All she wanted at that moment was not a key to open the door or a coat for the freezing rain or even a smile from a passing friend, but rather a cookie. Not because they filled her stomach and settled her anxieties or even because they tasted good, but because of who’d normally brought her one. She couldn’t care less for the cookies themselves. It was just the innocence of the craving. It made her smile despite the cold snow melting on her head, dripping down her arms.
The more she waited, the more she wanted to go home, curl up in a mess of blankets, and sleep, but Mother had asked for eggs and pneumonia was not a valid excuse for not showing up.
It was the middle of the morning—or so she’d been told earlier when she was roughly shaken awake. No one could really tell as of late. The dreary day made her wish for the sun. She also wished he hadn’t gone, but wishing was merely unanswered hope. It got her nowhere.
Fingers numb, she jiggled the handle again. The loud, off-pitch humming ceased and the lock clicked.
A wall of heat hit her when the door opened, people all but falling out. Winter was a great season for the bakery—people didn’t even come for the goods, but for the heat the ovens produced as a result. The room had about ten too many people in it.
Roseanne hounded the lounging townspeople demanding they buy something for another hour’s stay.
She wished her mother didn’t do that.
“Why did you lock the door?” she asked, readjusting her grip on the bag.
“To keep it from opening, dear.” Roseanne shot over her shoulder, serving and old couple some scones. “The hinges are too loose.”
Celestia closed the door, shaking snow off and desperately wishing she could wring out her hair. “Too bad Christian isn’t here any more.”
“Oh, he’s fine.” Roseanne waved it off, taking small talk for worry. She beckoned her towards the counter in the back, wiping her hands on her apron. “He’s a guard now.”
Her face reddened slightly as the heat grew more intense. “Have you heard anything from the castle?”
“No, dear, I would have told you if I have.—Ernie, leave the tables alone. There’s one in the corner. Don’t move them.” She glared over at the sly old man inching his way over to snag a snack.
“Why is he even allowed in here?” she cringed as her looked at her, showing his crocodilian smile full of yellowing teeth.
The way he took her in made her want to hide under a thousand layers. Wearing a corset was struggle enough; she didn’t care for the looks it got her. Beside her, Roseanne looked about ready to go over and slap the lecherous fool.
“He got paid today,” she grunted, gritting her teeth as she kneaded dough, “but he should be out by noon at the rate he’s spending, if not sooner.”
She took over kneading when a couple leaves were ready to be taken out of the over. “I’d prefer sooner,” she grumbled, averting her gaze and praying he’d stop looking at her. It was enough that she had to leave the house. She didn’t need any unwanted attention.
“Why does he even need to be here, Mother? You would think they’d run him out of town by now.”
Ernie was always doing nasty things, walking the streets drunk, smashing in windows, banging on doors to see if one was open. He must’ve come early, sometime before the doors locked.
“He tips well,” Roseanne said simply, recoiling when she nearly hit a sugar-crazed child with the tray.
Celestia apologized to the boy’s mother, turning back to Roseanne as she worked the dough. “It’s not safe to have this many people in here.”
“If they want to be here, they can sit here as long as they want.”
“Yes,” she said, hitting the dough harder, “but you needn’t charge them for it.”
Roseanne sighed, taking the kneading out of her hands. “You’re doing it too rough. You have to take every push slow, if you want it to turn out good. Times are tough, Celestia, and I don’t expect you to understand now, but—“
The door opened and Henry came in, a satchel slung around his shoulder. The boy was on the cusp of adolescence, and though he was normally bubbly through the cracks in his voice, he looked agitated as he came over to them.
“Celestia,” Roseanne said coolly, eyes fixed on young Henry, “why don’t you go to the back and start on another batch?”
She looked between her mother and Henry, trying to figure out what was going on, but both had composed relatively straight faces. “We have enough for a while, Mother,” she said at last, folding her hands before her innocently.
“Go, Celestia.” Roseanne turned her gaze on her, flaring.
She couldn’t duck out of the room faster. Her mother’s wrath was not something she wanted to face today, but something building inside her kept her glued to the door. The air that morning was charged.
She tried to listen, pushing as hard as she could against the door before it would open, but the dialogue was kept annoyingly concise.
“Thank you, Henry,” her mother was saying, sighing almost.
“Don’t thank me,” Henry replied, surprisingly serious in his high voice. “You know I don’t like this.”
“I don’t care for it, either, but it must be done. Celestia must learn a lesson.”
