"Braid the back, then twist it up and tie it," Regina explains, making a vague gesture that Elaine hopes she understands.
"Yes, my lady."
Obediently, she goes to brush through Regina's hair and braid it. It's soft. Again, nothing like her own. Elaine is much too aware of her coal-black mess, pulled back uncomfortably tightly by the elder servants not too long ago. She probably looks ridiculous— definitely, if compared to Regina.
It takes a while to do the job. Regina's hair is so thick that brushing it is difficult. Especially with Elaine's still-shaking hands. She tries her best to be gentle and not tug, but she has the feeling that she's not doing the best job of that.
"So, Elaine... who are your parents?"
It's a question that gives Elaine pause. And then makes her have to fight back a scowl and a glare. Regina is meeting her eyes through the mirror, which means that she can't be seen making a sour expression. Even so, that's the last question Elaine wants to answer. What is Regina asking? For her to offer up her pitiful life on a platter and explain every detail? To someone with such a perfect situation, hearing about Elaine's own suffering would have to be... entertainment, she figures.
She doesn't have a choice but to answer. "They're dead, my lady. My father died when I was two, and my mother died when I was four. They were both servants, no different than me. That's all there is to it." Saying it feels like spitting up bile.
That bitter part of Elaine that she usually tries to suppress is shoving up against her ribcage and demanding an outlet. She hates this. Of course, everyone can order things of the mere servant girl. Regina's pitying expression, reflected in the mirror, just makes it worse.
"Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that."
"Don't concern yourself with it, my lady. I was raised by the other servants here, and they cared for me well." Just what a noble would want to hear. Nothing but satisfaction with her life.
The reality is that Elaine isn't quite as afraid right now— not as much as she was. Instead, she's frustrated. Being forced to talk about this subject doesn't sit well with her, and even if Regina didn't directly command it, a mere request from someone like her is as good as an order. Elaine's feelings about the matter don't count for much at all.
Would Nikola have asked her these things?
Somehow, that's what comes to mind. Nikola didn't question or prey. Even though both he and Regina had and have kind eyes, Nikola seemed somehow more innocent. Like he was looking at Elaine like a person instead of Regina's cordial politeness.
She wishes she were talking to him instead, serving him instead. A dangerous thought, but Elaine can't stop it.
"And do you have any wishes for the future?" Regina asks next. She's still smiling kindly, and Elaine knows, knows she's just being petty, at this point, but she still resents every second of that soft, forgiving smile.
"To do my job well. I'll be happy maybe rising a rank or two, my lady. Being one of the upper maids would be nice." It's utter nonsense, but it's what people like Regina want to hear. The nobles never want dissatisfaction from their servants, even when they directly ask a question that would earn that.
"Be honest with me."
Regina's words shock Elaine. She almost drops the piece of hair she was braiding. Honest? Regina wants honest?
How unfair can this get.
Elaine takes a deep breath. She's probably going to get in trouble for this, but her frustration levels are peaking, and she doesn't think she can hold herself back anymore.
"...I'd like to marry, my lady. Someone who I love and who loves me just as much. I'd like to rest more and have someone who'd protect me." Her own honestly shocks her. It's what Regina wanted, but saying it out loud and giving voice to those thoughts feels wrong. She ties up the thick, now-braided chunk of Regina's hair she's been working on all this time and knots a red ribbon from the vanity counter around it to hold it in place with the rest.
Regina closes her eyes. When she opens them again, she's looking right at Elaine through the mirror. "That's a good dream. Everyone wants someone to love them and keep them safe. I hope you find it. Thank you for your work today, Elaine. I'll be alright from here. You're dismissed."
Elaine blinks with shock for a moment. She's not angry? Regina, for who and what she is, continues to be astoundingly, annoyingly kind. It makes Elaine dislike her all the more. It would be easy to hate someone like Regina if she was cruel or careless, but instead, she's faced with someone who genuinely asks about her dreams, forgives her for mistakes, and treats her gently.
"Thank you, my lady," she says through near-gritted teeth, then begins to gather the tray once again.
When Elaine steps out of Regina's room, it's a relief. She's free. With any luck, she'll never have to see that woman again.
That's the person who will be marrying Nikola. She's the next queen of their territory. Nikola will have such a stunning, kind, graceful lady all to himself, and he'll be happy with her.
For some reason, the thought makes Elaine's heart sink. Why does it matter to her? It's not any of her business or of any consequence to her life. Regardless of what happens between the two, her existence as a servant will continue just the same. There's nothing to even consider about it.
And yet, as Elaine walks back to the kitchen to drop off the tray, she can't get Nikola's gentle smile out of her head, or the feel of his hand against hers.
She's jealous of Regina, of course she is. Someone so beautiful and blessed in life is exactly the kind of person anyone low would covet and despise. It makes perfect sense that envy is seeping into her heart. But the feeling in Elaine's chest isn't just jealousy. There's something thick and disappointed coiling around her lungs, and somehow, it doesn't seem to be just for the perfect life Regina leads. Whatever it is, it runs deeper than that.