The fire had gone out, and I didn’t know what to do.
I was covered with a king’s ransom of silk-sewn comforters and surrounded by six warming pans, so I was still mostly warm. But my nose was exposed and freezing, and I heard no friendly crackling from the direction of the hearth. For some reason the chambermaid in charge of keeping my fire going had overslept or forgotten me. Or perhaps I had awakened too early, before it was time for her to come on duty. I hadn’t figured out the palace work schedule yet.
The last time I awoke to freezing air and a dead fire, I simply got up and restarted it myself. “Ella,” I lectured myself, “you’re no stranger to tending fireplaces. Just because they put a crown on your head doesn’t mean your hands forgot how to work.” Still, I had to force myself to leave the bed’s warmth, tiptoe across the icy flagstones, and search for a tinderbox and poker.
For a while I feared none of that was in my room—did they think princesses or almost-princesses were too delicate even to see the instruments that kept them warm? But then I found a compartment in the wall by the great fireplace and dragged out equipment bigger and grander than I’d ever used before. Reviving the fire was a struggle, for my hands were clumsy after two weeks of idleness. (I hardly count needlepoint as work.)
At the end, when I was finally able to warm my numb fingers over ever-growing flames, I felt a strange surge of pride. I wanted to brag to someone about accomplishing a chore I’d done hundreds of times in my old life without thinking. But there was no one to tell. Charm wouldn’t be interested, even if I saw him, in between his endless hunts and contests. The king was even more remote, and I’d endured enough blank stares from the queen to know I shouldn’t confide anything in her. Then there were all my ladies-in-waiting and maidservants and my instructors (one for decorum, one for dancing, one for palace protocol, one for needlepoint, one for painting, and two or three whose purposes I had yet to figure out). But all of them looked at me with such horror whenever I let something slip about my former life. (“What? You had no one to do your laundry?” one of the silliest of my waiting girls, Simprianna, had asked when I’d carelessly mentioned rinsing out my stockings after the ball.) Even after just two weeks, I knew better than to brag to anyone in the castle about doing something that dirtied my hands.
And so I thought I’d keep my fire-building secret. Then
I overheard two of my maidservants gossiping later that day about my chambermaid.
“She was found still in her bed, and it was already past five o’clock,” the one said to the other, fluffing my pillows with a dainty thump. (In the castle, even the maids pretend to be dainty.)
“No,” the other gasped. “So she was—”
“Beaten within an inch of her life and dismissed,” the first said, sounding as self-satisfied as rabble cheering an execution. “Thrown out the palace gate by six.”
“Lazy slugabed got exactly what she deserved, then,” the second said, even as she gently placed a single rose on my pillow. “But the fire—”
They both fell silent and glanced my way. I lowered my eyes and pretended to be intent on the watercolor I was copying over in the afternoon light struggling through the western window. I don’t know why I cared what maids thought, or why I acted as though restarting a fire to heat my own room was something to be ashamed of. After a moment, one said, “Humph,” and the other echoed her, and they left. I sighed, glad to be alone, but then Madame Bisset, my decorum instructor, arrived in a flurry.
If it had been someone else, I would have said she was disheveled and flustered, but, of course, Madame Bisset never allowed herself to be anything but absolutely perfect in bearing and dress. Every gleaming silver hair was in place, every one of the fifty-two tiny mother-of-pearl buttons that marched up her dress was precisely fastened in its loop. But she looked as though she’d given thought to
appearing disheveled, as though circumstances might warrant it from anyone else.
“Princess Cynthiana Eleanora,” she said sternly as she sat down, discreetly arranging the yards and yards of fabric in her skirt so she would be comfortable on the sofa. “I have heard a rumor.”
The unfamiliar name and title jarred, as always. I had only recently managed to stop myself from looking around when people addressed me like that. A princess? Where? Oh, that’s right. Me. Sort of.
“Madame? A rumor?” I murmured, trying to get the pronunciation of “Madame” exactly right. The day before, Madame Bisset had chided me for how—she lowered her voice to whisper the horrifying phrase—“common” my French sounded. This “Madame” evidently passed muster, because Madame Bisset’s frown didn’t deepen immediately. So I worried instead that I was breaking some rule against echoing another speaker’s words. But no, it was my father who had opposed that. I could hear his dry voice: “I’d prefer to hear an original thought, if you have one.” I couldn’t imagine Madame Bisset caring about my thoughts, original or otherwise.
“A rumor,” she said firmly. “Now, normally, a cultured woman does not listen to rumors or gossip. Au contraire, one must hold oneself above such—such crudity. But this rumor is so appalling, it must be dealt with. And since I am the person responsible for instilling you with a sense of etiquette, I must not shirk.”
