister bid her farewell.
Abigail was wide awake at dawn, not quite sure if she should bolt down to the kitchen in her maid’s dress or lie in bed until full morning as a proper lady usually did. Her sore feet decided for her. She’d spent much of the previous night dancing with Adrian, becoming more at ease with him and in his arms. Even if Madeline spent more time lurking in shadows than dancing with her fair share of eligible bachelors, namely the bachelors Andalissa and Camille had “thoughtfully” sent her way.
A small smile graced her lips. Adrian was certainly more than an overgown version of the boy she had known, with a serious streak that took duty, honor, and responsibility to a near extreme. But he was still the boy who had stolen her heart when she was twelve. It unsettled her a little that the feelings she’d locked away ten years before were so easily released and revived, but it was so easy when he was still everything she’d loved about him. He hadn’t changed one bit.
Adrian, ever thoughtful and protective of her, had intentionally kept her dancing until the end. Her father, Muriel, Camille, and Madeline had departed long before. The King had offered her guest chambers, but, since Olidan Manor was so close, she had graciously declined.
Camille had had a hand in arranging her to get home without having to deal with Madeline. Through the enchanted glass, Camille had told her Madeline had been furious, though it had been interesting to watch her keep it out of Lawrence’s awareness. After all, the Count was just as intent on marrying Abigail to Adrian as Camille, Andalissa, and Adrian were.
She giggled a little to herself, pressing a ladylike hand to her lips even though she was alone. Everyone was ready for Abigail to marry Adrian. If she were one of the headstrong heroines in her mother’s books, she’d likely be running away. But she was Abigail. And Abigail didn’t know how she’d survive the wild if she ran away. Surely, she’d die, if not by fright than by some danger lurking on the roads. Besides, why run from the only one she had ever loved?
But Camille had concocted a sleeping draught with Helene that had sent Muriel and Madeline to bed almost as soon as they had been dressed for the night, making it safe for Abigail to slip home.
Abigail turned over and regarded the gradually lightening sky. Her window overlooked the copse she’d hidden in and she watched as the light touched their crowns. Briefly, she closed her eyes, but her exhaustion was no match for routine.
With a sigh, she slipped out of bed and into a dress her father would approve of. Sky blue with a full skirt and long sleeves, it would both keep her warm and mark her as a noble. With her father home, she was every bit a Lady Olidan and not at all a kitchen maid.
But she still headed straight for the kitchens in the quiet, slumbering manor. She could almost taste Helene’s sweet buns.
As expected, the kitchens were bustling. But Helene knew she was there the moment she entered.
“My Lady,” Helene said.
Abigail quickly raised her hands. “Don’t worry. I’m not here to make bread. I’m just looking for some sweet buns.”
Helene bit her lip and glanced over to Abigail’s usual spot, near the table by the back door. Without saying a word, she gestured for Abigail to follow. Her brow creased, she did, wondering at Helene’s nervous look.
“Helene, is everything well?” she ventured.
“Shh, my Lady,” Helene murmured, guiding her over to the table. “They came just a few minutes ago, asking for you or your sister.”
Helene stepped aside and Abigail gasped when she saw James and the mermaid handmaiden seated at the table, enjoying a plate of sweet buns.
“James, what are you doing here?” she asked, startled.
In one swift move, James stood and pulled her close. “We need your help, Gail.”
She looked from him to the former mermaid. “My help?” she echoed. “I don’t understand.”
James took a deep breath. “Adrian won’t understand. And I’m sorry about what it’ll do to him, but I can’t marry Merike.” He glanced over at the handmaiden, her dark head bowed demurely. “This is Poppy. I’m in love with her.”
“But, James, the agreement. My father worked so hard on it.”
James inclined his head. “Gail, he did a wonderful job. It was perfect. But, when I met Merike, I knew I couldn’t do it.” He stepped closer. “The mermaid king did a good job of holding his ground, but, with how quickly he agreed to your father’s new terms, it said he wished Merike to be away as quickly as possible. She’s a cold, hateful woman, Gail. She would destroy me and the Glass Kingdom.”
Abigail gasped. “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” He glanced at Poppy. “Merike doesn’t treat Poppy well. She even stripped Poppy of her given name so she doesn’t even recall it anymore. I had to give her a name, Gail. Merike will twist everything to ensure our kingdom lies in her hands instead of in both of ours. She’ll destroy everything to make it into what she wants.” He quickly grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “Gail, I can’t marry her and helplessly watch her take over. Because she will. Her father is desperate to marry her off, to see her gone from the Pearl Kingdom. She’s managed to turn most of his courtiers away from him. The only way I can protect the Glass Kingdom is by running away.”
“With Poppy? Do you really love her, or do you just want to save both of you from Merike?”
“I love her, Gail. I love her every bit as much as Adrian loves you.”
Abigail swallowed. “What do you need from me?”
“Help us get to Roderick Manor safely.”
Abigail blinked at them. “You have the swiftest horses. I don’t understand how you couldn’t get there without help. Surely, if you leave now, you’ll have a sizable lead.”
“As soon as the castle knows we’re gone, every knight will be sent out to find us. I’ve left a note for my parents to let them know I refuse my responsibility as Crown Prince. My father will be furious. If he wants to find us, he will. He’ll make it known in every kingdom and The Spindle that I’ve run away and Poppy and I are wanted. I need you to help talk us into The Spindle and Roderick Manor if we are too late.”
“Well, you or Camille, but, since you’re here and time is of the essence…”
James trailed off and, if Abigail were the sort to curse, she’d be stringing them into a sentence. But she wasn’t, so all she did was bite her lip.
“Why me or Camille?” she finally asked.
“I trust no one else. You and Camille were my closest childhood friends. The closest friends I’ve ever had apart from Adrian and Andalissa. But I can’t ask them. You heard Adrian last night.”
“But if you lay it out for him as you did me…?”
James shook his head and fell back into his chair. “It’s not that easy. He’ll just tell me he’ll be by my side so Merike can’t take over. I can’t put him into harm’s way.” He looked up at her. “Please, Gail.”
Abigail took a deep breath, her heart racing. A part of her knew that, if James left, Adrian would be Crown Prince. If she married Adrian, she’d be Queen one day. It wasn’t a thought she wanted to dwell on. A part of her wanted to tell James to stick with his duty and marry Merike, but he had as much a right to happiness as she did. Besides, Adrian might just hate her for helping James run away. It broke her heart to think she would lose him, but how could she let her childhood friend enter into a devastating marriage? Surely Adrian would understand. One day.
She whirled away and strode through the kitchen. “Helene! Quickly, please, package enough food for three to last the journey to The Spindle. Alexander, please run out and have the stable hands prepare Pear and the mounts for the Prince and Poppy. Diane, I’ll need some extra cloaks and some spare traveling clothes. Quickly, please!”
Immediately, the kitchen staff ran from their stations, hurrying to do as she asked, hearing the urgency in her voice. It scared her a little at how easily commanding them had come. But she knew in her heart she had to help James and Poppy. And time was most definitely of the essence.
Quickly, she returned to the table and grabbed a sweet bun. “Eat. We’ll be off as soon as all is prepared.”
James grinned at her and, for the first time, Poppy looked up, tears in her eyes.
“Thank you, Gail,” James said quietly, intensely.
Abigail swallowed and nodded. “Please don’t make me regret this, James.”
“I’ll try, Gail,” he promised. “I’ll try.”
The morning was chilly, but adrenaline helped keep her warm. Abigail’s cloak flapped behind her as she raced behind James and Poppy, pushing Pear so they were out of the city limits by the time the city was fully awake. There was no telling how long it would be before Merike discovered her handmaiden was gone.
The cold air stung her cheeks. The reins bit into her hands, tightly knotted around them. Pear heaved under her, somehow feeling the same sense of urgency as her mistress. Abigail’s breath clouded in front of her mere moments before her face dashed through it.
After the engagement ball and all the merriment that had flooded through the city the night before, the streets were quiet. Abigail couldn’t help wincing a little as the sound of hoof beats echoed throughout, but it was more important they get as far away as possible in the shortest amount of time.
The sun was just clearing the horizon when they entered the forest on the outskirts of the city. Winding through it wasn’t the fastest way to The Spindle, but it would keep them hidden as it crept all the way to the border between the Glass Kingdom and The Spindle.
Once in the thick woods, the three riders slowed their horses to a trot and Abigail made her way beside James.
“How long do you think it’ll be before Merike discovers Poppy is gone?” Abigail asked.
On the other side of the prince, Poppy shook her head. “Not long, Lady Abigail. The princess does tend to sleep late, but she will call for me as soon as she wakes. James and I took a chance stopping to see if you would help us.”
James smiled at Abigail. “We really can’t thank you enough.”
Abigail pursed her lips. “Just hope your father doesn’t execute me for helping you run away.”
James’s eyes widened. “He wouldn’t! For one, it would mean he couldn’t count on Lawrence ever again, and we all know how much my father relies on yours to help keep cordial relations between us and the rest of the kingdoms. For another, my mother has forbidden him from executing anyone ever again.”
“Thank goodness the Queen has a good head on her shoulders,” Abigail muttered. “I suppose I should notify Camille. She can handle whatever happens in the city.”
James nodded. “That’s a great idea, Gail.” He turned to Poppy. “See? I told you it would all work out.”
Poppy inclined her head, her loose hair falling over her shoulders. “You know this family better than I do.”
Abigail sighed and lifted the sea glass hanging around her neck to her lips. She had no wish to see her cousin and the woman he was running away with go to mush next to her.
“Camille,” she hissed into the glass.
A moment later, a startled, “Abigail?” rang back through.
“Camille, I need your help.”
“Gail, why do you sound like your teeth are chattering? Are you well? Should I call for a physician? Wait. What do you need help with? Has Adrian hurt you?”
Abigail clutched the piece of glass and squeezed her eyes shut, trusting Pear for a moment.
“I’m out for a ride,” Abigail finally said. “If anyone asks. A long one.”
“Alright,” Camille said slowly. Then, more alarmed, “Why? Does this have anything to do with Adrian?”
“No. Not a thing.” Abigail glanced sideways at the prince and handmaiden riding along beside her. The chill air didn’t seem to be affecting them the same way it was her. They were chatting with smiles and warm looks. “Look, Camille, I need you to listen for a few minutes. I need your help. It has to do with James.”
“The Crown Prince?” Camille hissed in surprise. “What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into, Gail?”
“Shh! The prince has gotten me into trouble. Never mind, Camille. Please, just listen. Is anyone else awake?”
“Not a soul. It’s just me in the nice warm kitchen, where I thought I might find you since your bed was empty. Though I know you were home since it’s quite a mess.”
Abigail sighed. “Listen, please, Camille. James and the mermaid princess’s handmaiden, Poppy, came to see us early this morning. They need our help.” She glanced over at the couple, but neither seemed to be paying her any attention. “They’ve decided to run away. James does not wish to marry Merike and has instead fallen in love with Poppy.
