“Clenching your teeth harder won’t make your posture any straighter, Marissa.” I glanced sidelong at Marissa, eyebrow raised and a smirk just barely visible on my lips. Her head jerked to her left as she gaped at my comment.
“And straighter posture won’t make you any less of a tyrant, Katia.” She smirked back at me, obviously pleased with her quick retort.
“That’s Lady Katia to you. I am above you in status, and perhaps it would do you well to remember that. I hold council with the daughter of Baroness Marina. You wouldn’t want me to let slip to her about your horrible case of lice.”
“I don’t have lice!” Marissa screeched. All the heads in Mrs. Norburn’s etiquette class swung to stare at Marissa’s outburst. Marissa’s eyes darted from face to face as her mouth worked to come up with an explanation for such an exclamation. Coming up blank, she clamped her mouth shut. That should teach her to talk back to me, I thought.
“Thank you for that stimulating comment, Marissa.” Mrs. Norburn said. “But it was most unnecessary. Mrs. Norburn continued to preach about the importance of proper etiquette while I enjoyed the crimson flush on Marissa’s cheeks.
When the lesson was over, we all rose from our seats and curtsied with a chorus of, “Thank you, Mrs. Norburn,” before we exited the classroom. The only noise came from the swish of skirts and the clack of heels.
“Did you see how red Marissa’s face turned?” Rose, a companion of mine twittered. “She was practically glowing.” We descended the steps of Mrs. Norburn’s institution, and Rose linked her arm in mine as we wandered down the dirt road.
“Yes, she was quite tomato adjacent. A bit of humility will do her good. You should have heard the way she spoke back to me. You would have thought she were a duchess!”
“Ha! A duchess? Marissa is lucky to even be in the same room as we are. No doubt it is only by the fortune of her distant uncle that she is even able to attend Mrs. Norburn’s etiquette class.”
“I don’t care how rich her uncle is, the likes of Marissa should not be allowed such prestigious tutelage. It’s not like she’ll ever use it. Marissa will never be so lucky as to speak to a man of nobility, much less marry one. Mrs. Norburn’s knowledge is wasted on her.”
“I agree completely. Would you like to come over to the manor for afternoon tea? We could watch the new hire move the haybales.”
I paused on our path and turned to Rose as I scrunched up my nose. “Honestly, Rose, what horrible taste you have in men. You should forget the hired help and set your eyes on a better prize.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“This boy may work on a farm, but your father owns the farm. You should aspire for equal status or higher.” I rolled my eyes at Rose’s fantasies. She did not know how to dream big.
“But he has such a nice face.” She touched her own jaw, lost to her imaginations. I had to pull her aside to avoid being trampled by a carriage. I snapped my fingers in front of her to bring her back to me.
“His face may be beautiful, but his purse is bare. Forget him.”
Rose paused for a long time before she said, “I guess you always know what’s best. Do you still want to come for tea?”
I straightened my shoulders and lifted my head. “I can’t. Father is invited for tea with Marquess Anton, and I must go with him to entertain his daughter.” My father was Chancellor of the High Court, which meant that I often held council with the sons and daughters of the nobility. It was a great honor to visit Marquess Anton, and I would make sure that everyone knew that I held that honor.
Rose’s face fell. “Alright. Well, tell Arabella that I said hello.”
“I couldn’t possibly do that.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “Rose, you’re my friend and I adore you, but it would be improper of me to mention you to Arabella. Your station is simply too low. I must build myself up, not drag myself down.”
Rose’s expression drooped even more, but I couldn’t concern myself. I needed to go home and put on my best dress for my afternoon with Arabella. I slipped my arm from Rose’s and turned to the left, in the direction of my father’s manor.
Once I reached the manor, I donned my royal blue dress with five petticoat flounces and delicate sleeves that fluttered in the breeze. My father and I rode in the carriage to Marquess Anton’s residence, and soon we stood at the manor’s entrance. I listened as my father knocked loudly upon the heavy oak door to announce our presence. A petite maid answered and led us into the tea parlor, where Arabella and her mother sat.
“Ah, Bartholomew! Welcome!” The marquess called from where he stood by the window. “I’m so glad you could come.”
I went with my father to curtsy in front of the marquess and then excused myself to wander over to Arabella and her mother.
“Marchioness Antoinette, Lady Arabella.” I dipped into a low curtsy in front of each of them.
