For those of you who haven't read the first part, here's a link to it.
And here are the next few chapters!
“Don’t let Maman see you like that, Eloise,” my younger sister, Ilyse, said as I entered the house. My dark red curls were windblown, strewn across my face. I pushed them back and gave a one-shouldered shrug.
Elle was sewing in the far corner, her head bowed over her work. I hoped she was not ill; she had not spoken much since her status had fallen from noble to servant.
Ilyse fiddled with a piece of paper in her lap, worrying her lower lip with her teeth. Per usual, she had allowed Maman to fuss over her until she looked like a princess, her amber locks perfectly curled, her eyes rimmed with just the right amount of kohl.
“What is it?” I asked, beckoning to the paper in her hands.
“An invitation,” she said, folding the page and thinning it with her fingers. “For all eligible girls to attend a ball where the prince will choose the next queen.” She simpered, shooting a triumphant look at Elle, who flinched.
I grimaced. Ilyse and Elle were the same age—seventeen, creating an air of rivalry between them. Ilyse sensed Elle was her biggest competition in the house; I was too old and too dowdy to attract any men Ilyse would set her sights on, but Elle’s sweetness and innocent, girlish figure had already captured the attentions of a few passing nobles.
Perhaps this was another reason Maman had forced Elle into servitude—to give spoiled Ilyse a better chance at snagging an admirer and making a match.
It all tasted so sour in my mouth I wanted to spit it out. “Well I guess that excludes you,” I said, tugging off my gloves. “The king wants only well-bred young women.”
Ilyse tossed her shoe at my head. I ducked, and it went sailing over me to smack the opposite wall. “Better not let Maman see you like this,” I said mockingly, running from the room as Ilyse sent her other slipper hurtling toward my face.
Prayers of the Pitiful
Most nights I did not blow out my candle until the clock in the palace tower struck twelve. This night was no exception, but instead of reading the works of Perrault in my bed, I prayed. I prayed to le Seigneur to allow Michael and I to wed somehow—how could it not be His will that I marry such a good man? I begged him, asking him to forgive me for being so wild and brash at times—I would change so much if I could only have Michael for my husband rather than a brutish court pig.
I was almost weeping when a knock came at the door. Raising my head, I croaked, “Who is it?”
The door creaked open to reveal Elle, her tiny face pale. I sat up and patted the bed in front of me. “Come in,” I said.
“Are you all right?” she whispered, slipping inside on silent feet, her ragged night dress billowing around her legs.
I hesitated, then shook my head. “But I will be fine,” I said. “What about you?”
She raised her hands to run her fingers through her loose gold curls. “Do—do you think your mother will allow me to go to the ball, too?” she asked. Her gaze strayed to my window, from which one could see the palace rising against the night in the distance. It glowed with an ethereal gleam, as though ghosts were trapped within its walls. A cool breeze slipped into the room, raising goose bumps along my skin.
“I think she should,” I said, rubbing my hands across my arms. “But all you can do is ask her.”
She sighed. “I wish Father was still alive,” she said, then jammed her fist in her mouth. Her eyes squeezed shut against tears.
“Shhh,” I whispered, stroking her arm. “It’s all right, mon chéri.”
A sob broke out of her, and she fell into my open embrace. Poor little thing. She’d had no siblings until Ilyse and I entered her life, no big sister to coddle and cheer her despondent spirits. She nestled into me like a baby bird in desperate search of warmth.
She fell asleep in my bed, tucked in beside me as though we were full-blooded sisters. In truth, I felt closer to this ragged, ash-streaked thing than I did to my own sister. Strange how the world works in such mysteries.
When I woke the next day, well toward noon, Elle was gone, leaving nothing to remark of her existence in my room but a tiny spattering of ashes.
Petrov Skimov the Second
The next day at breakfast, Maman brought up the subject of the ball. I chewed the tasteless toast and eggs that Elle served and listened as Maman listed what Ilyse and I would need. Ilyse gave Maman her full attention, her entire being enraptured with the notion of frilled dresses and scented wigs.
I shuddered. Elle scooped an extra portion of eggs onto my plate. I shot her a grateful smile, ignoring Maman’s frown. It was her opinion that my waist was too thick for courtly beauty. But courtly beauties stuffed their faces with powders and kohl, smearing colour on their lips and fake hair on their heads. It was something I could not understand. In fact, I was toying with the idea of writing a novel like Petrov Skimov—I would write a satire about the ridiculous tomfoolery that passed as elegance in the royal court of Freanc.
The nobility would go insane over my novel, without understanding it poked fun at their very selves. I hid a snicker by coughing into my napkin.
“Stepmother,” Elle said softly.
I nearly choked.
Maman looked up from the list she had been reading aloud. “What is it?”
Elle took a deep breath. Her chin trembled, but she swallowed and said bravely, “Might I go the ball as well?”
Silence settled around the table. I waited, praying fervently to le Seigneur and any saints willing to intercede that Maman would say yes.
Maman dabbed her lips with a napkin. “Of course,” she said. I caught the curve of a smile from behind the linen; my heart sank. “If,” she continued, “you can find your own dress and carriage.”
Elle nodded. “Might—might I be paid ahead this month?” she asked.
Maman arched a brow. “Why?” she asked, then paused. “Oh, how silly of me. I didn’t tell you. Upon our marriage, your father borrowed money from me—quite a large sum, in order to start a business. It failed, of course, and his only assets left were his house, which I am not willing to sell. So you’re working off your father’s debt—and since that is the case, why would I pay you? I owe you nothing. You owe me everything.”
Elle staggered, clutching the edge of the table. I rose from my seat, speechless. My stepsister’s eyelashes fluttered as her eyes rolled back into her head. Racing forward, I caught her as her knees buckled. She was terribly light, and I hoisted her into my arms and carried her out without a word or look in Maman and Ilyse’s direction.
I strode through the kitchen, out the back door, across the yard—all the way to the coach house where Michael and the other coachmen dwelled. Madame Gastave, wife of one of the coachmen, opened the door. “Mademoiselle—” She gasped at the sight of Elle. “Ah non! La fille!” Tenderly she took Elle from me and led the way through a kitchen and communal living room into a dimly-lit hall. She laid Elle on the bed of the first chamber we came to. “This is our guest room,” she said with a warm smile, stroking Elle’s forehead and pulling a light sheet up to her chin. “We’ll take care of her here.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t quite ready to leave.
Madame regarded me with pity. “Michael has gone to tell your mother of his resignation within two weeks’ time,” she said, her voice quiet. “He has found another family willing to hire him.”
This time it was my knees that shook and threatened to collapse, but I kept myself steady and upright. Madame clucked, chucking me under the chin. “All will be well yet, Mademoiselle,” she said. “Just you wait and see.”
Choking back tears, I embraced her and fled the coach house. I ran blindly back to the mansion, only to smack into a comforting bulk I knew all too well. Without thinking I wrapped my arms around Michael’s waist and sobbed into his chest.
“Eloi—Mademoiselle—” He sighed in defeat and patted the back of my head, keeping his touch light and professional—as though all distraught daughters of nobility burdened their coachmen with their sorrows. Disentangling himself, he took hold of my shoulders and gazed into my eyes. “You must be strong,” he whispered. “Do not let your mother win by allowing her to see you weep.”
I sucked in deep breaths, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. “Do you believe in miracles, Michael?”
“Of course,” he said, sounding surprised that I should even ask.
“Then start praying for one,” I said. “For all of us.”