“The mermaid princess isn’t who we all think she is. She’s power hungry and will use her marriage to James to claim both kingdoms for herself. It’s actually quite fortunate James fell in love with Poppy instead. We must keep the marriage from going through. I’m taking James and Poppy to Roderick Manor.”
“You’re taking them to the linked world?” Camille asked.
“Yes. The Rodericks can help protect them. Keep them from being dragged back here. They’ll have a chance at a normal life together, Camille, and we can try to keep the Glass Kingdom safe from Merike.”
“Since you’re with them, I suppose I’m the eyes and ears?” Camille asked, sounding oddly resigned. Abigail allowed herself a small smile. My, how their roles had been reversed! The girl who never left home riding off into adventure and the one who craved it stuck at home. Though Abigail was glad it was her sister with Muriel and Madeline and not her. Camille could handle herself better with them than she would ever be able to.
Abigail cleared her throat. “Yes, you are. As soon as the alarm is raised, please let me know. If you could keep tabs on everyone and everything…”
“Don’t worry, Gail. Andalissa and I will get on it right away.”
“No!” James and Abigail cried out at the same time.
“Camille, we can’t risk bringing the Murants in,” Abigail said, glancing at her vigorously nodding cousin. “It could be disaster for them. They must be innocent.”
Abigail heard her sister sigh. “Well, I suppose I could get myself into the castle. It’ll keep me away from Muriel and Madeline.”
Abigail closed her eyes and sighed. She hated to admit it, but Camille was turning out to be right about their stepsister. After watching Madeline watch her during the entire ball, it was clear the sweet, reserved sister was simply a charade.
“Don’t worry, Gail,” Camille said softly. “I’ll make sure neither has any idea where you are.”
“Thank you,” Abigail said softly.
“Now off with you. Get James and the mermaid to The Spindle as quickly as you can. I’ll take care of everything here.”
Abigail dropped the glass and turned to look at the couple. She smiled and nodded, her shoulders slumping a little as they smiled back at her.
“My prince,” Poppy said, looking up at the bright morning sunlight filtering through the treetops. “My mistress sleeps late, but, surely, she will wake soon. Your father’s men are swift, yes?”
James set his mouth in a grim line. “They are. It will take some time for them to ensure neither of us is in the castle anymore, and at most an hour before the border knights are alerted to keep watch for us.”
Abigail groaned. “You’ve roped me into a fool’s errand, James? Haven’t grown up, have you?”
James put a solemn hand over his heart. “Abigail, I would never willingly pull you into danger. Nor would I endanger the life and safety of the woman I love.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small, opalescent stone. “I, ah, may have snuck a peek at the engagement gifts.”
“Fae wish stones?” Poppy gasped.
“From Clarice and her sisters,” James confirmed.
“Well, then, that’ll do it,” Abigail said briskly. “Clarice is a strong fae. How, exactly, are you planning on using it?”
James grinned and held the stone up to his mouth. He whispered a few words before blowing it into dust. The shimmers lingered for only a moment before coalescing into a large oval right before the noses of their mounts touched it.
Abigail gasped as the shimmers made her bared skin tingle, but the ring of horseshoes on cobblestone nearly made her cry out.
My sister spent days, months, years wandering The Wilds, searching for the lost God of Time. I grew older, raised my children, but she did not age a day. But, one day, she decided it was time to move on. My sister went to our mother’s homeland, the Great North. That great block of ice that only briefly thaws for a few weeks every year. It’s bitterly cold, but they have great cities under domes to protect from the worst of the cold. My sister said it was still frigid, but much better without the wind’s chilly blow. She spent days marveling at the edges of the domes, watching as snow swirled outside, growing inch by inch to rest against the glass. But it is Glass Kingdom glass, and it is indestructible.
Camille had barely released the piece of glass around her neck when she swiftly rose and spun away from the kitchen table. Without even a word to Helene, who glanced in her direction in surprise, she grabbed a servant’s cloak from beside the door and quickly left the kitchen and slumbering Manor in a whirl.
Her father would eventually miss her, but not Muriel. She’d given Muriel a strong sleeping draught, but, unfortunately, the wretched woman would wake. Camille had no idea how she would be able to slip between the Manor and the castle, but she had promised Abigail.
The morning was cold and her hands quickly went white, but she didn’t pay attention to them. Her heart was pounding as she realized what this could mean to her. Fortunately, the king’s executioner had been stayed by the queen, but there was no avoiding the fact she wasn’t going to the castle to tell the king his son had run away with the mermaid’s handmaiden.
More pressing, though, was how she was going to get into the castle.
As she walked along the empty streets, the frigid winter air biting into her exposed skin, she could have been contemplating her poor decision to step out in a simple russet gown and a cloak. Slippers, too, instead of sturdy boots, her feet were quick to remind her as the snow melted against her sole.
But she wracked her brain instead for a plausible story of what she was doing in the castle and roaming the halls. Even as a distant cousin to the king, there was no good reason for her to be there, snooping around.
Camille sighed harshly as her sister’s frequent warnings that her penchant for diving head first into things was going to come back and bite her came to mind. This wasn’t the first time, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. But she and Abigail really were complete opposites. Where Abigail would linger and consider, Camille jumped. This time, Abigail needed her, but Abigail really needed a sister who could stop and think.
“Unfortunately, I’m your only sister,” Camille muttered.
She continued on, stepping on packed snow and ice, headed for the castle, hoping a plan would come to mind soon.
Just as she was approaching the long drive, though, the city alarms sounded. Her heart in her throat, Camille hiked up her skirts and raced to the guards at the gates.
“Halt!” one cried, thrusting his pike at her.
“I’m Lady Camille, of Olidan,” Camille said, failing to soothe the anxiety from her voice. “My father is the king’s most trusted relative. What has happened?”
The knights only stared her down. No matter how important her father was to the king, their orders overrode everything. She stared back, certain the men would be narrowing their eyes and glaring at her if they could. She gritted her teeth and raised her chin. Even if Adrian and Abigail had managed to find each other on their own, she’d spent enough time trying to coerce her sister that she knew she owed Abigail this much: to help her get James and Poppy away to the fullest extent of her ability.
The guards’ hands tightened around their pikes. One shook a little, as though the guard wanted to lower it and charge at her. But Camille held firm, her eyes steady, her mouth set in a firm line, as alarms clattered behind and in front of and around her. The streets behind her were starting to fill with people and questions, yells and shouts. If she could see the guards’ hands beneath their thick gloves, she was certain they’d be snowy white from gripping the pikes so tightly.
Fortunately, the sound of horse hooves snapped the guards back to attention, and had Camille spinning around. She gasped, almost coming nose to chest with a snorting stallion.
Adrian’s stallion. A beast of an animal, though a sweet apple or pear would turn him into anyone’s best friend.
He leaped down and grabbed her by the shoulders as she continued to gape at the horse. Dimly, she was aware of Andalissa and the Prince and Princess.
“Camille, where’s Abigail?” Adrian asked urgently.
“What are you doing here?” Andalissa asked, hurrying to her brother’s side, her skirts hiked up just below her knees.
For once, Camille’s mouth opened and closed without anything issuing forth. Her mind was frozen. What could she tell them? She had maneuvered Adrian and Abigail together. Against her sister’s wishes. Now she was maneuvering to help the Crown Prince and his beloved to escape. Against everyone’s wishes. And Abigail had asked her to not involve the Murants.
“Safe,” she finally uttered. “Don’t worry, Adrian. Abigail is safe. What has happened?”
Adrian’s hands fell from her shoulders and he looked up at the castle, grim as his hands tightened into fists.
“My fool cousin has done something utterly stupid.”
“James?” Camille asked dumbly.
“He’s run away with Princess Merike’s handmaiden,” Andalissa whispered, her tone and her wide eyes at odds, though Camille was the only one who could read her. Outwardly, she was supposed to be horrified. Inwardly, she delighted in a couple who had found true love and were willing to do everything to stay together.
Camille gasped and pressed a hand to her mouth. It was not at all the reaction she would have actually had, but Adrian had always paid more attention to Abigail than her. Her heart beat furiously as she fervently hoped he would be too preoccupied to study her.
“My uncle has called us to help find them,” Adrian said, authority in his voice. “We could use all eyes and ears possible. Keep some out for us, will you?”
“Y-yes, of course.” She took a step back as Andalissa’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “I’ll head home at once and let my father know.”
Adrian nodded, his eyes suddenly pining her. “Yes, do that. My uncle will need your father to help smooth things over with the mer king. Please keep Abigail safe, Camille. I will visit her as soon as I can.”
“My sister is unlikely to go anywhere,” Camille said dryly.
Adrian glowered at her. “I know Abigail well, Camille. I do not know or trust your stepmother and stepsister.”
Camille could do nothing more than dip her head. Then, knowing there was nothing else for her to learn, she turned and made her way home.
She walked quickly, looking for a private place to speak with her sister. Her eyes darted around, but the streets were now filled with people, and the clanging alarms were starting to give her a headache.,
She huffed and hiked up her skirts to race back to Olidan Manor. She bypassed the front doors and instead slipped back into the kitchen, where she caught Alexander’s sleeve and hurriedly told him to notify the Count he was wanted at the castle. Then she wrapped the cloak back around herself and darted out for the copse.
Once she was settled in a tree, her back pressed against the bark, her eyes focused on the manor, and one foot swinging, she clutched the glass around her neck
“Abigail,” Camille hissed.
“What is it?” Abigail asked.
“The alarms have been sounded. Father’s been called to the castle. The Murants are there already. If they’re not already searching for James and Poppy, they will be soon.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Abigail said.
“What? Did they change their minds?”
“Oh, nothing of that sort. James just had a wish stone. We’re approaching Roderick Manor. You should see The Spindle one day, Camille! It’s amazing and beautiful. The stonework on the buildings is impeccable. The cobblestones actually gleam with opalescent pieces. There are fae everywhere with the most vibrantly colored clothing and hair.”
Camille sighed wistfully. If only she’d woken earlier. “It sounds lovely, Abigail. Good luck. If I hear anything new, I’ll contact you.”
“Thank you, Camille.” She paused. “Did you see Adrian?”
Camille couldn’t stop the grin spreading across her face. “I did. You’d better hurry back. He said he’ll be visiting as soon as he can.”
She heard her sister’s sharp inhale. “I’ll do what I can. Thank you.”
“Of course,” Camille said, smiling as she dropped her piece of glass.
It was with a considerable degree of reluctance and trepidation that Camille headed back into the Manor, but it was cold, even in the summer-blessed trees. She furiously rubbed her hands together as she walked back in through the kitchens, replacing the cloak as she went.
There was a great deal of noise coming from the great hall as she left the warmth of the kitchens. Curious, she altered course and quietly walked over.