“Hello, Katia. We are so glad that you could join us. Please sit. And enjoy some tea.” Marchioness Antoinette greeted me warmly. I knew my manners, so I did not tell her that she need not greet me so familiarly, since she is above me in station, but I certainly thought it. If I were a marchioness, I would not concern myself with entertaining anyone below my station.
After we had been at the marquess’s house for an hour or so and teatime had ended, Arabella turned to me.
“Come, Katia, and join me for a stroll to the market.”
I wanted to ask, “Whatever for?” but I held my tongue. “Of course, Lady Arabella,” I said instead.
Once outside the front door, Arabella turned to me in excitement. “You just have to meet my friend, Rowan. He is the sweetest boy I’ve ever met.”
Unable to hold in my curiosity I asked, “Lady Arabella, why are we going to the market to meet this friend of yours?”
“Because this is where I always meet Rowan. Enough of this ‘Lady Arabella’ nonsense. You may call me Ari.”
“But that would be improper,” I tried to argue.
“Who cares about proper and improper? I would like you to be my friend, and as my friend you shall call me Ari.”
I wanted to press the issue but decided against it. When your station is as high as that of the daughter of a marquess, I supposed you can afford to pick and choose which rules you like to follow.
“There he is!” Arabella jumped up, waving her arm in the air frantically. “Rowan! Over here!” A tall boy turned our way and locked his gaze onto Arabella. He broke into a grin but then quickly scowled when he saw me. I scowled right back when I saw what he was wearing. He looked like a farmer’s boy! He was covered in mud, and his once white shirt was graying, with a large hole over the left arm.
“Ari. I told you not to bring other girls with you to visit me. Our visits are supposed to be a secret, remember?”
“Yes, I remember.” A slight blush had begun to creep up to Arabella’s cheeks. “But Katia is going to be my new friend. She should have just as much right to meet you as I do.”
“I will be your friend, Arabella, but not his,” I said. Each word fell from my lips like a brick. “You should know better than to associate yourself with the likes of him. Look at him! Covered in filth. You should be ashamed. What if someone of importance saw you talking to him? Your reputation would be ruined. We shouldn’t stay here a moment longer.”
Arabella’s mouth hung open, surprised at my forceful words. I was a little surprised myself at the way I had spoken to Arabella, but I would not let my reputation be soiled by her silly ideas of friendship.
When I looked back at Rowan, his expression was nothing short of livid.
“How dare you speak to her that way!”
“How dare you speak to me that way! You gutter filth!”
“Why you self-righteous, insolent little bra—”
Rowan froze and slowly turned to Arabella, who looked on the verge of tears.
“I thought we were going to be friends, Katia.”
“I don’t care how high your station is. If you expect me to be friends with this boy, then I regret to inform you that I will not be seeing you again.”
When Arabella couldn’t respond to what I had said, I turned my back and marched back to the marquess’s house. Father could scream at me for leaving Arabella in the market if he wanted, but if he knew what I had done, he would be proud.
When I got back to the marquess’s, my father didn’t yell at me. He barely even glanced in my direction. Instead, he was almost vibrating with excitement.
“Katia,” he called. “Come see this wonderful news.” He beckoned me closer. In his hand was a letter. A letter that said it came from the palace.
“His Majesty King Richard,” he read aloud, “has invited you to dine with him as a commendation for your great work as Chancellor of the High Court.”
I let out an audible gasp, unable to contain my excitement.
“This arrived at the manor just a few hours ago, and they delivered it here as a matter of urgency,” father told me with a calm tone, but his eyes leapt with joy. After all, not just anyone gets invited to the palace.
“Am I invited as well, Father?”
“Yes. And His Majesty specifically said his son looked forward to meeting you.”
I contained my squeal, but inwardly I was spinning. I was going to meet the prince. That was the highest honor a girl could ever have. I needed to wow him with my manners and poise. I would make sure that the prince would have to request to meet with me again.
The day that we were to go to the palace, I donned my new dress. The most intricate one I had ever owned. A midnight blue so dark it was almost black, with sleeves to my elbows and golden flowers embroidered along the bodice and falling down to the skirts. The skirts were so voluminous that each step was like swimming. I felt elegant, royal. That feeling didn’t last very long.
