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.