I turn toward Dinah’s voice and she gives me what I imagine is meant to be a disapproving look, but it's Dinah, so it comes across as fondness. "The goblets?" she prompts.
"Oh." I look down at my tray. Sure enough, the goblets are missing. "I'm sorry."
At least that gets a laugh. "Where’s your head today?"
"I don't know." If anyone could catch me in a lie, it's Dinah, and this one isn't difficult to spot. In the past two years I've spent working as a maid in King Augustus' palace, I've never been so careless as to forget a single salad fork, dinner fork, dessert fork, or emergency extra fork. There's only one kind of goblet, and that's where the wine goes. From what I hear, wine's important.
Besides, Dinah is probably the only one here who knows that tomorrow is my birthday—and if not, she's certainly the only one who cares. To the others, I'm just one in an anonymous army, but Dinah's known me my whole life. She might as well be my grandmother, since I have no family of my own. She squeezes my hand and whispers, "Get through today and we'll celebrate you properly."
I have to smile at that. Have to, because she's trying. Dinah's a wizard in the kitchen, so I have no doubt that whatever birthday surprise she has in store for me will be delicious. But I suspect I'm now at an age where desserts alone can't satisfy me. There's something more that I want. The only trouble is, I don't know just what that is.
It's her own fault, anyway. Dinah was the one who read me storybooks growing up and told me every year that birthdays were special things, that birthday wishes made at the stroke of midnight were bound to come true. And though, every year, I grow wiser and, every year, I should grow out of this silly belief, every year, I still make a birthday wish at the stroke of midnight.
And every year, I'm disappointed.
I push the thoughts from my head, load my tray with the goblets alongside too many different kinds of forks, and head up to the King's private dining chamber. This is the real world. No miracle is coming along to change my life. I need to focus on the life I'm living, and do my job properly. That's what getting older is about.
Unfortunately, I'm so focused on doing my job that I don't notice the King entering the dining chamber as I exit to fetch more dishes from the kitchen. He's deep in conversation with Alvin, his valet, gesturing animatedly with a book in his hand as Alvin politely tries to avoid getting hit in the face with it. Somehow he's the only one who avoids disaster as the King and I collide, sending both our eyeglasses flying as we crash to the ground.
"Clumsy maid," spits Alvin. Search the skies and I couldn't tell you what that man has against me. After all, he's no more of a noble than I am. Then again, perhaps that's the reason.
"Sorry! I'm sorry. Apologies, Majesty. Alvin." I'd curtsey, but I'm busy fumbling around on all fours, trying to retrieve my glasses. "I'm so sorry." I can practically hear Dinah cringing from three floors away, telling me again to stop apologizing.
But the King merely chuckles. "Pesky things, aren't they?" I can only manage a voiced exhale that I hope sounds like a laugh as I pick something up, but the thing catches the light in a way that lets me know these can't belong to me. The gold of these frames could pay my salary for a year, maybe more. Wordlessly, I hand them back to the King as he hands me mine, the cheap wire miraculously intact.
"If magic were real," he says, standing up and dusting himself off, "we'd have a spell that could fix our eyes in a blink."
"Magic? Like in fairy tales?" I can't help smiling. The King is a few years older than me, but sometimes he seems much younger. I wonder if all the ladies at court who swoon over his dreamy eyes and perfect physique would feel differently if they knew of his reading preferences. Then again, he’s still the King. "I thought those were all made up to teach lessons to stubborn children about obeying their parents and not straying from the path." I pause. “Your Majesty.”
"That's what this book is about," he says eagerly, holding up his book, finger still marking his page. The King loves storybooks more than anyone in the world except maybe Dinah, and being noble, he has far more time to indulge his passion. To my surprise, he offers me his other hand to help me up, which I accept. "It posits that these stories are in fact history, passed down as lessons, warnings, perhaps even instruction."
Alvin clears his throat and takes the King by the elbow, leading him inside. I step back to let them pass. I know my place.
By the time I return with more heaping plates of food, we're joined by Duchess Demetria, the King's aunt. The chosen few, as usual. They'll talk politics and diplomacy, none of the gossip that the girls downstairs are eager for. It's so easy to turn my brain off, let my muscle memory do the work. If the practiced smile I plaster on fades a little bit, who's going to notice? No one looks a servant in the face. Even good King Gus doesn’t look for long.
Alvin starts hounding the King about a recent visit from a diplomat, which he took as a threat. Personally, I think a country waging war wouldn't bother sending a diplomat ahead of time, but what do I know?
The King seems to agree with me. "No sense in being hasty," he says. "Why make an enemy where you can have a friend?"
"There's no such thing as countries being friends," Alvin insists.
That's when it happens. I have to laugh.
Barely even a laugh, really. A hearty exhale. Still, it's more noise than I've made since I stepped into the chamber, save the collision before dinner. Everyone slowly turns to look at me. I've never had so many people looking at me before.