We were escorted down a long corridor with paintings larger than I’d ever seen and tapestries with whole scenes depicted upon them. The ceilings seemed to stretch upwards forever. All that and we were just in a hallway. I couldn’t imagine what the rest of the palace looked like.
We reached two tall oak doors, so heavy they required two men to push them open, and behind those doors was the king’s table. Only two people sat at that table. The king at the head and to his left, Rowan.
At first, I was confused. Why on earth would a farm boy be at the king’s table? Then a sense of dread washed over me. My stomach leapt from its rightful place and fell down, down, down, with no foreseeable end. It felt like my blood was rapidly leaving my extremities and any moment I would faint. Rowan was the prince.
I gulped down my panic, forced my back straighter, and painted a faint smile upon my lips.
“Welcome, Chancellor!” The king’s voice boomed. His eyes latched onto my face. “And you must be his daughter, the fair Katia. Come. Join us.” He gestured to the seats on his right.
Did he know how I had insulted Rowan? I was sure that the king would soon stand up and yell out my mistakes.
As I sat down, I tried to catch Rowan’s eye to read his expression, but he avoided my gaze, and instead pinned his eyes on my father and kept his gaze unmoving. The king and my father talked animatedly but I heard nothing. I was startled out of my trance by the king’s booming voice.
“Rowan, why don’t you take Katia and show her the gardens? I’m sure you two are no doubt bored by our conversations.”
“On the contrary, Father, I find the conversation quite stimulating.” Rowan fired back, eager to avoid time alone with me I’m sure.
“Don’t be absurd. Be a good lad and entertain our guest.”
Rowan huffed, the sound barely audible, and stood up from his chair. I looked to my father and then to the king, frantic for an excuse not to leave. The king simply winked at me and tilted his head in the direction of the door. I couldn’t believe the casual way in which the king acted.
Rowan had made his way around to my chair and offered me his arm as I stood up, though he made sure to stand as far away from me as our linked arms would allow.
As soon as we were out of the king’s sight, Rowan dropped my arm and strode ahead of me. I almost had to run to keep up.
“Prince Rowan, could you please slow down?” No answer. “Prince Rowan?” Still no answer.
I began to be annoyed at his behavior. How could a prince act this way? I thought.
“I didn’t mean to disrespect you in the market. If I had known who you were, I would have never said those thin—”
“If?” Rowan whirled on me so fast that I had to take a step back and almost tripped over my own feet. “If you had known? So, because I am a prince, you are remorseful, but if I were truly a peasant than you’d believe your words were just?” I searched his eyes and waited for him to reveal his jest, but he looked genuinely upset.
“Yes? Do you know what people would think, what they would say, if I were seen fraternizing with a peasant? My reputation would be ruined.”
“NO. All people would see is a kind girl. Which is a far cry from the girl I see before me. You should be disgusted by your actions.” The force with which he spit those words at me made me want to raise a hand to my cheek to check for swelling. I felt physically repelled. “I have no desire to show you the gardens. In fact, I have no desire to spend another minute in your company. I trust you can find your way back to the dining hall once an appropriate amount of time has passed. Good day.”
Without another word, Rowan turned and marched down another corridor, and I was left standing alone. My mind whirled as I tried to figure out just what I had done wrong. And Rowan’s words were still in my head as I sat down to tea with Rose.
“And then I said to her, ‘Lindsay, you’re supposed to sip the soup, not slurp it.’”
“Uh huh.” I took a sip of my tea as I stared at a fraying thread on the carpet. We sat in the parlor, the most decorative room in the house, nibbling on tea cakes and sipping from delicate cups, but I was in another world.
“Katia? Are you listening to me?”
“Am I a nice person?” I looked away from the carpet and into Rose’s eyes.
Rose stared blankly at me for a few seconds. “I guess so. Why do you ask?”
“But do I care too much about what people think?”
“Why does this matter to you all of a sudden?” Rose waved her arm in a circle. A few crumbs fell from the teacake she still held.
“I met the prince.” I set down my teacup.
“Yes, I know. I figured you would have told me all about it by now. Why haven’t you?”
“It turns out I had already met the prince before, but I mistook him for a commoner. I disrespected him because I thought his station was lower than mine. When I saw him again, he said I should be ashamed. Should I be ashamed?”