Muriel and Madeline had finally woken, just. Both were swaddled in dressing gowns and thin slippers. Though Muriel seemed to have at least taken enough time to powder her hair. Both women were getting in Lawrence’s way, both trying to help him into his cloak and shoes as Geoffrey very patiently tried to fight them off so he could prepare his clearly irritated master for the cold weather.
“What’s this?” Camille asked innocently, glad for the sweet bun Helene had shoved in her hands, as she ambled over. “Going out already, Father? Good morning, Stepmother, Madeline.”
Muriel barely spared her a look and Madeline glared, though she’d turned away from Lawrence so he wouldn’t see. Inwardly, Camille seethed, and was now glad to have been the second one awake. She would have to deal with these two. Quickly. Before her sister’s return, ideally.
“The King has summoned me,” Lawrence said, turning briefly to his daughter. “James and Princess Merike’s handmaiden have vanished.”
Camille opened her eyes wide in surprise. “What do you mean by vanished?”
“He’s nowhere on the castle grounds,” Lawrence said as Geoffrey finally fought off the two women and fastened the cloak at his throat. “I don’t have any further details. We do not know what happened, so stay at the Manor, Camille. Muriel, Madeline, I will be back as soon as possible.”
With that, the Count swept out the door, leaving the three women.
“Well,” Muriel said. “This is indeed a strange twist.”
Thinking quickly, Camille planted her hands on her hips. “Yes. It is. You wouldn’t have any idea of what happened would you?”
Muriel raised a brow. “Me? Why, I was dead asleep after the ball. The alarms only just woke me.”
Camille raked a glance down Muriel’s figure, taking in the dressing gown that had clearly been bought with her new husband’s money. “Clearly.”
Madeline stepped forward, her eyes small fires. “Do not speak that way to my mother.”
Camille folded her arms. “My father has returned. There is nothing you can do to me.”
“I wonder,” Muriel murmured, “where Abigail has gotten off to? Perhaps she had something to do with this. What a scandal! Abigail, the Count’s daughter, running away with the Crown Prince.” She placed a hand on Madeline’s shoulder. “Leaving behind a devastated Duke who can only be consoled by my lovely, charming daughter.”
Camille couldn’t help it; her hackles rose. “Adrian will never love a woman like Madeline.”
Muriel pressed her lips together until they turned white. “We shall see how events turn out. Come, Madeline. We must make you presentable.”
Madeline spared a last haughty glare at Camille before she let her mother lead her off.
Camille heaved a quiet sigh and let her shoulders slump as mother and daughter vanished up the stairs. She shook her head. Yes, it was much better that she had awoken second. Though she wasn’t sure for how long she thought that.
She clutched the glass again, her eyes darting around, keeping an eye out for either woman. There was no time to wait for a moment of privacy, no time to rush into her rooms.
“Abigail,” Camille hissed. “Don’t say anything. With you missing, Muriel and Madeline intend on using your disappearance to their advantage. Return quickly.”
She dropped the glass and, heart racing, crept after Muriel and Madeline. The more she knew about their plans, the better she could warn Abigail. There was no doubt in her mind Adrian wouldn’t trust Madeline and Muriel, but it was awfully suspicious that Abigail was also missing.
She’d worked too hard to coerce her sister and the Duke together. There was no one more relieved than her to know they actually made quite a match. Adrian was perfect for Abigail. He was the only who accepted and understood her. After all the wrongs she’d done to her sister, Camille was intent on throwing her whole self into protecting their budding relationship, and helping her keep James and Poppy out of everyone’s reach.
It was while my sister was examining the glass dome that she heard a melodic sound, like that of something small and bright striking the glass. Beside her, a young man rushed past. His golden hair was in disarray and he was hastily pulling a hood over it. His bright eyes were nervous and afraid when they met my sister’s. From the stones around the edge of the dome, he plucked something small, round, and metallic. It looked much like a pea, if one were made of metal. With wild eyes, the man looked around before pocketing the metal ball and raising a gloved finger to his lips before rushing off. My sister, ever curious, rushed after him
Adrian strode into the throne room behind his parents. His sister trailed a little behind, but he didn’t pay her much mind. Instead, he stripped the riding gloves from his hands as his boots beat out a staccato against the marble floor.
All around the sides, courtiers were gathering, whispering and shouting at each other. Maps and missives were clutched in hands and fabrics and strings trailed here and there. Quiet servants slipped between them like ghosts, filling cups and plates. He ignored them, his eyes on the wide table set up before the dais. Maps were spread out as the kings and queens of the Pearl and Glass Kingdoms shouted over it. Merike stood nearby, stiff and still and a little bored, one finger playing with a slim golden chain around her neck.
“My son wouldn’t run away!” King Gray shouted, hammering a fist down on top of one map. Adrian had rarely seen his uncle red in the face. It made him pause a moment. “One of your own must have kidnapped him and used your daughter’s handmaiden to spirit him away.”
“As if you have no other enemies?” King Alon sneered, his long hair, tied back, swung over a shoulder as he leaned forward.
“None who would dare cross our borders,” Queen Coryn said, her voice icy and quiet.
King Alon’s head snapped in her direction. “Then your son must be a runaway.”
“Never!” King Gray shouted. “Never. My son would never shirk his duty, his responsibility.”
“Peace!” the Prince roared as he and the Princess approached, Adrian on their heels while Andalissa drifted off to listen in on the courtiers with a wink.
Silence fell over the room. The Prince’s voice was powerful, for he used it seldom. A quiet fury in his steps, he approached the table, neatly between the warring monarchs.
“We have a missing Crown Prince and a missing handmaiden,” the Prince said calmly. He turned to look at the mermaid princess. “Your Highness, is there any reason why your handmaiden would leave your side?”
Merike lifted her chin, her eyes cool, her cheeks pale. She looked a bit like a porcelain doll, cold and hard. Adrian pressed his lips together, certain he knew what his cousin had chosen. He hated to condemn his cousin to a life with that living doll, but James was born to a duty.
“None, Your Highness,” she responded, crisp and clear.
Adrian pulled his fingers into fists for a moment. Abigail would never marry him if he were to become king. James would never forgive him for telling all assembled he had likely run away with the handmaiden.
Andalissa’s hand fell on his shoulder. Startled, he turned to her. She didn’t say anything, just stared at him, her eyes open and clear.
“I have to,” he whispered. “Look at them. They’ll go to war over this.”
“They’ll go to war regardless,” she pointed out. “They’ve only been looking for a reason.”
“If James hadn’t gone,” Adrian started.
“It would have been something else,” Andalissa firmly finished. “You know the peace was tenuous at best.” She cocked her head. “Why did King Alon agree to Lawrence’s terms so quickly?”
Adrian turned back to the table. His father was holding peace between the kings as best he could, but he wasn’t quite the negotiator the Count Olidan was. Where was the man? Surely Camille had made it back to the manor by now and told someone to send her father over.
“Abigail will never marry me if I am king,” he whispered.
“That’s Abigail’s choice. It always will be.” Andalissa’s hand tightened. “You know her, Adrian.”
“To war we go, then,” he said quietly, his eyes on the maps spread across the table.
He saw Andalissa’s head turn out of the corner of his eye. “Unless the Count Olidan can broker peace.”
The Count’s approach was swift and silent. He spared a nod for Adrian and Andalissa, but nothing else. Andalissa smiled up at him and, with a small tug, pulled both of them closer.
“Lawrence,” King Gray heralded, relief in his voice and shoulders. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
“A missing prince and handmaiden,” Lawrence said shortly, punctuated with a sharp nod. “Kidnapping or runaway?”
“Uncertain,” King Gray cut in quickly, casting a glare at the other king.
“The handmaiden would not flee her duties,” Lawrence said.
The mermaid princess graced Lawrence with a small, cold smile. “True, my Lord. I am pleased you will understand that.”
“I’ve spent countless years in your palace, Princess. I am familiar with the First Handmaiden.” The princess inclined her head at his words as Lawrence turned back to the kings. “And the Crown Prince knows his duty.”
“Also true,” King Gray said fiercely.
“But no signs of a kidnapping?”
“None,” Queen Coryn said quietly. “We have searched the castle and the grounds. Two horses are missing as well.”
Lawrence nodded once before his shoulders sagged just slightly. “Then, my fair monarchs, we know what this means.”
“Is there nothing you can do?” King Gray burst out. “You’ve spent years negotiating marriage and peace between our kingdoms. Our sailors are dying out there.”
“And my people are being pursued and killed,” King Alon spat back.
“You have another heir, do you not, King Gray?” Lawrence asked.
Adrian’s breath caught in his throat and Andalissa’s hand tightened on his arm. His hands began to feel cold and everything else was as still has a statue. His heart beat wildly, though, and his tongue begged him to scream against the idea, but he couldn’t bring himself to move.
“No,” the Prince cut in quickly. “My son is spoken for.” He turned to Lawrence and bowed slightly. “My apologies, but Adrian and Abigail have already declared their intent to court.”
“Hmm,” Lawrence said thoughtfully. “I have not yet seen my daughter since the ball, but I did leave home in a hurry. I have no reservations, Your Highness. The Duke Murant is indeed spoken for.”
“What nonsense is this?” King Alon demanded. “He is not yet wed. Merike will marry him.”
Lawrence quickly held up a placating hand. “Not so, Your Majesty. Here in the Glass Kingdom, declaration to court is just short of an agreement to marriage. In due time the Duke and my daughter will be wed. He is spoken for.” He held out his hands. “There is nothing more I can do. To do so would mean a change to our laws. Your daughter will return to you. I’m sorry.”
“No,” Queen Merin whispered, her voice soft but biting.
Quickly, King Alon glanced at his wife before quickly saying, “There must be a marriage to unite our kingdoms. If Duke Murant is now Crown Prince, he shall marry my daughter.”
“The Duke Murant is not yet Crown Prince,” Prince Grant cut in. “If Prince James is a runaway, we must find him in all due haste.”
Lawrence was quiet as he turned to study the mermaid king and queen. Beside them, the princess had gone still. Her fingers no longer played with her necklace. Instead, her fingertips rested at her collarbone, her eyes narrowed as she stared, not at Lawrence, but at her own father. Adrian held his breath as he studied Abigail’s father, watched his shoulders tense.
“Your Majesty, King Alon, I wonder,” Lawrence said slowly, quietly, “why did you agree to the new terms so quickly?” He looked over to Queen Merin. “Why does your wife not wish to have her daughter returned to her bosom?”
“Enough,” Merike said softly, her hands falling away to her sides, her spine straightening. A strange breeze seemed to swirl around her, playing with the short ends of her hair.
“Fae blessed,” someone, one of the courtiers, gasped.
King Alon grit his teeth. “No. A witch.”
“Your daughter is a sea witch,” Lawrence said, his voice low and cold. “You would have placed a sea witch on the throne of the Glass Kingdom?”
“I would have a menace taken from my society,” King Alon growled.
