Sisters of String and Glass

Sisters of String and Glass is currently a work in progress. It is mostly inspired by the fairy tale of Cinderella. It is set in the same general world as Queen of the Garden of Girls with some of the same characters, but it set a number of years earlier

Chapter One

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.”

“Camille.”

“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.

Chapter Two

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.