"I'm sorry," I start, but the damage has been done. Alvin looks furious, the Duchess curious, the King...well, I can't quite tell. I'm too afraid to look at him.
"Don't apologize," he says. "Tell us. You clearly have a strong opinion."
"Well." Do I? I've never thought of myself as having a strong opinion before, but no one's ever asked. Feeling emboldened, I press on. "Of course countries are friends. Carbonel has trade treaties, peace agreements, lands we've sought aid from in times of need and returned it to in theirs. Our friends make us great. A diplomat suggests to me someone interested in maintaining that friendship. So, as you said—Your Majesty"—with a quick curtsey, in case I'm in danger of seeming like I've forgotten my station—"why assume the worst?"
Alvin scowls at me, but I hardly notice in the light of the King's twinkling eyes. He's kind but quiet, and I rarely hear him laugh, so every smile's a welcome reward.
Unfortunately, it's distracting enough that the gazpacho I'm serving somehow finds its way out of the ladle and all over the Royal Lap. Alvin sputters as if he's the one who's just had soup spilled all over him. The Duchess' smirk is the closest thing to a smile I've ever won from her. As for the King? I'm too afraid to look at him. Again.
"Sorry!" I shout, far too loud. "I'm sorry," again, at a more decorous volume. "Your Majesty, I am so—"
"Maid," Alvin says coldly, though I swear behind the scowl he's somehow also smirking, "leave us. You're dismissed."
Whether he means from dinner or from the palace, who's to say?
I skip Dinah and dessert, rushing through the kitchen and ignoring everyone who calls after me in my haste to lock myself in my room. My distress must be evident, because not even Dinah comes knocking until later in the night.
"How bad is it?" I don't know if she can hear me, muffled as I am against my pillow.
Dinah sighs. Never a good sign. Dinah can find the bright side in anything. "Alvin has lodged a formal complaint," she says hesitantly. "On behalf of the King."
"I see." That's that, then. Alvin's animosity, I've grown used to over the years. But I'd thought the King had somewhat liked me. If even he wants to let me go, there's no getting around it.
"I'm so sorry, Lurina."
"Stop apologizing," I reply, hoping she smiles. "I'll be all right. Can we talk about this tomorrow?"
Tomorrow, when I officially get fired. Dinah's kind enough not to say it out loud. "Good night, Lurina."
"Thank you, Dinah."
"Happy early birthday."
So much for that. For someone whose every birthday has been a disappointment, this one takes the cake—ironic, since I probably won’t get to eat any.
But the thought of cake makes my stomach growl. This late in the night, surely the kitchen will be empty. I'll be left alone in my disgrace, enjoy one last night of royal leftovers, and try not to think about how I'll never find another job or a place to live or three square meals a day again. I'm an orphan with no outstanding skills or talents, not even pretty enough to marry well. Could I even be hired as a maid now, when my only reference will be someone from the palace claiming I tried to drown the King in cold soup?
Right. Tomorrow. Tonight, there's at least cake.
Accompanying the cake is a small fire in the fireplace and a cup of tea. If a splash of the King's whiskey finds itself in it, why not? He can't fire me twice. (Can he?)
The whiskey stings a little going down, yet I find myself wanting more as soon as it fades. He can't fire me thrice. (He could, he's the King.) This should be celebratory, a happy birthday wish, but no, wishes are for children and in five minutes, I'll be eighteen. All grown up. No more fairy tales or happily ever afters.
Still, I can't stop staring at the clock as it ticks ever closer to midnight. What's the harm in wishing one last time? Either magic isn't real and nothing happens and everything is exactly as miserable as it is right now, or...
I don't even want to finish that sentence. I don't dare to hope. But I still wish. Oh, how I wish.
I pour what remains of the whiskey into my cup. (Let him do what he wants.) As the seconds race by, I squeeze my eyes shut and wish, pray, plead, beg for a solution to my problems. A personality transplant for Alvin. A memory wipe for the King. A way to stay, any way.
The clock begins to chime. Perhaps it's the whiskey taking quick effect but it's loud, so loud, too loud. Are there more clocks than I thought in here? Are the clocks bigger than they were before? Are they... Am I...
When I open my eyes, I'm suddenly on the ground. But I'm not lying down, I don’t think. Or maybe I am, and that's why everything looks so different. And feels so different. Even the air tastes different. Strange sounds are everywhere, and everything's the wrong color. I try to get to my feet, but when I place my hands on the floor to brace myself, they're not hands at all.
The tea. Too much whiskey. That's all. I go to pick up the cup I dropped but my fingers are all wrong. My fingers look like beans. Why are they so hairy?
And then I see it. My reflection, in the spilled tea and whiskey that have cursed me.
Fluffy. White. Paws. Whiskers.
I’m a cat.I scream, but it comes out as a purr.
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