“Then I guess she didn’t want that herself, did she?”
“That is none of your business,” her mother said sternly.
Behind closed doors, her blood boiled, skin steaming in the chilly room. Fingers curling into her apron, she clutched the key so hard it would leave an imprint on her palm. A monster clawed its way up her throat, the thump of her heart in her ears muffling the last of the exchange. The door opened and closed and a few minutes later, she had composed herself to come out.
She caught a glimpse of her mother tossing something into the flames. The door creaked suddenly and Roseanne turned, face flushed from the fire.
“What are you doing?” Celestia stammered, anger bubbling up.
Her mother had composed herself in a moment. “Take this to Ernie.” She ordered, shoving a plate in her unsuspecting hands.
She wanted barked back a retort, but Roseanne had escaped her grasp before she could suck in a breath.
Her efforts turned to traversing the mess of people before her. Maneuvering through the crowd was no easy feat. It took a tool on her heart, seeing a child bunched in coats while his mother shivered outside, trying to watch over him through foggy windows. The bakery was full of those who could afford to warm their own homes and she just didn’t get it. Maybe they just wanted to see everyone else try to spend their money and steal all the hard work put into negotiations.
It was expensive enough to get everything they needed important from nearby towns. Trees were so dry they’d explode at being heated, and there was simply no room for little more than a coop on the narrow streets of Faircounty.
The unseasonable cold had caught them unawares. The snow wasn’t so bad as much as the dry air that came with it. Half of her wanted to fling open the doors and let the people who really needed it inside, but no one would listen to her.
Sidestepping a fat boy sprawled on the floor, she broke a piece of bread off the plate and dropped it in the boy’s lap. He bit into it hungrily, cap falling over his eyes. He suddenly turned bright red, pausing his eating as he pulled the furry hat out of his eyes.
“It’s okay.” She said, glancing around to see if anyone had noticed her actions.
The boy set the bread down. “I don’t have any money.”
“It’s on the house.”
He smiled, wolfing down the last piece.
She rearranged the rest on the plate to make it seem like nothing was missing. Not that Ernie would notice, swigging from his glass like whiskey was water.
She extended her arm as far as she could to give him his order, praying he wouldn’t notice. When she thought she’d been so careful, he seized her wrist and she hissed in surprise. He pulled her in and she caught a whiff of his rank breath. She coughed, nearly throwing up her lunch right there, but squeezed her eyes shut until the feeling subsided.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” he slurred, breath hot on her face. Her nose wrinkled in disgust.
She mumbled some incoherent excuse, twisting her arm. For a drunk guy he had a surprisingly strong grip.
“You look exceedingly radiant today.” He pulled her down sharply and she yelped.
Her eyes darted about, through struggling to find out which exit was closest. There were too many people to really see.
She grunted, trying to loosen his grip with her other hand. “I didn’t know that word was in your vocabulary.” No one had noticed the exchange, lounging about sluggishly in the thick air.
“Proposition.” She corrected, trying to twist away.
“—for ya, sweetheart.” He finished, reaching up to caress her cheek.
She slapped his grimy hand away. “No, thank you,” she glared.
Her eyes scanned the vicinity for a weapon. They landed. on the plate. Though porcelain, it could daze him. She pulled back hard, doubling the same between them and gasping for fresh air.
“Don’tcha wanna know what they was talkin’ ’bout?” He asked, grinning smugly. She wanted to slap the stupid grin off the old bastard.
“Your mother and the little sick kid with the large family—“
“What about them?”
“They was talkin’ ’bout you.” He half-mumbled, eyes near-closed. How was his grip so strong?
Her hear stopped, shocking her system. Maybe he’d seen the exchange. “Did you catch a glimpse of what they were doing?”
He yawned. “I didn’t catch anything.”
She shook him slightly, and he blinked his eyes open. “Did you see them, I mean?”
“Yeah, I did.” He waved her off. “Something with a letter.”
Tingles shot through her. “From whom?”
“Couldn’t tell ya e’en if I wanted to—“ he smiled, blinking an eye open. “—But a smooch might jog my memory.”
She pulled free from his grasp, disgusted. “Oh, get over yourself.”
“I guess you’ll never now, then.” He said sleepily, eyes closed.
“About the letter.”
“About the letter from…” she pressed, hoping he’d pick up.
He laughed. “Hell if I know.”