“Outrageous!” King Gray burst out. “You have tricked me and mine, Alon. You and your family are banished from the Glass Kingdom. Return to your sea. If war is what comes next, we will be ready.”
Lawrence, with nothing more to ask or say, bowed to his king and queen. Then, swiftly, he turned and left, his footsteps both measured and furious as they echoed all the way to the doors.
Merike turned to King Gray, a cold smile on her lips, her eyes like chips off an iceberg near the Great North. The breeze played only around her, dancing with her skirts and laughing through her short hair.
“I hope you are ready to lose your crown, Your Majesty,” she said, her voice like velvet, before she turned and took the brewing sea storm with her.
“Fae!” Prince Grant whispered as the doors swung closed behind the mermaid royals. “A sea witch. How could they have kept that hidden for so long?”
King Gray shook his head, his body bowed over the table. “I don’t know. But they fooled Lawrence. That’s not an easy task. How long have they been planning this?”
Princess Aloise shook her head and placed her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “It doesn’t matter. What does matter now is James is missing and war is brewing.”
The king slammed his fist down on the table. “The mer king tricked us! What would have happened if James hadn’t vanished? We’d find a witch for a daughter-in-law.” He turned his eyes to where Adrian still stood with his sister. “I hate to do this, Grant, but I must make your son my heir.”
Adrian stiffened. He knew it was coming, what with James missing, but for it to be declared so quickly?
His father held up a hand. “Slow, brother. James might still return.”
But the king was shaking his head. “My son made his choice. He ran away with the handmaiden. It’s the only explanation. If he’d only come and expressed his misgivings…”
“James fell in love with the handmaiden,” Adrian said quietly. He cleared his throat. “Uncle, he ran from his duty because of a pretty face. Granted, the handmaiden is a far better choice, but it would have meant ruin.”
The king met his brother’s eyes. The prince sighed and threw up a hand as his head lowered. He muttered something to his older brother, but Adrian was too far away to catch it. He could guess, though, his father was giving in.
Adrian clenched his hands into fists. He’d sealed his own fate. Beside him, Andalissa gave his arm a squeeze before she stepped away. He lifted his chin, hope fluttering away in his chest that Abigail wouldn’t mind becoming queen.
My sister chased the man all the way to the Palace. She was in awe for a moment, staring up at the ice blue blocks and towering turrets of spiraled ice. It was her gasp as the sun struck the ice just right that made the man walking swiftly in front of her still his steps, his body seeming to be just as frozen as the ice. He demanded to know why my sister was following him. She said she was curious, and a stranger, and asked if he was the prince. With cautious eyes, he nodded and asked if she was a princess.
Abigail perched on the edge of the velvet sofa, a saucer balanced in one hand as she sipped the hot herbal tea Rose Roderick had handed her. Beside her, the mermaid handmaiden was too nervous to hold fine china, so sat with her hands pressed to her knees, barely sitting on the edge of the sofa. On Abigail’s other side, James sat, leaning forward with his hands dangling between his knees, his eyes earnest as she described his situation to the couple sitting across from them.
Rose and Harrison Roderick were not quite as she expected. They were relatively young, around their thirties, she guessed. They sat with much space between them, and hardly acted like a married couple. At least, there was none of the affection she had grown up seeing between her parents when Lawrence was on land. Instead the space between them seemed to be filled with polite indifference with no touches or glances.
“Can you help?” James asked as he finished speaking.
Abigail could feel the nervous tension rolling off of him. As if the handmaiden’s anxiousness wasn’t enough. As jumpy as she usually felt around people she barely knew, she felt like a sea of calm between the couple. It was a little unnerving. But at least it kept her from thinking she’d likely be Queen one day. That one didn’t bear thinking on. At least, not yet. They’d only just formalized their intent to court. She hadn’t even told her father! Not that her father would be surprised. He’d probably be happily dropping her off at Murant Manor, eager to see the announcement in the Plaza for their engagement.
Or maybe that would be Camille. It was difficult sometimes to figure out who wanted her marry Adrian more. But at least she and Adrian were of the same mind and didn’t want to rush. Of course, if he were to be pronounced Crown Prince in James’s stead, their time would likely be vastly shortened, but they had a foundation to work from, a childhood together and mutual crushes. It was something, even if a rushed timeline did sometimes make her feel dizzy.
Very carefully, Abigail placed her cup back on her saucer with a light clink.
“You may pass through the portal,” Harrison said, “but, if you wish for us to mask you, you will never be able to return.”
Abigail watched as James and the handmaiden exchanged glances across her. She was too much a lady to let her head whip back and forth, but she could catch the looks between them from the corners of her eyes. Clearly, they were very unlike Harrison and Rose and only her body situated between them kept them from holding hands.
It was like a sudden knife in her stomach. If James were to remain, he would be married to someone he would never love, but Adrian would be free to return to his pastoral life at Murant Holdings and she would be a happily situated Duchess in the country. If James were to have his heart’s desire, and she really couldn’t blame him for throwing duty to the wind when literally every other person in the kingdom was allowed to marry for love, Adrian would be king and she knew a part of her heart had already decided on him.
“We do have a problem,” James said softly. “We want nothing more than to go through and be masked, but, once we leave, the spell on Poppy’s legs will dissipate.”
Rose’s head dipped a little. “I believe we can help you, but it also comes at a cost.”
“I’ll pay it,” Poppy said softly, making Abigail jump a little. The former mermaid had been so quiet since they’d arrived in The Spindle.
“You can never be near large bodies of water,” Rose said. “No beaches, no lakes, not even large ponds or swimming pools.”
“Swimming pools?” Poppy asked. Abigail, too, was curious, so turned her gaze to Rose. “Are they large ponds?”
Rose’s lips quirked a small smile. “Not quite. They are artificial, man made. They are where people swim, perhaps for exercise, or to play and splash in. You will see them, but must avoid them.”
Poppy nodded, a thoughtful look on her face. “I understand. But I may still bathe? I would also like a garden. May I water it?”
Rose smiled softly. “Of course. It is merely anything large enough to be reminiscent of the ocean that will be a danger to you. If you are within a few feet of one, your legs will revert back into a tail.”
“Oh. I see.”
“Are you still willing?”
“Perfectly,” Poppy said without hesitation. “Living in the Pearl Kingdom was always a melancholy life. Serving Princess Merike was not easy, but, as an orphan, I had little choice.”
“When may we go through?” James asked anxiously, his fingers so tightly laced together his knuckles were white.
“Very soon,” Harrison assured him.
“I’ll get the potion,” Rose said as she rose and hurried from the room.
As she left, Harrison’s eyes focused on Abigail, causing a warm stain to spread across her cheeks. She hadn’t expected to be anyone’s focus of attention.
“Lady Olidan,” he said, tipping his head slightly. “My wife and I were unable to stay long at the engagement ball, but we did take note of you and the Duke Murant.”
Abigail’s eyes lowered as her cheeks caught fire. “Y-yes, Master Roderick. The Duke and I intend on beginning our formal courtship.”
She raised her eyes just enough to see a touch of sympathy in his eyes. “Your grandfather used to tell me about you and your sister. Camille, is it? I’m terribly sorry about your mother. I met her a few times, though never escorted her through the portal. She was a lovely woman.” He cleared his throat. “I believe, with Prince James leaving this world, the Duke will become heir?”
Abigail nodded. “Yes, I believe so.”
“Rose and I will arrange to return you to the Glass Kingdom as quickly as possible.”
Abigail dipped her head. “I thank you, Master Roderick. I do need to return soon. James brought us here using a fae wish stone. Will it be possible for me to return the same way?”
Harrison shook his head. “Unfortunately, using the wish stones leaves something of a ripple. Oh, you can’t be tracked through it, but it’s a fairly powerful magic with a signature indicating the user.” He tipped his head towards the prince. “Considering the three of you rushed here so soon after the ripple on this end formed, I’d say you’re in quite the rush to not be noticed. I think it prudent to not give any searchers more information. Rose and I will return you to the Glass Kingdom another way. It may take a bit longer, but it’ll be safer for you and for them.”
Abigail nodded. “Any aid you can provide will be quite welcomed, and I’m truly thankful.” She fingered the glass around her neck. “I am in contact with my sister. I’m sure she can come up with excuses for me.”
Tentatively, Poppy reached out a hand and lightly tapped her knee. “Thank you, Abigail,” she said softly. “We could not have done this without you.”
Abigail smiled at the former mermaid. “Just stay away from large bodies of water. My grandfather used to tell me stories of sailors hunting down mermaids.”
At Poppy’s startled look, Abigail flushed and looked down. She wasn’t usually so careless with her words, but neither was she eloquent.
“Don’t worry,” Harrison said, leaning forward to swiftly save Abigail. “It’s well known now that mermaids are mythological beings.” He grinned and wink, but it was gone in a flash. “You’ll be perfectly safe. The people in the other world are so jaded now, anyways, no one would believe it. Though I’d still steer away from something we call public pools.”
Poppy linked her fingers together tightly and nodded vigorously. “Yes, of course I will.”
“Here we go,” Rose said as she bustled back in, a vial of clear liquid clenched in one hand. She dropped it into Poppy’s hands on her way back to her seat a respectable distance from her husband, who only acknowledged her arrival with a flicker of his eyes. “Drink up and then we can take you to the portal.”
Abigail quickly reached over to help Poppy uncork the vial. The poor woman’s hands were shaking and James’s anxiety was going through the roof on the other side of her. If there was anything she could do to get them through the portal was quickly as possible, she would do it.
With a disgusted face the moment the first drop touched her tongue, Poppy downed the contents of the vial in a massive gulp before inhaling a deep breath and giving out a hoarse cough. On the other side of Abigail, James jumped to his feet.
“Calm down, Prince,” Harrison said, holding up a staying hand. “Your lady is fine. The potion is simply quite potent.”
“It’s disgusting,” Poppy rasped out.
Abigail let out a small laugh. “That’s the fae for you. They’ll make everything look beautiful, but taste awful if it serves no outward purpose.”
“Is it time?” James asked.
With a sigh, Harrison slapped his hands on his knees and stood. “I suppose so. No use waiting. We do need to get Lady Olidan back to the Glass Kingdom as well.”
Abigail stood in the portal room with James and Poppy, eyeing what looked like a floating mirror with misgivings. Her grandfather had never described the portal, but, somehow, this was not what she expected.
“On the other side,” Rose was saying, “we’ll get your clothing changed so you look like you belong. We can’t have you wandering out of the manor just yet; it’ll be a few days. Since you’ll be settling in the other world, we’ll teach you what you need to know.”
Abigail watched as James wrapped an arm around Poppy and pulled her close. The former mermaid looked a little drowsy and unsteady on her feet, but Rose had assured them the side effects wouldn’t last too long. James had clearly had his misgivings, but Rose had been so efficient and certain that Abigail was sure he really couldn’t not trust her.
