Authors: Janna Jennings,Erica Crouch
THE LITTLE MERMAID DREW BACK the purple curtain at the door of the tent, and saw the beautiful bride lying with her head on the prince’s breast. She bent down and kissed his forehead, and looked up to the sky, where daybreak was approaching; then she looked at the sharp knife, and again at the prince—
The barn door thudded open,
in a flood of sunlight.
in the doorway
hurried to stand, trying to tuck the book away at the same time. The story had drawn her in. Coriander was never able to sneak up on he
Cynthia couldn’t remember the last time her Ferragamo wedge heels had done as dirty as trod across muddy straw.
Cynthia hadn’t been quick enough. Coriander marched past the horse stalls, causing the mares to snort and stamp
, andthe book from the folds of Cynthia’s skirt.
“You’re supposed to be helping prune the fruit trees. Is this how you do all your chores?”
Mostly, Coriander couldn’t be bothered to remember Cynthia existed at all unless she had set her a personal task. If she knew what Cynthia was supposed to be doing, Coriander was more clued in than usual.
Cynthia found a spot somewhere under her stepsister’s weak chin to stare. “The fruit trees have been trimmed.”
And had been for the past two days. Since rising that morning, Cynthia had scoured breakfast dishes, straightened the bedrooms, scrubbed the floor in the front hall, and plucked the freshly
chicken for dinner that night. So when Lady Wellington had tasked her with the fruit trees, either because she forgot they were done or had never been told, Cynthia promptly sequestered herself to the barn with her book. Out of direct view of prying eyes, she’d had anticipated peace at least until she was needed in the kitchen for her lunchtime duties. Or so she thought.
Coriander narrowed her bulbous eyes. It was a look that Cynthia tried to avoid at all costs. Usually, her efforts at being invisible paid off—if she did her work and kept her head down, she was left with the minimal of verbal abuse and insults. But occasionally a member of her stepfamily took a keener interest—which never boded well.
the cover of the book and her thin lips pulled back in a sneer.
“Aren’t you a little old for fairy tales?”
Cynthia said nothing. If offered only silence, sometimes Coriander would just rail and rant until she wore herself out.
The lack of response seemed to get under her stepsister’s skin. “It looks like this is keeping you from your work.”
With a flick of her wrist, the book flipped end over end, the covers spreading and the pages fluttering like bird’s wings. It splashed down in the scummy water of
Cynthia averted her eyes and schooled her face. Displaying her anguish and anger would only make things worse.
“I have an errand for you.” Coriander planted her hand
on either side of her pear-shaped figure and pinned Cynthia in place with her glare. Over Coriander’s shoulder,
book floated for a second or two and then began to sink. “Mistress Camilla is holding a box of hair dye at the apothecary for me. Fetch it.”
She ran a hand through her dishwater hair as she spoke. Cynthia wondered what color she thought would be an improvement.
“I’ll be timing you. You have exactly half an hour.”
Cynthia gave a sharp nod of understanding, still not trusting her voice. But Coriander had already turned on her heel and stalked out of the barn.
Scurrying over to the trough, Cynthia fished the book out of the water. Green scum clung to the edges. It was waterlogged. She shook it off and tried to fan the pages apart to dry. The horses rolled their eyes in interest as she propped it open on a hay bale. The ink drawing of the forlorn girl
was now runny and smudged.
gave the book one more glance before hurrying out the door.
jogged down the dirt track that ran in front of the house to the
small village. Coriander hadn’t been generous with her time, but with a little luck,
would make it. She slowed as she approached the first shops tucked between—and occasionally into—the evergreen trees. She checked the scarf she always wore tied around her hair to make sure it was still in place. Bad things seemed to happen when she unbound her hair. Years ago, shortly after her mother’s death, the brilliant blonde curls tossing about freely had somehow encouraged Portia to snip them off at the scalp. She’d kept them covered ever since.
The streets weren’t overly busy, but she still had to scoot around people, muttering apologies as she jostled an elbow or package.
The rich, deep smells wafting from
The Sweet Tooth
made her turn her nose in the direction of the window displaying decadent cakes and pastries. A few doors down
Dress to Empress
buzzed with wom
n. Across the street, a small crowd had gathered to watch Mr. Downy install a stuffed, eight-foot grizzly bear by the front door of his gentleman’s dress shop.
She hurried down a side street, where tucked under the fanning lower boughs of
pine tree was the apothecary. The little shop had no roof, the branches
the only deterrent from wind and sun.
