The next day I went looking for my “friends.” They’d disappeared ever since I started flirting with poverty. I found them, finally, near the King’s Woods, having a luncheon under a pavilion.
“She said that whoever wants to marry her son is going to have to pass some sort of test. Like sorting grains or something,” Delia said as I approached. “I said—Evelyn!”
“Evelyn Radcliffe. What a surprise,” Cora said, hiding her shock much better than Delia had.
“Evelyn! It’s so good to see you!” Maribelle gushed.
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I had a few spare minutes today and thought I’d say hello.”
“We’re so glad you did! Here, we don’t have an extra chair, but I’ve got a foot stool.” Maribelle paused her knitting and handed me a little foot rest that put me only a few inches off the ground, with my knees nearly pulled into my chest.
While Maribelle was welcoming me, Delia had put all her focus into consuming a poached fig so she didn’t have to look at me, and Cora gave me a pinched smile that didn’t extend all the way to her eyes. They were probably wishing they’d officially uninvited me.
“It’s really so awful what’s happened to you,” Cora said. Delia nodded her agreement, mouth stuffed with fig.
“I felt so bad when I heard!” Maribelle said, and she possibly actually meant it. “Here, Delia, pour Evelyn a cup of tea.”
Once I’d accepted a cup of tea, Delia brought up two noblewomen who’d shown up at a ball in the same dress, and the gossip hour continued as if I wasn’t there—although that’s not exactly accurate. They seemed to me to struggle for topics, so I suspect that when I wasn’t there, they were gossiping about me.
“How are you feeling about it all?” Maribelle finally asked me.
“I just don’t know how you do it. I don’t know what I’d do without William.” Delia started sniffling.
“Evelyn and Henry just seemed like a match made in heaven!” Maribelle said, knitting needles clacking.
“We heard you had to let go of your servants,” Cora said. “Looking after your own house, caring for your own children—you must cry yourself to sleep every night.”
“No,” I said shortly. Cora gave me a smug smile. I pursed my lips. I needed information out of them, so I had to throw them a bone.
“I just make Ella do all the housework anyway. It’s all she’s really good at.”
“Congratulations, Evelyn! We knew you’d turn wicked eventually,” Cora said.
“Just like in the stories,” Delia trilled.
“Well, wicked or no, I’ve somehow got to get the two of them married or I’ll be stuck with them forever.”
“That might be difficult, given your…current station.” Cora said.
“Not for Fanchon,” Delia said. “Not with her inheritance.”
“I don’t even know who’s eligible these days.”
“Ooh…there’s the Kindler boy,” Maribelle said.
“Isn’t there a Kingsley?” Delia asked.
“I thought he was married,” Maribelle said.
“No, there’s another one,” Cora said. “But he’s dreadfully pocked.”
“I suppose Cora’s son is too young,” Delia said.
Cora grinned at me and winked condescendingly. I gave her a withering sidelong glare.
“There’s a Windham, a Rogers, and a Meekley,” Cora said. The others nodded in agreement.
“Good luck finding anyone for Ella,” Delia said.
“Men never want to marry orphans, do they?” Maribelle said. “Unless they’re a prince. In the stories, princes marry orphans all the time.”
“The girls both seem to think they’re living in one of these tales,” I said. And I need to make one happen, I thought. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with them.”
The knitting needles stopped. “Not familiar with them!” Maribelle cried.
“I don’t like stories.”
“But you have to have heard them!”
“I wasn’t paying attention.”
“There are all kinds of stories about pretty young girls with an evil stepmother and a wicked stepsister,” Maribelle said.
“And the father always dies and the girl is treated like a servant,” Cora said.
“And then she meets a prince!” Delia said. There, I thought. Reason #23 for why I can’t stand these stories: contrived and impossible chance meetings.
“How on earth does a common girl meet a prince?”
“He usually throws a party,” Delia said.
“Except the girl is always forbidden from going, so her fairy godmother gives her a beautiful ball gown, and a carriage, and glass slippers.” Maribelle trailed off with a sigh.
That was familiar, but even Ella hadn’t made it sound so ridiculous. “Glass slippers?” I snorted.
“She loses one of them when she leaves,” Cora said.
“The prince is so in love, he goes all over the kingdom and tries it on every girl, but it only fits the princess,” Delia said. Reason #5: Irrational methods of identification.
“Hm,” I said out loud. That is a stupid story, I said in my head.
“It’s so sweet,” Maribelle said.
“What happens to the stepsister?”
“I think she usually cuts off her toes. To make the slipper fit,” Delia said.
That sounded like Fan.
“I think I heard one version where the stepmother and stepsister had their eyes pecked out by birds,” Cora said. I tried hard not to roll my eyes.
“No, it doesn’t have to be so gruesome,” Maribelle said. “I mean, the princess is always so nice! I think she just forgives them and they all live in the palace happily ever after.”
“Well, the girls are convinced they’re going to marry a prince. I may be evil, but I still don’t have the heart to tell them we don’t have any.”