“Are you ready?” Harrison asked as he stepped up to the portal.
Almost as though the portal were responding to his mere presence, the surface of it rippled into a motley array of colors. Abigail watched in fascination as they swirled together and then apart. Slowly, they resolved into a crisp, clear image of…a room that looked a lot like the one they were currently standing in.
James seemed to have the same concern. “Are you sure that takes us into the linked world and not back here?” he asked dubiously.
Harrison laughed. “Yes, of course it does. When the Manors were first established, my several times great-grandparents thought the travel between worlds would be less traumatic if travelers passed from one room into an identical one.”
“Traumatic?” James asked, horror in his voice. His arm tightened around Poppy, who squeaked softly at the sudden squeeze.
Quickly, Harrison raised his hands and shook his head. “Mentally speaking, Prince. You’ll feel a bit of a tug as you pass through, but it can be a little disorienting to leave behind what you know for something foreign.” He shrugged. “All these generations later and none of us have had the heart to change anything.”
“If there are no further concerns,” Rose said from where she stood behind James and Poppy, “I believe it’s time for you to step through. The ripple from the wish stone will likely be detected soon, if it hasn’t already, and your father’s men and women will be keeping sharp senses for a second ripple. You should be safely away before they track you here.”
James nodded and turned to Abigail. “Thank you, Gail.” He reached out a hand to her and, tentatively, she approached him. “We wouldn’t have this chance at happiness without you. You and your sister. Tell Adrian I’m sorry, and I’m sorry to you, too, for what this means for you. If this is goodbye, cousin, I love you and am deeply indebted to you.”
Abigail smiled softly. “I hope we will see each other again, James. Be safe, and take care of Poppy.”
On his other side, Poppy gave Abigail a smile. She looked a little sleepy and her eyes were slightly unfocused, but Abigail had the feeling the former mermaid was locking eyes with her. Well, attempting to, at least. In response, she smiled and nodded, gesturing for them to go while stepping back.
“Harrison will accompany you,” Rose said. “I’ll see Lady Olidan back to the Glass Kingdom.”
Abigail held her breath as Harrison reached out to touch the portal with one hand and held out his other to James. With his arm tightly around an unsteady Poppy, James took the man’s hand. Harrison turned and stepped through, pulling the couple along with him. There was no sound, no ripple, no sensation. The three of them were simply gone, but a second later, all three reappeared on the other side, Harrison smiling and offering a gallant bow before turning and guiding James and Poppy from the room, both of them now staggering a little.
“Well,” Rose said briskly, the hem of her long skirts brushing against the stone floor as she approached Abigail. “I have a solution to getting you back to the Glass Kingdom, but I’m afraid it’ll take about a day.”
Abigail trailed after Rose as they left the portal room. Unlike a normal room in a manor, this room was only accessed from the exterior. Abigail shivered as she stepped out into the cold winter air and hurried after a quickly moving Rose back into Roderick Manor.
“Excellent,” Rose said brightly as Abigail followed her into a parlor, furiously rubbing at her arms. “You’re right on time.”
Abigail blinked in confusion when Clarice, complete with violet streaks in her midnight blue hair, turned from the vase of flowers she had been running her hand over. A grin was stretched across her face and she tilted her head slightly to one side as a dimple flashed when she caught sight of Abigail.
Rose strode briskly into the room, meeting Clarice halfway while Abigail stood in the doorway, both unwilling to move and uncertain as to whether she should. Even though Clarice was a powerful fae, her strength was in fabrics. She wasn’t quite sure how the woman would get her back to the Glass Kingdom.
“Is everything settled?” Rose was asking.
“It is,” Clarice said linking her hands behind her back. “Lady Olidan will be accompanying us?”
“Part of the way, yes.”
“Yes. Will that be a problem?”
“Not at all.”
At Clarice’s words, Rose’s shoulders visibly relaxed. She reached out a hand and rested it on Clarice’s shoulder. Softly, but just loud enough that Abigail could make out her words, she said, “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
“I think I do, Rose,” Clarice said just as softly, sympathy on her face. “Are you prepared to leave? We should head out as soon as possible.”
Rose turned back to Abigail, who nodded vigorously at the unspoken question. Leaving Madeline in the same city as Adrian wasn’t sitting well with her, even if Camille was keeping a close eye on her. There was certainly to telling what her stepsister and stepmother were capable of.
“Clarice and I are headed for the Sun Kingdom,” Rose explained as Abigail followed the other women from the parlor and out of the Manor. “As we’ll be passing through the Glass Kingdom, we’ll be able to leave you at Olidan Manor tomorrow.” She turned to look over her shoulder with a smile. “The fae have the swiftest horses. It’ll be a bit breezy, but much faster.”
“But what about my mare, Pear?”
“Don’t worry,” Clarice said. “Rose explained. I’ve rigged a special cart for her to ride in. Come, Lady Olidan. I think you’ll have fun. Though you might want to pin your hair up.”
The prince took my sister into his confidence, if she would only help him. My sister was not one to deny him, ever curious as she is. The prince told her his mother, the widowed queen, insisted he marry a princess, keep their bloodline pure. My sister snorted at that, as unladylike as she could get, but listened intently when the prince described a young woman he had fallen for. She wasn’t a princess, nor was she even a noble’s daughter. A mere miller’s daughter, she was the one he wanted, so he’d had a tiny metal pea created to trick his mother and gain his chosen bride.
Supper was a quiet, formal affair now that the Count Olidan had returned home. Camille, though, was thankful for it. Abigail had told her just a few hours before that she was finally on her way back to the Glass Kingdom, but she wouldn’t be arriving until the following day. She had come up with answers to explain her sister’s absence, but refused to say a word unless directly questioned. It would be easier that way. She hoped.
The formal dining room at Olidan Manor hadn’t been opened since Lawrence and Muriel’s marriage feast. Camille knew the woman had been itching to get back into the opulent room, complete with tasteful golden decorations that had been gifts from the Great North and pastel curtains from the twelve chieftains of the Sun Kingdom, all wedding gifts from Lawrence’s marriage to Genevieve. As beautiful as the rest of the manor was, the formal dining room was meant for hosted affairs. But it had also, it seemed, become Lawrence’s favored room since his beloved wife’s death.
Her fingers toying with the sea glass around her neck, Camille had to hide a smile at that thought. Her father hadn’t requested supper here to appease Muriel or to make her feel more like a Countess, but to feel Genevieve’s spirit around him. The chandeliers had been gifts from the Glass Kingdom’s King and Queen, to illuminate a couple beloved by Their Majesties; the tablecloth of the Sun Kingdom’s finest material a gift from Genevieve’s dearest friend, to better join a most adored couple; and the tableware gifts from the Queen of the Great North, for the cherished couple to serve each other with love.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spied Muriel, shifting in her seat for the third time in the last five minutes. As the Countess, she sat at one end of the long table and Lawrence at the other. With the table being so long, Camille could see conversation must be difficult for her father and stepmother, and she had to take a bite of warm, buttered bread to hide her sneer. Lawrence, as always, wasn’t interested in his family, a fact Muriel didn’t seem to understand.
Unfortunately, Muriel was a persistent sort of woman.
“I adore this dining room,” Muriel said brightly. “It’s so lovely. And, my goodness, this tablecloth must have cost a fortune.”
“A wedding gift,” Lawrence muttered into his dinner, just loud enough to be heard.
Camille whipped her head around to look at Muriel with a curling smiling. “When Father married Mother. Mother’s dearest friend is one of the Sun Kingdom’s finest weavers, and she spent every day of their courtship and engagement creating it.”
Muriel stilled for just a fraction of a second, but long enough for Camille to see she understood what this room really was. She watched with great pleasure as Muriel’s face, briefly, faded to the same color as her ridiculously powdered hair.
“Well, how lovely,” Muriel finally pushed out. For long seconds, nothing else was heard but the clinking of silverware on porcelain plates. Until, “I wonder what has happened to Abigail.”
Camille forced her hands to keep moving. “Oh, I believe she might be at the castle,” she said casually. “She and Adrian are courting, you know. And this is such a trying time for him and the rest of the royal family.”
“Yes,” Lawrence said distractedly, unknowingly coming to his daughter’s rescue. “Yes, that is the best place for her. She must acquaint herself with court, after all. Certainly, there will be eager ladies and matrons hoping to teach her.”
Well, it wasn’t quite what Camille had in mind, but it did neatly deal with the problem of Adrian, or even Andalissa, showing up and claiming to not have seen Abigail. With their courtship unintentionally announced just earlier that day in a room packed full of courtiers, it was easy to believe someone had snagged Abigail as soon as she’d walked into the castle and whisked her away.
Across the table, Madeline went still for just a moment. Camille didn’t want to think what the cogs were churning out in her mind, but, from the flash of her eyes, she didn’t think it boded well for her sister. She pressed her lips together as she cut into her slice of roast. She had one night to make sure it was safe for Abigail to come home.
“Mother,” Madeline said softly, suddenly, as her fork lightly clinked against her plate. “I am feeling unwell. Would you help me to bed?”
Camille lifted her head just enough to see a look pass between mother and daughter. It was one that stiffened her spine and put her on edge. But Muriel’s shifty look quickly smoothed out into concern for her only child.
“Of course, my darling,” Muriel said smoothly, rising from her chair. “Lawrence, if you would…”
She didn’t even finish before her husband was absently waving her off. Camille caught sight of Muriel’s huff and indignation, but at least she had the good sense to merely press her lips together and sweep her daughter off.
Briefly, Camille mourned the loss of the roast and warm roasted potatoes and thickly buttered bread, but she had to know what Muriel and Madeline were up to. Just the thought of them plotting against Abigail was enough for her stomach to turn. It wouldn’t require much effort to pretend to be unwell herself.
“Father,” she said softly, speaking more to the top of Lawrence’s head than his face, “I’m feeling a little tired. I think I’ll retire.”
“Rest well, dear,” Lawrence said, just as absently as he’d waved off his wife.
Camille rested her fork on her plate with not a small degree of regret before rising to gently press a kiss to her father’s cheek. As expected, he didn’t look up, but she did see his fingers clench more tightly around his own fork. The slightest indication he was aware she was there. It was enough.
Swiftly, Camille made her way from the formal dining room. The halls were quiet, so she lifted her skirts and dashed off for the stairs. Her heart in her throat, she hurriedly made her way to Madeline’s rooms.
Just ahead of her, a door clicked closed. Her hammering heart only seemed to work harder as she slowed her steps to a quiet tread. Hardly daring to breathe, she silently approached Madeline’s door, hoping the two women hadn’t retreated into the bedchamber. She wouldn’t hear a word unless they remained in the sitting room.
“This is taking too long, Mother,” Madeline was hissing. “We know Abigail isn’t here. You said her rooms were empty. I should be at the castle! This is my one chance to win over Adrian.”