“You were kind of mean to Marissa. And what you said about my father’s farmhand was very harsh. Just because it would be improper to marry below my station doesn’t mean I can’t associate with people below my station.”
“I guess that’s right.” Rose’s words stabbed right through me into my gut. I was certain that if I looked down, I would see my entrails spilling onto that fraying carpet. I stood up and wandered over to the window and watched the life move along outside.
“I know that you think being friends with me is a charity. I never said anything, but no one wants to feel that way.” Rose’s gaze on me was unyielding. I wanted to deny her words, but I couldn’t. I had to look away from the hurt I saw in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Rose. I should have never treated you that way. Thank you for the tea, but there’s somewhere that I need to go.” I stood up, and Rose stood with me.
“I need to see Arabella.”
“Katia. What brings you here?” Arabella’s eyes were guarded. She leaned through the barely opened door to her home. Her hand rested on the wood.
“I want to learn from you.” I clasped my hands tightly behind my back to keep from fiddling my fingers.
“To be a better person? To be a better friend.”
Arabella looked down to her toes then slowly raised her eyes back up to mine. “I see. You know that you have a lot to learn, right?”
“I’ve been made aware of that fact.”
I spent many more days with Arabella under her patient tutelage, carefully unlearning all my ideals about what was proper. On one of these days I asked her about Rowan’s presence in the marketplace.
“What was he doing there? And why was he dressed like that?”
Arabella set down her biscuit and turned to me.
“Because Rowan is a good prince.”
“How does dressing in dirty clothes make him a good prince?”
Arabella clasped my hands, her eyes sparkling. “Not many people from the market know what Rowan looks like, on account of none of them ever going to the palace. But they would easily be able to identify the clothes of a royal. So, he wears common clothes to blend in with the people.”
“To know about his subjects of course! He wants to observe how they live, see what they need or what they want. One day, Rowan will be king, and he wants to have intimate knowledge of the lives of his people so that he may better lead them.”
I sat back; my mind was ticking. It was brilliant really. He not only could see his own subjects without being recognized but also could experience their lives for himself. I felt like an absolute fool for the way that I had spoken to him. It was time that I apologized to Rowan.
“Arabella? I want to go to the market.” She met my eyes, and a look of understanding passed between us.
“What is she doing here again?” Rowan crossed his arms as his eyes narrowed.
“Rowan.” Arabella warned. “Be sweet. Katia has come to say something very important to you.” After a moment of thought, Rowan gestured for me to speak, but his eyes remained narrowed.
“I thought for a long time about what you said to me. I went to my friend Rose, and she seconded your opinion of me. I know now that my thinking was wrong. That’s why I went to Arabella, so she could show me the right way of thinking.”
Rowan scoffed, obviously not impressed with my changed attitude.
“I shouldn’t look down upon those who are less fortunate than I am. I could have very easily been born into a poor family. I am lucky that my father has lived a fortunate life, and I shouldn’t lord that luck over others.”
Rowan stayed silent and my spirits fell.
“I understand, though, if you are unwilling to forgive my prejudice and won’t accept my invitation of friendship.” I turned, ready to leave the marketplace a bittersweet memory.
“Wait!” I paused at Rowan’s voice. “I guess I could do with another friend. A palace is a lonely place to be, after all.”
“Wait, wait, wait. Do I have to?” I stood behind a screen with Arabella at my back lacing up my dress. Rowan was in front of the screen with his back turned and his hand over his eyes, as per my request.
“Yes!” Rowan yelled as if we couldn’t hear him just fine from where we stood. “In order to acknowledge that you’ve truly changed your vicious ways—” I rolled my eyes at that statement, even though Rowan couldn’t see the gesture. “—you have to wear the peasant clothes with pride.”
“But there’s already dirt on them. How did you get dirt on them already?”
“It’s part of the charm.” I heard the smile on his face.
“You put it there, didn’t you?”
“Children, children. Let’s all get along,” Arabella chided. “Done!” She spun me toward her to admire her handiwork. She wore a peasant dress of her own, and she wore it with a smile.
“Well, my ladies, are we ready?” Rowan bowed deeply to us and then offered us each an arm. Arabella and I shared a look, hers of joy, mine of hesitant happiness, and then we giggled as we curtsied to Rowan and accepted his outstretched arms.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.” I responded.
“It’ll be fun.” Rowan winked at me. I rolled my eyes. Again.