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[13] Gossip Among Girls

About a week later sees Elaine's life more or less back to normal. As in, nothing else of note has happened, the chores have continued, and neither Regina nor Nikola have come into contact with her at any point.

In a lot of ways, it's a relief. The back-and-forth attention between the two of them was really starting to get to her. And as much as Elaine wants to see Nikola again, she's also very much afraid of just how easily she could mess it up. Longing is a powerful thing, though, and the wishes in her head don't want to stop.

For now, Elaine's thoughts are between her and the fireplace she's in the process of cleaning. Removing the old ashes and charred bits of wood, scrubbing the stone clean, and refilling it with fresh logs is a tiresome, filthy job, but it's one Elaine knows well. As one of the lowest things a servant can be assigned to, she's plenty used to it. The sight of black stains all over her clothes and hands is something Elaine's been familiar with since she was a child.

So this part isn't bad. It's annoying, of course, and a big part of her would rather be in her room taking a much-needed rest, but— compared to Regina, this job isn't bad at all.

That's the part that disturbs her.

Spending time with Regina was a nightmare. Not only was the perpetual awe and envy that the older girl fills her with a permanent presence in Elaine's mind, but she also had to sit there and pretend like being invited to go out hunting for herbs sounded like a delightful idea. Herbs for poisons.

That bit makes Elaine shiver a bit. She doesn't like thinking about Regina's apparent... skill. Poisons. Of course someone like that would be most talented with poisons. It leaves Elaine feeling like she needs to be careful of something winding up in her drink. Not that Regina knows her well enough to care. Elaine must be absolutely nothing to her; just another serving girl to toy with as she pleases and use to entertain herself. Elaine's good for bringing her breakfast, organizing her ingredients, and not much else.

The feeling of bitterness sinks into Elaine quickly, all over again. She doesn't like it. Forgetting about the whole mess would be better, but with the threat of the hunting trip hanging over her head, it's not possible.

Elaine grabs a chunk of burnt wood a bit more roughly than she means to, then yelps when a splinter pricks her hand.

"Are you okay?"

Joan, the same bratty girl who announced Elaine's job of attending to Regina the first time, is assigned to the same chore. The two of them are side by side at the large fireplace, and Elaine, honestly, has been trying to tune that part out. Joan isn't the kind of person she likes to interact with.

"Fine," Elaine says simply. "It poked me."

"Then quit grabbing things like that. Be careful. It's your own fault if you get poked," Joan huffs.

It's exactly what Elaine expects of her. Joan is the kind of girl who's always in a sour mood. She's tiny, smirks a lot, and wears her dull, brown hair in waist-length braids that will be used to whack anyone who offends her. Joan is known to be both a terrible gossip and a tattletale, and Elaine figured out years ago that it was smart to stay out of her way. Even though they're in the same situation (born to servant parents and left to the job), Joan has never been too friendly to anyone who couldn't get her somewhere for it.

The only real upside of working together is that Joan doesn't want to talk to her either. She doesn't like Elaine any more than Elaine likes her, and that means that she won't open her mouth unless it's to criticize some mistake she's made.

"The wood is sharp..." Elaine mutters under her breath. Splinters are part of the job. Joan has no reason to be acting like she's superior for not having been poked yet. Yet.

And yes, Elaine is a little bitter. Joan always has had deft hands.

They work in silence for a while again. Elaine watches Joan every so often, seeing how easy it is for her to snatch up the burnt shards without getting cut. Every so often, she glances at the girl's freckled, pudgy-cheeked face and the scowl on her lips. It might be worse than doing this alone.

Unfortunately, the silence doesn't last forever.

"So... did you hear about the kitchen incident?" Joan asks with more excitement in her voice than before. Elaine sighs. That's clearly some kind of gossip waiting to happen.

"No, I didn't." Elaine resists the urge to tack on that she's not interested in silly rumors, either.

"You're kidding! Everyone knows by now," she replies in a downright haughty tone. "You're really out of the loop, aren't you, Elaine? You don't know anything!" The girl's shrill laugh is grating. Elaine stares at her narrowed eyes and wide smirk with irritation. What would it take to shut her up?

Instead of answering, Elaine returns to scrubbing at the ashes near where she sits. Joan, not getting the message, keeps talking just a moment or two later.

"It's the most incredible thing, you see. The rumor goes that the prince stopped by the kitchen a while ago. You hear that? The prince! I can hardly believe it, but Louise swears it's true."