“Quiet down, dear,” Muriel said, her voice sounding tired.
Camille could hear a heavy sigh and assumed Muriel must have sat down heavily. She could still hear pacing footsteps that were quicker than Muriel’s slower, more stately steps. Quietly, she sank down to her knees and rested back on her heels, keeping her ear pressed to the door. She wasn’t quite sure what she would say or do if one of them caught her listening, but she figured she had enough hanging over Muriel. After all, Lawrence was home now.
“I can’t,” Madeline said in a loud whisper. “Now’s my chance.”
“We mustn’t make Lawrence suspect anything. You heard him. He fully supports Abigail’s marriage to Adrian. No, my dear, we must take care of Abigail.”
“We don’t even know where she is.”
“No, but she’s bound to turn up.”
“What if she really is at the castle?” Madeline asked, uncertainty creeping into her voice as the pacing abruptly stopped.
“Then it would be a good thing you’re still here at the Manor.”
“Muriel!” Madeline hissed, her voice sharp enough and her use of her mother’s name unexpected enough that Camille nearly toppled over.
Holding her breath, Camille pressed her ear as tightly to the door as possible. She dearly wished she could yank her heart from her chest and throw it far away. It was annoyingly difficult to hear above it’s constant thumps.
“Madeline,” Muriel said, just as sharply.
“What? Who’s going to hear?”
“You forget the craftier sister is still in residence,” Muriel said drily.
And that, Camille determined, was her cue to leave.
“Are you sure?” Abigail whispered through the glass later that night.
Camille furiously paced across her bedroom. Her nightgown swirled around her ankles as she turned, but she was hardly aware of anything outside of her sister’s voice.
“Completely sure, Gail,” Camille assured her. “What daughter calls her mother by her name?”
“I’m sure there are…unusual family practices,” Abigail said slowly, hesitantly.
“I don’t see any reason why they would want to hide it,” Camille said impatiently.
“No,” Abigail said with a sigh. “We are riding through the night. I should be home by mid-morning. Yes, Clarice assures me we’ll arrive just after breakfast.”
“You should go to Murant Manor,” Camille said abruptly. “Everyone expects you’re with Adrian right now. Give my lies some truth, will you?”
Abigail laughed softly. “You can stop your matchmaking, Camille. But, yes, I think I will.”
Camille folded her arms. “I’m trying to protect you, Abigail,” she said sharply. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, though, she winced. She hadn’t meant to sound so harsh to her sister.
Abigail’s sigh came through the glass clearly. “I understand,” she said in her perpetually patient tone. “But, Camille, you need to stop. If I marry Adrian, he’ll be looking out for me.” She laughed a little. “You know he will. Besides, it’ll also mean I’ll be Queen.”
Camille’s chest tightened at that. She hadn’t meant to practically toss her sister onto the throne. She’d thought Abigail and Adrian would retire to the countryside, raise a brood of children, and live in peace and happiness forever. Instead, she’s pushed her sister into something she had never wanted.
“I’m sorry,” she said tightly.
“Oh, don’t worry, Camille,” Abigail said, her tone light. “It’s not like you can stop worrying about me overnight. You’ve been like that my entire life. I understand.”
“No,” Camille said softly, her arms loosening until they hung loosely at her sides as her steps stilled before her windows. “I mean I’m sorry about thrusting you onto the throne.”
She didn’t hear her sister sigh, but she knew it’s what Abigail must be doing. “It’s not your fault. If anything, it’s James’s fault, but how could I talk him into marrying a woman he hates when I saw him and Poppy? Besides, it’s still possible Adrian and I will choose to not marry.”
“Or Madeline will sneak in and steal him,” Camille muttered.
“Unlikely. Adrian detests her. He thinks there’s something strange about her.”
Camille laughed. “Well, he can join Andalissa and me.” She quickly sobered. “But, Abigail, do be wary of her.”
“I will be,” Abigail assured her. “Now, I think I’d like to get a bit of rest. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“I have excuses for you,” Camille assured her before offering wishes for a restful night.
With the quiet settling around her and the moon reaching it’s zenith, Camille stared out her windows. They faced the front of the manor, watching over the front gardens as snow dusted the grounds. She hoped her sister was keeping warm, but, knowing Clarice, whatever conveyance they were using was likely snug and warm.
She swallowed hard, her mind reeling back to what she’d heard outside of Madeline’s rooms. She now had no idea who the women her father had let into their lives were. But they were unlikely to do anything disastrous under Lawrence’s nose. She hoped. Her father had become even more oblivious and withdrawn since his return.
My sister was quick to agree to the prince’s plan. Once a matchmaker, always a matchmaker. The prince took her to see the miller’s daughter, who was soft-spoken, but quite self-assured. My sister agreed to serve as her maid, and to dress her as a foreign princess. It was a daring plan as the only land she could pretend to come from was the Lands of Mist. But my sister, niece to a king, and, well, my sister, gleefully took up the challenge. She used everything our mother taught us and turned that girl into a princess, one more than worthy of the prince.
The sun was barely peeking over the horizon in a poor attempt to warm the freezing land, but, already, Adrian was at his cousin’s desk. His desk. Papers and books lay in disarray and a large ink stain had spread across an entire page. James, from the look of it, had been quite poor at the paperwork. Adrian could barely understand what his cousin’s duties were.
Not that it mattered much. The king was preparing for war, so the running of the kingdom had fallen to the new heir.
Growling as he tossed an empty notepad to the side, he flung himself back into James’s chair. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing, but Adrian had a feeling James hadn’t actually spent much time in his office. What had his cousin done to occupy his days? Besides fall in love with a handmaiden.
A tentative knock came at the door.
“Your Highness,” a soft, efficient voice said, calling Adrian’s attention to the young woman standing in the doorway.
Kyanan was the second daughter of a count who was established somewhere around the southern tip of the kingdom. She’d been sent to the king’s court to be an attendant to a lady, but James had seen her value as something of a personal assistant and had rescued the long-suffering bright mind from the doldrums of gossiping courtiers. At least, that was how James had always described her to Adrian. She tried to keep James organized and ensured he had everything he needed. But, apparently, she wasn’t allowed to touch his desk.
Adrian regarded the young woman for a moment, taking in her cocoa skin and tightly braided black hair. Her dark eyes stared back at him coolly, waiting. She wasn’t dressed like one of the ladies. There were no skirts and lace. Instead, she was just as efficiently dressed in slim slacks Clarice had made for her, modeled after the pants she’d seen in the linked world, and a sky blue tunic embroidered with dark blue flowers.
“Yes, Kyanan?” Adrian asked tiredly.
Kyanan frowned. “Your Highness, have you slept?”
“No time for that. James left this place a disaster. How am I supposed to figure anything out?”
“Don’t worry, Your Highness. I have everything you need. First is a meeting with the city leaders in two hours. The King is expecting you to assure them the war won’t interfere too much with the way they run the city.”
Adrian very much wanted to snort at that, but didn’t think Kyanan would approve. Instead, he asked, “Is there anything else on my schedule?”
“Plenty, Your Highness.” She hesitated. “But I came to notify you of a fae wish stone ripple.”
That got his full attention, and he sat up straight. “Where?”
She turned her head slightly. “In the forest, just outside the city.”
“Where’s the other side?”
Adrian fell back into his chair and pressed a hand to his face. Of course he did. Where else could James and the handmaiden go but to the linked world?
“Their Majesties are busy attending to war preparations,” Kyanan said. “Would you like me to send knights to The Spindle?”
Adrian waved a hand. “No. It’s no use. James is officially no longer a member of the royal family. Besides, by now he must have gone through the portal.” He sighed and muttered, “But if I ever get my hands on him…”
“I’ll prepare your schedule, Your Highness,” Kyanan said, ignoring his mutterings as he began to shuffle his way through James’s papers and books.
“Yes, thank you, Kyanan,” he said distractedly.
Once her footsteps had retreated down the hall, Adrian gave up and turned to stare out the windows. The sun was over the horizon now, and he suddenly felt the exhaustion hit him. He’d been awake all night, frantically trying to catch up, get to know the court James had been desperate to flee, figure out what the Crown Prince was responsible for. With the King and Queen busy, he’d been left on his own. His own parents had tried to help, but he’d sent them and Andalissa back to Murant Manor in the early hours of the morning. Kyanan had been a lifesaver, but he’d also sent her to bed around midnight.
Adrian jerked around, a scowl prepared on his face. Only his sister could make her voice sound like a smirk. But it dropped the moment he saw who was with Andalissa.
“You should be safe at home,” were the first words out of his mouth, and he immediately knew he deserved the scowls on both women’s faces.
“What makes you think I’ll be safe?” Abigail asked, tilting her head up slightly. “If you’ll remember, my stepsister is still intent on winning your heart.”
He blinked and frowned. “You don’t think she would do something to you, do you?”
Abigail shrugged and looked away, self-consciously tucking a stray strand of hair behind an ear. “I don’t know, but Camille seems to think so.”
His frown deepened. “Then you’ll stay here. Madeline makes me uncomfortable, anyways. It’ll be best for all of us if we see her as little as we can.”
“Well,” Andalissa said, a pleased smile on her face, “I’ll leave you two and go see Camille. A good day to you, Crown Prince.”
“A Crown Prince does not hurl objects,” Abigail said quickly just as he started to sweep his eyes around the room. “I know that look, Adrian.”
He sighed and went around the desk to take her hands. “Abigail, war is coming.”
“Yes, I gathered,” she said, her eyes briefly going to the windows. “I saw preparations this morning on my way to Murant Manor. The docks are closing, the warships are being fitted, soldiers have been flooding in. It’s hard to miss, Adrian.”
“You shouldn’t have been out in it.”
She nodded to the messy desk. “I don’t think I would see you if I hadn’t come. What has James done to his desk?”
“The same thing he’s done to my life: thrown it upside down,” Adrian muttered. “At least your father didn’t make me marry Merike.”
Abigail flinched. “What?”
Adrian shook his head. “What did your father tell you?”
“Oh, um, Camille told me you’re Crown Prince now because no one could find James,” she said with wide eyes.
He nodded and scratched at the side of his head. “That’s about it. We suspect James and Merike’s handmaiden ran away together.” He sighed and leaned back against the desk, folding his arms. “James’s assistant, Kyanan, just informed me they detected a fae wish stone ripple. By now, they could be as far away as the linked world.”
“Are you…”Abigail started before her voice wavered.
“Going after him?” Adrian asked, raising his head with a half smile on his lips. “It would certainly solve the problem of making you Queen. I know that’s not what you want.” He pressed his lips together, inwardly debating what to say, but this was Abigail. “I won’t court you if you don’t want to become Queen,” he finished softly.
He couldn’t look at her, couldn’t see all his dreams go up in flames. But he heard her sharp intake of breath and heard the rustle of her skirts. He jumped a little when he felt her soft hands on his arms.