She stomped in frustration, glaring and looming over him now. “What did it look like? You must’ve seen something.”
He let out a snore and she kicked his chair, snapping the thin leg. Glaring at her from the floor, he stood, swaying. He suddenly looked very scary, shadows dancing across his gnarled features.
“I told ya I dunno,” he boomed.
She stumbled back, head shaking back and forth as she looked for help. How was no one seeing this?
Ernie raised an arm to slap her and she braced, arms coming up to deflect. Her nails suck into his greasy flesh and he bellowed, face reddening. He lunged forward and she snuck underneath his right arm, twisting him around as he took the plate off the table.
With a resounding crack, she had smashed it over his head. He garbled some nonsense before collapsing. On the floor, he looked a broken old man and she shuddered, dropping the fragmented weapon.
There was a very real possibility she had killed him. She trembled, not fully comprehending. Every possible scenario flew through her brain, every one ending the same, gruesome way.
His groan revived her heart and she shook, knees knocking together under the weight of the air in the room. It was no longer hot and busy but icy. She could have sworn her breath crystallized, but she could see little beyond the boy by the window, watching her with a horrified look on his face.
The back door swung open and she ran, nearly knocking over her ignorant mother. She had little incentive to apologize, tongue shackled by the terrified looks the once-cordial customers had given her.
In a brief moment, they had gone from people she could converse with around town to fearful infants, staring at her like she was a wolf about to devour them. It was like all the good she had shown them in the past nineteen years of her life held less weight than a snowflake, disintegrating just as fast under scrutiny.
She wished she could go back and apologize but all she felt was anger. She could try everything to explain, but she was unheard, ignored so very easily and forgotten just as readily.
The one person she thought wouldn’t forget her, the one she’d believed would stay, seemingly had. It had dawned on her ever so slowly, their last meeting having been a joyous occasion. He had checked his pocket watch twice before he’d gone, the first to see what time it was and the second to pray it would stop so they wouldn’t have to part. She wished she’d stayed there a little longer, just a couple seconds longer, but the ball had been drawing to a close and duty called.
The door creaked open. Her heart beat against the walls of her ribcage. For a moment she actually thought it’d be him, but it was her mother, one who’d “sent” every letter she wrote. She didn’t trust her mother’s word. Not anymore.
“Celestia, are you all right?”
She had found herself curled up in the back of the cramped room, wedged just underneath the counter beside the weightless dust bunnies and insignificant cobwebs.
“Like it matters now,” she moaned. “They’re never going to hear me out.”
She glanced up at her mother, who—for the first time in her life—was silent. A grim look aged her. Had there always been white in her hair?
Roseanne sighed. “What happened this time?”
She shuddered, curling her legs closer to her chest. She could still smell the smoke. Her stomach churned.
“He came onto me, Mother.”
Roseanne just crossed her arms. “Go apologize.”
She blinked. The least she’d expect was some sympathy, not the stern look she was unfairly receiving.
Her jaw dropped. “Did you not hear me? He harassed me, Mother.”
“As he does everyone, now go.”
The disappointed look on her mother’s face made her want to cry, but not tears would give her the satisfaction.
“No, mother.” She said emphatically, crawling out from under the counter and standing. “He owes me an apology.”
Roseanne suddenly looked nervous. “We’re going to lose good business, Celestia—“
“And we’ll make do, but I’ve had it up to here with all these perverts and rich snobs coming in.” she had raised her voice, but she just couldn’t care to lower it. It was as if she was fighting something and quieting would mean losing “What about those that really need it? There are people starving out there—“
“Enough, Celestia.” Roseanne said softly, gaze dropping to the ground. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She gasped mockingly. “Don’t I now? What about those letters Henry brings?”
Roseanne paled. “You know?”
“Of course.” She sneered, hoping she wouldn’t call her bluff.
“I’m so sorry, Celestia. I really do think this is the best for you.” She wrung her hands. “One day you’ll understand, when you’re older and found someone else, someone so much better for you than Sorien—“
“Wait, this letter was from Sorien?” She was stunned. “Why didn’t you tell me? How long have you been hiding this from me?”
“I-I have to go,” Roseanne stammered, rushing out of the room.
“Mother! I need that letter!”
She called, but Roseanne pretended not to hear. She was forced to quiet after a moment when her thoughts shouted louder than her voice. Could he have been trying to get in touch with her again? Why now? After so long… Her heart throbbed.