Cynthia pushed open the cracked and faded blue door, ringing a small bell suspended over the lintel.
She breathed a sigh of relief; no one else was in the shop. Seeing the crowds in the village, she had been worried about having to wait in line. Mistress Camilla had her purchase popped in a bag—it looked like Coriander thought she’d look better as a brunette—and added to Lady Wellington’s account in a manner of minutes.
Cynthia hesitated, glancing at the clock before considering the varying shades of dye on display.
On a vindictive whim, Cynthia pointed to an eccentric hue, added it to her purchase and was hurrying out the door to the tinkling of the bell, silently congratulating herself. She’d make it.
Weaving in and out of the crowds, Cynthia felt lighter as she made her way home. Perhaps her book would dry, no worse for the wear, and Coriander would consider her suitably punished. Her steps slowed to a crawl as she passed
. Inside the music shop, the ivory keys of the grand piano and the sharp smell of furniture polish that always seemed to permeate the
called to her. On any other day, she’d
ut when Coriander said she was watching the clock there was no doubt she’d be staring at the minute hand when Cynthia walked in.
Dry little puffs of dust coated her worn boots as she hurried down the last stretch of road. A muddle of voices drifted from the shadows of the trees that lined the sides of the road. Young voices—boys—shrilling with excitement and shared jokes. Cynthia ducked her head to hurry past.
She didn’t mix with the other
in the village. The few times she’d tried, it had ended badly with Lady Wellington getting wind of it. It only took Cynthia one day of being locked in her dungeon of a room
without food for herto give up the idea of a friend. Invisibility worked for her. It kept Cynthia from
hardships and she wore it like a shroud.
The knot of boys at the roadside caught her eye anyway. They crouched around a mud puddle left over from the heavy rain last night. One of the boys straightened, flipping his arm. A round, greenish object cartwheeled in the air and splashed back into the puddle to a chorus of appreciative, raucous laughter. Through the boys’ legs, she watched the small thing scurry in the water, desperate for escape. Another boy plucked what Cynthia had now identified as a frog from the mud by his back leg and spun him high above his head. From the clatter of the boys, it appeared in this game you got points for the landing.
Cynthia ordered her legs to keep going, but they slowed anyway.
It was just a frog.
She came to a complete stop. Two of the boys now had the frog by each leg and were pulling in opposite directions while it flopped desperately between them, trying to hop away mid-air.
“What’ve you got there?” She had said the words and crossed the road, unaware of a conscious decision to intervene. She startled the boys enough that they dropped the frog back in the puddle. Six pair
of eyes whipped toward her, first with surprise, and then narrowed in suspicion.
The frog made a dash for the woods, but a slightly older boy on the outskirts of the group picked him and held him in his fist.
She held out her hand to the boy, silently asking for the frog. Its globular eyes perched on top of his head were wide and panicked looking. The boy, who Cynthia now recognized as one of Levinsons
sons—Tom, or Tim?—gave her a wicked grin. Over his shoulder, perched on a dry boulder in the fringes of the trees where Cynthia had missed seeing her at first glance, was the Levinsons
only girl, Christina.
She watched the spectacle with a small smirk on her face.
“You want this?” Tom/Tim asked squeezing the frog and wiggling it in front of her face. The poor creature’s eyes looked ready to pop out of his head. “I thought girls didn’t like slimy things.”
Cynthia gave a nonchalant shrug and lowered her arm. If she looked too eager she’d never get anywhere.
“I’m willing to get close to you, aren’t I?”
The other boys hooted in appreciation of her comment. “She got you, Todd!”
That’s right, Todd.
Instead of being embarrassed, Todd’s grin changed into something like admiration. “You want it? Catch!”
He lobbed the frog straight at Cynthia’s head, a look of terror on its face. She plucked it out of the air. Cynthia didn’t know amphibians could be so expressive.
As the frog smacked into her palm, there was a firm tug on the end of her headscarf. She scrambled at it with her free hand, but it was too late. The thin cotton material fell away, landing in the mud puddle. She clutched at her golden ringlets and whirled in horror to find the youngest of the boys staring at her with a mixture of guilt and fascination. The small group of boys began to murmur around her.
“Why’d you do that?” she snapped.
“I just wanted to see if you were really bald. Like they say.”
Cynthia was familiar with the rumor that had cropped up since no one had seen her hair in years.
“Well, I’m not.” Heat swept across her cheeks. She snatched her scarf out of the mud. Cradling the frog to her chest, she hurried home under Todd’s piercing gaze and Christina’s light laughter.