“I…heard rumors about the mermaid princess,” she said softly. “I wouldn’t want to doom James to that kind of marriage.” She took a breath. “I’m glad you’re not going after him. You’re right; he’s probably as far away as the linked world by now. Adrian, I don’t want to be Queen, but I will be if that’s the only way I can be with you.”
He drew in a breath and clutched back at her, half afraid she would disappear. “Abigail, I won’t force you into it. I’m sure there’s another heir around here somewhere.”
She snorted and turned her head, a blush staining her cheeks. “You know as well as I do that Andalissa would be next in line. She’ll laugh and say no. Next would be Peri, who’s currently training to be a chef in the linked world. After that is-“
“I got it,” he said with a sigh.
She shrugged as best she could as his hands tightened around her. “I have a choice, Adrian,” she said softly. “Marry you and become Queen or lose the only one I’ve ever loved because I didn’t want to become Queen.”
“The choice is yours, Abigail,” he said softly. “It’ll always be yours. I no longer have one, so I need you to have one.”
“I know, Adrian,” she said, her voice sounding strong. “Everyone has been so intent on throwing me at you regardless of how I feel, but you’ve always given me the choice. I’ll be Queen. My father has always said I was the placid one and my mother always said I had a way of repairing relationships. I believe they would agree I’d make an acceptable one. Provided I’m not required to speak at every ball, reception, and dinner.”
“More than acceptable,” Adrian said earnestly.
She smiled at him, a soft, shy smile. The kind of smile he’d grown up working hard to elicit. That sweet smile that helped send him off into sweeter dreams because he was the one who had made her smile.
“Then, Adrian, let’s get this war finished so you have time to court me,” she said with as impish a smile as she had ever given.
He grinned. “We’ll do our best.” His smile faded and he turned serious. “But I expect you to stay here, to stay safe. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Don’t worry, Adrian. I’ll keep safe.”
He frowned. It wasn’t quite the promise to stay locked up as far away from the battle as possible, but a soft knock at the open door drew his attention.
“Your Highness,” Kyanan, ever efficient and courteous, said. “Lady Olidan, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”
Abigail turned in his arms, a soft smile on her lips. Surely she remembered when Kyanan had arrived at court. A young girl of twelve just a couple of years older than Abigail, the two had shared a special bond in that they were practically afraid of the court. They’d sought each other out at balls and receptions and dinners.
“Kyanan,” Abigail said, reproach in her voice. “It may have been a few years since we last had the pleasure to be in each other’s company, but I’m still Abigail.”
Kyanan tilted her head. “Not for long, I believe.”
Adrian cleared his throat as he noticed the subtle, self-conscious shift in Abigail’s stance. “Yes, Kyanan?”
That snapped the young woman back into her duty. “Your meeting, Your Highness, will begin shortly. If you don’t mind me being a little late, I can see Lady Olidan to the gates.”
“No need. She’ll be staying here. Please take her to guest chambers and see to it that she has everything she needs. I won’t expect you for the meeting.”
Kyanan bowed. “Of course, Your Highness. Lady Olidan?”
Abigail paused a moment to smile at him over her shoulder before she followed Kyanan out, gently reminding her old friend to call her Abigail.
He didn’t really want her to go, but the meeting with the city leaders wasn’t something she needed to attend. He could see how troubled she had been describing what she saw in the city. Hearing about the details wasn’t going to be any better.
With a sigh, he pushed himself away from the desk and out of the office. He wasn’t keen on going, either, but his uncle was depending on him.
My sister presented the miller’s daughter to the Queen, all done up in the finest fabrics and decorated with the most exotic ornamentations she could find. The miller’s daughter pleased the Queen, who invited the princess and her handmaiden to stay the night as the snow was falling thickly outside the dome and the dome itself was much too chilly for a delicate princess to be wandering. The princess graciously accepted and my sister swept her off, a metal pea in her pocket.
Camille sat in the parlor with her father. Well, her father was writing letters at his desk and Camille was reading a book. While Lawrence would have preferred sending his daughter out to find a suitable partner, he couldn’t fault the novel his daughter had chosen: a classic from the linked world his late wife had cherished. Though perhaps he wouldn’t be happy to know she was doing less reading and more keeping an ear out for Muriel and Madeline.
Neither woman had joined father and daughter at breakfast, and Lawrence hadn’t inquired after them. After spending some time silently pressing an ear to both Muriel’s and Madeline’s doors, she had decided situating herself as close as she could to the front doors of the manor would be the best way to keep an eye on them. After all, if Muriel was hurrying Madeline off to the castle to snag Adrian, they’d be leaving through the front, and not through the kitchens like Camille and Abigail were wont to do.
A fire crackled merrily and her father’s pen scratched along the paper, otherwise all was quiet. Camille’s fingers danced along the sides of the pages of her book, impatience running from her brow to her toes. Late morning was creeping up on them and, other than the servants and her father, she hadn’t seen anyone. Surely Abigail would have arrived back in the city by now, but she had told her sister to head for Murant Manor instead.
A sharp knock came at the door, and Camille leaped up, nearly throwing her book at Lawrence’s head. But Lawrence, ever lost in his own mind since returning from the sea, only continued to write. Outside the parlor’s door, she heard Geoffrey’s quick steps and the rush of cold winter air as the doors were pulled open.
Curious, Camille quietly set her book on the sofa behind her and made her way into the hall.
“Kyanan?” she asked, blinking in surprise at the tall young woman wrapped in a thick winter coat.
The woman pushed off the hood and grinned, the cold flushing her dark cheeks.
“It’s been too long, Camille,” Kyanan said as she approached Camille, pulling off her gloves and flexing her fingers. “Castle-issued gloves are toasty, but awfully stiff.”
Camille laughed and pulled her old friend into a hug. “What brings you here?” She glanced behind her to where her father was still scratching away. “Why don’t we go the kitchens and see if Helene has something warm and flaky?”
A soft, nostalgic smile spread across Kyanan’s face, but regret quickly forced it off and she shook her head. “Unfortunately, even though James has taken off, I still have a job to do.”
Camille made a face. “You’ve become Adrian’s advisor. Hasn’t talked your ears off yet, I see.”
Kyanan laughed softly. “More of an assistant, Camille. If word got out around the court that a woman was advising the heir, well.”
Camille couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “Court needs an overhaul. From what I understand, it’s one of the reasons why James ran away.”
“Well, I don’t blame him. Though it has put Abigail in a difficult place, hasn’t it?”
Camille perked up. “Have you seen her? Abigail?”
“I just left her in guest quarters at the castle. Adrian has insisted she remain in the castle. Something about keeping her away from your stepmother and stepsister?”
“It’s a long story,” Camille said with a grimace. “But, yes, I agree with Adrian. I suppose he does sometimes have a good idea rattling around in his head.”
A soft frown creased the corners of Kyanan’s lips as she pulled her gloves back on. “He’s doing remarkably well. I think, as he settles into his new position, he’ll surprise us all.”
Camille sighed. “For my sister’s sake, I hope so.”
“I’d love to stay, Camille, but Adrian will be needing me soon and I promised to help get Abigail settled. But do come by the castle when you can.”
Camille’s eyes briefly strayed up the stairs. All was quiet there, but it did little to reassure her. “Let my sister know I’ll see her soon, but I’m, ah, handling a couple of things.”
Kyanan raised a brow, but didn’t ask any questions, saying only, “I will.”
Geoffrey was quick to leap for the doors to open them for Kyanan, who left with a small nod and a wave to Camille. She shivered a little as the cold briefly swirled in, but Geoffrey spryly leapt to clear the snowflakes that had strayed in. She smiled a little to see him happy again and turned to return to the parlor.
But something tall and warm met her nose instead and she yelped, just barely managing to not collide with her father.
“Adrian has kept Kyanan on, I see.”
Camille scowled. “A count’s daughter she may be, but she’s still quite capable.”
“Oh, I have no qualms about that,” Lawrence said breezily, his eyes on the doors. “I was afraid the court would eat her up and spit her out before Adrian had a chance to get himself situated.” He nodded absently to himself. “I’m glad to see he’s settled in quickly. The Glass Kingdom needs him.” He turned to look at her. “Abigail is at the castle.”
“Yes, Father,” Camille confirmed. “Kyanan just came by to notify us.”
Lawrence nodded, his eyes straying back to the doors. “I must go to the castle this afternoon. You’ll accompany me.”
“Yes, Father.” She hesitated. “And Stepmother and Madeline?”
“Hmm? Oh. No. Madeline was a disappointment at the engagement ball, huddling around pillars instead of mingling. No, Muriel and Madeline will be with an etiquette instructor all day.” He blinked and looked down to pull a small time piece from a pocket. “She should be arriving soon. Please be ready to leave after the midday meal.”
“Yes, Father,” Camille said as Lawrence abruptly turned away to head back into the parlor, not bothering to hide her smirk.
“Was that Mistress Lacey?” a cool voice asked, stopping her in her tracks.
Ice and fire raced along Camille’s veins as she recognized Madeline’s voice. She sorely wanted to continue into the parlor after her father, to ignore the infuriating voice of the woman she was forced to call her stepsister. But Madeline’s voice had rung out as clear as a bell, echoing softly in the nearly empty hall.
She allowed herself a moment’s debate of whether to turn around or not. In the end, she dearly wanted to see the look on Madeline’s face when she announced Abigail was a guest as the castle.
Forcing a smile onto her face, Camille turned and cocked her head to the side.
“Mistress Lacey?” she asked, forcing innocence into her voice.
Madeline, standing near the top of the stairs, scowled and brushed at her sapphire blue skirts. She sniffed and said primly, “Yes. Lawrence hired her to prepare Mother and me for our formal introduction to court. After all, the new Crown Prince requires a bride and,” Madeline said before pausing and smiling with her hands neatly folded before her, “as the daughter of a Count, I do believe I am eligible.”
Camille wanted to gnash her teeth, to lash out and say she would never be worthy of Adrian, much less the Queen’s crown. Her fingers shook slightly, but her upbringing by her mother, ever the proper lady, kept her from grasping her skirts in anger. It wouldn’t do her or Abigail any good if she became angry or launched herself up the stairs at the maddening woman.
“No,” she forced herself to say, “it wasn’t Mistress Lacey.” She forced her voice into an entirely too casual tone. “Lady Kyanan came by to inform us Abigail is currently a guest at the castle, at Adrian’s request.”
Camille took a moment to savor the gamut of emotions that flickered across Madeline’s face: confusion, anger, fear. It was a curious mix, but, as long as Abigail was far away from this woman, she wasn’t going to dwell on it too much. After all, she had the mystery of why Madeline was calling her mother by her name on her hands.
With a cool smile, Camille turned and returned to the parlor, listening as Madeline’s footsteps thundered back up the stairs.
She waited a moment, paused in the entrance to the parlor, watching her Father, who had returned to writing. Then she silently whirled, her skirts swirling around with her, and quietly raced across the hall and up the stairs.