She sniffed daintily and dramatically, fully conveying both
her dedication to her responsibilities and her distaste for the subject she was about to discuss. In my first few days in the palace, when I still dared, I would have joked, “You mean, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it?” But I’d learned.
“Now, the servants are saying—” Her inflection on “servants” carried the full weight of her disgust at being put in a position of having to quote servants. “The servants are saying you lit your own fire this morning.”
“I did,” I said in a small voice.
Madame Bisset gasped and went pale. She leaned back against the sofa. I wondered if I was going to have to call for smelling salts.
“You must never do that again,” she said in a surprisingly firm voice. “Never.”
A proper young lady would have bowed her head in shame and murmured, “Yes, Madame Bisset.” But no one had thought of training me to be proper until two weeks earlier, so my instincts were all wrong.
“Why?” I asked, truly curious.
Madame Bisset gasped again, as if I were beyond hope if I had to ask. She took a deep breath—as deep as her corsets allowed, anyway.
“You have no idea why you should not light your own fire.”
It was a question without being a question—a trick. I’d be rude to answer it, perhaps interrupting her next thought. But I’d be more rude not to answer, if she was waiting for a reply. These were the games I had to play now.
“No,” I ventured. “Or—I’m not really as stupid as you think. I mean, I know princesses usually don’t do things like that. But I was cold, and—”
“You were cold,” Madame Bisset said. A lesser woman would have rolled her eyes. Not Madame Bisset, of course, but the muscles around her eyelids twitched ever so slightly, as if they knew what was possible. “You were cold. Did you perchance remember that you have a bell to call your servants? Did you remember that it was their job to tend your fire?”
“Yes, but—” I looked down, knowing that if I kept looking at Madame Bisset, she’d see that I suddenly wanted to cry. I almost whispered, “But I didn’t want to disturb anyone.”
I looked up in time to see Madame Bisset holding back an explosion. The color in her face rose like a thermometer, first deathly white, then fiery red, clear up to the roots of her curled-back hair.
“You must never, ever hesitate to disturb a servant,” she said, shooting off each word like an arrow, precise and cruel. “That’s what they’re there for. They exist solely to serve us.”
She closed her eyes, then opened them slowly.
“You may think you’re being kind,” she said, the strain of trying to sound understanding weighing in her voice. “But servants know their place. They like to serve. They are hurt if you make them feel useless. Purposeless. And they cannot respect a member of the nobility who lowers herself to their level, to their work.”
She said “work” like it was a curse word.
I clenched my teeth—an ugly habit, I’d been told again and again. But if I opened my mouth, I knew the angry words would spill out. What did Madame Bisset know about how servants felt and thought? Why did she think anyone would get any pleasure out of serving lazy, selfish, self-centered people like her? I knew. I’d been there—not a servant, quite, but close enough. I’d had no respect for the ones I waited on, to begin with. If they’d so much as raised a finger to help me, the question was, would I have been able to stop hating them?
“Do you understand?” Madame Bisset asked, the way you’d ask a simpleton.
I lowered my eyes and made a stab at propriety.
“Yes, Madame Bisset.” I looked up, unable to resist another question. “The maidservant—I heard she was dismissed. If I’d thought to ring for her, would she still have been—”
Madame Bisset sniffed.
“Of course. She overslept.”
So now, cold again, I dared not get up. I couldn’t start my own fire or ring for the maid, and risk getting another girl fired. I could only pray that she woke on her own, and crept down here without being discovered. I willed her to awaken, as if I could send my thoughts up three flights of narrow, winding stairs to shake her awake. I listened for the distinctive creak of my door, the one I so often pretended
to sleep through, because I didn’t know what to say to people doing work for me that I was perfectly capable of doing myself. But the door didn’t open. I got colder.
This wasn’t what I’d imagined at the ball, the stars wheeling above me as I danced with the prince. Truthfully, I didn’t imagine anything. Just being at the ball was beyond my wildest dreams. And then everything happened so fast—the prince seeking me for his bended-knee proposal, everyone making wedding plans, me returning to the castle to stay, for good. I remembered an old neighbor woman cackling as I rode by, astonished, in the prince’s carriage: “Now, there’s one who will live happily ever after.”
I was cold. I was lonely. I was engaged to be married in two short months to the most handsome man I’d ever seen—the prince of the land, the heir to the throne. But I had never felt so alone in all my life, not even shivering in rags in my garret the day they came to say my father was dead.
This was happiness?