Chapter Two

1936 Words
I’d stayed in my room for as long as I dared, waiting for my punishment. It never came. Oh, I knew it would, the question was when? I could try to argue, try to make my case, but it wouldn’t help. When did it ever? Everything was my fault, whether it actually was or not. I wasn’t okay with it, but that’s just the way life was for me now. However, I couldn’t abandon my chores. After poking my head out the door and listening, I decided it was safe to descend the narrow staircase and head to the kitchen. “There you are! It’s almost time for afternoon tea you lazy girl.” Mr. Wallaby tsked at me. “I’m sorry,” I replied lamely. He shook his head before going back to mixing batter. I desperately missed our old cook, Mrs. Coffer. She’d been with us for four years after Papa’s passing until stepmother let her go. She said we could no longer afford her, but I knew the real reason- Mrs. Coffer was one of the only people left who would stand up for me against my adopted family. Mr. Wallaby couldn’t care less how I was treated. Further cementing my theory, stepmother had engaged Wallaby not long after Mrs. Coffer’s departure. Someone who would work for ‘less pay’, I’d been told. Perhaps his poor attitude is the reason he can’t find work. After two years, he was still an unpleasant man. Well, at least to me. I got to work preparing the cups and saucers and the plate for cookies and sandwiches. I wasn’t allowed to make any of the food, but I was the one who had to deliver it and wait until everyone was done. I also never ate with the family anymore, having to take my meals in the kitchen with only Wallaby for company. I’d learned to finish my meals quickly. “Lady Winchester gave me a message for you.” My hands froze midair at Wallaby’s words. “What did she say?” I tried not to sound as nervous as I felt. “You are to take tea to the sitting room for today.” I frowned. “The sitting room? But the girls have music lessons today, don’t they?” He shrugged. “I was only told to deliver the message to you. Since my Lady couldn’t find you earlier.” Couldn’t find me? She always knew where to find me. If I wasn’t doing my chores, I was in my room. The only time I was permitted to leave the house, or the grounds was on Saturdays when I went to town to do the weekly shopping. “Thank you,” I said anyway, “I will take the tea whenever you are ready.” “I’m done. Plate this and go.” Hands full of food and drink, I left, hearing Wallaby mutter his pleasure about having no music lessons today. It would have made me smile if I hadn’t been so anxious. As pretty as my stepsisters were, neither of them could hold a tune to save their life. Taking the stairs extra carefully, I headed left to the sitting room instead of my usual right to the music room. Knocking with my foot, I heard stepmother's voice call out to enter. “Tea, Madam.” I cast my eyes down as I entered, careful not to drop anything. She sat on the deep purple sofa in the center of the room, laid upon a fine, thick rug. Setting the food down on the low table, I dropped the expected curtsey before turning to go. “Adira.” Stopping, I turned back slowly. I knew that tone too well. “Yes, stepmother.” “Look at me child.” Flicking my eyes up, I met her gaze. As usual, her cold, grey eyes sent a shiver of fear through me. There was something sinister in their depths, and I couldn’t remember if they had always been that way. A woman in her early forties, she had soft wrinkles around those eyes, and her mouth, which was always painted red. Her hair was dark, like Darnella’s, but was streaked through with grey, and piled high on her head in a delicate crown. “Sit. Have tea with me today.” She gestured to a chair off to the side. When I hesitated, stepmother merely smiled, pushing a cup toward me. Instinct told me to decline, but my hand reached for the cup of its own accord, and my legs carried me to the chair. “Isn’t this nice?” She trilled. “Yes, stepmother.” My reply was automatic. Silence. My eyes followed her movements, watching her drop two cubes of sugar into her tea and stir. She seemed perfectly at ease, while I was feeling more and more like a trapped mouse. Finally, she set down her cup, those intimidating eyes meeting mine. “You seem tense child.” “I’m sorry. . .” “You’re not drinking.” Mechanically, I lifted the cup to my lips, barely tasting the liquid. I gave her what I hoped was a believable smile. “No doubt you’re wondering why I called you here today.” “It. . . crossed my mind,” I replied carefully. “I have good news.” The last time I heard those words was the day Papa told me he was getting married, and I was to have two new sisters. Look how that turned out! Drawing on all my years of nonchalance, I sat straighter, the picture of intrigue. “Good news, stepmother? For me?” “You will have heard of the trouble in the Kingdom recently.” She said. I had. It was