She walked, trying to make her footfalls as soft as possible, and wincing as her feet crunched against the soft carpets, but Madeline’s footsteps were thundering enough that she hoped it overtook the sound of her own. As soon as she heard a door slam, though, she picked up her skirts in a very unladylike fashion and dashed for Madeline’s door.
Her heart beat rapidly as she knelt down and pressed an ear to the door. She hardly dared to draw breath, not that it would have mattered much; Madeline’s voice was easily heard through the door.
“Are you that afraid of Mistress Lacey?” she heard Muriel ask at the tail end of Madeline’s wordless screech. She could hear amusement in the woman’s voice, as though she were sipping from a cup of tea and was bemused by her daughter’s tantrum.
“Do you know where Abigail is?” Madeline thundered.
“Certainly not in her rooms,” Muriel said serenely. “You asked me to check while you went downstairs. She didn’t answer and her bed hasn’t been slept in.”
Camille couldn’t help the outrage bubbling in her chest. How dare the woman enter Abigail’s rooms! She balled her hands into fists on her thighs as they trembled and threatened to reach for the doorknob and throw Madeline’s door open. Her teeth ground together, but she forced herself to calm. If she couldn’t figure out what these women had up their sleeves, she feared her sister could be in danger.
“The castle!” Madeline practically shrieked. “Some woman just came by and said Abigail is a guest at the castle.”
“Then, my dear,” Muriel said calmly, “we must find a way to get you in, too.”
That seemed to give Madeline pause. At least, it was silent for several seconds. Camille waited, barely drawing a breath, hoping the bell wouldn’t be rung to announce Mistress Lacey.
“I don’t see how,” Madeline finally said, her voice softer now, calmer.
“Leave the details to me, Madeline. I have a great deal of material to work with. You really should experience movies and television one day. So inspiring!”
Movies? Television? Camille frowned, pressing her ear harder against the door, certain she had misunderstood. She’d never heard either word before, so, surely, Muriel had to be talking about something magical.
She bit her lip, worried. Magic meant the fae. The fae were mercurial. Clarice was the most steadfast of them, but most changed from fun and lighthearted to raging thunderheads within moments if someone said or did the wrong thing. As beautiful as The Spindle sounded, even she wasn’t quite ready to brave a city full of fae. But would the fae help Muriel and Madeline? She wouldn’t be surprised. Some lived to shake up the rest of the world.
“Muriel,” Madeline started.
“Mother,” Muriel snapped, her voice little more than a hiss. “Do not forget yourself. Just because Abigail is not here does not mean we can slip. That wretched sister of hers is still around.”
Camille shoved the growl trying to pry free of her throat back down. She wasn’t going to find out anything more, except maybe how quickly and quietly she could flee before the soft crunch of slippers on carpet in Madeline’s room approached the door.
When Camille and her father arrived at the castle, on foot through a side entrance most thought unused to avoid the flurry of court Lawrence so despised, Camille left her father and went in search of her sister. Lawrence had barely inclined his head at her words as he stripped off his heavy gloves and shook the snow from his hood. While he fussed and servants rushed over to help make him presentable to the King and Queen, Camille hurriedly waved off the girl trying to take her cloak off her shoulders and rushed over to the guest wing.
“Abigail?” she called out into the startling empty hallway.
Closed doors lined one side while landscape paintings were on the other, interspersed with tall vases full of winter ferns and blooms. It was lit by fae lights, but they were dimmer than she expected them to be, as though the maroon carpeted hallway was uninhabited. But she knew this was the guest wing, had stayed here a few times as a child.
“Abigail?” she called again, both aloud and directed to the glass around her neck, as she started walking, relief flooding her chest as the lights brightened as she passed by. But there was no answer from her sister.
Behind one door, just a couple down from the hallway entrance, she heard some muffled voices. There were at least two and both were female. One also sounded a bit like her sister’s when she was strained.
Brows raised, she knocked softly, wondering who might have cornered her sister. It certainly wasn’t Madeline, which offered no end of relief. That woman was safely locked up with her mother and Mistress Lacey; there was no way she could have snuck out and gotten to the castle before her.
“Come,” she heard her sister’s voice call out.
Amusement lightening her features, Camille turned the knob and pushed the door open, only to come to a complete stop with her jaw dropped.
“Do not laugh,” Abigail warned, staring Camille down through the mirror she stood before.
Camille forced herself to press her lips together as she pushed the door closed behind her and entered her sister’s new sitting room. Or perhaps it was her new closet.
Dresses, skirts, blouses, and numerous ribbons and accessories filled every surface. It was a riot of color, none of which had actually been seen on Abigail since she was a child. All kinds of materials, some she’d never even seen before, lay strewn all about the room, as though some were still waiting to be tried on by Abigail and others had been cast off as not quite right.
Abigail herself was swathed in a lime green gown with tiers of lace running down the skirt. Around her shoulders was a lacy shawl fastened with a gaudy brooch of sapphires and emeralds, all of it neatly hiding the glass hanging around her neck. Her hair had been done up in curls and braids with ribbons threaded every which way. Three women, all noble by the looks of their gowns and complicated coifs, were clucking around her. All three were young, but still a few years older than Abigail and all three wore silver marriage bands.
“I’m certain an amusing story must be around here somewhere,” Camille said, fighting hard not to smile.
“They’re trying to help,” Abigail said faintly, though there was a considerable amount of strain around her eyes. “Ladies, I’d like to introduce you to my sister, Lady Camille of Olidan.”
The three women turned and dipped small curtsies. Camille didn’t take much note of them beyond likening them to clucking hens, but did respond in kind. At least they were quiet now and no longer arguing over which gown to try on Abigail as though she were a doll for their pleasure.
“Camille,” Abigail continued, clearly forcing cheer into her voice, “I’d like to introduce you to the court’s newest ladies, Countesses Elleris, Sanery, and Glifford. They have been, ah, helping me acclimate to court since Lady Kyanan showed me to my quarters. They’re surprisingly quick about it all.”
Camille looked over the three smiling women, at their vibrant gowns and ribbons and pins in their hair. They looked ridiculous, but she wasn’t about to say that in front of her sister. Soon enough Abigail would be their Queen and wouldn’t have to put up with this nonsense.
“I daresay,” Camille said calmly, folding her hands in front of her and drawing a wince from her sister, who knew what was coming, “Lady Abigail is more familiar with court than you are. Our father, the Count Olidan, is a favored cousin of the King and she is childhood friends with both the former and current Crown Princes. If you would, I’ll have a word with my sister.”
After a few quiet murmurs from Abigail, the three women left in a flurry of material, taking nearly all the gowns with them out the door. Except the one Abigail was left wearing, along with a stricken look on her face.
“Help me?” Abigail asked pleadingly.
Camille laughed and hurried over to unlace the gown and start to pull the ribbons from her hair. Her sister sighed as the laces loosened and the shawl fell from her shoulders. Once Camille had pulled the sleeves down her arms, she went to work undoing the braids and shaking out her hair.
“What monstrosity is this?” Camille said as she gathered the dress from her sister’s feet.
“I have no idea,” Abigail said as she pulled on the soft, simple gown she’d likely been wearing that morning. “They told me lace and ribbons were all the rage and they were going to help make me presentable.”
“Abigail,” Camille gently admonished, ” you should have said something.”
Her sister only shrugged as she scurried around the room to gather the loose ribbons and accessories. “They were only trying to help.”
“You practically grew up in court!”
“Yes, but it’s been a number of years since we were really back in court, and Adrian is being kept quite busy.”
“You’re going to be Queen one day,” Camille said, her voice laced with exasperation.
Abigail paused long enough to glare at her sister. “Then let the ladies have their fun before I choose to change things.” She returned to gathering some long lengths of fabric whose utilization completely baffled Camille. “Besides, you never know when something might end up being interesting or nice to wear.”
Camille waved a hand. “None of this looks pleasant.”
“No, but perhaps a single braid would be nice.”
Camille opened her mouth to respond, her head already shaking, but she heard the clatter of jewelry pieces tumble from her sister’s hands on the edge of a gasp. Her head snapped to her sister, only to find Abigail rushing to the windows to see skies that had darkened considerably within just a few moments.
As Abigail pressed her hands to the glass, Camille rushed over, practically tripping over a stray dress that hadn’t been collected.
“What is it?” she asked in a whisper.
Abigail was still beside her, her mouth parted in a silent gasp as they watched a wave descend over the castle and city.
“The mermaid princess,” Abigail whispered, fear heavy in her voice.
“Merike?” Camille asked, baffled. “What does she have to do with anything?”
“Didn’t Father tell you?”
“Father hasn’t told me anything,” Camille scoffed. “You know what he’s like.”
“The mermaid princess is a sea witch,” Abigail said in a whisper almost so soft she barely heard it. “Kyanan told me. She’s intent on taking over the land.”
“A sea witch? Are you sure?”
“As sure as the courtiers who were in the room with both royal families,” Abigail answered, but Camille barely heard her as the sound of the crashing wave nearly drowned out all other noise.
As it was, they hadn’t even heard the door banging open, hadn’t realized anyone had joined them, until both women found themselves on the floor, Abigail on top of Camille with Adrian lying spread out and prone above her.
There was the sound of cracking glass before it rained over them and water rushed in. Camille clenched her jaw and Abigail screamed at the sudden cold; she wasn’t wearing a winter cloak as Camille still was, and her gown was soaked through.
“Come on!” Adrian yelled, scrambling to his feet and grabbing Abigail by the arm. “Hurry!”
Camille scrambled after Adrian and Abigail, her feet sloshing in the winter waters, her toes slowly freezing. Once they had fled Abigail’s rooms, Adrian slammed the shut behind, though it didn’t stop the water rushing into the hallway, where it was soaked into the thankfully thick carpets.
The hallways weren’t just flooded with water, but people as well. Courtiers were running and screaming, lifting skirts above the water swirling around their ankles. But Adrian expertly dodged them. Camille had no idea where he was headed, but Abigail wasn’t protesting, so she trusted her sister and the man dragging her behind him.
They headed far from the windows and the panic of the nobles. The higher up and more towards the center they went, the fewer people and the less water. Camille’s skirts and her cloak were soggy as they dragged behind her, and she was glad Adrian had ceased his headlong run towards the center of the castle, slowing to a purposeful march as the carpets squelched beneath his boots. No one else seemed to have as much sense.
Adrian didn’t stop and Abigail didn’t say anything, as they headed down a dim hallway almost devoid of doors. At the end, before windows opened up to offer a view of the throne room, Adrian stopped and hammered on the door.
A moment later, it was pulled open and Kyanan peered out.
“The sea witch,” was all Adrian said.
Kyanan drew in a deep breath and stepped from the room, slamming the door behind her. She barely glanced at them as she swept past, saying, “I’ll take care of it.”