“Yes we do! Prince Aiden!” Delia said.
“Yes, and he’s what, fifteen?” I said.
“Well, someone’s been out of the loop,” Cora said.
“He’s twenty-one!” Maribelle giggled.
“I hear he’s a perfect gentleman,” Delia said.
“And he’s incredibly good-looking,” Maribelle whispered.
“Why do you think we’re out here?” Cora said.
I looked around, uncomprehending.
“He comes here to hunt,” Maribelle said. “All our husbands go out with him. He doesn’t have a retinue, but if we sit right here, we can catch a glimpse of him.”
“He’s in Strachey all the time now,” Delia said.
“Rumor has it, the King’s mind is all mush, and the Queen does most of the ruling. Everyone suspects Aiden’s trying to shore up support for his own rule,” added Cora.
“We support him!” Maribelle said dreamily. “My husband organizes all his hunting trips. That’s how we know where to come.”
I was struggling to think of a response that wasn’t dripping with disdain when we heard a small commotion in the trees.
“Here he comes!” Delia exclaimed.
Sure enough, a little ways in, the prince and company came into view. He seemed so young, especially next to the other gentlemen. Sure, he had a royal bearing and a kingly smile, but he was still thin and gangly, with a mop of brown hair.
We all watched for a little while. The other men preened and postured. The prince laughed good-naturedly at their jokes but never really joined in. He wasn’t impolite, just more interested in a twisted knot on a tree. After a few minutes, the prince went off by himself, and my friends turned their attention back to the luncheon with wistful sighs. Even I stared after him. He seemed so…sweet. I started to think.
“So he’s here to make connections?” I said.
“Also I think he really likes our trees,” Maribelle said. I raised an eyebrow.
“He’s probably got to make sure we’re all coming to his party!” Delia said. “It’s in a few weeks. I think he’s looking for a wife! Didn’t you get invitations?”
I opened my mouth to say something nasty, but I thought better. “No,” I simply said. Of course I didn’t get invitations! I hadn’t been to a function since Henry died. My ever-popular friends had ignored me for a month. I had holes in my roof the size of my head.
“I hear it’s very exclusive. You have to be extremely well-connected to get in,” Cora said.
I sat down my teacup. It was time to leave before I killed one of them.
“Well. I should check on my daughters. Find something wicked to do to Ella.”
They said goodbye and pretended it was nice to see me. I hurried out of earshot before I could hear what they said about me.
I wasn’t ready to go home yet, so I walked for a while. I found myself at the lake. I bit my lip as I sat in the grass; I slipped my shoes off and dug my toes into the dirt.
Fanchon turns eighteen in two months, I thought. She’ll inherit her father’s fortune, and Ella and I…We’d be homeless. No reason to sugarcoat it. Even if Fanchon didn’t kick us out, the house would be uninhabitable before long. We’d really, truly have nothing, and I knew what would happen to Ella on the streets. I’d have absolutely no way to protect her. And of course, Fanchon would join us in a few years after her father’s business sharks took everything away from her. I chucked a stone into the lake.
What could I do with them? They wanted marriage, so shouldn’t I give it to them? It had to be better than destitution. They’d be happy, I guess.
Happy like whom? Happy like Cora, who’d spend entire luncheons castigating her husband for flirting with barmaids and drinking too much? Happy like Delia, who might go a whole year putting up a pretense of wealth because her husband hadn’t yet recouped his losses at the gambling table? Happy like Maribelle, who called herself stupid whenever anyone disagreed with her and only really got her husband’s attention when she burst into tears? She’d looked just like Ella, adding row after row to that massive blanket. No wonder everyone wanted to marry a prince.
Maybe I thought the stories were stupid because they never happened. Because it was just too much to ask to be loved, respected, and financially solvent. Which one were you willing to give up? Which one was I willing to let the girls give up?
And even if you did find manage to hit all three—love, respect, and a steady income—there was no guarantee he’d stay alive. I looked out at the geese waddling in the grass. Then I looked at the lake, I looked up at the clouds, and I felt a giant sob catch in my throat, so I buried my face in my arms.
I took a ragged breath. The prince. Why waste time with minor nobility? The more I thought about him, the more I felt certain he’d fall hopelessly in love with Ella. All she had to do was show up. Of course, even that would take some initiative on her part. I remembered Lord Whitcomb’s party. Life wasn’t going to happen if she waited for it to come to her. But if I pushed her, she’d never do anything. She’ll just sit around and wait for that stupid fairy godmother. I bit my lip. What did the godmother use? A magic dress, magic shoes and a magic carriage.
I stood up and exhaled. I’d tried everything, and I’d tried to do it all myself. I’d even thought I could get them married on my own, but I was being foolish. Ella needed my help, but it was her story. I pursed my lips. Men were such a risk, but the prince…he’d never let his mother-in-law go homeless. And more importantly, he reminded me of her father. Fanchon might have my eyes pecked out, but Ella—Ella would forgive us all.
“Evelyn,” I said, “this story is no longer about you.”