“Oh, my little Bella…I am ever so sorry…” Ursa whispered, allowing her to cry against her shoulder.
Isabell squeezed her tightly. “I tried to stop them! But there was nothing at all I could!” She sobbed.
Johnathan patted her head. “We know my dear, we understand. That is the way life is at times. No need to blame yourself.”
“Why? Why did father pick a woman like her? Why did he have to go and leave me to the likes of these people!?” she demanded angrily.
Ursa let out a sigh and rubbed her back. “My dear Bella, your father was an excellent man. He held a good heart, despite the riches of his booming business. However, he was human, just like the rest of us, and simply fell prey to his own loneliness. He missed your mother every day, and always fear that his daughter lacked a matronly figure. True, he chose unwisely in the end, but know that his intentions were never evil. He loved you with all his heart.”
Isabell nodded. She knew that was all very true, which only made these moments all the more painful. To think there were women out there dreaming of a good man to marry, only for someone like her step-mother to claim such an opportunity out of greed.
“Now, now child. Do not let your heart give up. Remember, you should come and live with us as soon as you are able. I believe you can do it. So, do not be so sad. Look forward to your future!” The woman cooed softly, stroking her hair.
Isabell wiped away some of her tears. “Yes I know, but I will still miss you. You are the only thing I ever had close to a friend, or a mother…”
Ursa kissed her forehead. “I know child, I know. You have always been like a daughter to us too. That is why I want you to be strong, and take good care to enjoy your stay here until it is time to leave. Once you escape, you are not likely to ever return here again.”
She nodded. Escape. That would be her aim from now on. From her family, from this house, from the servitude that had been forced upon her. One way or another, Isabell would find a way to run away from it all!
The next day, after breakfast, Isabell kept herself busy with cleaning the windows while her step-mother and sisters left for the market. They took Johnathan along instead of her, sparing any sort of scene she might incur at witnessing her father’s old things being auctioned off. Even his portrait had been taken, to her heartache.
“Bella?” Ursa called out.
Isabell paused and looked up at the elderly woman who had stayed behind to keep her company. Today was their last day of work together. Tomorrow, she and her husband would be sent away, back to their home in town, where they would have to search for new employment.
“Oh, there you are child! Look! The post came again, but this time, it is for you,” the woman exclaimed.
“For me?” she repeated.
The aged woman nodded as she carefully pulled out a small note from her apron. It was a very elegantly written letter, with Isabell addressed on its front. Isabell reached for the small envelope and quickly tore it open, curious to see of its contents. After all, who would be writing to her, a simple maid?
Dear Isabell, my name is Ophelia. You may never have heard of me, but I am your late father’s sister. The two of us have never been on very good terms, so I am sure news of my existence may come as a shock to you. Nevertheless, I ask you to hear me out.
Her father had a sister?
Yesterday, word of a most grand opportunity reached my ear. The king has begun sending out letters to the whole Kingdom, telling of a masked ball soon to be held in his son’s honor. Perhaps your step-sisters have received their invitation already? If so, I am sure your name was not mentioned among the listed candidates. However, unbeknownst to your step-mother, who never bothers to register you at the local offices, you too are in fact eligible for this competition.
You see, your father was of noble blood. Unfortunately, at a young age his title was taken away when he married a woman of humble birth. Since then, the two of us have not spoken. But I never forgot that my brother had a daughter.
“Bella?” Ursa called, watching with worry as she leaned against the wall for support.
Oddly enough Isabell, you are the only girl in our family that is eligible for the King’s Ball. The rest are either not of marrying age, or already wed. Therefor, I ask you to partake in this competition on your family’s behalf. I am coming in two days time to hear your answer personally. Do not worry about your step-mother or sisters. If you do indeed agree, I shall take care of every arrangement.
Isabell took a moment to re-read the letter again, and then even a third time. She was of noble blood? On her father’s side? And her aunt, whom she had only just heard of today, wanted her to go to this Godforsaken ball on account of a family who had never once tried to get in contact before today?
“Impossible! This must be…a joke! A terrible, terrible joke!” she whispered.
“What is it dear?” Ursa asked.
Isabell laughed without humor. “Rachel, I bet she is behind this. That damn witch!”
“What is it child!?” the woman exclaimed.
She just laughed some more, tearing up the useless letter in her hands.
Aunt Ophelia? Her, born of nobility? Ha! What a joke.
“Bella!” Ursa scolded, taking the letter away.
Isabell scowled. “Do not worry, this was just another one of my step-sister’s cruel pranks. I have no more need for it.”
Then she quickly turned away and went back to washing the windows. Ursa, having nothing left to say on the matter, decided to join her in cleaning for a bit. Eventually, they broke the cold silence with talk of warm memories, and plans to come together once more in the future. Isabell, who always kept her small stash of pennies hidden in her shoe, planned on saving up enough money to move out one day. She doubted her step-mother would ever be made aware of her doing some odd jobs around town once they all left for the ball. In fact, Isabell planned to leave hastily in the middle of the night, never to return again. Even if the police came searching, her step-mother had no claim to her. There was nothing that witch could do to stop her!
After a few hours, her step-family returned with Johnathan, having sold every last piece of her father’s belongings. In place of money however, they brought home dozens of new clothes, jewelry, and fancy masks. They stayed up late into the night trying on their costumes and making plans for the ball. Isabell for her part, remained by Ursa’s side down in the kitchen, even as midnight approached.
“Now, now, Bella. The hour is late, and you must get some sleep. Let me finish up this mess,” the woman said softly.
“No. This is our last night together, and I shall not let it end,” she replied stubbornly.
Ursa sighed. “We leave first thing in the morning child, and I do not want you to sleep. This is not the last time we shall ever meet. Remember, I will also be coming to the market every other day. Make sure to look for me, in case our paths cross,” the woman ushered.
“A-alright…” she whispered with defeat.
Then Isabell let out one last sob and hugged her tightly, dreaming of that one day of freedom soon to come.
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