Her eyes fell on the notebook at the edge of the counter, dusted lightly with flour. Something silver poked out of the yellowing pages, and she walked over, carefully tugging the delicate paper free as she pocketed the book.
She brought it up to her nose, convincing herself it that still smelled like fresh peppermint, that it was an invitation he’d sent this year and not two years ago. Resignation surfaced, choking her as she swallowed her hope. It’d been too long.
“Celestia, can you bring the flour out here?” Roseanne called, voice as cheery and patronizing as always.
She had half a mind to ignore her, cross her arms and pout like the fat child would whenever his parents wouldn’t get him what he wanted, but she went out anyway. The front door was the easiest way out, anyway.
“Yes, Mother.” She simpered, faking the same bright sound.
The bakery was all near empty when she came out. Chairs had been knocked over in haste, plates left empty, meals “forgotten” to be paid. Roseanne looked pathetic, slaving away for a deserted shop when it would be too long before anyone came back. She almost wasn’t angry anymore.
She dropped the bag, sending up a cloud of flour. “Where’s the letter.”
“I returned it to Henry,” she said softly.
“Well, that makes my life easy. I’ll just go get it, then—“
“To have him burn it.”
She froze. “What?”
“It wasn’t too hard, really, just a loaf is enough to convince him—“
“Mother!” she nearly yelled, shocked.
“I-I thought it best for you,” Roseanne replied, almost sheepish. “You don’t need to go be a part of all that drama.”
Her face flushed with rage. “Normally I can try to understand your motives, like with charging to make sure we get food on the table for ourselves, getting me up in the morning to make sure I don’t melt into the mattress, pushing me to work so I don’t ‘waste my days,’ but right now, I cannot fathom why you’re trying to take control of my life this way.” She could just about hate her mother right about then.
Roseanne wiped the sweat off her brow. “I thought I was doing the best for you.”
She was taken aback. “The best for me?” Her voice shot an octave. “It’s not for you to decide what’s best for me,” she hissed. The ferocity of her anger was beginning to scare her.
“He was making you unhappy—“
“What do you think you were doing, then?” she cried, “I was only ‘unhappy’ when you started hiding the letters from me.” Roseanne’s jaw dropped ,reaffirming her suspicions. “How long have you been keeping secrets from me, Mother? How can I even trust you anymore?”
That seemed to strike a nerve and Roseanne’s guilty nervousness bubbled, sizzling into unbridled anger. “You don’t know what he could have been planning.—“
“And tell me, Mother, what heinous thing could he possibly have been panning? What, is inviting me to a ball a crime? Do you think he wanted to kill me, Mother, after ten years of friendship?” A hysterical bark of laughter escaped her lips as her relationship with her mother fell to ash. “Because I totally can’t trust him. He’s so suspicious—“
“Every year, Celestia?” Roseanne said quietly. “Letters would come in every week. Friends don’t do that.”
“Good friends do,” she said, crossing her arms. “I’m sorry if you’ve never had a good friend in your lifetime.” she laughed. “So, Mother, how would you explain absolute silence for two years? Did every letter get magically lost?”
Roseanne glared. “It was months before he tried to contact you.”
Her heart skipped a beat.
“Ever think he got tired of you, Celestia?” Roseanne pressed, twisting the knife deeper.
Her skin started to sweat. “N-no. He couldn’t have.”
She stumbled back towards the entrance, hitting something hard. She prayed it was the door, but it wouldn’t budge.
The wall rumbled and she turned.
“H-how did you get in here?” she breathed, not believing her eyes.
“The better questions is ‘why are you here?’” Roseanne stepped up beside them, pulling her away. She was so dazed by the sight of him that she couldn’t fight.
He didn’t answer at first, passing a finger across his lips. “I’m here to see an old friend. I’ve found it rather difficult to reach her as of late, and whenever I’ve come, she’s magically not around. Do you have any inkling of why, Roseanne?” He sounded like he should be smiling, his eyes glittering, but he had a straight face on.
“You came to visit?” She squeaked, jaw dropping. “When? And why am I just now hearing of this, Mother?”
“Allow me to explain.” Sorien started, glancing over a a red-faced Roseanne, who’s face was as red as the beet she was shaped like.
“It all started about a year and a half ago. I haven’t gotten any response for too long, but since I couldn’t leave the courts, I had not time to really investigate. When time came for the annual autumn ball, now actually restricted to nobles, I sent an invitation your way.”