That statement makes Elaine freeze up. It's true. Nikola had visited her there not too long ago, but he'd been certain that no one had figured him out. Could someone have noticed him? Or worse, could someone have noticed him with her? Elaine bites her lip. If anyone figures that situation out, there will be trouble.

And yes, a part of her wants everyone to know that Nikola had chosen her to speak to. Just the same, Elaine knows that something like that isn't smart. She'd be swarmed. The other girls would never let it go. And that would be if she wasn't in trouble for it. She can't imagine that anyone higher up would be particularly pleased about the prince spending time washing dishes with a mere serving girl.

"R-Really? What did she say?"

"Oh, now you're interested," Joan smirks. "It's simple. The prince was in the kitchen for a bit. No one noticed him while he was there because, well, it's not like any of us have seen him before, but while he was leaving, someone who did know saw him. The rumor passed from there and made it down the chain, and now we're all talking about it!"

Elaine gulps. Nikola tried his best to keep it a secret, and yet, they've been found out so easily. She really hopes that this rumor stays just that— and that it dies out quickly.

"And the most incredible part is that we think he was there to see someone! As in, dropping by special for one of us!" Joan exclaims. Elaine can barely keep from flinching. "Everyone's been guessing like crazy. Some of us think that Ruth, the one who bakes all the time, is pretty enough to have earned it, but she's so dull that it can't be." As Joan explains, Elaine's heart finds its way into her throat.

People are suspicious. If anyone had any idea that it was Elaine who Nikola had come to see, Joan surely would have harassed her about it by now, but that's still not quite reassuring. The rumor could easily spiral. Elaine knows how it goes with these girls. She could be in trouble in no time.

It's now that she realizes how dangerous of a game she's been playing. She's spoken to Nikola, the prince, twice now. If anyone knew about that, she'd never hear the end of it. Even though it felt like nothing to be doing dishes by Nikola's side, no one else would see it that way. She could easily be punished for stepping out of her station, getting in the prince's way, or worse, if people assumed the wrong thing about them.

At best, she'd never be left alone. At worst...

Elaine doesn't want to think about it.

"It's amazing, isn't it?" Joan continues. "To think that the prince could have been that close to us! While we were unaware, he was chatting it up with one of our own." After that, she squeals with excitement. Elaine winces at the shrill sound.

"Sure... I guess it is. It's not like I care much about that kind of thing." In a way, it's defending herself. In a way, it's staying true to her character. Everyone knows Elaine isn't one for 'fun'.

"Ugh, you're so boring. Can't you get excited about anything?" Joan huffs again. "Talking to you is the worst."

Elaine doesn't answer. She just shuts her mouth and gets back to scrubbing. With the threat of the rumor hanging over her head, she doesn't want to talk anymore about how badly this could go. It seems that no one is suspecting her, and that's all she needs to know. Showing no interest, if anything, will keep suspicion away.

She really, really hopes that no one figures it out.

And... Nikola had better stay away from her, too. As much as Elaine longs to see him again, she's scared. Nikola is nicer to her than anyone has been before. He treats her like a person, and that's so, so new. She wants to feel more of his kindness and see his wonderful smile directed at her, but if it puts both of them at risk? Nikola would be fine, surely, but if either of them were to incur the wrath of his engaged...

That's a scary thought. Regina. Elaine has no idea if Regina's the jealous sort or not, but that woman even thinking that Elaine might be getting too close to the prince sounds terrifying. What would she do? Would she have Elaine killed? Every prospect she can think of is more frightening than the last.

Elaine grabs another chunk of wood. It tears at her hand again, but this time, she hardly feels it. It's not until there's blood dripping down her wrist that she even notices.

Nikola has more important things to think of than her.

"Elaine, you're bleeding!"

Joan's cry from beside her barely gets Elaine's attention. "I'm fine," she says, an echo of earlier, and wipes the cut against the dark fabric of her skirt. It's already filthy. A little blood won't do any real harm.

As Joan keeps fussing, now looking quite nervous, Elaine can't bring herself to pay the other girl much mind. Instead, she scrubs viciously at the stone of the fireplace, as if she could take out all of her frustrations on the soot and cinders. Regina has everything, and Elaine has nothing. That's the way it is. She'll get to spend every day with Nikola. Even just wanting his company, it would be a miracle if Elaine even sees him again.

They both have purposes far above her. No matter how badly Elaine wishes that that wasn't the case, she lives in an entirely different world. Nikola's sunny smile and soft, gray eyes won't leave her mind, and Elaine almost hates that more than anything.

She ducks her head to hide her face behind a curtain of her hair. She doesn't want Joan to see the couple of stray tears that escape.

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