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[12] Invitation

"Yes, my lady?"

Just asking makes Elaine want to slam her head against something. What does Regina want now? Isn't it enough to ask for her specifically and draw her away from normal work?

"I'd like it if you'd escort me outside sometime soon. Herb hunting. There's a wooded area near the castle where I've heard I can find useful things, and I'd be happy if I could take you with me," Regina explains, still smiling.

"Ah... Um, o-of course, my lady. If you ask for me, I'll come along. I'll just have to get away from my usual duties..."

Elaine deeply hopes that it'll get her point across. She has more to do than go exploring the woods with Regina. And as much as she'd love a break from scrubbing floors and plates, what was just offered does not sound like her idea of one. It sounds like more stress. Much, much more stress.

And, well, Elaine has never been outside of the castle's grounds. Not that she can remember. Everything she's ever needed has been here, so obviously, there's been no reason or way for her to leave. The grounds are expansive and virtually everything someone like her could expect to experience is contained within them. Woods... sound kind of scary. Elaine doesn't think she'd like that much, not unless it was Nikola escorting her.

A vague sense of guilt fills her for thinking it. Regina probably is just trying to be nice. As much as Elaine resents her, this really does seem like a polite offer.

It's not like she'll have a choice, either way.

Regina smiles again. The soft upturn of her lips is so pretty that it almost makes Elaine sick. This really isn't fair.

"Thank you. I'll be sure to ask for you again, then. I like you, Elaine. Your company is lovely. I know I'll be asking for you to attend me plenty more times in the future."

A place by Elaine's eye twitches faintly. This can't be happening. Offering to take her to the woods to dig for plants was one thing, but Regina's current behavior has to be some kind of trick. No one's ever... liked her before. Elaine avoids people because people avoid her. It's a vicious cycle of her not wanting to be involved in the constant gossip and fussing of the other girls and them not wanting to be involved with her because of it. There's never been someone like a 'friend' in her life.

And even if Regina does like her, 'friend', again, wouldn't describe it. Regina is a lady of noble birth. There's nothing about their relationship that would ever be equal. Elaine is an unwilling servant, in the end, and that's just the way it is. She doesn't have any say in what Regina wants. It can't be mutual.

Thinking these things makes Elaine feel even more irritated than before. She's being pushed around in a way that she really doesn't like. And sure, she should probably be flattered to have someone like Regina interested in her, but the girl's smile doesn't reach her eyes like Nikola's does, and the way she looks at Elaine reminds her more of the way someone would stare at a pet they're fond of.

At the same time that Elaine's in awe of Regina's... everything, she can't stand this. Being forced to be near someone so intimidatingly pretty, amazingly blessed, and impossibly perfect just makes her feel pathetic. It's no one's fault, but still.

"No, thank you, my lady," Elaine responds as politely as she can manage. "It's very kind of you to offer. I'll be grateful."

It feels like she's spitting up the words. How uncomfortable can this get?

"I look forward to it. Now, I believe we're done here. You're dismissed, Elaine," Regina says, standing herself. Her long skirt trails on the floor behind her as she approaches Elaine, and in that moment, Elaine is a little too aware of the good few inches of height Regina has on her.

"Y-Yes, my lady."

With that, Elaine is finally able to escape. She slips out of the room— now a functional potions workshop— and flees for the kitchen. Even Margery's strict orders are better than what she just had to deal with in there.

However, there's a part of Elaine that's... thrilled, maybe. It's hard to place exactly what emotion it is, but it's strong. The attention of two nobles in quick succession has to be getting to her head. It's still downright bizarre that even one of them would speak to her— let alone both, and let alone both of them showing so much interest in her lowly self.

Back in the kitchen, Elaine quickly finds something to do. For once, work doesn't seem so bad. She wants to shut off her head and think only about scrubbing away dirt or filling water basins to the perfect level and not spilling a drop. Doing her usual work sounds so much easier than having to focus on the strange things suddenly filling her life. So she picks up a task to do and quickly rushes to it.

Even when the other girls pelt her with questions about Regina, Elaine dodges them brutally. She doesn't want to talk about it, not for a second. Being treated like she's lucky for it...

That kind of thing is driving her insane.

So Elaine switches to sweeping a distant, dusty hallway where few people walk with any regularity. It feels fitting. Somehow, it's comforting to go from such intense scrutiny with Regina back to what she's used to. The task is one that no one in their right mind would find appealing, and yet, Elaine is calmed by it.

She's alone and can think about dust, dirt, and patterns in the stone, not whatever strange spiral her life is becoming.

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