all anyone talked about these past six months; Keepers were wielding their magik viciously, forming a small army. The rumor mill in town kept me apprised of developments, but the big question on everyone’s mind was- why? There was no obvious provocation. “What does that have to do with me?” I asked. “Fortunately, it has everything to do with you.” She beamed, and a feeling of unease settled over me. “How?” Taking another sip, she regarded me coolly, as if we were discussing the weather or the latest fashions. “The King and I have been negotiating. He needs to raise an army to counter these rogue Keepers. A bigger army, since they have a very unfair advantage with their magik,” She spat the word, “And he’s lost so many men already.” “I’m sorry to hear that.” My muscles ached from sitting so still, wishing she would get to the point. “Yes, yes, it’s terrible,” She waved her hand dismissively, “But to get the men he needs, the King needs more money. I have graciously offered.” The cup shook in my hands. “But. . . I’m only sixteen. My father’s will says-” “I know. The law is the law.” She grinned wickedly. “That is why you are going to marry the Prince. As his wife, your money will also be his, whether you are of age or not.” The cup dropped from my hand altogether, its contents spilling over the rug and probably staining it. I stared at her, not being able to process her words. One by one, they came back to me, clicking into place. I stood abruptly, trying to bring air into my lungs. Marry the Prince? The Prince who was known to be spoiled, ill-tempered, and constantly tried to instigate wars? The man couldn’t be trusted, and he wasn’t popular with the people; Many who wished to never see him ascend to King. “I can’t! I can’t get married! I am not old enough!” My voice was hoarse rather than the firm rejection I’d intended. “Silence!” Her words echoed through the room. “You are old enough to marry with a parent or guardians’ permission.” “If I marry the Prince, how does that help the King?” I tried desperately to find a way out of this. “Your wealth will be at the Crown’s disposal. The Prince wants to go to war. He has already consented to this union.” She had me, and she knew it. After so many years of trying and not getting her hands on my wealth, she had finally figured out a way. My entire body trembled, fighting the realization that I was utterly and truly lost. My only hope was to plead, no, to beg. Folding my hands in front of me, I implored her, “Stepmother, please! Please don’t make me do this!” “Hold your tongue!” She hissed. “Do you not know how lucky you are? Do you know how many girls would kill to marry the Prince? I always knew you were ungrateful, but this is deplorable Adira!” Anger rose in me. How could she do this? To trade me off like a heffer at the market to the highest bidder- And my actions were deplorable?! How many girls did she think were vying for the Prince’s hand in marriage? Her own daughters despised him! “What do you get out of it?” I snapped, unable to curb my ire. Any other day, I would have gotten a smack to the cheek, or worse, if I’d spoken to her this way. Today, she ignored it, a smug look on her face. “As is proper, I am to accompany you to the castle. I will live there with you, with Hannah and Darnella of course, as your legal guardian. The King has promised to find them husbands of good standing.” So, she was doing it for status. “And-,” She continued,”- As a sincere show of gratitude from the King, I am afforded half of your father’s wealth. He assures me he will have more than enough without it.” Status and money. How greedy could any one person be? “It was left to me,” I argued. “Not you.” That seemed to finally get a rise from her. Standing, she abandoned her cheerful façade, replacing it with utter contempt. “What makes you think you deserve it? After all, if it hadn’t been for you, your father would still be here!” Tears welled in my eyes, making the room blurry. “You will have more than enough after you marry the Prince. And you will marry him! If you dare try to disobey me. . .,” She grabbed my wrist hard enough to leave bruises, yanking me closer, “I will make sure you wish you’d never been born. Now, get out of my sight! We are leaving for the Palace tomorrow.” Flinging me away, I barely caught myself before tripping. Not bothering to curtsey, I fled the room. I can’t marry him. I won’t marry him! But I would. She had ruled my life for six years, taking away all my choices. Forcing me to clean, to serve her and her awful daughters. I’d taken it all in stride, knowing someday I could leave, and she wouldn’t be able to stop me. The only way I got through the days was by dreaming of a better life. Now that was gone too. Finding my way to my room, I threw myself on the bed, giving way to a storm of pitiful sobs.
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