She blushed and he smiled. “But what happened?” she asked. His tone was strangely conversational, like he was just telling a story, not explaining his heart-wrenching absence from her life.
“Why, I got a reply. You can imagine how happy I was.”
She shook her head. “But I never got anything, much less replied.”
He winked at her. Was he enjoying telling this story?
“Strange.” Roseanne mumbled, glaring at something out the window.
“Stranger still was the lack of justification and short excuse.” Sorien added, keeping his gaze on Roseanne.
She flushed. “I’m sure it was perfectly acceptable.”
“Yes, but not for Celestia. One time that she simply couldn’t make a meeting, she wrote pages in apology, feeling as if she’d really broken a promise. Because of that, I knew this was unlike her.”
Roseanne only got redder and that’s when she realized what he was doing. He was drawing out the story, fleshing out all the bits that would make her mother squirm with guilt. She almost felt bad for enjoying it.
“The rest of the time I was stuck working beside Lucian. The details aren’t important,” he added quickly, having spiked her curiousity, “but it kept my tied up until I came out a couple months ago to try and reach you. I left a letter in the hands of the little messenger, I think his name was—“
“Henry,” Celestia finished, hands curling into fists as she glared over at her mother. “He burned it, probably.”
Sorien looks confused but she shrugged it off. “Continue.”
He opened his mouth, but Roseanne spoke over him.
“Enough!” She looked over at Celestia. “You actually believe him?” she scoffed.
Her nails were cutting into her palms and where she would hiss a malicious response back, her tongue still. Sorien had fixed his dark gaze on her, and despite the steely coloration, it was warm. It was the color of dawn, that dark gray on the edge of the horizon before the sun burned it away, before the birds shattered the silence with their song.
“Yes, I believe him.”
And he smiled. Roseanne huffed, working dough like she was trying to murder it.
“And you sent a letter today?” she asked. “Why would you come personally—not that it isn’t nice to see you, “ she added quickly, coloring.
“I wanted to see you,” he said, almost sheepish. It was kind of cute. “And I have Henry an initiation to try and find you at the shop while I went down to visit your house with a second invitation.”
“Well, you’ve wasted your time.” Roseanne shot over her shoulder as she ushered a clueless patron in. “She’s not going,” she said with a tone of finality.
“I’m an adult, Mother.” She retorted. “I don’t need your permission to attend a ball with my friend.”
Roseanne sighed. “It’s never that simply, Celestia.”
“Yes, it is!”
Sorien cleared his throat. “Actually, there’s a little more to be said.”
She blinked up at him, subconsciously tangling her fingers in the fabric of her apron. “What?”
He swiped a finger across his lips. Was he trying to hide a smile? With all seriousness, he said, “I may know someone people with answers to your key.”
She shook her head in confusion. “My father’s key, you mean. Are you sure?”
“Yes, and they’re running late this year, so you’ll have to meet them at the ball next week,” he said, straight-faced as he stared at something over her shoulder. She looked over to see her mother trying to kill him with her eyes. “I can try to get them apart from everyone else so you can talk to them. My father was once great friends with these people.”
Her brow furrowed. Was he being purposefully vague? “Who are you talking about?”
“I’ll tell you later,” he said quickly, so softly she nearly didn’t catch it.
Roseanne took that for a pause and stepped in, nose pointed up as she stared Sorien down. “Didn’t you say the ball was restricted to nobles now? Celestia will never pass for nobility—“ she patted Celestia’s cheek with a cold hand. “—the poor fool.”
“I am going.” She said gruffly, anger surfacing at her mother’s reappearance. “How many times do I have to tell you that? If I must act a part, I will.”
“You’re having delusions of grandeur, Celestia” Roseanne said, somehow managing to look down on her despite her being taller. The condescension was too much.
“It’s Lady Celestia now, Mother.” She whispered, her voice just as intense as if she had yelled. Her azure gaze was lock on her mother’s. Roseanne paled.
“Sorien, grab that coat off the rack—the light one, not the fur.”
He brought it over to her. Her mother watched in growing apprehension as she checked her pockets, making sure everything was there.
“Where are you going?” she asked, face white.
She tied the buttons up the coat, not looking at her. “To Valleydown with Sorien. I’m sure they can house me a few days early.”
She looked to Sorien, suddenly nervous. Could they? She just sprung this on him.
“Of course.” He said, smiling lightly. A gleam of worry streaked across his face but it disappeared when she looked back up. He just smiled.